The (False) Alarm in India About a Japanese Invasion During World War II

In an amalgam of scholarly history and popular narrative for the layperson, Mukund Padmanabhan delivers a succinct new dimension to a period of many facets: war and defence, imperialism and nationalism, rumour and fact, courage and cowardice.

The title tells the tale; Mukund Padmanabhan’s The Great Flap of 1942 covers the alarm in India during the second world war about a Japanese invasion, and the consequent flight of people from many towns, both coastal and inland, to escape from it. In retrospect, it was much ado about nothing. The Japanese invasion was limited to a brief unsuccessful incursion into Northeast India in 1944. 

Padmanabhan researched this little-publicised aspect of the war after hearing his mother’s difficulties when, like others, she fled inland from Madras for one year with her parents. He discovered that much of India was gripped by similar panic. Indians and Europeans were equally fearful, the chaos being compounded by lack of management by the British. The ‘flap’ seriously dented the Raj’s prestige.

Mukund Padmanabhan
The Great Flap of 1942: How the Raj panicked over a Japanese non-invasion
Vintage, 2024

Padmanabhan writes, “The Japanese threat is not easily slotted into either of the two grand narratives of British decolonization and the Indian freedom struggle,” and poses two broader questions: did the Japanese threat affect Britain’s attitude to India’s freedom; and did the war influence the course of the freedom movement? On the first; after the urgings of Chiang KaiShek and Roosevelt, a reluctant Churchill Cabinet put forward proposals carried to India by Stafford Cripps. On the second, the Cripps mission was “scuppered by Gandhi’s beliefs in nonviolence and a likely Japanese victory.”

Gandhi was inconsistent. He first favoured mass action to hasten freedom while opposing armed defence – aggression would be met by non-violence. If Britain left India, he thought Japan would leave an independent India alone. But by June 1942, Gandhi’s position changed. He said he did not want a Japanese victory and, implying that the absence of troops would provoke Japanese aggression, agreed that Britain and its allies could use India as a base. 

Japanese propaganda claimed its army would help Indians achieve independence, and Indian soldiers who defected were treated humanely by the advancing troops. This gave rise to sympathy from a “sizeable [Indian] constituency”, as Japanese broadcasts highlighted British racism and Asian freedom. Chiang KaiShek in 1942 said, “If the Japanese should know of the real situation and attack India they would be virtually unopposed.”

The author narrates the background to the flap. Significant warnings of a likely invasion came from the fall of Hong Kong, Malaya, and finally Singapore to Japan in February 1942, the Andaman Islands the following month and the bombing of Colombo, Trincomalee, Vizag and Kakinada a month later. But Padmanabhan asserts there was no Japanese plan to invade, having neither the men, ships nor land-based aircraft to do so; their instructions were to disrupt Allied shipping and sporadically bomb cities from 1942-44.

The British “tacitly or otherwise” encouraged the exodus though they attributed it to Indian timidity. There were several causes for civilian flight from towns: it was questionable whether Britain was capable of defending India, having abandoned Hong Kong, Penang and Singapore. Air Raid Precautions (ARPs), blackouts, trenches and civil defence measures stoked panic, as did refugees from Burma and Ceylon, along with Britain’s reluctance to establish Indian defence industries and involve Indians in defence management. There was rationing, food and petrol shortages, wild rumours of Japanese attacks and of European women and children being evacuated. A practice air raid warning in Vizag led to 10% of the population fleeing. The whole atmosphere was one of the Raj in retreat.

Also read: Why the Second World War Remains Relevant for India Today

The arrival of foreign soldiers after 1941 led to apprehensions of “real, alleged, and imagined” misbehavior, though the number of serious incidents was “extremely small”. To an extent, such incidents offset the reported atrocities of the invading Japanese. By the end of the war, there were 240,000 British and 120,000 American troops in India.

Madras and Calcutta City Corporations, as early as 1938, wanted more defences against Japan and called for military training but came up against Gandhi’s non-violence which made no distinction between national security and the freedom struggle. Congress delivered mixed messages; in 1938 it disapproved of ARPs which “spread an atmosphere of approaching war,” and Gandhi demanded that no ‘scorched earth’ policy should apply to India. Leaders indulged in semantics and nitpicking on evacuation rather than providing clarity. C. Rajagopalachari censured the Madras authorities for creating panic and advocated resisting the Japanese, while claiming that the risk of invasion was remote. Mixed messaging by the Raj after the bombing of Rangoon (Myanmar) in December 1941 and the fall of Singapore in 1942 added to the confusion. Some newspapers endorsed evacuation because a defenceless people could not be expected to stay. 

Padmanabhan takes Madras as a case study, where exodus took place in three phases; the well-off left when the Japanese entered the war and by mid-January 1942, 30% had left. The second phase was when Singapore surrendered, the Colombo bombing of April 1942 and the arrival of 30,000 refugees from Ceylon led to another exodus. That month British intelligence mistakenly anticipated a Japanese invasion in Madras Presidency by 10 Japanese divisions and the government ordered evacuation with free board and lodge being provided in six camps 40 miles from Madras. With this third phase, 87% of the city had fled. Madras was the only big city where there was an official evacuation advisory. In an anti-climax, in October 1943, a lone Japanese plane dropped a few bombs in the Madras port area.

Among other places where evacuation took place were Bombay, Calcutta, Hyderabad, Delhi, Cuttack, Cochin, Madurai, Trichy, Mysore, Jamshedpur, Bihar coal fields, Ahmadabad, Imphal, Gauhati and Shillong – the last two lost 75 and 40%  of their populations respectively.

Apart from exhuming the main elements of the flap, Padmanabhan uncovers the little-known internment of 2,000 Japanese in the Delhi Old Fort and freezing of Japanese assets in 1941. And he concludes with the sad story of zoo animals and household pets being shot and sacrificed for the war effort, not only in India, but in various cities like London, Rangoon, Sydney, Warsaw and Berlin, to save food and prevent dangerous creatures being accidentally released and roaming wild.

In an amalgam of scholarly history and popular narrative for the layperson, Padmanabhan delivers a succinct new dimension to a period of many facets; war and defence, imperialism and nationalism, rumour and fact, courage and cowardice.

Krishnan Srinivasan is a former foreign secretary.