October 21 is an important day in India’s calendar, because it was on this day in 1943 that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and his courageous band of soldiers and followers established the Arzi Hukumat-e-Azad Hind (the provincial government of free India) in Singapore and declared war on the British Empire. Thousands of soldiers joined Netaji’s Indian National Army (INA) and as its popularity and resolve grew, the British began winding up their operations.
What hastened their exit from India? A fresh perspective on the events leading up to the British government’s decision to quit India in August 1947 is now available in a book recently published by the Netaji Subhas Bose INA Trust. The book—Netaji: India’s Independence and British Archives, authored by Kalyan Kumar De—has put together several key reports and documents that throw light on the sudden change of mood in the British camp.
These reports, primarily from the governors of the various provinces and from the Intelligence Bureau, indicate that by the mid-1940s, the British went into panic mode because of the tremendous popularity of Subhas Chandra Bose and the nationwide appreciation and sympathy for the INA that he had established to militarily oust the colonial power. This in turn triggered a naval mutiny in Bombay and several other stations, along with rebellions in some army camps, including Madras and Poona.
The trigger in 1946 was the British decision to court martial officers and men of the INA and the nationwide anger over these trials. Subhas Chandra Bose’s determination, stamina and vision can be gauged from the fact that thousands of men and women responded to his call, joined the INA in India and in Southeast Asian countries, and sacrificed their lives in order to liberate the nation. Mr De reproduces an IB report of November 1945 that warns the British government that there was enormous sympathy for the soldiers of the INA. It said that if the government did not take cognisance of this sentiment, the consequence would be a mass agitation and bloodshed.
Going by the fear and anxiety displayed by several governors in their reports to the Viceroy Lord Wavell, in late 1945 and early 1946, the latter had very few options. The governors—one more worried than the other—expressed their trepidation at the ongoing INA trials and their repercussions. Almost every governor warned the viceroy that the government would be playing with fire if it targeted the INA because they were seen as brave freedom fighters. They warned that this could result in a mutiny in the Indian Army and they were not very much off the mark. The viceroy, in turn, kept King George VI and Prime Minister Clement Atlee informed.
These fears forced the British to commute the sentences of deportation for life given in the court martial to the three most prominent INA soldiers on trial—Prem Kumar Sehgal, Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon and Shah Nawaz Khan. This is corroborated by General C J Auchinleck’s “strictly personal and secret” letter to Army Commanders on 12 February 1946, in which he said that confirmation of the sentences would have led to violent internal conflict. There was a “genuine feeling that they were patriots and nationalists” and that therefore, even if they were “misled”, “they should be treated with clemency as true sons of India”. Indian officers in the Indian Army, he said, were glad and relieved at the final outcome, because if the sentence had been enforced, “it would have led to chaos in the country and probably to mutiny and dissension in the army...”.
Along with this, the naval mutiny and the ones in the army camps in Jabalpur, Madras and Poona convinced the British that they could no longer rely on the Indian armed forces to keep the British flag flying on the subcontinent. Once this realisation dawned on them, action was swift. The British government took a formal decision to end the colonisation of India in March 1946. Sir Twynam, Governor, Central Provinces and Berar, wrote a secret letter to Lord Wavell on 26 November 1945 in which he confessed that he had just 17 European officers, including three judicial officers, and 19 European members of the Indian Police (36 in total)—to manage a population of 18 million over an area of one lakh square miles!
The figures given by Sir Twynam indeed sum up the tragedy of India’s colonisation by the British. At the best of times, it is said that there were just a few thousand Europeans in the bureaucracy, police and army, and they had colonised a nation of India’s size with a population of about 400 million people.
Every Indian today will be stunned by these figures. How did millions of Indians allow themselves to be subjugated by a handful of Europeans? A lack of unity and self-confidence were certainly two factors that led to this dreadful tale of colonisation.
De’s book should also make us reflect over the work of some historians who diligently practiced suppressio veri and kept so many truths away from the people. Many individuals have worked for several years to dredge up hidden facts, including Kalyan Kumar De, and all of them deserve our gratitude for enabling us to get closer to the truth.
A SURYA PRAKASH
Vice-Chairman, Executive Council, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library