Published On: Mon, Jan 23rd, 2012

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.


Bose with Gandhi

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.

Report on INA

Report on INA

“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.

  • mahakal

    the genius in subhas lies in the fact that he could extract concessions from hitler by securing the release of all the indian soldiers captured by his afrikcorps. this was in national interest. he could have cast his spell on stalin too, cut a deal with the tyrant and secure his release from the yakutask labour camp no. 13 ( as per the details provided by svetlana alliluyeva , stalin’s daughter ) and come back to india. but he did not. as that would be in self-interest. such was his magnanimity and greatness. the rest is upto the readers to decide. he died in soviet captivity from diabetic complications, including cataract induced blindness and disseminated kochs.

  • Shiba Prasad Bhattacharjee

    Because of
    the activities of Netaji Bose and action of his Indian National Army (INA), the
    British Indian Armed forces [Backbone of British Empire] began to realize
    immediately after the War that they had fought on wrong side and their duty was
    to fight against British. While he was in Europe and South East Asia, Subhas
    Bose had been inducing nationalism through his speeches, Radio broadcast,
    personal contact etc. that the Indian army men serving British were not eating
    British salt but they were eating salt of their motherland and their duty was
    to fight for liberation of India It was revolutionary for Hindu, Muslim and
    Sikh army men of INA going through same drill, having same motive. The effect
    of propaganda and his armed struggle yielded desired result.

    The British
    rule in India was practically over when they miserably failed to punish the INA
    officers after their trial at Red fort who were found guilty of an offence
    punishable by death. Due to public
    uprising in favor of the INA and revolt in armed forces especially in Navy
    through- out coastal line from Karachi to Calcutta in 1946 “ holding aloft flags containing the picture of Subhas Chandra Bose”,
    compelling the British civilians in Indian streets to shout slogan ‘JAI HIND’, renaming
    the British Indian Armed forces in conformity with Bose’s INA as Indian
    National Navy, Indian National Army, Indian National Air force etc by the mutineers
    (as an aftermath of Indian war of independence led by Netaji Bose which was
    clearly foreseen by him) they had to be set free marking the defeat of British rule followed by ceremonial end on next year on 15th
    August 1947. Due
    to unfortunate absence of Bose, British had an opportunity to divide the
    country causing death of almost one million innocent people and handover our
    country to the leaders who passively had cooperated with British rule.

    Netaji Bose
    is the father of Indian freedom /independence. Fatherhood cannot be denied if a
    father dies before the birth of his child. Dr. N S Rajaram has rightly observed
    that Bose is responsible for faster collapse of entire British Empire also. I
    salute all the INA personnel comprised of Indians from whole of undivided India
    and from foreign countries especially from Malaysia irrespective of religious
    or regional identity who sacrificed their lives or undergone suffering for our
    freedom. Netaji was successful to achieve freedom for us (posthumously if he
    died in the reported air-crash).

  • NSRajaram

    An important new book on the Netaji affair has just come out. It is by Anuj Dhar and is called INDIA’S BIGGEST COVER-UP. I recently reviewed it for The Pioneer:
    Successive Congress governments have gone to great lengths to suppress information about Netaji WHO DID NOT DIE IN THE PLANE CRASH on August 18, 1945, and also keep him from returning to India. I am currently working on a book on Netaji’s disappearance and reappearance.
    If Netaji had been around in 1945, he and not Nehru would have been the PM. Not that he would have cared but it would have been good for India. Netaji passed the ICS with flying colors but resigned from the ICS to participate in the Freedom Movement.
    The issue is historical justice– I am working on a book on Netaji.
    Incidentally, he was no Japanese stooge. He is still held in great respect in Japan. I know this from first hand knowledge. The British murdered more than 3 million by creating the Bengal Famine.

  • NSRajaram

    An important new book on the Netaji affair has just come out. It is by Anuj Dhar and is called INDIA’S BIGGEST COVER-UP. I recently reviewed it for The Pioneer:

    Successive Congress governments have gone to great lengths to suppress information about Netaji WHO DID NOT DIE IN THE PLANE CRASH on August 18, 1945, and also keep him from returning to India. I am currently working on a book on Netaji’s disappearance and reappearance.
    If Netaji had been around in 1945, he and not Nehru would have been the PM. Not that he would have cared but it would have been good for India. Netaji passed the ICS with flying colors but resigned from the ICS to participate in the Freedom Movement.
    The issue is historical justice– I am working on a book on Netaji.
    Incidentally, he was no Japanese stooge. He is still held in great respect in Japan. I know this from first hand knowledge. The British murdered more than 3 million by creating the Bengal Famine.

  • balayogi

    Gandhi and J. Nehru’s fiasco called Independent India


    hero worshipping Mahathma Gandhi and J.Nehru we have retarded our economic
    developmental agenda by at least half a century.

    The article by
    P.P.Hegde is
    very interesting[1]

    Here is my rejoinder

    There is something
    known as Burr’s Law: You
    can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the
    time, and that’s sufficient.

    There is also other techniques like brain washing,
    propaganda etc all the more easier when operated through a popular figure whom
    people are willing to believe and follow as a flock of sheep and/or through
    mediums/subjects which are of common interest to the people in that particular
    period of time.

    This is not unique to India but all over the world.
    Allowing certain preferred images and conditioning to prejudice our perception
    or even the very perception being carried on through a prism of such preferred
    images and conditioning.

    I am not passing any judgment but placing on record my
    observation of facts.

    Outward show of humility, simplicity, generosity and
    religious affiliation were hot cakes of 1940s. It is like Pizzas/cokes/jeans of
    present day or promotion of any of them by popular stars like a Sachin
    Tendulkar, Amitabh, Rajnikanth etc .

    Certain personalities realize consciously this weakness
    of the masses and capitalize them or use them occasionally. Even they
    [personalities] start it off as an intentional hypocritical tool imbued with
    artificial posturing [sometimes justifying it as a part of necessary
    grooming/identification etc] but gradually for some of them it becomes a second
    nature and then it becomes their very nature and priority or preoccupation.

    This is actually a natural hormonal aberration in
    adolescents of both sexes manifesting in guys craze for bikes or constantly
    combing their hair, looking at their biceps etc and girls looking at their
    faces in the mirror and decking it up. Normal human beings grow out of it but
    public figures do not because they are subconsciously aware of the fact that
    they are the cynosure and therefore presume that they have to necessarily carry out certain
    image make- over physically, psychologically, sociologically etc.

    So we had stories of J.Nehru’s father donating things
    making J.Nehru seated on one side of the balance and provisions on the other.

    We had pages and pages of Gandhi’s religious ways of
    life, strict austerities that he was observing much greater than the sages, his
    reading of Bhagawath Geetha etc. All said and done Gandhi had lot of great
    qualities as an extraordinary human being unlike J.Nehru.

    But we Indians more than any other nationality have a
    peculiar weakness at least to a very great degree compared to others, that is,
    we view, review , judge, analyze, criticize, love etc personalities for irrelevant reasons, though this is prevalent
    all over the world, we end up forgetting the main role of those personalities.

    If it is M.S. Subhulakshmi we start admiring her
    Diamond earrings and silk sarees, nothing wrong in that, but we end up
    discussing only about her Diamond earrings and silk sarees forgetting that M.S.
    Subhulakshmi is primarily a caranatic vocalist. I can go on and on with
    examples in all walks of life. Even last year during music season this
    stupidity was accorded importance by The Hindu newspaper.[2]

    Herd mentality, some 20 years back one Shankaracharya
    said it is auspicious to wear green color sarees in that particular year [
    probably he was trying to be secular in selection of color or some weaver at
    kancheepuram must have had excessive stock of green fabric].Many women cutting
    across caste, religion etc were buying crazily green colored sarees

    Coming to the subject of Gandhi and
    Nehru, there is hardly any record anywhere of their skills or achievements in
    Governance, Administration, Economic development etc which are the most vital qualities/aspects/concerns
    of any political leader of any civilized society /country/nation state at least
    after 1930s.

    But for leaders of tribes, clans, religions, sects etc
    these things are not required as they are propelled by different parameters.

    So going by the normal standards of
    matured political leadership with at least those three primary requirements
    namely Governance, Administration, Economic development etc neither Mahathma Gandhi
    nor J. Nehru can be termed as leaders and in fact hero worshipping them and
    thereby pushing aside others who were immensely qualified and capable we have
    retarded our economic developmental agenda, prioritizing modern methods of
    governance, region specific/relevant administration models etc by at least half
    a century .

    In the early 90s a sane leader outside of the Nehru
    clan who was allowed to rule for a full term of five years called P.Narasimha
    Rao showed us what real modern leadership is but then by opting for Nehru
    clan/tribe again from 2004 we have set our progress on rewind mode.



    • Santanu

      Good food for thought

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