By Ahmed Kamran
Chapter Three: The Rise and Fall of Indian Communists
(1933-1951) – (Continued)
INA and Hukoomat-e Azad Hind
While Indian National Congress was still undecided about its collective response to the imperialist war and the opportunity of undertaking a massive national liberation movement, Subhash Chandra Bose escaped from India disguised as a Muslim Pathan ‘Ziauddin’ to Kabul with the help of former Jihadi revolutionary, Mian Akbar Shah of Nowshehra. From Kabul, disguised as an Italian diplomat to avoid British spies in Afghanistan (20), he reached Germany in April, 1941 to seek support in forming an Indian National Army. Sardar Ajit Singh, the brother of famous Bhagat Singh, also reached Berlin from Italy where he was teaching oriental languages at Naples University. But, a sizable number of Indian war prisoners in Europe were not available in Germany to help form a meaningful Indian army. At the same time, Rash Bihari Bose of the erstwhile Ghadar Party, now living in Tokyo, was working to form an Indian National Army with the support of Japan. With the fall of Malaya and Singapore, many British Indian army troops were taken in as war prisoners. Malaya alone had 70,000 Indian troops, and Singapore another about 55,000. Rash Bihari Bose was facilitated by the Japanese officials to meet and work with Indian war prisoners Capt Mohan Singh, Capt Mohammad Akram, and Col. Niranjan Singh of Indian army in Tokyo in April 1942. He made an appeal to the Indian troops in Malaya, Thailand, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Manchuria to join the Indian liberation army. The formation of Indian National Army (INA) and an Indian Independence League was formalized in July, 1942 in Bangkok. Capt Mohan Singh (promoted to the rank of General) was appointed the Commander-in-Chief of INA while Rash Bihari Bose took over as its Political Commissar. In September 1942, 20,000 Indian war prisoners joined the INA at Singapore. The INA troops were deployed in Assam and Bengal for fighting the British Indian army.
The INA leaders soon realized that they were only used as pawns to the dictates of the Japanese army officers. Indian soldiers were also made to wear Japanese army uniform, which the Indian troops resisted and refused. The army commanders including General Mohan Singh supported the Indian troop’s demand. The arrogant Japanese officers initially ignored the protests and later arrested the trouble makers. Mohan Singh and his colleagues were also arrested in December, 1942 for disobeying Japanese command. Rash Bihari Bose was also powerless. Finally, the Japanese army headquarter relented and agreed to the Indian demands. In February 1943, the Indian army was put under the command of Lt. Col. Mohammad Zaman Kiani. Other commanders were Lt. Col Bhonsle, Lt. Col. Shah Nawaz Khan, Major Prem Kumar Sehgal, Col Gurubaksh Dhillon, and Major Habibur Rahman. At Rash’s suggestion, at this stage Subhash Chandra Bose was invited from Germany to take over the command of INA, which he did in July 1943. Recruiting and training many educated Indian women from Malaya, Siam, and Burma, a women regiment of the INA headed by Capt Dr. Lakshmi Swaminathan was also raised. Before moving from Madras to Singapore in 1940, Dr. Lakshmi had been for some time under the influence of her mother’s family friend Suhashini Chattopadhyay, the first Indian woman member of CPI. The regiment was given the name of ‘Rani Jhansi Regiment’ after the famous Rani of Jhansi who fought bravely against the British during Mutiny of 1857. Probably, at the time it was the first women army regiment in the world outside Soviet Union’s Red Army. An Aarzi Hukoomat-e Azad Hind (The Provisional Government of Free India) in exile was formed headed by Subhash Chandra Bose as its Prime Minister, Defence Minister, and the Foreign Minister. Other cabinet members were Ms. Lakshmi Swaminathan, S.A. Ayer, Gulzara Singh, Aziz Ahmed, Ehsan Qadir, M.Z. Kiani, and Shahnawaz Khan. All Axis Powers and their allies recognized the Aarzi Hukoomat-e Azad Hind (the Provisional Government). It also printed its own postage stamps but could never issue them. Ironically, while most Indians were powerfully moved by the dream of ‘brave soldiers of the revolutionary INA’ triumphantly marching into India from the eastern Bengal front, the CPI was terming Subhash Bose and the INA soldiers as ‘anti-revolutionary’, ‘fascists’, and ‘fifth-columnists’.
The INA made rapid initial advances toward India from Burma and was knocking on the Indian door from its north-eastern border. Last battles were fought in the areas of Nagaland and Manipur states of today’s India. INA had reached in the outskirts of Dimapur, Kohima and Imphal when the Japanese army and the INA suffered conclusive defeat in July 1944 at the hands of the British army and the Japanese retreat began. By May 1945 Subhash Bose and his Provisional Government officers were evacuated from Burma to Saigon in Vietnam where the Japanese army was holed up. In the hope of taking refuge in the Soviet Union, Subhash Bose, together with his trusted assistant and friend Col Habibur Rehman, boarded a military plane heading for Manchuria, in the north east of China. The plane was, however, reportedly crashed after refueling in Formosa (now Taiwan) on 18 August, 1945. Bose couldn’t take his trusted colleagues S.A. Ayer, Col Pritam Singh, Devnath Das, Col Gulzara Singh, and Maj. Abid Hussain with him due to limited space in the plane. Only Col. Habibur Rehman accompanied him for the journey (21). Subhash Bose died in the crash, though, giving rise to many wishful tales and ‘rumours’ of him being alive and soon returning to India with a victorious army. There are also some ‘reports’ that he reached Soviet Union and died in Siberia after his arrest. After the fall of Rangoon, INA officers and Provisional government officials were taken prisoner and tried at the Red Fort, Delhi for treason in Nov 1945. Maj. General Shahnawaz Khan, Gurubaksh Singh Dhillon, and Col Prem Kumar Sehgal were sentenced to death by hanging but after a public outcry their sentence was changed to life imprisonment. Congress, CPI, and Muslim League came out on streets claiming credit for the INA nationalists, conveniently forgetting their earlier policies of mild opposition or ignoring the INA efforts during its advances in Burma or their active condemnation of INA as was the case with CPI. In the twilight of its rule in India and confronted with strong public pressure and Congress’ demand, the British government finally released the principal accused in Jan 1946 (22).
The shadows of CPI’s ‘People’s War’ policy’ and its opposition to ‘Quit India’ movement, however, were long. By the end of 1944 when the world war was entering its closing rounds, the British under pressure from Americans slowly relented their iron-hand grip on Indian political activities. Although, the Congress was still under a formal ban but its workers were now relatively free to re-organize themselves. As more and more Congress leaders started coming out of jails, infuriated with CPI’s opposition to the Quit India movement the Congress proceeded to set up its own Kisan Sabhas, trade union organizations and students associations, clearly demarcating themselves from the Communists. CPI tried to recover its position by vigorously participating in Congress Workers’ Councils being formed in the districts. CPI faced humiliation when communist workers, led by G. Adhikari, seeking to attend Congress’ National Kisan Conference in Ludhiana in March 1945 were refused entry by the angry Congress workers. CPI, however, supported Congress in the Assembly by-elections from Rohtak and Lahore in May and kept postponing their own plans for participating in 1945-1946 central and provincial assembly elections. But the breach was almost complete. With the transfer of power by the British to a united or divided India almost assured, the utility of Communists for the big Indian bourgeoisie and right-wing Congress leaders was finished. By its actions, CPI had provided an excellent opportunity for them to cut the communists off at the time when the fruits of independence were near. In October 1945, Congress suspended 14 Communist members of its provincial committee and allowed its other committees to take disciplinary action against all those who had defied Congress instructions during the movement and collaborated with British government. The CPI lost all seats contested by it in the central assembly elections held in December 1945, and won only eight seats in the provincial elections held in January 1946.
20. Sugata Bose, His Majesty’s Opponent: Subash Chandra Bose and India’s Struggle Against Empire, Harvard College, 2011, pp. 191-198.
21. Joyce C. Lebra, The Indian National Army and Japan, Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore, 2008, pp. 195-197.
22. All three principal accused joined Indian Congress after their release. Dr. Lakshmi went on to marry the co-accused Maj. Prem Kumar Sehgal in 1947 in Lahore shortly before Pakistan was established and joined CPI. She joined CPI-Marxist faction in party’s split in 1971 and from its platform was elected Lok Sabha member from Kanpur where she lived. She was a joint candidate of the left alliance in 2002 for Indian presidential election against APJ Abdul Kalam. Her daughter Subhashni is a central committee member of the CPI-Marxist and married film maker Muzaffar Ali. Shahnawaz Khan was elected to the parliament from Meerut and held many ministerial positions during 1952-77. Col M.Z. Kiani migrated to Pakistan and subsequently played important role in 1948 Kashmir War together with Gen Akbar Khan who was later involved in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case in 1951.
Chapter 3 to be continued…