On the 120th birth anniversary of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY undertake a transcontinental journey in the footsteps of one of India’s most daring freedom fighters
He travelled from Calcutta to Peshawar as an insurance agent called Mohammed Ziauddin. As Khan Mohammed Ziauddin Khan, a mute tribal Pathan, he travelled on foot and by mule to Kabul. In the guise of a radio telegraphist and an Italian count Orlando Mazzotta, he reached Germany, met Hitler and eventually took a submarine halfway around the world to Japan to raise an army in the hope of liberating India from the yoke of British rule. There are many heroes who fought for India’s independence, but few as enigmatic as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. We retrace his incredible journey from Kolkata to Kabul, Berlin to Burma and across the Far East – Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan and North East India to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands…
As a young radical returning from Cambridge to Calcutta, Bose quit the Indian Civil Service in 1921 and rose to the post of president of the Indian National Congress by 1938. In 1939, he showed up on a stretcher and despite being unwell, defeated Mahatma Gandhi’s candidate Pattabhi Sitaramayya. Differences with Gandhiji on his revolutionary ideals led to Bose being ousted from the Congress. After a hunger strike led to his release from prison, he was put under house arrest by the British.
With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Bose saw it as an opportune moment to wrest freedom from the British. Indian support to the colonial cause during World War I in the hope of getting independence had yielded nothing, except Jallianwala Bagh and the Rowlatt Act. The time had come for more direct action and Bose could go to any length to see India free – even shake hands with the devil if he had to. He believed in the maxim, ‘An enemy of an enemy is a friend of mine’ and sought help of the Axis powers Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan to oust the British.
Accompanied by his nephew Sisir, Bose escaped British surveillance on 19 January 1941 in a car that is now on display at his home in Kolkata’s Lala Lajpat Rai Sarani. Run as a memorial and research center, Netaji Bhavan also houses relics of Bose’s footprints. He crossed the Indian subcontinent from east to west, reaching Peshawar and Kabul. British presence in the area made him travel under disguise as he finally reached Germany on April 1941, where the leadership seemed sympathetic to the cause of India’s independence. In November 1941, with German funds, a Free India Centre was set up in Berlin, and soon Bose was broadcasting every night on Free India Radio.
A 3,000-strong Free India Legion, comprising Indians captured by Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, was formed to aid in a possible future German land offensive of India. Few know that the title ‘Netaji’ was given to Bose in Germany by Indian soldiers of the Indische Legion in 1942. The title was used by the German and Indian officials in the Special Bureau for India in Berlin, before it gained popularity in India. Meanwhile, the Japanese occupied Singapore and by January 1942, Rangoon was the next to fall. On 23 March 1942, Japanese troops landed in Port Blair and captured it without firing a single shot. By spring, changing German priorities and Japanese victories in the Far East made Bose think of moving to southeast Asia. Bose met Hitler only once in late May 1942 and the Fuhrer arranged for Bose to be transported by submarine.
On 8 February 1943, Netaji boarded the German submarine U-180 from Kiel and travelled around the Cape of Good Hope to the southeast of Madagascar, where he was transferred to the Japanese submarine I-29. This was the only civilian transfer between two submarines of two different navies during World War II. Bose finally disembarked at Sabang in Japanese-held Sumatra in May 1943. If the term ‘Netaji’ was coined in Germany, equally surprising is the fact that the Indian National Army (INA) was the brainchild of Japan! Japanese major and chief of intelligence Iwaichi Fujiwara met Pritam Singh Dhillon, president of the Bangkok chapter of the Indian Independence League, and recruited Mohan Singh, a captured British Indian army captain to raise an army that would fight alongside the Japanese.
It had the blessings of Rash Behari Bose, head of the Indian Independence League. The first army was formed in December 1941 and the name INA was mutually chosen in January 1942. In February, from a total of 40,000 Indian personnel in Singapore, about 30,000 joined the INA, of which nearly 7,000 later fought Allied forces in the Burma Campaign and at Kohima and Imphal.
However, disagreements led to the first INA being disbanded by December 1942. Mohan Singh believed that the Japanese High Command was using the INA as a pawn and propaganda tool. He was taken into custody and the troops returned to the prisoner-of-war camp. However, with the arrival of Subhas Chandra Bose in 1943, the idea of an independence army was revived. In May, Bose travelled via Penang and Saigon to Tokyo, where he attended the Diet, met reporters and gave speeches addressing overseas Indians that were broadcast on Tokyo Radio. By July, Bose was in Singapore and it was with equal excitement that we arrived there on the INA trail.
As we drove past Dhobie Ghaut, the guide pointed out Cathay Cinema (earlier, the Greater East Asia Theatre), where the India Independence League’s Assembly of Representatives met on a drizzly morning of 4th July. To a resounding applause, Rash Behari Bose handed over the reins of the organization to Subhas Chandra Bose. Over the next few days, soldiers of the INA lined up in the padang (ground) opposite the Singapore Municipal Office for inspection and new recruits eagerly joined the ranks.
With Japanese support, Bose revamped the Indian National Army (INA), composed of Indian soldiers of the British Indian army captured in the Battle of Singapore. Bose received massive support among the expatriate Indian population in south-east Asia as many Indian civilians from Malaya and Singapore enlisted. Those who could not, made financial contributions. The INA also had a separate women’s unit – the first of its kind in Asia. The Rani of Jhansi Regiment was headed by Capt. Lakshmi Swaminathan, a doctor from Chennai.
The India Heritage Centre in Little India has a small section dedicated to the Indian freedom movement. A bust of Subhash Chandra Bose stands in front of a wallpaper made of INA postage stamps. The INA troops were under the aegis of the Provisional Government of Free India (Azad Hind) formed in October 1943, which had its own currency, postage stamps, court and civil code, and was recognized by nine Axis states. An INA uniform was on display while letters, cheque donations and photographs lined the wall. A magazine cover showed Captain Lakshmi in military attire.
The Provisional Government, presided by Supreme commander Bose, was formed in the Japanese-occupied Andaman and Nicobar Islands. On 30th December 1943 Netaji hoisted the Indian tricolor in British-free Indian territory for the first time at Ross Island. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands were renamed Shaheed Dweep (Martyr Island) and Swaraj Dweep (Self-Rule Island). As head of the government, Bose stayed in the British High commissioner’s house and a memorial commemorating his visit was erected near present day Netaji stadium in Port Blair.
We followed the Bose trail past World War II bunkers dotting the island to Cellular Jail. When Netaji visited the infamous prison, he was welcomed by Admiral Ishikawa, who deliberately kept him away from incarcerated Indians and stories of Japanese torture. Like Singapore, the three year Japanese occupation of the Andamans was a dark chapter in history with innocent islanders tortured mercilessly on charges of espionage, often executed or imprisoned. Like the Changi prison, the Cellular Jail too bears testimony to the bravery of those fighting for freedom.
In early 1944, the INA marched through Kohima Pass and the national flag was hoisted in the Indian mainland for the first time at Moirang in Manipur on April 6, 1944. Kohima was strategically located on the lone road connecting the British supply depot at Dimapur (40 miles northwest) to Imphal (80 miles south). As part of Japan’s Operation U-Go, three columns aimed to cut off the Kohima–Imphal Road and surround Kohima. Between April and June 1944, Kohima witnessed the bloodiest and grittiest fighting seen in World War II.
The Battle for Kohima was fought in two phases: the 13-day siege from 4 April and clearing Japanese forces from mid-April to 22 June to reopen the Kohima–Imphal road. Both sides suffered high casualties. Grenades were lobbed at point blank range across the tennis court in ‘unending snowball fights’ as soldiers dug holes to burrow or tunnel forward using plates, mugs, bayonets or anything they could lay their hands on. The carefully tended tombstones in the grassy clearing with pretty flower beds seemed a far cry from the bloodbath of WWII. The original Deputy Commissioner’s (DC) Bungalow was destroyed in the fighting and the historic tennis court could be distinguished only by the white concrete lines denoting the boundaries.
The 161st Indian Infantry Brigade’s stand at Kohima blunted the Japanese attack. With the opening of the Dimapur-Kohima road, the 2nd Division and troops from XXXIII Corps supported the counterattack in early May. General Sato, Commander of the 31st Division, ordered Japanese withdrawal, signaling the biggest Japanese defeat in history. British and Indian troops from Kohima and Imphal met at Milestone 110 on 22 June, formally ending the siege.
The fierce hand-to-hand combat in the Battle of Kohima was a defining moment in the Burma Campaign and halted Japan’s foray into India. Near the entrance of Kohima War Memorial, the Kohima Epitaph bears the immortal words: “When you go home, tell them of us and say; For your tomorrow, we gave our today”.
Despite the reverses on the battlefield, Bose travelled across Penang, Rangoon and Saigon, mobilizing support among Indian expatriates to fight the British Raj. He had great drive and charisma and he coined popular Indian slogans such as ‘Jai Hind’, ‘Chalo Dilli’ and ‘Give me blood and I shall give you freedom’, which he said in a motivational speech at a rally in Burma on 4 July 1944.
By 1945, almost half the Japanese forces and the INA contingent were killed. A vast number of INA troops were captured, defected or fell into British hands during the Burma campaign by March end. By the time Rangoon fell in May 1945, the INA was driven down the Malay Peninsula and disintegrated although some activities continued until Singapore was recaptured by the British. On 8 July, in Singapore’s Esplanade Park, Bose laid the foundation stone for a hastily-built memorial dedicated to the unknown fallen soldiers of the Indian National Army. On it were inscribed the proud motto of the INA – Etihaad (Unity), Etmad (Faith), Kurbani (Sacrifice).
Instead of surrendering with his forces or with the Japanese, Bose chose to escape to Manchuria in the Soviet Union, which he felt was turning anti-British. Taking off from Taihoku airport at Formosa in Taiwan, his overloaded plane crashed and he died from third degree burns in a military hospital nearby on 18 August, 1945. However, Bose was known for his miraculous escapes and dramatic appearances in the past. From eluding house arrest in Calcutta and his escape to Afghanistan and Europe under various aliases to his submarine journey from Germany to Singapore; his past exploits fuelled the myth of his future return.
To the Japanese, he was no less than an Indian samurai. Some believed he had become a sanyasi (holy man) called Gumnami Baba. According to various stories, he was seen as a recluse in the Naga hills or on an abandoned island, was a member of a Mongolian trade delegation in Peking, was hibernating in Russia or in a gulag (prison) and was spotted in the Chinese Army. Most believed he was preparing for his final march on Delhi and would reveal himself when the time was right. There were several Bose sightings, one even claiming he met Bose “in a third-class compartment of the Bombay Express on a Thursday.”
Though INA’s military achievements were limited and the British Raj was never seriously threatened by it, the psychological impact was immense. Indian troops fought on both sides at the Battle for Kohima –Jats, Rajputs, Sikhs, Marathas and Gurkhas under the Allied forces versus soldiers of Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj. Had the eastern offensive through Burma and North East by Japan been coordinated with the German advance through Egypt, Iran and Iraq, a war on two frontiers would have stretched the British forces. A Japanese-INA victory and unfurling of the Indian flag could have prompted the Indian sepoy to switch loyalties. Even in defeat, the INA managed to ignite a revolt within the British Indian army.
Several former personnel of the British Indian Army, captured fighting in INA ranks or working in support of the INA’s subversive activities, were court-martialed. The British charged 300 INA officers with treason and the first joint trial of Shah Nawaz Khan, Prem Sahgal and Gurubaksh Singh Dhillon took place at Red Fort in Delhi. All three were sentenced to deportation for life. The INA trials led to huge public outcry and became a rallying point. It was the last major campaign where the Congress and the Muslim League aligned together. Immense public pressure, widespread opposition and demonstrations eventually led to the release of all three defendants. Besides the protests of non-cooperation and non-violence, there was a spate of mutinies as support within the British Indian Army wavered. During the trials, mutiny broke out across the Royal Indian Navy from Karachi to Bombay and Vizag to Calcutta. In Madras and Pune, British garrisons faced revolts within the ranks of the British Indian Army as NCOs started ignoring orders from British superiors. Another mutiny took place at Jabalpur during the last week of February 1946.
There were several factors that guided British prime minister Clement Attlee to relinquish the Raj in India, but the most important reason was the INA activities of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, which weakened the Indian Army – the very foundation of the British Empire in India. The RIN Mutiny made the British realize that the Indian armed forces could no longer be trusted to prop up the Raj. When Singapore was recaptured in 1945, Lord Mountbatten, Head of Southeast Asia Command, ordered the INA War Memorial to be blown to bits. It was partly an act of vengeance for the pain the allies suffered in Imphal and Burma as well as an attempt to stamp out proof of INA’s existence. After the war, fearing mass revolts and uprisings across its empire, the British Government forbade the BBC from broadcasting the epic tale of the INA. In 1995, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, the National Heritage Board of Singapore marked the spot of the original INA memorial as one of the eleven World War II historic site markers.
As we walked down Esplanade Park in Singapore, we struggled to find vestiges of the INA Memorial. The Cenotaph of the British Indian Army stood tall in honour of ‘Our Glorious Dead’ of the two World Wars. Further down, a Chinese memorial commemorated Singapore war hero and resistance fighter Lim Bo Seng. Yet, there was no sign of INA – just a few stone slabs with peepholes. Often relegated as a footnote in history and denied the importance in the story of India’s freedom movement, was a memorial too much to ask? A local passing by noticed our perplexed look and kindly explained, “There was a signboard, but they’ve recently removed it for renovation.” We breathed a sigh of relief. Mountbatten may have demolished the original memorial, but the spirit of Bose and the INA live on…
Back home in India, the stories surrounding Netaji had always been shadowed by mystery and controversy for decades. Imagine, it was only on 14th October 2015 that the Government of India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that it would declassify the famous ‘Netaji Papers’. Two months later, the whole country watched the broadcast of the event when the first lot of 33 declassified files were handed over by the PMO’s office to the National Archives of India. It was an emotional moment for several members of Netaji’s family and his admirers as the gesture promised to fill the many gaps and loopholes in tracing the legacy of Subhas Chandra Bose. Subsequently, 150 declassified files of the 250 files are now in public domain. Time and again, Netaji has reminded us how he would remain a statesman the world cannot ignore or bury in the dusty pages of history.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the special issue on Bose in the international biannual journal Re:Markings.