Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian National Army, and the War of India's Liberation

Ranjan Borra

Indian National Army of Liberation in the East

On 15 February 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese army advancing southward from the Malayan peninsula. Two days later, in an impressive ceremony held at Farrar Park in the heart of the town, [British] Indian troops were handed over to the Japanese as prisoners-of-war by their commanding officer, Colonel Hunt.

Major Fujiwara took them over on behalf of the victorious Japanese, and then announced that he was handing them over to Captain Mohan Singh of the Indian contingents, who should be obeyed by them as their Supreme Commander. Mohan Singh then spoke to the Indian POWs, expressing his intention of raising an Indian national army out of them to fight for India's freedom. He held a preliminary discussion with some prominent Indians in Malay and Burma in a meeting in Singapore on 9 and 10 March, which was attended by Rashbehari Bose, a veteran Indian revolutionary exile living in Japan for the last quarter of a century. Bose then called a conference in Tokyo, which was held 28-30 March. The delegates representing several East and Southeast Asian countries present at the conference decided to form the Indian Independence League to organize an Indian independence movement in East Asia. Bose was recognized as head of the organization. The conference further resolved that "military action against the British in India will be taken only by the INA and under Indian command, together with such military, naval and air cooperation and assistance as may be requested from the Japanese by the Council of Action" and further, "after the liberation of India, the framing of the future constitution of India will be left entirely to the representatives of the people of India."20

On 15 June 1942, a conference opened in Bangkok with over a hundred delegates of the IIL [Indian Independence League] attending from all over Asia. By the close of the nine-day conference a resolution was unanimously adopted setting forth the policies of the independence movement in East Asia. The IIL was proclaimed the organization to work for India's freedom; the Indian National Army was declared the military arm of the movement with Mohan Singh as the Commander-in-chief and Rashbehari Bose was elected president of the Council of Action. It was further decided that Singapore would be the headquarters of the IIL. Netaji had stated in a message to the conference that his personal experience had convinced him that Japan, Italy and Germany were sworn enemies of British imperialism; yet, independence could come only through the efforts of Indians themselves. India's freedom would mean the rout of British imperialism. The Indian National Army was officially inaugurated in September 1942. [Image: "The Dream of Netaji" (1944), INA recruiting poster.] 

Unfortunately, at this point distrust began to grow within the Indian group against Rashbehari Bose's leadership. Some thought that having been long associated with Japan, he gave precedence to the Japanese interests over Indian interests. According to Japanese records:

Some even thought that he was just the protégé of the Japanese, and that the latter were exploiting Indians for their own ends. Such resentment finally resulted in a revolt of a group of leaders headed by Captain Mohan Singh within the INA in November 1942. As a consequence, Mohan Singh and his associate, Colonel Gill, were both arrested by the Japanese and the Indian Army was disbanded. However, in 1943 a new Indian Army was organized, put under the command of Lt. Col. Bhonsle, who held this post until the final dissolution of the army.21
Describing the revived INA, Joyce Lebra writes:
On 15 February 1943, the INA was reorganized and former ranks and badges revived. The Director of the Military Bureau, Lieutenant-Colonel Bhonsle, was clearly placed under the authority of the IIL to avoid any repetition of IIL-ANA rivalry. Under Bhonsle was Lt. Col. Shah Nawaz Khan as Chief of General Staff, Major P.K. Sahgal as Military Secretary; Major Habibur Rahman as commandant of the Officers' Training School; and Lt. Col. A.C. Chatterji, and later Major A.D. Jahangir, as head of enlightenment and culture. Apart from this policy-forming body was the Army itself, under the command of Lt. Col. M.Z. Kiani. This was the organization which held the INA together until the arrival of Subhas Chandra Bose from Berlin, six months later.
In February, the Japanese military officer Iwakuro had called a meeting of about three hundred officers of the INA at Bidadri camp in Singapore and spoke to them about the advisability of joining the army, but with no effect. According to Ghosh, "Later on, in a 'heart-to-heart talk' with some officers, it emerged that a large number of officers and men would be willing to continue in the INA on the express condition that Netaji would be coming to Singapore."23

The story of Netaji's exploits in Germany and the history of the Indian Legion was known to Indian revolutionaries of the IIL in East Asia for some time now, and they awaited his arrival eagerly. As the first INA wavered, faltered and was finally disbanded, and as its successor merely continued to exist, the need for Netaji's leadership began to be felt more keenly. Mohan Singh had mentioned his name to General Fujiwara as early as 1941. In all conferences the need of his guidance had been emphasized by the delegates.

While Netaji and Abid Hasan continued to push toward the East making a wide sweep out into the Atlantic, by pre-arrangement, a Japanese submarine left Penang Island on 20 April for the tip of Africa, under strict orders not to attack or risk detection. The two submarines had a rendevous four hundred miles south-southwest of Madagascar on 26 April. After sighting each other and confirming their identity, the submarines waited for a day for the sea to become calm. Then on 28 April, in what was known to be the only known submarine-to-submarine transfer of passengers (in the annals of World War II) in an area dominated by the enemy's air and naval strength, Netaji and Abid Hasan were transhipped into the Japanese submarine via a rubber raft.

Travelling across the ocean, the Japanese 1-29 reached Sabang on 6 May, 1943. It was an isolated offshore islet north of Sumatra. There, Netaji was welcomed by Colonel Yamamoto, who was the head of the Hikari Kikan, the Japanese-Indian liaison group. From Sabang, Netaji and Yamamoto left for Tokyo by plane, stopping en route at Penang, Manila, Saigon and Taiwan. The plane landed in Tokyo on 16 May. All throughout his submarine voyage from Germany and for about a month after his arrival in Tokyo, Netaji's identity and presence was kept a secret. He was supposed to be a Japanese VIP named Matsuda. 

Although he remained incognito during the first few weeks in Japan, Netaji did not waste any time by just waiting. From 17 May onwards, he met Japanese Army and Navy Chiefs-of-Staff, Navy Minister and Foreign Minister in rapid succession. However, he had to wait for nearly three weeks before Japanese Prime Minister Tojo granted him an interview. But Tojo was so impressed with Netaji's personality that he offered to meet him again after four days. Two days later, on 16 June, Netaji was invited to visit the Diet where Tojo surprised him with his historic declaration on India:

We are indignant about the fact that India is still under the ruthless suppression of Britain and are in full sympathy with her desperate struggle for independence. We are determined to extend every possible assistance to the cause of India's independence. It is our belief that the day is not far off when India will enjoy freedom and prosperity after winning independence.24
It was not until 18 June that Tokyo Radio announced Netaji's arrival. The news was reported in the Tokyo press the following day. At this announcement, the atmosphere was electrified overnight. The Axis press and radio stressed the significance of the event. The INA and the Indian independence movement suddenly assumed far greater importance in the eyes of all. On 19 June, Netaji held a press conference. This was followed by two broadcasts to publicize further his presence in East Asia, and during the course of these he unfolded his plan of action. Bose's plan stood for the co-ordination of the nationalist forces within India and abroad to make it a gigantic movement powerful enough to overthrow the British rulers of India. The assumption on which Bose seemed to have based his grand scheme was that the internal conditions in India were ripe for a revolt. The no-cooperation movement must turn into an active revolt.25

And to quote Netaji's own words during the press conference: "Civil disobedience must develop into armed struggle. And only when the Indian people have received the baptism of fire on a large scale would they be qualified to achieve freedom."26 Netaji then embarked upon a series of meetings, press conferences, radio broadcasts and lectures in order to explain his immediate task to the people concerned, and the world.

Bose in the PhillipinesAccompanied by Rashbehari Bose, Netaji arrived at Singapore from Tokyo on 27 June. He was given a tumultuous welcome by the resident Indians and was profusely 'garlanded' wherever he went. His speeches kept the listeners spellbound. By now, a legend had grown around him, and its magic infected his audiences. Addressing representatives of the Indian communities in East Asia on 4 July he said: "Not content with a civil disobedience campaign, Indian people are now morally prepared to employ other means for achieving their liberation. The time has therefore come to pass on to the next stage of our campaign. All organizations, whether inside India or outside, must now transform themselves into a disciplined fighting organization under one leadership. The aim and purpose of this organization should be to take up arms against British imperialism when the time is ripe and signal is given.27 [Image: Bose welcomed in the Philippines.]

At a public meeting where Netaji spoke these words, Rashbehari Bose formally handed over to Subhas Chandra Bose the leadership of the IIL and command of the INA. The hall was packed to capacity. In his last speech as leader of the movement Rashbehari Bose said:

Friends! This is one of the happiest moments in my life. I have brought you one of the most outstanding personalities of our great Motherland to participate in our campaign. In your presence today, I resign my office as president of the Indian Independence League in East Asia. From now on, Subhas Chandra Bose is your president, your leader in the fight for India's independence, and I am confident that under his leadership, you will march on to battle and to victory.28
In that meeting Netaji announced his plan to organize a Provisional Government of Free India.
It will be the task of this provisional government to lead the Indian Revolution to its successful conclusion ... The Provisional Government will have to prepare the Indian people, inside and outside India, for an armed struggle which will be the culmination of all our national efforts since 1883. We have a grim fight ahead of us. In this final march to freedom, you will have to face danger, thirst, privation, forced marches -- and death. Only when you pass this test will freedom be yours.29
The next day, on 5 July, Netaji took over the command of the Indian National Army, now christened Azad Hind Fauj (Free India Army). Tojo arrived from Manila in time to review the parade of troops standing alongside with Bose. Addressing the soldiers, Netaji said:
Throughout my pubic career, I have always felt that, though India is otherwise ripe for independence in every way, she has lacked one thing, namely, an army of liberation. George Washington of America could fight and win freedom, because he had his army. Garibaldi could liberate Italy because he had his armed volunteers behind him. It is your privilege and honor to be the first to come forward and organize India's national army. By doing so you have removed the last obstacle in our path to freedom ... When France declared war on Germany in 1939 and the campaign began, there was but one cry which rose from the lips of German soldiers -- "To Paris! To Paris!" When the brave soldiers of Nippon set out on their march in December 1941, there was but one cry which rose from their lips -- "To Singapore! To Singapore!" Comrades! My soldiers! Let your battle-cry be -- "To Delhi! To Delhi!" How many of us will individually survive this war of freedom, I do not know. But I do know this, that we shall ultimately win and our task will not end until our surviving heroes hold the victory parade on another graveyard of the British Empire -- Lal Kila or the Red Fortress of ancient Delhi.30
On 27 July, Netaji left Singapore for a 17-day tour of the East Asian and Southeast Asian countries. The prime objective of this tour was to enlist moral and monetary support for his movement from other countries, as well as the resident Indian communities. He was given a rousing reception in Rangoon, where he attended the Burmese independence on 1 August; from Rangoon Netaji went to Bangkok and met Thai Prime Minister Pilbulsongram. He won the moral support of Thailand and tumultuous ovation from the Indian community. He then flew to Saigon and addressed Indians there. Returning to Singapore for a brief rest, he flew to Penang to address a rally of 15,000 Indians. Everywhere, he held his audience spellbound for hours with his superb oratory, and at the conclusion of his speech the people raced to reach the platform and pile up all they had before him -- a total of two million dollars. This scene was repeated over and over in towns and cities all over Southeast Asia, when Netaji stood before thousands of people like a prophet, addressing them for the cause of India's freedom. Merchants, traders, businessmen and women came forward everywhere and donated their wealth and ornaments in abundance, to enable their leader to fulfill his mission.

In his plan for total mobilization, Netaji had outlined a grandiose scheme for an army of three million men. However, the immediate target was set at 50,000. The major part of this number would be from the Indian POWs and the rest from civilian volunteers. According to Bose's plan there would be three divisions from thirty thousand regulars and another unit of twenty thousand mainly from civilian volunteers. The Japanese authorities informed Netaji at that time that it could provide arms for thirty thousand men only. However, by 1945 it was authoritatively known that the actual strength of the INA rose to not less than 45,000 men. After completing the task of reorganizing the Indian Independence League and launching preparations for revolutionizing the army, and after conducting a successful campaign to mobilize the support of the Indian communities throughout Southeast Asia -- a phase which lasted from July to October -- Netaji turned toward formation of the Provisional Government of Azad Hind (Free India). This had to be done before the army could be sent for action in the battlefield. This government was officially proclaimed in Singapore at a mass rally on 21 October 1943 where Netaji was unanimously elected as the Head of the State and the Supreme Commander of the Indian National Army. While taking the oath he said:

In the name of God, I take this sacred oath that to liberate India and the three hundred eighty million of my countrymen. I, Subhas Chandra Bose, will continue the sacred war of freedom till the last breath of my life. I shall remain always a servant of India, and to look after the welfare of three hundred eighty million of Indian brothers and sisters shall be for me my highest duty. Even after winning freedom, I will always be prepared to shed even the last drop of my blood for the preservation of India's freedom.31
The Provisional Government of Free India had five Ministers with Netaji as the Head of the State, Prime Minister and Minister for War and advisers representing the Indian communities in East Asia. The first momentous decision which the new government took was its declaration of war on Britain and the United States, which was decided on the night of 22-23 October. Toye writes: "The Cabinet had not been unanimous about the inclusion of the U.S.A. Bose had shown impatience and displeasure -- there was never any question then or later of his absolute authority: the Cabinet had no responsibility and could only tender advice."32 Recognition of the Provisional Government came quickly from nine countries -- the Axis powers and their allies. They were: Japan, Burma, Croatia, Germany, the Philippines, Nanking China, Manchuto, Italy and Siam (Thailand), but for some unknown reasons, Vichy France withheld its recognition. The Japanese Army promised all-out support for the provisional government.

Toward the end of October, Netaji flew to Tokyo again to meet Tojo and to attend the greater East Asia Conference. Since India technically did not fall within this sphere, he attended as an observer. He made an impressive speech at the conference, stressing the creation of a new Asia where all vestiges of colonialism and imperialism would be eliminated. The Japanese navy had captured the Andaman and Nicober islands in the Bay of Bengal during the early months of war. As a result of Netaji's requests, Prime Minister Tojo announced at the conference that Japan had decided to place the two islands under the jurisdiction of the Provisional Government of Free India, thereby giving it its first sovereignty over a territory.

The ceremonial transfer took place in December, and Netaji named Lieutenant-Colonel Loganathan, an officer in the Medical Services, as the chief commissioner in charge of the civil administration of the islands. Soon thereafter preparations began for sending the army to the front and moving the provisional government headquarters to Rangoon, in Burma. In the meantime, Netaji announced the formation of a women's brigade within the INA and named it "Rani of Jhansi Regiment," after the celebrated queen of Jhansi, Laxmibai, who had led her soldiers against the British in an uprising during the First War of Independence in 1857. Coincidentially, another Laxmi, Lieutenant-Col. Laxmi, was placed in charge of this regiment by Netaji. In November it was agreed between Netaji and the Japanese militay headquarters that the INA first division and the civil and military headquarters would move to Burma in January 1944.

The Imphal Campaign

The Imphal Campaign, including the battle of Kohima -- the first major town to be captured by the INA inside India -- will perhaps go down as one of the most daring and disastrous campaigns in the annals of world military history. General Mutaguchi, commander of the Japanese forces in North Burma since 1943, had been convinced that Imphal should be attacked. The objects of such an offensive were to forestall any invasion of Burma in 1944 and to establish the Japanese defenses on the frontier mountains. The idea would be first to overwhelm the British in Arakan, involving all their reserves in battle for Chittagong and the gateway to eastern Bengal. Then, by April, Kohima and Imphal could be conquered at leisure, without danger of their being reinforced. The monsoon, beginning in May, would postpone operations, and after the rains were over, in the absence of a new British defense posture east of the river Brahmaputra, the entire Assam and East Bengal would lie open to the Indian National Army and the Japanese.

Imphal, the capital of the state of Manipur, lay on a flat, nearly treeless plateau just inside the Indian border. Its elevation was about 3,000 feet, surrounded on all sides by impassable mountains. The mountain range in the east with 2,000-4,000 foot peaks above the plateau stretches some five hundred miles. To the West and South are the Chin hills of the Arakan range, a formidable stretch of inhospitable terrain. The jungle surrounding this basin is hostile to human habitation. The northern access to the plain from India and Assam lay through Dimapur and the steep Kohima Road. From Dimapur, a single track railway swept through Assam and Bengal and was an important military objective to both armies. For the INA the importance of the Imphal campaign was that it was the only major battle in which it would participate with the object of achieving freedom for India. As Salto and Hayashida write:

The Imphal Operation was the final offensive of the East Asia War, mounted by three Burma-based Japanese divisions, and one INA division. The campaign lasted from 15 March to 9 July 1944. The operation has often been compared to the operation Wacht am Rhein or the Battle of the Bulge, which was the final all-out drive launched by Germany towards Ardennes on the Western Front, from December 1944 to January 1945. Both operations almost succeeded and both are termed "gambles" by historians today. If the German push towards Ardennes was Wacht am Rhein, the Japanese-Indian thrust against Imphal might be called "Wacht am Chindwin" although the official Japanese code-name for the action was most prosaic: Operation "U".33
River Chindwin lay across the Indo-Burmese border, and its crossing from the east by an army would signal an invasion of India.

Execution orders for Operation U became operative on 7 January 1944, coinciding with completion of the shifting of the Provisional Government headquarters in Rangoon. In the evening of the same day, Lt. General Masakazy Kawabe, commanding the overall Burma headquarters, held a welcome party in honor of Netaji and his staff officers. Netaji spoke, and concluded his speech with these words: "My only prayer to the Almighty at this moment is that we may be given the earliest opportunity to pay for our freedom with our own blood."34 One INA Division, named after Netaji as Subhas Regiment, was readied for action at the front with the Japanese. Toye writes.

... He spent the whole days ... with the Subhas Regiment, reviewing, watching it at exercises and on parade, talking to its officers, exerting his magic on it in a way that he had not attempted before. These were his comrades, the men by whose means he would uphold the rights and honour of India. Everything depended on their achievement in battle; they must absorb all his feelings of confidence, feel the whole of his personal force. On 3 February he bade them farewell: "Blood is calling for blood. Arise! We have no time to lose. Take up your arms. There in front of you is the road. our pioneers have built. We shall march along that road. We shall carve our way through enemy's ranks, or, if God wills, we shall die a martyr's death. And in our last sleep we shall kiss the road which will bring our Army to Delhi. The road to Delhi is the road to Freedom. On to Delhi!"35
Mutaguchi set 15 March as the D-day for the beginning of the Imphal campaign. The deployment of well over 120,000 troops along the Chindwin river, a front of some 200 kilometers, went on smoothly and undetected by British spies planted in the area. In the meantime, Netaji received some good news. The Arakan offensive, launched on 4 February, had cut off the 7th Indian Division of the British Army in Mayu valley. Contributing to this success was the reconnaissance and subversion of an Indian outpost position by Major Misra, the INA Commander in Arakan. At the same time, he received messages from the underground network working inside India under his direction, whose selected trained spies had been sent by submarine. On D-day, Mutaguchi assembled the war correspondents at his headquarters in central Burma and declared: "I am firmly convinced that my three divisions will reduce Imphal in one month. In order that they can march fast, they carry the lightest possible equipment and food enough for three weeks. They will get everything from the British supplies and dumps. Boys! See you again in Imphal at the celebration of the Emperor's birthday on 29 April."36

The Japanese-Indian offensive took the British by complete surprise. The Japanese and INA troops literally galloped through mountains and jungles routing the enemy on the way. Prior to the Imphal offensive, an INA detachment under Colonel Saligal had created a breach through the British lines in the Arakan sector. Now the INA's deployment was extended to the Imphal sector. As the INA under Netaji's command set foot on the Indian soil, the main Japanese force also defeated the obstinate resistance of the enemy on 22 March, broke through the India-Burma border, and advanced from the north and west to encircle Imphal. The initial success of the INA at the Arakan front generated much enthusiasm. In a Special Order of the Day, Netaji referred to the "Glorious and brilliant actions of the brave forces of the Azad Hind Fauj."37

On 8 April, Japanese Imperial Headquarters issued a communique which said: "Japanese troops, fighting side by side with the Indian National Army, captured Kohima early on 6 April."38 A jubilant Netaji at this time started talking with the Japanese about the administration of the liberated and soon-to-be-liberated territories in India. In response to a call by Netaji, Prime Minister Tojo made an announcement clarifying that all areas of India occupied as a result of Japanese advance would be placed under the jurisdiction of the Provisional Government. This was followed by Netaji's announcement that he was appointing the Finance Minister of his cabinet, Major-General A.C. Chatterjee, as the governor of the newly liberated areas. Netaji described the march of the INA into India as the event of the century. He had also just declared the Legion in Europe to be part of the INA and had appointed Nambiar to be a Minister in the Provisional Government; his Chief Commissioner had been installed in the Andamans, his first heroes from the Arakan front had been decorated, and the INA troops had raised the national standard of free India in Kohima; and now, the fall of Imphal seemed very near.

Did the Imphal Campaign come almost two years too late? What would have happened if Netaji had arrived in East Asia a year earlier? By the, end of 1942, the Axis had scored successes everywhere:

Rommel was in Egypt, the German invasion of Russia had gone smoothly, Nationalist China was on her knees, and India and Australia were expecting a Japanese invasion. Prospects for the Allies were dark in the Pacific and the Rising Sun was at its zenith from Japan to the Bay of Bengal ... Britain was unable to dispute with the Japanese Navy, and there were not enough British and Indian troops in India to assure its defense. Even air protection was inadequte ... Japanese forces had not pursued retreating British troops beyond the Chindwin river in Burma in May 1942, allegedly because "an invasion was likely to arouse ill-feelings amongst the Indian masses." ... So the Japanese remained east of the Chindwin river, leaving British Indian forces to build up their strength in the Imphal plain.39
But above all, in that moment of a golden opportunity, the towering leadership of Netaji, a provisional government, and an Indian national army worthy of its name -- all these were non-existent in East Asia. Japan by itself simply lacked the motivation for extending war into India, let alone think of its independence. The fact remains, however, that the Imphal campaign was indeed first conceived in 1942, right after the conquest of Burma. According to the official history of the British Armed Forces in the Second World War,
Soon after the completion of the Japanese conquest of Burma in June 1942, a certain Lt. Col. Hayashi had advocated an attack on Imphal. He considered that the Japanese should strike against India without giving time to the defenders to recuperate from their disastrous retreat, and Imphal's capture would rob them of the best base for launching a counter-offensive against Burma ... 18th division argued that the jungles of Burma were impassable for large bodies of operational troops and that any attack on Indian territory would provoke anti-Japanese feelings in India. About December 1942, therefore, the plan was abandoned.40
Lieutenant-General Kuroda Shigetoku, Southern Army Chief of Staff, stated later that if the operation had been carried out in 1942 when first conceived, rather than in 1944, it would have succeeded. According to Lebra, "General Tojo stated in the spring of 1945 that he regretted Japan had missed the opportunity in 1942."41

As the INA and the Japanese forces continued to lay siege on Imphal, the Allied air superiority gained strength and the enemy was preparing for counterattack. Shah Nawaz, commanding two battalions of the Subhas Regiment in the Chin Hills, told of the hardships his men were suffering as a result of disease and of supply and transport difficulties. However, owing to communication problems, the news of difficulties his men were undergoing at the front did not reach Netaji in detail. While there was a stalemate in the front and the offensive came to a halt, there were meetings and jubilations at Rangoon where Netaji collected money and donations in other forms for the conduct of his campaign. He offered to send additional INA regiments to the Front and more troops were despatched. For about a month Operation U went according to plan. Enemy forces were successfully encircled in the Imphal area. 

Suddenly, in the middle of April, the military balance began to shift against Japan and the INA. Wingate's airborne unit had already been attacking from the air over the Burmese supply routes. British forces were being supplied by airlift into the besieged Imphal, and reinforcements began to flow in. British forces were being sent to Kohima to the north by both rail and air. Japan had no matching air power to strike back at enemy air operations. By the end of April the battle strength of Japanese and INA divisions was decreased forty percent. Time for success by surprise attack had already passed and gradually the offensive turned into a defensive battle. The monsoon that followed brought the ultimate disaster. As roads became impassable, all supply routes were cut off. Muddy streams flooded roads and valleys, and rivers swelled to sweep away tanks and ammunition. In the wake of the monsoon, disease became rampant. Cholera, malaria, dysentery, beriberi and jungle sores began to take their toll. The INA and the Japanese started living on rations consisting of rice mixed with jungle grass. The 33rd Division had fought desperately for forty days without being able to penetrate the British lines at Imphal. And now that vast amounts of military supplies were reaching the beleaguered garrison at Imphal, there was virtually no hope for a renewed offensive. On 8 July, on the recommendation of top-ranking Generals including Kawabe and Mutaguchi, Prime Minister Tajo issued the order to halt the operation.

The story of the retreat from Imphal is one of the greatest tragedies of World War II. It is a story of misery, hunger and death. Japanese and INA troops, bottled up in the Kawab valley between the Chin Hills in the west and the Chindwin river in the west, began their long trek back through jungles and mountains, headed by division commanders and guards in jeeps and horses. Officers, supply, communication and medical units followed. Behind them marched thousands of stragglers: rain-soaked, emaciated with fever and malnutrition. Soon, corpses began accumulating along the trek, and they had to be left unburied. Of the 220,000 Japanese troops who began the Imphal Campaign, only 130,000 survived, and of these only 70,000 remained at the front to retreat. INA casualties were over fifty percent. It was a disaster equal in magnitude to Dunkirk and Stalingrad. Lebra writes:

When Bose heard the order to retreat he was stunned. He drew himself up and said to Kawabe in ringing tones: "Though the Japanese Army has given up the operation, we will continue it. We will not repent even if the advance of our revolutionary army to attain independence of our homeland is completely defeated. Increase in casualties, cessation of supplies, and famine are not reasons enough to stop marching. Even if the whole army becomes only spirit we will not stop advancing toward our homeland. This is the spirit of our revolutionary army." In an article in Azad Hind on 6 November 1944, after the retreat from Imphal, Bose was reported to have "reiterated his firm conviction that final victory in this war would belong to Japan and Germany ... that a new phase of war was approaching in which the initiative would again lie in the hands of the Japanese."42
Each Japanese commander gave his own analysis of the causes of the failure of Operation U, like the problem of the chain of command, lack of air power, or dispersal rather than concentration of forces. However, Netaji thought it was timing, with respect to the monsoon. He felt that the only chance to take Imphal was before the rains came, and most strategists agreed on this point. From the historic perspective, however, Fujiwara perhaps was the most correct. According to him, the Imphal disaster could have been avoided had the operation been undertaken a year earlier, at a time when the British power in the region was weak. The delay in launching the Imphal offensive was no doubt due to Netaji's late arrival from Europe to East Asia. The Imphal campaign should have been undertaken at a time when the Axis victories had reached their zenith and the Allied forces were on retreat everywhere.

During the last three months of 1944, Japanese forces had withdrawn to the banks of the Irrawaddy in Burma, where they intended to make a stand. Netaji enthusiastically offered the reorganized INA First Division, when the Japanese 15th division was ordered to oppose the British. Subsquently, the 2nd Division was also readied for action. In February 1945, the INA held some positions in the region of Mandalay in Burma, giving battle to the advancing enemy. This was the second campaign of Netaji's army, and it held out tenaciously at Nyaungu for some time. However, Allied troops later crossed the Irrawaddy at several points and the Japanese and INA units were surrounded. There were some desertions. Despite unique examples of heroism and Netaji's presence in the battlefields, risking his own life in the face of enemy attacks, the second campaign of the INA (which was purely a defensive one) finally had to give way to the gradual reconquest of Burma by the British.

The end of this campaign was followed by a chain of events that included the final Japanese defeat, an alleged plane crash in Formosa in which Netaji reportedly perished, the surrender of the INA to the Allied forces and the trial of their leaders at the Red Fort in Delhi, staged by the British. However, all these fateful events, occuring during the final phase of World War II and its aftermath, should be considered parts of an altogether different episode relating to Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army. In the present episode we have examined the historical tasks fulfilled by Netaji and his army in Europe and Asia during World War II, and their significance. In recognition of Netaji's historically significant role as a war leader, Guy Wint pays him a rare tribute with these words: "He played ... an extraordinarily decisive part. By accident, and by seizing an exceptional opportunity, he was able to cut a figure which made him outstanding among the comparatively small number of men who influenced the course of the war by their individual qualities."43

The Myth of "Freedom through Non-violence under Gandhi's Leadership"

Modern historians in India are taking a second look at the way the country's freedom was achieved, and in that process are demolishing a number of theories, assumptions and myths preached by the "court historians." However, in order to grasp the magnitude of the issue, with its many ramifications, it is essential to understand first the concept of freedom as envisaged by Netaji -- the ideal which motivated him to wrest it from the hands of the British by the force of arms. In his entire political career, Subhas Chandra Bose was guided by two cardinal principles in his quest for his country's emancipation: that there could be no compromise with alien colonialists on the issue, and that on no account would the country be partitioned. The Indian geographical unity was to be maintained at all costs.

Gandhi and BoseAs we have already seen, the unfortunate turn of events during World War II prevented Netaji's dream of his victorious march to Delhi at the head of his Indian National Army from becoming a reality. In his and his army's absence in a post-war India, politicians under the leadership of Gandhi and Nehru did exactly what Netaji never wanted: they negotiated and compromised with the British on the issue of freedom, and in their haste to get into power, agreed to a formula of partitioning India presented to them by the British. [Image: Gandhi and Bose before the War.] 

The transfer of power was followed by two more developments that were alien to Netaji's philosophy and his blueprint for a free India: introduction of a parliamentary democratic system by Nehru and his decision to keep India in the British Commonwealth of Nations. It was a truncated freedom, achieved over the bloodbath of millions who had perished in fratricidal religious rioting during the process of partition, as the erstwhile India emerged on the world map as the two nations of India and Pakistan. Even so, the fragmented freedom that fell as India's share after the British had skillfully played their age-old game of divide and rule came not as a result of Gandhi's civil disobedience and non-violent movement as the court historians would have us believe; nor was it due to persistent negotiations by Nehru and other Indian National Congress leaders on the conference table, which the British found so easy to keep stalling. The British finally quit when they began to feel the foundations of loyalty being shaken among the British Indian soldiers -- the mainstay of the colonial power -- as a result of the INA exploits that became known to the world after the cessation of hostilities in East Asia.

Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, the eminent Indian historian who passed away recently, and who by virtue of his challenges to several historical myths can rightly be called the Dean of new historians in India, observed in his book Three Phases of India's Struggle for Freedom:

There is, however, no basis for the claim that the Civil Disobedience Movement directly led to independence. The campaigns of Gandhi ... came to an ignoble end about fourteen years before India achieved independence ... During the First World War the Indian revolutionaries sought to take advantage of German help in the shape of war materials to free the country by armed revolt. But the attempt did not succeed. During the Second World War Subhas Bose followed the same method and created the INA. In spite of brilliant planning and initial success, the violent campaigns of Subhas Bose failed ... The Battles for India's freedom were also being fought against Britain, though indirectly, by Hitler in Europe and Japan in Asia. None of these scored direct success, but few would deny that it was the cumulative effect of all the three that brought freedom to India. In particular, the revelations made by the INA trial, and the reaction it produced in India, made it quite plain to the British, already exhausted by the war, that they could no longer depend upon the loyalty of the sepoys for maintaining their authority in India. This had probably the greatest influence upon their final decision to quit India.44
Despite Japan's defeat and the consequent withering away of the Indian National Army on the India-Burma front, both Subhas Chandra Bose and his INA became household names throughout the country as the returning soldiers were sought to be prosecuted by the British. By then, the Congress leadership under Gandhi and Nehru had pre-empted itself, and the year 1945 seemed relatively calm and uneventful. However, Netaji and his legend worked up a movement all over the country which even a Gandhi could never produce. Echoing this mass upsurge Michael Edwardes wrote in his Last Years of British India:
The Government of India had hoped, by prosecuting members of the INA, to reinforce the morale of the Indian army. It succeeded only in creating unease, in making the soldiers feel slightly ashamed that they themselves had supported the British. If Bose and his men had been on the right side -- and all India now confirmed that they were -- then Indians in the Indian army must have been on the wrong side. It slowly dawned upon the Government of India that the backbone of the British rule, the Indian army, might now no longer be trustworthy. The ghost of Subhas Bose, like Hamlet's father, walked the battlements of the Red Fort (where the INA soldiers were being tried), and his suddenly amplified figure overawed the conference that was to lead to independence.45
Apart from revisionist historians, it was none other than Lord Clement Atlee himself, the British Prime Minister responsible for conceding independence to India, who gave a shattering blow to the myth sought to be perpetuated by court historians, that Gandhi and his movement had led the country to freedom. Chief Justice P.B. Chakrabarty of Calcutta High Court, who had also served as the acting Governor of West Bengal in India, disclosed the following in a letter addressed to the publisher of Dr. R.C. Majumdar's book A History of Bengal. The Chief Justice wrote:
You have fulfilled a noble task by persuading Dr. Majumdar to write this history of Bengal and publishing it ... In the preface of the book Dr. Majumdar has written that he could not accept the thesis that Indian independence was brought about solely, or predominantly, by the non-violent civil disobedience movement of Gandhi. When I was the acting Governor, Lord Atlee, who had given us independence by withdrawing the British rule from India, spent two days in the Governor's palace at Calcutta during his tour of India. At that time I had a prolonged discussion with him regarding the real factors that had led the British to quit India. My direct question to him was that since Gandhi's "Quit India" movement had tapered off quite some time ago and in 1947 no such new compelling situation had arisen that would necessitate a hasty British departure, why did they have to leave? In his reply Atlee cited several reasons, the principal among them being the erosion of loyalty to the British Crown among the Indian army and navy personnel as a result of the military activities of Netaji. Toward the end of our discussion I asked Atlee what was the extent of Gandhi's influence upon the British decision to quit India. Hearing this question, Atlee's lips became twisted in a sarcastic smile as he slowly chewed out the word, "m-i-n-i-m-a-l!"46
When the new version of the history of the Twentieth Century India, and especially the episode of the country's unique struggle for independence comes to be written, it will no doubt single out but one person who made the most significant and outstanding contribution among all his compatriots toward the emancipation of his motherland from the shackles of an alien bondage. During World War II this man strode across two continents like a colossus, and the footsteps of his army of liberation reverberated through the forests and plains of Europe and the jungles and mountians of Asia. His armed assaults shook the very foundations of the British Empire. His name was Subhas Chandra Bose.


1. Bose, Subhas Chandra, The Indian Struggle 1920-1942, New York: Asia Publishing House, 1964, p. 318.

2. Ibid., pp. 419-422, 431-432.

3. Ganpuley, N.G., Netaji in Germany: A Little-known Chapter, Bombay, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1959, p. 63.

4. Ibid., pp. 63-64.

5. Toye, Hugh, The Springing Tiger, London, Cassell, 1959, p. 63.

6. Ibid., p. 70.

7. Lebra, Joyce C., Jungle Alliance: Japan and the Indian National Army. Singapore, Asia Pacific Library, p. 110.

8. The Goebbels Diaries, 1942-1943, Edited, translated and with an introd. by Louis P. Lochner, Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press, 1970, p. 107.

9. Ibid., P. 123.

10. Ibid., p. 211.

11. Toye, Hugh, op. cit., pp. 72-73.

12. Ibid., p. 75.

13. Seifriz, Adalbert, In Preface to Ganpuley's Netaji in Germany.

14. Sopan, pseud., Ed., Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. His Life and Work. Bombay, Azad Bhandar, 1946, pp. 281-282, 284.

15. Ganpuley, N.G., op. cit., p. 153.

16. Staatsmaenner und Diplomaten bei Hitler, Part Two, Edited by Andreas Hillgrueber, Frankfurt am Main, Bernard & Graefe fuer Wehrwesen, 1970.

17. Maryama Shizuo, Nakano Gakko, Tokyo, 1948, p. 120

18. Subhas Chandra Bose and Japan, 4th section, Asian Bureau, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Govt. of Japan, 1956.

19. A Beacon Across Asia: A Biography of Subhas Chandra Bose. Ed. in-chief: Sisir K. Bose, New Delhi, Orient Longman, 1973, p. 143.

20. Lebra, Joyce C., op. cit., p. 51.

21. Subhas Chandra Bose and Japan, op. cit.

23. Ghosh, K.K., The Indian National Army: Second Front of the Indian Independence Movement, Meerut, Meenakshi Prakashan, 1969, pp. 127-128.

24. A Beacon Across Asia, op. cit., p. 167.

25. Ghosh, K.K., op. Cit., p. 135.

26. Press Statement, 19 June 1943.

27. Sopan, op. cit., p. 313.

28. Sivaram, M., The Road to Delhi, Rutland, Vt., C.E. Tuttle Co., 1967, pp. 122-123.

29. Ibid., pp. 123-124.

30. A Beacon Across Asia, op. cit., p. 178.

31. Toyle, Hugh, op. cit., p. go.

32. Ibid., p. 91.

33. A Beacon Across Asia, op. cit., p. 196.

34. Ibid., p. 200.

35. Toye, Hugh, op. cit., p. 103.

36. A Beacon Across Asia, op. cit., p. 203.

37. Arun, pseud., Ed., Testament of Subhas Bose, Delhi, Rajkamal Pub., 1946, p. 170.

38. A Beacon Across Asia, op. cit., p. 205.

39. Lebra, Joyce C., op. cit., p. 150.

40. British Armed Forces in the Second World War, Combined Interservices Historical Section, 1958.

41. Lebra, Joyce C., op. cit., p. 158.

42. Ibid., pp. 190-191.

43. Calvocoressi, Peter, and Guy Wint, The Total War: the Story of World War II, New York, Pantheon Books, 1972, pp. 801-802.

44. Majumdar, R.C., Three Phases of India's Struggle for Freedom, Bombay, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1967, pp. 58-59.

45. Edwardes, Michael, The Last Years of British India, Cleveland, World Pub. Co.,1964, p. 93.

46. Majumdar, R.C., Jibanera Smritideepe, Calcutta, General Printers and Publishers, 1978, pp. 229-230, (quotation translated from original Bengali).

Journal of Historical Review, 3, no.4 (Winter 1982), 407-439. The photographs do not appear in the original article. Also see (off-site) Indian Volunteers in the German Wehrmacht. For a recent (2003) news story on the mystery surrounding Bose's death, click here


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