Bose had an explicit strategy to liberate India from British imperialism through international collaborations, and that strategic framework of action directly and indirectly accelerated the cause of freedom and national pride in India.
The first time an Indian national flag was raised over Indian territory liberated from British colonial rule was when Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose hoisted on 30 December 1943 on the Andaman islands. The Japanese armed forces handed over the Andaman islands to their ally, Netaji Bose’s government-in-exile, and Colonel Dr Loganathan was appointed by Netaji as Governor of the islands. This also technically qualified it as a government under international law. It is a fact of paramount importance that has been long forgotten about Netaji and his allies who implemented “Look East” and “Act East” policies a lifetime before the modern era. Indeed, Bose crisscrossed multiple countries in Asia using propeller-powered aircraft, submarine, naval vessels and land vehicles. Bose had an explicit strategy to liberate India from British imperialism through international collaborations, and that strategic framework of action directly and indirectly accelerated the cause of freedom and national pride in India. Certainly, without Bose’s efforts in the Far East, directly confronting British forces and appealing to Indian soldiers conscripted by the British army who had become prisoners of the Japanese and getting them to fight with their conscience against Britain, one can argue that independence for India may have been delayed as it was in Africa when colonial powers did not leave easily, or indeed in Asia itself with the French reluctance to leave Vietnam until the costs became heavy, and the US was brought into the picture utilising the “domino theory” of confounding nationalism with communism.
The Indian National Army (INA) was formed by Indian prisoners of war in then-Japanese occupied Malaya and Singapore that had been freed from British colonial control in December 1941 and February 1942, respectively. Singapore, at the time, was one of the most heavily defended naval bases with over 100,000 troops, and therefore the surrender of the British commander at Singapore to Japanese forces startled the whole world. Over 50% of those were Indian soldiers, and many joined the INA.
Bose arrived on 2 July 1943 in Southeast Asia after an arduous journey from Germany by submarine, and then took over the leadership of the Indian National Army in Singapore. Bose had gone to Europe to seek anti-British help, wanting first to travel to the USSR and any other nation that would help him secure Indian independence. Bose had an indomitable will and great organisational capabilities. His track record of sacrifices made him worthy of commanding respect. Indeed, Bose had been repeatedly imprisoned by the British twelve times for the cause of Indian independence. Thus his sacrifices built his reputation, and Churchill was apprehensive that given Netaji’s stature, charisma and his strategic Asian sense, Bose might bring about rapprochement between Japan and the Republic of China for a united Pan-Asian movement. Indeed Bose was described by analysts as a mesmerizing orator capable of infecting others with his own enthusiasm. Bose secured from the Japanese assurances of independence, autonomy and equality for Indians during and after their joint efforts to evict the British.
Bose was recognised as the head of allied nation India, and Netaji’s INA fought the British in Asia, organised as separate military formations along with the Japanese to maintain its alliance status. Indian soldiers fought on both sides of the battles in Asia—as part of the British army (that was destined to leave Asia after the war) and also as part of Netaji’s anti-British forces allied with the Japanese army. Therefore, of any people around the world, Indians have every right to proceed with great outreach to all parts of Asia—as Indian blood was spilled for the cause of anti-colonialism and freedom in every corner of Asia.
Indeed, seeing the fleeing of panicked British administrators, civilians and other personnel through the interior of hitherto colonised countries, it astonished everyone, and had a profound impact on freedom fighters and campaigners for decolonisation. They started to believe that if one country, Japan, with its ally Netaji’s INA, could defeat the then all-powerful British armed forces, then surely the British could be made to leave Asia for good. This is very different from the scenario in Africa, where long after the Second World War, colonial powers stayed on and on.
Mahatma Gandhi described the British empire as “the poison that corrupts all it touches”. The national movement for Indian freedom comprised of two parts. One, led by Gandhi, was focused within India and involved mass protests and passive resistance as well as sporadic negotiations and conferences in England, and the other by Indian revolutionaries who sought to ally with anti-British forces worldwide, even from the time of the First World War when they allied with Germany, and also with Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution. Thus Bose was implementing with more vigour and on a larger scale the long-standing practice of Indian freedom fighters including Rash Behari Bose. Dr Sun Yat-sen is another example of an anti-imperialist who built an alliance with Japan, indeed operated out of Japan and made links also with civil society including friendship with Minakata Kumagusu, Japan’s most prominent naturalist, mycologist and citizen scientist. Dr Sun Yat-sen is revered on both sides of the Taiwan strait, and his framed picture adorns the top government offices in Taiwan. Bose also believed that weakening the grip of Britain over India would in turn lead to the end of the British and other empires worldwide. Bose, who was for many years part of the non-violent effort, came of the view later that while passive resistance could paralyse an alien administration, if could not expel it—and the experience in Africa largely holds that to be accurate, where the non-violent South African anti-imperialist struggle had to go on till 1994 in order to remove the tiny minority Boer/Dutch/British émigrés from power (with Mandela spending virtually his entire adult life in jail as a political prisoner). 1994 was 47 years after the British had to leave India. Bose’s analysis was, therefore, accurate that the best chance to achieve freedom was to strike hard at Britain’s weakness when it was preoccupied with its then-collapsing empire in East Asia. Indeed, in 1942, British colonies were falling like dominoes to the onrushing Japanese forces, and had Bose been in East Asia at the time, analysts think that he might have enabled the combined INA and Japanese armies to reach India in 1942 itself, rather than when it actually took place in 1944, by which time the British army had not only prepared with much reinforcements but also with American assistance.
Bose and his Japanese allies were unable to dislodge the allied armed forces from India with their combined forces, taking horrendous casualties in the war as well as through disease and starvation induced by the collapsing supply logistics and adverse weather conditions. However, the battles on the north east of India caught the imagination of the entire nation and have been seen ever since as the ultimate sacrifices paid for the cause of freedom, and this is one reason why Bose is a national hero for all Indians.
Netaji Subhas Bose, a charismatic leader of the Indian Independence Movement, has a massive following in India. He was naturally among the most prominent contenders for national leadership post-Independence. Millions of Indians resident in South-East Asia supported Bose’s government-in-exile with personnel and financial resources. Bose himself spent considerable effort in reaching out to the Indian community seeking funds and they donated large sums of money and jewellery to Bose for financing his struggle. To prepare for the invasion of India from Burma, Bose’s organisation had its own training camps, hospitals and even a bank in Rangoon that was reportedly better financed than the government of Burma. INA numbered about 40,000 troops.
The Japanese military officer assigned to liaise with the Indian officers and soldiers who had surrendered as part of the British army, Major Fujiwara, an idealist, fervently believed in Indian independence as well as Japan’s role to help free all Asian countries then under European colonialism, as the basis for Asian prosperity. However, those who succeeded Major Fujiwara as the Japanese liaisons with the INA messed up the relationships, leading to the breakdown in feelings of solidarity. Human relationships count, in fact are central to building international understanding.
Since the 1857 mutiny by soldiers in India against British colonialism, which had been put down with bloody British reprisals including the public lynching and hanging of mutineers, there had been efforts abroad to organise anti-British sentiment by the Ghadar Party (named after the 1857 insurrection) and Japan was one of the global locations where those revolutionaries congregated and political groupings in Japan were providing support to Indian revolutionaries fleeing the British secret police.
On 18 August 1945, Netaji’s plane took off from Taihoku (modern Taipei) where he was last seen, and thereafter he has never been seen alive again. As far as India and Indians are concerned, it is hallowed ground in Taipei, and the memory of Netaji Subhas Bose and Dr Sun Yat-sen, both motivated by pan-Asian freedom struggle, is enduring. While it is undisputed that the plane carrying Netaji took off from Taipei, where it crashed or landed remains a matter of dispute and controversy, despite eyewitness accounts of the plane crash and resulting fire soon after takeoff. Bose and many other Asian revolutionaries shared the goal of an Asian zone of prosperity, which is now coming to pass with the world’s centre of GDP gravity rapidly shifting to Asia and the Indo-Pacific. Meanwhile, while Independence Day is a celebrated national holiday, the appropriate recognition of Netaji Bose as among the greatest nationalists and patriots who sacrificed everything for the sake of India’s freedom, remains an incomplete agenda. It is time to rectify that.
Dr Sunil Chacko, a graduate of Harvard University, has been an Adjunct Professor in Canada, the US, India and Japan.