The Indian National Army 'Waging war against HM the King Emperor': Renegades or Liberators?

Last year, while chatting with Second World War veteran, Major General (Retd.) Eustance D'Souza, PVSM, on ethics of soldiers, he said that captured British Indian Soldiers who joined the Indian National Army and fought against British Indian Army were not ethical. For some of us, it's very difficult to digest. But don't make an opinion on Maj Gen E D'Souza yet. He is very much, one of the finest of soldiers India ever had. Maj Gen E D'Souza is from the 5th Maratha Light infantry. He joined the regiment in 1943 and served in it till 1977. He beat the Chinese in 1965. The 80 soldier still visits J&K and Sikkim, to find out the morale of the Indian Army troops deployed there.

I forgot all about it until last month Chandrachur Ghose from Mission Netaji, e-mailed me to write about it, I couldn't resist. I called up Major General E. D'Souza to continue the discussion, we left last year. The argument he gave was that since these soldiers were under the oath of British Indian Army, joining INA amounted to treachery. These soldiers joined INA for escaping the ruthless Japanese. Then there were soldiers like Major Gen Badwa, who refused to join INA and was hung upside down for long time ,which affected his voice among other things and later died of cancer.

I wrote to some ex-army officers to elicit their point of view. I got a very interesting note from Col (Retd.) Virender Thapar. Col (Retd.) Thapar takes a very divergent view. Col (Retd.) Virender Thapar was commissioned in 17 Maratha, and commanded 14 Jammu and Kashmir Rifles. He has attended the prestigious Staff College. Col (Retd.) Now 65 years old, he belongs to a pure army family, with his grandfather, father, and his son Capt Vijayant Thapar, Vrc, having all served in the army. His son (2 RAJPUTANA RIFLES) was martyred during the Kargil War at Tololing (Knoll) on 28 June 1999.

Constitution of INA

INA did not exclusively comprise of the captured soldiers from British Indian Army - it comprised of Indians living in South-East Asia too. The debate hence narrows down to the British Indian Army soldiers who joined INA. It was not just the INA, but the role of captured British Indian soldiers of Free India legion, or Indische Legion or Tiger is in question too.

The so called "British Indian Army"

The British were imperialists, who in the Indian eyes has same connotation as Nazi Germany to rest of the world. Like the Nazis had soldiers from other countries in occupation, Indians too joined the so called British Indian Army. Says Col (Retd.) Thapar "The Indian soldier is a very simple, honest, hardy person, mostly farmers, loyal to death and to whom soldiering comes naturally. During the Second war the world recognized the Indian soldierly virtues of hardiness, fearlessness and above all an uncommon sense of loyalty. Since the only army which provided them with the profession of arms at the time were the British, they joined the Regiments of the so called British Indian army."

All for an Oath     

The central point of debate here seems to be that of the "oath" - what does an oath mean to a soldier? Since past, as rulers changed, oaths changed for the soldier too. The meaning of oath to the so called "British Indian Army" was based on their personal interpretation and the predominant political, economic and social factors of the time. In fact the British used the "oath" or the concept of "namak" (salt) to their advantage.   

Col (Retd.) Thapar writes,

    The Great Wars were not wars of India. Yet by virtue of their oath of allegiance these soldiers fought and died in thousands in unknown and far off lands. Speaking of the Fourth Indian Division, Gen Wavel said, "the fame of this Division will surly go down as one of the greatest fighting formations in military history." Winston Churchill recognized this and gave strict instructions that no publicity be given to this fact of the Indian soldiers sterling qualities. Indian troops had won maximum numbers of Victoria Crosses. Such reputation often prompted British (?) generals to encourage young British officers to join the Indian army. India had sent 138,000 troops to fight in France, 675,000 troops to fight in Mesopotamia, and 144,000 to fight in Egypt during the First World War. In the Second World War two million troops with 5000 Indian officers fought in a conflict that had nothing to do with them, except an honorable oath. They fell at distant alien battlefields - Tobruk, Sicily, Arakans and many other places. But these were not India's wars. Nehru reminded us later that, India not only gave its finest manhood to the War, it also financed it to the tune of several billion pounds by bleeding its own progress.

    Informed Indians and conscientious historians have highlighted this imbalance that India's military contribution to the war has not been given its due recognition. The answer to why the Indian soldier still fought with the same dedication as troops from Europe without any stake lies in a peculiar belief in loyalty and Izzat (self-respect, or honour) borne out of a firm Indian concept of NAMAK, literally, Eating The Salt, and being true to that salt. That is the reason for so many to fell to German bullets and Japanese bayonets. There was no cause that drove them to it. Pained at this ungratefulness on the part of the British Mrs. Sarojani Naidu wrote these poignant lines;

Lo I have flung to the East and the West
Priceless treasures torn from my breast
And yielded the sons of my stricken womb

To the drumbeats of England and sabers of doom.
Gathered like pearls in their alien graves
Silent they sleep in The Persian waves
Scattered like shell in the Egyptian sands
They lie with pale brows and brave broken hands,

They are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance
On the blood brown meadows of Flanders and France.
Oh England oh world
Remember the blood of my slaughtered ones
Weep for my dead my martyred sons

    However how I wish she had addressed these lines to her own countrymen! Our own leaders of the day did nothing to guide the soldiers of the day not to join the British Indian Army. And they joined the profession of arms as it existed. They fought for the British and were captured; killed under whatever belief they carried.

The true Indian Army

The idea of the "true Indian Army" took shape during the great turmoil of the Second World War. Says Col (Retd.) Thapar

    Among the soldierly stock particularly, there is yet another ethos - that of Mata (mother) and more importantly Matribhoomi (motherland). Sacrificing one's life for the motherland opens the gates of heavens; it is the duty of every Kshatriya.(soldier) to fight for his motherland. By the middle of the Great War, Indian soldiers had got the notion of an independent India. Unfortunately, it was left to the Japanese to drive home this message hard among the soldiers who had been captured that they should fight, not for the British but for their independent nation. They convinced the soldiers in captivity that it was their bounded duty to break the shackles of slavery by fighting the British. This notion was reinforced by fiery leaders like Subhas C Bose and the INA was formed. It was under the belief and conviction that their duty to the mother land was more pertinent than that to a foreign power bent on atrocity and keeping India in bondage. The oath of allegiance taken by the Indian soldiers to the British was taken in a misconception, lack of awareness of their real loyalty. The idea that service to the Raj was a paramount duty for a soldier was therefore irrelevant. Whereas the national leaders gave a call to civilians to fight the British, the actual fighting man was not addressed. A more proactive approach rather than the passivity led to the soldiers continuing to join the British."

    Had the Indian leadership given this thought i.e. the soldiers' duty to motherland is more important than the subservient service to the British, possibly hardly any Indian would have taken an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. Instead they would have possibly engaged the English troops in battle as indeed the INA did and died for a worthy cause of independence of India. But history is evidence that the then leaders did not raise their voice. In fact there was a tacit approval to participate in the English cause! Had the soldiers galvanized irrespective of any oath to the English we would have got our independence much earlier and perhaps the partition would never have come about. What a pity our leaders held a different view that cost India so many lives.

    No doubt blood would have flowed but it would have seeped into our own land and made our foundations strong. Therefore where Oath is taken out of ignorance and when a soldier became enlightened to higher duties of an independent India there was no breach of faith. It was the most honorable thing to do.

In conclusion: the most prominent, but not the only one

A bulk of the so called British Indian Army was drawn from the soldiers of ex-Indian princely states. The soldiers were under oath of those Princely states and later were under oath of British Indian Army. Times changed as the extended British occupation of India saw British recruiting Indians directly in phased manner. British Indian Army had mutinies as the Indian soldiers were not treated on par with their British counterpart. Overseas too there were incidents of mutiny like Indian Muslim army men refused to fight in Basra. They were under oath too. They finally escaped the British Indian Army and settled elsewhere. It was only logical for some Indian soldiers to join Indian National Army. The Indians were not equal to the British soldiers even then. Discrimination and threat of consequences was prevalent in the minds of Indian soldiers in British Indian Army as much as the Indian soldiers in Japanese custody. What difference it made to them? It was not their war. Some Indian soldiers were comfortable with British Indian Army and some soldiers were comfortable in INA fighting along side Japanese. Every soldier had his own reason to join INA.

The author is the publisher: Frontier India Defence and Strategic News Service