Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s daughter, Anita Bose Pfaff, was seen and heard on many news channels and online platforms last week, on January 23, her father’s 125th birth anniversary. In more than one interview, she said that she often feels that her father’s death spared him the agony of having to witness the Partition of India in the name of religion.
Listening to Anita, I could understand her feelings. I have often felt that my father’s death in 1992 and my mother’s in 2012 spared them from experiencing the deliberate destruction of the ties that bind Indians together.
Both my parents were naturally secular-minded people. My father, Prem Sahgal, grew up in Lahore. As a young boy, he joined Bhagat Singh’s Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) and acted as a courier for the organisation for a short period. Bhagat Singh’s hanging shook him to the core and made him feel that the Congress way to freedom could not succeed.
He then took a decision to join the army because his readings of the history of revolutions convinced him that only when a section of the armed forces joined the movement for liberation could it succeed. He was extremely fortunate that he was part of the British Indian Army that, after its surrender to the Japanese in Singapore, was given the opportunity to form the Indian National Army (INA).
Strangely enough, my mother, Lakshmi Swaminathan (as she was before her marriage), despite being the daughter of an ardent and active Congresswoman, was also disappointed with Congress’s tactics and also Gandhi’s ‘fads’. She accompanied her mother to the Congress session in Calcutta and used to slip out of the camp every morning to watch Subhas drill his regiment of volunteers.
Lakshmi too was inspired by Bhagat Singh. She participated in a mass collection campaign for funds for his legal expenses, and after he was hanged, was part of the huge rally of students that brought Madras to a standstill.
After completing her medical studies, she left Madras for Singapore and this gave her the opportunity to be part of the INA too. Immediately after his arrival in Singapore, Subhas asked her to assume charge of the Rani of Jhansi regiment that he was determined to form – she was only too happy to accept.
My parents were not people easily impressed by others. Lakshmi had met Nehru, Gandhi and others but she had strong reservations about them. The Madras that she grew up in was also the center of the Theosophists and Krishnamoorthy followers who were all closely allied to the national movement but, ‘hocus pocus’ as she called it, left Lakshmi cold.
Before leaving for Singapore, Prem had been part of the bitter arguments over religion and politics that threatened to engulf life in Lahore. He developed a lifelong abhorrence of communal politics and left for Singapore disillusioned with leaders who seemed more interested in compromise and adjustment than with fighting to free India. This was a fight that he himself felt completely committed to.
I often asked my parents what it was about Subhas that commanded their complete and utter loyalty. What was it about him that so mesmerised them? My father was Subhas’s political secretary for a long time and, therefore, spent most of his waking hours in his company. My mother, too, accompanied Subhas on recruiting tours to Malaysia and Burma and later, as a member of the provisional government of Azad Hind worked with him as a cabinet colleague. Every aspect of Subhas’s personality was therefore known to them.
No caste discrimination in the INA
My parents would reply to this question – which I asked repeatedly – with many stories about Subhas. There were stories about his sense of humour, about his courage, about his insistence on behaving and being treated as an equal in every respect by the Japanese, about his deep study of military tactics and jungle warfare, about the love and affection that he showered on each and every member of the INA and about the pains he took to relieve their hardships and also share them himself.
But most of all they told me stories about his absolute commitment to the unity and equality of all Indians.
The British Army had a very large number of Punjabis, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus and, obviously, this was repeated in the composition of the INA. Many of the officers were Muslims and the complete trust that Subhas placed in them made them unstintingly loyal to him, to the INA and the cause of Indian freedom despite the fact that they had been much exposed to Muslim League campaigns.
My father told me that after their return to India, just when both freedom and Partition had become inevitable, a large contingent of Muslim INA officers went to meet Nehru. They told him that they had fought for the independence of India and were prepared to serve her. They requested, almost begged, to be taken into the Indian army and said that if that was not possible then they could be made part of a separate regiment and sent to Kashmir which they would defend with their lives. Their requests were turned down.
Over the years, I have met many of these officers in Delhi and in Pakistan and the feelings that these hard-bitten veteran soldiers expressed for Subhas were incredible. They would speak about him with tears in their eyes. Even their children and grandchildren were brought up to venerate Subhas as the ultimate leader!
According to my parents, everyone in the INA ate together and there was no separation by community or caste or region in the barracks. One of the methods that Subhas resorted to in his attempt to strengthen the unity of his soldiers was to adopt the Roman script. In this way, people speaking different languages picked up Hindustani quite easily and they could converse with each other.
While my parents were very much in favour of this method, there are, of course, many arguments against it. There is no doubt, however, that it did bring about ease of communication in a very short time.
Along with the North Indians, there were also a large number of South Indians from Tamil Nadu in the INA. Their numbers increased when Subhas recruited soldiers, both men and women, from the expatriate population in Malaysia, Singapore and Burma. It must be remembered that none of these recruits had ever stepped on Indian soil.
They had been living outside India for generations but retained their emotional ties to the land of their ancestors. The formation of the INA and Subhas’s charisma inspired them to join the INA and, if necessary, give up their lives to free a country they had never seen.
Certainly the use of Roman, the common kitchens and barracks and the atmosphere of camaraderie and brotherhood that Subhas ensured meant that they faced no regional or lingual bias. He would regularly eat with the men and spend time listening to their stories and also their complaints. Differences of rank and hierarchy were not allowed to convert into arrogant boorishness as is often the case in the armed forces.
Subhas’s commitment to religious harmony
Subhas would also not countenance any sign of intolerance in others. My father told me the famous story of the invitation extended to Subhas by the wealthy Chettiar community in Singapore to visit their temple where they would make a substantial donation to the INA by presenting him his weight in gold and jewels. He readily accepted and arrived at the temple accompanied by his officers, at least three of whom were Muslims.
His hosts hesitated and Subhas, turned around and started to leave. A large contribution that he needed desperately was of no account if his officers were to be humiliated because of their religion. The Chettiars immediately apologised and invited all of them into the temple. They applied a tilak to each one’s forehead and none of the Muslims objected. When Subhas led them out of the temple, he immediately wiped his forehead and said, “If I allow religion to accompany my uniform, my army will disintegrate.”
It is interesting to remember this incident in the context that it found place in a TV series produced by Rajya Sabha TV on the Red Fort Trial in which three officers of the INA, General Shahnawaz, Colonel Sahgal (my father) and Major Dhillon were tried for treason by a military court. The series was completed towards the end of the tenure of former vice-president Hamid Ansari.
A feature film, Raag Desh, based on this material, also had this scene in the temple. Raag Desh was exhibited to an invited audience at the Rashtrapati Bhavan the day before vice-president Ansari was to retire. Not a single member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) attended the showing and, once Venkaiah Naidu became vice-president and, therefore, assumed control of Rajya Sabha TV, the planned release of the series on the channel never took place.
My father often said that the impact of the trial had proved the truth of Subhas’s belief, his belief that a sense of unity among all Indians, strengthened by patriotic fervour would overcome all divisions and pave the way for freedom.
United by a common cause
The three officers, belonging to three different religions, accused of having fought the British with arms, were tried by a military court and the verdict was a foregone conclusion. The three officers would be found guilty and would be hanged. At the end of several weeks, the expected verdict was delivered but, in those weeks, the country had changed.
The news of the trial, the news of the INA, the fact that these three young men who represented the three major religious communities of the country were facing death because their fight for freedom spread like wildfire. Hundreds and then thousands collected in front of the Red Fort every day. Newspapers were sold before they reached the hawkers’ hands; people in homes, restaurants, railway station waiting rooms and offices were glued to the radio all day.
Processions demanding the release of the three INA officers erupted spontaneously in cities and towns in every corner of the country. The slogan ‘Lal Quile se aayi awaaz, Sahgal, Dhillon, Shahnawaz’ (‘A call came from the Red Fort, Sahgal, Dhillon, Shahnawaz’) reverberated throughout the land. British men and women started facing first hostile looks and then abuse. A few physical attacks were reported.
The movement to free the INA accused assumed gigantic proportions and swept away all talk of ‘Two Nations and Partition’. The British government realised that if the three were hanged not a single English woman or man would be spared. Military officers warned the government that the loyalty of the armed forces was wavering. The mighty British Empire caved in: they could not hang them, they could not sentence them for life so they gave them an honourable pardon.
The excitement of a newfound solidarity among masses of people was further intensified by the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) mutiny in which hundreds of sailors on ships from Karachi to Calcutta brought down the Union Jack and flew the Congress, Muslim League and Red flags instead.
The leaders of the National Movement could have seized this moment and continued the fight for a different kind of freedom for the country, freedom for a united country. Unfortunately, they were tired men in a hurry; tired men whom the peoples’ unity did not inspire but rather intimidated.
To go back to what my father said – yes, Subhas was right. People who had been divided, made to believe that they were each other’s enemies, people who had become estranged and embittered, could come together, united for a common cause, united by the prospect of three men with whom they identified facing the hangman’s noose because they fought for all of their freedoms.
With Independence came Partition. My parents felt betrayed and disconsolate. They had married and come to Kanpur. They were invited to all the celebrations to be held in the city. Who but them could be the chief guests? But, like that agonised man in Noakhali, they felt they had nothing to celebrate and so they spent the day in August, drowning their sorrows with two colleagues from the INA.
My father died in 1992, my mother in 2012. For them to have seen Modi and his gang celebrating Subhas’s birthday, a Subhas whom their ideological ancestors had labelled a ‘jihadi Hindu’, would have been unbearable.
Modi resorted to much hyperbole, none of it of the slightest relevance, in his references to Subhas in Kolkata on January 23, 2020. Someone should have asked him to repeat the motto that Subhas devised for the INA: ittihad (unity), eitamad (faith), qurbani (sacrifice). The words would have stuck in his throat.
Subhashini Ali’s parents were part of the Indian National Army and she was named after Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.