Increased militancy among the Congress and its supporters owed much to the Indian National Army (INA). This force had been recruited from Indian civilians in Malaya and from Indian Army soldiers who had been captured by the Japanese in Singapore in 1942. The racism of British expatriate society in Malaya, the tide of nationalism among Indians in the region and the apparent invincibility of the Japanese had encouraged many Indian soldiers to throw in their lot with the Axis powers. In 1943 leadership of the INA and the civilian Indian Independence Leagues had passed into the hands of the Bengali politician Subhas Chandra Bose who, on escaping from a Calcutta prison, had made his way to Singapore via Berlin. Bose had been among the most radical of the senior Congress leaders. An inveterate foe of the British, he was willing to accept military and political help from any of their enemies. The INA had fought alongside the Japanese in their great campaign to invade India during the spring and summer of 1944. When that thrust was defeated, Bose’s force had pulled back into Burma and finally retreated into Thailand and Malaya. As the British captured INA personnel, they categorized them into three groups – ‘whites’, ‘greys’ and ‘blacks’ – according to how seriously they rated their offences against the British crown and their former comrades. Opinion among Britain’s Indian troops was mixed. Some believed the INA men should be tried, while others thought of them as misguided patriots, but most civilians in India believed that they should not be tried for treachery or desertion as the British apparently intended.
The captured INA personnel posed a real problem for the British. Local commanders were inclined to view them with hostility. Colonel Balfour Oatts, who had fought with tribal hill levies in northwest Burma, hated the INA even more than he hated Aung San’s forces. After interrogating many of them he concluded that there was nothing to be done with these feral, ‘red-eyed’ deserters and traitors. Some officers gave them grudging respect in view of their fortitude during the clash with the 14th Army near Mount Popa, while others acknowledged that in Rangoon INA men had helped administer the city before the British returned in force, saving it from yet further despoliation. There was also the delicate question of allegiance and of not alienating loyal soldiers in the Indian Army. Some rank and file sympathized with the INA because their British officers had virtually abandoned them in 1942. The British themselves were uneasily aware that the status of Bose’s Azad Hind (Free India) government and its army was unclear under international law. Was Bose’s government, headquartered in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, tantamount to a sovereign power, like the United States after 1776? Certainly, Eamon de Valera and the government of Eire thought so, because they had exchanged diplomatic notes with it. If so, the INA, however detestable, must have been a legitimate military force, no more ‘traitors’ indeed than the old Burma Independence Army, most of whose officers and men had never sworn an oath to the king-emperor and could not be held to have acted treasonably. The British in the 1940s were still an imperialist nation and many of them were unabashedly racist in their attitudes, but they had a deep respect for the rule of law and its demands. Many agonized about the legitimacy of prosecuting the INA men. For this reason they quite quickly fell back on the issue of the violence and torture exercised by INA officers against those Indian soldiers who would not join their rebel army. Trials of INA men would hinge on charges of violence against fellow Indian officers and men, rather than the more nebulous question of treachery to the king-emperor. Slowly the meaning of this retreat came to be understood among the British and Asians for what it really was: an acceptance that King George was no longer the legitimate sovereign of India.
In the meantime, the practical issue of the fate of captured INA soldiers could not be avoided. Some of them were cooped up for long periods in internment camps in different parts of Southeast Asia. Others were repatriated under guard to India and then dishonourably discharged from the ranks without pay or provisions. Here the qualms of the civil administration came into view. There was a danger that these soldiers would return to their villages and form cells of virulently anti-British nationalists. The authorities began to fingerprint them in order to trace their diffusion into a countryside already seething with economic woes, political disquiet and communal tension. The auguries were poor. When INA men began to be repatriated to India under guard, there were many demonstrations of popular support. People met them at stations, garlanded them and gave them sweets. On his release from prison the Congress strongman Sardar Patel proclaimed that ‘Congress recognises the bravery of the INA people’, though during the war Congress leaders had generally distanced themselves from the INA.
Up to the very last minute Subhas Bose had hoped that Japan would resist the Allies’ resurgence long enough for his Azad Hind government to secure something from the expected peace conference. If that did not succeed, he would approach the Soviet Union, which appeared increasingly antagonistic to Britain as the war ended. As their own nemesis approached in August 1945, the Japanese commanders finally agreed to help him make contact with the advancing Soviet armies in Manchuria. The dropping of the atom bombs and the Japanese surrender forced him to move fast. He was touring Malaya, after laying the foundation of the INA Martyrs’ Memorial at Connaught Drive on Singapore’s seafront. On 17 August he issued a final order of the day, dissolving the INA with the words: ‘The roads to Delhi are many and Delhi still remains our goal.’ He then flew out of Singapore on his way to China via French Indo-China. If all else failed he wanted to become a prisoner of the Soviets: ‘They are the only ones who will resist the British. My fate is with them.’ But as the Japanese plane took off from Taipei airport its engines faltered and then failed. Bose was badly burned in the crash. According to several witnesses, he died on 18 August in a Japanese military hospital, talking to the very last of India’s freedom.
British and Indian commissions later established convincingly that Bose had died in Taiwan. These were legendary and apocalyptic times, however. Having witnessed the first Indian leader to fight against the British since the great mutiny of 1857, many in both Southeast Asia and India refused to accept the loss of their hero. Rumours that Bose had survived and was waiting to come out of hiding and begin the final struggle for independence were rampant by the end of 1945. A later British interrogation of a Japanese civilian associated with their Southeast Asian secret-service organization, the Hikari Kikan, hints at the rumours’ source. This operative recorded that when news of Bose’s death was reported in Rangoon on 19 August 1945, several Japanese officers went to offer their condolences to one of Bose’s senior officers, Bhonsle. He had not been altogether in Subhas Bose’s confidence and told General Isoda that ‘he had a feeling that Bose was not dead, but that his disappearance had been covered up’. Despite denials from the Japanese, who had received more details on the fatal crash, INA personnel remained unconvinced and passed on this feeling to Indian civilians. When the news of Bose’s death reached India, about a week later, many did not believe it and dismissed the report as British propaganda. In Tokyo young INA leaders studying at the Japanese Military Academy were also unconvinced by the account of his death and disturbed by the hasty cremation. They guarded Bose’s ashes around the clock. There are still some in India today who believe that Bose remained alive and in Soviet custody, a once and future king of Indian independence. The legend of ‘Netaji’ Bose’s survival helped bind together the defeated INA. In Bengal it became an assurance of the province’s supreme importance in the liberation of the motherland. It sustained the morale of many across India and Southeast Asia who deplored the return of British power or felt alienated from the political settlement finally achieved by Gandhi and Nehru.
Of those Indians who did accept that Bose had perished, most eulogized him as a great patriot and military leader, even when they took the official Congress line that he was mistaken in allying with Japanese ‘fascism’. Even Gandhi thought kindly of him. To Amrit Kaur he wrote: ‘Subhas Bose has died well. He was undoubtedly a patriot, though misguided.’ Typically, however, the Mahatma immediately changed the subject and reverted to avuncular advice, adding: ‘Your gum has caused me much trouble. I blame the dentist.’ Bose’s martyrdom most directly traumatized the many young men and women from the Indian civilian communities of Malaya and Singapore who had rushed to enlist. Fearing British reprisals, the INA officers in Tokyo sought sanctuary in the USA from the new military ruler, General MacArthur. Bose’s exit further dramatized the issue of the legitimacy of the INA and the problems that the British would face in dealing with it. They had already decided to try as many as 300 of its officers, but their gradual retreat from this position over the next two years was a further demonstration that the Raj was moving inexorably towards its end.