How a dy­ing Raj fended off Ja­panese blows

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ir­fan Yusuf

THIS year marks the 60th an­niver­sary of In­dia’s par­ti­tion and the emer­gence of two in­de­pen­dent South Asian states. It has oc­ca­sioned much fan­fare in In­dia and Pak­istan and among di­as­pora com­mu­ni­ties across the world.

In the lit­er­ary world, it has led to a host of his­tor­i­cal and bi­o­graph­i­cal works con­cern­ing the main events and play­ers from the last days of the Bri­tish Raj and the in­de­pen­dence move­ment.

In­di­ans of all creeds paid a heavy price in prop­erty and lives to prop up the Raj. The in­de­pen­dence strug­gle also cost many lives. Of­ten forgotten are the sac­ri­fices In­di­ans made to de­fend Bri­tish colo­nial pos­ses­sions in South­east Asia against Ja­panese in­vaders in World War II.

Aus­tralian writer Nee­lam Ma­haraj has used her de­but novel to res­ur­rect the sto­ries of In­dian sol­diers and their fam­i­lies who fought the Ja­panese in Malaya and Sin­ga­pore. Ma­haraj is familiar with the topic, given that her fa­ther fought in the Bri­tish army and was in­car­cer­ated by the Ja­panese in the no­to­ri­ous Changi pris­oner- of- war camp.

Sur­viv­ing He­roes is based on real- life sto­ries of fam­i­lies di­rectly af­fected by the war. The story is wo­ven around the lives of Ramesh and Nir­mala Ka­pur. Ramesh is an of­fi­cer in the Bri­tish army, the son of a bril­liant aca­demic from La­hore. Ramesh is a Hindu, but his par­ents en­cour­age him to be­friend peo­ple of all faiths. His clos­est child­hood friend, who also joined the army and fought with Ramesh in Sin­ga­pore, is a Mus­lim named Eh­san.

Like many In­dian men of his time, Ramesh en­ters an ar­ranged mar­riage. Nir­mala, a home eco­nomics stu­dent in her late teens, hails from a mid­dle- class Hindu fam­ily from Delhi. Both in­herit their fam­i­lies’ staunch pa­tri­o­tism and a strong de­sire to rid their na­tion of for­eign oc­cu­pa­tion.

Ramesh and his fel­low In­dian sol­diers are en­cour­aged by Ma­hatma Gandhi to join the Bri­tish war ef­fort. De­spite his nat­u­ral affin­ity to fel­low Asians, Gandhi feared the Ja­panese would be much worse as colonis­ers than the Bri­tish. Gandhi also be­lieved In­di­ans would be re­warded for their war sac­ri­fices with in­de­pen­dence. Yet In­dian troops were sub­jected to racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and hu­mil­i­a­tion by their Bri­tish com­man­ders. The Ja­panese knew this, and they spon­sored the highly re­spected In­dian Na­tional Congress dis­si­dent Sub­hash Chan­dra Bose to raise the In­dian Na­tional Army from among In­dian PoWs.

Of course, pa­tri­o­tism com­bined with war can make scoundrels of even the most loyal. Gandhi strictly for­bade In­di­ans from us­ing vi­o­lence to fight the Bri­tish. Hence, In­dian PoWs join­ing the INA to fight the Bri­tish with Ja­panese help knew they would be re­garded as traitors to Gandhi’s non- vi­o­lent strug­gle. At the same time, the PoWs wit­nessed at first hand Ja­panese bru­tal­ity against Bri­tish, Chi­nese and Malay sol­diers, and civil­ians slaugh­tered in cold blood. For Ramesh and his col­leagues, join­ing the vic­tors against the en­emy at home must have been tempt­ing. At the very least, it would have been seen as the fastest route to join­ing their loved ones back home.

Some of Ramesh’s clos­est friends joined the INA’s march through Burma. But when the tide turned, the army was aban­doned by flee­ing Ja­panese forces and charged with trea­son by the Bri­tish. Its leader, Bose, died mys­te­ri­ously in a plane crash dur­ing the dy­ing days of the war.

Ma­haraj’s fa­ther, on whom the char­ac­ter of Ramesh Ka­pur is pre­sum­ably based, also served in Sin­ga­pore and Malaya but, while a pris­oner in Changi, re­sisted at­tempts by the Ja­panese to forcibly en­list him in the INA.

The Ka­pur fam­ily’s sec­u­lar vi­sion of In­dian in­de­pen­dence was dashed soon af­ter Ramesh and Nir­mala Ka­pur were re­united. Ma­haraj’s por­trait of the re­li­gious ri­ots on both sides of the par­ti­tion fence is, for me, the most dis­turb­ing part of the book. Like the Ka­purs, my grand­fa­ther was forced to flee his beloved an­ces­tral home in Delhi.

Ma­haraj’s char­ac­ters pow­er­fully touch the par­ti­tion nerve. For them, even the Ja­panese in­vaders of Sin­ga­pore who slaugh­tered Chi­nese and other civil­ians with­out re­morse weren’t as bru­tal as In­dia’s sec­tar­ian killers. The false sec­tar­ian pa­tri­o­tism of Hindu, Mus­lim and Sikh mur­der­ers meant that In­dian in­de­pen­dence be­came lit­tle more than a par­ti­tion of scoundrels.

Sur­viv­ing He­roes is a pow­er­ful work: the story it con­tains de­serves to be told and re­told well af­ter the 60th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tions of In­dia and Pak­istan come to an end. Ir­fan Yusuf is as­so­ci­ate ed­i­tor of Alt­Mus­lim. com and the 2007 win­ner of the John Ire­mon­ger award for writ­ing on pub­lic is­sues.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Eric Lobbecke

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