Written by Raghu Karnad
IN EARLY November, 1945 — three months after the end of World War II — Havildar Abdul Rahman found himself still in battle. He had been in service his entire adult life: enlisted at the age of 18, from Sahiwal in the heart of Punjab, just weeks before the British Empire’s war began. Since then, his regiment, the 3/9 Jats, had faced Rommel’s armoured manoeuvres in the Libyan desert in the summer of 1942; and pried Japanese machine-gunners out of dugouts in the green hills of Imphal two summers later. On he fought: out of the Imphal siege and down through Burma, until the middle of August, when Japan surrendered.
This August, newspapers in the West were filled with commemorative writing — all of which ended on August 15, the 75th anniversary of Victory-over-Japan Day. “V-J Day” is meant to conclusively mark the end of the fighting in Asia, and the war as a whole. For Indians, the date was even re-inscribed as our Independence Day; a final flourish of vanity by Louis Mountbatten, who had been Britain’s theatre commander before he was the last viceroy of India.
For Rahman, however, and thousands of other Indians, the fighting didn’t stop on August 15. It just proceeded into new battles, of a kind that popular history does not regard: like the Battle of Surabaya, which began 75 years ago this week.
In early November 1945, the 3/9 Jats and the rest of the Fifth Indian Division marched off their ships into Java, then considered part of the Dutch East Indies. Their orders were to disarm enemy troops, rescue prisoners and civilians, and maintain peace. Japan had seized the island in 1942, along with all the rest of Europe’s south-east Asian colonies. After “V-J Day”, European powers expected to have it all back. A Dutch colonial regime waited to be restored to power, even though the Netherlands itself had only been liberated a few months earlier.
Local Indonesians took a different view. During its occupation, Japan had freed leaders like Sukarno and given rein to their nationalist organisation. Now, many Japanese commanders preferred to let these militias seize their arms (including tanks, guns and armoured cars) rather than waiting for Allied troops to do so.
For a few weeks, the newly-armed Indonesian pemuda (youth) and the war-weathered Indians maintained an uneasy truce. Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress demanded that Indian forces be withdrawn and many of the troops themselves “were often nationalist, conflicted and desperate,” wrote PRS Mani, a reporter embedded with the 23rd Indian Division, “yet did what they did.”
The truce broke in November, and it broke with the full force of war in the port city of Surabaya. For three days, Surabaya was bombed and strafed from the air, and shelled from the harbour. It then had to be retaken, street by street. And, so, it came to be that Indian soldiers went back to war, still commanded by the British, but on behalf of the Dutch, to fight Indonesians armed by the Japanese. The 3/9 Jats were in the thick of it.
The battle of Surabaya left the Fifth Indian Division with 600 casualties, and it killed 15,000 Indonesian partisans. But that was only the start. Indian troops were kept in action for months, in operations called “Pounce” and “Purge”, often used to fence in villages, while vicious Dutch police went in to “dispose of extremist elements”. Well into 1946, Abdul Rahman, now aged 25, was still in Java.
On February 22, he was being driven through a village called Kletek, when his jeep triggered a landmine and flung him into the air. He landed clear of the wreck, but three men were trapped underneath it. Rahman staggered to his feet and ran back, and pulled one man to safety. The jeep was on fire now; Rahman went and pulled a second man clear. The flames rose; as Rahman went back again, the fuel tank exploded and bathed him in petrol. He died of burns there, on the road, in the suburbs of Surabaya. They gave him the George Cross, making him a war hero, in a war that neither Britain nor India wants to remember.
Rahman had survived the length of World War II, but not the return of imperial peace. It was the same elsewhere: In October 1945, in southern Indo-China, Gurkhas and Pathans defended Saigon from nationalist guerrillas on behalf of the French. They laid the groundwork for 20 more years of Vietnam’s armed struggle against imperialism.
From these images of Indian soldiers, marched straight back into imperial fights, emerges a new picture of World War II as a whole. The world did not begin to fight in the late 1930s, or lay down all arms in 1945: That was just the period when European powers fought each other. In other continents, WWII was continuous with other colonial wars and campaigns, before and after — carried out with the same machine-guns and aeroplanes, at the orders of the same powers that we call the Allies, the heroes of the 20th century. The years 1939-1945 were not a break from a colonial world order that came before and resumed after. Rather, it was the climax of colonialism: when imperial mania finally came back home and Europe began to consume itself.
Still, the world before Europe’s combustion was different from the one that came out of it. There is a flip side to the story of the Indian army in Java — an extraordinary effort to defy the return of imperialism, carried out by Indians on the sea.
After V-J Day, when the Netherlands began to send its forces and munitions back to Asia, it relied on a limited number of ships. The great fleet that had carried wealth out of the East Indies was very diminished, and so, was very vulnerable to disruptions. The Dutch also relied on Australian ports, which had sustained Allied shipping in the region through the war. With the war over, however, the prevailing influence at the docks — in Australia, as in India — was the workers’ unions, and behind them, each country’s Communist Party.
When Indonesian seamen, who were numerous in Australia, discovered munitions aboard Dutch ships, they refused to work — and called on dock-workers’ unions to do the same, in solidarity with their freedom struggle. The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) heard them, and unions around the country began to boycott Dutch ships. For weeks, the “wharfies” tied up the ports, delaying troops and materiel on their way to Java.
“What they could not do was stop the ships from sailing…,” historian Heather Goodall notes in Port Politics, her study of the boycott. “The ships could only be stopped by the crews themselves, and most of those seamen were Indians.”
To reach the Indian seamen and persuade them to strike was not easy: they were labouring men, far from home, and terrifyingly vulnerable to legal and financial reprisals. But it was also true that the dangers merchant seamen had faced, through the war, had allowed them to strengthen their unions; so they were newly politically informed and trained in direct action.
So it came to be, in late 1945, as the fires raged in Surabaya, that Indian activists and Australian comrades went onto the docks in Brisbane and Melbourne, Sydney and Fremantle, calling out to Indian crews to strike. The men aboard would have to risk everything — and hundreds did, marching off ships just before they were set to sail. Women in the CPA, like Sylvia Mullins and Phyllis Johnson, faced down violent guards and water-cannons to promise support. “Come off the ships!” they shouted. “Don’t work on ships that are sending munitions to the Dutch. Walk off the ships! And the workers of Australia will help you!”
Other Indian crews were forced to stay and work, some held at gunpoint. Even then, there were surprises — as on October 22, when the General Vespijck managed to set sail from Sydney. Once at sea, as the Dutch let their guard down, the Indian crew let the steam out of the engines and escaped in lifeboats. When the cargo ship Patras steamed out of Sydney, laden with arms, it was pursued by a tiny vessel; on deck, the union activist Dasrath Singh held a megaphone, shouting out in Urdu. The ship sailed out of the harbour. It reappeared hours later, turned back to port by its crew.
Nearly 600 Dutch ships were delayed, by this high-stakes effort against imperialism and, as Goodall writes, its “unprecedented sense of collaboration across racial and cultural lines.”
The closing months of 1945 recorded how colonised and exploited people could support each others’ struggles for freedom, or else be used to suppress them. Neither story is taught, because neither is useful for nationalist myth-making and dogma today. But now is a good time to recall how imperialism was challenged, not by nationalist feeling alone, but by internationalism — embodied in the workers’ movement and the anti-colonial Left. What freedom meant, especially for working-class people, was an expansive, global question in that moment right after World War II — when countries still lay in the smoking ruins caused by nationalism, before Partition and the Cold War began carving the world apart again.
The lineage of that philosophy was visible in later decades, in the Non-Aligned Movement and new liberation struggles. But by the start of this millenium, we were left with its pale inversions: Bulky multilateral bodies, like the UN; or a neoliberal regime that fights only for the freedom of capital. That other, foregone internationalism disavowed borders, or aspired to. Borders turned the world’s deprived people against each other, instead of against the real nemesis: plutocracy, served by addled nationalism, bigotry and wars. That nemesis looms as large today as it did in 1945. Which is why, looking at the past, we should not lose the threads that ran across borders, under the gates of national identity, and bound our liberation to each other’s.
Raghu Karnad is a writer and a 2019 recipient of Yale’s Windham-Campbell Prize for Non-Fiction
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