Opposite the Padang near the Parliament House in Singapore stands a memorial in a patch of green. An isolated structure, which only a select few Indians would have possibly heard of so far thanks to the utter disregard of successive governments in the past. A lonely marker, which stands tall as a solemn reminder of the selfless sacrifice of hundreds and thousands of soldiers of the Indian National Army or the INA.
The sense of hurt, the pain of being forgotten for seven long decades now seems to have ebbed a bit though. On Tuesday, Narendra Modi scripted history of sorts by becoming the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the sacred site and pay his homage at the INA Memorial.
And to witness “history unfold” was a select gathering. INA veterans, their family members, historians, school students and distinguished Singaporeans. For the elders and their children, who have lived and breathed Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose all their life, it wasn’t difficult to miss the tinkle in the moist eyes as the Prime Minister Modi held their hands with a comforting reassurance.
In the audience was Major Ishwar Lal Singh, who fondly recollected his first meeting with Netaji. Bent with age, his wrinkled face however lit up at the very mention of Netaji. “Do you know Netaji gave me my name? When he asked me what my name was, I told him Ishwar Singh. He said, for me you are God gifted. I will call you Ishwar Lal, my son,” blurted out the 90-plus young man who had immaculately dressed for the occasion.
A member of the Balak Sena of the INA, Maj Ishwar Lal Singh went on a trip down the memory lane at ease. “I met Netaji first when I was 12. I vividly remember his truth and charisma. I cannot accept anyone pointing a finger to him, he never did anything wrong. His motto was to drive the British out of India. It is sad but true that it took nearly 70 years for any Indian PM to come to this site. This memorial was not thought to be of any importance or a landmark. We must not forget the sacrifice of nameless multitude who fought the British. Today, I can feel Netaji’s presence with us here all the more,” he quipped.
Seated next to him was Ishwar Nahappan, whose mother Janaki was a Captain with the Rani Jhansi Regiment of the INA and second in command to Colonel Lakshmi Sahgal. The fact that PM Modi was at the memorial was yet to sink in. Janaki was conferred the Padma Shri in 2000.
“This visit puts back the spotlight on Netaji and INA’s contribution to India’s freedom struggle. (Clement) Attlee, who was then the PM of UK, had said that the efforts by Netaji undermine the British India forces. It gave a totally new perspective to the Indian jawans, who were then serving the British army. And with Netaji giving that inspiration and Red Fort trial subsequently, Attlee actually said if not for Netaji’s contribution, the British would continue to be in India. India’s independence was brought forth by Netaji and undermining the Indian forces within the British Army who then switched their loyalty to INA,” rued Ishwar.
A young girl of 18, Janaki had heard Netaji address a huge gathering at Kuala Lumpur. So moved was she with his inspirational speech that she took off her diamond earrings and handed them over to Netaji to contribute to his fund-raising programme. “After that she went back home and persuaded my grandfather to let her join the INA. She then went in for military training both here in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Thousands of Indians from Malaya came to Singapore for training. She then became a Captain in Rani Jhansi Regiment and she marched with Netaji through Burma and during the defeat she came back with him walking for 10-15 days until they got a train which brought them back to Bangkok. But for the Americans, INA would have marched beyond Kohima and Imphal. INA entered India and Netaji proclaimed the Azad Hind government in India,” said Ishwar, reliving history all over again.
Sisters Revathi and Nandini Selvam also had similar tales to tell. “Our father was a businessman in Singapore and used to run a salon here. He contributed monetarily towards the cause of Netaji’s INA. Netaji’s call had a magical effect on our family and our parents for this cause. We are proud to be here today,” spoke out the Selvam sisters.
For noted economist and writer Sanjeev Sanyal, who is now penning a book on INA history, PM Modi’s visit to the INA Memorial has opened up a new chapter in history. “I am very glad that this episode in Indian history is being finally given the importance it deserves. Behind me is the field called Padang where the first march past of the INA took place. Netaji saluted it. Some distance away is the Cathay Thetare where Rash Behari Bose, who founded the INA, passed on the baton to Netaji in 1943 and that is where Netaji made the famous speech where he made the announcement of the formation of the provincial government of Azad Hind. This is a very sacred site for many of us who believe the INA was an integral part of our freedom struggle and because of which soon after World War II India became free,” he said.
Strongly advocating the need for “alternative history”, Sanyal opined, “Contributions made by revolutionaries and later the INA have been downplayed systematically in India’s history text books. Finally, after seven decades, we are coming to terms with the fact that there is an alternative history of the Indian freedom struggle, that there were alternative heroes and there was an alternative way of thinking about things. It is significant to note that a Prime Minister is finally going to give this alternative history its due. There is a fully alternative narrative of Indian’s freedom struggle that has not been told. And that includes Netaji, and in the broader perspective, the INA, revolutionaries and so on, and that story needs to be told.”
Pregnant with emotions and harbouring great expectations from the Prime Minister regarding his announcement of declassifying the Netaji files from 23 January next year, Singapore too, like the rest of India, is waiting for the moment of truth. “We sincerely hope that the PM’s visit will raise the question in our minds as to what happened to Netaji. Whether he died in a air crash, was he killed in Russia or whether he was living in disguise in India,” quipped Mission Netaji activist Diptasya Jash.
For Maj Ishwar Lal Singh though the declassification would also mean unmasking the faces of those who stole the INA treasure. “What matters is the INA treasure. He was not moving around with the treasure in suitcases. Somebody was holding the money for him. The gold, diamonds were being held by his trusted people. In a moment of weakness, these trusted people did the wrong thing. The money is gone,” rued Singh.
Looking respectfully at the memorial was Sashi Rai, whose father, incidentally, donated all their family riches to the INA. “My father is watching from the heavens,” was his emotive response. Breaking the sombre mood at the memorial was a message that kept ringing loud and clear. Let the truth be told. Whatever it is.