The Indian National Army on the grounds of the old Supreme Court building in Singapore.

It began quietly. In mid May 1943, after a long journey by Japanese submarine via Madagascar and Sabang on the northern tip of Sumatra, Subhas Chandra Bose slipped unnoticed into Singapore. He crossed the causeway to stay at Sultan Ibrahim’s palace at Bukit Serene, and then, with Rash Behari Bose, flew on to Tokyo. The revelation of Subhas Bose’s presence in Japan was an epochal moment for the overseas Indians of Southeast Asia and the day of his second landing in Singapore on 2 July 1943 was a political awakening for all communities. He arrived at Kallang aerodrome in a silk suit and a grey felt hat but within three days he had abandoned this attire for the military uniform and top boots he would almost exclusively be seen in thereafter. On 4 July a press conference was called in the auditorium of the Cathay Cinema. The old revolutionary Rash Behari Bose was the first to speak: ‘You might now ask of me what I did in Tokyo for our cause, what present I have brought for you? Well, I have brought for you this present.’ With this he transferred leadership of the Indian Independence League to the younger man. From the outset Subhas Bose’s demeanour was presidential. There was an almost Churchillian cadence to his first speech: he warned his audience they would have to ‘face hunger, thirst, privation, forced marches and death. Only when you pass this test will freedom be yours’. At this meeting Bose’s supporters ruffled the sensitivities of Japanese journalists by calling him ‘Netaji’, an Indian word, meaning leader. To the Japanese present it smacked of impiety; it echoed the word ‘Führer’, and seemed to herald some sort of challenge to Japan’s leadership of Asia.

The people of Malaya had never before experienced a political presence in the mould of a giant of the Indian National Congress. Subhas Bose drew crowds to public rallies on an unprecedented scale: Chinese and Malays as well as Indians. The first, on the Padang on 5 July, was followed by an appearance at Tojo’s side the next day, and another rally on 9 July. This was the true dawn of mass politics in Malaya. As one young Indian recalled: ‘It was really the first speech, you see, I had heard in my life. Like magnetic power…’ For decades afterwards witnesses would relive the symbolism of the scenes. On 9 July it was raining heavily. Bose, it was said, was offered an umbrella. He refused it, and asked: ‘Who will offer an umbrella to all these people?’ But others would remember a more disturbing piece of imagery. In the parade, as a Japanese tank passed, draped in an Indian tricolour, the flag became tangled in some wires and fell under the tracks of the vehicle. Bose was visibly angered.

In the wake of the opprobrium that had confronted ‘General’ Mohan Singh, Subhas Bose took no military rank. But he resurrected the Indian National Army. Since the dismissal and arrest of Mohan Singh in December 1942, the Indian soldiers had returned to their internment camps. In February 1943 the intelligence chief Iwakuro told the Indian officers that the INA could not be dissolved, and anyone attempting to do so would be treated as a mutineer in the Japanese army. A second Indian National Army began recruiting. Many soldiers joined willingly, but others did so under the threat of forced labour overseas for Indian troops. The Gurkhas who refused to join were put to menial work in Singapore. One Chinese observer recalled seeing them bent under heavy loads, barefooted in the freezers of Cold Storage. This deepened their solidarity with the British and Australian prisoners of war they occasionally met as they were transported around town. By December 1942 some Indian units began to depart for the island of New Britain in the southwest Pacific. The first transport ship was torpedoed and sunk; for others who survived, it was a gruelling journey into desperate conditions.

Shahnawaz Khan was one of the Indian officers canvassed by the Japanese. A Muslim Rajput, he had been suspicious of Mohan Singh, had stayed out of the first INA and continued to resist the second. He was taken aside by Iwakuro and asked what a real INA should be. He replied that it should be a ‘holy thing’; ‘a formidable fighting force and not merely a propaganda army’. Like Mohan Singh before him, he claimed that only Subhas Bose could lead it. In trying to protect men who stayed out, he realized that his own continued abstention from the INA was not an option. ‘I had committed myself too far and could not retrace my steps.’ But when Bose arrived Shahnawaz’s position changed: ‘I was hypnotised by his personality and his speeches… I knew in his hands, India’s honour was safe, he would never barter it for anything in the world.’

The second INA involved Indian society in Southeast Asia in a way its earlier incarnation had failed to do. Most crucially, in the words of one volunteer, ‘it had a sense of independence from Japanese manipulation’. Men were recruited locally, and in an attempt to break with martial race theory special emphasis was placed on the Tamils of Malaya. Bose’s presence energized the civilian organization. He would sit up much of the night in darbar, in the traditional style of a Bengali gentleman-politician, with visitors to his house in Katong on the east coast of Singapore. He launched a furious drive for funds on the peninsula and further afield, visiting in a short space the principal cities of the Japanese Empire: Rangoon, Manila, Bangkok, Shanghai and Nanking. His speech in Kuala Lumpur was a repeat of the triumph in Singapore two months earlier. Wealthy Indians donated beds and carpets, sandalwood soap and expensive china to the bungalow that was to house Bose for his short stay. The officer responsible recalled how Subhas Bose admonished him for the display: ‘Who do you think I am? A Prince or a soldier in the INA?’ Out of such stories the legend grew. On the day of the speech, the roads to and from the padang in front of the Royal Selangor Club in Kuala Lumpur were jammed. The crowd numbered around 60,000, and again included many Chinese and Malays. Subhas Bose arrived in an open Dodge car flying the Indian flag. He spoke for an hour in English, and then in Urdu, which few present understood, for another hour. Yet the crowd stayed to listen. Then, when he asked for funds: ‘there was a great rush towards the rostrum. Men were throwing their rings, women their jewellery and those who did not have gold ornaments, whatever money they had’. Bose moved swiftly to make connections with Indian businessmen. There was an element of opportunism in the response. As one Singapore storekeeper candidly admitted: ‘I do everything and see everything and do nothing. I was that type. Just to be in the line like that, that’s all, they took me in.’ He gave $20,000 to Subhas Chandra Bose and Netaji’s good offices helped his business, not least by granting him the contract to supply paper and stationery to the INA.

The rhetoric of the INA was inclusive. It reached out to the Muslims: Bose replaced the wheel of the Indian National Congress with a symbol of a springing tiger which evoked Tipu Sultan, the Muslim ruler of Mysore who had resisted the British conquest of southern India. He retained Mohan Singh’s use of Hindustani as a language of command. Bose also argued that ‘Ceylon was the pendant in the Indian chain’, a view Nehru was to echo in 1945, and established a Lanka Unit within the Indian Independence League. The community had been prominent in the colonial administration, and was vulnerable under the Japanese, especially after SEAC moved its headquarters to Ceylon. Some members felt coerced. One propagandist on the Burma front would later describe how broadcasts would round off with a message in Sinhala: ‘all this is rubbish’. A leading figure in the Lanka movement was Gladwin Kotelawela, kinsman of Sir John Kotelawela, a future prime minister of Ceylon. He was stranded in Malaya at the outbreak of war and ran the Kangaroo Store in Tampin, Malacca. He had known Bose before the war, and co-operated with the IIL. His motives were, ostensibly, to protect the community; but he controversially embraced the active pursuit of Ceylonese independence through the INA. An opportunist to some, he possessed a bust of Winston Churchill in his home, a cause for some embarrassment when entertaining Japanese officers. On the reoccupation he was arrested, released and awarded an MBE on his return to Ceylon after the war. Many enthusiastic Ceylonese youths were genuinely inspired by Bose, and joined the Lanka Unit either through a spirit of adventure or as a way of gaining a clandestine passage back to Ceylon and their families. A mutiny of Ceylonese troops in the remote Cocos Island garrison and its surrender to the Japanese was seen in patriotic terms. The jeweller B. P. de Silva – whose employees provided several recruits to the INA – made officers’ badges in silver, with a map of India on them. Ceylon did not appear on this map.

On 21 October, within three months of his arrival in Malaya, speaking in the auditorium of the Cathay Cinema, Subhas Chandra Bose announced the formation of the provisional government of Azad Hind: ‘But with all the Indian leaders in prison and the people at home totally disarmed – it is not possible to set up a Provisional Government of Azad Hind within India, or to launch an armed struggle under the aegis of that Government. It is therefore the duty of the Indian Independence League in East Asia, supported by all patriotic Indians at home and abroad to undertake this task…’ Three days later Subhas Bose addressed another exultant crowd on the Padang: ‘The British know very well that I say what I mean and that what I mean I say. So, when I say “War” I mean WAR – War to the finish – a war that can only end in the freedom of India.’ Bose stated that he would be on the soil of India by the end of the year. Azad Hind had already acquired territory. On 6 November the Japanese ceded the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the provisional government, and on 30 December, the tricolour was hoisted above them. They were renamed Shaheedi (Martyr) and Swaraj. This came with no formal transfer of administration, but in the eyes of the Indians overseas it added legitimacy to their war in India’s name.

The INA had to be welded into a fighting force. The officer training school at Nee Soon passed out former NCOs as second lieutenants and second lieutenants as first lieutenants, and forty-six recruits were sent to the Imperial Military Academy. New recruits streamed in. Other youth training camps were established in Kuala Lumpur, Seremban and Ipoh. Young men from well-to-do Indian families lied about their ages and signed up for these camps. But there were intrinsic difficulties in finding them equipment and in training young and middle-aged civilian volunteers who knew nothing about soldiering. The movement for India in Malaya was a massive opening of horizons for the Indian masses on the rubber estates. They were all the more isolated by the war and the collapse of the rubber industry. They lacked a leadership to voice their collective concerns. The INA offered a new opportunity for this. Yet there were other motives. As the rubber estates ran down, it was dangerous to be seen to be unemployed. Those who were became prey to Japanese forced-labour schemes. The INA was often the only alternative to the Siam–Burma railway. Many proletarian recruits were ‘rice soldiers’, not patriotic idealists. The estates were riven with tensions. The tier of clerks and kanganys that controlled the labour force for the British planters gained status in their absence, but they often sent the husbands of recently married women away and took the women under their own ‘protection’. Retribution for this would come during the labour upheavals of the post-war period.

Rani of Jhansi Regiment

The tensions and sexual predation on estates were at odds with the visionary rhetoric. In October 1943, partly to counter the charge that Indians were being coerced into rebellion against the Raj, Subhas Bose announced the formation of a women’s brigade. It was to be called the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, after the heroine of the Mutiny-rebellion of 1857. It was headed by a young doctor, Lakshmi Swaminathan, who had settled in Singapore shortly before the war and had been alienated by its affluent indifference to the cause of colonial freedom. Bose approached her with a proposal for a fighting force. The Japanese refused to issue it with weapons, but Bose insisted that the INA would provide. As one recruit put it in a radio broadcast in January 1944: ‘I am not a doll-soldier, or a soldier in mere words, but a real soldier in the true sense of the word. I am a soldier in boots and uniform, armed with modern weapons.’ There was a progress around provincial towns to enlist volunteers: speeches were made in English, Hindi and Tamil, and the platform dignitaries were drawn from all communities. Young girls, too young to serve, donated their pocket money. Of the volunteers at the Women’s Training Camp in Singapore, most were local born, and one was as young as twelve. Recruits were urged to give up all ties of love and family. A proud father from Seremban said on visiting the camp: they look ‘like seasoned soldiers’. The first contingent of 500 women and girl soldiers left Singapore, reaching Burma in late 1943. There they were given training in jungle warfare and nursing and soon took responsibility for the care of the vast numbers of wounded from the front.

Rash Behari Bose had left the field to the younger Bengali. He returned to Japan in October, but before he left had one last meeting, in private, with Subhas Bose. This time it was the old man’s turn to urge caution in the alliance with the Japanese: they had claimed right of conquest in Manchuria, they would do so in India. Quit India had shown that this would not be accepted by the Indian nation. He tried to persuade Netaji to abandon the belief that the British could be defeated militarily, and use the INA to give moral support to the struggle already going on within India. Rash Behari Bose reported the conversation to his long-standing aide, A. M. Nair. Netaji, said Nair, made no comment. But ‘he did not put up a cheerful face’. When the INA went to war in November 1943, the first troops – Shahnawaz’s ‘Subhas Brigade’ – were filled with a strange mix of fervour and fatalism. As one Singaporean recruit, P. K. Basu, who had served in the Singapore Volunteer Corps before the war, put it: ‘I did not believe that the INA would actually succeed, but I believed in the INA.’ For the Indian officers, the Imphal campaign of the following year was to be Malaya 1941 all over again.

The diary of an unsung INA trooper

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