Yesterday was the 15th of August. It is on this day in 1947 that India attained her independence as a self-governing dominion within the British Commonwealth of Nations. It has been 73 years since that day. However, I am not thinking about the 15th of August 73 years ago but about the 15th of August a few years earlier.
On the 15th August 1945, at 12:00 Japanese Standard Time, the Emperor of Japan took to the air and declared that the Japanese had accepted the terms of the Allied Surrender. This broadcast is the Jewel Voice Broadcast and it was the first time the Emperor’s voice was heard. Tough, Japan had communicated her acceptance of surrender terms to the allies via telegram on 14 August 1945, in the UK and the Commonwealth of Nations, 15 August 1945 is accepted as Victory over Japan day or VJ Day.
I think of this as today marks the 75th anniversary of India’s greatest military victory. VJ Day marked the end of the Second World War which saw Indians participate in battlefields across the globe fighting the forces of Nazi Germany and Fascist Japan. We don’t remember these soldiers anymore in this country. But their experiences in that war are well documented for those who are willing to look it up. Many Indian soldiers were taken as prisoners of war by the Japanese as the Japanese marched through occupying swathes of Asia. While some defected to join Bose’s Indian National Army, a majority stayed loyal to the then Government of India and went to the internment camps where they were subjected to torture, executions, forced labour, and starvation.
The reason many may have participated was that while the Government was repressive and non-representative, it was their government. The people had a sense of ownership in their government which is essential for any movement wanting to reform the system.
Indian troops defended Hong Kong, Malaya, Burma, and Singapore and kept the fight going despite Japanese advances. It is common for our history books to think of the war as being a “foreign war” but it was close to India. The Japanese had entered Manipur and had gotten as far as Imphal before they were turned back at a Tennis Court and Japanese troops had embarked on a horrible occupation of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. The Islands though were under the control of the “Provisional Government of a Free India”, the puppet Japanese client state that was set up for Bose to promote the cause of a free India via collaboration with the Japanese. A massacre that happened during his tenure was the Homfreyganj massacre where 44 India “spies” were rounded up and summarily executed. It is considered the worst atrocity, but it is not the only one.
Today, we critique Indian parties who also operated in the past based on their failure to support the Quit India Movement that was launched by Congress in 1942. It was at a time when the Japanese were literally reaching our doorsteps.
Congress refused to cooperate with the Raj because they weren’t consulted before India went into the war. The Muslim League and some other nationalist organisations did cooperate with the British. Further, India never had conscription but even so, more than two million soldiers volunteered to fight, making the Indian Army at that time the world’s largest volunteer force. While Bose had chosen to work Fascist powers to achieve “independence” via an Armed Struggle, most of his fellow Indians were getting ready to take up arms to stop him and the very people he was allying with.
Which leaves me with a question. If the British Government were an oppressive ruler in India, why would so many Indians volunteer to fight for them instead of signing up with Bose? Would Indian soldiers not have mutinied when faced with the Japanese in South East Asia and sided with them against their own officers from other nationalities?
While some Indian soldiers did defect, as mentioned above many did not. Moreover, many went on to win laurels. When the surrender was signed in Singapore on 2 September 1945, India’s Future Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten accepted the surrender along with future Field Marshall Cariappa.
India was also one of the few nations in the Commonwealth, that had its own officers having the ability to control British troops. That was the level of integration. At the height of World War Two, relations between British Officers and Indian Troops had finally gotten over the bit of bad weather they had since 1857.
This sense of nation first, was something that was instilled in most of us who grew up here.
The reason many may have participated was that while the Government was repressive and non-representative, it was their government. The people had a sense of ownership in their government which is essential for any movement wanting to reform the system. Despite disagreeing with the manner of British Administration in India, they recognised national duty and signed up in droves to fight the war.
It is this sense of national duty that I cannot find in the past few years living in this country. Earlier, it was quite clear that the nation was above politics and service was above all.
If today, a Government that I may have had the most contempt for, asked me to assist it with an act of public service, not just I, but many Indians in my position would be duty-bound to accept it.
This idea that India did not exist till 1947 is something that we need to forget and quite frankly junk. As long as there has been a sense of nation, there has been an idea of India and this sense of nation that can be found well before 1947. It can be found when we participated in the Olympics and won gold. Or can be found when Indians of that era received Nobel prizes. No one disowns Tagore’s prize because he was a British Subject. Even our father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, was never formally an Indian citizen. He died before such a concept even existed. He died, as he was born, a British Subject. Yet Gandhi was a patriot.
This sense of nation first, was something that was instilled in most of us who grew up here. Starting from being taught the famous “Nana Munna Rahi Hoon” as a nursery rhyme, growing up to the numerous times we were taught to respect the flag, the national anthem, and our heroes.
But today’s government has mixed the idea of nation with political ideology. Dissent is unpatriotic and even worse anti-nationalistic. Today, when people in defence of their own country call out the oppression of their Government, they are labelled as being unpatriotic and all manners of sin are committed to silencing them.
Earlier, it was quite clear that the nation was above politics and service was above all.
Today, in a free India, there are people detained without charge solely for the beliefs they espouse. India is a keeper of prisoners of conscience. The territories of Jammu & Kashmir are yet to see the restoration of liberty, though we were promised a year ago that the measures there are temporary. One hopes that this COVID-19 lockdown will allow the country to at least sympathise with their fellow citizens in that territory.
Field Marshall Claude Auchinleck was the last British Commander-in-Chief for India. He oversaw the partition of the army During independence. When promoted to the rank of Field Marshall, he refused to accept the customary peerage that came with it. He did not want to be associated with a policy he found fundamentally dishonourable.
Today’s government relishes that very policy and seeks to implement the two-nation theory in practice in India, by moving our nation towards one with a distinctly religious character.
Yesterday, a senior advocate was held guilty of criminal contempt by the Supreme Court for calling a spade a spade. Long-winded reasoning was given. I am sure all of it is legally sound. As I am sure that the pendency of the Habeas Corpus petitions at the Bar of the Supreme Court is also legally sound. After all, it is coming from the authority that has the final word on all that is legally sound.
So this Independence Day, I’m going to think of VJ day instead. Because I’d like to remember a time when Indians came together to fight fascism rather than to put it in office. I doubt the 87,000 of my fellow Indians who fell on the allied side in WW2, fell for a country that looks the way it does.
Outside Rashtrapathi Bhavan is the iconic Jaipur Column, on which are inscribed the following words by Lord Irwin, the former Viceroy of India:
“In thought faith
In word wisdom,
In deed courage,
In life service,
So may India be great”
I would like to go back to a country where words like that could still provoke patriotism. Right now they ring hollow and their silence is a deafening echo across this once great nation.
(The author is an advocate at Bombay High Court. Views expressed are personal.)