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A Debate – Netaji vs Nehru by Maj Gen Bakshi

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Ahead of Netaji’s birthday on 23 January, his contribution to Independence movement vis-a-vis Nehru’s must be discussed.

MAJ GEN G.D. BAKSHI (RETD)  New Delhi | 17th Jan 2015

In the last year, a lively historical debate about the comparative roles and contribution of Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel appeared in our media. A far more seminal debate, however, is needed today about the comparative contributions of Nehru and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose toward the achievement of Indian independence and even more important, to the very nature of the nation state that emerged from our freedom struggle.

A curious fact about our freedom struggle is that Nehru and most of our leaders of this struggle, were lawyers. Dr M. Mukherjee of the University of Colorado has opined that these lawyers had evolved a juridical approach to the freedom struggle. They placed inordinate levels of faith in the concept of imperial justice, wherein the Queen’s subjects would appeal to the Empress for redress of their grievances against the colonial state in India. The trial of Warren Hastings had provided the model for such imperial intervention, ostensibly in support of her subjects. It was a rather quaint model of a freedom struggle. In fact, the furthest that the lawyers of the Congress would go was to ask for Home Rule. By the time the First World War ended, this effete model of a freedom struggle was somewhat out of tune with the emotive upsurge in India and the aspirations of its people. It may be recalled that some 1.3 million Indian soldiers had fought in the battlefields of Europe, Africa and the Middle East on slogans of liberty, fraternity and equality. The very least they expected from the British was a measure of gratitude. What they got instead was the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh in 1919. It was accompanied by a rather racist phase of repression.

It was Mahatma Gandhi who sensed the inflamed feelings of the Indian pubic and decried the legalistic approach of the anglophile lawyers of the Congress. He, in fact, reached out to the rural masses to give a mass based character to this struggle. The Congress evolved from an effete debating society to a more serious form of a freedom movement. Gandhi, however, insisted that this struggle be kept non-violent. In fact as the post-Jallianwala phase movement was reaching its crescendo, Gandhi astonished everyone by calling off the movement because it had turned violent and some Indian policemen had been killed by the infuriated mobs.

Bose (and revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh) differed radically from Gandhi about the non-use of force. Bose very correctly identified the centre of gravity of the British rule in India as its ability to retain the loyalties of the Indian soldiers of the British Indian Army. When the Second World War started, he correctly identified it as a historic opportunity to seek the help of the Germans and the Japanese and overthrow the British Empire in India. Gandhi saw to it that Bose was marginalised completely and did not become president of the Congress for a second term. Undeterred, in 1941, Bose staged a dramatic escape from house arrest in India and reached Germany. There he met Hitler and the top Nazi leadership. He formed a 3,000 strong Indian League from Indian PoWs held with the Germans. Bose, however, was soon disillusioned by the racism of Hitler and his lack of support for the cause of Indian freedom. The Japanese, meanwhile, had achieved a remarkable series of military successes in the Asia-Pacific and were inching closer to the British Empire in India. By 1943, they felt a clear need for Bose to galavanise the Indian National Army. Accordingly, they asked the Germans for Bose. Bose now undertook a perilous voyage by a German U-boat in early 1943. He transferred to a Japanese submarine I- 29, just off the coast of Madasgascar in a fierce sea-storm. In Japan, he met Prime Minister Tojo and impressed him greatly. He formed the provisional Government of Free India in exile and declared war against Great Britain. His government was recognised by all the Axis powers and their allies. Bose went beyond the prisoner of war pool and reached out to the Indian Diaspora in South East Asia. He expanded the INA to a respectable size of 1,500 officers and 60,000 men which were organised in three divisions. In early 1944, some two divisions worth of the INA joined the Japanese 15th Army (under Lt Gen Rene Mutagachi) in the famous battle for the Imphal-Kohima plains in India. It was a very grim and hard fought battle. It was only Allied airpower that tilted the scales finally. It is however noteworthy, that even though Bose and his INA lost the battles of Imphal-Kohima, they won the war for Indian independence. This happened, as after the war, the British, in a very foolish gesture of triumphalism, put INA officers on trial in the Red Fort. This inflamed public opinion in India. What was far more significant was the series of rebellions that it triggered in the Royal Indian Navy, the Royal Indian Air Force and the units of the British Indian Army. The revolt in the Navy was particularly alarming as it affected some 20,000 sailors on 72 ships and over 20 shore establishments. Some 2.5 million battle-hardened, Indian soldiers were being de-mobilised after the war. They were furious and the British panicked. They decided to quit with grace while they still had the chance. That then is the true story of how India got its independence.

The key British decision maker of that era, Prime Minister Clement Attlee has said as much. He identified Bose and his INA and the subsequent mutinies they triggered as the sole and primary reason for the British decision to quit India in such a tearing hurry. He also sarcastically characterised the impact of Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India movement as, “minimal”. The historical truth is that out of some 60,000 INA soldiers, some 24,000 were martyred. This is a colossal level of casualties and India’s freedom struggle can hardly be characterised as non-violent. Yet, the British, as a parting shot, handed power to the anglophile grouping of lawyers in the Congress, led by Nehru. Gandhi was marginalised and Bose was buried. A patently false narrative of state was propagated, which stridently claimed that freedom came solely from non-violence and was the gift of ahimsa. The lawyers had pleaded and argued their way to win freedom for India and now deserved to rule. India as such did not need military force. The Nehruvian battery of lawyers replaced the concept of British imperial justice with the new concept of the UNO and its General Assembly and Security Council before which the lawyers would plead India’s case in times of war or aggression.

The new nation state of India, therefore, did not believe in war, violence or the use of force. Nehru went so far as to say that India did not need armed forces. It only needed the police. It was only the conflicts in J&K and Hyderabad and realists like Patel who did not let Nehru have his way. Patel however, died very early and after his demise Nehru completely marginalised the armed forces from decision making and starved them of resources. After the coup in Pakistan, they were viewed with suspicion and hostility and a concerted attempt was made to promote yes-men and family loyalists. This led to the military disaster of 1962. This shook up the country and led to the demise of Nehru.

The pity is that under the UPA, India returned once more to the Nehruvian narrative. Non-alignment was dusted out in a new avatar — Non Alignment 2.0. The use of force was totally ruled out and a new set of lawyers told the nation that India would not strike back at Pakistan, but would plead with the US and also in Pakistani courts. Indian armed forces were severely neglected and under-funded. An Army chief and a Naval chief were hounded and victimised. Civil-military reactions were once again reduced to a nadir. India was again reaching the level of helplessness that it had come to in the pre-1962 era. The UPA had almost concluded that force had no role to play in dealing with Pakistan. Mercifully that dispensation has been voted out of office.

That is why the Nehru vs Netaji debate is critical to who we are and what kind of a nation state we want to become. It is the right time to ask ourselves some seminal questions. What was the role of the use of force in our freedom struggle? What is our view about the use of force in international relations and especially in responding to overt or covert military or asymmetric aggression? Ahead of Netaji’s birthday on 23 January, we need to ponder about some seminal questions about how we were formed and what kind of a nation state we intend to become.