This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 13 October 2012

If The Tiger Had Sprung

Let’s imagine an alternate history.

Let’s go back to India, 1942.

What was the situation in India then?

In 1942, the Japanese, having taken most of Burma, and advancing unstoppably, were at the gates. British power was in full retreat, proving for the first time to the average Asian that the white man could be beaten. India, at the receiving end of two centuries of foreign domination and just under a century of formal colonialism, had stumbled on for a couple of decades of on-and-off “non-violent revolution” against British rule. The British had been happy enough to let this “movement” go on, since it provided a good safety valve for stoked up passions. People who marched on the streets and called strikes were more easily handled by less violent means than people who took up guns, and also had an infinitely lesser chance of success.

Not that there hadn’t been people who had taken up guns. Despite official “history”, Indian resistance to British rule had, from its inception, been primarily violent. Non-violent struggles had been swiftly and brutally crushed by the British, so violence was about the only way the people could resist anyway. But these mini-revolts had not been either large or widespread, with the sole exception of the revolution of 1857. Nor did they have popular support, because we Indians have a tradition of feudalism and of kowtowing to the source of patronage. Even massacres like Jallianwala Bagh, of 1919, had not united all Indians against the British Raj – the Sikh religious clergy promptly felicitated the perpetrator of that massacre, Brigadier Reginald Edward Harry Dyer, called him the “saviour of the Punjab”, and made him an honorary Sikh.       

The violent resistance against the Raj, therefore, had been both sporadic and – being repeatedly betrayed – unsuccessful. That did not, however, stop many brave men from trying. Uniformly, it was the Indians who were the cause of their failure. Sometimes it was not even necessary for the British to take a hand. The Indians did it all for them.

By the late thirties, it was obvious to most people that the day of imperialism of the classical mould was drawing to an end. Sure, maniacs like Hitler believed otherwise, but to normal people everywhere, it was obvious that within decades the British would be gone (no one at the time knew that the Second World War would so weaken British power that it would collapse like a pricked balloon). By the late thirties, too, the British had given a measure of political power to Indian political parties – which were primarily the Congress Party (which unfortunately still exists as a monarchical family owned enterprise that is a parasite on the Indian state) and the Muslim League. The two parties had begun jockeying for power – and in the Congress, the party had begun power politics internally as well. The two factions were basically the faction favoured by Mohandas Karamchand (“Mahatma”) Gandhi, comprising Jawaharlal Nehru and his hangers on; and the faction led by Subhas Chandra Bose.  

Fairly swiftly, the Bose faction was marginalised and expelled, with the entire approval of MK Gandhi and Nehru. Bose, put under house arrest by the British, managed to escape in 1941and make his way via Afghanistan and the then still neutral USSR to German occupied Austria (where his wife, Emilie Schenkl, lived) and thence to Germany. There he failed to get significant support for his scheme of a liberation force for India but did help set up an Indian Free Corps drawn from Indian prisoners of war (PoWs) taken by the Germans in North Africa. It never actually saw any action – the Germans used it purely as a propaganda device.

But in the meantime the war had come to East Asia, the Japanese, as I said, had taken Singapore and Malaya, and among the 130,000 or thereabouts Allied troops captured by them were many tens of thousands of Indians. These Indians were none of them conscripts – the Indian Army was never a conscript force, not even during the World Wars – but rather volunteer mercenaries for the British Empire. Of them several were - led by a Captain Mohan Singh – persuaded by the Japanese to turn allegiance and go over to the Japanese side. Mohan Singh himself recorded his bitter shame at the fact that he had till his capture been a hireling perpetuating white rule over his own fellow countrymen, and undoubtedly this was a factor in the going over of many of his fellow prisoners as well, but far from all. These men were organised into an entity called the  Indian National Army (INA), but never amounted to more than a fraction of the total number of Indian PoWs taken by the Japanese.

In 1942, meanwhile, the Congress Party under the Gandhi-Nehru cabal had pulled off one of the most egregious and moronic errors of the entire “freedom movement” - they launched a so-called Quit India Movement demanding that the Brits leave India forthwith. Their thinking was that the Japanese were about to invade and the British would leave anyway, so the Congress could then pretend that it was because of them that the British left. All that achieved was that the British locked up virtually the entire Congress for the duration of the war, leaving the Muslim League as the sole political force of any consequence – that Muslim League which wanted the country split to create a new nation of Pakistan.

Just why the Japanese did not invade in 1942 is a fascinating story in itself. It involves top level intrigues in the Japanese army, revolving around the victor of Malaya and Singapore, General Tomoyuki Yamashita. Yamashita, Japan’s best but a relatively young general, had wanted a swift invasion of India after the fall of Singapore and Burma. But his rivals, jealous of his achievements, got him packed off to an obscure posting in Manchuria where he spent the next three years. The Japanese steamroller halted in Burma and allowed the British to recover.

If the Japanese had attacked India in 1942, the British would have been caught pretty flat footed; and according to the historian AG Noorani, the Congress politician Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad had been told by Mohandas Gandhi that – had the Japanese attacked and captured a substantial portion of the country– he would have given a call to abandon “non-violence” in favour of an armed uprising against the British. So much for MK Gandhi’s notional non-violence, anyway. I’ll come back to the topic of what might have happened if Gandhi had done that.

But the Japanese did not attack then, and the British consolidated; and the Congress went to jail and the Muslim League consolidated its power.

In the meantime, Bose with his aides travelled from Germany to the ocean off Madagascar by U-Boat, and there he transferred to a Japanese submarine sent to fetch him, and arrived in Singapore, where he took over from then commander Rash Behari Bose (no relation – this Bose was a Japanese citizen by naturalisation) the command of the Indian National Army.

The Indian National Army at the time had three divisions. Of these two were actual combat divisions of trained PoWs who had gone over – the third was of Indian expatriate volunteers with no military experience whatever. The Japanese actually never took the INA seriously, since in their view the men who had abandoned one oath were just as likely to break another.

Bose (Subhas) successfully pleaded, lobbied, and persuaded the Japanese to finally launch an invasion of Eastern India in mid-1944. This was called the March to Delhi offensive, and involved Indian National Army units as well. It came within an eye-blink of success, and it was only because of the incredible incompetence of a Japanese general that it did not. This gentleman was ordered to take Kohima in Nagaland, which was heavily defended by the British; he could easily have bypassed the town and taken the totally undefended and highly strategic town of Dimapur, far behind Kohima. The British commander, Field Marshal William Slim, admits that he would have had to abandon Dimapur, Kohima, and as a chain reaction, the other Japanese objective, Imphal as well, if only the Japanese general had used his common sense instead of rigidly trying to take Kohima.

Remember that this was at a time when the Japanese were being pushed back virtually everywhere else; when the British, bolstered by American troops, were present in strength in India, and the Japanese still almost won.

During this period the British launched a novel way of keeping the population of Eastern India under control, by engineering a totally artificial famine – the Great Famine of 1944. Starving people don’t rebel very well, you see. By some accounts a third of the population of Bengal died of starvation to keep the British Raj going…one of the least known war crimes, and among the most terrible of them all.   

My own father was a teenager at the time of the Japanese invasion, here in this town, a couple of hundred kilometres behind Dimapur; and he told me of witnessing the mass panic among British and American troops posted here when the Japanese offensive began, about how they were  abandoning vehicles and equipment or selling them at throwaway prices as they prepared to flee. I agree it’s subjective, and I have no way of confirming the veracity of what he told me; but with knowledge of the “bug outs” that occurred in the fifties during the Korean War, it doesn’t seem unlikely.

But Kohima was not bypassed; Imphal held too, the Japanese were pushed back and began a long retreat that led, in a year, to the abandonment of Rangoon as well.

During these battles the INA proved the Japanese perfectly justified in their doubts. Masses of its men deserted to the British at the first opportunity, and the others were so ineffective that, apart from a few small units, the Japanese preferred to use them as porters. The first division fell apart at the Imphal and Kohima battles; the second was destroyed at the time of the crossing of the Irrawady river in 1945; and the third, the civilian volunteers, remained in training in Malaya till the Japanese surrender and never got into action at all. 

Bose, who had set up a government in exile and had planned to set it up in Delhi if the city had been captured or at any rate in an Indian city, was killed in an air crash in Taiwan as he was trying to escape to the USSR in August 1945 (his Bengali worshippers, for whom he remains a claim to fame, refuse to believe that he was ever killed – shades of Elvis Presley). The Congress emerged from jail to find the Muslim League so strongly entrenched that it never quite made up lost ground, and the country was broken into two in August 1947.

Let me make clear that the Congress, in my own opinion, was happy to see the country split – in the absence of the Muslim League, it had an untrammelled road to power, pelf, and perquisites. That the country has still not recovered from the split, that the two halves are still engaged to this day in a ruinous rivalry, never mattered to the Congress. Such are the petty men who rule us.

But imagine…

Imagine that the Japanese had invaded and captured a large part of India in 1942 – and the Congress had launched a violent revolution to help them. We would certainly have had an interesting situation – the Congress could no longer have posed as a “party of non-violence”, nor could Gandhi’s totally spurious non-violence have been kept as a shibboleth to this day. At the very least the quantum of hypocrisy would have been far less. And, having had to fight for our freedom, we would likely have had less of a tendency to give it away today.

But – far more to the point – assume the Japanese had in fact captured Dimapur, Kohima and Imphal in 1944. They almost did. If they had done this, the British plans called for withdrawal to positions on the western bank of the river Brahmaputra. It’s kind of difficult to see how they would have made a stand there, because the Brahmaputra has no “western” bank; the river flows along most of its length from west to east. It’s much more likely that the British would have had to retreat all the way to the hill ranges of East-Central India, abandoning all of Bengal and Assam, at the very least, including the former imperial capital of Calcutta.

Now if, with the Congress still in jail, the INA had succeeded in setting up its government on Indian territory, if it had flown its Springing Tiger flag from the ramparts of Fort William in Calcutta, what would have happened? Bose was both a socialist and a total secularist. He would have thrown down a challenge to the Hindu chauvinists on the Congress side who hid their chauvinism behind a cloak of secularism; and to the Muslim League, which was an openly communal outfit. Though they both hated and feared Bose, they would have had no choice but to support his call for an independent united India. Both Muslims and Hindus distrusted the Muslim League and Congress, respectively; but none of them distrusted Bose.

Even though, going by the experience of other South East Asian countries that felt the lash of Japanese occupation, their occupation of India would have been a far from gentle affair, and even though Bose’s government could only have been a Japanese rubber stamp, the significance of this can’t be underestimated.

The Japanese would have lost anyway, even had they captured all of India and thrust into Iran. The American Pacific campaign and the USSR’s entry into the war in August 1945 would have seen to that. But the Japanese occupation, and the presence of an Indian government on Indian soil calling for a secular and united India, could never have been forgotten. The British could never have taken the country over again without facing stiff armed resistance. The two main political parties would have had to follow the Bose line, like it or not. There could have been no partition of the country had Bose’s government come into existence on Indian territory.

We could have been a peaceful, united country with far less religious discord and clean politics rather than what we have now. We might have been able to spend our money on improving social indices rather than throwing it all away on parasitic militaries whose only function is to blow each other apart. And – having had to fight for our freedom – we would not give it away to companies backed by the cabal in Washington.

To think we threw it all away because one Japanese general knew less about fighting a war than I do. It’s enough to make a strong man weep.

(June 2007)

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