Note: This article was originally published on January 5, 2019 and is being republished on Bastille Day, July 14, 2019.
During his recent visit to the Andamans, Prime Minister Modi paid tribute to Subhas Chandra Bose’s Provisional Government of Azad Hind, which nominally administered the Islands during World War II. In a ceremony last Sunday, Modi renamed Ross, Neil, and Havelock Islands as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Dweep, Shaheed Dweep, and Swaraj Dweep.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands were promised to Bose’s Azad Hind Government by Japan in November 1943, at the Greater East Asia Conference held in Tokyo. After Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo announced his decision to cede the islands to Azad Hind, Bose declared:
Like the Bastille in Paris, which was liberated first in the French Revolution, setting free political prisoners, the Andamans, where our patriots suffered much, is the first to be liberated in India’s fight for independence…we have renamed Andamans as ‘Shaheed,’ in memory of the martys; the Nicobar—‘Swaraj.’
Bose later visited the islands with a Japanese delegation and advertised a similar notion of liberation, raising the tricolor flag for the first time on Indian soil. Modi championed this narrative on Sunday by hoisting the Indian flag on a towering flagpole on the eastern shore of Port Blair.
If we want to understand the historical roots of Modi’s recent renaming, however, we need to look beyond Bose’s rhetorical gestures in Port Blair and Tokyo to another event which shook the British Raj to its core: the INA trial in Delhi’s Red Fort.
As portrayed in the recent film Raag Desh, the 1945-46 “Red Fort Trial” was a court martial of three officers of the Indian National Army: Shah Nawaz Khan, P.K. Sahgal, and G.S. Dhillon. The officers were tried under Section 121 of the Indian Penal Code, “waging war against the King.”
Their case was taken up by a team of Congress lawyer-politicians including K.N. Katju, Asaf Ali, and even Jawaharlal Nehru himself. The lead defence counsel was the prominent Bombay advocate Bhulabhai Desai.
An innovative argument
The officers on trial were charged with essentially the equivalent of treason – a matter of domestic law. Desai, however, made an innovative argument rooted in international law. He suggested that Azad Hind was a legitimate belligerent with the right to wage war. He pointed out that it had an organised military, a functioning government and its own territory. This territory was the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The INA officers on trial in the Red Fort had served in Imphal and Burma, not the Andamans. However, as a result of Desai’s argument, and as the historian T.R. Sareen recounts in his book, Sharing the Blame, the Andamans featured prominently in the trial proceedings.
The Andamans began to be discussed in earnest when Desai called A.D. Loganadan, the INA official appointed by Bose to be the chief commissioner in the islands, to the witness stand. During his examination by Desai, Loganadan pointed out that the islands had been renamed Shaheed and Swaraj during his administration.
Subsequently, the prosecution – led by N.P. Engineer, the advocate-general of India – followed a line of questions clearly intended to undermine the defence’s argument that Azad Hind had territorial sovereignty over the islands. This became particularly clear when the discussion turned to the so-called “spy cases.”
During the occupation, the Japanese administration carried out summary trials and executions of suspected spies. Loganadan remarked during his cross-examination that Azad Hind personnel were only allowed limited access to these investigations. He further conceded that there were “gross atrocities committed by the Japanese in the spy cases.”
When asked to clarify a statement in a report to Bose, for instance, Loganadan remarked, “With regard to the statement that ‘a few of them are said to have died of illness developed while under trial,’ that means that they died under torture while in police custody…I could not put that in such simple terms, because, as I said, my letters were being scrutinized. I wanted the report to reach the other end.”
There was little difference of opinion in matter of fact between the prosecution and defence. Both had to concede that Azad Hind had played a minor role in the administration of the Andamans during the war. However, the prosecution’s “somewhat elaborate cross-examination for this purpose,” according to Desai, was beside the point.
Desai, citing Tojo’s declaration and the “most significant fact” of the renaming of the islands, argued that it was a “misconception to confuse the ceding of a territory and taking over every item of administration of that territory.”
Engineer’s prosecution address did, however, make one cutting observation: the reports written by Loganadan to Bose were sent from “The Chief Commissioner, Andaman and Nicobar Islands.” And in the end, the defence did not win the case. Public outrage, however, forced General Claude Auchinleck to commute the officers’ sentences shortly after they were passed.
Desai skyrocket’s to fame
Desai’s argument is perhaps most significant because of the currency it gained in the decolonising world. As the three officers skyrocketed to fame as champions of the Indian Independence Movement, Desai himself jumped to international legal celebrity.
Revelers in the Sindh and Seremban celebrated “Bhulabhai Desai Day,” and Desai’s defence was sold in pamphlet form by publishers across South Asia and the Indian Ocean. In the introduction to a Manila printing, the Filipino statesman Claro M. Recto wrote:
Filipinos have much to learn from the Indians, from their militant patriotism and the absence of a spirit of servility in their relations with Great Britain…The defence of the Indian National Army is a lesson in first principles.
Echoes of the trial could also be felt on the Islands years later in 1977, when Shah Nawaz Khan, one of the officers tried in the Red Fort who was then serving as minister of agriculture and irrigation, visited the Islands to unveil a statue of Bose in Port Blair’s Marina Park.
It is likely, therefore, that the INA trial and Desai’s defence address played a part in the diffusion of Bose’s narrative of the Andamans as an “Indian Bastille” and the liberatory narrative that Modi endorsed on Sunday. As the trial documents demonstrate, however, the real story was more complicated.
Alexander Williams studies South Asian legal history at Yale University. He has done archival research on the Japanese occupation of the Andamans and the INA trial.