Dramatising a Cataclysm

Two-and-a-half million Indians volunteered in the Second World War. Their stories had been lost and silenced, until now. The Raj at War by Yasmin Khan tries to unearth a few tales

Published: 18th August 2015 04:33 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th August 2015 04:33 AM   |  A+A-

BENGALURU: On 3 January 1946, three men, Prem Kumar Sahgal, Gurbaksh Singh, Dhillon and Shah Nawaz Khan, quietly emerged from imprisonment in Old Delhi’s Red Fort. The Government of India had held them there for three months. Just four days earlier the trio had been convicted of waging war against the King-Emperor and sentenced to transportation for life. They were leading officers of the Indian National Army (INA) and had been in the vanguard of Subhas Chandra Bose’s renegade force. They had fought for the Axis in Burma and South-East Asia. Now they were free men and, within days, found themselves to be national heroes. The Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army had remitted their sentences; although technically found guilty, their punishment had been quashed. People interpreted their release as a decisive victory against the British Raj.

The trials had been a disaster for the British rulers. The bungled attempt at a public prosecution had resulted in the ‘hero worship of traitors’ in the words of Archibald Wavell, the Viceroy of India in 1946. He admitted frankly that the affair was ‘embarrassing’. By November, the trial had gripped the imagination of the Indian public.

People had bought reports of the court case, autobiographies of the officers, panegyrics of Bose and pamphlets about all aspects of the Indian National Army, on sale at every pavement stall and bookshop.

The way in which Bose and his followers had established a breakaway army to side with the Japanese had been told in full for the first time, without the full force of wartime censorship in place.

As the word spread of the men’s release they were swept along the cramped streets of Old Delhi in a growing tide of supporters, cheered and hoisted on shoulders.

Soon they were forced to stand on the roof of a car because of the crush of the crowds. Everybody clamoured to shake their hands and to fill their mouths with sweets. Indian National Congress politicians rushed to the scene to be among the first to congratulate them. Over the coming days, the men paraded around Delhi, Lahore and across the country.

They were hosted at massive rallies. Everywhere they went admirers mobbed them, thrust forward autograph books and strung heavy garlands of flowers around their necks. The crowds were hundreds of thousands strong. ‘People wanted to see us, touch us, hear us speak and garland us.

They had gone mad with the joy of our release. Young girls cut their fingers with razor blades and applied blood to our foreheads instead of vermillion’, recalled Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, one of the released prisoners. Policemen, magistrates and officials looked on, powerless to intervene or to stem the tide.

War.JPGThe Red Fort, the sandstone fortress built by the Mughal emperors in the heart of New Delhi, was spectacularly ill-chosen as the location for the trial. The fort, which had been used as a barracks by the Indian Army ever since the uprising of 1857, was the symbolic seat of South Asian power. So, too, the British decision to try the three officers together, a Sikh, a Hindu and a Muslim. This just added piquancy to the symbolism of the event. The Congress Party used the trials as a way to try to build pan-religious solidarity and some of the finest legal minds in the country, including Jawaharlal Nehru, the foremost

Congressman of the era, had represented the men as their defence barristers. Any earlier ambivalence the Congressmen had felt about the militarism and unabashed pro-Axis stance of the INA was swept aside in the fervour of the moment.

The vehement outpourings of anger that greeted the INA trials, and widespread rejoicing at the release of the prosecuted men, were the result of a hardened form of nationalism.

Everywhere there was a new belief in the power of violence to release India from colonial control, and an upsurge of post-war euphoria which gripped civilians and soldiers alike.

Policemen, magistrates and military generals became reluctant to intervene in a cause celebre which had captured the imagination of people of all regional and religious backgrounds.

Military commanders of the Indian Army had feared mutiny if the INA men received the death sentence. As it was, over 20,000 members of the Royal Indian Navy would mutiny during the coming weeks in any case.

The upsurge of political zeal was inextricably linked with ongoing demobilisation. As over 2 million Indian soldiers were demobilised from the Indian Army in the aftermath of the war, and began to return to their villages, they started to ask how they would be rewarded for their sacrifices during the war. As one Pathan soldier told the Indian civil servant Malcolm Darling, ‘We suffered in the war but you didn’t . . . we bore with this so that we might be free.’

moment that British rule in India became untenable. It marked a decisive break with everything that had gone before. Imperial rule had lost its final shreds of legitimacy. The Raj had unravelled under the pressure of war.

The elation greeting the released prisoners would have been unthinkable in 1939. At the start of the war, nobody would have anticipated in Mahatma Gandhi’s India that it would be military men who would soon be in the vanguard of nationalism. But six years of war had changed the political language. By 1946 Gandhi was barely heeded by a new generation of protesters who were angry, strident and determined to achieve Independence. 

In August 1939 as the world waited for the news of the outbreak of war, a government spokesman in Simla, the summer capital of imperial India, declared, ‘We only have to press a button and the whole organisation prepared to meet a war emergency

will slide smoothly into action.’

This was propaganda ofcourse but it also suggests the easy complacency with which India was plunged into war in 1939. At the start of the war, Europe’s troubles had seemed far-distant and removed from India.

 Living in the cantonments and bungalows of the imperial state, the older guard of army officers and officials believed that India could be insulated and protected from the swirl of ideologies taking place in Europe. The war would be framed in terms of loyalty and disloyalty to the Crown and would be a repeat performance of India’s role in the First World War: the landed and the wealthy would take the lead and Indian subjects would fall in step behind them.

India would come to the aid of the motherland, and the state would draw on manpower and resources as it saw fit.


Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Random House


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