Most historians have not paid that much attention to the Indian National Army (INA) and its leader, Subhas Chandra Bose, who has often merited little more than a few footnotes. This has been in line with Field Marshall Slim’s assessment of the INA as having failed to make any significant military contribution, and with the political consensus focused on the figures of Gandhi and Nehru.
However, three developments may begin to change that…
First of all, we have a certain long-standing ‘Nehru fatigue’ – particularly acute among many young Indians, both in the Subcontinent and the Diaspora. Even among those who respect and value his figure, there is often a feeling that India’s wartime history was much more nuanced than some narratives may seem to imply.
Secondly, we can observe a budding rehabilitation under current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who visited the Singapore INA memorial on 24 November – having announced two days earlier that the Indian Cultural Centre in Kuala Lumpur would be named after its leader (a first for an Indian head of government on both counts).
Finally, the West Bengal state government declassified 64 files on Bose in September, and New Delhi announced on 2 December that it was reviewing 160 further files for possible declassification. Declassification has long been demanded by those who suspect the official version of his death at an air crash in Taiwan in the final days of the war, and deposit of his ashes at Tokyo’s Renkoji Temple.
Needless to say, Bose’s figure has been and is likely to remain controversial – not least because he challenges two central tenets in the narratives of the Second World War and Indian Independence; namely that the former featured a clear-cut division between democracies and authoritarian regimes, and that the latter exclusively featured non-violent action. The picture is, however, much more complex…
The decision to decolonise can be largely attributed to the realisation that the Indian Army could no longer be counted upon to ensure British rule over the Subcontinent (as illustrated by the February 1946 Bombay naval mutiny, in which the deep unease prompted by the Red Fort Trials of INA members culminated, spreading to many units). This was, however, the same Indian Army which, like their fathers in the Great War, had been essential in stopping the enemy and turning defeat into victory. Thus military historians face a number of challenges in the coming years once more official records have been made available.
Setting aside the desirability of declassification being comprehensive (something that’s still not clear), the first challenge for historians is to ensure easy availability for researchers. In today’s day and age, this means scanning, transcription and posting on the internet. Only this can guarantee that as many military historians as possible incorporate these primary sources into their research.
Secondly, military historians should seize the opportunity of renewed public interest in Bose and the INA to expand their coverage of India’s role in the Second World War. The successful efforts by a number of organisations to highlight the contribution of Indian troops in the Great War during the 100-year anniversary could be a source of inspiration for this necessary endeavour. There are plenty of areas to be explored in more depth including wartime economic policy, relations with China and women in the INA (just to mention a couple of examples).
Thirdly, we need to understand that the Second World War’s complexity sometimes involved the most difficult moral choices, and that actors often faced painful dilemmas. Thus, while it is impossible to avoid bias, and (being realistic) history is unlikely to cease being a political football in the foreseeable future, the availability of fresh primary sources should above all be a chance to shed light on past events. At the same time, we should avoid the moral relativism trap in what can be a difficult circle to square. In Asia, renewed geopolitical competition has been hardening attitudes to history. It remains to be seen how Beijing will react to Modi’s gestures towards the INA.
Finally, and in connection with the above, we should be careful not to lose sight of the global nature of the Second World War. Well-deserving of its name, this conflict went beyond comparatively well-known areas such as Europe and the Pacific – touching upon almost every corner of the world, and very much shaping the world we live in today. We owe it to our children to ensure that the fascinating complexity and scope of this Titanic struggle is reflected in our history books.