Explained: How the Azad Hind Fauj Changed India’s Freedom Struggle

An army formed on foreign soil, fighting for freedom, singing “zindagi hai qaum ki” – the story of Azad Hind Fauj.

Updated23 Jan 2020, 11:34 AM IST
Explainers
5 min read
Snapshot

Subhash Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj – or Indian National Army (INA) – is a crucial chapter in India’s freedom struggle. How did an army comprising prisoners of war and formed on foreign soil fight for India’s freedom?

On Bose’s 124th birth anniversary on 23 January, let’s chart how Azad Hind Fauj came into being, the war campaigns it fought, and the role it played in India’s Independence.

Explained: How the Azad Hind Fauj Changed India’s Freedom Struggle

  1. 1. When Was Azad Hind Fauj First Formed?

    Video Editor: Ashutosh Bhardwaj & Md Ibrahim

    Azad Hind Fauj had two avatars – under Captain Mohan Singh and Subhash Chandra Bose. It was first formed on 17 February 1942, comprising captured Indian prisoners of war of the British Indian Army. This was done on the initiative of the Imperial Japanese Army.

    World War II was at its peak and Britain had lost Singapore to Japan. Under an overcast sky, around 45,000 Indian soldiers gathered in a football field called Farrer Park in Singapore. Addressing the crowd, Major Fujiwara of the Imperial Japanese Army gave a call to form Azad Hind Fauj.

    But why were the Japanese interested in forming the INA? Japan – with their slogan of “Asia for Asiatics” – looked at Indian soldiers as allies and wanted to capitalise on their strength against its fight with Britain. They took advantage of the way Indian soldiers were treated in the British Indian Army – and the intensifying nationalist sentiment in India.

    Captain Gurbakh Singh Dhillon was a part of the congregation of soldiers at Farrer Park in 1942. Speaking in a documentary ‘The Forgotten Army’, Singh says,

    “Major Fujiwara said to us, you Indians have been surrendered to us as prisoners. We are Asians, and so are you. How can a brother keep a brother prisoner? I hand you over to Captain Mohan Singh, general commander of the Indian National Army.”

    Captain Mohan Singh became the first commander of the Indian National Army. Within a fortnight, nearly 40,000 men out of those who’d gathered at Farrer Park, had joined Azad Hind Fauj. Dhillon further recounts,

    “There was absolutely a change of mood; from we are defeated, to we are going to do something.”
    Expand
  2. 2. Subhash Chandra Bose Forms the Second Azad Hind Fauj

    A year later came the second avatar of Azad Hind Fauj, formed under Subhash Chandra Bose.

    By December 1942, differences had emerged between Captain Mohan Singh and the Japanese. Almost half of the Indian soldiers who had joined the INA at Farrer Park had left.

    Too long to read? Listen to the full story here.

    In June 1943, Bose arrived at Singapore to revive the Azad Hind Fauj on the behest of the Japanese. But why was Bose – a former Congress party president in exile from India – considered suitable by the Japanese to lead the army?

    A CIA intelligence note declassified in 2002 titled “The Rise and Fall of the Indian National Army” explains why.

    Calling Bose an “energetic and persuasive speaker,” the note details how he was “virtually forced to resign” from the Congress due to Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru “who both distrusted his extremism”. According to the note, the Japanese warmed up to Bose because,

    “He had been frequently imprisoned by the British in India, and his hatred for the Great Britain was violent. He had long argued that there was no hope in the policy of compromise with the British which Gandhi was following.”

    After Bose took over, he established the “Provisional Government of Free India,” to give political legitimacy to Azad Hind Fauj. Bose was the President, Premier, Foreign Secretary and Defence Minister of this government. With this, Azad Hind Fauj became the military arm of a “government-in-exile.”

    Recruiting soldiers was next on Bose’s priority list. Apart from the prisoners of war working in rubber plantations in Malay, he also recruited Indian civilians working in the region. Through his speeches, he gave Indians the idea of “the sacred soil of the motherland” and the dream of “raising the flag of Free India.”

    Bose also established a military hierarchy in Azad Hind Fauj – Lt Col Shah Nawaz Khan was the Chief of General Staff, Major PK Sahgal was the Military Secretary, and Major Habib ur Rahman was the Commandant of officers’ training school. The INA also had an all-women regiment called “Rani of Jhansi Regiment”. Estimates say that under Bose, the strength of Azad Hind Fauj rose, once again, to 40,000 soldiers.

    Expand
  3. 3. Which War Campaigns Did Azad Hind Fauj Partake in?

    Azad Hind Fauj participated in two military encounters during the Second World War – in Arakan in Burma (now Myanmar) in January-February 1944 and in Imphal in Manipur in March 1944.

    Japan had two wartime objectives for Azad Hind Fauj. One, that the presence of an army fighting for India’s freedom under Bose’s strong leadership would spark mass defections by Indian soldiers in the British Indian Army to Azad Hind Fauj. Two, Azad Hind Fauj troops could be used in forward reconnaissance for Japanese troops. However, as Rob Havers, a noted British military historian wrote, Azad Hind Fauj’s “military effectiveness was generally low.” He said,

    “Only a few British Indian Army troops could be persuaded to cross over and join the INA. Initial efforts by small groups of INA soldiers in a reconnaissance and intelligence gathering role did little to change the negative impressions the Japanese had of the Indians.”

    However, the INA’s combat performance is also reported to be a result of the “reluctance of the Japanese to employ the INA in anything more than secondary roles,” Havers noted. There were also accusations that Japanese troops provided the INA with outdated and rusty weaponry. But Bose insisted that the INA accompany the Imperial Japanese Army on its assault on Burma.

    This led to the first encounter between British-Indian and INA troops in Arakan in Burma (now Myanmar) in January-February 1944. Three battalions of five companies each, called the “Bose Brigade,” fought alongside the Japanese. During the encounter, INA soldiers reportedly used "trickery and civilian disguise" to overpower British Indian sentries and aided the Japanese in capturing a divisional headquarters.

    In March 1944, three INA regiments crossed the Chindwin in Manipur for the “March to Delhi.” They reached as far as Imphal in Manipur. But by June, along with Japanese troops, they were forced to retreat because of disease and inadequate supplies. By March 1945, the INA troop strength is estimated to have declined to 35,000. When Rangoon (now Yangon) in Burma was captured in May 1945, Azad Hind Fauj disbanded and its troops surrendered.

    In August 1945, Bose reportedly died in a plane crash in Taiwan. He was on his way to USSR, where he hoped he could get support to continue his fight against the British.

    Expand
  4. 4. What Was the Impact of Azad Hind Fauj on India's Independence?

    In November 1945, the first of the trials against the captured soldiers of Bose’s Indian National Army was publicly held.

    Three top INA members – Shahnawaz Khan, Prem Sahgal and Gurbaksh Dhillon – were charged with conducting a war against British India and for murder and abetment to murder. The trials have been credited with popularising Azad Hind Fauj in India at the time. The trifecta of a Hindu, a Muslim and a Sikh soldier on trial was also a powerful symbol which united Indians, according to Havers.

    The case was fought by India’s top lawyers and prominent Congress party members – Bhulabhai Desai, Tej Bahadur Sapru, and Jawaharlal Nehru. Their defense was that the INA’s soldiers should be treated as prisoners of war, since they were a part of the army of the Provisional Government of Free India.

    Khan, Sahgal and Dhillon were found guilty. However, due to popular sentiment in support of the trio, their sentence was remitted. The three were released to a hero’s welcome in the country. The Red Fort trials also led to revolt and strikes within the British Indian Army, Royal Indian Air Force and Royal Indian Navy.

    Azad Hind Fauj’s impact on India’s freedom struggle was not military. It’s the spirit of an Indian army formed on a foreign soil and fighting for freedom which galvanised people. The Red Fort trials created unprecedented popular support for Azad Hind Fauj; giving the momentum for India’s freedom struggle a final push.

    We'll get through this! Meanwhile, here's all you need to know about the Coronavirus outbreak to keep yourself safe, informed, and updated.

    The Quint is now available on Telegram & WhatsApp too, Click here to join.

    Expand

When Was Azad Hind Fauj First Formed?

Video Editor: Ashutosh Bhardwaj & Md Ibrahim

Azad Hind Fauj had two avatars – under Captain Mohan Singh and Subhash Chandra Bose. It was first formed on 17 February 1942, comprising captured Indian prisoners of war of the British Indian Army. This was done on the initiative of the Imperial Japanese Army.

World War II was at its peak and Britain had lost Singapore to Japan. Under an overcast sky, around 45,000 Indian soldiers gathered in a football field called Farrer Park in Singapore. Addressing the crowd, Major Fujiwara of the Imperial Japanese Army gave a call to form Azad Hind Fauj.

But why were the Japanese interested in forming the INA? Japan – with their slogan of “Asia for Asiatics” – looked at Indian soldiers as allies and wanted to capitalise on their strength against its fight with Britain. They took advantage of the way Indian soldiers were treated in the British Indian Army – and the intensifying nationalist sentiment in India.

Captain Gurbakh Singh Dhillon was a part of the congregation of soldiers at Farrer Park in 1942. Speaking in a documentary ‘The Forgotten Army’, Singh says,

“Major Fujiwara said to us, you Indians have been surrendered to us as prisoners. We are Asians, and so are you. How can a brother keep a brother prisoner? I hand you over to Captain Mohan Singh, general commander of the Indian National Army.”

Captain Mohan Singh became the first commander of the Indian National Army. Within a fortnight, nearly 40,000 men out of those who’d gathered at Farrer Park, had joined Azad Hind Fauj. Dhillon further recounts,

“There was absolutely a change of mood; from we are defeated, to we are going to do something.”

Subhash Chandra Bose Forms the Second Azad Hind Fauj

A year later came the second avatar of Azad Hind Fauj, formed under Subhash Chandra Bose.

By December 1942, differences had emerged between Captain Mohan Singh and the Japanese. Almost half of the Indian soldiers who had joined the INA at Farrer Park had left.

Too long to read? Listen to the full story here.

In June 1943, Bose arrived at Singapore to revive the Azad Hind Fauj on the behest of the Japanese. But why was Bose – a former Congress party president in exile from India – considered suitable by the Japanese to lead the army?

A CIA intelligence note declassified in 2002 titled “The Rise and Fall of the Indian National Army” explains why.

Calling Bose an “energetic and persuasive speaker,” the note details how he was “virtually forced to resign” from the Congress due to Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru “who both distrusted his extremism”. According to the note, the Japanese warmed up to Bose because,

“He had been frequently imprisoned by the British in India, and his hatred for the Great Britain was violent. He had long argued that there was no hope in the policy of compromise with the British which Gandhi was following.”

After Bose took over, he established the “Provisional Government of Free India,” to give political legitimacy to Azad Hind Fauj. Bose was the President, Premier, Foreign Secretary and Defence Minister of this government. With this, Azad Hind Fauj became the military arm of a “government-in-exile.”

Recruiting soldiers was next on Bose’s priority list. Apart from the prisoners of war working in rubber plantations in Malay, he also recruited Indian civilians working in the region. Through his speeches, he gave Indians the idea of “the sacred soil of the motherland” and the dream of “raising the flag of Free India.”

Bose also established a military hierarchy in Azad Hind Fauj – Lt Col Shah Nawaz Khan was the Chief of General Staff, Major PK Sahgal was the Military Secretary, and Major Habib ur Rahman was the Commandant of officers’ training school. The INA also had an all-women regiment called “Rani of Jhansi Regiment”. Estimates say that under Bose, the strength of Azad Hind Fauj rose, once again, to 40,000 soldiers.

Which War Campaigns Did Azad Hind Fauj Partake in?

Azad Hind Fauj participated in two military encounters during the Second World War – in Arakan in Burma (now Myanmar) in January-February 1944 and in Imphal in Manipur in March 1944.

Japan had two wartime objectives for Azad Hind Fauj. One, that the presence of an army fighting for India’s freedom under Bose’s strong leadership would spark mass defections by Indian soldiers in the British Indian Army to Azad Hind Fauj. Two, Azad Hind Fauj troops could be used in forward reconnaissance for Japanese troops. However, as Rob Havers, a noted British military historian wrote, Azad Hind Fauj’s “military effectiveness was generally low.” He said,

“Only a few British Indian Army troops could be persuaded to cross over and join the INA. Initial efforts by small groups of INA soldiers in a reconnaissance and intelligence gathering role did little to change the negative impressions the Japanese had of the Indians.”

However, the INA’s combat performance is also reported to be a result of the “reluctance of the Japanese to employ the INA in anything more than secondary roles,” Havers noted. There were also accusations that Japanese troops provided the INA with outdated and rusty weaponry. But Bose insisted that the INA accompany the Imperial Japanese Army on its assault on Burma.

This led to the first encounter between British-Indian and INA troops in Arakan in Burma (now Myanmar) in January-February 1944. Three battalions of five companies each, called the “Bose Brigade,” fought alongside the Japanese. During the encounter, INA soldiers reportedly used "trickery and civilian disguise" to overpower British Indian sentries and aided the Japanese in capturing a divisional headquarters.

In March 1944, three INA regiments crossed the Chindwin in Manipur for the “March to Delhi.” They reached as far as Imphal in Manipur. But by June, along with Japanese troops, they were forced to retreat because of disease and inadequate supplies. By March 1945, the INA troop strength is estimated to have declined to 35,000. When Rangoon (now Yangon) in Burma was captured in May 1945, Azad Hind Fauj disbanded and its troops surrendered.

In August 1945, Bose reportedly died in a plane crash in Taiwan. He was on his way to USSR, where he hoped he could get support to continue his fight against the British.

What Was the Impact of Azad Hind Fauj on India's Independence?

In November 1945, the first of the trials against the captured soldiers of Bose’s Indian National Army was publicly held.

Three top INA members – Shahnawaz Khan, Prem Sahgal and Gurbaksh Dhillon – were charged with conducting a war against British India and for murder and abetment to murder. The trials have been credited with popularising Azad Hind Fauj in India at the time. The trifecta of a Hindu, a Muslim and a Sikh soldier on trial was also a powerful symbol which united Indians, according to Havers.

The case was fought by India’s top lawyers and prominent Congress party members – Bhulabhai Desai, Tej Bahadur Sapru, and Jawaharlal Nehru. Their defense was that the INA’s soldiers should be treated as prisoners of war, since they were a part of the army of the Provisional Government of Free India.

Khan, Sahgal and Dhillon were found guilty. However, due to popular sentiment in support of the trio, their sentence was remitted. The three were released to a hero’s welcome in the country. The Red Fort trials also led to revolt and strikes within the British Indian Army, Royal Indian Air Force and Royal Indian Navy.

Azad Hind Fauj’s impact on India’s freedom struggle was not military. It’s the spirit of an Indian army formed on a foreign soil and fighting for freedom which galvanised people. The Red Fort trials created unprecedented popular support for Azad Hind Fauj; giving the momentum for India’s freedom struggle a final push.

We'll get through this! Meanwhile, here's all you need to know about the Coronavirus outbreak to keep yourself safe, informed, and updated.

The Quint is now available on Telegram & WhatsApp too, Click here to join.

Published: 23 Jan 2020, 02:10 AM IST

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