Remembering the icon of India’s Freedom Struggle

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Nethaji Subash Chandra Bose has always been and will always remain the greatest Indian of the 20th Century for millions of his compatriots. Yet, he barely finds space in the historical and political narrative that takes the centre stage of the nation. A true nationalist, who rose above all parochial instincts of region, religion or political expediency, he was the iconic leader that India deserved to have.

Nethaji was the only Indian leader who had the guts to take the bull by the horn and militarily challenge the country’s colonial masters. True, the force that he raised, the Indian National Army, could not achieve a military victory over the British, but what it failed to achieve in the battlefield, was eminently achieved through the political and military repercussions it caused. The torch that INA lit inflamed the passions within the country’s armed forces. Indeed the armed forces of India had by and large remained loyal to the colonial regime during the war, but the dilemma its members faced, torn between the allegiance to their soldiers’ oath and the patriotic call of the INA to desert and join them, had taken its toll. Post-war, there were indications of fissures appearing in that mighty pillar of the British Empire, the Indian Army. The naval mutiny of 1946 saw troopers of the cavalry regiment, Central India Horse, from Ahmednagar marching to Bombay to join the mutinous sailors. Indian artillerymen refused to open fire at the rebel ships at Karachi when ordered to do so. At least in one instance, a pilot of the Royal Indian Air Force refused to obey orders to strafe civilians engaged in picketing during civil disobedience movement. “Would you do that in England?” the officer asked his British superior, who found it wise to eat his words. The British establishment was so alarmed that they even went on to plan an operation codenamed ‘Bedlam’, to counter the contingency of the Indian armed forces turning hostile. The Indian military had metamorphosed into their Frankenstein’s monster. After all, with the year 1857 less than a century behind them, the Sepoy Rebellion hadn’t as yet been wholly erased from their psyche.

With the whole country turning into a tinderbox with the INA trials concurrently going on, the British saw the writing on the wall and chose to quit when they could still do it in one piece (Passions were running so high that wall posters in Calcutta dared the British to punish the INA Veterans. “You touch one of them, we will kill you ten British dogs”, one of them read. With the atmosphere turning so volatile, the British were constrained to advise all their citizens to stay indoors). There is enough evidence to suggest that the British did not leave India to uphold any lofty democratic values, as was meted out by their PR machinery, but was forced to do so since the British Empire had become militarily and economically untenable. Britain was in no shape to take on the might of the Indian Armed forces should a crisis arise. Though technically the winners, Britain’s economy had been wrecked by the war. In a way, Germany and Japan can be said to have contributed to Indian independence in good measure, by the toll they extracted from Britain to fight the 6-year war. It has since been conclusively established that the Indian independence was the cumulative result of multiple factors at play. At the end of the day however, the INA stands out as the principal catalyst that speeded up the process. Unfortunately, most contemporary Indian historians, with their Anglophile moorings, chose to toe the British line, giving the entire credit to the non-violent movement, which, in a way, proved to be a face-saver for Britain. Consequently, in the popular Indian narrative, the stellar role played by the INA has been reduced to a footnote, while the silent one the Indian armed forces did has been completely sidelined. It is a gross injustice inflicted on the legacy of India’s soldiery, whichever flag they served under.

Ironically, conscientious British historians have been the ones to clear the air a lot. History should be true record of facts, not opinionated versions of events as seemed to have been the wont of our historians. Nevertheless, it’s still not too late to set the record straight. It’s bad enough that generations of Indians have to live with a pang of shame that we failed to ‘take’ our freedom, but it was ‘given’ to us, as the British have successfully made it to appear, thanks to the enthusiastic endorsement by our own historians. Our salvation might lie in highlighting the role of the INA and the armed forces so that the world would at least know that we weren’t exactly ‘given’ the freedom in good grace, but our colonizers were forced to leave. One way to do that would be to honour and felicitate the surviving veterans of the INA, almost all of them nonagenarians.

There was palpable excitement in the air when the last of the two INA veterans who had made Chennai their home after the war were felicitated in the city last October. Bringing their lives and times to the fore certainly inspires the growing generation, whose minds are being muddled by a confusing political scenario where people cannot differentiate between liberalism and anti-nationalism and nationalism and fanaticism. The Indian nationalism that Nethaji championed enshrined the idea of India like nothing else did, and therefore stands out as the role model to build a modern, democratic and strong India. Ironically, the Indian armed forces that were once pitted against INA, in the saddest moment of India’s history, have turned out to be strongest adherents of that role model today. Nowhere else does nationalism finds it true meaning like it does in the armed forces, where its members are able to rise above every other parochial view and influence and consider themselves Indians first and anything else later; precisely the trait Nethaji successfully cultivated within the ranks of the INA. For that alone, the legacy of INA should take centre stage in our national narrative.

The social impact of the INA legacy was reaffirmed when yet another of its veterans, this one a soldier of the legendary Rani of Jhansi Regiment, who had migrated to Chennai in later years after the war, Smt. Lakshmi Krishnan, was felicitated in the city recently. The fiery 92-year old, who had enlisted in the INA as a 15-year old teenager, had the entire participants at the event, young students to civilian gentry and armed forces veterans, getting goosebumps as she recounted her saga with the INA. It was apparent that the fire of patriotism that the INA lit in her still burned fiercely as she beckoned the gathering to chant “Jai Hind” louder and louder with her. May be our armchair advocates of liberal values and pseudo nationalists of the fanatic fringe could both take a leaf out of her book and learn how to be patriots.

JAI HIND

Capt. D P Ramachandran
Capt D P Ramachandran is a war veteran & military history enthusiast who writes about Indian Army’s battles of the past. He can be reached at captdpr@gmail.com
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