Across the world these last months of 1945 were months of retribution. In Europe the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders were being prepared. In Rangoon and Singapore Japanese officers were arraigned as war criminals. Dozens passed through the Gothic central prisons of these cities, interrogated persistently, aggressively, week after week, but without the benefit of whips, bamboo splinters beneath the fingernails, or bastinadoes, as had been commonplace with the Japanese secret police, the Kempeitai. In Tokyo Allied judge advocates prepared the trials of bigger figures in the war. Emperor Hirohito escaped, but the chain of events had been set in motion that led inevitably to the hanging of Hideki Tojo and his associates, sacrifices for the imperial house. In this atmosphere the British were determined to bring the INA to some kind of reckoning.
The first arrests were in Malaya and Singapore, where the INA was not merely a scattering of renegade military units but a citizen army. The arrival of Subhas Chandra Bose in Singapore in July 1943 had created an unprecedented wave of mobilization among the Indians of Southeast Asia. Many INA personnel were Malayan residents who had never seen India but identified with it as their great national community. The sons of middle-class families joined up; so too did the daughters, by enlisting in the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, named after the heroine queen of 1857. The civilian organization – the Indian Independence League – supplied propagandists and administrators of Bose’s Azad Hind government; virtually the whole Indian business community was co-opted in one way or another, as were Ceylonese professionals, in spite of the island being peripheral to Bose’s vision. The INA had connected the educated townsmen to the largely illiterate Tamil masses on the rubber estates as never before.
On reoccupying Singapore, Penang and Kuala Lumpur, the British threw most of the leaders of the Indian Independence League into jail. This included some of the most educated and prominent personalities of the pre-war era, such as the London-educated lawyer, N. Raghavan, in Penang and S. C. Goho, a Singapore barrister who had quasi-diplomatic status before the war as the official ‘agent’ of the government of India. Not all of them had been unequivocal in their support for Bose. Journalists were a particular target, such as the most senior Asian editor of the pre-war era, Francis Cooray, a Ceylonese who ran the Kuala Lumpur daily Malay Mail. In the cells they were given a form on which to declare their work for the INA. But the pattern of arrests seemed hasty and arbitrary. The British, Cooray complained, ‘acted no better than the Japanese did on the uncorroborated evidence of accomplices and informers, who had axes to grind and grudges to pay off.’ The treatment of the troops of the INA was also haphazard. The 1,940 soldiers of the INA captured in Thailand were truculent and uncooperative. British interrogators complained of the ‘brazen insolence’ and ‘outward veneer of bravado’ with which they boasted of their defeats of Allied troops, and of the false statements they made to annoy them. But the around 2,500 INA personnel in Malaya were more mildly treated. They merely had to await repatriation until ‘loyal’ Indian soldiers were sent home and, like the Japanese, were put to work in the interim. The young British historian Eric Stokes and his mountain artillery regiment was sent to escort members of the INA back to internment in India. The local INA recruits melted away. One Indian from Singapore garrisoned in Perak was told simply: ‘If you want to go, you are free to go.’ Some of the more educated recruits were even employed by the British military. Mountbatten did not see himself as bound by policy in India, and he did not want responsibility for the INA. He tried to slow the process down: ‘There are’, he ordered, ‘to be no executions without my approval.’
The decisive moment came in the autumn when the Indian government and military authorities decided to try a group of INA officers. Indians in the army recruiting areas in the northwest told British officials ‘if only they had been shot in Rangoon or Singapore everyone would have been pleased’, but they warned that a show trial in India would be a political disaster. Why did the British proceed? The desire for retribution was strong but more than that, many officials including the viceroy believed that Congress was going to use the INA as a ‘spearhead’ in some forthcoming revolt. So Captain Shahnawaz Khan, Captain P.K. Sehgal and Lieutenant G.S. Dhillon were arraigned. These three young Punjabi officers of the INA were all graduates of the Indian staff college. They were accused of torturing and executing INA soldiers who had tried to return to their British allegiance very late in the war, in March 1945, at the INA camp near Mandalay, Mount Popa. Subhas Bose, defeated but still defiant, had urged his officers to root out treachery and backsliding as Slim’s advance into Burma gathered pace. The three officers had carried out Bose’s orders.
On 5 November 1945 three ‘smart young men, unbadged, but with a sense of command’, were ushered into a military court in the great Moghul Red Fort of Delhi. The British may have thought that the date of the trial, the 340th anniversary of the gunpowder plot against the English Parliament, was appropriate. The venue, however, was not. Among Indians, the Red Fort still echoed with memories of the previous British show-trial staged there, that of the last Moghul emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, after the rebellion of 1857–8. It was earth from the tomb of Bahadur Shah, who had died in exile in Rangoon, that Bose’s men had intended to convey in a silver casket on their ill-fated march from Burma to India in 1944.
The arguments between the prosecution and defence were hurled back and forth for days. The Indian public hung on every word. Court transcripts were published daily. One proclaimed: ‘This trial is far more sensational than the trial of Jesus Christ and many other trials around the world.’ Vallabhbhai Patel, general secretary of the Congress, got in a shrewder blow. The man who should really be on trial, he asserted, was Lord Linlithgow, the former viceroy, for sentencing 3 million Bengalis to death by famine in 1943. Points of fact arose: were the INA deserters actually executed and, if so, by whom? The British judge advocate general belittled the INA as a Japanese quisling army. The men who had joined it were either traitors or they were forced by bad treatment into its ranks. In rebuttal, the defence team argued that the INA was Indian-officered and led. Were the British quislings to the Americans simply because General Eisenhower was supreme commander in Europe? The accused exculpated their personal actions. Shahnawaz Khan said that he had sacrificed ‘my life, my home, my family and its traditions’ for his country. Dhillon is supposed to have said that the Japanese were ‘leaders of the Buddhist religion’ which was born in India. Indians should therefore work with the Japanese.
The most telling arguments, though, were those that brought international law into the scales. The British, the defence argued, had abandoned their status as a government in Malaya and Burma. Four years before in Singapore, as the garrison surrendered, Colonel Hunt had told captured Indian troops that they should ‘obey the orders of the Japanese in the way that you obeyed the British government. Otherwise you will be punished.’ Other evidence seemed to suggest that the Singapore commander, General Percival, had endorsed this position. So, said the accused, P. K. Sehgal: ‘In return for the loyalty of the Indians, the British representative handed them over to the Japanese like a flock of sheep. Thereby the British had cut off all our bonds of allegiance to the British crown.’ Buoyed up by the public reaction to this claim, the defence went on to argue that Bose’s Azad Hind government was an independent administration created by war. It controlled its own territories, even if they were only the sparsely populated Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It had an effective and autonomous army, and its government had been recognized by, among others, the government of Eire. The Azad Hind government enjoyed exactly the same status as the United States of America after the declaration of independence in 1776. The fact that Bose had failed was neither here nor there. The INA soldiers were officers of an independent army. The floggings and executions they administered in Burma and Malaya were perfectly compatible with the British Army Act of 1911.
What was striking about this line of argument was that it had been put together not solely by the three determined Congressmen among the defence lawyers, Nehru, Bhulabhai Desai and Asaf Ali, but by several hoary old Indian liberals who had been decorated by the British government and were widely regarded as loyalists by both British and Indians. If such men were arguing that the independent Indian nation already existed, how could it be otherwise? The three young officers were ultimately convicted, but only of the lesser charge of rebellion against the king-emperor. The sentences passed were never imposed. Wavell later acknowledged that the first trials should have been of men who could actually be convicted of brutality or murder. The three were later released from jail and given dishonourable discharges from the army. But the British Raj had already suffered a lethal blow. Its legitimacy, long questioned, was now seeping away. Even Ajit Rudra, a senior Indian officer who had once believed passionately that the INA had betrayed their loyalty to the king-emperor, had second thoughts. If the British had willingly released the Indian troops from their allegiance, how could they be classed as traitors?
The effect on soldiers and civilians up and down the crescent was electrifying. As the debate over the INA raged on, hundreds of thousands of Indian troops remained in Southeast Asia under British command. By far the majority were scattered over a demoralized and devastated Burma, suspicious of the BNA and doubting the intentions of the British. Nehru and other Congress politicians had already warned Auchinleck, the army’s commander-in-chief, that it would be impossible to use Indian troops to put down nationalist rebellions in fraternal countries. This hamstrung Dorman-Smith in his attempt to bring the BNA to heel over the next nine months. As Wavell reminded the cabinet on 17 October: ‘SEAC depends almost entirely on [the] loyalty and discipline of Indian troops’. Yet Attlee brushed aside his objections to the despatch of fresh levies of men from India in the face of new tasks confronting the British. It caused new difficulties as the British tried to rebuild their rule in Malaya. Indian troops were also in French Indo-China, attempting to reassert French authority in the face of communist and nationalist rebellions. And such was the drain on manpower that Britain had to risk sending 5 Indian Division from Malaya to Indonesia, where they would fight alongside British troops against the Indonesian nationalists in what was to be the bloodiest of the first wars of peace.
In Burma and elsewhere the INA issue raised the temperature of politics. There never had been a question of treating the BNA in the same manner as the INA, except among the most intransigent old British civil servants. If the INA were not really guilty of rebellion, Burmese thought, the BNA must surely be the legitimate military wing of their national movement. There was, however, one exception to Britain’s relatively prudent approach to the BNA: early in 1946 Dorman-Smith tried to bring against Aung San a charge of murder very similar to those which the British authorities had sought to pin on the ‘blacks’ of the INA. The resulting showdown ensured that either Aung San or Dorman-Smith had to go. The witch hunt against Indian civilians in Southeast Asia rapidly lost all moral force. The full weight of South Asian public opinion made itself felt in Malaya. In November a new ‘agent’ of the government of India arrived in Singapore. S. K. Chettur, an Oxford graduate and Madras civil servant, carried himself as if he were the representative of a friendly, independent power. Urbane and at ease in colonial circles, he put pressure on the British authorities to release the detainees, especially by engaging a legal team on the Red Fort trial model, and by drawing the attention of Indian public opinion to the conditions of solitary confinement of the detainees held in Kuala Lumpur. There were dark hints of racism when an Indian defendant and his Indian lawyers came in front of white judges and prosecutors. By early December 1945 this issue was causing so much difficulty in India that it led Wavell to plead with Mountbatten to either try the men or release them. The prosecutions unravelled: by the end of the year, of the 114 arrested, only three were accused of treason; of the fifty-eight cases handed to the magistrates, thirty-one accused were provisionally released and nineteen conditionally released, with the rest in abeyance. Chettur argued that all those who were innocent of violence should be freed. Any suggestion of this in November, he observed, would have thrown the British ‘into a fit’. But by January 1946 Mountbatten was willing to agree.
There was even less clarity as to British treatment of others who had worked with the Japanese. Mustapha Hussain was one of the many Malay radicals arrested. Fully expecting to be tried by the British, he surrendered himself to a local Force 136 officer, Colonel Peter Dobree, who was attached to a group of Malay fighters of the ‘Loyal Malay Soldiers’ in Perak. Mustapha discovered that his name was on an ‘arrest on sight’ list. Confined in the local police station, he warned the Malay soldiers not to be duped by the British, and found them to be already disenchanted. ‘Tuan Dobree used to eat wild-growing fiddle-head ferns with us in the jungle,’ they told him. ‘Now that he is dining with the Sultan, he hardly remembers us.’ Mustapha was moved to another police station then to Batu Gajah jail. It had a black reputation in these years: many prisoners of the Japanese, including the Force 136 agent Lim Bo Seng, had died there. Mustapha spent long months in grim conditions in a lock-up with a rag-bag of aristocratic Malay officials, former policemen and their narks. Their fates varied dramatically. Mustapha was released without trial in 1946, after an appeal from 400 former Malay Regiment soldiers for whom he had interceded after the fall of Singapore. But others with him in Batu Gajah faced imprisonment or even death. Many arrested spent nearly two years in jail without trial. Some later took their own lives. Nominally a free man, Mustapha found himself shunned by his community, sacked by the British from his old job as a lecturer, prohibited from re-entering politics and subjected to further interrogations on the history of the Malay radicals. It was but a short step from the retribution of war to the preventive detentions of counterinsurgency.
By this time there were around 1,392 complaints under investigation, but most were withdrawn through lack of evidence. Roughly half the cases that came before the special courts were dismissed. Of the 385 Malayans detained, most were released, some conditionally. At the end of January 1946 the British announced that they would accept no more complaints. A defining moment was the trial in Singapore of a Eurasian, C. J. Paglar. He was a respected medical practitioner who, for the lack of any other candidate, had acted as a figurehead leader of the Eurasian community and made a number of broadcast messages, for example on Emperor Hirohito’s birthday. He was one of the few people charged with treason. The principal defence witness was a Japanese civilian administrator in Singapore, Mamoru Shinozaki. During the war he had taken upon himself the protection of vulnerable Anglophone groups, such as the Eurasians and the Straits Chinese. Shinozaki argued that Paglar acted upon instructions, and under the compulsion of protecting his community. The Japanese regime, he said, was ‘like a stepfather after the real father, the British, left their children behind. The stepfather was brutal… Now, alas, the real father has returned and is blaming these leaders for obeying their stepfather.’ The trial was adjourned sine die. The trial divided public opinion, but most Eurasians took the view that ‘somebody had to stand up for the people to be representative.’ The Muslim president of the Indian Chamber of Commerce, R. Jumabhoy, a man who had spent the war in India, reflected on the prosecutions: ‘Had I been here I’m not certain that I would not have done the same to save myself and my family.’
It was bitterly ironic that these vendettas struck hardest at those key groups the British needed to rebuild their authority. The police force was shattered by the war, and by the stigma of working with the Japanese. In Malaya, the British discharged 500 Sikh policemen, and 400 others enlisted by the Japanese. It would be many years before public trust in them would be rebuilt. This denunciation of a Chinese police inspector was not untypical:
The Wildebeeste of Syonan and the Black Snake Spitfire of Gestapodom, fit to rank with the street sweepings and organized gangsters. His very name spells doom and anathema… He experimented with the barbaric cruelties of the Spanish Inquisition. By jingo & the heavens! He was a bad egg, rotter and wicked blighter in his heyday.
Yet the British desperately needed experienced officers, and tended to listen to pleas from those who had worked under duress: ‘If I had really collaborated with the Japanese’, petitioned one officer, ‘I would have arrested hundreds of persons and not only twenty.’ The British were caught in a bind. On the one hand, many Malayans felt that old-style colonial retribution could have no further place in a territory where so many – above all the British themselves – had played morally and politically ambivalent roles during the war. Yet equally, the sight of known collaborators and profiteers on the streets alienated popular opinion. Above all, it was the unevenness and inconsistency of British justice that was the source of lasting anger. A sharp distinction emerged between colonial justice and popular justice. As soon as the newspapers began to publish again, denunciations crowded their pages: of the schoolmaster for removing the word ‘Britain’ from textbooks, ‘thereby treating Britain as an enemy’; the arrogant mistresses who had escaped arrest; charges of ‘fawning on the Japanese without shame’; even of pushing a Japanese officers’ car when the engine broke down. Reputations were blackened by dark innuendo, and this fed undercurrents of corruption, blackmail and extortion. Men with guilty consciences turned to the triads for protection. As the vengeful fury of the British began to subside, a long, slow internal reckoning was only just beginning, and for many it would never be complete.
Fay, Peter W. (1993), The Forgotten Army: India’s Armed Struggle for Independence, 1942-1945., Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press., ISBN 0-472-08342-2.
The first complete history of the Indian National Army and its fight for independence against the British in World War II.
The last days of the Raj bring to mind Gandhi’s nonviolence and Nehru’s diplomacy. These associations obscure another reality: that an army of Indian men and women who tried to throw the British off the subcontinent. The Forgotten Army brings to life for the first time the story of how Subhas Chandra Bose, a charismatic Bengali, attempted to liberate India with an army of former British Indian soldiers–the Indian National Army (INA).
The story begins with the British Indian Army fighting a heroic rearguard action against the invading Japanese down the Malaysian peninsula and ends with many of these same soldiers defeated in their effort to invade India as allies of Japan. Peter Ward Fay intertwines powerful descriptions of military action with a unique knowledge of how the INA was formed and its role in the broader struggle for Indian independence
Fay incorporates the personal reminiscences of Prem Saghal, a senior officer in the INA, and Lakshmi Swaminadhan, leader of its women’s sections, to help the reader understand the motivations of those who took part. Their experiences offer an engagingly personal counterpoint to the political and military history.
Peter Ward Fay is Professor of History, California Institute of Technology.
Praise / Awards
“Fay has made a magnificent attempt to analyse all the credible information on the history of [Subhas Chandra] Bose’s legendary Indian National Army (INA).”
–Times Higher Education Supplement
“This fine study of the Indian National Army (INA) seeks to demonstrate this army’s significance in the attainment of Indian independence and the termination of the British Empire. . . . Throughout, Fay seeks to explain why ‘constant and true’ Indians like Sahgal and Swaminadhan chose to fight alongside the Japanese and against the British . . . .”
“. . . a well-crafted and thought-provoking mixture of oral history and original research, providing the most comprehensive account yet published of the events leading to the formation of the INA.”
“In the standard histories of World War II military operations in Southeast Asia, the 40,000-strong Indian National Army (INA)led by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose . . . under Japanese sponsorship, gets brief mention, if not a mere footnote. . . . Fay has offered the first detailed account of the formation and operations of the INA during 1942-45. . . . A welcome addition to existing literature on the subject, the work is a well-researched and written book, particularly in its use of personal diaries and interviews with Prem[nath Saghal] and Laxmi [Swaminadhan].”
–Journal of Military History
“Written engagingly in a conversational (and occasionally discursive) style,informed throughout by great sympathy for the men and women of the INA, Fay’s book deserves to become the standard account of the subject.”
–American Historical Review
“Few research-based monographs have been penned with such an engaging elegance. . . . a felicitous combination of substance and style. . . .”
“. . . one of the most interesting, well written, and significant monographs I have recently encountered in the field of modern Indian historiography. . . . [A] decidedly original and stimulating addition to the field.”
–Canadian Journal of History/Annales canadiennes d’histoire
“. . . [A] lucid and compassionate book. . . . Fay presents the most balanced account yet written of the political and military aspects of the INA. . . . [T]he book tells the INA’s story with a style and verve too often missing in historical writing.”
–Journal of the South Asian Studies Association
“. . . a very interesting book. . . . excellent.”
–War in History