During our years in Paris – which now seems an eternity away both in terms of time as well as memory – the Seine was a constant presence in our lives. We could see the river from our bedroom window over the Parc de Passy. At night the big tourist boats would come sliding close to the banks, with strong searchlights focused on the posh apartment complexes on the 16th Arrondisement. We were in one of these posh complexes but set at a height, so we never had our privacy disturbed. Seeing the boats, my daughter would always be tempted to sing these lines taught to her in her play school:
Bateau sur l’eau La rivière, la rivière Bateau sur l’eau La rivière au bord de l’eau
Bateau sur l’eau La rivière, la rivière Bateau sur l’eau Touni est tombé dans l’eau, plouf
But I digress. The bridge closest to us over the Seine was the Pont du Bir Hakeim. Most early mornings I would run from our home in Rue Lyautey down to Porte d’Auteuil, and run back via Avenue Mozart, cut into Rue de Passy, run all the way down and turn right to go down to the Passy Metro station. It was a daily ritual for me to walk on the bridge at the end of the run, and then walk back home.
The bridge itself is a beauty. It has a road at one level, and the Line 6 railway line on the second level on top of an iron bridge. The beautiful wrought-iron columns of the bridge would be familiar to movie enthusiasts. Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider are pictured walking separately and unknown to each other on the bridge one cloudy Paris morning in the opening sequence of “Last Tango in Paris”. As you start walking on the bridge towards the South, you cannot miss the spectacular rise of the Eiffel Tower on the left. No matter how many times you see it, the sight of the Tower will never fail to make you sigh at its sheer beauty, silhouetted in the morning sun.
This is the Pont du Bir Hakeim.
Midway between the two banks, there is a small island called the Ile aux Cygnes (Island of Swans). It has a small garden and a replica of the Statue of Liberty. On a nice summer evening I would take my daughter over there to play and gawk at the swans. Where the bridge opens out to the island there is a small balcony.
On the balcony is a plaque.
The balcony is popular with lovers and dawdlers alike and everyone ignores the plaque. But that plaque tells a very important story and explains why this bridge has this funny foreign name.
Bir Hakeim used to be an oasis in Libya, now completely vanished from the map. At one time, when there was water, it was a desert fort during the days when the Ottoman Empire covered these desert tracts. It was also one of the last outposts of civilization before the desert began – a vast empty sea of sand stretching thousands of miles south almost to the Atlantic Coast.
France fell to Germany in 1940, and most French forces were disarmed and told go home. When Charles de Gaulle escaped to London and made his famous speech over BBC on June 14, 1940, asking all Frenchmen to resist, there were a select few who heeded his call, who refused to accept the apparent finality of defeat and occupation, and decided to fight on. They became the Free French.
War in North Africa began as soon as the French surrendered, when Italy declared War on the Allies. The British, who controlled Egypt, attacked Libya, which was an Italian colony. After the Italian 10th Army was destroyed by British and Allied forces, the Germans stepped in, and the vaunted Afrika Korps under General Erwin Rommel took charge of the fighting in 1941.
Egypt controlled access to the Suez Canal, and that made it a German target. There was also the question of oil. British Commonwealth forces consisted not only of British divisions, but also Indian, South African, and Australian Divisions. It also had the First Free French Division which consisted of former French Army soldiers, some Foreign Legionnaires, some Spanish mercenaries and pretty much anyone who wanted to fight the Nazis.
Taking over from the apparently feckless Italians, Rommel scored some stunning successes. He was going for Cairo, for the Suez Canal. The fighting stuck closer the coast, where the fortresses were and where tanks could operate.
By May 1942, Rommel was pushing the British towards Tobruk from the west. Tobruk would have been an important staging point to begin the offensive on Egypt, and for the Commander In Chief of Commonwealth forces, General Sir Claude Auchinleck, losing Tobruk was out of the question. This is where the story of Bir Hakeim begins. It lies south of Tobruk, and expecting the Afrika Korps to approach Tobruk from the West and South, it had significance.
Until this time, the Free French had not made any impression. They had important symbolic value but not as a serious fighting formation – there were too few of them and they had no equipment of their own. General Auchinleck did not expect too much from the Free French. Whether it was because he fully expected the Germans to roll over the French or because he valued their symbolic significance, he assigned the defence of Bir Hakeim to the French.
The Commander of the Free French Division was General Henri Koenig, a colourful man. His friend and alleged lover, a British woman called Susan Travers, was also in the Free French fighting as a Foreign Legionnaire – but assigned to drive the General. She was with him in battle.
General Koenig knew that the Germans also did not think too much of the Free French, and that the Afrika Korps would attack Bir Hakeim as soon as they learnt that the French were defending it. Expecting a full fledged attack, he prepared as best as he could, laying minefields and hidden explosives and preparing fortifications. He had about 3600 men under arms – vastly outgunned and outnumbered.
The assault began on the night of May 26, with the Italian armored regiments in the lead. Successive waves of Stuka dive bombers pounded the French positions. German tanks soon joined the Italians. The attacks were non-stop, the fighting was hand-to-hand at places. Water was short – a situation made worse when Indian POWs released by the Germans in the desert a few days before wound up at Bir Hakeim needing medical assistance. Notwithstanding these challenges, the French stood firm, sometimes taking the attack to the Germans, and defending their position doggedly and with great courage.
Rommel now turned his full attention to Bir Hakeim by the first week of June, realizing that he had a serious problem with his supply lines if he did not take the position. Respectful emissaries were sent to General Koenig under white flag, offering fair terms if they surrendered. The emissaries were respectfully spurned.
By June 10th fresh German forces surrounded Bir Hakeim and it was clear that the position would not survive. General Koenig realized that his position was untenable. He then did something remarkable. He asked wounded French soldiers to man defensive positions and to continue to fire on the enemy. The territory behind Bir Hakeim towards Tobruk was very heavily mined. He and the rest of his troops essentially drove through the French minefield in a daring move to escape north towards British positions – General Koenig’s transport had Susan Travers at the wheel. Men and vehicles were lost but the vast majority made it through. Out of 3600 men, some 2700 survived. Among them were ambulances with the wounded. Through June 10 and 11th British patrols looked for and picked up those lost in the desert. It was a heroic escape.
On the night of June 11, German forces broke through to Bir Hakeim, only to find a couple of hundred wounded Frenchmen. The battle was expensive for Rommel – not only had the campaign to take Tobruk been delayed by three weeks, he lost nearly 3,300 dead and wounded, and 164 tanks and vehicles taken out by accurate French anti-tank weapons.
Hitler was enraged and apparently he ordered Rommel to execute the French POWs. History says that Rommel ignored the order and made every effort to treat the Free French POWs honourably, as befits an enemy in war.
Tobruk did fall to the Germans, and this episode by no means marked a turning point in the war. That was to come much later, when in the Second Battle of El Alamein, the new British Commander of the Commonwealth forces – known as the Eighth Army – General Bernard Montgomery famously beat Rommel’s Afrika Korps in an epic battle. That marked an inflexion point not only in North Africa but for the rest of the War. So why is Bir Hakeim important?
The significance of Bir Hakeim is that France was able to tell the world its spirit was not dead. The fighting soul of France was alive and well. The easy contempt with which some Allied commanders treated the French due to their spectacular defeat turned to grudging respect. Less than 4,000 Frenchmen held off 45,000 German and Italian troops. By delaying Rommel for three weeks, the French ensured that the British were able to reinforce their positions east of Tobruk. It indicated to all Frenchmen that their independent heart was still alive, beating somewhere in the sands of North Africa.
The plaque at the Pont de Bir Hakeim is simple and moving.
“At Bir Hakeim from May 27 to 11 June 1942, the First Free French Brigade repulsed furious assaults from two divisions of the enemy and affirmed to the world that France has never ceased to fight”.
The Indian Army’s Official War History tersely states that Lt Col D A Taylor and 192 men perished in the cold in November 1962. I tried to reconstruct his last two days on earth from available sources. This is what I found.
November 1962. The remnants of the 2nd Battalion 8th Gorkha Rifles, 2 Madras and Assam Rifles detachments started pulling out of Menchuka and commenced their withdrawal to Along. Orders were received over crackling radio from 2 Division Command by the Area Commander Lt Col D A Taylor.
Menchuka is about 30 miles from the McMahon Line, the disputed frontier. It lies in a valley, on the road to the nearest town called Along. The road clings to the valley as it zigzags between peaks on both sides, heavily wooded with pine. Quite beautiful on any other day but no one has eyes for this today. A number of small villages mark the road – you cannot call them villages really, more like small agglomerations of inhabitations. The road heads to the South East, determined not to be distracted or diverted by the big peaks on both sides. It winds forward and backwards, in hairpin bends, hugging the hillsides, not much wider than a cart at some places.
About 8-9 kilometers down, the road crosses a small stream called Sen Chu over a causeway. Towards the South West at that crossing point, lies a spot called Rego. Another few kilometres down towards the South East the road reaches a town called Payum. There it bends sharply to the South and another 15 kilometres down is the larger town of Along.
This road that I describe is about 20 years old. In 1962 this was not a road – it was a broad path for yaks, mules and porters.
Col Taylor instructed his men to travel light for quick movement. There were no porters or mules to carry anything heavier than a Heavy Machine Gun. Heavy winter clothing had not yet been issued – there were a number of plainsmen like the Madrasis who were clearly not used to the weather. Everyone was going to find it difficult but there was no choice.
The Siang Front shown on the map below is the broad green line near Menchuka. Five battalions of the PLA were ranged against the Siang Front. It was divided into three sectors, Menchuka being at the centre.
On October 20 the Chinese attacked all along the NEFA front. The attacks were simultaneous. They had obviously been months in preparation.
India’s Forward Policy, put in place in July 1962, required the Army to operate very close to, and sometimes across, the McMahon line. The terrain was heavily wooded and mountainous. A distance of two kilometres on the map between two points could take up to three hours to traverse. Across the border the Chinese built up troop and supply strength. Good roads had been constructed leading right up to the McMahon Line.
Skirmishes between Indian and Chinese patrols turned serious. As Chinese forces pushed in they encountered lightly armed Indian patrols, who sometimes engaged vastly superior forces. At Lamang the Assam Rifles patrol fought the Chinese for three hours until 9pm, until Chinese Verey lights revealed they were surrounded. They withdrew towards Menchuka.
To the right of Menchuka, towards Manigong, the results were similar. Chinese advance parties engaged Indian patrols and pushed them back to local headquarters. The Dogras posted at Manigong retreated under pressure from the Chinese, delaying them as much as possible. Under Major Pandarinath Rege, the Dogras beat back four attacks by the Chinese, causing casualties, until they retreated due to shortage of ammunition.
At Tuting, the Assam Rifles detachment just managed to delay the Chinese. Lance Naik Hasta Bahadur Gurung and Rifleman Baji Ram Thapa displayed significant heroism under fire.
The GOC of 2 Division was Maj Gen M S Pathania – cousin of the more famous Maj Gen A S Pathania who was GOC 4 Division that operated towards the left of 2 Division, upto the Bhutan border. The Division was a brand new formation, raised on October 24, to create the command structure to focus the defence of Walong (see map). It was raised just after the disaster of the battle of Nam Ka Chu, near the Bhutan frontier – in the very first battles that took place on October 20, the Chinese destroyed 7 Brigade and took the Brigade commander Brigadier John Dalvi prisoner.
The disaster forced the Army to remove the erstwhile GOC 4 Div Maj Gen Narayan Prasad and bring in Maj Gen A S Pathania to command 4 Division.
Both first cousins were now responsible for the defence of the Brahmaputra Valley.
By November 9th it became apparent that the Chinese were going to outflank Menchuka by cutting off its road link to Along near a place called Tato. Nevertheless, Maj Gen M S Pathania asked the Siang Front to hold at all costs.
By mid November, repeated Chinese probes convinced the Command that Menchuka risked being cut off. The Menchuka sub area was told to be ready to pull out towards Along. Two days later they were told it had to be a fighting withdrawal. Col Taylor was in touch with the Brigade Major of 192 Brigade, his direct superior. They tried to get more men from Along to Menchuka but the weather was turning and no mule transport was available. It would have taken days to get there by foot.
Lt Col Taylor and the garrison stood their ground for another day. On 18th November the 2 Madras positions came under sustained Chinese artillery attack. The Madrasis replied with their mortars. Col Taylor and 192 Brigade conferred on wireless. They assumed that the Chinese had managed to cut the road to Along and determined to use hill paths to make their way back. With that Lt Col Taylor broke off wireless contact.
Lt Col Taylor and a party of 35 men started out in the early hours of the 20th, looking for a jungle track to conceal their withdrawal. Along with them went the Adjutant 2/8 GR Capt Ghosh, the Medical Officer 2/8 GR Lt Sharma, and Maj Pimple of 2 Madras. They carried no rations and wore their regular uniforms – not winter clothing, because they had none. They traveled mostly in the dark. The main party, led by Major Dar of 2/8 GR, followed a little while later.
The path Col Taylor took was little used by locals and hard to find. It started to rain and snow quite heavily, and movement became difficult.
Major Dar and his party followed Lt Col Taylor after a few hours but on the more conventional path. They were met by a Chinese ambush. The men scattered and took to a more hazardous route over the snow. Some of them decided to trudge on to Dapori Jo, due south about 23 kilometres as the crow flies. Others decided to go towards Tato, about 8 kilometres on the road to Along towards the South East.
The going was predictably hard and the weather made it worse. Men began to fall by the wayside with severe frostbite and exhaustion. Those who could not move had to be left behind.
The party that tried to reach Tato ran into the Chinese, who had blocked the track to Along. After a brief firefight, the men were taken prisoner.
Lt Col Taylor and his men, hearing the gunfire, decided to get off the path going South East to Along, and decided to cross the mountains, going due south to get to the Brahmaputra Valley, when they had reached Rego. They were joined by other stragglers from 2/8 Gurkha Rifles. There were now 190 men, making their way across a snow covered path, 14000 feet high, with nothing more than autumn clothes and no rations.
The Brigade and Division assessed that the invading Chinese parties were well-equipped but did not number more than 200. The Menchuka garrison alone had 800 souls. Contradictory orders had flowed up and down between the Corps, the Division and the Brigade. The tone of the messages was pessimistic. They inspired no confidence in Lt Col Taylor that the Division will find a way to support him in case it came to battle.
The men who started towards Daporijo reached their destination after a month, enduring severe hardship on the way.
Lt Col Taylor, and a 192 other men, died of exhaustion and frostbite. The bodies of Lt Col Taylor and his fellow officers were never found.
Who was Lt Col Taylor? What are the stories of Captain Ghosh, Lt Sharma and Maj. Pimple, and of the other 190 who perished. We will never know.
The least we can do is to remember them. Requiescat In Pace.
Mogaung is a small and sleepy town in the Kachin State of Myanmar, forgotten by most people today. It lies about 150km due east of the Indian border, and barely 60 km from the closest Chinese frontier. The bigger town of Myitkyina is about 20 km north east of it. Thick jungles and hilly terrain lie between Mogaung and the Indian border.
This is a story of great but forgotten heroism, and of human foibles. It is mined from my study of the Burma War 1941-45, which was fought by the Indian Army and Allies against the Imperial Japanese Army. The great men involved in this episode were all so deeply flawed that many deaths resulted from their egos and their actions. And yet it is possible for us to admire the actions of lesser known men who stood out for their selflessness. Not that they were devoid of weaknesses. But this package is what makes us human.
Our story is set in June 1944, and explainswhy June 23 is celebrated as Mogaung Day by the Gorkha Rifles. Read on.
The map below shows the town is located, and its closeness to both the Indian and Chinese borders.
The forces fighting the Japanese juggernaut in Burma were multinational and filled with complex personalities.
General “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell
China was invaded by the Japanese in 1932. The then-nationalist Government of China, led by General Chiang Kai-Shek, was a great friend of the United States. As the Nationalist Government of Gen Chiang was also facing a communist insurgency led by Mao Ze Dong. This made the Nationalists allies of the United States, and the US began a program of providing active military assistance to the Chinese. Given that the Nationalists were being pushed into the south of the country by the Japanese, the more natural route for the Americans to supply the Chinese would be via India, via the Assam frontier to be specific.
This was being done through two routes – the hazardous flight over the ‘hump’ – from Gauhati to Kunming. The other was via a road route that was being built even as supplies were being sent by land via mule.
The third route was to land supplies at Rangoon harbour and transport them by rail to the Chinese border. But when the Japanese occupied Rangoon and most of Burma by March 1942, this supply route was closed off. Arming and feeding the Chinese became doubly important because they were also fighting the Japanese.
The man in charge of managing the American aid program to the Chinese was General Joe Stilwell. He was loud, racist, bad tempered and acerbic, with an inflated opinion of himself. He had contempt for General Chiang Kai-Shek – calling him “Peanut” in private. Worse, he hated the British, calling them limeys and cowards.
Stories of Stilwell’s many foibles are a book in themselves, so let us get back to our story.
Stilwell was effectively in command of some of the Chinese Armies. He had seen the British being chased out of Burma – he himself had walked all the way from Rangoon to Assam – and did not think the British had it in them to fight. He believed in his Chinese troops – indeed he had two battalions of them in Ramgarh in Bihar since 1942. He was very keen to throw his Chinese troops into battle to push the Japanese out of Burma.
The Allied Command Structure
In 1943, General William Slim was put in command of a new grouping called the 14th Army, consisting of all British Empire forces in SE Asia. He reported ultimately to Lord Mountbatten, who was designated the South East Asia Supreme Commander for all Allied Forces. Gen Joe Stilwell reported to Lord Mountbatten technically, but he did pretty much what he wanted and the British were under instructions from Churchill to ensure that Stilwell was not upset in any way. The Commander In Chief of India was General Sir Archibald Wavell.
Pushing The Japanese Back
By June 1944, the Japanese invasion of India had run out of steam. Out of the 55,000 who battered themselves at Kohima and Imphal, some 30,000 were dead. Most of the survivors were starving. The Japanese started to fall back, pushed very hard by the Indian Army eager to seek revenge for three years of defeats.
Bill Slim and Joe Stilwell were keen to capitalise on the momentum gained, and sweep the Japanese back towards Rangoon. The plan was to capture Myitkyina. It was on the Irrawaddy, had good road connections, and had an airfield that could be used to attack Japanese positions. It was also close to the Chinese border. Myitkyina was also a major Japanese garrison – eliminating it would open up the Irrawaddy plains for allied motorised troops to sweep down.
The Allied Plan had several moving parts, and for the story to be told, lets understand one of the most important of all.
The proper name for this outfit is the Long Range Penetration Group. The concept was pioneered by Brigadier Orde Wingate, a charismatic British Army officer. It consisted of creating a brigade of troops, lightly armed but extremely mobile, who would seek out the Japanese and hit them hard, and disappear. They were to avoid pitched battles since they would not have anything more than battalion level mortars. They would travel light and rely on supply from air.
The first Chindit assaults in 1943 were very successful though casualties were very heavy. The Chindits won the support of Churchill, largely because the Prime Minister was frustrated with the slow progress in Burma. Wavell was not on the Prime Minister’s good books because he considered him slow and plodding. Wavell was also not the most communicative of men but he knew India, the Indian Army and was an exceptionally good soldier himself. Churchill approved the concept of the LRPG – now known as the Chindits – and asked Wavell to ensure they lacked for nothing.
In May 1944, the Chindits, who had been operating behind Japanese lines but with very heavy casualties, were placed under the command of Stilwell. The specific Chindit unit involved in this affair was 77 Brigade, commanded by Lt Col Mike Calvert, an outspoken, charismatic man also called “Mad Mike” because of his great personal courage and his willingness to fight alongside his men on the front with a rifle.
The area between Myitkyina and the Indian border was the scene of Chindit operations since February 1944. This was before the Japanese attack on Kohima and Imphal began. Jungle airfields were cleared out to allow Dakotas and Gliders to land, with men, supplies and mules. The Chindits also established well-provided supply and medical stations in the jungle to ensure that they could operate in hit and run mode. In this they were very successful.
But in May 1944, Slim ordered the Chindits to abandon these supply dumps and revert to being an infantry formation. Further he handed over command of the Chindits to Stilwell. Historians speculate that Slim never really did agree with the idea of the Chindits, and he may have resented Wingate’s charisma and access to the Prime Minister, And after Wingate was killed in an aircrash in February 1944, the Chindits lost their champion.
The Assault on Mogaung
In May, once Stilwell had command of the Chindits, her ordered Mogaung to be attacked by the British. His Chinese and American forces were trying to take Myitkyina and making a fist of it. He wanted Mogaung taken so as to take some pressure off Myitkyina.
Stilwell had well-equipped Chinese troops in the area, with armour and heavy weaponry. But he refused to deploy them and instead asked the Limeys and Indians to fight it out on their own. It was suicidal for the Chindits to attack prepared Japanese positions without the normal complement of artillery that a traditional infantry regiment enjoys. But orders were orders, Stilwell had to be kept happy, and if Calvert had any objections he was certainly not going to be heard.
So Calvert and his men began the 160 mile trek across difficult jungle country from India. The Brigade consisted of 3rd Battalion/6th Gurkha Rifles, the Lancashire Fusiliers and the South Staffordshire Regiment. There were about 2,000 men.
The terrain around Mogaung was tricky. The obvious point of attack would have been from the West but that was dominated by a deep and fast flowing river which would have been difficult to ford. The only other way was to attack from the east. It was marshy but there was a point where the attack could be mounted – this was the Pin Hmi Bridge across one of the smaller rivers to the east.
The men of the 77th were lucky to be led by Calvert. Apart from being very brave himself, he was also extremely bright – he had become a fluent Chinese speaker when posted in Hong Kong, he had served as an observer during the Sino-Japanese fighting and hence knew how the Japanese operated and he had an engineering degree from Cambridge. Calvert worked out a plan of attack and on June 6 the assault began.
The Brigade was positioned south and east of Mogaung – east across a river that had a heavily defended bridge called the Pin Hmi Bridge. They were aware Japanese forces were rushing to fortify the town hence speed was of the essence. They could rely only on mortars and air strikes that took two hours to arrive.
The Japanese defence was skilful and tough, but Calvert pressed on despite losses. They crossed the Wettauk Chaung River that flowed to the east of Mogaung. The Gurkhas meanwhile attacked the bridge, which had high embankments, and were beaten back again and again. It took the them 4 days to capture the bridge. But that was time enough for the Japanese to garrison the town with fresh troops.
From June 10th the monsoons began, which created a fresh set of problems – trench foot, malaria and typhus were rife. The brigade was taking heavy losses and Calvert sent repeated messages to Stilwell for reinforcements. Stilwell then sent a Chinese Infantry Regiment to support the Chindits. The Chinese also brought 75mm Mountain Guns. With the Chinese troops – three battalions of them, Mogaung was now surrounded.
Despite the rain and conditions, and some skilful and courageous Japanese resistance, the 77 Brigade – now reduced to 600 men – fought the Japanese through the town. The Railway Station, the Court House, a big red building that was some kind of municipal office. The Gurkhas led the way in ferocity. Two of their men were awarded the Victoria Cross – Gurkha Captain Michael Almand (posthumously) and Rifleman Tun Bahadur Pun. Pun in particular engaged the Japanese in hand to hand fighting with his khukri.
Over fifteen days the assault continued. The Chinese 77mm guns were able to provide artillery support and the Chinese 1/114 Infantry Regiment kept the town surrounded to prevent escape.
On June 25 1944 the last Japanese soldier left the devastated town, and 77 Brigade declared victory. Of the original 2000 men, barely 150 were left standing.
It was the first town in Burma recaptured by the Allies as part of the offensive against the Japanese.
As soon as Stilwell heard that Mogaung had been captured, he told the BBC that the 1/114 Chinese Regiment had captured Mogaung, without even mentioning the British role. This enraged the British. Calvert, who was not a man to tolerate things, then telegraphed Stilwell that “While the Chinese have taken Mogaung, the British are taking umbrage”.
Stilwell’s son, Lt Col Joe Stilwell Jr, was his intelligence officer. He boasted to the American press that Umbrage is so small he could not find it on a map.
At this point Calvert was positively mutinous and sent several strong messages to Stilwell, asking that 77 Brigade be withdrawn to allow the men to rest and recuperate. Stilwell asked him to come in person to see him.
When they met, Stilwell was surrounded by his yes-men, anti British American officers. They fully expected a proper dressing down for the Limey officer.
Stilwell began by saying, “You send some very strong despatches, Calvert!”.
Calvert replied. “Sir, you should see the despatches my Brigade-Major (his staff officer) will not let me send”.
There was stunned silence, and then Stilwell roared with laughter. The ice was broken, and Stilwell listened carefully to what Calvert had to say. At the end, he personally awarded Calvert the American Silver Star.
These actions won Calvert the Distinguished Service Order and Bar. He and his troops were repatriated back to India.
The 5th Battalion, 5th Gorkha Rifles celebrates Mogaung Day on June 23 every year to celebrate the first major Burmese town to be captured by the Indian Army.
Why the 5th/5th and not the 3rd Batt/6th Gorkha Rifles? This is because in 1947 the 6th Gorkha Rifles transferred to the British Army but the 3rd Battalion alone remained, and was transferred to the 5th Gorkha Rifles.
Where to this day, they are known as the “Chindits”.
Mad Mike Calvert
The story is not complete without recounting what happened to Mike Calvert. He was not only an extremely bright man but also very brave, and fought with great distinction in the War.
Calvert was invalided home in September 1944. He served a stint in the Special Air Services. After the War he was selected to lead the Malay Scouts with the rank of Brigadier, during the communist insurgency. By now Calvert was drinking heavily. However, his penchant to neglect staff work but lead operations from the front meant that training and discipline were neglected. He was removed from his command and sent home.
In 1951 he was assigned to a minor administrative post in British Occupied Germany. There he was accused of homosexuality with four German youths, court-martialled and dismissed.
Much doubt exists about whether or not his conduct was “lewd” by the standards of the Army because none of the youths were reliable and all of them recanted their testimony. He lost his appeal and he was out of the Army he had served so well. Calvert was adamant that he was innocent to his dying day. The dismissal broke him.
He spent the next 35 years as a near destitute, a very large part of that in Australia where he did menial jobs and manual labour, most of his employers being totally unaware that this was a Chindit hero. He sold all his medals and memorabilia, dying as an alcoholic in 1999.
Honour the Brave and the Dead
On Mogaung Day let us honour the brave men of 77 Brigade, particularly 3rd Battalion 6th Gorkha Rifles – and their legendary commander late Lt Col Mike Calvert DSO and Bar.
“Prisoners of Hope” By Lt Col Michael Calvert, Leo Cooper Ltd 1971
An electric lamp, a conical lampshade with a bare electric bulb underneath it, emits a jagged light, shedding its harsh glare in rectilinear rays on the chaotic scenes laid out below. The scene is filled with dystopian images – a bull standing over a grieving woman, and the woman holds a dead child in her arms. A horse with a hole on its side. A dismembered soldier underneath a horse, his left with stigmata. The tongues of the animals are daggers, as though the violence is not just physical. An oldstyle oil lamp in the hands of a woman, lunging from the right in despair
This is Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece “Guernica”, painted in 1937 for the Paris World’s Fair at the behest of the Spanish Republican Government. Earlier that year, German and Italian Air Forces, fighting on the behalf of the Royalist Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, had attacked and destroyed the civilian town of Guernica in the Basque country in a clinical display of air power. The Republicans ultimately lost the Civil War, ushering in a military dictatorship headed by General Francisco Franco under a restored but nominal monarchy. Picasso never returned to Spain, dying in 1973. Two years later Franco died, paving the way for reconciliation and ultimately, restoration of democracy in Spain. The painting itself returned to Madrid in 1981, once Picasso’s executors were satisfied with Spain being a Constitutional Democracy albeit not yet a republic.
The world wept for Guernica. Since then, we have seen the unleashing of industrial scale death and destruction to civilians. Within a very short while of the painting’s inauguration, Europe and Asia tore themselves apart in the Second World War. Technocrats got to showcase their lessons from the Condor Legion. The Blitz. Bomber Harris’s deliberate targeting of German civilians. The Tokyo Fire Bombing of 1945. The Dresden Fire Bombing of 1945. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Ever since, the world has lived under the spectre of instant planetary destruction with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the hands of several states. Several other civilizational challenges face humanity – the threat of global Islamic fundamentalist terrorism and the sometimes fascist reaction to it, the threat of climate change, the threat of global pandemics, the possibility of planetary ecological disaster.
Looking at the painting one sunny winter afternoon at the Museo de Reina Sofia where it now resides, I asked myself: do we remember Guernica and the painting only because they mark the starting pistol in the race to industrial scale destruction? Within two years of its creation, we found ourselves huddled round our radio sets, listening to events unfold, “uncertain and afraid/ As the clever hopes expire/Of a low dishonest decade*”.
The world is still an uncertain and dark place. Hopes expire and dishonesty prevails. It may not be the threat of mass destruction that scares us all the time. There was a brief glimmer of hope when the Communist Empire, having first killed off millions of its own citizens, destroyed itself between 1989 and 1991 – first the Chinese began to undo their totalitarian state in small measures and then the Soviet Empire collapsed in a heap. Then world began to take for granted the liberal orthodoxy that seemed to be the future of nations, calling it the “end of history”, to indicate that the big civilizational conflicts were resolved and mankind would move towards a liberal nirvana.
Just as the Cold War ceased, Islamic fundamentalism unleashed its havoc on the world. 9/11 and subsequent attacks on the UK, Spain, France, India, Indonesia and elsewhere have been met by harsh responses and illiberal actions necessary for liberal democracies to combat its enemies from within. The world today looks even more divided and confused about issues of identity and nationality. Islamic fundamentalism is the result of a conflict of cultures and identity. Instead of the internet uniting the world for good, it has also made the spread of terrible ideas that much easier.
The liberal paradise promised to us has rolled back. There is a revolt against liberal democracy due to the rise of nationalist populism. The copycat model of aping the institutions of the West without the liberal underpinnings that bind Western societies has clearly not served the purpose. There are democracies that are either in name only, or who openly govern in the name of their native majorities. The biggest and most successful democracy in the world is slowly turning against its own citizens in the name of the majority.
Technology has played a major role in changing the economic lives of people. Globalisation has meant the flow of jobs and incomes to the poorer countries, depriving those who once did these jobs to fend for themselves. Labour mobility is now shown to be a false premise. Those who were left behind have stayed behind. And those who came in have made the technological leap, over these stay-behinds, stoking resentment and encouraging populism. The harsh light of the lamp in the painting now shines on the victims of technological obsolescence, of technology-fueled resentments, of technology-mediated nativism, and technology-enabled terrorism.
The stark, black and white cubist images on that painting today represent a different type of dystopia – equally technological and very human all the same. The world today seems eerily close to world in the 1930s, leading full circle back to the time when Picasso put brush to canvas.
I wish this was the speech that was made in May 2014. I am sure someone attempting this counterfactual would have many other points to make.
Dear Friends, Brothers and Sisters
The nation has spoken. You have given your mandate, your trust, to our party. You have given us your instructions very clearly. To govern this country so that everyone progresses, and everyone becomes prosperous. We are grateful and humbled. And I, as the leader of the party, bow down my head in humility to you the people of India. You are 130 crore people – rich and poor; Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jain; you speak 26 languages and live in 29 states. And yet, when you speak, you speak clearly and without any doubt. I have heard you loud and clear and as your servant, I bow my head to you.
During the campaign I promised you that this Government will be very different, a government of change. I plan to live up to that promise. You have seen our program in the manifesto. But the time for elections is over, and the time for talking is done. Now, as your servant, you are entitled to know what we plan to do and how it will better your lives. Allow me to lay out the big changes that we will make.
The first job of a government is to ensure that the prosperity of the nation goes up. Without money in the bank, without a job, without food in your stomach, you cannot be a good citizen. If people are seeing their prospects improve, tensions in society will decrease. Most of the tensions we have in our country are about competition for resources – for jobs, houses, land. Our goal is to end these tensions by increasing prosperity.
Prosperity can only come when entrepreneurs and industrialists feel that they can set up companies without any interference or problems. These companies will create jobs. You should no longer expect that the government will be the source of all jobs. Those days are gone. If we keep generating non-productive jobs for people, then we will just be paying salaries. Then how can we invest in roads, railways, ports, airfields, in the latest arms for our defence forces?
To ensure job creation in the private sector, we will do the following
First, reduce the number of clearances and permissions the business needs. We have to ensure the business does not harm the environment, takes care of pollution, and adopts fair labour practices. Other than checking these, we will not interfere in how they run. Permissions will be granted quickly, in fourteen days time, once they satisfy us on these three.
Second, we will give all businesses tax reliefs on their initial years of running. New businesses, and existing businesses expanding operations will be given tax reliefs that are linked to employment generation as well as quantum of investment.
Third, private companies are invited to invest in road infrastructure. We will announce our project preferences in two months time. We will give interested private companies one month to respond to tenders. Every such investment will receive a tax holiday for fifteen years provided the project is completed on time and to our satisfaction.
Fourth, we will cut corporate taxes to bring them in line with other countries in Asia with whom we compete for investment.
Fifth, there will be no tax on dividends. This will encourage people to start investing in stocks and shares to help private companies to invest.
Sixth, in selected sectors like defence, government will announce a Future Purchase Program to enable indigenous industries to plan and develop technologies for investment.
Seventh, we will announce Strategic Industry Partnership Initiatives to create annex exploit technologies for water conservation in farming, river cleanliness, ground water recharge, waste management and alternate energy sources.
In the field of agriculture, the country has made tremendous progress. But more needs to be done to ensure that our farmers can earn good incomes from agriculture. Wherever possible, we will use Minimum Support Prices to help farmers shore up income. But going forward, we will ask FCI to implement cold storage systems to help store food surpluses of items like onions which cause a lot of suffering due to wild price fluctuations – both to farmers as well as to consumers.
We will ask the State Agriculture Ministries to help farmers move to less water-intensive modes of cultivation. This will take a few years to accomplish but we must start now. The country has the lowest per-capita availability of water among all major countries. Global warming is here and it will affect rainfall patterns. We need to be prepared.
Access to credit for farmers will improve in our administration, but to maintain a healthy flow, we will ask farmers to repay loans. Not paying back a loan does not reflect well on our culture. We will ask the States to be extra sensitive to this aspect.
Coming to the Banking system. The previous government had started the Asset Quality Review which is a good step. But we will take it further. First, all politically directed lending will stop. Bank officers will be allowed to make their own decisions on credit. Further if a credit decision is made on the basis of facts, the bank officers will not face criminal prosecution. This will allow them to function freely and without hindrance.
To enable the public sector banks to act without political interference, we are hereby abolishing the Department of Financial Services. There will be no privatisation of the banks but these banks will now have to manage their affairs freely under the total supervision of the RBI. We will appoint individuals of repute to act as Independent Directors representing the government as a stockholder in these banks. But there will be no more remote control.
The tax burden in this country is borne by a very few people. To make this fairer, we propose to do the following.
Income tax will now be paid by all. The threshold for no tax will be set high enough so that poor farmers and poor people do not have to pay. Tax rates for low incomes will be low. It is a national duty to pay to keep your country safe and prosperous. The Income Tax Act will be amended to reflect this aim.
Further this government will abolish all state level Octroi and Sales Taxes and move to a national Goods and Services Tax system. It will take two years to design it properly and two years for it to stabilise. I ask my countrymen to be patient. If we get this right, the immediate benefits can be illustrated as follows: a truck of Alphonso Mangoes from Ratnagiri will take three days to get to the Capital, without any Octroi stops, instead of ten days at present. A separate commission consisting of all states will be set up to ensure that the states do not lose revenue. But if some states do, they should remember the whole nation benefits. Farmers benefit. Industries benefit. Customers benefit.
The Government will provide incentives to those who pay at shops by debit or credit card or by IMPS. The incentive will be credited directly to the payer within 15 days of such payment. Insist on paying by card at a shop. India has the lowest merchant charges, and the merchant saves money in cash handling. WE will introduce schemes to ensure that every Indian is able to pay by card.
Turning to foreign policy – India has always desired peaceful relations with our neighbours, particularly Pakistan. I ask my fellow Indians to be patient. Pakistan is a country in great trouble. But they are our neighbours – and we cannot chose our neighbours. Our government will engage Pakistan at civil society, inter-governmental and in people to people levels. We will punish anyone who launched a terrorist attack on us from their soil. But we will reward such countries for good behaviour.
Last and most important – I wish to address the question of our approach to secularism. There has been a lot of scaremongering about our party during the elections. Do not believe these rumours. There will be some changes but here is what I want to tell my Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Jain and other brothers and sisters from any religion. You are Indian first and last. Hindus are Indian first and last. As Indians you are equal in the eyes of the law. There will be no discrimination – either positive or negative – on the basis of religion. Any person caught doing so will be punished under the Constitution. At the same time, my brothers and sisters from the minority religions, you will agree with me that a lot of misuse of secularism has taken place in the past. Vote bank politics, encouraging illegal migration, fomenting communal violence – all of this has been done by political parties in the past. This ends now. The civilisation of this country has benefited from Islam, Christianity and other religions. But it is largely a Hindu one. This should not scare you. It is the same Hindu religion that welcomed the Parsis, the earliest Christian evangelists, that co-existed with Jainism and Buddhism, and enabled Islam to become an Indian religion. My government will ensure this is not forgotten but this is not at the expense of our fellow Indians from other religions.
My friends, we have a lot to do. Let us swear an oath to work hard. I and my government, as your servants, will make a solemn vow to you to make your lives better over the next five years that you have given us. Jai Hind! Vande Mataram!
This is the story of the Indian National Army – the INA, Azad Hind Fauj. Indians today have a wildly unrealistic and highly romanticized notion of the INA. Tragic failures have a romantic appeal, for sure – an attempt to achieve Indian Independence by force of arms, which failed. Contemporary accounts of the INA are either hyper-nationalist in nature and gloss over the actual record of the INA. Objectivity seems to have been abandoned.
The man associated with the INA is Subhash Chandra Bose. Today he is a hero of modern India, and as the Republic ages, the aura around Bose has only increased. The doubts swirling around whether or not he died in the fatal air crash in Taiwan on August 18 1945, and the conspiracy theories around it, continue to titillate and occupy the Indian imagination. The romance of his story is captivating – one determined man, anxious to accelerate India’s Independence, decides to take the military route – and fails. The fact that he tried is a matter of great pride for all Indians.
Many young Indians, when they first hear of the INA, ask why they could not have just fought their way into India with the Japanese Army. After all, there were other Indian army men fighting for the Empire and they could have joined forces with them. The truth is, the INA were not fighting the British Army – they fought the Indian Army. Most of the fighting in Burma between 1941 and 1945 was done by the Indian Army – the sepoy, the rifleman, the tank man and the artillery man. True, they were largely British lead at the start but this changed by 1944. A very vast majority of the Indian Army’s fighting men refused to join hands with the INA.
The INA maintained records like War Diaries that all professional armies do. When the Indian Army was closing in on Rangoon, all the INA papers were destroyed in the retreat. Therefore this account of the INA is pieced together from records of the Indian Army that fought them. A lot of fanciful accounts have been written and much of the military history has been glossed over. It is hoped that this attempt will be seen for what it is – an honest reconstruction from reliable sources.
Regardless of how effective they were in battle, the INA’s existence made an explosive political statement at the end of the War. Churchill had been defeated at the General Elections in 1945 and the Attlee Government just wanted to leave India. The trial of INA officers and the Naval Ratings Mutiny in 1946 – and the public outcry during the INA trials -were important developments to take note of.
However, there was no question of the British suspecting the loyalties of the Indian Army. By the end of 1945, the Indian Army was a thoroughly competent, battle tested, increasingly Indian officered professional fighting force that would perform whatever duty the Government would ask it to do. Most British officers of the Indian Army had genuine affection for their men and the local culture and pride in the professionalism of their men. The behaviour of the Indian Army in battle when confronted with INA forces did not provide any cause for suspecting loyalties. Indeed, Field Marshal Sir William Slim, Commander in Chief of the 14th Army, rated the finest General to come out of the War, writes in his memoirs that in many cases, the ruthlessness of the Indian Army towards their former comrades surprised the British
No, Britain left India because she was too poor, too tired and too much in debt to the United States at the end of the War. It was a hasty departure, a “shameful flight”. It had nothing to do with the Indian Army – or the INA.
Prelude to the INA
The Japanese Government was opposed to the presence of Western powers as colonizers in Asia, and had their own plans of substituting themselves for the British, the French and the Dutch. As you may recall, the British had India and most of SE Asia, the French had Indo-China (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) and the Dutch had Indonesia. Historical evidence shows the Japanese interest in Asia was entirely motivated by self-interest – spheres of influence, access to resources, and a protected trading zone very much like the Empire Preference. There was no altruism in their motives – and making a note of this is important as we go further.
Japanese intelligence had instructed its operatives to try and make connections with Indian independence activists with a view to destabilizing the British hold over India, well before War began. Major Iwaichi Fujiwara of the Kempeitai was already active in Thailand and Malaya just months before the fighting started, and he did this through an organization called the Hikari Kikan. He would play a key role in the creation of the Indian National Army.
Aggressive Japanese imperialism – on display in the Sino-Japanese War going on since 1932 – alarmed the British. From the mid 1930s the British started taking greater cognizance of a possible Japanese threat to its Asian possessions. Singapore was a British Crown Colony, considered impregnable due to its maritime defences and the presence of the Royal Navy. British Imperial military doctrine depended on the Royal Navy having two Fleets – one in Europe and one in Asia – the Asian one being based in Singapore. The Singapore Fleet would provide protection to the Asian colonies. However the Navy struggled to secure the monies to mount two fleets. There was no expectation that Japanese forces might actually attempt an ambitious landing in Malaya. When France surrendered to the Germans in 1940, the Japanese quickly took possession of French Indo-China. This brought the Imperial Japanese Army, Navy and Airforce within striking distance of Malaya. The independent Thai Kingdom was neutral but leaning towards the Japanese. British military thinking had to take these developments into account. Two Divisions of the Indian Army were rushed to Malaya and told to defend the Malayan coast against a possible Japanese landing. These two Divisions had fresh manpower hastily inducted – but they were poorly trained for the jungles of Malaya.
On December 7 1941, Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbour and declared war on the United Kingdom. The next day, Japanese forces landed in Malaya near Kota Bahru. Facing the Japanese Army were the 9th Indian Division and the 11th Indian Division in addition to British and Australian troops. A series of humiliating defeats at the hands of a superbly trained, well-lead, mobile enemy, followed.
For some months prior to the war breaking out, an expatriate Indian in Malaya, Pritam Singh, had been working closely with Major Fujiwara to set up the apparatus for a Fifth Column. The opportunity came when the Indian Army’s 1/14 Punjab was thoroughly defeated and scattered by the Japanese at Jitra in Malaya in mid-December 1941. Fujiwara and Pritam Singh made contact with one of the unit’s Punjabi officers Captain Mohan Singh. Pritam and Fujiwara explained that Japan planned to convert the POWs into an army that would fight the British for an independent India. Mohan Singh agreed. The soldiers hiding in the plantations after the defeat surrendered to the Japanese. In Jitra, the Indian POWs took over law and order functions in the name of the Japanese. The Japanese advance rolled southwards. The Allies lost almost every battle. There was no air support, and the two old but formidable battleships HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales had been sunk by Japanese bombers very early on. The British, Australians and Indians fell back to Singapore.
On February 15 1942, General Sir Arthur Percival, Commander in Chief of the British Forces, surrendered Singapore to General Yamashita of the Imperial Japanese Army at a ceremony in the Ford Factory in Bukit Timah. Nearly 100,000 men, of which 45,000 were Indian soldiers, were taken Prisoners Of War. All the Indian POWs were summoned to a public meeting in Farrer Park. There, Mohan Singh, Pritam Singh and Fujiwara spoke to the POWs and told them Japan would liberate India from the British yoke and asked them to join up. About half of them did. This was the first INA.
Discussions between Mohan Singh (who had by now called himself General Mohan Singh) and the IJA were on going about the state of POWs, the status of the INA, and its role. He was keen to ensure Japanese support, and he wanted a fiery political leader while he would handle all military affairs. He asked the Japanese to get Subhas Chandra Bose. Bose was then in Germany, conducting parlays with the Nazi leadership on using captured Indian POWs to be the advance guard of a German Army that would invade India. He had escaped from house arrest in India in 1941 and made his way to Germany. As a Congress politician, and an associate of Gandhi and Nehru, he carried a lot of credibility as a future political leader.
In the meantime Mohan Singh managed to put together the preliminary military organization of the INA. It consisted of one Division organized into Gandhi, Nehru and Azad Brigades. These brigades were styled Guerilla Brigades. The surrendered arms of the British could equip 17,000 men. An Officer Training School was established. Hospital facilities were set up.
Tensions had been building up between Mohan Singh and the Japanese Army. Mohan Singh was quite insistent that the INA be treated as an equal to the IJA. Senior Indian Army officers who had surrendered were also ambivalent about Mohan Singh’s leadership and his self-awarded title of General. There were valid concerns about the state of Indian POWs who had not volunteered – this was nearly 25,000 of the 45,000 who surrendered.
In mid 1942 Mohan Singh was arrested by the Japanese and interned for the rest of the War. The mutual mistrust of motives was the cause; Mohan Singh thought the Japanese just wanted coolies, and the Japanese did not respect Mohan and his comrades. Most important, a number of Japanese officers who lived by the code of Bushido could not respect men who chose surrender over death. The INA languished.
Bose left Germany by U-Boat and landed in Singapore on July 1 1943. By the time Bose got to Singapore, the tide of the war had turned against the Japanese. The United States was beginning to inflict serious damage on the Imperial Japanese Navy, starting with the Battle of Midway in June 1942. American Marines started to attack and occupy islands in the Pacific, to enable American aircraft to mount bombing raids against the Japanese mainland, breaching the Japanese defensive perimeter in the Pacific.
When he arrived, Bose moved quickly to rejuvenate the INA and repair relations with the Japanese. As a politician of stature, he had the respect of the Japanese. He also appealed to the large Indian diaspora in Singapore, Malaya, Thailand and Rangoon for men and money, and started to admit local Indians into the INA. He set up the Arzi Hukumat e Azad e Hind (Azad Hind Government) in the Andamans – a part of Indian territory in Japanese hands – and took personal command of the Indian National Army.
All that he wanted now was to throw the INA into battle against the British.
The INA Goes Into Action
The Japanese advance through Burma, which began in 1942, slowed down once the Indian Army had completed its withdrawal to the North East frontiers of India by June 1942. The supply lines of the attackers were stretched and there was a pause – it was not so much a pause, as it was a series of engagements punctuated by pauses. From Northern Burma, the Chinese Nationalist Army of Gen Chiang Kai Shek engaged the Japanese without much success. In 1943, the Indian Army attempted an invasion of the Arakan region. The invasion did not succeed.
While the British smarted under this huge military setback, the Japanese were doing their best to consolidate their hold over Burma. Burma was declared a part of the Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. and Burmese nationalist politicians were technically in charge of Burma.
The Commander in Chief for India Lord Wavell realised that it would be foolish to take on the Japanese unless the Indian Army was re-trained for the jungle, taught new tactics and was provided multi-role air cover – to supply the troops, to clear the jungle of the enemy and to get the wounded to hospital. General William Slim was appointed Commander in Chief of the 14th Army, created to consolidate the British response to the defeat by the Japanese.
The map below would be useful in understanding how the forces stood in 1944.
The Red Bubbles show the Indian Infantry Divisions and the Blue Bubbles show the Japanese positions.
The War in Burma is a vast subject, but we will only deal with those parts of the War where the INA was involved, with enough battlefield context to ensure the reader is able to form a mental picture. The bibliography will guide the reader to some excellent works on the subject (most notably, Louis Allen’s “Burma: The Longest War”) in case a detailed history of this forgotten war interests him.
The Indian Army was at war with Japan since December 1941. However, it is only in January-February 1944 does the Indian Army report it’s the first encounters with the INA. In early January 1944, reports emerge of INA soldiers asking the Indian armymen to give up, and it appears that in almost every case, the Indian armymen reacted with fury. The derogatory term used by the British for the INA was “JIF” – Japanese Inspired Fifth Column.
In January 1944, Indian Army movements begin anew with renewed focus and fresh Indian divisions – tough, battle-tested ones – in the Arakan (roughly south and east of Bangladesh today). In February 1944 the Japanese managed to trap two Indian Divisions and surround them. (This battle is called the Battle of the Admin Box). To the great surprise of the Japanese, the Indian Divisions withstood the siege and sprung the trap after 28 days. It should have warned the Japanese that the Indian Army may not roll over as easy as they appeared to do in the long retreat, but it did not. Neither did it dismay the Japanese Army a great deal, because their focus was on India.
In February 1944, orders were issued to the Japanese Burma Area Command to attack India. The offensive was to be lead by their 15th Army, commanded by General Mutaguchi – a grizzled veteran of Japan’s wars in China. The objective – to capture Imphal and Kohima before the monsoons began (in late April). The Japanese were supremely confident they could pull this off – after all they had chased the Indian Army out of South East Asia and expected no other outcome.
The Japanese attack plan consisted of a thrust from the South towards Imphal along the Tiddim Road in Burma to draw the British to stop the Japanese. This was a feint, and designed to hide the main attack. The main attack would come from another Japanese Corps that would head north and turn west, crossing the hills to burst upon the Indian Army on the road between Imphal and Kohima. They would attack both Imphal and Kohima, cut the road linking Imphal and Kohima, and proceed to Dimapur, reaching the Brahmaputra Valley. As part of the feint, the IJA 15th Army would mount a three-pronged attack from the South.
The INA was delighted with the decision to attack India and assured the Japanese that once the INA was on Indian soil, the people would rise up in arms and overthrow the British. This was a reasonable expectation – the Quit India Movement had inflamed the country, and Bengal was reeling under famine.
The attack began on March 8 1944. It required the Japanese to quickly surround and eliminate the Indian Army south of Imphal, take their supplies, and reach Imphal in two weeks. Gen Bill Slim, however, became aware of the Japanese plan, and instead of rushing southwards, he asked the Indian Divisions to retreat towards the Imphal plain. Fighting retreats are hard to do, but the Indian Army managed to do just that. To do so they had to stand and fight on the road to Imphal and deny the Japanese the advantage of time. The Battle of Tiddim Road was critical to what happened next in Imphal. INA men were assigned the task of supporting Japanese supply lines in the south. They were not happy about this but they agreed to do their part. They were also assigned to assist in the attack on Imphal from the East, from a town called Tamu which is on the Indo-Burma border.
Initial reports of contacts with the INA are not flattering. The INA men would pretend to be Indian Army troops, and gain tactical advantages here and there. This seems to have angered the Indian Armymen. The first surrenders from the INA ranks start as well by March 1944 on the Tiddim Road – in bits and pieces and in one case, a large number of INA Gurkhas. The Japanese attack very quickly got bogged down on the south thanks to some heroic rearguard actions by the 17th and 23rd Indian Divisions.
The Japanese completed a heroic hike across the hills to approach Imphal from the East. The INA was assigned to the Tamu front, and tasked to capture an airfield called Palel on Indian soil. The INA were delighted at the prospect of marching into the motherland. They went into attack, singing songs and shouting “Dilli Chalo!”. However their noisy and gay approach was spotted by a Indian Army Gorkha patrol. Instead of changing sides the Gorkhas practically gunned down the entire section. The airfield was too heavily defended. The INA men made several attempts to take Palel but failed.
The battle for Imphal and Kohima is now part of modern legend. A survey conducted by the National Army Museum in the UK revealed that the British public consider this the most significant battle fought by British forces in their entire history. It was brutal and violent, and no quarter was given nor asked for. The fighting between the Japanese forces on the one side, and the Indians and British on the other, was hand to hand, face to face. Terms like the Tennis Court in Kohima have passed into legend. The fanatical Japanese were indomitable but ultimately, poor decisions made by their commanders on managing supplies for their troops began to tell. In July 1944, the Japanese called off the attack and ordered a general retreat.
It was the largest military defeat the Japanese have ever encountered, handed to them by a composite army of mainly Indian Army men and British forces to a lesser extent. The INA retreat was hard. A particularly grim description of the aftermath of the retreat to Tamu – which was where the INA was based – can be found in the detailed section on the Military History in this blog post.
The Japanese and INA troops were starving, they had no medical facilities and malaria was rife. Men just dropped to the side, dead or too tired to carry on, and were abandoned. If someone happened to die near a river, they were tipped over into it.
The British and Indian Armies – collectively under an umbrella formation known as the 14th Army – went after the Japanese. In August 1944 the Japanese decided to withdraw to the Irrawaddy River and hold the line there. All hopes of going back to India had faded for the INA. The Indian Army coming after the Japanese was just too strong – it was better armed, better lead and they knew how to fight in the jungle.
By now the INA was pretty much on its own, as the Japanese command structure started to crumble. Surrenders continued at a scale that dismayed the INA command. An engagement would take place that would temporarily stop the advance at a particular point. The very next day the men who stopped the advance, would surrender. Apart from wounds and sickness, the new Royal Indian Air Force flying alongside the RAF and USAF were making life very hard for anything military that moved in the day time. The INA had to retreat at night and hide by day.
The British Command waited for their armies to be fully ready before unleashing them in a massive assault in January 1945. The Irrawaddy is a wide and deep river. There is a crossing at a point called Nyuangdu. It was also the widest crossing point, and the British were going to cross here, go straight east through Japanese held lands and capture the town of Meiktila. The INA was at its weakest but the Japanese assigned them to defend Nyaungdu, thinking the British and Indian Armies would not cross there.
Which is exactly what they did. At first the INA managed to hold the crossing for day with their meagre resources. The next day, under a more determined attempt by the Indian Army, the INA folded. Large numbers of INA men surrendered without a fight, and some of their reserves refused to fight.
The Indian Army broke through Japanese lines and dashed for Meiktila, capturing it. The Japanese surrounded Meiktila and there ensued another hard-fought battle. The Japanese siege failed. The INA meanwhile was assigned another defensive position at Mount Popa. Here, the INA performed at its best. It used its lightly armed forces extremely well to hold back a British Brigade. Ultimately a large armoured assault accompanied by severe air bombardment forced the INA to retreat along with the remaining Japanese. Again, large numbers of officers and men just switched to the British. INA officers who defected had no problem signing leaflets that were airdropped on the INA urging them to surrender and offering safe passage.
On April 2 1945, the combined British and Indian Divisions began the race for the 300 miles to Rangoon from Meiktila. The INA, retreating southwards, was repeatedly caught in skirmishes. In two instances the INA men fought with grenades and rifles against a better armed Indian Army, and died to a man. For the most part, INA men chose to locate the Indian Army to surrender. The biggest such surrender took place at a place called Toungoo. The town was of interest to the British Command because it had an airfield. An INA Division was stationed there. When the 255 Indian Tank Brigade approached, the INA men surrendered en masse without a fight.
Towards the end of April the INA leadership left Rangoon, leaving 5000 men to keep the peace. In May the Indian Army entered Rangoon. The last of the INA men surrendered.
The INA originally consisted of POWs from the Malaya campaign. Through Bose’s oratory a large number of Tamils had joined up from the plantations in Malaya. Most these Tamils just took off their uniforms and melted away.
The end was near for the Japanese. Massive air attacks and firebombings made life hard for the Japanese on the home islands. On August 6th and 9th, atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and on August 15th the Japanese Emperor announced their surrender.
The War was over.
The key INA officers – Prem Sahgal, G S Dhillon and Shah Nawaz Khan – were put on trial at Red Fort. The Viceroy, Lord Wavell, wanted a public show. Most INA men who were captured were either dismissed or returned to their former regiments depending on how involved they were in the decision to fight the British.
The trial hinged on whether the INA was acting for an independent state or were just a Japanese Fifth Column, waging war on the King Emperor. A stellar defence panel consisting of Sir Bhulabhai Desai, Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sir Dalip Singh, Sir Tek Chand, Asaf Ali, Dr K N Katju, P K Sen and Rai Bahadur Badri Das defended the men in court martial. The panel recognized the enormous political and emotional significance of the trial, conceded the British right to try them, and asserted their right to defend them.
The defence called key witnesses from the defeated government of Japan – Ota Saburo of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Matsumoto Shunichi (former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs), Sawada Renzo (former Ambassador to Burma), Hachiya Teruo (Japanese Minister to the Free India Provisional Government), and Lt Gen Katakura Tadasu of the Burma Area Army of the Imperial Japanese Army. All of them testified that despite how it may have appeared, the Japanese Government dealt with the Arzi Hukumat e Azad e Hind (Azad Hind Government) as an independent ally. A key witness was Major Iwaichi Fujiwara himself. He was greeted warmly by his old comrades and he testified to his role in fomenting the creation of the INA as a precursor to an independent India.
The trial began in November 1945, and public opinion immediately started to get inflamed. Riots broke out in several cities. Calcutta suffered a general strike. After more than a hundred people died in rioting, Nehru had to appeal to the people to calm down. The Naval Ratings Mutiny that broke out in 1946 invoked the name of Bose and INA.
It was probably unwise of Wavell to try the men in Red Fort – the symbolism with the 1857 Mutiny then could not be denied, inflaming public opinion. Whether it was the defence, or that Indian independence was inevitable and the British wanted to leave on a good note – or a combination of all of them – we will never know. All three INA officers had ordered executions of deserters and informers. The two main charges were waging war on the King Emperor, and Murder. They were acquitted of the former and found guilty of the latter. The authorities conveniently sentenced the three to life imprisonment and then commuted the sentences immediately, setting them free. Further INA trials were planned in 1946. By that time Nehru was well on the way to becoming the head of the interim government, and he warned Wavell not to proceed. The matter ended there.
A Question of Loyalty
Who was the real Indian Army. The 700,000 men who fought as a unit under the British Indian ensign against the Japanese and the INA? Or the 45,000 INA men who fought their former comrades under the tricolor?
Was the Indian Army a mercenary outfit? Indian Army officers will bristle at the suggestion. In fact General K S Thimmayya, who was Chief of Army Staff in the late 1950s, responded to this suggestion. His own brother, Lt Col K P Thimmayya, joined the INA when taken prisoner in Singapore in 1942. They took an oath of loyalty to the Army, nominally in the name of the King-Emperor. But their primary loyalties lay with the fine body called the Indian Army.
Talking about the INA, Gen Thimmayya wrote: “It was difficult for us, therefore, to view this action as anything but patriotic. If we accepted the INA men as patriots, however, then we who served the British must be traitors. This conflict was especially difficult for me because I heard my own brother had gone to the INA.” Among his brother officers ‘the consensus was that we should help the British to defeat the Axis powers and deal with the British afterwards.’
This ethos is best explained by John Masters, who was there one sunny morning in April 1945 on the outskirts of Meiktila, when
“ …Bill Slim personally let slip the final advance…the three divisional commanders watched the leading division crash past the start point. The dust thickened under the trees lining the road until the column was motoring into a thunderous yellow tunnel, first the tanks, infantry all over them, then trucks filled with men, then more tanks, going fast, nose to tail, guns, more trucks, more guns – British, Sikhs, Gurkhas, Madrassis, Pathans…This was the old Indian Army going down to the attack, for the last time in its history, exactly two hundred and fifty years after the Honourable East India Company enlisted its first ten sepoys on the Coromandel Coast.”
The INA was derived from the same ethos, the same organizing principle as the Indian Army. The only difference is that they chose to serve a different master. Had the Japanese organized their invasion of India better and had the INA been better armed, would the outcome have been different?
Most of the Indian Armymen who went to the INA chose to surrender to their former comrades. May be it was familiarity with the old system of regimental loyalties, or a deep familiarity with the officer class. The local recruits (mainly Tamils) just melted away back to the plantations and farms in Burma and Malaya. They felt no loyalty to the INA other than as a transactional, mercenary venture. You will enjoy this anecdote that sheds more light on the complex relationship between the Indian Army and her British officer class. This is when the British and Indian Armies had entered Rangoon, and found only the INA maintaining law and order – the Japanese had all fled.
Sub-Lieutenant Russell Spurr RINVR, a PR officer and his padre friend Pat Magee saw a group of soldiers in Japanese uniforms, then realized they were Indians. A smiling Sikh major approached. “Delightful to see you chaps”, he said, “We couldn’t wait to get this surrender business over.” The men crowded around him and murmured their cheerful approval. But when Spurr explained he could not accept, Magee chipped in: “But we’ll accept a drink.” “By Jove, that’s a jolly good idea”, said the Sikh major, and they returned to the INA mess, where the subalterns crowded round for news. “Pink gin suit you?” inquired the Sikh major. He handed me two glasses. Men who had lately been our enemies snapped to attention as the major called, “Gentlemen. The King–Emperor!”
The maturing of the Indian Army during the Second World War was a critical contribution to nation-building. The army’s officer corps, used to taking orders from British officers and for the most part, not senior enough to have British officers reporting to them, found the situation changed almost completely by the end of the war, as this anecdote shows:
The Nehrus and the Gandhis and the Cripps talked in the high chambers of London and New Delhi; and certainly someone had to. But India stood at last independent, proud and incredibly generous to us, on these final battlefields in the Burmese plain. It was all summed up in the voice of an Indian colonel of artillery. The Indian Army had not been allowed to possess any field artillery from the time of the Mutiny (1857) until just before the Second World War. Now the Indian, bending close to an English colonel over a map, straightened and said with a smile, “O.K., George. Thanks, I’ve got it. We’ll take over all tasks at 1800. What about a beer?”.
The noted scholar Joyce Lebar analysed the political impact of the INA on the Indian Army and concluded:
The INA experience was revolutionary, then, on more than one level. First, as a direct revolution against British rule the INA was partially successful through the British response to the Indian atmosphere surrounding the court martial. Second, as an indirect revolution within the context of the Japanese co-operation the (Indian Army) officer corps was transformed.
Did we see an Indian officer corps transformed politically, as Prof Lebar believes? I am unable to agree completely with the second conclusion she draws. I believe the perceptions the British had of the INA changed from contempt to grudging respect largely because of the transformation of the Indian Army itself. The treatment of the INA officers prior to the trial was fair and very respectful, almost as though a hard-fought rugby game had just concluded and the players were exchanging jerseys in the tunnel. I am sure it was not just because of impending independence – it was also because of mutual respect.
The Indian Army’s official history makes very few references to the INA. It is almost as though the Indian Army – the inheritor of the ethos that began on the Coromandel Coast some 300 years ago – has a benevolently ambiguous attitude to the INA which is in keeping with its apolitical nature. Maj Gen Partab Narain wrote in the late 50s that politically the mantle of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose is important in Bengal for vote gathering but he regards lauding the exploits of the INA against the Indian Army to be highly dangerous. Much misinformation, he says, has been published in India since about the INA’s success.
The simple INA jawan has to be admired for picking up a rifle and going to war for Independence. Whether he won or lost is irrelevant. He tried – and for that, he deserves our respect.
Remembering the INA
The INA is far from forgotten, as the TV serial seems to allege after the current fashion these days. It is remembered but without any knowledge of their tragic history. There is an INA Museum in Moirang, in Manipur State. There used to be a memorial in Singapore that was demolished in 1945 by Mountbatten, to discourage the South East Asian colonies from developing notions such as independence. Only a plaque stands now at Esplanade Park, erected in 1995 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II. The INA’s motto – Unity (Ittehad), Faith (Ittemad), Sacrifice (Qurbani) – was inscribed on the original monument. The words are as relevant to a modern India today as they were then.
More than the romance of the INA, we should feel for those thousands who died in Burma in battle, or of untreated wounds, starvation and sickness. Those who dropped to the road and killed themselves so as not to be a burden. These men died leaving behind a romantic ideal that is cherished by all Indians of all political hues. We need to remember them as those unlucky few who left before their dream of a Free India was indeed realised barely a few years after their passing. They must have died of longing for return, and wondering what was the purpose of their lives – or their deaths.
My choice for an apt epitaph for the INA fallen, would be the words of another Indian, who died in exile in Rangoon longing for his homeland after the first attempt to supplant British rule in India failed in 1858. Here’s the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar,
कितना है बद-नसीब ‘ज़फ़र’ दफ़्न के लिए, दो गज़ ज़मीन भी न मिली कू-ए-यार में
How wretched is your fate, Zafar! That for your burial, you could not get two meagre yards of earth in your beloved land
Allen, Louis (Major): “Burma: The Longest War” Phoenix, 2000
Bayly, Christopher & Harper, Tim: “Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia 1941-45” Allen Lane 2004
Bisheshwar Prasad (ed): “Official History of the Indian Armed Forces in the Second World War” 3 Volumes. Combined Inter-Services Historical Section (India & Pakistan) 1958
Brett-James, Anthony (Lt Col): “Ball of Fire: The Fifth Indian Division in the Second World War”, Gale & Polden 1951
Doulton A J F (Lt Col): “The Fighting Cock: History of the 23rd Indian Division”, Naval & Military Press, 2002
Fay, Peter Ward: “The Forgotten Army” University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, USA 1996
Holland, James: “Burma 44: The Battle That Turned Britain’s War in the East”, Bantam Press, 2016
Kirby, Maj Gen Woodburn (ed): “The War Against Japan: History of the Second World War. United Kingdom Military Series Official Campaign History”, Vols II-V. Naval & Military Press 1958
Latimer, Jon: “Burma – The Forgotten War” Thistle Publishing, 2004
Lebra, Joyce Chapman: “The Indian National Army and Japan” (Institute of South East Asian Studies, Singapore, 1971).
Lyall, Ian (Major): “Burma – The Turning Point”, Leo Cooper Ltd, Reprinted 2003 Masters, John: “The Road Past Mandalay”, Cassell Military Paperbacks, 1961 (reissued 2012)
Raghavan, Srinath: “India’s War: The Making of South Asia 1939-45” Penguin 2016
Toye, Hugh: “The Springing Tiger: Study of a Revolution”, Jaico Publishing House, Mumbai, India 1959
A DETAILED MILITARY ACCOUNT OF THE INA
Organizing For Battle
The revitalized INA, after Mohan Singh was ejected, is called INA 2, and it was organized as follows:
Lt-Col Bhonsle – Deputy C-in-C and Chief Of Staff.
Lt Col Shah Nawaz Khan – Planning, Operations, Training and Intelligence
Lt Col N S Bhagat – Administration
Lt Col K P Thimayya – Supplies and Equipment
Lt Col A D Loganadan – Medical Services
Lt Col Jahangir – Education and Propaganda
1st INA Division
1st Guerilla Regiment (Subhash Brigade)
2nd Guerilla Regiment (Gandhi Brigade)
3rd Guerilla Regiment (Azad Brigade)
4th Guerilla Regiment (Nehru Brigade)
2nd INA Division
Formed later, consisting of the Hindustan Field Force
3rd INA Division
Mainly local Indians
Rani Jhansi Regiment
The INA numbered 40,000 men, armed largely with captured weaponry but no independent armour, artillery or transport.
Come January 1944, Bose and the INA leadership were based in Rangoon, where its large Indian population welcomed him and donated money generously to the INA (as did the planters in Malaya and the traders in Singapore). The INA was consuming 5 million dollars a month in expenses. Bose was getting restless, as indeed were the officers of the INA.
By late 1942, the Japanese had taken Rangoon, Meiktila and Mytkyna. They did not immediately attack India largely because their supply base was still in Thailand. The military action in 1943 involving the Chindits, the Chinese and aggressive skirmishing between the Indian Army and the Japanese are not directly relevant here.
Bose wanted the INA to be at the forefront of any offensive into India. He believed that the moment the INA came into contact with the Indian Army, the Indian Army would refuse to fight, and that the civilian population of India would rise up in revolt against the British.
In January 1944 the Japanese Burma Area Command tasked the 15th Army to lead the invasion of India. The map above shows positions of the two armies in January 1944. The black line is broadly the front-line. The 17th Indian Division had been in continuous combat against the Japanese from December 1941. It now held positions just south of the road to Imphal. The 5th Indian Division had a distinguished combat record against the Italians and Germans in North Africa, and had been inducted into Burma just a couple of months ago, as had the 7th Indian Division.
In the beginning of 1944, the 5th Indian Division was probing Japanese positions in the Arakan. An offensive in the Arakan – the First Arakan Offensive – had failed. The 7th Indian Division was moving south towards the Japanese. The Allied Command wanted to keep the Japanese on their toes while re-arming and rebuilding.
The first signs that the INA was militarily active came in early January, when the Japanese moved west to occupy a small town called Kalemyo, South-East of Imphal, and there told villagers that a large Indian Army was coming to throw the British out. Very quickly, the 5th ran into the INA. At Nyaunggyaung Wood, during a Japanese attack, the Division reported its first contact with the INA on 17th January 1944.
Here the Japanese gained a footing, and were followed by Sikh Jifs who set fire to the position with a miniature flame-thrower. Just before dawn the Japanese withdrew, after making repeated attacks against ‘D’ Company. The dozen Jifs called out in Punjabi to our Jats to come across and join the Japanese. Their temptations were greeted with indignant bursts of firing. Jifs (Japanese Indian Forces) were Indian soldiers, who, being prisoners of the Japanese, had been forced or cajoled into fighting for their enemy.
The term “Jif” was a derogatory term used in the Indian Army for the INA – it stands for Japanese Indian Fifth Column.
The Japanese 28th Army reacted to the movements of the 5th Indian and 7th Indian Divisions quite brilliantly. By early February 1944, they had cut off the 5th Divisions supply routes and infiltrated the 7th’ Indian Defensive lines. The 5th was now pushed towards their administrative area around Maungdaw – also called the Administrative Box. The 28th surrounded the Administrative Box and laid siege to it.
The INA participated in the siege. Some of the accounts of INA involvement are not positive to the INA. On February 8 1944 the Japanese attacked a Military Dressing Station. Lt Col Dr Salindra Mohan Basu, who was in charge of the Station, was taken prisoner after the Japanese shot or bayoneted the living and the wounded. He reports an Indian member of the INA who urged Dr Basu to co-operate and offered safe passage to Rangoon. Dr Basu refused – he was shot and dumped in a ditch and survived by playing dead. The INA may or may not have taken part in the bayoneting of officers and wounded at the Station.
News of the entrapment of the 5th and 7th Indian Divisions was greeted with glee by the INA and other Indians in Rangoon. The Greater Asia newspaper in Rangoon screamed the news from its headlines, and Bose was visited by two members of the 15th Army Staff who assured him that the two Indian Divisions would be destroyed.
The Battle of the Admin Box is not so well known as the epic struggle for Imphal and Kohima – it was where the Indian Army stopped losing to the Japanese. General Messervy (CO 7th Indian) and Gen Briggs (CO 5th Indian) lead their men superbly; the Jats, Gurkhas, Dogras, Punjabis and Sikhs in these Divisions fought like tigers and the RAF kept the men supplied by air. On February 28th the Japanese 28th Army called off the siege.
The Japanese 15th Army began its invasion of India. The 33rd IJA Division of the 15th Army would advance from the south on both sides of the 17th’s positions and cutting off the Tiddim road behind the Indians. The 15th IJA Division would advance westwards from the Chin mountains towards Imphal. And the 31st IJA Division would reach a long way west to attack Kohima and cut the road between Imphal and Kohima. The aim was to complete the capture of Imphal and Kohima before the monsoon broke. The map below shows the Japanese plan.
Bose was delighted the Japanese were on the attack, however his insistence that that the INA lead the assault was rejected by the Japanese. The Nehru Brigade under Lt Col Shah Nawaz Khan was to participate and was tasked with participating in the 15th IJA Division’s westward run towards Imphal. He was also tasked with protecting the 33rd’ IJA Divisions supply lines south of Tiddim.
Shah Nawaz did not like these defensive duties – he was disappointed and took his case to other Japanese officers, including Fujiwara, to press for the INA to be given a more active role. Nevertheless, he did as ordered. His Brigade made a heroic effort to get to the small town of Falam which was at an altitude of 6000m. They marched 60 miles with their supplies on their back, and got to Falam first and then to Haka further north. A quarter of the men contracted malaria, but still kept on their feet. Sporadic contacts with the Indian Army resulted. When in Haka, they set a trap for a British officer who was known to be fond of guerilla tactics. They failed to capture him but got twenty five prisoners instead.
Sensing the oncoming Japanese attack on Imphal from the South, the Commander in Chief of the British 14th Army, Gen William Slim, asked the 17th and other formations to withdraw towards Imphal to shorten Indian supply lines (and elongate the Japanese lines by implication). The Japanese attacks began on March 8. The CO 17th Indian Division did his best to organize a fighting retreat, while the fresh 23rd Indian Division was asked to ride south to assist the 17th. The INA accompanied the Japanese on these attacks, on the attack on Tongzhan on the Tiddim Road, and also further up on the Tiddim Road.
Records indicate the INA presence. In one case, the crew of two British tanks on the Tiddim Road saw a Gorkha standing on the road waving a message. When the hatch opened, Japanese soldiers hurled grenades inside the tank. This piece of deception upset the Indian Army no end. On March 14th elements from the Jat Machine Gun Regiment went to assist road-builders who were trapped by the Japanese. In the process they encountered elements of the INA and killed them all, including their Company Commander. Elsewhere, a party of Gorkhas from INA surrendered to 1st Batt/7th Gorkhas. They had been waiting to meet fellow Gorkhas. Amidst many smiles, the INA men gave themselves up.
The fighting retreat, now called the Battle of Tiddim Road, of the 17th aided by the 23rd Indian Division helped delay the Japanese on the road from Tiddim to Imphal. It gave Slim the breathing space to airlift the 5th Indian Division to Imphal, and put pressure on supplies of the Japanese. The usual Japanese plan was to fight light but capture British supplies – called Churchill’s Supples – by outflanking the Allies. However British tactics had changed. They chose to fight in a box rather than retreat, and whenever they retreated they chose to burn all supplies. The Japanese supply position was greatly weakened by the delay in taking Tiddim Road. The IJA resumed its advance.
The Battle of Imphal and Kohima
The battles for Imphal and Kohima are now the stuff of military history and legend. It was expected to be an easy victory for the Japanese. Unlike what happened in 1942, this time the Indian Army stood fast. The men were trained for the jungle, better armed, better clothed and supplied. They were encouraged to respond to the traditional Japanese outflanking attacks by going into a “box” and relying on the RAF to supply them. The formations facing them were highly experienced and lead from the front by British and Indian officers. They had good air support.
At the start the INA’s four Guerilla Regiments were directed to Tamu, for the road to Imphal lead directly from Tamu in the east via a small town called Palel which had an airfield.
Here the INA went into battle again. When you cross Tamu, you are in Indian territory. The INA volunteered to mount a raid to seize Palel airport along with the Japanese. The thought of entering Indian territory excited them. A Japanese officer recalled
“the image of the INA troops he had passed on his way to Sibong, wild with enthusiasm as they walked on Indian soil, holding their rifles aloft and yelling “Jai Hind! Chalo Delhi!”.
The detachment was lightly armed and had a blanket each. On the way, still in high spirits, with cigarettes in their mouths, they came across a patrol of Gurkhas (from 4th Batt/10th Gorkha Rifles). The Gorkhas waited until they were close, then opened fire. The INA scattered, and then they made the speech to the Gurkhas to ask them to join them. When the Gorkhas refused, the INA charged the patrol. The Gorkhas returned fire and the detachment had to retire with severe casualties..
The detachment reached the outskirts of Palel. They found the airfield heavily defended and decided to attack at night. There were defensive picquets of the Allies around the airfield. One of the INA officers Capt Sadhu Singh was told to take one of the defenders’ picquets. His small team fixed bayonets and charged. The defenders were Indian troops – they were taken by surprise and quickly put up their hands. When one of the INA officers – who happened to be carrying a Naga spear – lunged at two English officers in the picquet, the defenders opened fire and killed their attackers. The attack was discovered and beaten back.
When dawn came, artillery opened up on the INA positions, killing 250 men. The attack on Palel failed. What is worse, the group that was responsible for the attack surrendered and the rest of the INA detachment retired to Tamu. It was probably the first and last time the INA entered the homeland.
From April to July the INA men embedded in the Japanese 15th Army were in the battlefield but did very little relative to the Japanese. Morale was low all over the 15th Army, not least because the troops were literally starving. The monsoons were heavy and malaria was rife. As the Indian 23rd Division began establishing itself east of Imphal they attacked and drove the INA out of one of the towns they were occupied. In many of these engagements, Indian Army sepoys and riflemen had to be told by their commanders not to shoot INA soldiers but to take them prisoner.
Though the INA never participated in the battles around Imphal and Kohima directly, whatever action they saw on the Tamu Road was brutal. I can find no better description of the horrors they went through than what the 23rd Indian Division saw at Tamu, taken from their War Diary, which is normally a dry, factual record:
“The 5th Brigade (23rd Indian Division) .. entered Tamu the next day (August 3). An indescribable scene greeted the victors as they marched into the border town. The streets were deserted. Vehicles and guns littered the squares and courtyards of the quaint little town. The air was heavy with the stench of decomposing bodies. The dead lay everywhere. They sprawled on the streets, lay on the floor in every hut and hamlet, sat at the steering wheels of motionless lorries. Others lay in heaps at the foot of the temple where they had crawled up to die. Then there were the wounded and the sick, with neither medicine nor food, forsaken and uncared, they were too weak to even cry. Some were emaciated beyond belief by starvation so that even a nourishing meal was poison for their withered intestines. More dead than alive, they waited patiently for the mercy of the end. The damp, steamy heat, the slimy mud and the millions of flies completed the picture, so that on August 4, Tamu bore closer resemblance to hell than to any place on this green earth. When next day the Allied troops set fire to every building that had a corpse in it as the quickest method of cleaning up and disinfecting the town, the picture of Dante’s “Inferno” was complete”.
As history records, the failure of the Imphal and Kohima assaults was not because the Japanese gave up. Indeed, Slim calls the Japanese fighting man the finest infantry soldier he has ever seen, bar none. The failure of General Mutaguchi to adequately supply his troops, the failure of his Division Commanders to listen to their second line, and most important, the tenacity and bravery shown by the Indian Army, were key to the outcome. Further, the Allied 14th Army had access to air power, and the presence of light tanks made a big difference. All these factors were instrumental in the British and Indian Armies inflicting the largest and most costly military defeat on Japan in their history. When Gen Mutaguchi called off the attack, the Japanese forces had suffered 80,000 dead. Many of them just starved to death.
The defeat gave General Sir William Slim and his Indian Army the chance to avenge the humiliations of the last two years. Once the monsoon ended the 14th Army went on the offensive
The Japanese and the INA fell back first to the Chindwin River. The retreat was marked by surrenders from the INA. In June the 2iC of the 2nd Guerilla Regiment surrendered from the front line, and exhorted his comrades to surrender (by getting leaflets dropped from the air). Officers started to leave. Punjabi Muslim INA started to surrender in such large numbers that they had to be disarmed. The lack of supplies was so acute that a senior INA officer, Major Garwal, appears to have surrendered for one reason alone – hunger.
The retreat was hard – Fujiwara did his Indian friends a favour by giving them a two day head start. Leaving some men with the Japanese, the INA retreated from Tamu to Ahlow, where the Japanese promised boats to help them cross. There were none at Ahlow. With difficulty they managed to procure a couple of boats and they crossed. Once they got to Teraun, they found there was no food and foraging was out of the question – the Japanese had picked the villages clean. Going down on the River Yu towards the plains was impossible in the rain. The men picked up their wounded, starving and weakened, they walked. Soon, Khan asked the men not to carry the sick and wounded – they were just abandoned on the way. Those who could make their way, made it. The others just died.
Fujiwara, who also retreated with the rest of the Japanese, wrote:
“Japanese and INA officers and men, skinny and half-naked, staggered along with the help of canes. Many of us walked on bare feet smeared with mud and blood, and our faces were ashen, swollen with malnutrition and scaly because of skin disease. Along the edge of the jungle on both sides of the road, bodies of fallen soldiers lay in an endless line. Many of them had already decomposed…Sick persons unable to walk but with some strength left, committed suicide lest they be a burden on their fellow soldiers. A number of them, completely drained of energy, were drowned in a muddy river. Bodies of INA soldiers who died near a river were tossed into the water by their comrades according to Hindu rituals. It was painful to watch.”
A fraction of the men made it to INA’s hospitals in Monywa and Maymyo.
Money and material for the INA from the Japanese dried up by September 1944. The Indian population of Rangoon donated generously for medicine, dressings and even uniforms for the men. Bose learnt the true state of affairs in Imphal for the first time. Shah Nawaz Khan also told Bose of the treatment of the INA by the Japanese. In one instance, the Japanese accused ten INA men of spying for the British – they hung them on trees by their hands, bayoneted them and left them to bleed to death.
November 1944. As the British and Indian Armies swept down from the Arakan and the Chindwin Valley in pursuit of the retreating Japanese 28th and 15th Armies, the INA found itself tasked with defensive roles. Bose met the Japanese in Tokyo and lobbied hard for the INA to continue to have an offensive role in the Burmese War. By now, Bose had been disabused of any notion that the INA would enter India, and instead he redirected the effort towards ensuring they fought and died honourably. For what, is not clear.
The INA forces were ordered to Pyinmana (near where the capital Naypidaw is today). They went there by hazardous train journeys that could only be undertaken at night – as the Royal Air Force, the United States Air Force and the new Royal Indian Air Force were hitting anything that moved in the Irrawaddy valley in the daytime. The relatively untouched 4th Regiment moved to Myingyan, further north right on the Irrawaddy and was expected to give a better account of itself.
There were other problems with the 4th. Mutiny, for one. The majority of the INA men in this Regiment were local Tamils from Burma and Malaya. The officer corps were from the Punjab. Ethnic differences and language differences meant that very soon the Tamils refused to obey orders. Bose found a new commander (G S Dhillon) and handed over the Regiment to him. Dhillon quickly took charge. The regiment had not worn a uniform for months and had taken to taking cover in the day time to avoid air attacks, and hence not drilling. Dhillon changed all that. Another INA Regiment, the 5th, was moved from Malaya – this unit was completely untested but very well equipped. They lost their heavy weaponry due to their ship transport being torpedoed. With nothing but their personal arms, this formation was handed over to the charismatic Captain Prem Sahgal – the only one in the INA with significant combat experience as a Kings Commissioned Officer.
Both officers trained their men hard, but the scenario had altered completely. No longer were they expected to descend from the jungles of Burma into the Brahmaputra Valley. Now they were expected to defend Burma, perhaps die there. Any surprise that the thought of desertion was always in the minds of these men?
In January 1945, the 5th Regiment was ordered to Nyaungu, astride the Irrawaddy, near where the 7th Indian Division was expected to cross on the road to Rangoon. The 2nd Regiment was ordered to Prome, by whatever motor transport available. The third arm of the INA was at Pyinmina – severely battered and mauled remains of the failed Imphal offensive. The Japanese plan was to hold Burma at the Irrawaddy as a defence perimeter.
The Allied plan was to land at the North and the South West of Mandalay, which was south of Nyaungu on the river. Meanwhile the 7th Indian Division followed by the 255 Indian Tank Brigade and the 17th Indian Division punch through at Nyaungu, and make a dash for Meiktila, well to the east of the Irrawaddy. Taking Meiktila would threaten Japanese supplies and depots. The strategy was exactly the same as what the Japanese had done so successfully in Malaya, cutting through enemy lines to capture key nodes of the enemy’s fighting ability. It is a playbook the Indian Army used in Bangladesh in 1971.
In the early hours of February 14th, Gen Frank Messervy and his 7th Indian Division came through to Nyaungdu, with a British Regiment (7th South Lancashires) in the lead. They had no idea how thinly it was defended, or how poorly equipped their opponents were. The crossing at Nyaungu has been described as “the longest opposed river crossing attempted in any theatre in the Second World War”. At the point selected for the crossing, the river was almost 2000 yards wide. No artillery support was provided to keep the crossing quiet.
As the first boats drifted diagonally across the Irrawaddy (to avoid sandbanks) one of the INA units opened up with machine guns. The unit, lead by Major Hari Ram, capsized several of the boats. The 7th Indian’s South Lancashires took heavy casualties and retreated. A smaller diversionary crossing by the Sikhs of the 1/11th was also stopped, four miles down at Pagan. Before it started again, a boat with a white flag was seen to approach the Sikhs. In it were two INA officers offering surrender. Altogether 160 men of the INA surrendered.
The crossing was attempted again at Nyaungu – this time the 7th Division’s 25 pounders, the tanks of the 255 Indian Tank Brigade and the RIAF laid down covering fire. This time, the South Lancashires succeeded – promptly, Major Hari Ram and a hundred men surrendered. Dhillon looked for his reserves and they were reluctant to fight, and implored Dhillon to let them surrender. Dhillon let his reserves leave if they wished, and ordered the rest to Mount Popa. Only 400 men were with him from an original strength of 2000.
Coming along just behind the 7th was the 17th Indian Division, bent on extracting revenge for the disasters they suffered from December 1941 to January 1944. It was a very different 17th though, with Sherman tanks, well-trained fresh men to replace those lost in battle and highly experienced Sikhs, Gurkhas, Dogras and Pathans as the core. Within days the 17th took Meiktila. It so happened that Bose was heading towards Meiktila, tommy gun in hand, wanting to be with his troops, and the 17th was not aware that they were just 20 miles behind him. Bose was dissuaded by Shah Nawaz Khan turned and went to Rangoon. The plan for the 7th and the 17th was just the same – get to Meiktila and turn south to Rangoon to get there before the monsoons.
The 2nd INA Brigade was ordered to Mount Popa and told to hold it. Though not on the route to Meiktila, the position had the ability to harass the Allies. Once again, at Mount Popa, five senior INA officers defected, and arranged for a leaflet drop signed by one of the officers asking the men to defect as well. This enraged Bose but there was very little he could do.
The Japanese now tried to throttle the 17th by surrounding them, and thus began yet another of those epic engagements that is legend in the Indian Army.
The Japanese were trying to re-take Nyaungdu to seal any exit for the 17th Indians at Meiktila. At Mount Popa, Dhillon had first to go and round up those who fled – he succeeded partly. Then the INA began aggressive patrolling to give the impression that they were indeed bigger than they were. They had a few successes, and also a disaster at Taungzin – an INA company was surrounded by tanks and armoured cars of the 7th . Fighting with only rifles and bayonets, they were all killed or captured. Attempts were made to play up the psychological significance of Taungzin by the propaganda arm of the INA. Notwithstanding, disaffection was spreading. Five men were executed for trying to desert. In spite of the declining morale, Lt Col Sahgal got the INA to go on the offensive.
On March 28th, the Japanese broke their siege of Meiktila. The Japanese Army had begun to lose its cohesion. The central Burmese plain was now open to the Allies and the race to Rangoon began. The existing Japanese and INA forces now found themselves overwhelmed as a numerically superior enemy surged.
On March 29th the INA Regiment at Mount Popa went on an aggressive patrol on the Kyaukpadaung-Welaung Road that went tangentially to Mount Popa. There they were ambushed by units of the 7th Indian Division. There were casualties in the INA. Sahgal lost his personal papers that showed the plan to attack Pyinbin. Considering that attack compromised, the INA turned towards Legyi in a defensive retreat.
Legyi was on high ground, allowing Sahgal to observe the surroundings with field glasses. There was also a Japanese patrol concealed at a point overlooking the Welaung Road, with whom Sahgal could get and send messages via radio and field telephone. He would observe Indian and British movements, then get the deployed INA elements to ambush, attack or harass. Air raids were common but the INA had learnt to dig in and avoid casualties (even though the mountain terrain was hard to dig in). British infantry advancing would face machine gun fire and they would retire. This happened a few times.
The next day was a shock for Sahgal – three experienced INA men deserted. Sahgal despaired about whether the enemy knew the true position of the INA. Still he held on. Two days later the British mounted a concerted attack with shelling and mortar attacks and managed to break through the INA position. Once again the INA battalion pushed the British back largely because – as Sahgal called it – “poor tactical sense of the British”. The attacks continued – it was a British Brigade that was in action – but the battalion held.
By all accounts the INA had acquitted itself well against a superior foe – but then the battalion’s mortar officer Yasin Khan and other officers and NCOs deserted that night. When Sahgal learnt that his rear echelon had been overwhelmed, he ordered three platoons to attack. All three had deserted. He got other men to clear the rear. But the next day he found that many more officers and men – more than 200 – deserted. He could not trust the remnants to fight. When I read this account I was astonished. This was a formation that could fight and yet at every occasion the INA officers and men chose to desert. All his company commanders were gone, including men like Abdullah Khan and Yasin Khan who were conspicuously brave under fire. They were not cowards who deserted.
On April 8th the Japanese announced a general withdrawal from the area. The INA’s remaining forces began to leave. They only had bullock carts, and could only move at night.
On April 13th Sahgal managed to get his men clear except for one platoon that was trapped on the Legyi-Popaywa road. The Gurkha who commanded that platoon chose to fight to the death than surrender to the Indian Army – the story goes that when asked to surrender he wrote a note saying “Gentlemen, I do not come”. The situation was fluid. Sahgal and his men headed towards Magwe, hiding by day and travelling by night. Near Magwe a Japanese officer told him the Allies were approaching Magwe. The forces split up – Shah Nawaz and the few survivors of the Nehru Brigade towards Prome, and Sahgal towards Natmauk. He split his forces into two so as not to draw attention. Shortly, he lost one of the two forces under one of his ablest commanders – it transpired that the force was trapped by a British tank unit and the battalion died to a man. The remnants wound their way to a river where a a battalion of Gurkhas was sighted. Sahgal sent his battalion commander with a white flag, and surrendered. They could not fight any more.
On April 22, the first tanks of the 7th Cavalry that entered Toungoo overran the Japanese traffic police at the northern outskirts of the town. The 1st INA Division surrendered to the 255 Indian Tank Brigade. They were disarmed by the 5th Indian Division and put to work on repairing the airstrips which made Toungoo of such importance. Rangoon now lay 166 miles away, and Allied fighter aircraft would be able to cover that distance if based on Toungoo.
The rest of the INA disappeared in bits and pieces. Remnants of the 1st Infantry Regiment surrendered at Magwe on April 17th. Shah Nawaz and his men surrendered to the 2nd Battalion/1st Punjab on May 17th. A larger contingent, who had taken refuge in the INA Hospital at Zeyawadi were overrun by the 5th Indians. Many others just shed their uniforms and melted away, especially the plantation Tamils from Malaya. They were never found.
On May 2 the British and Indian armies entered Rangoon. Nearly 5000 men surrendered here – these were the men Bose had asked to stay and maintain law and order in Rangoon. The Japanese had left by then.
Bose and his key associates left Rangoon by road, rail and on foot. He managed to disband the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. Most of the women escaped back to their homes in Burma and Malaya. Some ten thousand INA men survived from the original 45000.
On August 6th and August 9th atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On August 15th 1945 the reedy and scratchy voice of Emperor Hirohito could be heard on Tokyo Radio, surrendering the Empire unconditionally to the Allies.
The War was over.
 Leader of the Opposition and former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, speaking in Parliament in March 1947, when Clement Attlee (Prime Minister) announced the date for Indian Independence.
My good friend Ramesh visited a temple on my say so, and I found myself commenting on his blog on some aspects of one of the temples. I was inspired to write this.
The wind was picking up, and clouds darkened the sky, as I stepped into the Nanguneri Temple. The entrance into the temple is via a long corridor. The ceiling is covered by mats knitted and installed there by a philanthropic business family who claim ancestry from the area. As you exit the corridor, the temple’s entrance beckons. I turn right following the tour leader V Sriram. He points out to me what parts of the temple Gopuram are relatively modern and which date back to the Nayaka era some 450 years prior. We make our way to the temple tank to the side. It takes my breath away. We walk to a pavilion of sorts designed to provide access to the tank. Sriram says that it is probably a later addition and asks us to notice its distinctly Islamic aspects. The water body is dry, but even so, its huge. About three-quarters of a kilometre away is a small mandapam which was supposed to be the centre of the tank. The rain starts to spatter about us, and then the skies open up.
Sriram wonders whether we should make a run for the temple but the intensity of the downpour kills that thought dead. Instead we decide to hunker down in the pavilion and Amritha is persuaded to sing. She starts the shruti on her tablet, with that very modern of accessories. No accompaniments, no amplification. Music Unplugged. In the middle of a quickening downpour, as we look out towards the vast and empty temple tank, every one is aware of how much of a benediction this rain it to this parched land, just as Amrita’s voice penetrates the sound of the raindrops.
What could be better than this, I wonder?
A visit to a South Indian temple is always a blissful experience for me. Whether it’s a small, roadside Pillaiyar Koil, or a big affair like Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai, there are so many small things that you notice that are in common. The semiotics are comfortingly the same – the kolam drawn on soil wetted with a mixture of cowdung and mud; the stems of banana trees tied at the gates; the passageway to the sanctum sanctorum in a bigger temple lined with pillars; the dhwajastambham (the flagmast); the nandi bull which is big or small depending on the size of the temple and the wealth of its benefactors; the shrines to ancillary deities on the sides, with a priest in attendance ready to do an aarti and collect offerings on the plate; and then the main temple with its garba-griha. The smells of ghee, burning oil, bananas and flowers waft to your nostrils – along with the smell of bats in older and larger temples.
My personal fascination with the Hindu temple began in December 1984. I had been recruited by a large foreign bank as an officer trainee out of business school. Within a week I got turfed out on medical grounds, and after I secured alternate employment I spent a week in Tamil Nadu literally bumming around. One December day I walked into the Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple and was hooked. It was the first time I was going to a temple all by myself. I found that my solitude afforded me the sensation of looking at the architecture, the structures, the idols and the people anew.
My previous religious experiences had all been under the tutelage of my family. I come from a very religious household where my very strict and domineering father managed to convert the house into a puritanical monument to Hinduism, leavened only by his fondness for scotch whisky, mutton curry and Wills Filters. Religion was always a duty. Failure to observe duty was punishable. Carnatic music was good because it was devotional. Through two years in business school, away from home for the first time, I rebelled against all that. And just a year after, the visit to Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple re-introduced me to the world of temples. Luckily enough, some years later I met my wife and married her. One day, I was whistling something and she asked me “Hey that is Karahara Priya!”. I told her I had heard it at home, being played by Nadaswara Vidwan Karaikurichi Arunachalam on Diwali days before the ritual oil bath. She smiled with delight and began my education into Carnatic music which continues to this day, 30 years later. And we both enjoy temples, together.
I am never sure what to ask for or how to pray. I gaze at the idol fiercely hoping that somehow the idol can look through me and understand what it is I am looking for. After all, God is supposed to be omniscient, isn’t He? He knows I want the best for my two girls – Ramya and Daya. That I want my extended family to be well. That I struggle with my company and my business. That I feel like I have underwhelmed the world in the last few years and feel seriously inadequate as a result. I am unable to articulate these feelings. Instead I gaze fervently and hope that I am understood.
I do like the monasticity and quiet of Nanguneri, but equally, I understand why the faithful crowd places like Nellaippar in Tirunelveli, or Madurai Meenakshi Amman in Madurai. Our temples were not intended to be cathedrals. The fact that the temple heaves is a sign of how relevant it is. They were centres of temporal, financial, political, cultural and religious lives. The tall gopurams held records and special chambers held grain stock and seed. Marriages were finalised and conducted there, children prayed for, their first birthdays celebrated there, and every occasion in a person’s life observed there. It was where you went to meet people and if possible to fix a suitable alliance for your son or daughter. You sat in the courtyard and ate a small meal, washing in the temple tank after. You came there and prayed when things went well. It was where you wept at the feet of the Lord when fate treated you unkindly. Kings prayed there in their grandeur, as did the common man in his poverty. It was where life happened. Historians have written eloquently about the relationship between the temple and the king, its role as a banker and a land owner, and as a keeper of records.
The transformation of the temple space from curiosity to community centre is evident in the case of the Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. The temple was in a rundown state by the early 1990s when the Archaeological Survey of India took it over. Over fifteen years, their skilful restoration brought the temple back to life. The reconstructed walls of the temple enclosed a green space large enough to isolate the temple and yet make it accessible. In a visit in March 2018, I sat there of an evening and watched the crowds stream in, some visiting the temple and some just sitting in the vast spaces, enjoying the breeze and celebrating life.
The closest I have come to a spiritual experience in a temple was in December 2008. We flew to India from Paris and we bundled our one year old little girl into a guest house in Tirupati. We had booked for a darshan at 230am the next day. So we dressed our little one in her pattu pavadai before she went to sleep. We woke up at 145am, bathed and changed. She was fast asleep – I did a diaper check, and I put her on my shoulder. She woke briefly and settled back with a long sigh. As we entered the temple’s inner sanctum, the priests and the few bhaktas there began to recite the Suprabhatam. The tones were solemn and sonorous, the air cold and peaceful and all was quiet except for the sounds of the Suprabhatam that filled the space. I could feel my little girl’s short hair tickle my ears as she or I moved and she slept blissfully, breathing deep and easy and occasionally making a sound with her little mouth. And so it was for the next two hours. I felt uniquely blessed as my daughter slept peacefully all through, until we came back to the guest house. Still unaware and at peace with herself. She was in the moment, close to her inner self, utterly unconscious of all that happened around her. I remember every second of that morning and consider that my divine benediction.
 Do read R Champakalakshmi “Religion, Tradition and Ideology in Pre-Colonial South India” and Burton Stein “South Indian Temples – An Analytical Reconsideration”.
The process of rejecting western notions about India has acquired speed, pushing aside anyone who dares to question the intellectual rigour of the new interpretations. This is particularly so in the case of Indian science and how advanced it was in the days before the Islamic conquest began.
Lets take the case of the idol at Somnath. As we know, Mahmud of Ghazni is supposed to have destroyed the famous temple in 1025 CE. He is supposed to have decamped with tons of gold and jewels and put 50,000 people to death.
A friend of mine, known to be a high IQ physics buff and deeply involved in emerging technologies like Internet of Things, sent me a quote that indicated a very deep knowledge of magnetism in ancient India and specifically about the idol at the Somnath temple before it was smashed to pieces allegedly by Mahmud.
When the temple fell, said my friend, “the king directed a person to go and feel all around and above it with a spear, which he did but met with no obstacle. One of the attendants then stated his opinion that the canopy was made of loadstone [a magnetized rock], and that the idol was iron and that the ingenious builder had skillfully contrived that the magnet should not exercise a greater force on any one side — hence the idol was suspended in the middle. When two stones were removed from the summit the idol swerved on one side, when more were taken away it inclined still further, until it rested on the ground.”
This quote has been doing the rounds amongst the Hindu faithful. I asked my friend for attribution. I was surprised to get a response from him that said he did not need some white man to provide validation for knowledge about India, and that there are facts and there are facts. So I did some digging around of my own and this is what I found.
The quote in italics is taken from an obscure work on history by Sir H M Elliott and Prof John Dowson published in London in 1869. The two English gents were Persian and Arabic scholars, and they compiled a reference work of histories of India written by others, especially Arabic and Persian writers. They have translated many Arab writers and compiled it into two volumes. Serious historians know of this work but it is largely unknown to the common man.
The passage cited is taken from Abu Yahya Zakariya’ ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini, an Arab geographer and astronomer. He was born sometime in around 1230 CE or so. He was not a traveller but compiled his work from the works of others. He is mainly known for “ʿAjā’ib al-makhlūqāt wa gharā’ib al-mawjūdāt” (The Wonders of Creation). This is a book on cosmography and was apparently immensely popular the Arab world. In the work under reference, This quote is from a book called Asaru Al Bilad wa Akhbaru-l Ibad (“Monuments of Countries and Memories of Men”) . Qazwini apparently quotes from another work by an earlier Arab writer called Misar Bin Mulalhil in this work.
Everything stated by Qazwini may be true. And then again not. Since he never actually saw any of this, as Ghazni destroyed Somnath in 1025 CE and Qizwani wrote his book in 1263. It is indeed true that the Susruta Samhita does show the ancients knew all about magnetism, and therefore it is entirely possible that the suspension of the idol with magnets may have been done.
I thought about this and wondered how the Somnath phenomenon could be possible. For a huge iron idol to be suspended in mid air would need industrial magnets. A loadstone (which is a naturally occurring weak magnet that was used in compasses of old) would not do the job (unless these loadstones were huge and very powerful). Does it mean our ancients knew how to build industrial magnets, for which they would need access to electrical engineering technology.
Not satisfied, I wrote to Prof Subhash Kak, who is an Emeritus Professor of Electrical Engineering at Oklahoma State University and a member of the Indian Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. He is also an expert in matters relating to ancient Indian science, and has written extensively about the mathematical knowledge contained in ancient Indian scriptures.
He replied saying the iron idol and its suspension by magnets does not seem likely, but persistent reports of such suspension in Hindu temples in Java could lead us to conclude that perhaps dark ropes were involved. Which I can accept.
My larger point is this – why do we suspend our scientific faculties just because we wish to reject the unfair characterization of India as a land that did not know science until the white man arrived? The foremost scientific tool we have is Occam’s razor. Unless otherwise proved, reject something fanciful as the explanation for a hypothesis. In this case, clearly Qazwini was making it up.
Is our inferiority complex so deep-rooted that we have to reject in entirety anything Western?
History of India By Its Own Historians Vol I & II. Edited from the posthumous papers of Sir H M Elliott by Prof John Dowson. London, Trubner & Co. 1869
Note: I had to edit this post. Some of the content was found to be deeply offensive to a dear friend. My generic commentary on the unambitious nature of the student community there was followed by my delight at discovering there were pearls in their midst. My regret that this discovery took place 40 years after the college experience did not seem to have convinced this person, nor would my friend accept my thesis that there are exceptions to the generalization as I subsequently discovered.I came across to her as snobbish and conceited. Were you the only person to go to this college unwillingly, she asks. Did you think you were the only person who liked to read and improve themselves? Life’s too short. So here goes with edits.
Meeting people who were part of your life when you were very young, after a very long time, is like watching a movie of yourself made on Super 8mm film that’s been dug from the mud and replayed. The film has not been preserved well but it runs. The images are jerky and grainy, the colour has not held true, and the cuts are abrupt wherever faulty film had to be cut out and spliced. Large portions are just grayed out.
And yet a picture emerges of yourself as you once were, perhaps as others saw you, and the self-awareness (if any) that you had at that time comes flooding back into memory. You wonder how that person then became the person you are now and how much of that person remains today.
Last week I attended the reunion of my undergraduate class. My undergraduate college was an unknown government institution in a small town. It was most unremarkable in every way. Admissions were not selective, so pretty much anyone who had scraped through the rather easy State Matriculation exams could get a place. There was no hoary academic history attached to the place or the institution, and that lack of history perpetuated itself into the present that I encountered. Rather, it appeared to be the kind of place to spend the minimum amount of time needed to acquire a BA degree which would make you eligible to take a government job as a clerk. Or, if you were a female student, until you got married. It was not a place for the academically ambitious.
I had rather imagined myself to be exactly that. I did not want to go to this college – I wanted to study at a prestigious engineering college with a tough entrance exam. Without much of the rigorous preparation that is needed for such exams, I went ahead and attempted the entrance test, with predictable results. My father told me he was not willing to countenance another attempt and I was told to go do this degree.
I was angry and resentful the moment I came into class the first day. I found myself in a class with some of the worst behaved youth I had ever come across. I felt as though none of them would share any of my interests in reading and such-like. It appeared as though most students did not aspire to anything more than doing the bare minimum to get a degree – I am sure exceptions existed, and invariably, these were amongst the poorest of students who were often the first to go to college in their families. Attendance in classes was an optional extra. The teachers for the most part reflected this approach to life – do the minimum, and check out for the rest of the day. And I would not blame them for adopting this strategy for one had to be a very brave person to insist on academic discipline.
The situation was not helped by the fact that my sister was in the same college. She happened to have been born in the United States and was a resident alien in India. That and the fact that she was quite good looking meant she was a target for abuse from the very first day. She was also quite aloof and that did not help. She was the subject of catcalls and abuse almost on a daily basis. Some of my classmates were participants.
I was unable to stop the abuse. Something that rankles to this day. A lot of girls in the college stoically withstood the abuse but my sister took it very hard. Some of my nicer classmates used to congregate around two of the culprits. My die was cast. I never associated with any of them socially. It did appear that there were aspirational students. I used to talk to people and interact in class but never outside. This pattern that I set in the very first year, combined with the resentment I felt at being in this place, meant that I had a very lonely three years. Since I had closed my mind to any form of experience I did not ask myself if there were other people there with similar feelings to mine. I mitigated that loneliness by learning to live within myself, by developing an inner life that has ended up so rich that sometimes I thank my stars for those years. When I finished my three year sentence I did not as much as stop to say goodbye to anyone. There were no farewells. I just moved on.
So how did I end up at this reunion nearly 40 years later? One of the two guys who used to catcall my sister became my classmate in business school. Apologies took place and we ended up friends. Over the years he visited us and we visited him. A year or so ago he put me in touch with all these people again and the culmination was what I attended this last weekend.
I met some amazing people. One girl was indeed someone who got a degree so that she could marry. But the marriage became a very difficult one because of the family she married into. So she walked out with her husband in tow, qualified in law and built a legal practice that is thriving. She looked after her husband during final stages of cancer. Another guy married the woman of his dreams but waited six years for her to get round to leaving her home for him. Another went to France, joined the army, toughed it out and made a life for himself there. Supremely happy man. Everyone seemed to have encountered adversity and overcome it.
Did I judge them too harshly then on their behavior? May be I did. All of us were unformed human beings then. If I was immature in passing out harsh judgements, then may be they were immature in their behavior. I think my judgement was the right one – there are lines that cannot be crossed. And yet they were kids too. Clearly most of them also had no choice in terms of which college to attend. They were either too poor, or not very well informed, or came from conservative families. I tested them all on my lofty standards and found all of them wanting.
The reunion was great. All of them were very kind and very nice to me. Despite the gulf of forty years we all connected and the years rolled away. I regret very much that I could not enrich my life in those years with the kind of thrills and escapades that young people have. At the same time I do not regret the reasons why I would not partake. But something was lost.
The picture I saw of myself over the weekend was this studious, bookish person who is a little uncomfortable with the ordinary. That I may actually be snobbish and elitist in my tastes. But then, that’s me. Everyone was affectionate, some more so than others. It was just a short reunion, and hence I do not think I got close to anyone but everyone knew me better than they did 40 years ago. And the stage is set for renewal and refreshment of old relationships. I can only wish all of them well and be a friend to them.
I saw that the anger and resentment I felt at that time was ultimately channeled into making something of myself – a steely determination that this was not what I was intended for. My lack of self confidence arose from other factors, mainly a domineering father. The anger mixed with genuine helplessness and a lack of self-confidence made me a very lonely person.
The years since have been very kind to me. Lots of friends, the opportunity to do interesting work, live in several countries, marry a good woman and have a lovely daughter. And I am known among friends as good company, a raconteur and entertainer. I have tried to be a good man.
I am very happy in my own skin. I learnt to be like that in order to deal with loneliness. I think its a huge gift from those years but I would not want to pay such a price again.