Who Brought Freedom, Gandhi or Netaji?
Editor’s Word: Penned by Dr. NS Rajaram in the year 2010, this story is relevant even to this day. Enumerating several contributions of Netaji – as Subhas Chandra Bose was fondly known – it is probably one of the greatly read articles on Folks Magazine. We invite you all to read it yet again to celebrate Netaji’s 115th birth anniversary.
There is a story that the late Mao Zedong, when asked his opinion about Napoleon as a leader replied: “How can I say? He is too recent.” Napoleon’s career ended in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and Mao died only in 1976. So what could Mao have meant when he said that Napoleon was too recent? He meant that a certain amount of time has to pass before we can view historical events and personalities objectively. Our reading of recent events is bound to be colored by our closeness to them. This truth was brought home to me a few years ago when I was visiting Penang in Malaysia as the guest of some veterans of World War II, but first some background.
In India, people are brought up on the story that Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru—with others receive grudging notice if at all—led a heroic struggle freeing India from the British rule. Miraculously, the whole thing was accomplished without resort to violence, by the application of a mighty spiritual force called ahimsa (non-violence) unleashed by the Mahatma. If true it is a tribute not only to the power of Gandhi’s (and Nehru’s) spiritual vision, but also a lasting tribute to the spiritual sensitivity of the British rulers. Like the tiger in the children’s poem (govina kathe in Kannada), which killed itself rather than eat the calf, the British gave up the empire and left.
This received a jolt during a recent trip to Southeast Asia where I had occasion to visit some people who had served with my late father during World War II. Their account of their experience in the period from 1942 to 45 casts serious doubt on this beautiful story. Here we are faced with a dilemma— the conflict between what we read in history books and what the people actually saw on the ground. The usual story is that after some initial reverses the British defeated the Japanese. But those who actually served there, now in their late 70s and 80s, remember it quite differently. Uniformly, this is what I heard everywhere and from everyone.
“When the Japanese attacked, the British ran away. They were very clever. They had a wonderful life with bungalows and butlers and cooks and all that, but as soon as the Japanese came, they ran away. And once they got back to India, they sent Gurkhas, Sikhs, Marathas and other Indians to fight the Japanese. They knew it was too dangerous for them. That is how we got independence in Malaya.” Malaysia was then called Malaya and Singapore was its capital.
Not one of them remembered the British fighting the Japanese— only running away. They remember also Indian soldiers coming and fighting; some of them stayed back in countries like Malaya (as it was then called), Singapore and other places. One man, who as a youngster had been my father’s orderly during the War, invited me to his home in Penang for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Singapore. What he told me took my breath away.
“That is why the British left India also. When the war was over, all the Indian soldiers who had defeated the Japanese returned to India, and the British got scared. They didn’t want to fight the Indians who had just fought and defeated the Japanese. So they ran away from India also.”
I tried to explain to him that Gandhiji’s nonviolence was the force that convinced the British to leave. But this man, not an intellectual but a battle-hardened soldier with sound commonsense would have none of it. “If it was non-violence, why didn’t they leave earlier? Gandhi and the nonviolence were there before the war also. Did they have to wait for the Japanese to come and teach them non-violence?”
One may smile at this simple way of looking at history, but as will be seen later, this revisionist view has good support. The ‘authorized’ version with Gandhi and Nehru as central figures continues to be taught in India because it benefits those in power. It shows the British also in favorable light as a magnanimous and even spiritual people, which of course they don’t mind. But history shows a different picture.
The year 1942 was momentous. It was the year in which the British Empire suffered a massive defeat at the hands of an Asiatic people (Japanese); it was also the year in which Mahatma Gandhi launched his famous but ill-fated Quit India Movement. Subhas Bose also entered the picture at about that time, first in Germany and later in Southeast Asia. But first it is necessary to get an idea of the momentous impact of the Japanese victory on the psyche of the colonized people as well as on that of the colonizing powers. What triggered it was the Fall of Singapore.
The fall of Singapore in 1942 heralded the end of the British Empire and of European colonialism in general. Indian independence came in 1947, but what really ended the Empire was the fall of Singapore. This has received scant notice by Indian historians who remain trapped in Eurocentric thinking, but there is ample evidence supporting it. Among Indian historians, only R.C. Majumdar has seen its significance: the fall of Singapore broke the spirit of Imperial Britain. As we shall soon see British historians have themselves admitted it. Let us look at what really happened to the British in 1942.
When the Japanese attacked Singapore in February 1942, its large and well-equipped British garrison surrendered without a fight. These well-attended ‘pukka sahibs’—used to good living—had little stomach for war. For decades, the ruling authorities had avoided facing the truth that they were not a fighting force. They had deluded themselves with resounding slogans— calling Singapore the ‘Bastion of the Empire,’ ‘Impregnable Fortress,’ ‘Gibraltar of the East’ and such. None of it helped when Singapore fell to a Japanese army less than a third the size of the defending forces.
Yet, so far removed from reality were Singapore’s British residents, that even on the verge of surrender, a gunnery officer was refused permission to mount guns on the golf links for defending the city. He was told that he needed permission from the golf club committee. And the golf club committee would not be meeting for at least a week, so he better hold off!
In the fall of Singapore, its symbolic significance was infinitely greater than the military defeat. It destroyed the myth of European superiority over the Asiatics once and for all. Historian James Leasor wrote in his Singapore, the battle that changed the world:
“Dazed by the incredible superiority of the Japanese, the defenders’ will to win had withered. … The psychological damage was even greater than the military defeat— and this had been grotesque enough. …Under the lowering Singapore sky lit by the funeral pyres of the British Empire … a door closed on centuries of white supremacy … ” Actually the Japanese had planned it that way— to break the sense of superiority exuded by the Europeans, by the British in particular, in their dealings with the Asiatics. Leasor wrote:
“At the start of the campaign, each Japanese soldier had been issued with a pamphlet that set out Japan’s reasons for fighting the British and the Americans. Her [Japan’s] claim was that she would liberate East Asia from white rule and oppression,” for since “We Japanese, as an Eastern people, have ourselves for long been classed alongside the Chinese and the Indians as an inferior race, and treated as such, we must at the very least, here in Asia, beat these Westerners to submission, that they may change their arrogant and ill-mannered attitude.”
The Japanese attack on Singapore accomplished much more: it ended the British Empire to be followed swiftly by the end of European imperialism itself. To return to the fall of Singapore, as with the fall of Hong Kong a few weeks earlier, the only worthwhile resistance had come from the Indian garrisons— the Sikh and the Gurkha regiments. The prestige and the mystique associated with the British Empire were shattered by these ignominious defeats.
And this is how my gracious host in Penang and his friends, men who had seen it at first hand, remember it. As they saw it, the massive defeat destroyed the British morale. It was the specter of the whole nightmare being reenacted in India, with nearly three million Indian soldiers just returned from war, which made the British leave India. “They ran away,” the old soldier kept telling me repeatedly.
I may point out that this is also the view of many Indians who saw action in the war— both in the Indian Army and those who fought in Subhas Bose’s INA. Indian soldiers saw that their British officers were frightened to death of the Japanese, while they themselves were prepared to fight them.
After the War, the British defeat in Singapore was followed by the French defeat in Dien Bien Phu at the hands of Ho Chi Min’s soldiers in Vietnam. This laid the groundwork for the American defeat in all of Vietnam and their inglorious flight from Saigon. No one today talks about the superiority of the ‘White Race’. The first nail in coffin was driven by the Japanese in Malaya in 1942.
It was this changed perception, that the British were just ordinary mortals like the rest that allowed Netaji Subhas Bose to recruit Indians in Southeast Asia into the Indian National Army (Azad Hind Fauz or the INA). Subhas Bose saw that the Indian armed forces were the prop of the Empire— not just in India but everywhere the British went. But Gandhi and Nehru, preoccupied with their utopian dreams of nonviolence failed to realize its significance. When the opportunity arose, Bose seized it to transform the armed forces into a nationalist force, while Gandhi and Nehru started the Quit India Movement which collapsed in a few weeks.
Before we look further, we need to ask: what support do we have for this revisionist view, that Subhas Bose and the INA brought freedom to India? The evidence is ample and impeccable. Several have noted it, but the most distinguished historian to highlight Bose’s contribution was the late R.C. Majumdar, one of modern India’s greatest historians. In his monumental, three-volume History of the Freedom Movement in India (Firma KLM, Calcutta) Majumdar provided the following extraordinary evidence:
“It seldom falls to the lot of a historian to have his views, differing radically from those generally accepted without demur, confirmed by such an unimpeachable authority. As far back as 1948 I wrote in an article that the contribution made by Netaji Subas Chandra Bose towards the achievement of freedom in 1947 was no less, and perhaps, far more important than that of Mahatma Gandhi…”
The ‘unimpeachable authority’ he cited happened to be Clement Attlee, the Prime Minister of Britain at the time of India’s independence. Since this is of fundamental importance, and Majumdar’s conclusion so greatly at variance with the conventional history, it is worth placing it on record (Volume III, pages 609 –10).
When B.P. Chakravarti was acting as Governor of West Bengal, Lord Attlee visited India and stayed as his guest at the Raj Bhavan for three days. Chakravarti asked Attlee about the real grounds for granting independence to India. Specifically, his question was, when the Quit India movement lay in shambles years before 1947, where was the need for the British to leave in such a hurry. Attlee’s response is most illuminating and important for history. Here is Governor Chakrabarti’s account of what Attlee told him:
“In reply Attlee cited several reasons, the most important were the activities of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose which weakened the very foundation of the attachment of the Indian land and naval forces to the British Government. Towards the end, I asked Lord Attlee about the extent to which the British decision to quit India was influenced by Gandhi’s activities. On hearing this question Attlee’s lips widened in a smile of disdain and he uttered, slowly, putting emphasis on each single letter— ‘mi-ni-mal’.” (Emphasis added.)
Another point worth noting: after the fall of Singapore that ended the British Empire, the most dramatic national event was the INA Trial at the Red Fort— not any movement by Gandhi or Nehru. This led to the mutiny of the naval ratings, which, more than anything helped the British make up their minds to leave India in a hurry. They sensed that it was only a matter of time before the mutiny spread to other parts of the armed forces and the Government. None of this would have happened without Subhas Bose and the INA.
The crucial point to note is that thanks to Subhas Bose’s activities, the Indian Armed Forces began to see themselves as defenders of India rather than of the British Empire. This, more than anything else, was what led to India’s freedom. This is also the reason why the British Empire disappeared from the face of the earth within an astonishingly short space of twenty years. Indian soldiers, who were the main prop of the Empire, were no longer willing to fight to hold it together. This is the essence of leadership.
This brings us back to Mao’s half joking reply— that it takes time to get the proper historical perspective. It is now more than sixty years since India became free. We can afford to look back and see the real reasons for British leaving India in a hurry. To sum up, by the end of the War, Gandhi was a spent force, and Subhas Bose was India’s most popular leader.
Now, sixty years and more later it is time to recognize the truth: first, it was the Fall of Singapore in 1942, not the Quit India Movement that was the beginning of the end of the British Empire; and finally, it was Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose more than anyone else who was responsible for India’s freedom in 1947.