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

 Women labourers unloading petrol at the Burma-Thailand railway in 1942, Photo courtesy: Kevin Blackburn and Australian War Memorial, Canberra

Women labourers unloading petrol at the Burma-Thailand railway in 1942, Photo courtesy: Kevin Blackburn and Australian War Memorial, Canberra

The Death Railway

Several historians, while acknowledging that Netaji's legacy in Malaya  is “problematic”, have argued that the War was actually “many wars in one”, with all races suffering equally due to the imperialistic ambitions of few nations. “For one thing, although the Japanese treated Indians and Malays far more leniently than Chinese and Eurasians, there were limits to their goodwill. The forced recruitment of Indian labourers for constructing the infamous 'Death Railway' from Thailand to Burma was the most tragic episode of the occupation for Indians,” remarked Asad-ul Iqbal Latif in India in the making of Singapore

Kevin Blackburn, associate professor of humanities at National Institute of Education in Singapore, who is also the author of War Memory and the making of modern Malaysia and Singapore, elaborated, ”After the war, a nationalist Indian elite in Malaya moulded the story of Indian nationalism of INA and Netaji as the dominant collective memory. It  involved selective amnesia about the experiences of those who refused to join INA as highlighted by G J Douds in Forgotten Captives in Japanese Occupied Asia. These POWs, around 15,000 in number - according to Peter Ward Fay's interpretation of documents of the captured Indian soldiers at India office - were sent to work in appalling conditions in New Guinea with high death rates.”

Even greater suffering was imposed on civilian Indians, mainly rubber estate workers, in the chaos of the Burma-Thailand railway. “Analysing wartime British and Japanese records as well as Nakahara Michiko's Asian Labour in the Wartime Japanese Empire, we find that the number of Indians who perished on the railway ranges between 17,000 and 28,000. Even if we accept the lower number, it is horrific,” added Blackburn. “In fact, oral history work in the 1990s by Michiko indicated that Bose himself travelled along the railway and met Indian labourers en route to the Burma front, indicating that he knew of the pathetic labour conditions there.”  

A claim supported by Ram Singh Rawal, a former INA member who was active in the IIL in Thailand. Rawal while expressing shame in his memoirs, INA Saga, recalled how some INA comrades assisted Japanese recruitment of uneducated Indian labourers. M. Sivaram, an Indian independence movement publicist, has also noted in Road to Delhi the shock he felt during a rail journey from Bangkok to Singapore in 1943 - “a jostling bunch of humanity in hunger and distress, shouted at, cursed and slapped by everyone”. 

“So, while Netaji's patriotism, as asserted by Gandhi himself, was second to none, his actions and that of INA under his command, will forever remain controversial. What different races need to understand is that it was a battle between two empires and collaboration with one doesn't necessarily means betrayal of the other,” concludes Blackburn.  

 Emacipated patients in a hospital hut at Nakom Paton on the Burma-Thailand railway in 1942, Photo courtesy: Kevin Blackburn and Australian War Memorial, Canberra

Emacipated patients in a hospital hut at Nakom Paton on the Burma-Thailand railway in 1942, Photo courtesy: Kevin Blackburn and Australian War Memorial, Canberra

Click here for part I of this feature