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Netaji: India’s Forgotten Leader


“Suraj ban kar jag par chamke,

Bharat naam subhaga,

Jai ho, jai ho, jai ho,

Jai, jai, jai, jai ho.”

As the deafening reverberating chants of the national anthem “Subh Sukh Chain” faded out, thousands of uniformed men and women raised their hands in salute- “Jai Hind”. The year was 1943, and in South-East Asia, 40,000 Indian troops, who were earlier forced by the British to fight the Axis powers, and had consequently been taken Prisoners of War (PoWs), were now preparing to face the real enemy, their colonizers, on their motherland. For years, they had been trained to fight against whoever their subjugators ordered them to, enslaved to follow them. Now, a young man with unparalleled charisma and fervent passion for the country awoke in them a vigor they were unaware of- to release their country from her centuries-old bondage and to not hesitate to spill their blood if the need arose.

The young man was Subhash Chandra Bose, fondly known as ‘Netaji’ by the masses. His journey from a young boy in Odisha, growing up on Swami Vivekananda’s teachings to leading the first Indian armed aggression is noteworthy. Perhaps what was most surprising was to see the young lawyer from Cambridge resign from the prestigious Indian Civil Services to preside over the All India Youth Congress, and be sent to jail over 11 times across a span of 20 years for his nationalist remarks and actions. A two-time president of the Indian National Congress, and among the most popular leaders of the Indian national movement, Bose later separated from the Congress due to ideological differences with various leaders to form his own faction- the All India Forward Bloc- which aimed at consolidating the political left. By this time, the Second World War had begun and Britain’s forces were focused on defeating their enemies in the West. Seeing Britain’s weakness, Bose mulled over the possibility of joining hands with Britain’s enemies to attain ‘Purna Swaraj’ (complete independence). The Forward Bloc encouraged the youth and students to engage in armed aggression against the British, leading to the British holding him under house arrest. However, in an eerie similarity to Bhagat Singh 20 years earlier, Netaji on 26 January 1941, escaped from his Calcutta residence under the watchful eyes of the British, reaching Berlin in April passing through Afghanistan and Russia.

Following a meeting with Adolf Hitler’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, a few thousand Indian troops who were sent by the British to fight against Germany in North Africa and had been captured were released to ally with Bose. These soldiers formed the ‘Indian Legion’, and Bose also founded the ‘Free India Centre’ in Berlin. Another significant noteworthy event during this period was that of the launch of the Azad Hind Radio sponsored by Germany. Starting in 1942, the programs aimed to show solidarity with Indians living in the homeland as well as abroad and were transmitted in various regional languages such as Gujarati, Pashto, Tamil, Marathi, and Telegu. Netaji spoke about the Quit India Movement which was causing havoc amongst the British during that time and proclaimed his quest for complete and absolute independence of India. He even went on to celebrate the successes and victories of the Axis powers against the British, thus giving a ray of hope to the residents in the country who were kept unaware of what was happening beyond the borders. Listening to Bose fervently and ardently speak of a free and independent India stoked the fire in many people, encouraging them to participate in the struggle, irrespective of whether they lived in India or not.

In 1943, Bose, after meeting Hitler, and distrustful of the Nazi ideology, decided to travel to south-east Asia, which had been conquered by Japan. In Tokyo, Netaji was given the reins of the ‘Indian Independence League (IIL) by Rash Behari Bose, another Indian revolutionary who remains hidden among the pages of history. Rash Behari Bose has been credited with being the mastermind behind the Delhi Conspiracy case, involving the assassination attempt of Lord Hardinge, the then Viceroy of British India. Following several other mutinies, due to which a reward of Rs. 1 lakh was placed on him, Rash Behari Bose was forced to go into hiding and escaped to Japan where he founded the IIL comprised of Indian civilians living in southeast Asia who yearned to join the freedom struggle of their motherland. Netaji combined the IIL members and the Indian PoWs from the British Army to form the Azad Hind Fauj or the Indian National Army (INA). As Sugata Bose (grandnephew of Netaji) correctly said, “For 20 years he had seen in India how the civilian masses had rallied to the Gandhi-led Indian National Congress but Indian soldiers had been kept insulated by the British quite successfully from the swirling currents of civilian discontent. Netaji wanted to take advantage of the international war crisis to reach these Indian soldiers and the only way and only place where he could find them was in scenarios where they had been taken prisoners by the enemies of Britain”.

However, this was not the first time the INA had been formed. A year earlier, in 1942, Captain Mohan Singh, a former Military officer of the British Indian army, who had been captured by the Japanese, had succeeded in inspiring the Indian POWs to form an army which would fight the British, only for it to be dismembered following differences with the Japanese. With the arrival of Bose, and his excellent oratory and strategic skills combined with his unmistakable passion to fight the British, the Japanese agreed to support the formation of the INA for the second time.

The INA was an army like one had never seen before. The British had sown the seeds of ‘martial’ and ‘non-martial’ races among the Indians, as one of the many prejudices and stereotypes they had elicited, which continue to haunt the country even today. The British had categorized the Punjabi and Pathan races as belonging to the ‘martial’ races, thus prompting only those communities to join the Military and dissuading the others. The strategy was merely a means to divide the country in as many ways as possible. Bose identified this and took steps to counter it, by recruiting a large number of civilians from Tamil Nadu in the INA. Similarly, the Hindu-Muslim divide had already begun brewing in India, with talks of a separate Muslim nation on the table. Bose ensured that there was equal representation of both communities in the INA at every level. Perhaps the most historic step that he took in ensuring equal participation was the establishment of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, the first All-Women Regiment in the world. Led by Captain Lakshmi Sehgal, the 5000-women strong Regiment was a melting pot of Indian women from various British colonies, belonging to different age groups, educational and cultural backgrounds, who had come together to serve their motherland.

Subhas Chandra Bose and Capt. Lakshmi Sahgal inspect the Rani of Jhansi Regiment.

Source: The Hindu

Although the Japanese were providing aerial support to the INA, every other resource and training was provided by donations by other Indians or the INA members. Following intensive training, the INA troops were ready to join the Japanese invasion of Burma in the beginning months of 1944. With the historic war cry of “Chalo Dilli” and having adopted the tricolor flag of the Congress, the 40,000 strong troops marched to Rangoon and the Provisional Government of Azad Hind established their base there on January 6, 1944. Three battalions of five companies each, called the “Bose Brigade,” fought alongside the Japanese. It has been reported that the INA soldiers During the encounter, INA soldiers reportedly used civilian disguise to trick and confuse the British Indian sentries and aided the Japanese in capturing a divisional headquarters. A month later, they entered India as a part of the Japanese Operation U-Go. Following a fierce and bloody battle colloquially known as the ‘Stalingrad of the East’, the British defeated the combined forces of the INA and the Japanese troops at Kohima and Imphal in the state of Manipur.

Japanese surrender leaflet dropped on the Kohima defenders, 1944

Despite a heartbreaking defeat, Netaji and his comrades did not lose hope and went on to conquer the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in November that year, hoisting the tricolor for the first time on Indian soil. The islands were also renamed as ‘Shahid and Swaraj Dwip’. Hundreds of lives were lost in the battles that had been fought, and to commemorate and honor them, Netaji laid the foundation stone of the “Memorial to the Unknown Warrior of the Azad Hind Fauj” at Singapore’s Padang near Connaught Drive, on July 8, 1945. The words “Ittefaq-Itmad-Qurbani” were inscribed on the memorial which was later demolished by British Forces.

Subash Chandra Bose laying the foundation stone of Indian National Army War Memorial on 8 July 1945 in Singapore. Source: The Wire

A month later, in August 1945, following the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, there were reports of a plane crash carrying Bose in Taiwan, believed to be the cause of his death. Although many contrary reports emerged and inquiries were held in the following years to investigate the same, there remains an air of mystery surrounding the disappearance of one of the bravest freedom fighters India has ever seen.

While the INA was unsuccessful in driving out the British from India, their greatest achievement took place after they were arrested and tried by the British in 1945. The colonizers, having won the War, made the mistake of announcing public trials of the INA members at the Red Fort in Delhi. The Indian masses who were largely unaware of the existence and subsequent triumphs of the INA rose in protest against the trials. A new and fresh wave of nationalism had been born, which would not be subdued as easily as the previous ones. The British too, although victors of the World War, were drained and did not possess the resources and strength to quell the protests and riots erupting across the nation. A decision was made to grant independence to India.

General Mohan Singh who formed the First I.N.A along with Mrs. Ehsan Qadir, wife of Capt. Ehsan Qadir of the INA

Today, as people remember the feats of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Bhagat Singh, and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, we fail to acknowledge the forgotten heroes who were equally responsible for driving out the colonizers. This sentiment can be captured by what Clement Attlee, former British Prime Minister, said in 1956 when he was asked why India was granted independence- Attlee said that the loyalty of the Indian Army and Navy to the British state was declining due to the increasing Military activities of Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj.

Mahatma Gandhi with soldiers of the INA in 1945

Jawaharlal Nehru with INA cadre, 1945

The diverse structure of the INA serves as a representation of an independent India that Bose had visualized, and the passion and fervor he possessed and instigated in fellow Indians are a reminder to every Indian today of the immense struggle our ancestors have gone through to protect our sovereignty and the thousands of troops who similarly strive every day to ensure we sleep safely. Let us not forget the historic statement by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, which burns a fire in the heart of Indians even today- ‘Tum mujhe khoon do, mai tumhe aazaadi doonga’.

Flag and insignia of the Provisional Government of Free India




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