Saturday, August 8, 2015

CONTRIBUTION OF THE ARMED FORCES TO FREEDOM MOVEMENT IN INDIA


PROLOGUE


            The role of the Indian Armed Forces in the struggle for freedom from British rule has not been properly documented or publicised. The general public remains unaware and the nation’s leaders have never acknowledged or appreciated the part played by the military in this important chapter of our history. As a result, the affected personnel have not been given recognition or reward for their efforts. In some cases, they were deprived of their livelihood and liberty, without compensation. There is a need to undo this injustice and acquaint the nation with Armed Forces’ contribution to the freedom movement. This book attempts to undo this injustice and acquaint the nation with the soldier’s contribution to the freedom movement.

            India’s independence from British rule in 1947 was achieved after a protracted and sustained struggle that lasted several decades. It has a unique place in World History since it was characterised by non-violence, a novel form of rebellion popularised by Mahatma Gandhi. It was the only instance when a colonial power not only relinquished authority voluntarily but also advanced the date of its departure. The saga of India’s freedom movement has been documented by scores of Indian and foreign authors. Though essentially non-violent, the movement had elements that involved the use of force, the most notable being the Indian National Army (INA) led by Subhas Chandra Bose. Scores of books have been written about the INA, even though its contribution in the attainment of independence was insignificant. On the other hand, with the exception of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, no historian has made more than a passing reference to the mutinies by personnel of the Armed Forces against British rule. These revolts occurred throughout the 200 odd years of British rule in India. Most of these uprisings were localized to small garrisons, and occurred due to ill treatment, bad food, appalling living conditions, perceived injustice, lack of sensitivity to religious or ethnic sentiments etc. However, many were politically motivated and inspired by a spirit of nationalism, the most prominent being the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857, also called the First War of Indian Independence. Though the mutiny of 1857 was quelled, the spirit of nationalism that it kindled could not be extinguished. A number of smaller mutinies and revolts that took place during the next 90 years, especially during the two World Wars and immediately after wards. These rebellions were instrumental in the decision of the British Government to pull out of India in August 1947.

            Before starting work on this project, I had to take an important decision – whether or not to include the Indian National Army (INA). As is well known, the INA was a Japanese sponsored force created from Indian prisoners of war during World War II. Many of those who joined the INA claimed they did so for patriotic reasons, and refute the charges of treason - as the act of going over to the enemy is regarded in the military – by arguing that after the fall of Singapore, they were handed over to the Japanese authorities by the British, who thereafter had no claim on their allegiance. This appears to be a strange argument, since after a mass surrender, the senior captured officer hands over charge of the men under this command to the victor. This is what Percival did after the fall of Singapore in 1942, and Niazi after the fall of Dacca in 1971. The act of being handed over to the enemy is a military custom, which does not absolve the captured soldiers from their allegiance or duty. It is also worth remembering that India was then at war with Japan, and joining the enemy to fight one’s own compatriots could hardly be termed a patriotic act. This was realized by the leaders of the freedom struggle, who denounced the INA in no uncertain terms, Nehru even proclaiming that he would meet Bose ‘sword in hand’ if he tried to cross over into India. Most leaders, including Gandhi, trusted the British more than the Japanese, having heard of the atrocities committed by the latter in China. They knew that Japanese rule over India would be many times worse than that of the British, which in any case was about to end. Most important of all, they wanted to gain freedom on their own, not with the help of a foreign power.

            Though Subhas Chandra Bose was a popular figure, the activities of the INA remained virtually unknown until the end of World War II. However, the Red Fort trials brought them into the limelight, thanks to the Congress, which found a cause to mobilize public opinion against British rule. Having opposed the INA during the War, Congress leaders suddenly changes their stand, turning erstwhile villains into heroes. The Indian Armed Forces could not remain unaffected by this change, and opinions differed widely regarding the treatment of those who had broken their oath. Many felt that the soldiers who joined the INA had been untrue to their salt and deserved no sympathy, while others were of the opinion that they were genuine patriots, even if the methods adopted by them were wrong. This is often quoted as the reason for the mutinies that occurred in the three services early in 1946. A close examination reveals that the main grounds of the three mutinies were discrimination between British and Indian soldiers in matters of pay, food, accommodation, along with resentment against the harsh punishments awarded to the INA prisoners.  Based on this, many INA veterans claim a major share of the credit for obtaining freedom from British rule. However, this argument is fallacious, since the INA had ceased to exist when these mutinies occurred. The mutineers were protesting against the British action taken against the INA personnel, which they felt was too harsh. This does not signify that they condoned the actions of the men in joining INA and fighting alongside Japan, an enemy country. In fact, the feeling against them in the Indian Army was so strong that the Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Auchinleck, had to issue strict instructions to ensure the safety of the INA personnel who had become prisoners after the fall of Rangoon.  

There are several other reasons for not upholding the claim of the INA of having contributed significantly to India’s independence. None of the persons in authority who were responsible for the decision - Attlee, Pethick-Lawrence, Cripps, Wavell, or Mountbatten – have acknowledged or mentioned that the INA played a part in their discussions. The same applies to the leaders of the freedom struggle, such as Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and many others.  On the other hand, there is ample evidence that the Indian Armed Forces figured prominently in the deliberations that preceded the end of British rule in India.  Having forsaken their allegiance to the Indian Army by joining the Japanese, INA personnel could not be treated as members of the Indian Army, unlike the other prisoners of war who elected to undergo hard labour and torture rather break their oath of loyalty.

It is significant that most of the books written by INA veterans make a pointed reference to their contribution to Indian independence, even in their titles. Examples are Soldiers’ Contribution to Indian Independence, by ‘General’ Mohan Singh; Forgotten Warriors of Indian War of Independence 1941-1946; Indian National Army by Captain S.S. Yadav; India’s Struggle for Freedom by Major General A.C. Chatterjee; and The Impact of Netaji and INA on India’s Independence by Dr R.M. Kasliwal. Captain Yadav’s book runs into three volumes and contains a list of all members of the INA, state wise. Surprisingly, most of these names are not to be found in the list of Indian soldiers who were captured by the enemy during World War II, which forms part of the official records maintained by the History Division of the Ministry of Defence.

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was one of the greatest patriots produced by this country. The nationalism of most of the persons who joined the INA, especially the ones who did not wear a uniform, is also not in doubt. Many of them took grave risks, giving up lucrative businesses in Malaya, Thailand, Burma and Singapore to join the INA. However, the issue under consideration is not their objective – driving the British out from India – but whether they were able to achieve it, even partly. From the analysis given above, it is doubtful if they made a significant contribution to Indian independence. For this reason, the INA has been omitted from this study. 

            Though Indian soldiers, sailors and airmen continued to serve with commitment until the end, it would be wrong to assume that they did so willingly. The wave of nationalistic fervour sweeping through the country forced many of them to introspect their role in the freedom struggle, leaving some confused and insecure. The men naturally looked to their officers for guidance, who were equally uncertain about their future course of action.   These issues, coupled with the growing aspirations for independence, became a source of concern for the military hierarchy, which was aware of the discontent and alienation of Indian officers. They tried to take remedial measures, but it was too late. By the time World War II ended, Indian officers had become true nationalists.

            Most people in India, and indeed the World, believe that the chief architect of independence was Mahatma Gandhi, who confounded the British rulers with his new weapon – non violence- against which they had no defence. This may be the truth, but not the whole truth. Irrespective of official pronouncements from the Viceroy’s House on Raisina Hill in Delhi or Whitehall in London, the British were loath to leave India, right up to the end of 1946. Even as the Cabinet Mission was trying to reconcile the differences between the Congress and Muslim League, the Chiefs of Staff in London were examining options to continue their hold on India. After rejecting options involving withdrawal from India for strategic reasons, they proceeded to work out the quantum of British troops that were required to keep the country under control, since the Indian Armed Forces could no longer be trusted. At one stage, the British Government seriously considered a recruitment drive in Europe to raise the additional troops needed for this purpose. It was only after they failed to find the five British divisions that Auchinleck had asked for did they agree, very reluctantly, to quit India. Had the Indian Armed Forces remained staunch, there is little doubt that British rule would have continued for at least another 10 to 15 years. The nationalistic feeling that had entered the heart of the Indian soldier was one of the most important factors in the British decision to grant complete independence to India, and also to advance the date from June 1948 to August 1947.


New Delhi                                                                                   Maj Gen V.K. Singh          
   September 2007                                                                  



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