Although the massive anti-imperialists’ protests in the immediate post-war years ended in a failure resulting in exhaustion of popular energies and tendencies towards compromise, division was not the sole constituent of the post-1942 Indian scenario. The mainstream nationalist movement that grew under the aegis of the Indian National Congress at the historical conjecture of 1942 albeit incorporated multiple streams of protests, yet there nevertheless existed contesting visions and agendas of emancipation within India’s struggle for independence. This article will be looking into one such alternative vision i.e. that of Subhas Chandra Bose. Following the beginning of the war in Europe, when Congress was still pondering over the question of the right course of action under the circumstances, Subhas Chandra Bose concluded that the Indians were losing a rare opportunity and they must take advantage of the empire’s weakest moment.
Background and Formation of I.N.A.
The idea of I.N.A. was originally conceived in Malay by Mohan Singh, an Indian officer of the British Indian Army, who declined to join the retreating British Indian Army and instead sought help from the Japanese. However, soon differences of opinion emerged between the Indian Army officers led by Mohan Singh and the Japanese. The second phase of INA began when Subhas Chandra Bose came to Singapore in July 1943 with the help of German and Japanese submarines. Bose immediately took control of the situation with Japanese assurance of help and equal treatment. From Singapore, he issued his famous call, ‘Delhi Chalo’. In October 1943 he announced the formation of the
Provisional Government of Free India or the Azad Hind Government, which was immediately recognised by Japan and eight other governments including Germany and Fascist Italy; and also that of the Azad Hind Fauj (Free India Army) or the Indian National Army, of which he became the supreme commander.
Composition of I.N.A.
I.N.A. maintained its link with the old revolutionary-terrorist tradition by means of giving a post of honour in the government to Rashbehari Bose, who had been living in exile in Japan since 1915. Also despite his differences with Gandhi, Bose did not forget to ask for the blessings of the ‘Father of the Nation’ while beginning his enterprise. The Indian National Army recruited around forty thousand men by 1945. The Indian prisoners of war in the Japanese camps proved to be a potential recruiting ground for the I.N.A. whereby it was able to rally around 20,000 out of 60,000 POWs. Besides financial aid, volunteers were provided by the Indian trading communities who were settled in South East Asia. Historians are of the opinion that the I.N.A. was demonstratively non-communal in nature, for Muslims clearly held a prominent position among its officers and ranks. Another major innovation introduced by the I.N.A. was that it formed a women’s regiment named after the legendary Rani of Jhansi.
Activities of I.N.A.
The Provisional Government soon declared war on Great Britain. It aimed to march as an allied army with the Japanese through Burma to Imphal in Manipur and then to Assam where they expected the Indian people to join them in open rebellion in order to liberate their mother country. Between March and June 1944, the I.N.A. was in action on Indian soil. They succeeded in besieging Imphal with the help of Japan’s Southern Army, which was accompanied by two I.N.A. regiments. The Imphal campaign, however, ultimately ended in a disaster. The Japanese collapse in the following year made the I.N.A. men prisoners, which a certain section still believe to have been faked. Historians have cited myriad reasons which they hold to have been responsible for the failure of the endeavours of the I.N.A. These include lack of airpower, breakdown of the chain of command, disruption of the supply line, the strength of the Allied offensive and finally lack of cooperation from the Japanese.
In order to assess the significance of I.N.A., it is important to distinguish between its immediate achievements and its ultimate and primarily psychological impact. The I.N.A. indeed hardly achieved anything in military terms. Besides, it came too late as everywhere the Axis powers were already in retreat by 1944. In addition to this, the Forward Bloc, which was underground in India, might have backed up the Imphal-Kohima invasion had already been crushed earlier. However, the significance of the I.N.A. can hardly be assessed merely in terms of its military achievements, for its political impact was yet to unfold. We can hardly overlook and underestimate the immense impact that an actual army fighting, no matter how ineffectively, for the country’s liberation and that too one that was led by a Bengali, which was considered to be the least ‘martial’ of the Indian ‘races’ as per the British thus clearly being a huge blow to the latter, had on the patriotic imagination. Following their surrender, the twenty thousand I.N.A. soldiers were interrogated and transported back to India and, after that, put on trial. For not trying them would have been hinting to the weakness of the government. Besides tolerating ‘treason’ would have risked the loyalty of the Indian army. Consequently, ten trials took place in total. Among these, the first, which is also the most celebrated one was held at the Red Fort whereby three officers, namely P.K.Sahgal, G.S.Dhillon and Shah Nawaz Khan were put on trial on the charges of treason, murder and abetment of murder. It was decided that the trial would be held in public so that it would serve as a spectacle whereby it would reveal the horrors which these I.N.A men had perpetrated which in turn the British Government hoped would swerve public opinion against them. However, the turn of events proved that the Government had completely miscalculated the political fallout of the I.N.A. trials. For this British move to put the I.N.A. me on trial and that too one that would be held publicly immediately sparked off massive demonstrations all over the country. The press censorship having been lifted after the war and the details of the I.N.A. campaign were revealed daily before the Indian public, as a result of which these officers far from appearing as traitors, in fact, came to be glorified as patriots of the highest order and the demands for discontinuing the trial grew stronger day by day. The Congress leaders realised that they could hardly ignore this situation that had so profoundly touched popular emotions, for the elections being around the corner, the I.N.A. trials could be utilised as an excellent rallying point. Subhas Bose, albeit a renegade leader who had challenged the authority of the Congress and its ideology, yet in death, his image served as that of an ideal patriot which could be utilised for ensuring the achievement of political mobilisation. Thus the AICC meeting held in September 1945 decided to defend the accused in the I.N.A. trials. Following this decision, a Defence Committee was formed constituting contemporary legal luminaries like Tej Bahadur Sapru, Bhulabhai Desai, Asaf Ali and Jawaharlal Nehru.
Significance of the I.N.A. Campaign
However even more important than the response of the Congress was the popular response to the I.N.A. trials which in fact culminated in a mass upheaval all over the country. The I.N.A. agitation proved to be a major landmark in many respects. Firstly, the high pitch or intensity at which the campaign for the release of the soldiers was conducted was completely unprecedented. This mass upsurge can be attributed to myriad factors. The trial having been held in Red Fort served as the most authentic symbol of British imperial domination, for it was precisely here that the trial of Bahadur Shah II, the last Mughal emperor and the famous leader of the 1857 revolt was held. Another important aspect of the I.N.A. campaigns was its wide geographical reach and participation of diverse social groups and political parties. All political parties such as the Congress Socialists, Akali Dal, Unionist Party, Justice Party, Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh, Hindu Mahasabha and even the Muslim League unanimously agreed that the trial should be discontinued. On the other, hand although the Communist party vacillated in its response, individual communists enthusiastically participated in the demonstrations. Most importantly the demonstrations echoed communal harmony, which may be attributed to the fact that the three accused belonged to three different religions, namely one Hindu, one Muslim and one Sikh. An I.N.A. week was celebrated between 5th and 11th November, and an I.N.A. day was observed in cities across the country on 12th November. Different sections of the society participated in the campaign, attended protest meetings, donated money to the I.N.A. relief fund, closed shops and other commercial institutions and in some places people even refrained from celebrating Diwali. The I.N.A. movement strikingly brought within its aegis even the remotest of places such as Coorg, Baluchistan and Assam. The I.N.A. movement above all engendered a wave of disaffection in the British Indian Army, which had hitherto proved to be the main apparatus of British control and rule in India, during the winter of 1945-46. This ultimately culminated in the great Bombay naval strike of February 1946 that in turn possibly served as the single most decisive reason behind the British decision to make a quick withdrawal.
- Bandyopadhyay,Sekhar. From Plassey to Partition and After: A History of Modern India. New Delhi: Orient Black Swan, 2009.
- Sarkar, Sumit. Modern India, 1885-1947. Delhi: Macmillan Publishers India Ltd, 1983.
- Chandra, Bipan. India’s Struggle for Independence,1857-1947. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1988.