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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Netaji at India Gate: How the Indian National Army nearly triumphed

In the year of ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’, the nation pays tribute to Subhas Bose on September 8 as his statue rises tall next to India Gate.

The transfer of power to India took place on August 15, 1947. Had Bose and his Indian National Army (INA) succeeded, India would have attained freedom, not inherited it through a transfer of power.

The British endeavoured to black out news concerning the Indian National Army throughout its existence. As a consequence, very little was known of the INA in India. The British called it “JIFs” — Japanese Inspired Forces. Bose was portrayed as a dissenting radical maverick, driven by personal ambitions. Not till the INA trials began did India get to know about it. The impact was tremendous. Nothing had ever caught the Indian imagination in such a manner. The British depended on the armed forces to subjugate India. Despite ascribing dubious motives to those who joined the INA, there was no doubt that the average “jawan” had done so for patriotic reasons. The British knew that once this feeling seeped into the army, it would become impossible for them to hold India.

Bose had hoped to capture Imphal. That would give the INA a large number of Indian soldiers. Once this was achieved, fighting in India would create revolutionary conditions. When the fighting commenced, the INA had only one division stationed on India’s borders. Another was on the move towards Burma. And the third was in the process of formation. All three divisions were expected to be in Burma by the time Imphal fell. Bose was confident of raising three more divisions from among the Indian troops that would fall to him after the capture of Imphal. With six divisions, the INA would be the single largest force in the region. The rapid advance into India would create the right conditions for the Indian army to switch sides along with the people of the Northeast.

Bose knew that Japan was losing the war. Even so, he strove to gain a foothold in India. It was a touch-and-go situation. The fate of the operation was to be decided in 24 hours. If, in those 24 hours, the British garrison at Imphal had not been reinforced by a whole division, the INA would be inside India. Bose’s push needed to be backed by Japanese air power to deny British reinforcements. But that support did not materialise. Till the last day in Imphal, the intelligence reports indicated that the British Indian garrison was about to surrender to the INA.

Bose arrived in Singapore on July 2, 1943. In a historic meeting on July 3, he talked about mobilising Indian women’s power. On July 12, he sent for Lakshmi Sehgal. In a three-hour conversation, the idea of the Rani Jhansi Regiment was mooted. This regiment was to be a fighting unit. The main challenge was to recruit Indian women for fighting services, to be trained like infantry soldiers. This had never been contemplated in any phase of India’s freedom struggle.

The Rani Jhansi Regiment started with 500 women volunteers in Singapore, of which 30 were selected for officer training. Those who were not up to the mark were put into the Nursing Corps. After completion of the course, the recruits were moved to Rangoon in Burma. Their numbers swelled to 1,500 with 1,000 in the fighting unit and the rest in nursing, cypher and wireless communication. From Rangoon, the regiment shifted to Maymyo, Bose’s advance headquarters. The intention was to move further and get into India. But unfortunately, while in Imphal, the INA began to suffer reverses. Therefore, the Rani Jhansi Regiment also had to fall back.

The Rani Jhansi Regiment showed that Indians living far away were not only willing to join the INA but also to let women join the fight, aware of the remote chance of coming back alive. These volunteers had never been to India, and neither had they known of the life “back home”. But they still enrolled.

The provisional Government of Azad Hind was formed on October 21, 1943. There was a serious concern that the Azad Hinsd Government should not be seen as a Quisling government. Bose went to great lengths to explain that the Japanese had nothing to do with the formation of this government. Indians in South East Asia contributed to support this government but the offerings from the poorer sections were remarkable — they literally gave away whatever little they had. The financing of the Azad Hind Government was mainly through contributions. There was no tax or levy. It functioned till June 24, 1945. One of the first acts of the Azad Hind Government was the declaration of war against Britain and America.

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Bose maintained that the Congress leaders wanted freedom in their lifetime. He believed that no revolutionary leader had the right to expect that. A movement, a fight, had to be passed on. Expecting freedom in one’s lifetime was bound to lead to compromises.

Subhas Bose was an exceptional leader who turned his vision into action. Lakshmi Sehgal, a confidant of Bose, was convinced from his words and actions that under no circumstances would he have accepted India’s Partition.

The writer is Senior Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation and a former civil servant

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