Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and the Sikhs
The honorific Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was the best Bengali friend and admirer of the Sikhs. After Bose resigned as the President of the Congress party on 29th April,1939 and called a meeting at Sadananda Park, Kolkata, on 5th May , 1939, hundreds of Sikhs attended the meeting. Some came all the way from Punjab. It was here that the All India Forward Bloc formally took birth for “an anti-imperialist struggle” and many Sikhs joined the party as founder-members, including one Chaudhari Jaimal Singh, a wealthy landowner from Dasuya. He, like so many others of his Sikh brethren, was a truly magnanimous man. He stood up and announced that he would be making a spot donation of Rs 1,000 to the party of Bose “paaji” (brother), with the promise to donate a further one lakh Rupees in the future. In July,1939, Bose announced the Committee of the Forward Bloc. It had Bose as it’s President and the reputed politician, newspaper editor and author Sardul Singh Kavseer from Punjab as its Vice-President. When Netaji was protesting against the controversial “Holwell Monument” commemorating the “Black Hole of Calcutta” in July,1940, scores of patriotic Sikh youth walked every day from Rashbehari to Dalhousie in Kolkata to lend their active support to the cause of raising the monument to the ground. Many were arrested or sent back to Punjab. In fact, Netaji even had a close Sikh friend Niranjan Singh Talib by his side throughout the course of his historic escape from house arrest on 19th January,1941(dressed in Pathan attire and sporting a freshly harvested beard to hoodwink the British authorities!) right up to Peshawar. Talib was finally arrested, brought to Lahore and jailed, while Bose disappeared from the scene via Afghanistan, never to return again. The friendship with the Sikhs, however, remained untrammelled, with Kavseer succeeding Bose as the Bloc’s chairman. Bose finally arrived in Germany and his clarion call to Indian prisoners of war was well received and 1,200 soldiers, mostly Sikhs, were recruited during the first six months for a training camp set up at Frankenburg, near Chemnitz in Germany. This camp was the precursor of the Indian National Army (INA). It was initially named Lashkar-iHind or Indian Legion. The first troops of the Indian Legion were recruited from Indian POWs captured at El Mekili, Libya, during the battles for Tobruk. The German forces in the Western Desert or the Afrika Corps under General Irwin Rommel, popularly known as the “Desert Fox”, selected a core group of 27 POWs as potential officers who were flown to Berlin in May,1941. This was followed by POWs being transferred from the Italian forces to Germany. In November,1941, a Free India Centre was set up in Berlin with German funds and soon a Free India Radio, on which Bose broadcast nightly. In the first official meeting of the Free India Centre on 2nd November, 1941 in Berlin, Bose was conferred the title of “Netaji”, “Jai Hind”, was introduced as the national greeting, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s patriotic song “Jana Gana Mana” was adopted as the national anthem and Hindustani, the most widely spoken language in India, as the national language of Independent India. The number of POWs transferred to Germany grew to about 10,000 who were eventually housed at the POW camp located at Annaberg-Bucholz , where Bose first met with them. As the numbers of POWs joining the Indian Legion swelled, the Legion was moved to Königsbrück, a town in the Bautzen district in Saxony, for further training. It was at Königsbrück that uniforms were first issued, in German “feldgrau” or “field grey” with the badge of a leaping tiger. The formation of the Indian Legion was announced by the German Propaganda Ministry in January,1942. It did not, however, take oath until 26th August, 1942. The strength of the Indian Legion in the West ultimately rose to 4,500.On 26th Januray,1943, India’s Freedom Day was celebrated with great splendour in Berlin. Shortly thereafter, the German Postal Services issued a set of ten stamps in six different designs honouring the Indian Legion. These Indian Legion Stamps or Cinderella Stamps represent the first pictorial depiction of Sikh soldiers in postal history. One of the stamps in monochromatic brown colour depicts a close up of a Sikh soldier firing a German MG34 machine gun and was printed in both perforated as well as non-perforated form. The other stamp in black and white shows a Sikh soldier holding the INA flag with the words “Azad” on the saffron band, “Hind” on the green band and in the centre white band a springing tiger (substituting Mahatma Gandhi’s charkha!) symbolising INA’s strength and their indomitable will to fight. The other two versions show the flag in only orange and complete white. The stamps were designed by a husband-wife duo of two well known German artists Warner and Maria Von Axter-Heudtlass, whose ‘AXHEU’ signature appears unobtrusively on the stamps.
The name of the political organization corresponding to the Indian Independence League in the East was the Free India Centre. The Sikhs, living in Malaya, Singapore and other countries of the region set up two secret anti British groups, led principally by Giani Pritam Singh, the Secretary General of the Indian Independence League of Thailand and Malaya. Two Indian soldiers in the British army viz. Captain Mohan Singh and Captain Mohammad Akram, both from Punjab, were cut off from the British Indian Army and were wandering aimlessly in the jungles of Malaya when they came across Giani Pritam Singh and Major Fujiwara Iwaichi, Chief of Intelligence of the Japanese 15th Army. Giani Pritam Singh invited them to take up the cause of their motherland. Mohan Singh seized the opportunity without even batting an eyelid. He contacted Indian soldiers and prevailed upon them not to fight for the British but to seize the golden opportunity presented to them by the war for the liberation of India. It was decided by the Indian and Japanese Army officers and civilians in Malaya and Thailand to send a special team to Tokyo for consultations with the Japanese High Command as well as with well known Indian revolutionaries residing there like the well known freedom fighter, journalist, writer and revolutionary social reformist of India Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh (who had married Balveer Kaur belonging to a Jat Sikh family and who ultimately became a the member of the second Lok Sabha in 1957–1962 defeating Atal Behari Vajpayee from the Hathras constituency in Uttar Pradesh) and the charismatic Pan-Asian revolutionary leader, writer and journalist Rash Behari Bose (popularly known as “Bose of Nakamuraya” as he had married Tosiko Soma, the daughter of the owners of the famed Nakamuraya bakery and restaurant in Tokyo, and was instrumental in introducing Indian style curry or “Indo Karii” in Japan!) who had founded the India Independence League first in Japan and then in all the areas of South-East Asia occupied by Japan that had small pockets of Indians. The team included Mohan Singh, Niranjan Singh Gill and Giani Pritam Singh Along with the Japanese team, they flew to Tokyo in two planes in March,1942. Unfortunately the plane carrying Giani Pritam Singh crashed, killing him and other co- passengers instantaneously. At Tokyo, the Indian team met the Japanese Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo, Raja Mahendra Pratap and Rash Behari Bose. It was at Tokyo that the decision to form the Indian National Army (INA) was taken. It was also decided to hold a conference at Bangkok to seek the co-operation of over three million members of the Indian community living all over South-East Asia. This was held from 15th June to 20th June, 1942 and was attended by 150 Indian delegates. The conference commenced with the raising of the tri-colour flag by Rash Behari Bose. Mohan Singh spoke for several hours emphasising the importance of and the need for India’s freedom. The Conference decided to set up the INA comprising Indian troops and civilians of South-East Asia with Mohan Singh as the Commander-in-Chief with the objective of giving a military dimension to India’s freedom movement. The members were called upon to adopt three cardinal principles – Unity, Faith and Sacrifice. The Conference, in one of its important resolutions, invited Netaji to South-East Asia to lead the INA movement. The INA opened its headquarters at Mount Pleasant, a residential estate on the northern outskirts of Singapore.The anthem selected was the rousing “Sare Jhan Se Acchha Hindustan Hamara” composed by Sir Muhammad Iqbal . The first parade of the INA was held in August, 1942 at which the Indian tri-colour flag was hoisted and a short speech in Hindusthani was delivered by Mohan Singh. Mohan Singh’s speech was electrifying and touched the innermost chords of the troops who responded with wild enthusiasm and fervour. A large number of Sikhs voluntarily came forward. Mohan Singh established his POW headquarters at Nee Soon, a suburban town in the northern part of Singapore, with Lt Col.Niranjan Singh Gill as the Chief of Staff. The INA, however, was formally set in motion on 1st September,1942 by which date over 42,000 Indian POWs ,including 28,000 Sikhs, had signed a solemn pledge to join it.
Netaji left Europe on 8th February,1943 in a German submarine U-180 under the command of Captain Werner Musenberg, and travelled to the southeast of Madagascar around the Cape of Good Hope where he was transferred to the Japanese submarine I-29 at a secret rendezvous for the rest of the voyage to Japan. Netaji ultimately arrived at Tokyo on 13th June,1943. After discussing matters with General Tojo, he came to Singapore on 2nd July,1943. Two days later Rash Behari Bose handed over the leadership of the Indian Independence League to him. On 5th July,1943,Netaji revived the INA with Mohan Singh as the Commander-in-Chief and took the salute of the INA soldiers, dressed in military uniform. On 26th August, 1943, Netaji became the Supreme Commander of the INA renaming it as Azad Hind Fauj. He issued the following order:
“…when we stand, the Azad Hind Fauj has to be like a wall of granite, when we march, the Azad Hind Fauj has to be like a steam roller. With the slogan “Chalo Dilli!” on your lips, let us continue to fight till the national flag flies over the Viceroy’s House in Delhi and the Azad Hind Fauj holds the victory parade inside the ancient Red Fort..”
The Azad Hind Fauj then had 12,000 Sikh soldiers out of it’s total operational strength of 20,000 troops. Another towering Sikh personality Giani Kesar Singh (who was a great freedom fighter and a prolific writer who authored 25 historical novels in Punjabi, especially on the Gadar Movement, and the best selling English treatise on “Indian Independence Movement in East Asia”) was appointed the Civil Administrator of the INA. On 16th November,1943,a special ceremony took place on the occasion of the founding of the Indian National Provisional Government of Free India Centre at the iconic Hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin that turned out to be a scathing indictment of the British war induced hunger in India. In addition to numerous leading German personalities like Wilhelm Karl Keppler, the Secretary of State in the German Foreign Office, the Japanese Ambassador General Hiroshi Oshima and the Italian Ambassador Fillipo Anfuso, attended the event. Sikh soldiers of the Indian Legion were conspicuous by their large presence. To liberate India, a comprehensive action plan was drawn up by the INA and, accordingly, the headquarters of the Provisional Government were shifted to Rangoon in January,1944. On 11th July,1944,Netaji arranged a ceremonial parade at the tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar in the Shwe Degon Pagoda in Yangon and recited the last Moghul Emperor’s timeless couplet “Ghazion mein bu rahegi jab talak iman ki/ Takht-e-London tak chalegi tegh Hindustan ki!” (As long as there remains the scent of faith in the hearts of our holy fighters/So long shall the sword of Hindustan flash before the throne of London). After delivering a speech before an impressive gathering of over 60,000 people at Rangoon on the solemn occasion of India’s Freedom Day on 26th January,1944, Netaji suddenly looked at the rose garland which was presented to him and said, “Friends, I know that the this garland which you have gifted me today will dry up within a couple of days. But, I also know that the love and affection that you have for me in your heart will never dry up. If we see this as a mare garland then we all know that this will no value once it dries. But, if we take this garland as a memento of our struggle for freedom then this becomes priceless. So, today I want you all to bid for the same. The money we collect form this will be the first donation for the treasury of Azad Hind Rangoon. Now tell me, what price are you ready to pay for this garland.?”The highest bid was an amazing sum of $7 Lakhs and was placed by one businessman Brijlal Jaiswal. As Netaji was about to announce him as the winner, one Sikh businessman Sardar Har Govind Singh ascended the dais and sat down beside Netaji’s feet and said,”Netaji aap se mera ek aarz hai, Singapore me mere do makan hain, apna garage me aath(8) truck hain, aur bankok main bhi 3-4 lakh dollar honge. Kul mila kar 7 lakh doller ho sakta hai. Ye sab main abhi Aazad Hind ke naam likh deta hun; eske badle maherbani karke sirf ye mala mujh ko de dijiye.” Netaji walked towards Govind Singh and was about to garland him when Govind Singh shouted,”ye aap kya kar rahe hai Netaji. Ye aap ke gale ka mala hai, ye mala main apne gale me kaise daloon! Ye mala aap mere haath me dijiye.” That day Govind Singh donated his entire life savings to buy the garland and embraced the INA movement.
The INA participated in the Japanese offensive on the Indo-Burma front in 1944 and the Sikh soldiers in particular displayed exceptional bravery. But the British forces repulsed the offensive and launched a counter-attack during the bitter winter of 1944-45. The Japanese as well as the INA were compelled to beat a hasty retreat and the war ended with Japan’s unconditional surrender on 14th August,1945. Even before that during May-June 1945, most officers and men of the INA, numbering about 20,000, including Mohan Singh, had been made prisoners by the British and brought back to India. They were all set free during 1945 and Mohan Singh and his comrades of the INA were acclaimed far and wide for their indefinable valour and patriotism. After Independence, Mohan Singh entered active politics and joined the Indian National Congress. After a brief stint as a member of the legislative assembly in Punjab, he was elected to the Rajya Sabha for two terms. He strove relentlessly for the recognition of the members of his Azad Hind Fauj as worthy freedom fighters in the noble cause of the nation’s freedom. The immeasurable contribution of the Sikhs in the INA was recognised by the Indian Post & Telegraphs Department which issued a set of two special stamps in the denominations of 15np and 55np each to mark the 67th Birth Anniversary of Netaji in 1967. Of these, the latter shows a black and white picture of Netaji with the national flag in the foreground and some Sikh soldiers in the background. The symbol of the INA is shown on the right. Two covers were released, one with the picture of the INA Martyrs Memorial in Singapore and another with the INA symbol above the marching soldiers. Significantly, Sikh army officers like Col.Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, Lt. Sardar Sadhu Singh and Lt. Sardar Ujagar Singh fought under the leadership of Netaji and Col. Dhillon was tried by the British at the INA trials conducted in the Red Fort in Delhi in 1945/46. Netaji was also closely connected with Sikh leaders like Sardar Baldev Singh (former Defence Minister of India in the Nehru cabinet who was one of the persons who had masterminded Netaji’s escape from India), Achhar Singh Chhina (a Berkeley contemporary of Punjab’s former Chief Minister Pratap Singh Kairon), Sardar Mehnga Singh (who was the Secretary of Bhartiya Janata Party’s Amritsar unit and in whose name a road is named in Amritsar) and Sardar Sewa Singh Namdhari (at whose spacious residence Bose came in close contact with the local Indian community in Bangkok and who after Independence emerged as an active RSS leader and was a part of the cow protection movement in Delhi in 1966) in India’s struggle for freedom. Netaji was indisputably the true “Dost” of the Sikhs!
Advocate,Supreme Court of India
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