In Singapore’s cocoon of bewitching lights and postmodernist architecture, future is not just a compulsion but a game of irresistible seduction. The past pales in comparison, mostly stumbled upon in museum galleries where it is animated, to a degree, through sophisticated artifices.
Bucking this trend is a clutch of Indians, 85 years and above, clinging to their boyhood memories as cranes do to towers under construction. That was the time in their lives when World War II was already underway with all its ferocity.
Japan had captured much of Southeast Asia. Under its patronage, Subhas Chandra Bose descended on the island of Sabang, off the coast of Indonesia, on May 6, 1943, to live what would be the last two years of his life, leading the Indian National Army, or INA, against the British.
But even before Bose landed, the news of his imminent arrival, courtesy the Japanese propaganda machinery, had sent a wave of frisson all around. Under its spell came I Ponnampalam, whose physique does not betray his 90 years, though, occasionally, his alertness does. As he narrates his story, his legs stretched out and feet resting on a stool, he often breaks into a smile, as bewitching as the lights of Singapore, to convey the pride in having played a role in the making of history.
A Tamilian of Sri Lankan origin, Ponnampalam was studying at King George’s School in Seremban, the capital of Negeri Sembilan, a state of Malaya (now Malaysia). His father’s command over both English and Tamil had enabled him to become estate manager on a rubber plantation.
Yet, a higher spot in the plantation hierarchy did not shield Ponnampalam’s father from racial discrimination, paid as he was far less than the British for the same work. It must have rankled with the son – that he should mention it 74 years later is proof. It is possible the discrimination he experienced made him attend a political meeting in Seremban.
“At the meeting, they spoke of India’s Independence movement and the imminent arrival of Subhas Chandra Bose in Malaysia,” Ponnampalam said. “I volunteered for the Indian National Army and then ran away to Singapore.”
In Singapore of 1941, Ishwar Lal Singh was a 12-year-old student. But it is not the name his parents gave him. They called him Ishar Singh. Sitting at the dining table in his apartment, his thick snow-white beard flowing, he offers me a cup of tea as he sips his own.
“Do you know who changed my name from Ishar Singh to Ishwar Lal Singh?”
A twinkle in his eyes and a dramatic pause later, the 88-year-old Sikh declared, “Subhas Chandra Bose.”
“Don’t tell me,” I exclaimed. “Why? When?”
Singh was not in a hurry to let out the secret. He rewound the spool of memory to the winter of 1941, after having recounted details such as that his father, who hailed from Punjab’s Ferozepur district, imported cattle to Singapore.
In December of 1941, Singh contracted chicken pox and was admitted to hospital. One night, the Japanese bombed Singapore. At breakfast the next morning, a nurse informed him and others that Singapore was now at war with Japan.
Over the subsequent weeks, the Japanese inched their way from the Malaya peninsula to Singapore even as they intensified the bombing. “The Japanese dropped leaflets saying every morning all of us should dress in white and head to open fields,” Singh said. “It would enable the pilots to identify where the civilians were, and not bomb them. Every morning, all of us accompanied by elders, headed to the field.”
By February 8, 1942, the Japanese had smashed their way into Singapore. On February 15, the British Army surrendered. Singapore was now under Japanese occupation.
Life did not change much for Singh except he had to learn Japanese in school. He was unaware that the Indian Independence League, established in 1928 to organise Indians living outside the country against the British rule, had moved to Singapore, under the leadership of the ageing Rash Behari Bose.
Back in Malaya, there was much churning and excitement. The Japanese took to raising the INA under the command of the British Indian military officer Mohan Singh. It was said to comprise 42,000 men, mostly those who were disenchanted with the British or willing to switch loyalties to escape the harshness of Japanese prison camps.
A recruitment drive was undertaken among the Indians in Malaya to augment the INA’s strength. Ponnampalam joined its Malaysian wing in Seremban. But wasn’t the INA patronised by another colonial power? “We were favourably inclined to the Japanese,” Ponnampalam replied, “not only because it was helping Indians in their quest for freedom but also because of our dislike for the British who made us work in harsh conditions on rubber plantations.”
Mohan Singh, however, fell out with his Japanese patrons. In pique, he disbanded the INA in December 1942, presumably unaware that a more popular leader was on his way to replace him.
In Singapore, Singh’s father died and a friend of his, Meharvan Singh, asked him to take a job at 18 Mount Rosie Road. This was where Singh met Rash Behari Bose for the first time. “He interviewed me in Japanese,” he recalled. “I am sorry to say he was no longer Indian. He spoke to me in Japanese.”
Singh’s principal responsibility was a bit bizarre. When Rash Behari Bose took his afternoon siesta, Singh would sit next to the phone to pick it up at first ring so the leader did not wake up. He also did odd jobs like delivering letters and messages to Indian Independence League members living in Singapore.
Subhas Chandra Bose reached Singapore from Sabang on July 2. He made a courtesy call on Rash Behari Bose. Singh was there, milling about.
The visitor turned to the 14-year-old boy and asked, “What is your name?”
“Ishar Singh, son of Khajan Singh.”
He fondly tapped the boy’s head and said, “From today, you will be called Ishwar Lal Singh. Do you know why? It is because you are the lal (dear) of Ishwar (God).” All the INA officers in the room smiled.
So it was that Ishar Singh became Ishwar Lal Singh, renamed by a man who in Southeast Asia is still considered India’s foremost freedom fighter, towering over even Mahatma Gandhi. Ponnampalam said he had not even heard of Gandhi as a schoolboy. “For me and others, it was Subhas Chandra Bose who was our leader all the way,” he said.
The enduring mystique of Bose in Southeast Asia does seem, ostensibly, inexplicable. But as Nilanjana Sengupta, author of the seminal A Gentleman’s Word: The Legacy of Subhas Chandra Bose in Southeast Asia, told Scroll.in, “There are very few families here who have not been influenced by Netaji. He is bigger here than what he is even in Calcutta.”
She said Bose was responsible for the political awakening of the Indian community in the region. Smarting under the discriminatory policies of the British colonial government and riven by caste and religion, Bose constructed for his followers an overarching Indian identity they could unite behind and derive pride from.
The foundation for such an identity was perhaps laid by EV Ramasamy, popularly known as Periyar, who visited the region, including Singapore, between December 1929 and January 1930. The tenets of his Self-Respect movement were already known to the Indians, evident from some 50,000 of them turning up to greet him at Penang, Malaysia. His entreaties for creating a casteless society made the Indians amenable to Bose’s message a decade later.
Bose too rejected caste, never missing an opportunity to emphasise India’s composite identity. During his stay in Singapore, the Chettyar priests invited Bose to celebrate the Dusshera festival. He turned down the invite saying he could not visit a temple where, as Sengupta notes in her book, not only people of other faiths but even lower caste Hindu were denied entry. He refused despite the fact the Chettyars were among the principal donors of the INA. To the credit of the priests, they organised a national rally on Dusshera, which Bose attended with his customary gusto.
For Indians oppressed militarily by the British, it was cathartic to see their leader dressed in fatigues speak of waging war against the colonial master, and organise military training for them. “It was akin to giving a voice to the quiet suffering of the people,” said Sengupta.
Transformation is a gradual process. But it manifested remarkably on July 5, 1943. The previous day, Bose had appeared at Singapore’s Cathay theatre and taken over, from the ageing Rash Behari Bose, the INA’s leadership. It was the last time Bose was seen in civilian clothes.
On the march
On July 5, Bose came to the Singapore Padang, dressed in a military uniform, in an open jeep, flanked by riders and followed by a cavalcade of Japanese trucks with mounted machine guns. The sight threw the audience in ruptures. Bose took to the rostrum and spoke to some 12,000 soldiers, the remnants of the INA that Mohan Singh had disbanded, and thousands of cheering civilians.
“Let your battle cry be, ‘To Delhi! To Delhi! How many of us will individually survive this war of freedom, I do not know,” Bose told them. “But I do know this…our task will not end until our surviving heroes hold the victory parade on another graveyard of the British Empire – Lal Qila – of ancient India.”
Singapore’s future president SR Nathan was present at the Padang. He was 19. In his autobiography, An Unexpected Journey: Path to the Presidency, Nathan wrote of that day thus: “In retrospect, Bose’s great Padang speech marked the dawn of mass politics in Malaya among Indians.”
Ponnampalam, too, was there. “His eloquence was inspiring and charmed the audience,” he recalled of Bose’s famed oratory. “He harped on the idea that it was Indians who must fight for India’s independence.”
The Indians in Southeast Asia responded to Bose with enthusiasm. Women took off their jewellery and donated it to the INA while men mortgaged their houses to raise money. Even now people find it hard to explain the response Bose evoked. “It was his charisma,” said Singh. “It seemed Bose had a kind of divine authority which we could not flout.”
He certainly did not flout the order asking him to report to 2 Gilstead Road instead of helping out at the office of the Provisional Government of Azad Hind, formally established on October 21, 1943. Singh was the chosen one, or so he thought, for 2 Gilstead Road was the training centre of Balak Sena. “I was later told that it was from Balak Sena that the INA was to draw its future leaders,” he said.
There were drills to build physical endurance and training in arms. “I was shorter than my rifle, even the bayonet perhaps,” Singh said. They would march down Singapore’s roads shouting “Inquilab Zindabad.” But there was also what we today understand as indoctrination – special classes to instill nationalism through stirring history lessons such as on the mutiny of 1857 and the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh and Sukhdeo Singh. “Till then, I had been ignorant of them,” Singh said.
As Singh prepared for the future, Ponnampalam was appointed a translator with the rank of sergeant. But even he was required to participate in route marches, indicative of the all-pervasive militarism of the INA.
Ponnampalam was told he would be sent to Burma, from where the INA and the Japanese army were to eventually launch a joint offensive against British India, reaching as far as Imphal. “But my uncle was opposed to it,” he said. “He advised me against it as I was, after all, just a 16-year-old.” Ponnampalam most relishes recalling the occasions he saw Netaji from no more than 25 yards away.
Singh was even luckier. Twice in a span of a few months, Bose signalled him out from a gaggle of boys, inquiring, “Ishwar beta, kaise ho?” “The boys would tease me that I am Netaji’s favourite,” he said.
Inspired and inspiring
It was not just the boys and men whom Bose inspired to join the INA. Even women and girls responded to his call to take up arms. They were trained to battle. During his 1943 submarine voyage from Germany to Southeast Asia, Bose disclosed to his adjutant, Abid Hasan, his plan to raise a contingent of women soldiers. Hasan doubted whether women would switch from sarees and shalwar-kameez to trousers and shirts. But Bose did not budge, confident of persuading them to transform their self-image.
At the Padang rally of July 5, Bose disclosed his plan to raise the all-women Rani of Jhansi regiment. The announcement was greeted with stunned silence. But seven days later, he addressed the first 20 women recruits, who, in sarees, presented a guard of honour to Bose. In October 1943, the Rani of Jhansi training camp was inaugurated with 156 recruits now willing to switch to wearing what was then regarded as “men’s uniform.”
“Initially,” said Sengupta, “they were so shy they wanted women to measure them for the new uniform.” Over time, they became bolder. They dressed in pants and shirts, and with rifles slung over their shoulders, marched down Singapore’s roads, at times to the jeers of gawking crowds.
When the advance headquarters of the INA was shifted to Burma, in preparation for the Indian offensive, a Rani of Jhansi camp was established near Rangoon. The women were not deployed to fight but were required to attend to the wounded. A year later, in April 1945, the women were in the INA columns as the retreat from Burma began, through dense jungles, amidst relentless bombing and sniping, with Bose accompanying them on foot. He is said to have refused the softer option of driving in a jeep.
“Their experience was to stay with them,” said Sengupta, who interviewed a few of them for her book. “It redefined them, they had learnt to stand on their own feet, fight their own battles.”
Jankai Athi Nahappan joined the INA as an 18-year-old, much to the dismay of her wealthy family. She returned to Malaysia after the war, became a teacher, then a senator and a minister. She came to India for the first time in 2000, to receive the Padma Shri. It awes that she fought to free a land she had never seen.
Or take Rasammah Bhupalan, who on her return from Burma was subjected to British interrogation several times. As a school teacher, she became the founder-president of Women Teachers’ Union and waged a long battle for equal pay for both genders.
Indeed, the trade union movement in the region received a fillip because of INA veterans weaned on the diet of equality, fearlessness and the virtue of making sacrifices in the fight to uphold just causes.
James Puthucheary was one such person. After spending, to quote Sengupta, “two harrowing years” on the Burma front, he returned to become a secretary of the Singapore Factory and Shop Workers’ Union, the city-state’s largest union.
Puthucheary was a founding member of the People’s Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since 1959. In 1961, he broke away from the party to join the rival Barisan Sosialis, comprising the “Big Six” trade unionists. He wrote poetry, books on economics, was arrested in 1963, and banned from entering Singapore. He subsequently worked closely with the Malaysian government on economic reforms.
John A Thivy, too, was an INA veteran and a minister in the Provisional Government of Azad Hind. After the war, he founded the Malayan Indian Congress to unite the splintered Indian community and evolve a common position on citizenship in post-war Malaysia.
It was Thivy who bridged the divide between the Indians and the Malayan people. His INA experience was decidedly behind his asking the Indians to “declare unequivocally for a single citizenship and declare this land the object of their undivided loyalty”. Close to Jawaharlal Nehru, Thivy was later drafted into the Indian diplomatic corps.
These men and women were the inheritors of INA’s and Bose’s legacy, acquiring fame through exemplary actions. It is precisely their examples historians cite to scoff at those who say the INA wasted four years of young men and women in futile battles.
But what do people such as Ponnampalam and Ishwar Lal Singh, largely unsung, living their lives in peaceful anonymity, have to say of their past? Do they regret their INA years?
In his booming voice, enunciating every word for emphasis, Ponnampalam said, “I relish every moment of the two years I spent in the INA. I never ever regretted the decision to join it. We remember Bose so fondly because he gave us a language, a culture, and how to identify and unite with people.”
To Singh, the INA years were a lesson in how not to “let religion enter our consciousness”. “Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, we were all one,” he said. “He made us realise what it means to be Indian.” Thoughtfully, he added, “Do you think India and Pakistan can come together?”
I met the two on different days. As I took their leave, each had a parting line. Singh said, “I wish I have a letter from the Indian government commending me for the service I rendered to the INA.”
As for Ponnampalan, he is disheartened by news of social discord and conflict in India. “India must be free, India must be united to become a great nation,” he said.
On the way down from his apartment, I took out my mobile phone to check the news from India: the same disheartening stories of vigilantism and mob fury stared back. While the future seduces Singaporeans, the past keeps us Indian in its thrall.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.