Netaji’s Bombay Veterans

Published as “Not Just Bose, Bombay Too” in Mumbai Mirror, Cover Story, Sunday 19 April 2015.

Nehru and Patel’s Government not only authorised snooping on the extended family of Subhash Chandra Bose well after Independence, but also many other ex-Indian National Army (INA) veterans, including prominent Mumbaikars who served as Union and State ministers.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Gen Jagannath Rao Bhosale, (Bombay Chronicle, May 1946)
Jawaharlal Nehru and Gen Jagannath Rao Bhosale, ex-Chief of Staff of Bose’s Indian National Army and later Union Minister for Rehabilitation (Bombay Chronicle, May 1946)

Jagannath Rao K. Bhosale and S.A. Ayer together led the Bombay branch of the Indian National Army (INA) Relief & Enquiry (R&E) Committee established in 1946 at Congress House with Sardar Vallabhai Patel as its chair and patron. Remembered for his work with displaced Partition refugees and returning WWII veterans – and the road named for him in the sixties at Mantralaya – Bhosale was Netaji’s Chief of Staff in the INA, and served as Deputy Union Minister for Rehabilitation in Nehru’s cabinet from 1952.

Ayer was the Director of Information of the Government of Bombay from September 1946 until 1951, when he joined the Censor Board. A Bombay journalist since 1918, and the first Indian to head Reuters and Associated Press India, Ayer was a correspondent in Bangkok at the outbreak of WWII. He soon became a close associate of Bose and in October 1943 was appointed as both Propaganda Minister and member of the War Council of Netaji’s Azad Hind Sarkar.

S.A. Ayer, Propaganda Minister of Bose's Provisional Govt of Free India, and later Publicity Minister of the Govt of Bombay
S.A. Ayer, Propaganda Minister of Bose’s Provisional Govt of Free India, and later Publicity Minister of the Govt of Bombay

After the fall of British Singapore in 1942, almost 50,000 Indians became prisoners of war (POW), and of these around 25,000 had joined the INA – soldiers who served the Azad Hind Fauj or civilians in Azad Hind Sarkar based in the Andamans. By the end of WWII in August 1945, the drop of atomic bombs, Japan’s immediate surrender, and the mysterious death of Subhash Chandra Bose a few days later, his myth had reached its peak just as the Allies (and ex-colonisers) deployed the tired and near-mutinous Indian Army to re-occupy the arc of territory under Mountbatten’s South East Asia Command (SEAC), derisively known as “Save England’s Asian Colonies”.

This was just as Nehru and Patel were being released after almost three years in prison in June 1945, and in Bose’s last words “The roads to Delhi are many and Delhi still remains our goal”. Congress was soon supporting the INA, and demanding that Indian soldiers be repatriated to India immediately. The Red Fort trials of the INA prisoners in November 1945 saw widespread rioting by students in Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta, and the final crumbling of colonial authority. In Bombay, on 23 January 1946, 80 people died and hundreds were injured as police opened fire on a procession for Bose’s fiftieth birthday, and there was similar rioting and bloodshed in Calcutta and Delhi.

Front page cartoon the day after police firings on a birthday procession for Subhash Chandra Bose left 80 dead and over 500 injured, portraying Police Commissioner Harold Edwin Butler (Free Press Journal, 24 January 1946)
Front page cartoon the day after police firings on a birthday procession for Subhash Chandra Bose left 80 dead and over 500 injured, portraying Police Commissioner Harold Edwin Butler
(Free Press Journal, 24 January 1946)

Returning from Japan under military escort to Delhi in February 1946 – days after the mutiny of the Royal Indian Navy in Bombay – Ayer came to the city in March 1946 to re-unite with his wife and children in Matunga and meet Gandhi and Patel. He confirmed the death of Bose at a meeting organised by the South Indian Association, and reported in the Bombay Chronicle. “It is mere wishful thinking to believe that Netaji would come back. I was with Col. Habibur Rahman, who was in Netaji’s ill-fated plane, for full three months in Tokyo and in the Red Fort. He gave me graphic details of Netaji’s last moments at Taihoku”. The 30 year old Rahman was then still in British detention in Berlin.

In April 1946 an INA Central R&E in Delhi co-opted Ayer as secretary along with Nehru, Patel, Sarat Chandra Bose, Amiya Nath Bose, INA veterans Shah Nawaz Dhillon, Prem K. Sehgal and others to run relief centres and find jobs for over 3,000 veterans. Released from detention in the Red Fort in May 1946, Bhosale met Nehru and Gandhi and arrived to a hero’s welcome at Bombay Central, garlanded by representatives of Congress, Socialists, the Maratha community, and Hindu Mahasabha on special instruction of V.D. Savarkar. Bhosale announced his plans to setup a military training academy with help from Sarat Bose. En route to his native Savantwadi, he was welcomed at Pune by over a hundred INA veterans, where he dispelled the mystery around Bose’s death, asserting in Pune “I, for one believe, Netaji is no more amongst us!” (another INA speaker on the dais was less sure).

By July, he was working jointly with Ayer in Bombay, asking veterans to “rally round the Congress banner”. While Ayer approached his wide range of contacts to secure jobs for INA men – such as asking the Tata to give aeronautic training at Juhu – Bhosale and other INA veterans, especially in Punjab, grew anxious for opportunities, sending petitions and ultimatum to Government. Bhosale lost his wife in September, and was left with two daughters. Bhosale began to organise gender, creed and caste-less training centres to prepare young volunteers for Bose’s “unfinished task” of national liberation. P.K. Sehgal threatened to “plunge into battle” if the British Cabinet mission in mid-1946 failed. During Bhosale’s tours across Maharashtra through late 1946 he was presented with massive monetary purses dedicated to INA veterans’ wellbeing.

Apart from Ayer who was now directing publicity for the Bombay Government – the same office he held for Bose in the Azad Hind Sarkar – Congress sought to distance itself from the INA veterans. But by early 1947 Bhosale’s speeches had turned more militant, as Rahman and the other INA prisoners from Germany returned and Partition was announced by Mountbatten. “We are defeated again” he told a newspaper in June. Deploring the dismemberment of India’s multi-ethnic army, and referring to difficult times ahead, Bhosale demanded a General Assembly for the masses and a Council of Action of leaders of all faiths. He then called for “an army of two lakhs thoroughly trained martial Marathas” to defend Hindustan against its neighbours – both Jinnah in Pakistan and the Nizam in Hyderabad. According to declassified intercepts, during this time and well after Independence, Bhosale maintained correspondence with Sarat Bose, who had resigned from Congress’s Interim Government to protest the Partition of Bengal.

By late 1947, as Pakistan was born but many princely states remained undecided, Bhosale was raising cadets and officers for his new INA, and attempting to recruit volunteers across the border in Hyderabad. Feted by several rulers, it was rumoured Bhosale was organising INA armies for their states. Intercepts reveal he continued using the Bombay letterhead of the INA R&E, Congress House, Lamington Road, with Home Minister Patel’s name on top. He also now signed his name below as a member of Bose’s erstwhile party, Forward Bloc, which had just come above ground and were raising funds and recruits briskly – the CID noted with concern that in October 1947, in Bombay Bhosale raised 35 lakhs (with one donor alone giving five).

Bhosale remained under intensive surveillance throughout 1948, when Bose’s Socialist Republic Party and the Forward Bloc severed all ties with Congress. Police recorded several letters (some with relief parcels) to fellow veterans in Japan in 1948 complaining bitterly – one from Hyogo-ken was surprised to learn that the returning INA were not the “pets of the Indian public”. In March Bhosale launched a petition campaign against Nehru’s “unjust and ruthless” award of Rs 30 lakhs for all the INA officers, which left nothing for either civilians or the women of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. In the Constituent Assembly, Nehru also denied re-instatement of INA personnel with their ranks, arrears and positions in the independent Indian Army, as had been done with other Indian soldiers and POWs. “It is no fault of ours that the Government of India did not take the earliest opportunity to give us the same facilities as were given by the British to their loyal POWs at India’s expense.”

Bhosale wrote to Sarat Bose in April 1948 (inset) inviting him to Bombay for a national conference, and enclosing a draft text to be sent to contributors to the INA protesting Nehru’s reward and refusing to close down the INA relief centre. Intercepts between Bhosale and an INA veteran from Delhi, C.J. Stracey, instruct him to be ready to call a cross-party convention with help from the Socialists. Bhosale warned that the founders of the pre-Bose INA, Gurbaksh Dhillon and Mohan Singh were “exploiting the INA name” in Bombay by starting a new organisation for “military-minded” youth, the Desh Sevak Sena.

This set off alarm bells, according to a Lucknow CID intercept of a letter to Sehgal. In the summer of 1948, as the brutal “police action” Operation Polo was being planned to depose the Nizam, Nehru approached Sehgal and Ayer to forestall more agitations by INA veterans. In September, as Hyderabad was annexed to India, Bhosale was drafted into Government as Refugee Rehabilitation Officer, sent to camps in western India, now crowded with emigrants from Pakistan. Still prone to battle-cries, in Nasik he suggested they should form a “Sindhi Army Front” to help the Indian Union. In June 1949 the Madras CID found a a Tamil pamphlet by Bhosale decrying an circular by “Army Officers of Free India” banning the display of photos of Netaji in military camps.

In the 1952 elections, Bhosale joined Nehru’s cabinet as Union Deputy Minister for Rehabilitation, though he remained under observation and his file in “H” Branch stayed open. So did S.A. Ayer, who in 1951 became central officer of the Censor Board in Bombay. During his background check, an officer wrote asking IB if his pre-1947 records should be retained or destroyed. Under orders from IB until 1954 – for reasons unclear – Ayer was under “discrete but strict” surveillance, when he was sent to Madras on deputation from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. In the early sixties he helped start and chaired the Netaji Research Bureau in Calcutta. It is the luck of the historian that even until the late sixties, there was no internal reply on the destruction of his file.

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