Recollections and reflections

Reminiscences, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai

I first came in contact with Subhas Bose in 1923 at Delhi when the Congress was divided into two groups over the question of what was known as 'Council Entry.'...Subhas Babu, as the favourite lieutenant of Deshabandhu, was playing a prominent part in the controversy. more>>

Statesman and Diplomat

S A Ayer


Indo-Burmese relations during the years 1943 to 1945 (the most critical phase of the East Asia War for the INA) were influenced by the personal attitudes and reactions of Netaji on the one hand and Adipadi Dr. Ba Maw, General Aung San and Thakin Nu on the other.

The Japanese had acknowledged the independence of Burma; Ba Maw was installed as the Head of the State as well as Premier; General Aung San became Commander-in-Chief, and Thakin Nu the Foreign Minister. All three were glamorous heroes of Free Burma, having played important roles in using the East Asia War to achieve their country's freedom.

Here was Netaji on Free Burma's soil as Head of another Free State (Azad Hind), holding the allegiance of Indians in Burma, mobilising the man-power and material resources of Indian nationals in Burma, and, as Supreme Commander, marshalling the Free India Army (INA) on the march from Singapore and Malaya to the Burma-India Border.

Three separate, though allied, authorities were thrown together in Burma; in view of the exigencies of the War, the Japanese exercised supreme authority in purely military affairs; the Government of Independent Burma ran the internal affairs of the country, Netaji's Government of Azad Hind sought the goodwill and assistance of the Japanese as well as the Burmese authorities in using Burma as a springboard for the INA attack on the British armed forces in India. This meant intensive recruitment and training of Indians in Burma, military camps, parades, mass demonstrations, celebrations and collection of money and material — in fact, all the activities of an independent authority. But, then, how to avoid any suggestion of violation of Burmese Sovereignty was the delicate problem.

Welcome by Ba Maw, Premier of Burma,
at Rangoon, January 1944


Adipadi Dr. Ba Maw was very touchy on this point. He reacted promptly to every report of encroachment on this sovereignty. The position was difficult for both Adipadi and Netaji. Personally they were great friends. They had known each other intimately for years; Netaji had been a State prisoner of the British in Mandalay Jail until he was brought back to India in 1927; the intervening sixteen years and the East Asia War had brought these two heroes of two neighbouring nations closer together. Both had suffered and sacrificed for the liberation of their respective countries. One had already realised his dream with the flight of the British from Burma in 1942; the other was still preparing for the final attack on the alien ruler in his motherland.

Netaji was not only a sincere friend, but also a statesman and diplomat of consummate skill. He first gave Ba Maw, Aung San and Thakin Nu his earnest assurances of respect for Burmese sovereignty. He begged of them to interpret all his words and view all his actions in the light of these basic assurances. He told them beforehand, that for the sake of India's freedom, which the Burmese also desired and favoured, he would have to take complete charge of the Indian population in Free Burma, mobilise their resources in man-power and materials, fly the Indian National Congress flag, parade the Indian National Army and temporarily turn Rangoon and some other centres of Indian habitation in Burma into bases of operation. On the surface, however, all or anyone of these activities might appear to be violations of Free Burma's sovereignty.

Ba Maw assured Netaji of his own whole-hearted co-operation and the enthusiastic goodwill of the Burmese people for him and the INA in their inspiring fight for India's freedom. But, I am afraid, the understanding did not work in practice, at least fully. Unfortunately, there were certain elements who made it their business to look out for minor and inconsequential incidents and to magnify them as deliberate slights to the sovereignty of Burma. Dr. Ba Maw did not pay much heed to these trouble-makers for some time; but then the mischief-mongers, Indian as well as Burmese, were ever on the alert and went on poisoning Dr. Ba Maw's ears; the result was, first, a slight cooling off of his relations with Netaji, and then, a definite estrangement between the two, to a degree.

Netaji shifted the Headquarters of the Government of Azad Hind from Singapore to Rangoon in January, 1944. It was sixteen months later (in April, 1945) that he and the Government evacuated Rangoon, leaving only the Supreme Command Headquarters of the INA behind, in charge of Major-General Loganadan, to protect the lives and properties of the Indian nationals in Burma in the interval between the retreat of the Japanese and arrival of the British.

Those sixteen fateful months of Indo-Burman collaboration on the soil of Free Burma, started off in an atmosphere of cordiality. Netaji and Dr. Ba Maw exchanged courtesies, and put the leading members of their Governments and armies in touch with each other so as to ensure the smooth achievement of practical day-to-day co-operation between the two Organisations (Indian and Burman).

Dr. Ba Maw's Government was from time to time faced with acute problems such as for instance, cloth and finance. But Netaji had mobilised all Indians in East Asia, and money and materials, including cloth, flowed into the Azad Hind Headquarters in an unending stream. The Burmese nationals were witnessing with astonishment this phenomenon ofastounding progress and prosperity of the Azad Hind Government, while their own State (of Independent Burma) was struggling hard to keep things going even in the matter of the barest necessaries of life. The people began making invidious comparisons between Netaji and Ba Maw. Of course, that was not at all fair to Ba Maw. His success in tackling the Burmese problems depended entirely on the enthusiasm and wholehearted co-operation of the Burmese people. Netaji's war-cry of Chalo Delhi! had roused the Indians throughout East Asia into a state of frenzy. They were literally "freedom-mad."

It was quite natural that the Burmese people were not and could not be roused to the same pitch of enthusiasm and self-sacrifice. The only slogan that Dr. Ba Maw could have given his people at that time was: "Defend your motherland at all costs." That would not have been sufficiently inspiring, because, after all, the Burmese knew very well that to keep the British out of Burma was the business of the Japanese; the Japanese Army, Navy and Air Force could be depended upon to defend Burma against British attempts to reoccupy it. Therefore, the Burmese did not consider themselves as placed on a war footing. Their thoughts turned to the necessities of normal life in the midst of the death and destruction caused by the extensive Anglo-American bombing of Burma. They thought of cloth and other consumer goods which used to come to Burma by shiploads in peace time; they wanted even the many luxuries of life to which they had easy access in normal times. But the hard realities roused their discontent; in a city like Rangoon, the Burmese who lived in houses of brick and mortar could be counted on one's fingers ends; the bulk of the population lived in huts of bamboo-matting, with the inadequate supply of drinking water and unsatisfactory sanitary arrangements characteristic of "camp" life in bamboo huts. The total absence of local industries accentuated the disappearance of imported consumer goods and the non-existence of cotton textile mills resulted in to famine in cloth in many areas; there were reports of menu and women going about in discarded and tattered gunny cloth. Many women of respectable families never stirred out of their houses because they had no decent cloth with which to cover their bodies.




In contrast to this depressing picture, the total mobilisation of Indians throughout East Asia, primarily for military purposes, led to a flow of goods into Burma, however small the quantity, from Japan, China, the Philippines, Malaya, Java and Thailand. Netaji of course made a sporting gesture whenever he found he had a little to spare from these supplies for the Burmese people. But that was only a drop in the ocean. The Burmese Government found itself in a helpless position in the matter of meeting its own people's needs.


The dynamic activity and the apparent affluence of the Azad Hind Government were in vivid contrast to the difficult material situation with which the Free Burma Government was grappling from day to day. It was only natural that this contrast should have been noticed by the Burmese people in cities and towns. No wonder then that Netaji found himself in a delicate and embarrassing position, while Dr. Ba Maw found his task even more difficult and some times irritating. I know from personal knowledge that Netaji was all the time alive to the need for great circumspection on his part; and he certainly took all care to see that none on the INA side said or did anything that might offend the susceptibilities of Dr. Ba Maw or the Burmese people. At the same time, he had to intensify the activities of the Azad Hind Government and the INA in preparation for the final assault on the British fronts across the Burma-India Border, namely, Imphal and Kohima.

Even from the early days of the Azad Hind Government and the INA on Burmese soil, it was known that General Aung San did not see eye to eye with Dr. Ba Maw; Aung San sometimes struck a discordant note even at important public gatherings. Thakin Nu, the Foreign Minister, wisely kept a discreet silence over the rift between the Head of the State and Commander-in-Chief. Netaji was distressed at the very first sign of internal differences in the Burmese Cabinet over major issues of policy. He was very keen on doing whatever he could to bring about complete rapprochement between the two front rank Burmese leaders. But there was an obvious limit to what he could do if he was not to be misunderstood by either of them.

Today, General Aung San, alas, is no more, having fallen a victim to the assassin's bullet; Dr. Ba Maw is alive and in retirement from politics; Thakin Nu is Premier, having taken over the reins in the crisis that followed the assassination of General Aung San and members of his Cabinet.

I had known Dr. Ba Maw since 1936 — eight years before I returned to Rangoon, this time as a Minister of the Azad Hind Government. Then he was a Minister in the dyarchic Government under the Governorship of Sir Archibald Cochrane and I had been transferred from Bombay to Rangoon as Manager of Reuters and the Associated Press of India. He was always independent and assertive; he did not bow to Cochrane in the late 'thirties' and he refused to bow to the Japanese in the early 'forties.

I met General Aung San and Thakin Nu for the first time in the latter's house at a dinner given in honour of some of the Ministers of the Azad Hind Government including myself. Thakin Nu and his wife were ideal hosts; the table had been specially decorated with a design of the Indian National Tricolour done in coloured chalk powder; it looked delicate and exquisite, and characteristically Burmese.

As was expected, General Aung San arrived late, but he made up for it by livening up the talk round the table by some typically Aung San quips. His frankness on any topic was devastating and often embarrassing. Both the host and the hostess were smiling their best indulgence to the somewhat whimsical Commander-in-Chief of the Burmese Army. Many of his jokes were against himself and he too enjoyed them as much as his listeners did. A few days later he invited Netaji, Ministers and senior officers, and officials of the INA to a tea party. We arrived punctually. Five, ten, fifteen minutes…half an hour after time, and yet no news of the host. The atmosphere was getting strained in spite of Netaji's efforts to make easy conversation with others on the Burmese side. Then at last walked into the hall General Aung San and sat down by Netaji's side. As far as we could see from our places a few feet away, he offered no elaborate or loud enough apologies for being so late. He looked somewhat glum and unusually quiet. We were puzzled, even after the party got going. We felt that something was amiss somewhere. To ease the slight tension in the air and to get a laugh out of our group someone on our side said: "Either Aung San has a bad tummy ache or is coming straight from a quarrel with his wife!" Of course, it was nothing more than a joke at the expense of the lovable Aung San who would have himself laughed outright if he had overheard the guest. He must have hurried to the party from some very important official conference which lasted longer than expected. That was probably why he looked rather pre-occupied till nearly halfway through the party.

Great warmth and cordiality marked the relations between General Aung San and Thakin Nu on the one hand and Netaji on the other. They made no secret of their admiration for the Indian patriot who was marshalling a liberation army against heavy odds, and whom they wished all luck. Netaji loved them both very deeply and held them up to the INA as models of resurgent youth reaching the top of the ladder in the National Administration.

When the gulf between Dr. Ba Maw and Netaji began widening in the early part of 1945, General Aung San and Thakin Nu made earnest efforts to bring the Heads of the two States nearer each other. But throughout those unhappy days, Netaji never lost patience or his faith in the ultimate favourable outcome of his mission.

Besides these and other major aspects of Netaji's policies as head of the "Free India" movement, I was curious to watch his attitude towards all people who came into contact with him. I was particularly curious to see whether, consciously or unconsciously, he showed any special favour or consideration to a Bengali merely because he was a Bengali.

I was convinced beyond a doubt that there was not the slightest trace of provincialism in Netaji's mind at any stage. This is not to say that he was not happy to meet a Bengali; or to talk to him in Bengali or exchange reminiscences with him on events in Bengal at a time when he had himself been the stormy petrel in Bengal's turbulent politics.

But when it came to serious affairs of State, all were Indians first and Indians last in his eyes. Merit alone counted; he chose his colleagues and co-workers in the Government, the INA and the ILL with the utmost freedom from all bias and with an inborn national outlook. He took all India in his mental sweep and consistently forgot the language or religion of his associates. He showed in his deeds, day after day, that he was far, far above any such petty considerations like the mother-tongue or the birthplace of an Indian. That the man was a son of India was more than sufficient for Netaji.

Those who lived with him in his household hailed from all over India. His physician Colonel Raju comes from Andhra; Colonel Rawat, his Adjutant from Garhwal (U.P.); Captain Sliamshere Singh, A.D.C., from the Punjab; another A.D.C. was a Gurkha; Major Swami, Officer on Special Duty, and Bhaskaran, confidential Steno to Netaji, hail from Tamilnad and Kerala respectively. It so happened that no one of any importance staying with him in his Bungalow hailed from his own Province.

One of Netaji's go-getters, Yellappa, was a native of Coorg; his Chief of Staff and Second in Command of the entire INA, Major-General Bhonsle, is a son of Maharashtra; others who held top ranks in the Army were Muslims; his Vice-President in the IIL was a Christian, John Thivy; the Officer whom he entrusted with the enviable task of erecting a memorial for the INA Shaheeds in Singapore was Colonel Stracey, an Anglo-Indian.

Thus Netaji gave the Provisional Government, the INA and IIL a thoroughly cosmopolitan character, and made them a shining example of unity of the Nation for all India and for the world to see and admire.



Extracted from Unto Him A Witness: The Story of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in East Asia