‘Free Indian Legion’

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The most serious attempt at turning the sword-arm of the Raj against it was mounted by Subhas Bose. The story of his Indian National Army that fought alongside the Japanese has become the stuff of legend. Yet the army that Bose raised in Malaya and Singapore was neither his first such attempt, nor indeed was it the first Indian National Army (INA).

The idea of using Indian soldiers against Britain was initially floated by Bose in his meeting with Ribbentrop on 1 May 1941. He suggested recruiting Indian prisoners of war who had surrendered to the Axis forces in North Africa, claiming that these soldiers would be promptly ready to fight against England. The presence of an Indian unit on the German side would have an extremely strong propaganda impact on the rest of the Indian army. The British, in turn, would lose confidence in these forces and would not be able to deploy them without reservation.

In his detailed plan of work submitted to the German Foreign Office later that month, Bose proposed to organize a ‘Free Indian Legion’. Made up of volunteers from prisoners of war, the Indian Legion would eventually join an Axis expeditionary corps to be sent to India. Bose planned to prepare a ‘big military campaign in the independent Tribal Territory between Afghanistan and India’. Here a military and propaganda centre would be established for the penetration of India. Bose envisaged building an airfield and a logistics network with the help of European advisers. A training centre would also be established to prepare Indian officers and men for the future army of liberation.

Bose’s military plans may have been wishful thinking, but his move to set up an Indian Legion was well timed. In his opening offensive in North Africa, Rommel had netted part of an Indian motorized brigade at Mechili in Libya. The Indian prisoners of war were treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention. At the end of April 1941, a group of 1,000 Indian soldiers and 37 officers were interrogated by the German SS in their Italian prisoner-of-war camp at Derna in Cyrenaica. The Germans thought that they could detect a strong anti-British attitude among the Indians, which stemmed from the Indians’ belief that they were being unfairly treated by British officers in the distribution of food in the camp. An officer with nationalist leanings would recall that ‘the discriminatory attitude of the British undermined whatever of the Indian loyalty to the crown was left by those days’. An Indian VCO had allegedly gone so far as to write a letter to Mussolini, offering to organize Indian soldiers in captivity to fight with the Axis forces.

In any event, the SS discerned an opportunity and sought the transfer of these soldiers to Germany in order to use them for anti-British propaganda. The Italians, however, refused to hand them over, hoping to exploit the Indian soldiers for their own propaganda purposes. Meanwhile, Bose’s proposal wafted its way through the German government. The High Command was averse to hastily drafting prisoners of war and deploying them as envisaged by Bose; it insisted on a careful programme of screening and training. Organizing an effective military force, the High Command held, would take time and effort. Bose reluctantly fell in with these views.

The first step was to arrange for the transfer of Indian soldiers in Italian custody. Rome had its own policy towards India and the central figure in the Italian machinations was Muhammad Iqbal Shedai. A near contemporary of Subhas Bose, Shedai had been in Moscow with M. N. Roy in the 1920s. Thereafter he moved to Europe and gradually established himself as the leading adviser on Indian affairs for the Italian government. Well before Bose, Shedai was broadcasting to India and Afghanistan over Radio Himalaya. He was also adroit in persuading the Italian government to set up an India Centre and create its own Indian Legion. Unsurprisingly, Bose and Shedai were at loggerheads. They disagreed on Indian politics – as a Punjabi Muslim, Shedai was sympathetic to the demand for Pakistan – and they also disagreed on the nature of an Axis declaration for India. Above all, they wrangled over Indian prisoners of war.

Under pressure from Berlin, Rome transferred to Germany some Indian soldiers in the summer of 1941. To induce the Italians to cooperate further, the German Foreign Office invited Shedai to Berlin for discussions. They also arranged for him to visit a camp housing Indian prisoners of war near Annaburg. Shedai found the Indians doused in discontent, complaining about food and conditions in the camp. The Germans, he thought, had frittered away the goodwill aroused in the Indian soldiers while in Italian captivity. In particular, they had erred in allowing the Indian soldiers to mix with Indian officers and NCOs. This affected the soldiers’ morale, as the officers had told them that Germany did not intend to free India but only to supplant Britain as the colonizer. Shedai claimed that the Indian soldiers had told him that ‘they would prefer to remain under the British than to change masters’. What’s more, he blamed Bose for this situation. Shedai informed Rome that Bose did ‘not care a bit for these poor devils’ and that he had ‘committed the biggest crime by bringing them over to Germany’. The subtext, of course, was that Italy should focus on its own Indian Legion under Shedai’s leadership.

Two months passed before the Germans stirred themselves into activity. In mid-October 1941, Ribbentrop enquired about the ‘range of possibilities of bringing into action Indian prisoners of war who had fallen into our hands’. He asked the High Command for the exact number of Indian prisoners of war in Germany, and whether they could be deployed in the Middle East against units of the Indian army. Nevertheless, the Germans did not get their act together until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

In the co-ordination conference held on 8–9 December, it was agreed that a Free Indian Legion would be formed by recruiting prisoners of war. The Italians accepted that the raising of the Legion would be entirely under the control of the German High Command. Bose and Shedai joined the conference on the second day and agreed to this plan. It was decided that the Legion would be trained as a regular German motorized infantry battalion. During the first three months, it would be led entirely by German officers and NCOs. Subsequently, suitable Indians could be brought in. Bose sought and obtained agreement on the conditions for deploying this force. The Indian Legion would not be merged with any German military unit, though it would be subordinated to the Wehrmacht’s chain of command. Further, the Legion would be sent to fight only in India and not elsewhere.

Towards the end of December 1941, Bose visited the Annaburg camp to kick-off the recruitment drive. He began by addressing the Indian officers. The atmosphere in the hall, one of Bose’s associates recalled, was ‘not very enthusiastic; it was rather reserved and cold’. Colder still was the reception of Bose’s speech about the imperative of fighting for India’s independence. At one point, some officers began coughing loudly while others scraped their boots to drown out his voice. The German officials were dismayed. The camp commandant warned the soldiers, whom Bose was to address the next day, that if they showed signs of indiscipline or disrespect towards the visitor they would be shot. Unsurprisingly, Bose’s interaction with the soldiers went well.

After further engagement with the soldiers, Bose and his hand-picked Indian émigré colleagues short-listed 200 of the 1,300 prisoners of war at Annaburg as suitable for recruitment. The German officers pruned this list to sixty-eight. These men were then sent to the Legion’s base at Frankenberg, which already had fifteen civilian volunteers. Thereafter, Bose’s associates from the ‘Free India Centre’ worked on these men, explaining to them the cause for which they should enlist and the conditions under which they would serve. Of the sixty-eight soldiers that reached Frankenberg, though, only twenty-one finally volunteered to serve in the Indian Legion. The remainder were sent back to Annaburg.

Over the following year, as the number of Indian prisoners of war in Axis custody rose, the India Legion too grew in size. By November 1942, the Legion had 1,300 soldiers in two battalions. And by February 1943, it counted 2,000 men in arms. The increase in recruitment was mainly due to two factors. Once Bose came out into the open and began his broadcasts over Azad Hind Radio, the Indian prisoners realized his political stature and influence in India. Thereafter, his message of liberating India by waging war on the Raj had more resonance among Indian soldiers. Further, once a critical mass of soldiers had volunteered for the Legion, they were able to recruit others far more efficiently than Bose’s civilian team. Ironically, while Bose envisaged the Legion as a national army, where distinctions of religion, caste and region would be dissolved, the recruitment process tapped directly into these very identities. Rates of recruitment were highest, a German officer of the Legion noted in February 1943, when the propagandists were allocated to their own racial groups. Muslims cannot be won over by the Hindus, Gurkhas follow Gurkhas more easily and Sikhs follow Sikhs, particularly since it is usually the different languages that bind these groups. Family connections or coming from the same region also play an important role, as does having served in the same unit of the Indian army.

Then, too, the decision to disavow the Indian army was not an easy one for the volunteers. This was especially true of men from the martial classes whose allegiances had been tied to the Raj by long-running family traditions of military service, by generous schemes of welfare and pension, and by an abstract sense of loyalty to the king emperor. Thus Labh Chand Chopra, a twenty-two-year-old Punjabi trooper of the 2nd Royal Lancers from the 3rd Motorized Brigade, closeted himself ‘in a room for 24 hours discussing with myself the pros and cons of breaking my oath to the King of England. It was indeed a very difficult task to decide, but inner sentimental, emotional and patriotic feelings prevailed and I finally chose the uniform of the Indian Legion.’

It is not surprising, therefore, that of the 15,000 Indian soldiers in Axis captivity by early 1943 just over 2,000 volunteered for the Legion. More significant was the fact that only one VCO joined the Legion, while not a single Indian officer signed up. Part of the problem lay in Bose’s insistence that volunteers should not be enlisted with their previous ranks and should start from the bottom. Although some volunteers were quickly promoted to their earlier ranks, this deterred VCOs and many NCOs from coming forward. While VCOs might also have been more apolitical in their outlook, the Indian officers were not. They were simply unpersuaded that Germany wanted to help India attain its freedom. William ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ Joyce, spoke to a group of Indian officers assuring them of Hitler’s commitment to Indian independence and appealing to them to join the Legion. The officers were unmoved. The senior-most among them stood up and denounced Joyce as a traitor. The British government, he observed, had committed itself to India’s freedom after the war and this was bound to come about.

In consequence, the Legion was largely officered by Germans. Among those who joined it was a young recruit, Leopold Fischer. Born into a Viennese German middle-class family, Fischer had developed a keen interest in India after attending a performance by Uday Shankar and his troupe of singers and dancers. He joined the Indian Club in Vienna, picked up some Sanskrit and Hindi, and resolved on a career in Indology. Fischer even met Jawaharlal Nehru during the latter’s visit to Vienna in 1938 and impressed the Indian leader by his command of Hindustani. On his sixteenth birthday, only months before the Second World War began, Fischer pledged to fight for India’s freedom. Three years later, he was invited by an Indian friend to meet ‘Signor Mazzotta’ – the pseudonym of Subhas Bose. Later that year, when he was called up for military service, Fischer volunteered for the Indian Legion. After the war, Fischer would go to India and eventually take the vows of a Hindu monk of the Dashanami Order. As Agehananda Bharati, he would become professor of anthropology at Syracuse University and a major exponent of Hindu philosophy.

By the time the Legion was recruited and trained, Bose was already preparing to leave for Japan. Prior to his departure, he reiterated his demand that the Legion should not be used for the campaigns in Russia or Libya. ‘It would be best to use it in Iran or Iraq on the way to Afghanistan … The legionaries should feel that they are fighting for the freedom of India, and every theatre of war in which they fight should have some relation to India.’ Bose’s secret departure from Germany in February 1943, however, dealt a blow to the Legion. For one thing, the legionnaires were not informed of Bose’s whereabouts. Rumours and speculation led to a lowering of morale and an increase in disciplinary problems. For another, the Germans decided to use the Legion for policing functions in the Netherlands and subsequently along the Atlantic Wall. Although the Legion never saw active service, most of its soldiers ended up in Allied captivity after the opening of the second front in Normandy in 1944.

By the time Bose left Germany, he no longer pinned hopes on the Indian Legion. Japan’s remarkable successes had opened up new possibilities of an armed liberation of India from its eastern frontiers. More importantly, the Japanese had already been rather more successful than Bose in raising an Indian National Army.

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