It was in October of 2021 that I had the profound honour of accompanying renowned economist and author Shri Sanjeev Sanyal to INA sites in Manipur.
Back then, he had come to Imphal to conduct thorough research for his now-released book, “Revolutionaries: The Other Story of How India Won Its Freedom”.
The fact that a renowned individual like him was eager to research the INA’s heroic deeds in Manipur struck me deeply. Moreover, my 27-year-old daughter (a research scholar at a central university) had always felt that the portrayal of the Indian freedom struggle in academia was somewhat lopsided. Most narrations and portrayals conformed with the heavily one-sided western perspective.
The Indian National Army, with unscented support of the Japanese Govt has now crossed the Indo Burmese border and in the course of the struggle for the liberation of the people of India from the British Yoke, we have now reached Moirang, the ancient citadel of Manipur
So, when I got to know that a reputed author like Sanjeev Sanyal (whose other works like “Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography” are incredible) was working on a book aimed at shedding light on the unsung heroes of India’s freedom struggle, my excitement knew no bounds. It is safe to say that the book has received outstanding reviews since its release.
Childhood tales of pure admiration
I was born and grew up 4 Kilometres from where Colonel Shaukat Malik of the INA hoisted the Indian Flag on April 14, 1944.
My late grandfather being contemporaries of our state’s figures like Koireng Singh (a friend of the legendary M.Koireng Singh ) and Hemam Nilamani Singh, also did not harm my love, admiration and quest for tales of the INA and its exploits. The Indian National Army, although formed in 1942 under Mohan Singh’s leadership in Singapore with Indian POWs, was revived under Netaji’s leadership in 1943.
I grew up idolising the great man, deeply engrossed in the tales surrounding his aura of greatness and, of course, his vision for a strong, independent India. My admiration went to the extent that I often found myself in arguments with my fellow peers in school about how Netaji was perhaps the greatest military commander independent India could have had, but like his “disappearance”, this too shall remain a mystery forever. When the MTF (Manipur Thinkers Forum), a platform where young, innovative minds can come together to shape opinions for a better Manipur, a lifelong dream of mine, was ready to be launched, the only place I had in mind to commence its journey was the INA hall in Moirang. On August 18 2019, the MTF commenced its journey from the INA hall in Moirang. This was a simple but heartfelt tribute to Netaji and his ideas.
The celebrations of Manipur’s contribution to the freedom struggle will be a source of inspiration and guidance to the youths of a state which is blessed with abundant potential but rarely fulfilled
The tales of INA in Manipur
Following is a short excerpt from the narration of the historical events that took place in Moirang during the Second World War.
The Indo-Japanese forces advanced very fast with heavy guns and tanks. The 17th British Division could not resist the advancing forces; as such, they were compelled to retreat, leaving completely behind all the southern hill ranges (now Churchandpur and Pherzawl District) and the villages upto Potshangbam under the hands of the advancing Japanese and INA column. The people of Moirang and surrounding villages were jubilant at the sight of Indo-Japanese forces. Thus, the British 17th Division was withdrawn on April 13, 1944.
On April 14, which happened to be Manipuri New Year Day, i.e. Cheiraoba, some leaders of Moirang led by M. Koireng Singh, L. Sanaba Singh, K. Kanglen, Meinam Mani Singh, and others went to Tronglaobi village, some 3 miles to the south of Moirang which happened to be British strong defence base before their retreat but now occupied by the Indo Japanese forces. The leaders had a discussion with the Indo-Japanese forces. After taking stock of the situation, at about 5 pm on the day, Col Soukat Ali Malik, Commander of the Bahadur (Intelligence) Group, planted the Tricolour Flag with sprigging Tiger as the emblem of the historic Moirang Kangla where the INA Martyrs Memorial complex is, at present, taking shape. Many Japanese officers and soldiers were also assembled. All the arms and ammunition abandoned by British forces collected by local people were handed over to Col Shaukat Ali Malik. Captain Ito of the 33rd Mountain Regiment and Col Malik addressed the gathering, M Koireng Singh translated Col. Malik’s version and the gist of the version was “the Provisional Government of the Azad Hind had declared war on England and America with a commitment to complete with the creation of Greater East Asia and bring welfare of the people of India by defeating Anglo American forces.
The Indian National Army, with unscented support of the Japanese Govt has now crossed the Indo Burmese border and in the course of the struggle for the liberation of the people of India from the British Yoke, we have now reached Moirang, the ancient citadel of Manipur. Our commitment is the march to Delhi and unfurl the Tricolour Flag then at Lalkilla. Many had died on our way to reach near (Moirang) and many would die on our way to Delhi. However, the expulsion of the enemy from the sacred soil of India is a compulsion for us. We shall figlit and the people of Manipur would provide supplies to us. Nothing about us shall be passed on to the enemy, everything about the enemy should be passed on to us. Freedom of India is very near and near at hand. We shall win it and we shall have progressed and prosperity of the people of India after it. So, give us your hand; our collective efforts should cause India free from slavery.”
The assembled crowd welcomed the message, and they felt elated that they were the first liberated people of India, although many of their family members were evacuated from Moirang and took shelter on the eastern hillocks situated at Loktak Lake. Local people gladly donated rice, dry fish and vegetable to the Indo-Japanese forces. The 13 members of Nikhil Manipuri Mahasabha, namely Th Anjou Singh, P Tomal Singh, S Ibohal Singh, I Tombi Singh, L Bijoy Singh, L Kanhai Singh, M Jatra Singh, W Gyaneshwor Singh, M Amuba Singh, L Irabot Singh, Kh Jugeshwor Singh, Keinya Devi and M. Randhoni Devi reached Moirang secretly from Imphal and other places. They joined with the members of Moirang and worked together in carrying out espionage activities. All the surrounding villages up to Ningthoukhong were liberated from the British forces. The southern part of Manipur from Churchandpur and Pherzawl district to Ningthoukhong, covering an area of 15000 sq km, was under the control of the INA with its Headquarters at Moirang for three months till July 15, 1944.
The building of the Head Quarter belonged to H. Nilamani Singh INA freedom fighter, and now stands at Konjengbam Leikai. The surrounding areas of the Head Quarter were declared enemy zone by the British. Manipuri freedom fighters like K Gopal Singh, L Sanaba Singh, M Koireng Singh and H Nilamani Singh of Moirang were declared traitors by the British Political Agents, and the “Shoot at Sight” order was passed on them. All 17 members of the Mahasabha (13 from Imphal and 4 from Moirang) were blacklisted. The scorched earth policy was extended from Torbung to Ningthoukhong. The area was heavily bombarded, and many civilians were killed and injured. In Moirang alone, more than one thousand homes were set ablaze, except for five or six.
Figures like Hemam Nilamani Singh and M. Koireng Singh still feature in the state’s folklore. Both of them went on to play crucial roles in shaping Manipur’s graph after independence, with their monumental social contributions to the state’s development. The idea that INA meant contributing to society lives on in the great work they did in their times as colossal political figures in the state post-independence.
What excites me even today is the emotional anecdotes I heard from my late grandparents about how the members of Nikhil Manipuri Mahasabha, M Koireng Singh( in Thanga Moirangthem), H. Nilamani Singh (Sendra Hill) and their loyal lieutenants lived in hiding for a few months in our clan’s numerous households in Thanga before they made their escape to Burma. My late grandfather and his clan brothers took the leading initiative in providing safe shelter to these heroic figures. Many of our clan elders to this day recall how our grandfathers exuded enormous humility whenever they talked about their actions in providing valuable assistance to M.Koireng and his associates. For them, it was their contributions to the collective efforts for the motherland.
During that period, our clan’s elders formed a close bond with these brave men due to shared ideals, respect and admiration for the INA’s struggle in the face of the might of the British authorities. In 1945, they were arrested and endured 7-month-long rigorous imprisonment in Rangoon central jail. After their release, they reached Imphal on May 8, 1946. My grandfather would narrate me deeply intriguing tales about their valour, tales which have been passed on through generations in our clan and the tradition continues even today.
Women at the forefront
The INA was a great liberating and inspirational force for the section of Indian youths who had become disillusioned with over-reliance on ideals and lesser focus on actual action. This section was growing rapidly in the early 1940s. The idea of women being given space within the Indian armed forces can also be traced back to the INA’s Rani of Jhansi regiment, which even today remains a source of inspiration for young girls aspiring to join the armed forces someday.
Netaji- the man, the myth, the legend
The aura of Netaji transcended borders in his heydays. During the early days of WWII, the Japanese Intelligence services noted from speaking to captured Indian soldiers that Bose was held in extremely high regard as a nationalist and was considered by Indian soldiers as the only person who could lead an army fighting for India’s independence. It is no surprise that Britain’s Special Operations Executive (its clandestine WWII organisation) made several plans to assassinate him, but somehow he evaded those attempts.
Bose’s objection to Gandhi’s pacifism is also well documented. This objection perhaps stemmed from the fact that Netaji, as long as there was blood flowing in his veins, could not tolerate Indians being perceived as being weak by anyone.
The Congress, with its all-inclusive agenda, on paper, was the perfect umbrella organisation to lead the freedom struggle, but its flaws were many. The constant disagreements between radicals, moderates and various other interest groups within the INC in the lead-up to independence is well known. The Muslim League and the Congress’s love-hate relationship ultimately concluded with partition. Gandhi and Ambedkar’s constant and intense disagreements over various issues regarding minorities are another example. In this context, the British authorities saw Indians as a disunited bunch who were indecisive at crucial moments. The irony is that this indecisiveness glows brightly in the INC even today.
The Congress party stayed in power for almost six decades since independence. What is a disgrace to Netaji’s indomitable legacy is the fact that it has been tampered with; to hide the flaws/blunders of the INC and its leaders in both pre and post-independence years.
Talking about commanders, highly respected young INA commanders like Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon and his colleagues were convicted in the infamous Red Fort Trials but were later released on orders of the then Commander In Chief, Claude Auchinlek, after considering the rousing public support for their release. Dhillon was given his due recognition after more than 4 decades in 1998, with the Padma Bhushan when the BJP was in power under Atal Bihari Vajpayee Ji’s leadership.
The fact that the Congress downplayed the heroics of the INA and its bravehearts for six decades is a travesty and an insult to Netaji’s vision of a strong, resolute India.
Love and oblation for the nation
The INA was not just an army of rebels, but it was much more than we were led to believe. It was an idea, a movement, that the love for the nation came above everything else. For the Bravehearts of the INA, spilling their blood for India was a small sacrifice about which they didn’t have the slightest of second thoughts. The INA and its ideals will remain an eternal inspiration for many of us, as it should be. It epitomises nationalism and one’s unconditional love for the motherland.
Commemorating INA’s heroic exploits in Manipur
The state of Manipur, despite the trials and tribulations it faced in the 20th century, unequivocally made contributions to Indian nationalism with its association with INA.
And more importantly, the celebrations of Manipur’s contribution to the freedom struggle will be a source of inspiration and guidance to the youths of a state which is blessed with abundant potential but rarely fulfilled.
Reinvigorating the ideas of Netaji
The Central Government’s decision to set up a high-level committee to commemorate Netaji’s 125th birth anniversary in Delhi, Kolkata and other places associated with Netaji and Indian National Army, both in India as well as overseas, was a much-welcome step in the direction of giving the INA and Netaji their due recognition. The committee comprises our PM, Netaji’s family members, eminent people associated with INA and other well-respected people from various fields.
Ever since the BJP came into power in 2014, long-ignored/suppressed contributions and sacrifices of our nation’s true heroes have been brought to light. A collective mission of the BJP, more such stories of Bharat’s brave sons and daughters will come to light.
On September 8 2022, the Government of India unveiled a marvellous granite statue of India’s greatest freedom fighter ‘Netaji’ Subhas Chandra Bose, at India Gate to mark his 125th birth anniversary. Since the BJP came to power in the centre in 2014, constant efforts have been made to reevaluate Netaji’s role and vision. As our Defence Minister Rajnath Singh rightly said, “Some people call it rewriting history. I call it course correction”. It is something which had been long overdue. Similarly, ever since the BJP came to power in our state in 2017, there has been genuine concern and efforts by the government to bring to light/ celebrate the stories of Manipur’s unsung heroes of the freedom struggle.
On this day and age, where some sections have the audacity to think and feel it is acceptable to criticise the commemoration of the true heroes of our motherland like Patel, and Bose, it becomes necessary that the heroic tales of INA and Netaji ought to be a part of the school curriculum for children of all age groups. It is paramount that the young students of this nation recognise and understand the values and ideals of men who sacrificed their lives so that their children could live in a proud, resolute and self-reliant India.
Today’s youth must recognise the distinction between true heroes and the need to instil Netaji’s patriotic values and ideas in their hearts. The minds of young Indians has become greater than ever, as they are the ones who will mould the destiny of this nation in the 21st century
It is never too late or ‘out of touch’ to look up to our heroes of the past for inspiration, especially when those heroes are men like Subhas Chandra Bose.