Battle of Imphal- Catalyst to India’s Independence”

Battle of Imphal- Catalyst to India’s Independence”

/ Guest Column / Sunday, 25 April 2021 18:56

By – Rajeshwar Yumnam

The Indian National Army was defeated in the Battle of Imphal in March- June 1944. On August 15th 1945, with the Japanese surrender in the 2nd World War, the INA were left with no option but to surrender. Almost all of them surrendered after their retreat from the Indian Border. 
It became one of the most important and difficult post war problem for the British Empire to decide how to deal with 19500 former I.N.A officers and men who participate the Imphal Campaign. The disposal of the question might well decide the success or failure of the British control of post-war India. The trial was the most ominous event since the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Its outcome would produce enormous impact and have a decisive influence on Indian officers and men in the British Indian Army, the watchdog for the administration of the British Empire over India.
The British government of India thought it would demonstrate the prestige and power of the British Empire by executing betrayed INA officers following a military trial and by attempting to teach the Indian people, particularly Indian officers and men of the British Indian Army, a lesson in order to establish an unshakable control of India. The British thought it could be done. The decision produced a consequence opposite to their wishes; the British miscalculated and blundered despite their unrivalled experience in the administration of Indians, and their implementation of policy.
Gandhi, Nehru and other leaders of the Indian National Congress seized on the blunder of the British Empire. They took advantage of the trial whereby the British were determined to punish severely 20000 INA officers and men, whose relatives and friends were also serving in the British Indian Army. Congress leaders tried to win British Indian Army officers and men to the Congress side and to mobilize the Indian masses in an anti- British movement. The trial was a God- given opportunity that would tip the scales of the movement decisively. It was as if Congress had laid a snare and the British Government had been caught.
On September 14, Congress held an executive Committee in Poona and adopted and declared the resolution that I.N.A. officers and men are heroes who fought for the independence of India and they should be released at once.
The mass movement had started by then. In December 1945, Col Dhillon once said, ‘Don’t worry. India will gain independence within a year. If they execute any one of us, no Englishman will leave India alive.’
Netaji Subash Chandra Bose’s discretion had enabled the INA to take part in the Imphal Campaign and had brought the INA within reach of Independence. Though the military campign had ended in a fiasco, the political war of anti-British and pro-Independence agitation as a result of INA brought to victory.
With the progress of the first INA court martial, the Indian people’s anti-British and pro-Independence agitation spread like a fire, gaining in intensity. India turned into a raging elephant. The court-martial, originally intended to consolidate British control over India, turned into a trial to pass judgement on the criminal act of British control over India for 200 years and to give it the coup de grace. Transcending differences in religion, race, class, language, political affiliation, and military-civilain rivalry, 400 million Indians, with their wisdom, talents and energy, were united together in rebellion. It was an unprecedented spectacle in India’s history. It was truly a great national war of the Indian people in which their destiny was at stake.
Violent mass protest movement erupted in delhi, Calcutta, Lahore, Madras and other principal cities on 5th November when the trial re-open. On the same day, in Calcutta where Netaji Bose was born, 100000 people staged a huge demonstration, carrying with them placards bearing slogans such as ‘Save INA. National Heroes’, “Suspend the INA trial and release the defendants Immediately” ‘ British Go Home from India at Once’. They clashed with police everywhere and bloody tragedies spread in the city. Also there were riots in Madras resulting in countless number of casualties.
Every newspaper including The Hindustan Times (supporting Congress), the Dawn ( supporting the Muslim Leaque) and the Statesman ( supporting the government) gave extensive news coverage to the INA trial and carried editorials about it.
The first court martial entered its final stage in late December. The procecution tried desperately to establish the case of treason against the British Crown by the three defendants and of Muder and tortures by INA officerds and men. The defence and the defendants counter- argued, ‘The INA war of liberation is similar to the American War of Independence which fought against British control and exploitation.
It was a justifiable act, acceptable amongst the military establishment of an independent nation, for the defendants to have executed men who violated wartime military discipline in the battlefield, according to the principle of the INA’s military criminal codes’ . the INA as an army of the independent government, took part in a joint operation with the Japanee Army. It was not a puppet army. It was injustifiable and illegal to try in a British military court the regular officers of an independent government which has the right to fight.
At the conclusion of the trial, Chief counsel Dr Desai delivered an eight-hour speech over two days declaring that ‘ a subjugated people have the right to fight’.
On 3rd January General Auchinleck, suspended the life imprisonment sentence of the three of INA officers, General Shah Nawaz Khan, Lt Colonel P.K. Sahgal and Colonel G.S Dhillon. General Auchinleck was very conscious of the fact that even officers and men of the British Indian Army who were responsible for maintaining India’s peace and security were becoming awakened to national Independence, and that they could not be relied upon any more. He was afraid of the British Indian Army turning from a watchdog of the British Empire to an arm of the Indian National Congress.
The British government had succumbed to the demands of the Indian masses and had chosen the path of giving up the power of administration . he British government realized the irreversible course of the situation and began secretly to formulate the second best alternative- an honourable withdrawal while maintaining and protecting British interest in India as far as possible. The military trial in the red fort, contrary to their original expectation and calculation, created the decisive factor for the British withdrawal from India.
The historical significance of the trial was clearly expressed in the article contributed by Nehru and published on 17th January, 1945 as quoted in its preface, . ‘… The issue of the trial is neither the legality of the court nor eloquence. It is a power contest between the administrator who controls India and the will of the Indian people. Its outcome is a victory for the Indians… Will the trial, held in the last week of the year 1945, terminate the chapter of British control following that of the Mughal dynasty? Yes, the trial presages the end of that chapter’.

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