Netaji Subhas Bose: A nationalist, a pragmatist, a military icon

India’s struggle for independence from British imperialism was one of the few conflicts in our history that can be termed as a ‘national struggle’


India’s struggle for independence from British imperialism was one of the few conflicts in our history that can be termed as a ‘national struggle’. The first phase of this struggle, the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857, was triggered by Indian soldiers and saw extreme violence, but ended in a rout for the freedom fighters because they could not find a competent leader.

The second phase of our freedom struggle, in the first half of the 20th century, took an altogether different character due to the unique outlook of its leader, Mahatma Gandhi, a proponent of non-violence and passive resistance. Despite Gandhiji’s best efforts, the freedom campaign, from the ‘Non-cooperation’ phase of the 1920s to the ‘Quit India’ movement in 1942, was often accompanied by mass disturbances, riots and violence. The British administration and army, in India, being hugely outnumbered, made frequent use of Indian police as well as Indian troops to quell the freedom fighters.

Consequently, Indian politicians of that era formed the opinion that Indian troops had acted as ‘mercenaries’ for the colonial masters, and the British Indian Army was considered a symbol of imperialism and repression. post-independence, Prime  Minister Nehru’s strong anti-military attitude, possibly, arose from his false belief that the army did not take part in the nationalist movement and was an instrument of the British Raj.  However, there was a parallel facet of the Indian freedom struggle, which the British took great pains to conceal for many years and which, nationalists, of Gandhian persuasion, have refused to acknowledge, all along. 

This was the militant opposition to British rule, inspired and nurtured by its leader, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, from abroad. The expatriate armies raised by Bose in Germany and Singapore, his inspiring radio broadcasts from Berlin, Rome and Tokyo and his intense diplomatic exertions to muster support for India’s freedom were factors that not only motivated and galvanized the freedom movement in India, but also struck fear into British hearts. General Wavell, the C-in-C admitted in a secret report: “It is no use shutting one’s eye to the fact that any Indian soldier worth his salt is a Nationalist…” 

Netaji as Military Icon

Netaji Subhash Bose was a political leader of national stature, and was to become a ‘rebel Congressman’ when his differences with Gandhiji’s doctrines came into the open. It needs to be acknowledged that once he formed a government-in-exile (the Arzi Hukumat-e-Azad Hind) he donned the political mantle of a notional Head of State as well as the military mantle of a Commander-in-Chief.  From then onwards, Netaji needs to be viewed in a different light altogether: as a visionary, a statesman of international standing and a military leader conducting operations in Southeast Asia, with the Japanese.

The attitude of independent India’s armed forces towards Netaji Subhash Bose and the Indian National Army (INA) has been, at best, ambivalent and, at worst, guarded. Our failure to accord recognition to Netaji Subhash Bose as a military icon is rooted in two factors: one is ethical and the other philosophical. Let us look at the ethical aspect first.

After the string of early British defeats in WW II, Indian prisoners of war (PoWs) in Singapore, Germany and Italy were confronted with the most awesome moral dilemma that a soldier can ever face - a choice between the oath they had given to the British monarch and the chance to fight for freedom of the motherland, being offered by Netaji Subhash Bose. Fully recognizing the terrible consequences of either option, many Indian officers and jawans decided for their motherland, with the result that 3000 Indian PoWs were formed into the Free India Legion; 40,000 POWs in Singapore joined the Azad Hind Fauj or Indian National Army (INA).

The post-war courts-martial found INA officers guilty of "abandoning their allegiance and waging war against the Emperor", While the ethical implications of such a decision may be argued endlessly, it is undeniable that nothing can take precedence over one’s duty to the motherland. However, disciplined militaries never dwell on revolts, desertions and other breaches of discipline, regardless of the cause. That is the reason that the Indian Army has remained non-committal in its attitude towards INA and Netaji. Perhaps it is for the best. 

Turning to the philosophic argument against Netaji’s engagement with the Axis Powers – Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan - he is often criticized by leftist ideologues as being an "opportunist", which he, indeed, was. But he was also a realist who recognized the true nature of Nazi or fascist rule and the ruthlessness of the Japanese.

 However, as a fierce nationalist, and a pragmatist, he realized that a weak and enslaved India was unlikely to win freedom from the British through non-violent means. He, therefore, saw nothing wrong in taking the help of the Axis Powers, in his country’s cause, and using one set of imperialists to challenge another.  In all likelihood, if it came to a confrontation against the Axis Powers, he saw the two million soldiers of the (British) Indian army as his assets.

Netaji’s life offers us some priceless glimpses of outstanding leadership, of sagacious vision and of resolute action. Here, I would like to dwell briefly on a few facets of Netaji’s life and times, highlighting the sterling qualities that militaries value and try to inculcate, and which were inherent in this man.

Freedom’s Call

Having resigned from the Indian Civil Service, while a probationer, Subhash Bose returned to India in 1921 with every intention of becoming a devoted follower of Mahatma Gandhi, and their first meeting took place in Bombay. However, Gandhiji’s patient explanation of his belief in non-violence and passive resistance in the expectation that the British would eventually cede freedom to India of their own volition, did not appeal to his action-oriented intellect.

There were fundamental contradictions between Bose’s combative and avant-garde approach to the freedom struggle and Gandhiji’s creed of ahimsa (non-violence) and a return to India’s rural roots. Bose was dead against any form of cooperation with the British because he felt that it “enabled a handful of Englishmen to rule our country.”

Parting of Ways

In recognition of Bose’s standing as a political leader of national stature, and also as a gesture of reconciliation by the Gandhian wing of the Congress, he was elected as party president in 1938. The Gandhi-Bose alliance, however, remained on thin ground because fundamental differences persisted. Bose saw the approaching war in Europe as a golden opportunity to strike a blow for freedom. It was his appreciation that once war broke out, fascist Germany would bring Britain to her knees within a few months.

Having completed a very uneasy year as Congress president, Bose brought matters to a head by seeking, against Gandhiji’s wishes, re-election for a second term in 1939. Gandhiji acknowledging the deep doctrinal differences between them, nominated his own choice of a candidate as Bose’s opponent. Bose defeated Gandhiji’s candidate by a small margin and thus precipitated a major crisis in the Congress.

Escape to Germany

In mid-1940 Bose was arrested on serious charges of sedition and, while in jail, pondered over developments in Europe. He remained convinced of two things: the ultimate victory of the Axis Powers and India’s dire need for external support to throw off the British yoke. It, therefore, seemed logical to him that a formal approach should be made to seek an alliance with Britain’s enemies. He began to plan his escape.

Faced with a threat of hunger strike the British released Bose from jail and placed him under house arrest pending trial. On the night of 17 January 1941, a disguised Bose, escaped from his Calcutta home, and travelling by train, bus and on foot reached Kabul 10 days later. Masquerading as an Italian businessman, he left Kabul with two German escorts for Moscow, whence he flew to Berlin, arriving in the German capital on 28 March 1941.

The Nazi regime welcomed Bose and the foreign ministry provided him a residence, car and office. Once firmly established in Berlin, Bose launched a multi-pronged campaign in his resolute pursuit of the cause of Indian freedom:

· He established a Free India Centre, with branches in Berlin and Rome, manned by Indian exiles, which undertook cultural, diplomatic and propaganda activities.

· He established the Azad Hind Radio from where regular broadcasts were beamed to India in seven Indian and other languages.

· From the British Indian Army prisoners of war (PoWs) captured by the Germans in North Africa, he sought to form the nucleus of an army of liberation whose elements could be parachuted into then North West Frontier Province or NWFP (now in Pakistan) in advance of an Axis invasion.

The Free Indian Legion

One of Netaji’s most outstanding achievements was to obtain German consent to raise an armed force of expatriate Indians to fight against the British, and then, through the force of his personality and convictions, to persuade Indian PoWs to join this band of freedom fighters. Trained, equipped and armed as a regular unit of the Wehrmacht (German Army), the unit was designated Infantry Regiment 950, also known, in German, as: Legion Freies Indien or Free India Legion. After 1944, the Legion was attached to the Waffen-SS.
The jawans who volunteered to serve in the Legion swore an oath of loyalty to the German Fuehrer as well as to Netaji, and it was agreed that they would be deployed only against British forces while awaiting the opportunity to fight for freedom on their own soil. The unit went up to brigade strength, and although it never got close to the homeland, it saw action in Holland and France. The British were so shaken up by these developments that the existence of the Indian Legion was kept an official secret till just a few years ago.

Rudolph Hartog, a Wehrmacht officer, with a good command of Hindustani, was attached to the Legion, as one of the interpreters. Having had the opportunity to observe him at close quarters, Hartog seems to have become an admirer of Netaji, and wrote a book, ‘The Sign of the Tiger,’ in 2001. Struck by Bose’s intense patriotism and staunch secularism, he writes, “Bose’s guiding aspiration, was to eliminate religious and caste differences in order to unite his country…The Legion song, ‘Hindu. Muslim, Sikh Isai, apas mein hain bhai-bhai’ symbolized this aspiration.” Hartog mentions, “Jai Hind was the greeting of the Indians in Berlin, who wanted to fight for the freedom of their country during WW II.” Elsewhere, he asks, “How many know, that ‘Jana, Gana, Mana’ independent India’s national anthem was first performed at an imposing celebration in Hamburg on 11th September 1942”?

It was more than a year after his arrival in Berlin that Hitler finally agreed to receive Netaji in a private audience in May 1942. Hitler’s racial prejudices and his skepticism about India’s freedom struggle were well known, but he considered it expedient to offer encouragement to Netaji in his anti-British crusade. Declining Netaji’s request for a formal declaration of support for “free India” as premature, he advised him to work with the Japanese so that he could be much closer to his homeland. 

Netaji asked for a German aircraft to take him to Tokyo, but Hitler considered it too risky and offered him a submarine, instead. Netaji accepted readily, but this underwater voyage round the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean, in a cramped U-boat, was no less risky and must count as a story of high-adventure.

The Submarine Rendezvous

The morning of 20 April 1943 saw the German submarine U-180 surfacing cautiously off the southwest coast of Madagascar after her 70-day voyage. The captain, peering anxiously through the periscope, could not see any signs of surface activity, and since they were early at their rendezvous, he decided to lie in wait for his Japanese contact.

The U-180 had departed from Kiel on 9 February 1943, and after a mid-sea refueling from U-462 in the Atlantic, rounded the Cape of Good Hope to arrive at the designated rendezvous with their consignment of two passengers bound for Tokyo. The captain’s briefing had told him little else than the rendezvous position with a Japanese submarine, and the identity of the two passengers: two Indian freedom fighters, Subhash Bose and Abid Hassan.

He was also told that that the mission was personally authorized by Hitler, and required total secrecy. Two days later, in a unique operation, the passengers were transferred in mid-ocean to a Japanese submarine, bound for Sabang in Indonesia. 

By 16 May, Bose had arrived by air in Tokyo, to be received, two weeks later, by Japanese Prime Minister General Tojo. This was the culmination of his single-handed campaign to garner support for India’s freedom struggle against British rule. He had now received personal assurances of support from leaders of all three Axis leaders - Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo - and could dream of liberating his motherland from the British at the head of an Indian army of liberation.

The Indian National Army

Within three months of the devastating air attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces had swept across SE Asia with ease. Everywhere, British forces were caught by surprise and either capitulated or fled into the countryside.

The Japanese picked up Captain Mohan Singh of 14th Punjab Regiment from the Malayan jungle, and asked him to raise a volunteer army to fight for India’s freedom from the 45,000 POWs gathered in Singapore. The Indians were distrustful of the Japanese, but after much heart-searching, many were found willing to enlist in the cause of India’s freedom.

The Indian National Army (INA) was born, with Mohan Singh as its first head, on the understanding that they would fight the British as allies of the Japanese. Mohan Singh was later replaced by Col Bhonsale, but the INA still awaited a leader with a political vision, and Netaji was to be the man whose stature, personality and outlook made him an ideal commander-in-chief.

Netaji in SE Asia

Just a month after Netaji’s arrival in Tokyo, General Tojo made a significant statement in the Japanese Diet, expressing full support and solidarity with the Indian independence movement. This was what Netaji was waiting for, and on 21 October 1943, he inaugurated the Arzi Hukumat-e-Azad Hind or Provisional Government of Free India in Singapore. Netaji as Head of State, with his cabinet, were felicitated by Japanese dignitaries, and recognition was accorded by Japan, Burma, Croatia, Germany, the Philippines, Italy, and Siam. On 23 October, the Provisional Government declared war on Britain and the USA.

Having assumed personal command of the INA Netaji took over as Supreme Commander. Seen often at military functions, in his immaculate uniform, Netaji became a powerful focus of loyalty and fighting spirit for the INA. A command HQ was set up in Singapore and issues relating to recruitment, training, administration and logistics of INA addressed. Uniquely, the Rani of Jhansi Regiment was raised with women volunteers as a combat unit.  Netaji dedicated his personal attention to raise the quality and morale of the personnel and to weed out ill-disciplined or disloyal elements and to discourage desertions.

The planned invasion of India, with Kohima and Imphal as its initial objectives, commenced in February 1944 through the Arakan Hills. Alongside the Japanese 15th Army was the INA’s Subhash Brigade. Netaji gave the Indian troops their stirring war cry: “Chalo Dilli.” (Onwards Delhi) Meeting stiff Allied resistance, the offensive, however, soon ran out of steam and the Japanese were in full retreat by early 1945.

Dogged by the monsoons and disease, and denied Japanese support, the ill-equipped INA was often badly led, and disappointed Netaji with its performance in combat; one exception being the gallant defence of Mount Popa, on the road to Meiktila, by Shahnawaz Khan and Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon against the British. By May 1945, the short but eventful history of the INA came to an end when this rebel army laid down arms in Burma.

The Final Act

With the fall of Japan looking imminent, Netaji withdrew with his cabinet to Bangkok, where after much deliberation it was decided that the Provisional Government could only be sustained if support was forthcoming from Russian leaders for India’s freedom. He dispersed the cabinet and was in Singapore when news came of the devastating atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Russia having declared war on Japan, was marching into Manchuria and Netaji could foresee the approaching state of hostility between the USSR and the Western Alliance. The city of Darien in Manchuria seemed to be a good place for him to establish contact with the Russians.

Two seats were found for Netaji and his aide, Habibur Rehman, on a Mitsubishi K-21 bomber on its way to Tokyo, and a senior Japanese general agreed to have them both dropped in Darien. It was to be a long flight from Singapore with refueling halts in Bangkok, Saigon, Da Nang, and Taipei.
On the evening of 18th August 1945, just after take-off from Taipei, the heavily loaded bomber crashed and caught fire. Netaji suffered serious burns and died that night in a local Japanese military hospital. Habibur Rehman was present at his deathbed.


There is increasing realization that the British would have been able to evolve suitable responses to tactics like ‘non-violence’, ‘passive resistance’ and ‘satyagraha’ and hold out for a couple of decades.   What really shook them was the realization – brought about by formation of the INA in Singapore and the Free India Corps in Germany - that every Indian soldier who served the crown was a patriot at heart, and therefore, sympathetic to the cause of freedom.

As far as the British Indian Army was concerned, all the INA personnel had worn the king’s uniform and were considered ‘traitors’ or ‘Japanese Inspired Fifth Columnists’. Apart from this, the two armies had actually fought each other in Burma, often in hand-to-hand combat. Three INA officers, Shah Nawaz, Sehgal and Dhillon, were brought to trial by court-martial. The defence argued that the INA was “the military force of a properly constituted and widely recognized government, which the accused had joined as true patriots. It was their right to wage war with immunity on behalf of a subject race for its liberation.” The British showed good sense by suspending the sentences awarded and stopping further trials.

After independence, for reasons we have discussed, the Indian Army refused to re-admit INA personnel and they had to be absorbed elsewhere and awarded ‘freedom-fighter’ pensions. Notwithstanding all this, the ethos and spirit of the Azad Hind Fauj, has, perhaps subconsciously permeated into the Indian military. The greeting, Jai Hind was adopted by the army first, but is now universal in all three services. The INA marching song, Kadam-Kadam Barhaye Ja is now the Indian Army marching song. And, of course, as already mentioned, the song adopted by us as our national anthem, Jana, Gana, Mana, was sung for the first time by men of the Free India League in Germany.

But coming to Bose, himself, in terms of vision, stature and boldness, I would rank him with another contemporary national hero, Charles de Gaulle, who also led his country’s liberation struggle as an exile. The difference is that while de Gaulle made a triumphant return to a free France, Bose, unfortunately, perished on foreign soil with his dream still unrealized.  A grateful France elevated de Gaulle to the highest office, but all that we have done is to institute endless inquiry commissions, and subject his sacred memory to political squabbles.

A man of immense moral and physical courage, Subhash Bose was a charismatic leader of steely resolve. A man exiled from his homeland, fugitive from the mighty British Empire, with no resources available to him, except his own burning patriotism, audacity and enterprise, he believed that freedom would not be given by the oppressor, but had to be taken by force. He was an exemplar of one sterling quality which India has sorely missed: a grand-strategic vision for his motherland. It was a vision, limited not just to the attainment of freedom, but to building a strong, viable, secular, India and ensuring its rightful place in the world order.

Netaji Subhash Bose had sworn no oath of loyalty to the king-emperor and therefore, he broke none. We can, with full justification, hold him up, today, as a military icon of India.

(The writer is a former Indian Navy chief. The view are personal)


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