Netaji’s Final Blow Toppled The British Empire - Hence The Indignation When We Celebrate Him


British newspapers like The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail are up in arms over the renaming of three Indian islands in honour of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and his Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army, INA).

Written By Prasenjit K. Basu | Mumbai | Updated On:

British newspapers like The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail are up in arms over the renaming of three Indian islands in honour of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and his Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army, INA). On 30th December 1943, Netaji had unfurled the Indian tricolour at the Gymkhana ground in Port Blair, marking the handover of the Andaman & Nicobar islands to the Provisional Government of Azad Hind. Netaji renamed the liberated Andaman & Nicobar islands as Swaraj and Shahid Dweep.

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of this momentous occasion, PM Narendra Modi has, on behalf of the GoI, renamed Ross island (which was the headquarters of the archipelago until an earthquake in 1941) as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Dweep. And Havelock and Neil islands (the two favourite tourist destinations there) were renamed Swaraj and Shahid Dweep. Predictably, British newspapers have exploded in righteous indignation.

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Havelock was a British general in the First War of Indian Independence. That we still had a prominent Indian island named after him was akin to having Prague named Hitlerberg (to quote Czech tourists I met on a flight from Port Blair).

As the British historians Bayly and Harper have admitted, Netaji and the INA were the first authentic military heroes of modern India – but the mainstream British press is loath to admit this. It suited the British and the Congress party to perpetuate the myth that India got its independence through non-violence alone. Marginalizing the crucial role Netaji and the INA played in our independence flattered both the British (and their alleged sense of “fair play”) and the Congress (who basked in the purported glory of gaining independence without having to resort to arms).

But the reality was that the only time the British had ever come close to conceding anything to Gandhiji was in January 1922. Then, in response to the Non-cooperation movement, British Viceroy Reading offered a Roundtable Conference to discuss Dominion Status for India. Gandhiji turned down that offer, demanding that his comrade Mohammed Ali (co-leader of the Khilafat agitation) be released from prison before he would confabulate with Reading.

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The famed Salt Satyagraha (1930) led only to the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. Within a fortnight of this, Bhagat Singh and Rajguru were hanged by the British – undermining both Gandhiji and Irwin in Indian eyes. The ultimate consequence of the Pact was Gandhiji’s participation in the Second Roundtable Conference (Sept-Dec 1931), at which the Congress was just one among scores of other groups purportedly representing the various sectional interests of a divided India.

The outcome of the Roundtable Conference was the Government of India Act of 1935, under which only 40 per cent of India’s federal legislature would be freely elected. Another 40 per cent of this federal legislature would be nominated by the princes (reliable British allies), and the final fifth of it comprised “separate electorates” – for Muslims, Sikhs, Europeans, etc. where only members of that community would choose their own representatives. The GOI Act of 1935 was aimed at preserving British rule in perpetuity – and was a glaring symbol of the political failure of the Salt Satyagraha.

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On 8th August 1942, Gandhiji demanded that the British Quit India – finally aligning himself fully with what Netaji had been demanding since 1939 (when the Gandhi faction ousted him from the Congress, after he had resoundingly won re-election as Congress president over Gandhi’s candidate). But between August 1942 and February 1943, the Quit India movement was crushed by the British.

And in the ultimate irony, half a million Indians joined the British Indian armed forces during the five months after Gandhiji’s Quit India call. This was the definitive repudiation of the Quit India movement: while their leader was asking the British to leave, Indians were instead volunteering to join the British armed forces at the rate of a lakh of people every month!

While the top and middle leadership of the Congress languished in prison, that party lay moribund and defeated during the war years. Instead, the spirit of Gandhi’s “Do or Die” call was taken up by Netaji’s INA – and the Provisional Government of Azad Hind proclaimed from Singapore on 21st October 1943.

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Far from the “rag-tag army” claimed by the Daily Telegraph’s Rahul Bedi, the Azad Hind government was fully financed by contributions (voluntary taxes) paid by the nearly 2 million Indians in Southeast Asia. Although aligned with Japan, the INA was a completely independent army, and the provisional government had its own currency fully backed by gold.

When Britain surrendered to the Japanese at Singapore on 15th February 1942, Col. JC Hunt had told the 45,000 Indian PoWs gathered at Farrer Park that they were now in Japan’s hands. Large numbers of these PoWs volunteered to join the INA, enthused particularly by Netaji’s rousing clarion call (“Chalo Dilli”) in July 1943.

Netaji had never claimed that the INA (comprising 60,000 men and women at its height) would be able to defeat the 2-million strong British Indian army. Instead, the main purpose of the INA was to demonstrate that Indians were capable of creating a freedom army of their own – and of convincing the Indian soldiers in Britain’s army that they were an “army of occupation in India”. Netaji predicted that news of the INA’s fighting abilities would ensure that “a revolution will break out, not only among (India’s) civilian population…but also amongst the Indian Army”.

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This is precisely what happened once the INA Trials began in November 1945. All news about the INA had been blacked out during the war, so most of India heard for the first time that the INA had won victories – and suffered defeats – in Manipur and Nagaland, capturing territory and planting the flag of India at Moirang, Kohima and elsewhere. AZ Phizo (later the key leader of Naga nationalists) joined the INA, as did Mairembam Koireng Singh (later the first chief minister of Manipur).

The heroic stories of the INA’s gallant battles against heavy odds – often ironically narrated by the prosecution – galvanised public opinion, and rejuvenated the spirit of nationalism that had been laid low by British repression during the war. Within two weeks of the start of the INA Trials, the British governors of NWFP and Punjab were pleading with Wavell to immediately call them off, or face a full-scale revolution.

To forestall a mutiny, the INA generals Sahgal, Shahnawaz and Dhillon were acquitted on 3rd January 1946. From wanting them to be hanged for high treason against King and Empire, the court-martial had reduced their sentence to “transportation for life”, but Auchinleck (the British commander-in-chief in India) commuted even that sentence and ordered their release.

In a long explanatory letter to his senior officers, Auchinleck admitted he had acted primarily to forestall a full-scale mutiny in the British-Indian armed forces. He had asked Attlee for 3 additional British battalions to counter any Indian insurrection, but none were available amid the post-war demobilisation.

But a mutiny nonetheless did break out among the British Indian armed forces, which had helped underpin the Empire from North Africa to China over the previous 100 years – from the Opium War, the Anglo-Afghan War (both nearly co-terminus) to the Boxer Rebellion and both World Wars, Indian troops under British command had held the British Empire together.

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But in the second half of January 1946, 5200 members of the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) mutinied. The Jabalpur and Madras regiments of the army revolted too. And between 8th and 18th February, a massive mutiny engulfed the Royal Indian Navy (RIN), encompassing all its ports and 78 of its 88 ships. The RIN mutineers and their civilian supporters marched through the streets of Bombay, Karachi and Calcutta carrying Netaji’s portrait aloft.

With no British battalions available to suppress the rapidly spreading mutiny, Britain’s Prime Minister Clement Attlee was obliged to throw in the towel. As late as May 1945, the British Chiefs of Staff had been making plans to retain tight strategic control of India and the Indian Ocean, while allowing modest “constitutional changes” broadly consistent with the 1935 Government of India Act.

But now, for the first time, a British prime minister admitted on 19th February 1946, that Britain could no longer hold India. Instead, Attlee announced he would send a Cabinet Mission of his 3 senior-most colleagues to negotiate India’s independence. Sardar Patel, Gandhiji, Nehru and Jinnah all appealed to the RIN mutineers to lay down their arms, as independence was nigh: that Britain had to turn to Indian politicians to restrain British-Indian sailors, soldiers and airmen was telling. The Empire was over!

While Gandhiji’s ahimsa had aroused the masses of India like never before, Britain had used clever stratagems to overcome the efficacy of Gandhi’s most potent mass movements – Quit India and the Salt Satyagraha. It was only when Indians demonstrated through the INA that we were capable of building a freedom army to fight the British – and the Indians in that army realised they were participants in “an army of occupation” – that Britain’s Indian Empire was toppled. And once that was toppled, the rest of the subcontinent too was freed.

But by retaining military bases in West Pakistan, Britain still hoped to hold onto the rest of its vast empire, including the oil in Iran and Iraq over which Britain had a monopoly – and its potentially oil-rich protectorates in the Gulf (today’s UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait) – and eastern possessions such as Malaya, Singapore, Borneo, Hong Kong and its dominions of Australia and New Zealand.

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But the Suez Crisis of 1956 caused those remaining dreams of Empire to go up in smoke. Without the Indian Army, Britain was incapable of being a Great Power. Soon afterwards, Malaya and Singapore were granted independence, as were a slew of African colonies (beginning with Ghana in 1956).

Like every other colonised nation, India too got its independence through an armed struggle. But when the Indian armed forces’ loyalty was fatally undermined by the INA, under the inspirational leadership of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the whole edifice of Britain’s Asian and African empires collapsed.

It is little wonder, then, that Subhas Chandra Bose’s name still inspires such loathing among conservative British newspapers that haven’t quite forgotten how their beloved empire crumbled. That is, of course, before Brexit dealt a self-inflicted blow on the very integrity of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – with the Irish and Scots finally having their say over the greatness of Britain after 8 and 3 centuries of enforced union respectively.

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