The beginning: Bose prevails over the Japanese

On November 8, 1943, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose announced

For Indians, the return of the Andamans represents the first territory to be liberated from the British yoke. By the acquisition of this territory, the provisional government has now become a national entity in fact as well as in name. The liberation of the Andamans has symbolic significance because the Andamans was always used by the British as a prison for political prisoners… Like the Bastille in Paris, which was liberated first in the French Revolution, setting free political prisoners, the Andamans where our patriots suffered is the first to be liberated in India's fight for independence. Part by part, Indian territory will be liberated, but it is always the first plot of land that holds the most significance… We have renamed the Andamans as "Shaheed" in memory of the martyrs, and the Nicobars as “Swaraj.” 

For India’s provisional free government set up by Bose and his army, having its own administrative territory in India was of critical importance. The importance was realised not only by Bose himself but also by his allies in the Japanese government. Bose negotiated hard with Hideki Tojo and the army and navy chiefs for transfer of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to his government. In a meeting with Netaji on November 1 that year, Prime Minister Tojo agreed to hand over to him the administration of the Indian evacuee property in Myanmar (then Burma) and consider his request to handover Japanese-administered Indian territories to the Azad Hind government. 

It wasn’t an easy decision for the Japanese. Being important naval outposts, the islands were strategically crucial for the Pacific war. The Japanese Navy wasn’t ready to play ball. A middle way, therefore, had to be found, which would honour Bose’s wishes without harming their own interest. Historian KK Ghosh, who published the first comprehensive scholarly account of the Azad Hind movement and the INA in 1969, documented the gradual and difficult process by which Bose was able to take control of the islands from the Japanese government. Tojo announced his intention to transfer the islands to the Azad Hind government on November 6 at the Greater East Asia Conference.

Within the next few days, a decision was at hand. A liaison conference between the Imperial General Headquarters (IGHQ) and the Japanese government on 10 November decided that the islands would be handed over to the Azad Hind government, but the time of full transfer would be decided later. However, they realised that this was not an issue that could wait, especially after the prime minister’s announcement and Bose was not a person who could be treated in a high-handed manner and asked to wait for the right time. Something had to be done immediately. 

The conference, therefore, decided on the following measures:
(a)    the staff of the provisional government would be allowed to stay in the islands and participate in the administration, but in a manner that would not create obstacles for the Japanese war activities, and
(b)    the administrative participation of the provisional government would be extended gradually.

Although they did not yield much yet, the Japanese military understood that the role of psychological warfare was no less important than actual battlefield conflict in a war of such proportions. Therefore, the government and military agreed to allow the provisional government to announce that the transfer had already been implemented.

On Bose’s other demands, the Japanese Navy informed him that they would arrange his visit to the islands soon, and although having INA units and the provisional government’s own governor on the island will have to wait for further negotiations, a chief commissioner representing the provisional government till then would be welcomed.

It was under these circumstances that Bose visited the islands on December 30, 1943. 

Japanese in islands and the problem of espionage

According to the archival documents-based study of historian TR Sareen, the Japanese had no intention of attacking the Andaman and Nicobar Islands at the beginning of the war, but they decided to occupy them later on in view of their strategic location. The importance of the islands lay in being an outpost for the defence of the Japanese-occupied territories in south-east Asia. The Japanese imperial forces landed in Port Blair on March 22, 1942. The Ross Island was taken the next day.

One of the first acts of the Japanese forces was to throw open the Cellular Jail and release all prisoners (there were around 200 of them) under the impression that they were Indian freedom fighters. Sareen points out that, on the contrary, these were hardened criminals. His research shows that the law-and-order administration had already broken down even before the arrival of the Japanese, and a batch of criminals had escaped from the jail. Now, the released criminals joined forces with the escaped ones to create mayhem on the island. Among the local residents, the loyalists of the British started blowing up power plants, wireless stations and key military installations. Thus, although there was no military resistance to the Japanese forces, the British loyalists created considerable damage in their opposition to the Japanese.

Those taken prisoners were separated into two groups — Europeans (who were sent off to Burma as prisoners of war), and Indians. To the latter, the Japanese told that they considered Indians friends, promised to release all, at the same time, warned not to engage in any anti-Japanese activity. Restoration of law and order combined with the high-handedness of the Japanese, however, soon resulted in a number of violent incidents. The Japanese naval commander eventually issued an order banning the entry or searching of houses of people without proper orders, writes Sareen. People were allowed to move freely except for sensitive areas such as aerodromes and dockyards.

Sareen has categorised the period of Japanese occupation of the islands from 1942 to 1945 into three phases. The first phase, according to him, lasted from March 1942 till the end of the year when the administration of the islands was under a civilian governor. Thereafter, the administration was taken over by the naval commander. This was, according to Sareen, the darkest period when the population of the islands lived under the shadow of brutality and death. This phase continued until the arrival of the administrators of the Azad Hind government in February 1944. Even their nominal presence was enough to restrain the Japanese and scale down the reign of ruthlessness.

Azad Hind arrives

Bose arrived on the islands on December 29, 1943, accompanied by Ananda Mohan Sahay, Dr DS Raju, Ehsan Quadir and Shamser Singh. He hoisted the national flag atop the chief commissioner’s bungalow on the next day. However, surrounded by the Japanese military and intelligence officers, he had no chance to get the real picture of the atrocities that had been inflicted on the Islanders.

Bose appointed Lt Col AD Loganadan as the chief commissioner of Andaman and Nicobar Islands five days after his return. Bose hadn’t got the detailed situation report for the islands, but he picked up the problems related to Japanese complaints of espionage by British agents. He asked Loganadan to inquire into the matter. The new chief commissioner found it regrettable that, in contrast to other Indian settlements in the Far East, a far greater share of Indians was found to be acting as spies. He insisted on making available to the Azad Hind establishment greater police powers. This was especially important in view of the low level of political consciousness of ‘an assorted all-India collection not of very high standing.’ By the middle of the year, he noted that cases of spying were showing no signs of decline and rued that the provisional government staff had not been involved in the investigation of such cases. Loganadan shot off a letter to the Japanese governor, explaining the nature of the local Indian population and demanding that the provisional government staff be included in the process of investigation. “If we could be trusted to handle all spy cases, I can guarantee such a great improvement as to give a surprise,” he reported to Bose in July.

Unfortunately, to the administration of the islands, Loganadan’s position was still advisory in nature and his advice had no legal binding upon the Japanese. The loyalty of the local people to the British surprised him to a great extent. However, as Sareen notes, he was unaware that “this loyalty, especially in the case of government servants and other agents, was on account of the fact that their families were receiving maintenance grant from the government in India”.

Loganadan was replaced by Major AA Alvi in October 1944. Alvi’s perseverance starting showing better results with Japanese atrocities declining markedly. Alvi’s arrival coincided with a large-scale spy case where more than 300 people, including the president and the secretary of the Indian Independence League, from Port Blair and surrounding places were detained. ‘Confessions’ were obtained under torture. However, it came to light quite early that the case against the people were concocted by Indians in the police force who were against the provisional government. The arrested were eventually released.

The limits imposed on the provisional government in administering the islands, particularly the police force and functions resulted a loss of face, noted Alvi. They lost “a good deal of face with the Indian community and hand to stand many public insults because of its helplessness to interfere effectively”, he recorded. 

The Azad Hind saga in the Andamans came to an end with the Japanese surrender in August 1945, although the formal surrender of the islands took place in October.

The question of remembrance

Right after independence, the question of how to remember this episode came up amongst India’s politicians and policymakers. While parliamentarians like Hari Vishnu Kamath and later Samar Guha kept raising the issue of renaming the islands as Shahid and Swaraj in the fashion of Bose, the ruling dispensation did not give any indication that that issue even mattered to them. In fact, in response to Kamath’s question in 1951, the then home minister C Rajagopalachari went to the extent of saying that his government had no information that the provisional government of free India under Bose had ever renamed the islands.

In 1969, in response to points raised by Samar Guha, the then home minister YB Chavan informed that the people of the islands, represented by the ministry’s consultative committee, were not keen to change the name. What he conveniently omitted was that the members of the committee were nominated by his government and, therefore, would only follow the government’s line. When Guha introduced a private member’s Bill in Lok Sabha in 1978 for renaming the islands, home minister Charan Singh coaxed him to withdraw it, with the assurance that Guha would get a chance to present his case to the consultative committee, which had been transformed by the Janata government into an elected body. The MP from Andaman and Nicobar Islands at that point suggested a referendum among the local people. With the fall of the government before long, nothing was achieved.

The demand has persisted since then but no government appears to have given it a serious thought until the current NDA government took the decision to commemorate the achievements of Netaji and his INA on the platinum jubilee of setting up of the provisional government of free India. 

This move has drawn criticism from the usual suspects. The deep-seated antipathy of the Congress and a section of the leftist parties (particularly the extreme left) to Subhas Chandra Bose is well known. Although for public consumption, in deference to the mass appeal that Bose still has, these parties have to make a show of respect towards him, they have done everything to actively suppress his legacy lest they should emerge as a viable challenge to the Nehru-Gandhi tradition.

There’s much to be proud of

Objections have been raised in various forms, but it is more important to remember the reasons for honouring the memory of Netaji and his INA than trying to address subtle and not-so-subtle propaganda to demean his achievements.

First, as evident from the historical account above, the Japanese government agreed to hand over a territory they had conquered from the British to a government-in-exile out of sheer respect in which they held Netaji. Handing over acquired territory by a regional power to an aspiring freedom movement is rare, if not altogether unprecedented, in world history. It denotes a major diplomatic triumph of Netaji.

Second, although the transfer was just at initial phases and the provisional government had to fight hard for each step of progress, the move was a major psychological boost to the entire freedom movement in south-east Asia and the Far East. The symbolic importance of Netaji’s visit to the Cellular Jail and raising of the national flag at a place where the best of India’s freedom fighters and revolutionaries suffered cannot be overstated.

Third, it is absolutely silly to put the blame of the Japanese excesses on Netaji or the provisional government administrators. As both Loganadan and Alvi realised as chief commissioners, the problems of pro-British attitude, espionage and sabotage were very real and large-scale. It has to be kept in mind that this was a war-time military administration and not a peace-time civil one. In a war of life and death, civil liberties and democratic rights take a backseat. Yet, despite all limitations, the two chief commissioners tried their best to intervene and were largely successful in scaling down the atrocities. In total, Loganadan and Alvi had just about a year and a half on the islands, by which time they showed significant results in terms of restraining the Japanese. The mechanism of administering the islands would have surely made progress with time, bringing greater power to Bose’s men, but the end of the war cut the story short. Apart from that, it also needs to be borne in mind that, during this period, Bose had to employ all his diplomatic and military skills to ensure progress at the Burma and north-east Indian fronts, while protecting the interests of the INA. That left him little time to personally intervene in all administrative issues of the islands.

The initiative taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a considered one, that could have been done several decades ago. But as they say, better late than never. For this, the people of the country will undoubtedly appreciate his bold step to break from the traditional narrative created by the Congress for over seven decades.

The account above has been written on the basis of information sourced from KK Ghosh’s The Indian National Army, and two books by TR Sareen—Sharing the Blame, and Japanese Occupation of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands 1942-45: Reports and Documents.

The writer is a freelance researcher and writer on economy, history and politics. He is also a founder of Mission Netaji that has been investigating the truth behind the mysterious disappearance of Subhas Chandra Bose.