Glorious bravehearts

Glorious bravehearts

As we get set to celebrate our Independence Day, let’s spare a thought to the many forgotten heroes whose contribution to the Indian freedom struggle cannot be understated, writes Salil Misra, relating their unsung stories

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and members of the Azad Hind Fauj

India’s freedom struggle was truly a glorious and multi-faceted phenomenon. Contributions to it came from many directions and sources. There was an amazing diversity in the ways in which Indians fought, and the locations and positions from which they fought. Given the fact that the British imperial rule in India was very deeply entrenched, it required a multi-pronged and multi-stranded struggle to dislodge it from India. However, popular imaginations of the freedom struggle tend to be somewhat restricted. In particular, the active involvement in the freedom struggle by Indians not living in India and fighting for Indian freedom from outside the Indian shores constitutes an important parallel stream in the struggle. Not all such ventures met with immediate success. But they left a lasting impact. These are stories of failed heroism and need to be told. One such story is that of the Ghadar party which fought for Indian freedom from thousands of kilometres away from the Indian shores.

During the closing decades of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, a large number of Indians, largely Sikhs from Punjab, went to settle in the US and Canada in search of livelihood. These migrants did not come from the upper sections of society who had migrated for better opportunity. They were mostly common people searching for livelihood opportunities. They were also looking to get away from colonial subjugation and migrate to countries where they could live as independent citizens, not as colonial subjects. However, they soon realised that so long as colonialism remained, there was no escape from the tag of being a colonial subject. This realisation fed into one of the most glorious, unusual and relatively lesser-known struggles against British imperialism. It was called the Ghadar Movement, named so because it was inspired by the Rebellion of 1857.

Ghadar Movement was started in 1913 by Indians who had migrated to the US & Canada
Ghadar Movement was started in 1913 by Indians who had migrated 
to the US & Canada

Paths of glory

These Indians set up an office in San Francisco in California and called it Yugantar Ashram. They also started a newspaper from there in Urdu and Gurmukhi scripts and called it Ghadar (rebellion). At the top of the paper was written “Enemy of the British rule”. A sense of the flavour of the paper can be had by an ‘advertisement’ for recruitment. It went as follows: wanted brave soldiers to stir up rebellion in India. Pay: death. Price: martyrdom. Pension: liberty. Field of operation: India. The paper wore its Indian patriotism on its sleeves and made no attempt to disguise it.

However, they were completely clueless about how to carry on the struggle for Indian freedom from the American shores. There was no dearth of commitment and the zeal for sacrifice, no clarity on the precise strategy to be followed. In 1914, outbreak of the World War and the arrest of one of their big leaders, Lala Hardayal, provided an entry point for the struggle. The war was seen as an opportunity for them to strike at the roots of the British rule. The Ghadarites, as the followers of the Ghadar Party were called, decided on a very ambitious plan of secretly coming to India, collecting arms and weapons from the Indian soldiers, mobilising the peasants, and struggle for the overthrow of the British rule. In other words, they wanted a repeat of 1857 but with better results. The Sikhs from Punjab did carry the guilt of 1857 in which they had fought from the British side against the Rebellion. They were now determined to make up for it by fighting a successful battle to throw out the British from India. Important Ghadar leaders were sent to other countries such as Japan, Philippines, China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaya to persuade the Indians living there to return to India and join the struggle. This was to be a mammoth diasporic struggle against the British rule in India, by Indians living outside India.

However, the Ghadarites completely underestimated the preparedness, the capacity and the support base of the British in India. Around 8,000 Ghadar activists secretly entered India in 1914 to mobilise others in Punjab and strike at the roots of the British rule. Some of them contacted the Indian soldiers, some went straight to the villages of Punjab to mobilise the peasants into rebellion. Some of them also contacted the revolutionaries from Bengal, particularly Rash Behari Bose, and urged them to take over the leadership of the struggle. Unfortunately, none of these efforts, carried out with the utmost sincerity, proved to be successful. The Ghadar Movement could not develop into an effective, civil rebellion or a military rebellion. It also failed to reach the other parts of the country beyond Punjab.

Mission unaccomplished

The efficient Intelligence network of the British got news of the military adventure well in advance. The British were quick to take pre-emptive action. Most leaders were promptly arrested and the movement was crushed. Conspiracy trials were held against the Ghadar leaders in Lahore. Forty-two revolutionaries were sentenced to death. Nearly 200 of them were sent to long terms of imprisonment. Rash Behari Bose managed to escape to Japan.

Thus came to an end a potentially glorious struggle that promised so much. Though the Ghadar Movement came to an end, it left behind very important traces. It inspired a large number of Indians who were fiercely committed to Indian freedom but did not know how to fight for it. The Ghadar leaders demonstrated from their example that if Indian people had the commitment, it was possible to fight from any situation, however adverse the conditions might be. One such Indian was Chandra Singh Gharhwali, a Hawaldar Major in the British army and the head of its Royal Garhwal unit. He was an officer in the British army but his heart pulsated with ideas of Indian nationalism.

Gallant Garhwali

During the Civil Disobedience Movement (1930-34), Garhwali, along with his unit, was sent to Peshawar, now in Pakistan, in April 1930 to quell the nationalist rebellion of the Pathans under the leadership of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. The population in Peshawar consisted overwhelmingly of Muslims. The Garhwali unit of the army was entirely Hindu. On the day of the agitation, thousands of agitating and unarmed Pathans gathered in Peshawar. The British captain instructed the Garhwali regiment to fire three rounds at the non-violently agitating Pathans. This was a situation very similar to the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre of April 1919 and might possibly have gone in that direction. However, Chandra Singh Garhawali instructed his battalion not to fire a single shot at the unarmed Pathans. The soldiers followed Garhwali rather than the British Captain. No single shot was fired and no single Pathan was killed that day. A potential Jallianwala Bagh-like situation was averted.

Garhwali was arrested for this act of insubordination and later charged with sedition. He defended his action on the ground that he had joined the army to protect the borders of the country, not to kill his own fellow Indian brothers. For his act of defiance, Garhwali was awarded the death sentence, which was later reduced to life imprisonment. He was finally released around the time of Indian independence.

Rash Behari Bose with his wife Toshiko.
Rash Behari Bose with his wife Toshiko.

Gone with the wind

The example of both the Ghadar Party and Garhwali inspired both the soldiers and the officers of the Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army) who fought for Indian independence as Indian soldiers along with the Japanese army against England during the Second World War (1939-45). The INA story too is a story of glorious failure.

Rash Behari Bose, an Indian revolutionary, had been living in Japan as a fugitive since 1915 after the Ghadar Party misadventure. The Second World War provided him a great opportunity to mobilise Indians settled in East Asia for an armed struggle against the British. He organised a conference of various Indian representatives in Tokyo in 1942 and formed the Indian Independence League. The conference also resolved that the Indian Independence League would raise an army called the Indian National Army (INA) consisting of Indian soldiers and civilians. The army was to be devoted to the cause of Indian independence. The INA was thus born in September 1942 with the initial strength of 17,000 Indian soldiers.

Major Mohan Singh had joined the British army. But, much like Garhwali, his heart too pulsated with ideas of Indian nationalism, and he too yearned to see India free. He wrote in his diary that there was a big difference “between the soldiers of a free nation and soldiers of a subject nation… The soldiers of a free nation fight because it is their duty to fight national wars ‘right and wrong’, we (Indian soldiers in the British army) fight because we are ordered to by our alien rulers.” He also added, referring to the predicament of the Indian soldiers in the world war: “There was not the slightest doubt that we were being exploited by the British for their own ends. The war was not our war. Not a single Indian was consulted before plunging the entire nation into the most destructive struggle.” With such convictions, it is hardly surprising that once Mohan Singh was captured by the Japanese and became a prisoner of war along with 60,000 other Indian soldiers, he was ready to find a way to contribute to Indian freedom. In Japanese captivity, Mohan Singh was contacted by Rash Behari Bose with the offer to lead the INA. The decision was not easy and, in his own words, “a gigantic mental struggle” overtook him. It was a “struggle between two loyalties – my fidelity to my commission, which meant allegiance to the British Crown, and the unwritten yet more binding fidelity to my beloved country.” Mohan Singh chose the love for the country. With some encouragement from the Japanese and full backing of the Indian Independence League, Mohan Singh activated and energised the INA, to fight against the British and to work towards Indian freedom.

Indian gunners in training with field artillery in Singapore.
Indian gunners in training with field artillery in Singapore.

Flags of our fathers

It was at this stage that Netaji Subhash Bose entered the picture. Bose had been expelled from Congress on account of serious differences with Mahatma Gandhi and subsequently arrested by the British in 1940. In 1941, he managed to escape from India to Berlin. From there he went to Tokyo and finally came to Singapore in July 1943 to join the INA. He was requested by Rash Behari Bose to take over the high command of the INA. Bose formally declared war on Britain and also formed a provisional national government of free India. Bose made it clear that their objective was not at variance from the Congress objective. He declared that their aim was to supplement from outside the national struggle going on in India. In a moving and evocative appeal to Gandhi, he issued a broadcast from the Azad Hind Radio: “India’s last war of independence has begun… Father of our nation! In this holy war for Indian liberation, we ask for your blessings and good wishes.”

The military adventures of the INA were brief and somewhat lackluster. It fought along with the Japanese army and crossed the Indian borders in 1944. It hoisted the Indian tricolour in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands but could not achieve any other success. The British army fought back and recaptured the Indian territory from the INA. By this time, the course of the war had begun to change in favour of the allies. The INA soldiers were captured again, this time by the British. Thus ended the military adventures of the INA. But the story of the INA does not end here.

Wind that shook...

When the captured INA soldiers were brought to India and tried in a court held at the Red Fort, the whole country erupted in protest in defence of the INA patriots. The fact that the three officers to be tried, G S Dhillon, P K Sehgal and Shah Nawaz, belonged to three different religious faiths (Sikh, Hindu and Muslim, respectively) added a new twist to the protest. It galvanised the entire country in a rare show of solidarity and communal harmony. Virtually all political parties were mobilised to their defence, irrespective of their political differences. Many historians have argued that the widespread nationalist display of solidarity for the INA proved to be the last straw in the struggle for freedom. It convinced the British that they could not possibly hold on to India any longer. INA thus played a very crucial role in India becoming free in 1947.

Paths of glory

What do the three examples – Ghadar Party, Chandra Singh Garhwali and the INA – have in common? They all failed and ended prematurely, yet their contribution to Indian freedom was second to none. With their failures, they told their countrymen that what mattered above all was a nationalist consciousness and a commitment to Indian freedom. If they had the consciousness and the commitment, then they could fight for Indian freedom from anywhere and any position – from thousands of miles away from Indian borders, and from within the British army. They all had their dilemmas which were not easy to resolve. But, in the end, all dilemmas and inconsistencies faded away against the single-stranded, larger-than-life commitment to Indian nationalism, Indian freedom, and Indian people. The history of Indian freedom struggle is replete with examples of such selfless single-minded dedication to the cause of India, transcending every other consideration. Our forgotten heroes need to be remembered, and their stories need to be told.

(The writer is a historian at Ambedkar University Delhi)




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