Even before the Tokyo typhoon struck South-East Asia, the Japanese had established contact with Indian anti-colonial activists in the region. On 18 September 1941, the Japanese army set up a small mission in Bangkok that enabled the forging of these links. A young, idealistic army intelligence officer, Major Fujiwara Iwaichi, was sent there to contact the Indian Independence League, the premier nationalist organization of expatriate Indians. Fujiwara was given a broad assignment: ‘to consider future Indo-Japanese relations from the standpoint of establishing the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’. He fancied himself as a ‘Japanese Lawrence of Arabia’ – an epithet he would later quote with approval in his memoirs – and briskly set about realizing his mandate through his intelligence outfit, Fujiwara Kikan or F Kikan. The most significant contact made by Fujiwara was with the Sikh leader of the Indian Independence League in Bangkok, Giani Pritam Singh, who convinced him of the susceptibility of Indian troops in Malaya to anti-British propaganda.
Days after the Japanese offensive on Malaya, Fujiwara made a crucial breakthrough. On 11 December, a battalion of the Indian army – 1/14th Punjab – was routed in a surprise attack with tanks near Jitra in north-west Malaya and rapidly surrendered to the Japanese forces. Fujiwara and Pritam Singh met a Sikh officer of the battalion, Captain Mohan Singh. An ICO who had risen from the ranks, Mohan Singh had been commissioned in 1934 and had rejoined his old battalion a year later. Fujiwara took him to the town of Alor Star and sought to convince him that the Japanese did not wish to hold Indians as prisoners of war, but rather wanted to help form an Indian Independence Army to liberate India.
After several days of discussion, Mohan Singh became amenable to the idea. After the war, he would tell his British interrogators that he was:
Greatly agitated by British war aims . . . Even at the most critical period of her [Britain’s] history, when she was utilizing India to fight for her own freedom, she refused to consider the question of India’s freedom. Instead, she ordered the arrest of Indian leaders, because they were guilty of asking freedom for India.
Mohan Singh initially insisted that the force should be deployed not in Malaya but India – and on an equal footing with the Japanese army. It was agreed that the force would be called the Indian National Army (INA). But the limits of his ability to bargain with the Japanese soon became clear. When 229 soldiers of 1/14th Punjab volunteered, they had to join the Japanese advance to Singapore.
The surrender at Singapore swelled the ranks of the INA. Indian soldiers were separated from the British and handed over to the Japanese. On 17 February, around 45,000 Indian soldiers were assembled in Farrer Park. A British officer, Colonel J. C. Hunt, made perfunctory remarks to the effect that the Indians were now prisoners of war and that they should abide by Japanese orders. Fujiwara then delivered a carefully crafted speech, which was simultaneously translated into English for the officers and Hindustani for the men. ‘The Japanese Army will not treat you as POWs’, he proclaimed, ‘but as friends.’ Explaining Tokyo’s aims for associating the liberated peoples of Asia in a co-prosperity sphere, he announced that Japan stood ready to provide all assistance for the liberation of India and exhorted his audience to join the INA. Fujiwara recalled a tumult of excitement rising out the park on the announcement of the INA.
Indeed, of the 65,000 Indian soldiers and officers who surrendered at Singapore, around 20,000 chose the join the INA. Several battalions went over almost entirely intact. Why was the INA so much more successful in attracting volunteers than the Indian Legion? The contrast is particularly stark in the case of officers: 400 Indian officers joined the INA while only one VCO volunteered for the Indian Legion. To be sure, about 250 of these officers came from the medical corps and many of them volunteered to help treat their fellow soldiers. The remaining 150 included around 100 VCOs.22 Even so, the differences are striking.
Several factors accounted for the disparity between the Indian Legion and the INA. In the first place, the expansion of the Indian army had resulted in a significant increase in the ICO component of the officer class. Between May 1940 and September 1941, 1,400 Indians were recruited as officers. In 1942, the annual intake was increased from 900 to 2,000. More importantly, there were many more ICOs in the Malayan theatre than in North Africa. The general staff had initially attached higher priority to the Middle East and had avoided sending the Indianizing units to that theatre. Besides, there was an unstated assumption that the Indianizing units would be more than capable of tackling the inferior Japanese troops.
The ICOs were more politically attuned than the older King’s Commissioned Indian Officers. This was particularly true of the younger ICOs – later designated as Emergency Commissioned Indian Officers (ECIOs) – who had joined after the outbreak of war. Military intelligence was concerned about the political attitude of these officers ‘who are entering the Indian Army in increasing numbers’: ‘It is certain that the majority are Nationalist in outlook, and that many regard Gandhi with veneration.’ An Indian officer commissioned during the war and posted in Malaya until January 1942 observed that of Indian officers ‘about 60% are “Nationalists” and desire an early independence for India. The remaining 40% are in a general way dissatisfied with British rule in India but hold no strong political views.’ A KCIO who had escaped from Japanese captivity similarly held that ‘Every Indian (soldier included) desires a higher political status for India. The difference is only in degree. The extremists want complete independence – the moderates Dominion status and the last group will be satisfied with something approaching Dominion status.’
The ICOs also felt that they were being discriminated against. Not only did they receive less pay and fewer perks than the British ECOs, but they were paid less than the KCIOs as well. ‘ICOs do not understand’, military intelligence noted, ‘why they should be paid less than the British officers, sometimes possessing less experience, who are performing similar duties.’ What’s more, they felt that this was ‘an example of racial discrimination’. An Indian officer, for example, compared his social status and military background with those of some British ‘shopkeepers’ who were obtaining commissions with higher salaries.
The Indian officers felt the racial edge of discrimination in other ways too. ‘I never once saw’, recalled D. K. Palit, ‘an Indian officer ever share a table with a British officer.’ A. O. Mitha, who was commissioned into a Grenadier battalion in mid-1942, had a similar experience in his mess: ‘They [British officers] talked among themselves, completely ignoring me, and when I tried to converse with them I either got no reply or only a grunt.’ The British ECOs, many of them from middle-class families with little exposure to the Empire, exhibited less racial prejudice than the old KCOs. Indeed, many young British ECOs held radical political views and were sympathetic to the cause of Indian independence. P. W. Kingsford – the future social historian – travelled to India to take up his commission as an ECO, carrying with him Lenin’s Imperialism, Rajni Palme Dutt’s India Today and E. M. Forster’s Passage to India. ‘How could I understand’, he would later write, ‘the absurdity of the situation that here I was travelling to India to help run a system of government which could only strangle any Indian opposition to fascism.’ On reaching Bombay, he quickly established contacts with the Communist Party of India and began clandestinely meeting its leading lights such as P. C. Joshi and B. T. Ranadive. The principal challenge, he believed, was to get ‘British troops to understand the Indians and the Indians to know the British soldiers, traditionally their oppressors, but now many, if not most of them, trade unionists and socialists of different sorts’.
While British ECOs did not carry the hidebound prejudices of the older officers, they were mostly unable to bridge the social and cultural barriers with their Indian counterparts. As the Southern Army Commander observed, they ‘were not good mixers and seemed to look down on their Indian brethren’. More galling was the promotion in the Malayan theatre of newly arrived British ECOs superseding more senior ICOs. Harbaksh Singh, a company commander in 5/11th Sikh deployed with the 22nd Brigade in Malaya, felt that his commanding officer had no confidence in his Indian officers. Several officers who had thus been passed over rose to command positions in the INA.30 In the prevailing political climate, old KCOs could be rabidly racist. The British commanding officer of a field artillery unit that had several Indian officers wrote to his wife:
Do you remember that chap in the regiment that looked like a buck nigger? By name . . . . . . ? Well, he went a bit politically minded at one time, chiefly because he wasn’t thought fit for promotion. His line was that the majority of India would prefer Jap’s rule to ours. I have just got rid of him! But can you beat it and that’s a chap serving in the Indian army. I’ve only got one Indian left . . . I think he’ll probably behave himself.
The ICOs also reported discrimination between British and Indian officers in trains and other public transportation in Malaya. The European plantocracy in Malaya denied the Indians entry into clubs and swimming pools. This caused ‘a good deal of bitterness among the officers’. One officer was heard saying that ‘they had been sent all the way from India to defend the —- Europeans and he was damned if he was going to lift a little finger to do it if and when the time came’. The officer rose to prominence in the INA.
The VCOs were a different story. Most of them had served long years in the army and had benefited from its cradle-to-grave welfare system. Besides, a majority of them had little interest in politics. When asked about the prospect of a Japanese invasion of India, a subedar from Rawalpindi replied that ‘he did not care whether the British or the Japanese ruled India so long as he went on receiving his pension’. Nevertheless, about 100 VCOs joined the INA. This was partly because the VCOs believed that their standing in the Indian army was not recognized by the new British ECOs. Despite the authorities issuing numerous directives that ‘their “izzat” [honour] should be respected’, the VCOs frequently complained of the lack of consideration and respect. By contrast, the INA offered them a higher standing and better terms than the Indian army – let alone what they would have received as Japanese prisoners of war. Thus VCOs, who served as platoon commanders in the Indian army, were offered command of companies with the rank of a commissioned officer and the prospect of further promotion. The INA, of course, adopted this policy owing to the shortage of commissioned officers. Yet the VCOs who signed up stood to benefit from it.
Then again, some of the VCOs were politically aware. The rank-and-file soldier also took ‘a very lively interest in what is going on around him . . . he is aware the political developments will affect him and his future, and is watching them closely’. A KCIO observed that the soldiers fell into three groups. A ‘small minority’ was strongly anti-British and even pro-Japanese. Another ‘small group’ was strongly pro-British. The ‘largest group’ was indifferent and capable of ‘adjusting to the Japanese masters if circumstances shape that way’. ‘Loyalty is not as general as is believed by Senior Brit Officers’, he emphasized. ‘A number of people are loyal but they will only remain so as long as it suits them.’
Further, the VCOs and the other ranks were not immune to the discontent rumbling among the Indian officers. Take the case of 4/19th Hyderabad, an Indianizing battalion sent to Singapore in August 1939. In April 1940, the military censor intercepted a letter written by an ICO of the unit – Lieutenant Mohammed Zahir-ud-Din – who wrote to an English lady in India that he hoped ‘the present war might last for ten years, so that the British Empire . . . [will] be so exhausted that . . . [we] Indians . . . [will] be able to turn the British out of [the] country’. The British commanding officer of the battalion already took a dim view of his Indian officers and constantly carped about their performance of duties. His bile rose at Zahir-ud-Din’s seditious letter. The officer was promptly suspended and despatched to India for a court martial. The Ahir Company of 4/19th Hyderabad, to which the officer belonged, rose in protest. The commanding officer had the company disarmed and replaced on duty by men from a British battalion. Fearing a full-blown mutiny, he finally took his Indian officers into his confidence and with their intervention the situation was controlled. K. S. Thimayya, a KCIO in the unit and later chief of the Indian army, recalled that ‘the sympathy of the Indian officers was with the mutineers . . . The subaltern hotheads and the VCOs supported the mutiny . . . Fortunately we older officers were able to keep them in line.’ After the fall of Singapore, 4/19th Hyderabad was among the battalions that volunteered, almost entirely, to join the INA.