19 September 2015

Confrontation with Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose

By Maj Gen Gurbakhsh Singh
18 Sep , 2015

On the third day after the fall of Singapore, the Japanese were to take possession of the city on 17th February 1942. A day earlier, all white troops had gathered at Changi Camp in order to surrender. On that very day Lieutenant General A.E. Percival, GOC-in-C, promulgated his last ‘Order of the Day.’ In this order he announced some immediate gallantry awards. Two of the awards were DSOs (Distinguished Service Orders).

One of these was awarded to the Commanding Officer of the 5/11 Sikh Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Parkins and the other to me. Since this order could not be sent out of the camp or Singapore due to dislocation of all communications, it was nicely packed, sealed and put in a steel box and buried in the camp itself. It was made incumbent on the senior surviving officer among those who were present at the time to bring this box and the order contained therein to the notice of the Army Authorities when Singapore was re-captured. No news of the award had reached me.

About one and a half year after the surrender, one of the men from my unit happened to reach Kluang after a long stay due to 122 | Indelible Reminiscences sickness in the hospital at Singapore. I summoned him in the evening and asked him about his general welfare and of the days that he had spent in the hospital. Taking a keen stock of the whole situation around him he diffidently took out a badly crumpled letter and handed it to me. It bore my address in Urdu. He informed me that Major J.H. Collin had given him this letter about a year ago on his visit to hospital where he was hospitalised. Major Collin was one of the British Officers attached with my Battalion. He further told me that Major Sahib had asked him to deliver the letter to me as and when he returned to the Unit.

I opened the letter after he left. The word “Mubarak’ (Congratulations) was written thrice on the top of it. When I began to read further I could not fathom anything. The only information I could gather was that I had been awarded the ‘Distinguished Service Order’ (DSO). Curiosity made me pour over the letter more intently in the seclusion of the night. I discovered that although the script used was Urdu (Persian), the message given was in English. Now I could decipher all that I have related above. I kept the letter secret for fear that the knowledge of it may lead the Japanese to look at me with hateful eye.

I came to know later that nothing that was written in English, was allowed to pass out of the Changi Camp. Major Collin was eager that the news of the award should reach me. From one of his fellow British Officers who had known the language, he learnt to write Urdu. After six months of toil he wrote his first letter in Urdu, which was ultimately delivered to me. This letter is still likely to be in my possession.

When the Japanese war front expanded vertiginously, it ran short of trained officers. We had many changes in the Japanese staff looking after us. They were found to be least interested in our welfare. A stage came when a mere Sergeant-Major was left in charge of our camp. He was handsomely built and tall by Japanese standards. He was always well turned out in top boots, a sword invariably hung by his side, but his uniform was completely faded and patched up at several places. He was rather fond of talking in English. For the pleasure of conversation, he visited us frequently and even became friendly. Jokingly, I once told him that it was always a hand-picked man who would be chosen for appointment as a Sergeant-Major in the Indian Army. His turn out and discipline are considered exemplary.

The Japanese replied, “similar is the practice in Nippon Army.” I smilingly said that if he was the example of Nippon turn out, then I could well imagine what the rest of his Unit would be like. The remarks cut him to the quick. Suddenly he became despondent, his forehead wrinkled, his eyes reddened. He sat stone still. I felt for having injured his feelings and tried to humour him. “I had never meant to criticise the state of your uniform.” I said, “I was just joking. In fact you are a model of a smart soldier.” Still he appeared unmoved. After a while he broke out, “My body my nai, Taino Hika,” meaning “My body is not mine but of the King.” He then related the ‘vow’ that he had taken when three years ago, he had left the country for fighting the war.

The ‘vow’ was that he would fight in the same set of uniform which he was wearing and never to change as long as he survived. It was his wish that the spare set of uniform which the Nation was keeping for him, should go to the man, who would replace him after his death. We were stunned into appreciation and constrained to laud his high sense of sacrifice and the National spirit.

At the first opportunity that I got of addressing my troops, I familiarised them of what had passed between me and the Japanese Sergeant-Major. In our Army, when a Board of Survey to condemned articles of clothing is held in the Unit, no one sleeps that night. For the greed of receiving a new uniform, wearable articles are rubbed against the floor and made unserviceable and then washed and pressed for being presented before the Board. Boots are split-up, mosquito-nets are cut out, so that the Board may mark them for replacement. Such is the difference between ours and the Japanese National Character.

(After the Malayan war, heaps of abandoned cars could be seen collected on either side of the roads particularly the main road that connected Singapore with main-land). At Kluang, there was a dump of such abandoned cars in a rubber plantation close to our camp. My men had no value for them since they had been pushing abandoned cars into the sea in hundreds every day while they were posted at Kalang Airport in Singapore during operations. The Kalang Airport was the terminal airfield to fly out of Singapore. The evacuation from Singapore had started as the fighting line approached nearer and the fall of the Island had become evident. So much was the rush and paucity of space for parking at Kalang that previously abandoned vehicles had to be pushed into the sea to make room for those which drove in later.

On their way to and fro from work, our troops would escape to where abandoned cars were heaped and wantonly indulge in treasure hunts. They would remove different parts of the cars just for the heck of it, use them as a child uses a play-thing, and throw them away to seek new toys. They were blissfully blind to the grave loss they were causing. With a pick-axe they would break open a reflector to detach a bulb, remove the battery, light the bulb at night by connecting it to the battery, play with the contrivance for a couple of days and then consign it to limbo. When our regulation foot-wear had worn-out completely, all of us were driven to wearing wooden sandals. Troops often tore out Rexene from new abandoned car-seats to add colourful strap to their sandals.

After having got used to such untrammelled vandalism, someone unwittingly attacked a car belonging to a Japanese Officer parked by the side of the road. The act caused a storm which was contained with great difficulty. Lack of sense of proper value leads us to such inferior behaviour. Today we are proud citizens of a free country. It is more than a quarter of a century since we become independent. Yet we continue to witness primitive acts of vandalism and destruction on the part of our youth. All of their protest begins with the burning, stoning and destruction of State Buses and Railway Stations. Everything belonging to India is our joint property. All of us pay taxes to form it. New taxes have to be levied for raising the extra funds required for replacement. The burden, willy-nilly, falls on our own shoulders. (How much better would it be, if we organised our strikes etc. if at all needed, with due thought and wisdom, without indulging in hooliganism). As chaotic happenings occur in India, the figure of the Japanese Sergeant Major rises like an apparition before my eyes. If we have to keep abreast of other progressive countries, we shall have to make his example as our own.

Our life, entailing comparatively lesser tension out of Singapore, was not welcome to anyone at Singapore, especially to our comrades of the INA. They continuously felt jealous at our being away. Perhaps they feared that when put in the question box at the end of the war, how would they prove that a volte-face on their part was necessary because of circumstances beyond their control. Subconsciously, they wanted to see us in the vertex of pressure that would compel us to compromise also. Therefore, when having come to Singapore, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose took the reins of the INA in his hands in July 1943; he was instigated to rope me in. He was told that there were few other officers so capable and as well trained as I was and that my advent into the INA would have important repercussions. Consequently, some ten of us were deported in a truck and driven from our camp to Batupahat, where Netaji had come on a visit on August 28, 1943. It was about 30 miles from Kluang.

The ADC to Netaji was our friend. He met us in advance and strongly advised me, “You shall never get such an opportunity all your life. Netaji likes you very much. Perhaps, he may get you a position of the highest honour. Don’t let this opportunity slip.” We were then directed to a room where chairs had been arranged in a semi-circle. A single chair also stood in front of us. The spell of calm was broken by the entry of Netaji after a while. All of us stood to attention and wished him. He shook hands with us one by one and then beckoned us to settle down. He himself sat in a chair that faced us. In a voice charged with persuasiveness he began his address.

“Gentlemen, all of you have been confined within the narrow limits of the Island of Singapore. Therefore, you do not know what is happening and what has already happened elsewhere in the world. I have myself come from the Russian and German war fronts. The situation now is such that the victory of the Axis powers is ensured. The defeat of Allies is imminent. Bearing this in mind, we have to consider what best course we can take to liberate India. When the British leave after defeat, we become slaves of the Japanese.

This is worse. Only one course remains upon to us and that is that we should join hands with the Japanese to free our country. It is only as Comrades-in-arms that we can force the Japanese to leave India free after the British have been forced to vacate. Now is the moment that Mother India needs the sacrifice of each of its sons. Come and willingly join us in our war of liberation.” He ended his short speech on a note of veiled threat. “Whoever does not serve India now and at this moment,” he continued, “will lose all rights to call himself an Indian later. He will also be issued a third class ticket and dispatched along with the British.”

Comments were asked for. Netaji signalled to me for my views. Humbly I got up. Most courteously I replied. “I have no doubt that whatever you have said about the Russian and German fronts are fully true at the moment. But I have been a student of Military History for the past twenty years. I beg to differ with you estimation and hypothesis. I know that the situation is bound to undergo change although delay may occur.

In my judgement, it will be the Allies who will be victorious. It is because the Americans had remained unprepared and that is why Allied victory is delayed.” Continuing in the same strain I posited, “In case it is your will that we must join the INA we dare not refuse. But still we have no faith in the Japanese. We still do not feel that taking the Japanese to Indian soil will produce the desired results. After seeing their behaviour during the war and their treatment of the people during occupation, we have lost all faith in their intentions. Joining them without full faith would make us feel as if we were black-sheep amongst others.” Further, I requested, “I am a man of principles. Having eaten his salt, if I can betray one master, I can also betray another.” On hearing this Netaji got up. Patting me on my back he told me, “I feel happy at what you have said. I will be the last one to force you to join us without having faith and conviction in our mission. However, there is time for you to ponder over what I have proposed. I shall contact you after ten days.”

To mark the occasion a party was thrown after the meeting. Netaji honoured me by making me sit at his side at the table all the while as long as the party lasted. We returned to our camp in the afternoon where our arrival was being eagerly awaited. Immediately I gave a resume of all that had transpired during our historic meeting with the towering leader of India, to all those officers who were left behind in the camp.

Subhas Chandra Bose, the fire-brand of the Indian Congress, a strong antagonist of the Idealism of non-violence professed and practised by Mahatma Gandhi, escaped from India in January 1941. World War II was in full swing then and the position of the Allies was shaky. Subhas Chandra Bose was expecting nothing spectacular out of the non-violent Satyagraha adopted by the Indian leadership on the advice of Gandhi Ji. He was in prison when he decided to escape out of India to try and turn the critical international situation in India’s favour. He created a grim atmosphere by undertaking a fast unto death in November 1940. He resisted forcible feeding. The Government got alarmed at his determination to die. He was consequently released. He was due to appear in the court for trial on the 26th January 1941. His disappearance became known only when he did not turn up for trial that day.

He grew a beard in Muslim style and disguised as a ‘Mullah’ and escaped through Kabul. Mr. Attar Chand, an Indian in Kabul, helped him further to reach Berlin. It is said that he managed to get a passport issued under an Italian name and flew to Berlin in March 1941. His efforts to start a pro-Indian front in Russia and Germany did not bring any tangible results. He persisted in his efforts and it was almost a year after his escape when the German forces were at the height of their success, the Japanese had captured Burma and had reached the Indo-Burma border, the fate of Moscow and collapse of Russia was taken as certain that he was able to open a ‘Free India Centre’ with the help of Indians settled in Germany and nearby European countries. The first meeting of the ‘Centre’ was held in November 1941 when Subhas Chandra Bose was named as Netaji and the war cry ‘Jai Hind’ for the liberation of India was adopted and ‘Jana Gana Mana’ was chosen as the ‘National Anthem.’

The recruitment of volunteers for the National Army started in the POW camps of the Indian Prisoners in Germany but the response was anything but encouraging. Subsequently, Indian PsOW in Italy and Libya were brought and a National Army of five hundred volunteers were raised from amongst them. The oath-taking ceremony was performed at a ceremonial parade commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Kariappa in September 1942.

The dramatic developments in the East after the arrest of Colonel Niranjan Singh Gill and General Mohan Singh of INA and the dissolution order for the Indian National Army which was issued by the General (recounted later) forced the Japanese to bring Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose from the West to control the situation in the East. Ras Behari Bose, the President of the Indian Independence League did not prove capable enough to steer the Liberation Movement this side.

In February 1943, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose left Germany in a German Submarine. He was met by a Japanese Submarine and was picked up near Africa. He reached Sumatra and landed from the submarine by a rubber boat on May 4, 1943. From there he flew to Tokyo on May 16, 1943.

After deliberations in Tokyo, Netaji arrived in Singapore on July 2, 1943 where he was given a rousing reception. He took over the President-ship of the Indian Independence League on July 4 and the charge of the Indian Independence Movement in the East. A declaration regarding the formation of Free India Government was made in the presence of Premier H. Tojo, the Prime Minister of Japan, who was on a visit to Singapore those days.

The raising of the Azad Hind Fauj, previously known as the Indian National Army, was announced to the world on May 5, 1943 and took the salute of its Review Parade on May 6, at which Premier Tojo was also present. Subhas Chandra Bose became the Supreme Commander of Azad Hind Fauj and assumed its command directly. General Bhonsle who succeeded Mohan Singh in the INA became the Chief of the Staff. It was three months later on August 28, that I was confronted with Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, as narrated earlier.

The demise of the INA, prior to its being taken over by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, carried many stories.

The one I was told by an INA friend from his first-hand knowledge was that Colonel Niranjan Singh Gill was not happy with his subordinate position to Captain Mohan Singh in the INA. In order to get elected to the ‘Action Committee’ of the IIL which was to be chosen in a forthcoming conference at Bangkok and secure a higher status than Captain Mohan Singh, Colonel Gill wangled to go to Rangoon to carry out an intensive election campaign in his own favour. In spite of his best efforts he failed to get into the action committee of the league. Being disappointed, he planned to contact Army Headquarters in India and to apprise them of his stand in the Indian National Army Movement.

He wrote a letter to the Adjutant General in India and handed its copies to his most loyal and confidant officer emissary, Brigadier Mahabir Dhillon and his trusted Havildar Driver, to be delivered to the Adjutant General. These emissaries were sent with INA patrols to the Indo-Burma border by different routes. The Colonel could do it because he had been deputed and sent to Burma, along with the Intelligence Group of the INA, with the concurrence of the Japanese to collect intelligence regarding Indian Army troops posted on the border. The Brigadier crossed the Border and surrendered himself to the Indian Troops, along with the letter, whereas, the Havildar driver was captured by the Japanese along with a copy of the letter in his custody. The Japanese suspected the Colonel to be a British Agent and started shadowing him.

In the meantime, Colonel Niranjan Singh was reported to have received the ‘Code Word’ (as fixed with his emissary) on All India Radio which instructed him to try to get the INA dissolved.

With a view to achieving this, he came back to Singapore and lodged serious complaints about the bad treatment meted out to the Indians in Burma by the Japanese and also for their non-fulfilment of any of the promises made earlier regarding handing over to the property left behind by Indians to the IIL. He persuaded Mohan Singh not to trust the Japanese and make any further commitment unless a written assurance was forthcoming from the Emperor of Japan, assuring Independence to India, after the war. He knew that such an assurance was not possible. Mohan Singh took a very strong stand in this regard and refused to send the INA troops to Burma for which the ships had already been deployed, unless this assurance was forthcoming.

This stiff attitude adopted by Mohan Singh all of a sudden took the Japanese aback and was attributed not to him but to be the result of arrival and instigation of Colonel Niranjan Singh, whose papers incriminating him of spying had already been received in the Japanese Headquarters. Consequently, Colonel Niranjan Singh was arrested, followed by General Mohan Singh, who refused to listen to any reasoning and disbelieved the story about spying of Colonel Niranjan Singh as given out by the Japanese.

As a result, the dissolution of the INA, as had been planned in case the Japanese failed to give the desired assurance, was affected, but not fully carried out. This happened on December 29, 1942. Later on Colonel Niranjan Singh was said to have committed himself against the British, in an attempt to explain his position in a written petition submitted to the Japanese from the jail. He thus burnt his boats on either side. But this led him to become a national hero after Independence.

(Exactly ten days after the first meeting, Netaji’s summon arrived to meet him). This time I was driven alone to Singapore. General Bhonsle, Chief of the Staff of the INA, received me at Singapore and told me that Netaji had suddenly got busy and thus I would have to stay as guest of the INA till such time he would be free to meet me. I had known General Bhonsle well. At the time of surrender, he had taken shelter with me. He was not liked by the men of his unit and had felt unsafe to live with them. Personal security had prompted him to seek the portals of the INA. His Adjutant, Mr. Sehgal, who later married Lakshmi Bai of ‘Rani of Jhansi Regiment’ fame, was with him at the moment.

I was accommodated with Azad Hind Fauj and hosted by different INA Brigades for a few days in turn, where I was made familiar with their Mess life and other living conditions. I did not have to wait long, before a call came from Netaji. I met him in his office at Singapore. General Bhonsle was also present. Again he asked for my reaction as to whether I was convinced yet and had acquired faith in the Movement. Keeping mum for a while, I told him that to be honest to myself I was not convinced. “Very well,” he said, “You are also doing great service where you are. You are looking after three thousands fellow countrymen.” He took out his cheque book and signed a cheque worth two thousand dollars. Handing me the cheque, he instructed, “Buy fruits etc. and distribute them in your camp on my behalf.” I thanked him, wished him and took leave of him.

Borrowing a truck off General Bhonsle, I went to the Market, bought a load of pineapples and drove back to the camp. I was received by anxious faces. The course of my talks and stay at Singapore was again recounted. It must be said to the great credit of Netaji, that after the Singapore meeting we were not bothered at all and no one ever came to influence or embarrass us anymore.

When a sufficient amount in our ‘Fund’ had been collected, feeling that the money Netaji had given us may not be his personal but part of the National Fund, we felt a desire to send back the amount. Along with a respectful letter, I enclosed the cheque. A loving acknowledgement in Netaji’s own hand was received back as a memorable gift. I treasured this letter till the end. At the time of release from imprisonment, when many crucial papers had to be burnt, it was destroyed. I tore away a piece bearing the final complementary line and signatures of Netaji and my own till today.
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