Ties between Indian officers and their men ran the other way as well. Some ICOs joined the INA in order to shield Indian prisoners of war from the Japanese and secure better conditions for them. As one ICO put it, he had joined the INA to ‘protect Indian soldiers from Jap treatment’.
Nationalist sympathies and racial discrimination, professional incentives and affinity among Indians do not by themselves explain why so many soldiers enrolled in the INA. Nor do they entirely account for the disparity in recruitment between the INA and the Indian Legion. A crucial factor was the dissolution of military cohesion, like a clump of earth thrown into a flowing river, when faced with the Japanese onslaught. The experience of Mohan Singh’s battalion, 1/14th Punjab, was not unrepresentative. The battalion had been shattered in the battle of Jitra on 11 December 1941, leaving every man to fend for himself. The Indian soldiers joining his INA, he observed, ‘had lost their sense of discipline and were demoralized. Some of them appeared to be completely shocked at what had happened. Practically, all of them were exhausted, not only bodily but also mentally.’
The surrender at Farrer Park in Singapore reinforced the sense that the organizational scaffolding of the Indian army was crumbling. Shahnawaz Khan, an ICO who would subsequently join the INA, felt that he and his men had been ‘handed over like cattle by the British to the Japs’. Another officer, Mohammad Zaman Kiani, also thought that the Indian soldiers were given to the Japanese ‘like a herd of cattle’. It is significant that of the nearly fifty ICOs present at Farrer Park, about thirty-five elected to join the INA. These, the general staff later conceded, included ‘many with distinguished records of service . . . whose loyalty before the fall of Singapore was never in question’.
John Crasta, a south Indian soldier who refused to enrol, recalled ‘several faces becoming sad’. One soldier sighed: ‘What will become of my family? Oh God.’ Crasta perceptively observed ‘how the privations of a one-sided campaign, defections, despair, discouragement, and a sense of helplessness overcome a soldier’. The breakdown of institutional cohesion made it easier for them to overcome their doubts about loyalty and oaths.
This breakdown also helps explain why the largest numbers of volunteers for the INA came from the martial classes – the classes whose loyalty the Raj had so assiduously cultivated and about which Churchill had so confidently boasted. Indeed, it was the martial-class battalions that defected almost intact to the INA. As the commander-in-chief, Archibald Wavell, wrote, ‘the bulk of the active INA personnel are representatives of the classes (Sikhs and PMs [Punjabi Muslims] in particular) which formed the backbone of the prewar Indian Army’. Indeed, the Punjab alone accounted for 75 per cent of the volunteers to the INA.
The Indian army did confront a tough enemy in North Africa, especially after the Afrika Korps came into its own, and suffered several reverses, not least the disaster in Tobruk. But there was no collapse of organizational cohesion comparable to that in South-East Asia. For instance, the logistical chain supporting the Indian units in Burma, Malaya and Singapore shrivelled to the point of nonexistence by late 1941. By contrast, the supply system of the 4th Indian Division in North Africa during 1941–42 functioned reasonably well – even under adverse military circumstances. Retreats and reverses in this theatre were undoubtedly demoralizing, but they did not feel like routs.
That said, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that around 45,000 Indian soldiers in the Far East refrained from joining the INA. The pull of military loyalty and discipline was substantially undermined, but not wholly neutralized. There were other factors at work as well. For one thing, there was considerable reluctance among captured soldiers to return to combat duties under anyone’s command. For another, there was an undercurrent of communal feeling among the Indian prisoners of war. Some Muslim soldiers believed that ‘not a single Sikh, young or old, was left out of the INA’. They feared that the Sikhs and Hindus were cosying up to the Japanese to perpetuate their domination over the Muslims of India. Even those who were not particularly sympathetic to the Muslim League disapproved of the ‘framed pictures of Mahatma Gandhi’ in the INA camps or the pro-Congress slogans raised by some Hindu and Sikh soldiers.
Those who refused to switch allegiance underwent extraordinary privations. From December 1942, they were transported via transit camps in Jakarta and Surabaya to New Guinea, New Britain and Bougainville in the Pacific. Up to 2,000 men were crammed into small cargo vessels that afforded barely 3 square feet for each prisoner. There was little air, less water and even less food. Lieutenant Patel of the medical corps watched helplessly as almost 80 per cent of his comrades died on the fifty-six-day voyage from Singapore to Rabaul. On reaching their destinations, the Indians were treated by the Japanese as ‘a race of coolies and barbarians’. When the officers demanded better treatment for their men, they were told to join the INA. On one occasion, the Japanese sought to impose rank badges on Indian prisoners of the 5/11th Sikh. The officers protested: ‘We are Indian Army prisoners of war and according to the law we are not allowed to wear any rank badges except those worn in that Army.’ They were beaten senseless for their defiance. Torture and summary execution were routine occurrences. The Indian prisoners may well have suffered an even worse fate than the European and American captives of the Japanese.
The INA got off to a flying start under the command of ‘General’ Mohan Singh. Recruitment began in earnest in April 1942 and received a fillip with the onset of the Quit India campaign later in the year. By 1 September 1942, a full division with 16,000 men was formally raised. It comprised three brigades, named Gandhi, Nehru and Azad. The division paraded in Singapore on 2 October – Gandhi’s birthday – and Mohan Singh proclaimed that it was ready for war.
However, Mohan Singh’s relationship with the Japanese was steadily deteriorating during this period. There were two axes of tension. The first stemmed from the politics of the Indian Independence League (IIL). The IIL was an umbrella organization that brought together the numerous expatriate Indian associations in Malaya, Singapore and Thailand. It had been formed at the outbreak of war by Pritam Singh and Rash Behari Bose. A revolutionary in exile, Bose had lived since 1915 in Tokyo – a city that provided a haven for many Indian firebrands. He had married a Japanese woman and had close links with the intelligence agencies in Tokyo. But Bose had an ambivalent relationship with the Indian expatriate leaders in South-East Asia. On the one hand, they realized the practical importance of his Japanese connections. On the other, they were worried about the nature of the IIL’s relations with Japan and the role of Japanese officials in its functioning. Mohan Singh shared their misgivings.
The second axis of tension ran between Mohan Singh and the Japanese army. Fujiwara and his F Kikan were replaced by Tokyo with a larger organization, led by Colonel Iwakuro Hideo. The Iwakuro Kikan began setting up several propaganda projects, such as the Swaraj Institute in Penang, under the lawyer N. Raghavan, which trained Indians in intelligence and espionage. Unlike Fujiwara, however, Iwakuro had little interest in Indian independence. Moreover, he was apt to ride roughshod over the Indians and deploy their resources on his own volition. The thorough-going nationalist in Mohan Singh could not abide Iwakuro. The two men also had different plans for the INA. The ‘general’ wanted an army of two divisions, while the colonel believed that one would suffice. Iwakuro saw it largely as a propaganda force, while Mohan Singh was determined that his soldiers would spearhead the invasion of India. Mohan Singh wanted to retain those who had not volunteered for the INA as a potential reserve; Iwakuro wanted to use them as a labour unit.
These lines of tension crossed at the IIL’s conference in Bangkok in June 1942. Mohan Singh felt that Rash Behari Bose was ‘quite a weak person’ and that ‘Bose and his colleagues from Japan were not absolutely free in their actions’. So, while Bose was declared leader of the IIL, a separate ‘Council of Action’ was created – apparently to cut him down to size. Dissatisfaction with Bose was also evident in the resolution adopted by the conference requesting Tokyo to arrange for the move of Subhas Bose from Germany to the Far East. The resolution further called on Japan to protect Indians in the territories under its control and not treat them as enemy nationals. The INA was declared the military wing of the IIL and Tokyo was asked to recognize it as an equal allied army.
The last demand was obviously aimed at securing the autonomy of the INA. Not surprisingly, Iwakuro was unenthusiastic. The Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo felt that Fujiwara had pampered the Indians and declined to respond to the Bangkok resolution. Iwakuro sought to use Rash Behari Bose as an intermediary in dealing with Mohan Singh. Bose promptly arrived in Singapore and set up shop in the Park View Hotel. He could not, however, convince Mohan Singh of Tokyo’s supposed sympathy for the Bangkok resolution. The divide between them sharpened. Bose felt that the INA was getting in the way of his efforts to find the best spot for Indians under the Japanese sun. Mohan Singh suspected that Bose saw the INA as a propaganda appendage to the IIL. Fujiwara flew down to Singapore of his own accord to break the impasse, but it was too late.
By this time, Mohan Singh had grown paranoid about the Japanese. The attempts to deploy INA intelligence units in the field led to a sharp stand-off. Mohan Singh’s autocratic and increasingly erratic style of command was also alienating officers of the INA as well as the civilian leadership of the IIL. On 9 December, Mohan resigned from the Council of Action. On 29 December 1942, Iwakuro called Mohan Singh to his headquarters and asked him to co-operate with the Japanese. He refused and was arrested with the concurrence of Bose. As a parting shot, the ‘general’ announced the dissolution of the INA. For the rest of the war, he was kept in Japanese confinement. Rash Behari Bose made some feeble attempts at holding the INA together before departing for Tokyo. The Japanese too were keen to keep it intact, if only for its propaganda value. In the event, the INA’s revival had to await the arrival of the other Bose.
Six months passed before Subhas Bose reached Singapore, in a twin-engined Japanese aircraft. After travelling by submarine from Europe to the coast of Sumatra, Bose had flown to Tokyo on 16 May 1943. In his meeting with the Japanese premier on 12 June, Bose asked if Japan would offer ‘unconditional support’ to the Indian struggle. Tojo readily agreed. He was less forthcoming on Bose’s request to authorize an offensive into India from Burma – an attack in which the INA would operate alongside the Japanese army. On 16 June, Bose sat as a special guest in the Imperial Diet and heard Tojo declare that Japan would do ‘everything possible’ to help India attain its independence.
Accompanying Subhas to Singapore was the elder Bose. At a packed meeting in the Cathay Theatre on 4 July, Rash Behari Bose passed on the baton to his younger colleague. Subhas Bose received a guard of honour from the INA as well as a tumultuous welcome in Singapore. His political standing received a further boost when Tojo himself took the salute at an INA parade on 6 July 1943. In the months ahead, Bose addressed massive gatherings of civilians and soldiers, who were enthralled by his stirring speeches and transfixed by his charisma.
Subhas Bose’s appeal was crucial to the resuscitation of the INA. Not only was he able to weld the force together, but he managed to draw in soldiers who had hitherto been sceptical of the INA. Captain Shahnawaz Khan had refused to join the INA under Mohan Singh’s command. The ‘general’, he believed, lacked the requisite capacity for leadership. This was partly the disdain of the regular officer for a colleague who had risen from the ranks. And it was partly his concern that Mohan Singh would not be able to ‘cope with Japanese intrigue’ and that the INA would be ‘exploited by the Japanese purely for their personal ends’. Khan initially worked with other officers in trying to convince the men not to switch sides. In June 1942, when the INA had attracted a critical mass of soldiers, he decided to join up. But his motives were mixed. ‘I decided in the interests of my men to volunteer for the INA with the full determination that I would do everything possible to break it or sabotage it from within the moment I felt it would submit to Japanese exploitation.’ Khan’s meetings with Bose dispelled any lingering doubts. He confessed that ‘from the moment I came into personal contact with him he exercised a strange influence over me . . . I knew in his hands, India’s honour was safe, he would never barter it for anything in the world.’
Bose did not confine himself to Indian prisoners of war and tapped into a wider pool of recruitment. Malaya had a large population of south Indians, mainly Tamils, who had come from India since the 1860s to work in the rubber plantations. The majority of them worked as tappers – lowest in the hierarchy of labour on the plantations. As the Japanese had advanced into Malaya, the British planters had fled. In the ensuing chaos, work on the plantations ground to a halt and many tappers left for nearby towns in search of employment. And they ended up volunteering in large numbers for the INA. The expansion of the INA curiously mirrored that of the Indian army, where the old martial classes were being supplemented by large numbers of south Indians. Bose also formed a unit of women volunteers, called the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. The regiment went on to acquire mythical status, but it was not as daring an innovation as the legend suggests. Most of the women were employed not in combat but in the stereotypical duties of nursing and welfare.
Bose had grand designs to raise the strength of the INA to 50,000 men and women under arms. This was unrealistic given the paucity of officers. But Bose was confident that ‘When I land in Bengal everyone will revolt. Wavell’s whole army will join me.’ In any case, the Japanese agreed to train and equip no more than 30,000 soldiers, formed into three divisions. On the purposes of the INA, too, the earlier differences persisted. Field Marshal Terauchi Hisaichi, the commander of Japanese forces in South-East Asia, wanted the INA to be used as field propaganda units. Bose, however, insisted that the INA would lead the offensive on India. ‘Any liberation of India secured through Japanese sacrifices’, he maintained, ‘is worse than slavery.’ Terauchi eventually agreed to deploy one INA brigade in the front line to test its mettle and morale.
On 21 October 1943, Bose announced the formation of the Provisional Government of Azad Hind (‘Free India’). As head of state, he held the foreign affairs and war portfolios. Eleven other colleagues, including eight INA officers, were sworn in as members of the cabinet. Three days later, the Provisional Government declared war on Britain and the United States. By declaring the United States an enemy, Bose was not only underlining his intent to take on the American troops on Indian soil but also reaching out to Japan and the Axis powers. Nine states, including Japan and Germany, granted diplomatic recognition to the Provisional Government.
In his dealings with Japan as head of the Provisional Government, Bose sought to display considerable independence. Thus, when the Japanese Foreign Office sent a junior civilian official, Kakitsubo Masayoshi, as diplomatic representative to the Provisional Government, Bose refused to officially recognize him as such. In early November, Bose travelled to Tokyo and negotiated on equal terms with Tojo. He asked Japan to hand over the Indian territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal to the Provisional Government. And he wanted to deploy a full division of the INA in combat. Bose also attended the Great East Asia Conference on 5–6 November, but only as an ‘observer’. The Japanese Foreign Office observed that this was because ‘he was of the opinion that India would not join the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’.
Tojo indulged Bose’s pretensions to independence. The propaganda value of the man was worth more to the Japanese than all the divisions of the INA. So, after Bose’s speech at the Tokyo Conference, Tojo responded by reiterating Japan’s support for Indian independence. He also announced that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands would soon be transferred to the Provisional Government of Azad Hind. Bose’s idea of turning the Indian army against the Raj was now in the realm of possibility.