CHENNAI: It has been 70 years since the Indian National Army (INA) was disbanded. But, two city-based INA veterans still reminisce the valour and courage displayed by the soldiers during times of war and poverty. After braving multiple battles in places like Dala, Rangoon, Imphal and Kohima in the 1940s, during World War II, nonagenarians V Rathinavelu and V Angusamy, were among the few who survived it all and made it back to India. For the duo, not a day passes by without proudly wearing the ‘Subhash Chandra Bose’ emblem on their shirts.
A call for freedom
In 1943, during a public meeting in Rangoon (Present Yangon, Myanmar), the duo along with a lakh Indians, met Bose for the first time. His speech fuelled the fervour of freedom and nationalism in them.
Rathinavelu, a resident of Korukkupet, recalls how Bose showed care and concern while recruiting Indians in the army. “He was specific about not recruiting people from families that had a single child. A family needed to have four children. This way, even if two are recruited to serve in the army, the other two could take care of the family,” he shares. “People irrespective of age and gender were inspired by the idea of the Indian National Army,” smiles Rathinavelu, adding that while one lakh men joined the INA, around 500 women joined the Rani of Jhansi Regiment led by captain Lakshmi Swaminathan.
The walls of Rathinavelu’s house are decked with photographs of Nethaji Subhas Chandra Bose, awards he received from INA and an INA certification of ‘War Veteran’. “When Bose died, we did not believe it. I still don’t believe the reason for his death. He still lives on. His existence was our strength during the times of war,” he recalls, as nine-year-old Nithish, his grandson runs in. He says that it was through his grandfather that he learned about India’s independence. “He always tells me to work hard and not give up. More importantly, he tells me to always be proud to be an Indian,” says Nithish.
Life and death
The memories of loss of lives and soldiers deserting both the INA and Japanese Army during a battle in Imphal in 1944, are still imprinted in 96-year-old Rathinavelu’s mind. “The Commonwealth Army surrounded us and the rest of us were sent to Kohima. About 10,000 people died during that battle,” shares the veteran who in 1944 captured two British soldiers and took them to Mandalay Palace in Burma. “It was an open land and we outnumbered them by two to 2,000. The British soldiers pleaded not to kill them. But we captured them and they were later killed by the Japanese military,” he shares.
When Japan surrendered in 1945, several Indians were captured by the Commonwealth forces. Some of us were let off, we returned to normal lives, but many who were still stuck to the idea of Azad India (Free India) — coined by Bose — were put to trial and sent to India in 1945. Ninty one-year-old Angusamy says they faced a lot of discrimination and high-handedness by the native Burmese for the next two decades after the war. The Indians who stayed there, opened provision stores and food shops to earn their bread and butter before they were shipped back to India in 1965.
The duo, after returning to India along with 25 other war-veterans, decided to start a school for children in Korukkupet. Since they did not have the needed space nor money, they opened a tuition centre at Rathinavelu’s house. “About 20 students attended the school back then,” he recalls.
In 2010, the 25 veterans joined hands, pooled in money and started Nethaji Bhavan, a three-storey nursery and primary school with smart-classes. The school now has 100 students and two teachers.
Until three years ago, they participated in the Indian National Army meetings conducted in New Delhi. “Many of our friends, due to old age, have passed and after that, we stopped going to New Delhi,” says Angusamy. Out of the 25 INA members who started the Nethaji Bhavan in Korukkupet, 23 have died and only the two remain. Despite their old age and mobility issues, the duo makes sure to visit the school every day and monitor the classes. “We want to inculcate the right values in the younger generation,” says Angusamy.
Taste of independence
As an INA freedom fighter, Rathinavelu has lived through poverty, war, isolation and discrimination. This, he says, made him cherish the true nectar of independence. “After independence, Indians felt that they were uplifted,” he shares. “Despite being in Burma for decades and learning about their culture, we upheld our Indian culture and that was what made us wade through war and return to our homeland,” he says.
Nodding in agreement, Angusamy says, “Just like those who toiled for India, the youngsters too should love the country.” The freedom fighter requests youngsters to be patriots and work towards the betterment of the country. “The question which should arise in every youth’s mind today is ‘what is freedom and how should we protect it?’. They have to be patriots and protect the interests of the country,” says Rathinavelu.