Special feature: The land where Netaji is not a hero - I

[This two-part special feature continues one of our earlier stories, The Sook Ching massacre and War memories of Singapore, published in Newzzit's issue 1]

 The Indian Indian Army memorial located at the Esplanade park in Singapore

The Indian Indian Army memorial located at the Esplanade park in Singapore

2012 marked the 70th anniversary of beginning of Second World War in South-east Asia and the fall of Singapore to Japanese in February, 1942. With the government here commemorating this by organising various memorials, trails and ceremonies for educating the younger generation about the War, the role Indian National Army (INA) and  Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose played as a “Japanese collaborator” in Malaya (present-day Malaysia and Singapore) has come into limelight. So much so, that the perennial demand to remove the INA memorial erected by National Heritage Board (NHB) of Singapore in 1995, has surfaced again. Opinions are divided and the debate rages on. 

The Singapore connection

History tells us that INA led by Netaji had a strong Singapore connection. In 1943, he took over the reigns of INA and its political arm - Indian Independence League (IIL), here on July 2; addressed the first ever gathering of INA under his command at Padang on July 5; and on October 21, proclaimed the formation of the provisional government of Azad Hind. But majority of non-Indian Singaporeans are unaware of the role Singapore played in India's freedom struggle. “Some, especially the Chinese Singaporeans, saw Netaji as a Japanese collaborator. In a sense he was,” writes George Yeo, Singapore's former minister of foreign affairs, in his foreword to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Singapore Saga.

This is noteworthy as Japanese occupation of Singapore marked the darkest chapter in city-state's history highlighted by the Sook Ching [literally “to purge” or “to eliminate”] operations, which was a result of Japanese hatred for the Chinese cultivated through the years of Sino-Japanese war since 1937. Under this, a decree was issued on February 18, 1942, that all Chinese males between the ages of 18 and 50 in Syonan-To (Singapore's name during the Japanese occupation) were to report to various registration centres around the island. The Japanese officers then identified “suspicious characters”, who were taken to the city outskirts and unceremoniously killed in batches. Unofficial local figures estimate the number of dead to be around 50,000.  

“A race that suffered so much during the War, for them to view Netaji through the prism of Japanese brutality, is quite understandable. But what is probably lesser known is Bose's harsh critique of Japanese imperialism in his article Japan's role in the Far East published in the Modern Review in October, 1937, where he questions the dismembering and humiliation of a proud, cultured and ancient Chinese race by Japan,” said Tansen Sen, head of Nalanda-Sriwijaya centre at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies in Singapore. 

Only tactical   

Furthermore, K Kesavapany, president of Singapore Indian Association, argues that INA's alliance with Japan “was tactical – my enemy's enemy is my friend – not strategic”. Thangamma Karthigesu, director of education and outreach at NHB has also noted that “several million Indian troops fought World War II as part of the Allied forces”. In fact, about half the Allied forces engaged in Malaya during the  War were Indian army troops, with 8th Indian infantry brigade being the first Allied unit to engage the Japanese at Kota Bharu, Malaysia.   

 Labourers from Malaya on the Burma-Thailand railway in 1942, Photo courtesy: Kevin Blackburn and Australian War Memorial, Canberra

Labourers from Malaya on the Burma-Thailand railway in 1942, Photo courtesy: Kevin Blackburn and Australian War Memorial, Canberra

Click here for part II of this feature