Second World War as a clash between the patriots of the Indian National Army (INA), supported by the Japanese Empire, and the evil British Empire. The soldiers of the Indian Army who fought for the British are immediately dismissed as stooges of the Raj. But the refusal of many who were taken prisoner to renege on their oaths of loyalty in the face of extreme torture also showed remarkable bravery.
After the fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942, 40,000 men of the Indian Army became prisoners of war (PoWs). Some 30,000 of them joined the INA. But those who refused were destined for torture in the Japanese concentration camps. They were first sent to transit camps in Batavia (now Djakarta) and Surabaya from where they were packed off to New Guinea, New Britain, and Bougainvillea.
At the camps, they made no distinction between Indian officers and men. Officers would be slapped across the face or beaten up with sticks for the slightest error made by their men —error in this case being a tired soldier taking a moment’s rest while on double fatigue duty, or a sick soldier failing to salute a Japanese officer. Very often, work parties of haggard men would be taken away from the camps to the shooting range where they would be used as live targets for new Japanese infantry recruits to improve their marksmanship. Soldiers who were not killed in the firing but wounded were bayoneted to death.
Indian Army PoWs made live targets for new Japanese infantry recruits
It was a never-ending horror for those who were shipped out to the Pacific islands. “On the ship that took them to the Admiralties, two thousand were herded below deck like cattle, were allowed on the hatchways only once a day…” The Times of India reported on May 16, 1944. On another ship, a certain Captain Pillay, an Army doctor, was told by the Japanese that “water and air was not for the prisoners”. With “just two cups of water in 24 hours”, the men were forced to drink the saline seawater. Many didn’t survive the journey.
On November 14, 1945, Lieutenant C M Nigam of 2/17 Dogras, who was among the 1,300 rescued Indian PoWs brought to Bombay, told The Times of India how he and others had refused to join the INA and were “packed like sardines on a hell ship, the Matsui Maru”, which took 56 days to reach Rabaul. “Conditions on board were really horrible. In an extremely narrow space, only one-eighth of the whole party were able to lie down and sleep, while the other seven eights had to stand. The food supply dwindled on the voyage. After the first ten days, we were given rice and salt and occasionally we were issued with seaweed for cooking purposes. This was quite uneatable,” Lieutenant Nigam had said.
That TOI report went on to detail the privations of the Indian prisoners in the camps: “At Rabaul, their normal working day was from 10 to 12 hours, but on days when heavy bombing raids were put in by the Americans, they would work from 12 to 14 hours. Towards the end, their diet consisted of sweet potatoes and tapioca. It was only by stealing livestock and small quantities of rice that the men were able to exist. Men caught or even suspected of stealing food were shot.”
The truth about the claim can be found in the proceedings of the Gozawa case (No. 235/813) of the Singapore war crimes trials conducted by the British. This was, in fact, the first case that was tried from January 21 to February 1, 1946 and had 10 accused, four of them officers of the Imperial Japanese Army. They were accused of ill-treatment of Indian PoWs on way to and at Bebelthuap Palau, causing death to many by imposing severe hardships and beatings, and also executing Sepoy Mohammed Shafi of the Indian Army by beheading for allegedly trying to escape; eight others were beaten to death for allegedly stealing sugar from the stores.
At Wewak in New Guinea too, Indian PoWs were treated worse than beasts of burden. They were made to work 12-14 hours and were left exposed to Allied air raids. The senior-most Japanese officer here was one Colonel Takano, who even flogged men sick with beri beri for “working slowly”. The Indian officers of these so-called working parties demanded better conditions and fair treatment as PoWs under international law (Geneva Convention).
According to Australian historian Professor Peter Stanley, the Indian officers gave a written petition in English to Takano in July, 1943. The Japanese colonel was so angry to see it that he paraded all of them before him and told them that they had no rights as they had surrendered unconditionally. He also called them “traitors of Asia and India”. Harsher conditions were imposed on the men.
Then in one Allied strafing raid, five Indian PoWs were killed and 13 others injured. Takano didn’t let their wounds be treated. Instead, he threw sand at the men crying in pain and told them to shut up as it was their “Churchill and Roosevelt who did this” to them. All the men died later of infection.
The PoWs gave another petition, this time drafted by Captain Nirpal Chand of 6th battalion, 14 Punjab Regiment. When the Japanese refused again, this KCIO (King’s Commissioned Indian Officer — such officers could also command European troops) organized a hunger strike. Despite Japanese threats, the men refused to eat until their demands were met. The Japanese eventually relented, but not for long. Captain Chand was executed on April 22, 1944, for “inciting his men to rebel”. The Japanese officers later tried for Chand’s death by Australians told the court that the Indian officer was given the opportunity to change his mind, but he had refused, so he was executed in a “lawful and honourable” way. It took two strikes with the gunto to sever Chand’s head.
Jemadar Chint Singh, a VCO who testified against the Japanese, told Australian daily The Age in an interview dated June 7, 1947, Captain Chand’s last words to his men: “Don’t worry. If I am killed, some of you will see the good times which are ahead and tell your tales. The Japs cannot finish the whole lot. If I die for your rightful demands, I shall consider it a great honour and credit to me.”
A similar “gallant tale” was reported by The Times of India on September 10, 1945, from Manila, Philippines. Some of the 330 rescued Indians on board the medical ship Oxfordshire told about Captain Mateen Ahmed Ansari of 5th battalion, 7th Rajput Regiment. He was a KCIO and the nephew of the Nizam of Hyderabad. They called him “one of the greatest heroes of the prison camps at Hong Kong”.
Ansari was arrested on April 1, 1943, on suspicion of participating in a group attempt to escape. The Japanese soon found out about Ansari’s royal lineage and pressured him to convince Indian troops to switch their loyalty to the Japanese. Ansari refused to break his Indian Army oath. “The Japanese tortured him with beatings, the water cure, and by plunging an electric plug into his bare back. These tortures failed to break the Indian’s spirit. So the Japanese began a systematic reduction of his rations, beginning with six ounces of rice a day. Finally, they told him that he had his choice of being beheaded or shot. The Indian replied that ‘beheading is a barbarous method, but as you are barbarians at heart, you will have to decide’. The Japanese then beheaded him,” TOI reported. Captain Ansari was awarded the George Cross for the “most conspicuous gallantry”.
An emaciated Indian PoW from Hong Kong onboard the medical ship Oxfordshire (Getty Images)
The TOI report of May 16, 1944, also mentioned that the Indian soldiers “were victims of ‘indescribable indignities’ at the hands of their captors”. The chapter Indian POWs in the Pacific, 1941-45 by G J Douds, which is part of the 2007 book, Forgotten Captives in Japanese-Occupied Asia, edited by Kevin Blackburn and Karl Hack, elaborates on these indignities. “At Hansa Bay in New Guinea, Hindu prisoners were also severely beaten for their refusal to touch beef…the Japanese tried to prevent Muslims from fasting during Ramzan. Extra fatigues were imposed in a bid to enforce eating. The Muslims held out and the fast was eventually permitted; but in general no toleration was shown in religious matters,” reads a passage.
The Sikhs were particularly insulted for their long hair and beards. In February, 1944, eight rescued Sikh PoWs narrated their tales of suffering and about the indignities heaped on them. “We were locked in a room for a night and a day without water. Next day, when our mouths were very dry, they took us out and made a sport of plucking our beards. For food we were given dry bread, but before we could eat it our hands were tied behind our backs. We writhed in pain to get at the bread, which was placed in our laps. One Indian commissioned officer who asked for water was hit on the head and shot. Another was forced to drink large quantities, and when he had finished the Japanese jumped on his stomach until the water poured from his mouth, ears, nose, and eyes,” one of the men was quoted in the Canberra Times dated February 4, 1944.
The men further detailed how a Viceroy’s Commissioned Officer (VCO) was hung upside down alive and bayoneted by the Japanese who also pulled his heart out.
But the most spine-chilling of all Japanese atrocities was their practice of cannibalism. One of the first to level charges of cannibalism against the Japanese was Jemadar Abdul Latif of 4/9 Jat Regiment of the Indian Army, a VCO who was rescued by the Australians at Sepik Bay in 1945. He alleged that not just Indian PoWs but even locals in New Guinea were killed and eaten by the Japanese. “At the village of Suaid, a Japanese medical officer periodically visited the Indian compound and selected each time the healthiest men. These men were taken away ostensibly for carrying out duties, but they never reappeared,” the Melbourne correspondent of The Times, London, cabled this version of Jemadar Latif on November 5, 1946.
Jemadar Abdul Latif of 4/9 Jat Regiment who was among the first to allege that the Japanese killed Indians and fed on them
Latif’s charges were buttressed by Captain R U Pirzai and Subedar Dr Gurcharan Singh. “Of 300 men who went to Wewak with me, only 50 got out. Nineteen were eaten. A Jap doctor —Lieutenant Tumisa, formed a party of three or four men and would send an Indian outside the camp for something. The Japs immediately would kill him and eat the flesh from his body. The liver, muscles from the buttocks, thighs, legs, and arms would be cut off and cooked,” Captain Pirzai told Australian daily The Courier-Mail in a report dated August 25, 1945.
Then there were more similar testimonies by PoWs interned in other camps, such as Havildar Changdi Ram and Lance Naik Hatam Ali, who also gave details of cannibalism practised in their camps. John Baptist Crasta of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, also a PoW at Rabaul, wrote in his memoir (Eaten by the Japanese: The Memoir of an Unknown Indian Prisoner of War) about Japanese eating Indian soldiers. He was made part of the Allied investigation into Japanese war crimes later.
All these soldiers gave sworn testimonies to the war crimes investigation commissions set up by the Allies, based on which several Japanese officers and men were tried. The senior-most Japanese officer found guilty of cannibalism and hanged was Lieutenant General Yoshio Tachibana.
The Japanese, though, were always dismissive of these charges. Then in 1992, a Japanese historian named Toshiyuki Tanaka found incontrovertible evidence of Japanese atrocities, including cannibalism, on Indians and other Allied prisoners. His initial findings were printed by The Japan Times. In 1997, Tanaka came out with his book, Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes In World War II. There, he refuted the Allies’ conclusion that the Japanese resorted to cannibalism when their supplies dwindled. Tanaka said this was done under the supervision of senior officers and was perceived as a power projection tool.
UK-based military historian Amarpal Sidhu recalls his grandparents, who lived in Singapore during WWII, telling him about the fear psychosis among the Indian community in Singapore regarding Japanese cannibalism. “The issue of cannibalism and other atrocities committed against Indian POWs by the Japanese although widely known and talked about still remains one of the least researched and documented aspects of the last great war. As the last veterans of the World War die out, many first-hand accounts of these events are vanishing fast without being recorded,” Sidhu told TOI.
The Japanese also tried to impose their military drill and words of command on the Indian PoWs. It’s recorded that Captain Pirzai and other officers refused. The furious Japanese subjected the whole unit to savage treatment, but still, the men didn’t yield, saying they were Indian Army officers and men and would only follow the drill of their army.
Another similar incident occurred At Komoriyama in New Britain in 1945. There, men of the 5/11 Sikh Regiment were given ‘good conduct’ badges to wear. The Indian officers protested, saying that they were men of the Indian Army and they would wear only badges and uniform worn in that army. The men were threatened, but they didn’t budge. Then a machinegun was brought forward and the Japanese threatened to shoot down all. The Sikhs still didn’t budge. This went on for five days at the end of which the Japanese lost patience and flogged most of the men till they passed out.
Only 5,500 Indians came out of Japanese captivity alive. And despite all the hardships, the men refused to break their Indian Army oath and join the Japanese-sponsored Indian Independence League or INA. What emerges from all these recorded incidents is a picture of amazing fortitude shown by Indian PoWs. A kind of professionalism and apolitical behaviour that perhaps still characterises the Indian Army of today.
Soldiers who didn’t die in the firing being bayoneted to death
Different historians have come up with different explanations for this. Some say it was because the men, at least the officers, were highly Anglicised Sandhurst-trained men who also came from families that had a history of generations of loyal service to the British. But in the words of Claude Auchinleck, these men didn’t have any particular loyalty towards Britain.
The men were loyal to each other, to their regiments, to their officers. It was this loyalty that cemented such a diverse army like the Indian Army together. This loyalty, coupled with a strong sense of Indian identity, which had become stronger due to the ongoing National Movement back home, may have made the men endure all sorts of hardship. And it is this strong sense of Indian identity in the army that would shake up the Raj.
When India became independent in 1947, these same British-trained officers and men inherited a colonial army and transformed it into a national army that became the muse of patriots of all ages almost overnight.