On Wednesday, Ram Nath Kovind became the first President to visit the Indian National Army (INA) Memorial at Moirang in Manipur. It was at Moirang, 45 km from Imphal, that the INA flag was first hoisted on Indian soil on April 14, 1944. Only the day before, the President had addressed the Manipur Sangai Festival, where he lauded the British Indian Army for stopping Japanese forces at Imphal, cutting their march towards the Indian mainland. The seeming contradiction is fascinating: Subhas Chandra Bose’s INA fought with the army of fascist Japan against the British Indian Army, but within years, both forces were seen to epitomise the highest ideals of patriotism in an independent India.
The INA Memorial at Moirang is a replica of the original commemorating the ‘Unknown Warrior’ of the INA, which was unveiled by Bose in Singapore in July 1945. After British forces ended the Japanese occupation of Singapore later that year, the memorial was razed on the orders of Lord Louis Mountbatten, then the Allied military commander for Southeast Asia. The INA was a huge source of discomfort for the British — the British Indian Army’s official name for INA soldiers was “JIFC”, or Japanese Inspired Fifth Columnists; pejoratively, “Jiffs”.
The British had convinced soldiers of the Indian Army that the INA was a traitor army, and as Daniel Marston notes in his book, The Indian Army and End of the Raj, sepoys in field units executed captured or wounded INA men, relieving British officers of the complex task of deciding what to do with them. The heroism and courage of INA soldiers notwithstanding, their role in World War II was short-lived. After Bose announced the formation of Arzi Hukumat-e-Azad Hind in October 1943 in Singapore, INA became the army of Azad Hind, with a strength of 50,000 at its peak.
In January 1944, Bose moved his headquarters to Rangoon in preparation for a thrust into India, along with the Japanese. The offensive on Imphal, codenamed U-Go, began on March 8, and on April 14, INA forces led by Shaukat Ali Malik unfurled the Indian flag — green, white and saffron, stamped with Bose’s leaping tiger — in Moirang.
In his moment of apparent triumph, Bose spoke directly to Gandhi over the radio on July 6. He addressed him as the “Father of our Nation”, the first time the Mahatma was thus called. “In this holy war for India’s liberation, we ask for your blessings and good wishes,” Bose said. But the course of the war was to change rapidly. With its retreat from Imphal cut off by the Japanese commander Mutaguchi, the British Indian Army under General Slim fought back valiantly. On July 10, the Japanese informed Bose that they were retreating from Imphal.
In a radio address from Rangoon on August 21, Bose announced the failure of the offensive. With the tide turning against the INA, the army withdrew to Singapore, with most of its soldiers surrendering to Allied forces along the way. As captured INA members Prem Sahgal, Gurubaksh Singh Dhillon and Shah Nawaz Khan were put on trial at the Red Fort, both the Congress and the Muslim League called for them to be freed.
Jawaharlal Nehru, Bhulabhai Desai, Kailashnath Katju and Asaf Ali defended the accused. The court martial held the three INA men guilty and sentenced them to deportation for life, but the sentences were commuted under immense public pressure. In a “personal and secret” letter to his officers, Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief of the British Indian Army, said, “…Practically all are sure that any attempt to enforce the sentence would have led to chaos in the country at large, and probably to mutiny and dissension in the Army, culminating in its dissolution.”
Nearly 11,000 INA soldiers were cashiered and released from service with forfeiture of pay and allowances. Mountbatten, then Governor General, made non-integration of INA soldiers with the British Indian Army a non-negotiable condition during negotiations for India’s independence.
After Independence, the question of reinstating the INA soldiers in the Indian Army came up again. In a lecture on May 5, 1973, General J N Chaudhuri, who served as Chief of the Army Staff from 1962-66, recounted how Nehru grappled with the problem. “In early 1948”, the Prime Minister, Gen Chaudhuri said, had summoned “Mr Rao, a Defence Ministry civil servant with a judicial background, General Srinagesh, an early Sandhurst graduate”, and him “to hear our views on the matter”.
Notwithstanding “differences in reasons and reasoning”, Gen Chaudhuri said, “individually and collectively we all felt that the reinstatement of the Indian National Army into an Army which they had left and against which they had fought would be incorrect, probably unwise and certainly disruptive.” Nehru responded: “I disagree with your reasons but I agree with your conclusions.” The INA men got some benefits but were not reinstated and “their treatment”, Gen Chaudhuri observed, “was surprisingly cool after all the adulation they had received just one year earlier”.
Seven decades later, the national regard for the INA is perhaps on a par with, if not more than, that for the British Indian Army or its successor Indian Army. How did this change take place? In his Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War, Raghu Karnad wrote that during the Red Fort trials, “the loose strand of INA was braided back into the Congress epic”.
After Independence, many INA members were posted as ambassadors, while others served in high political posts, facilitating their integration into the mainstream. The INA was seen in the image of Bose whose valiant, violent failure was celebrated as part of India’s successful struggle for Independence.
On Bose’s fiftieth birthday on January 23, 1947, Gandhi paid him handsome tribute: “A lesser man would have succumbed under the trials that he went through; but he in his life verified the saying of Tulsidas that ‘all becomes right for the brave’.” In his speech on August 16, 1947, Nehru referred to Bose’s dream of seeing the national flag unfurled at the Red Fort, and regretted his absence on the occasion.
The site chosen for that speech, and for every Independence Day speech since, is a tribute to Bose who had exhorted in 1944 from Rangoon: “Our task will not end until our surviving heroes hold the victory parade on the graveyard of the British Empire, at the Lal Quila, the Red Fort.”