HITLER’S IN­DI­ANS: THE IN­DIAN LE­GION

Un­like Ne­taji’s INA, the Le­gion suf­fered ig­nominy

DNA Sunday (Mumbai) - - OPINI N - ANANTH KARTHIKEYAN

As Ne­taji Sub­hash Chan­dra Bose fea­tures in the news once again, let us re­mem­ber his first army, the ill-fated In­dian Le­gion a.k.a. Azad Hind Le­gion a.k.a. Le­gion Fries In­dien. Raised in Ger­many, this force never had its mo­ment in the sun — like the In­dian Na­tional Army (INA) had in South­east Asia. The In­dian Le­gion would sink into mean­ing­less ex­is­tence right af­ter cre­ation. Lead­er­less and de­jected af­ter Ne­taji left Europe, the In­dian Le­gion be­came tainted by as­so­ci­a­tion with a no­to­ri­ous mil­i­tary for­ma­tion. Soon the Le­gion was cor­nered by Al­lied Forces and French Re­sis­tance Par­ti­sans (anti-Nazi gueril­las): there are some chill­ing ac­counts of those events. The sur­vivors who made it to In­dia never got the wel­come and the recog­ni­tion the INA did.

This story takes off when Ne­taji ar­rived in Ber­lin on April 3, 1941. He out­smarted the British, crossed Afghanistan, and was spir­ited across Rus­sia (then al­lied with Nazi Ger­many) to Ger­many. Bose was con­sumed with the idea of throw­ing the British out of In­dia – and Hitler seemed to be un­stop­pable. The Ger­mans wanted to weaken their British foes and wel­comed Bose, a leader of pan-In­dia stature. The Nazi regime recog­nised a pro­vi­sional “Free In­dia Gov­ern­ment” in ex­ile un­der Bose. They also promised him an army to help lib­er­ate In­dia. Even be­fore Bose had ar­rived in Ger­many, a few In­dian Pris­on­ers-of-War (POW) had turned against their for­mer over­lords. This would be the nu­cleus of the promised army, now chris­tened the In­dian Le­gion. The Le­gion would ul­ti­mately act as a pathfinder force for the planned Ger­man cam­paign into In­dia. This seemed fea­si­ble back then since Gen­eral Rom­mel’s Afrika Korps was sweep­ing across North Africa to­wards West Asia. The Ger­mans hoped that when the In­dian in­va­sion com­mences, a lib­er­at­ing army un­der Bose would trig­ger pub­lic un­rest in In­dia. Bose con­ducted mas­sive re­cruit­ment drives in In­dian POW camps in Europe. How­ever, only about 5,000 vol­un­teered, de­spite many months of ef­fort. Mass cer­e­monies were held in which In­dian POWs joined in oaths of al­le­giance to Hitler and Bose. The In­dian Le­gion was for­mally at­tached to the Wehrma­cht, Ger­many’s pro­fes­sional armed forces. The Le­gion had mixed units com­pris­ing of all re­li­gions, re­gions, castes and classes. The com­mand­ing of­fi­cers were Ger­man though.

Ger­many’s Rus­sian in­va­sion in June ‘41 shocked Bose, a left-lean­ing leader, but he was pow­er­less. Hitler’s armies smashed into Rus­sia and it seemed that the Ger­man forces in Rus­sia would roll down the Cau­ca­sus and ren­dezvous with Rom­mel’s armies in Per­sia. Next tar­get, In­dia! How­ever, Ne­taji was thwarted when the tide turned by end of ‘42. De­feated in North Africa and at Stal­in­grad, Ger­many re­treated. Ne­taji now be­came con­vinced that his Le­gion would be used only for pro­pa­ganda pur­poses - or as 2nd class units. He also un­der­stood that stay­ing in Ger­many was use­less. In Feb­ru­ary 1943, Bose boarded a sub­ma­rine bound for Ja­pan, which was mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant gains in the land war in Asia. The rest is his­tory.

How­ever, this left the In­dian Le­gion in Ger­many lead­er­less and de­mor­alised. The lib­er­a­tion army was now a mere col­lab­o­ra­tor — just an­other pawn of Hitler’s regime. The Le­gion was moved all across Western Europe for some time. Af­ter the Nor­mandy land­ings, the Le­gion was pried away from the Wehrma­cht; it was at­tached to the Waf­fen-SS, the mil­i­tary wing of the Nazi Party. The Waf­fen-SS was manned by ar­dent Nazis and they con­ducted great atroc­i­ties dur­ing the war. This as­so­ci­a­tion alone would taint the Le­gion. As Hitler’s armies re­treated, the In­dian Le­gion trudged along. Dur­ing this time cer­tain units of the Le­gion re­port­edly com­mit­ted atroc­i­ties on civil­ians and the French Re­sis­tance. How­ever, other units per­formed well in bat­tle and in anti-par­ti­san op­er­a­tions. When Ger­man sur­ren­der seemed im­mi­nent, the Le­gion at­tempted to flee to neu­tral Switzer­land. How­ever, Al­lied forces in­ter­cepted them. Some French units and par­ti­sans with a grudge closed in — there are ac­counts of groups of In­dian soldiers be­ing sum­mar­ily ex­e­cuted. The re­main­ing were handed over to the British Army, who mis­treated the “oath-break­ers”. The men were soon shipped back to In­dia and some stood at the INA Tri­als on charges of trea­son.

Un­like the INA, which was pop­u­larly per­ceived to have fought for free­dom close to In­dia’s bor­ders, the In­dian Le­gion suf­fered ig­nominy. Nev­er­the­less, due to pub­lic up­roar dur­ing the INA Tri­als the In­dian Le­gion’s tri­als were not com­pleted. Soon In­de­pen­dence came, and the soldiers of INA and the In­dian Le­gion were re­leased. How­ever, they were not al­lowed to serve in the postin­de­pen­dence In­dian Army, ex­cept in rare ex­cep­tions. The gov­ern­ment fell si­lent on the saga of the In­dian Le­gion while the INA story was cel­e­brated (at least for a while): In­dian troops fight­ing for Hitler was not some­thing to ad­ver­tise. Thus, the In­dian Le­gion, Ne­taji’s first­born army, was or­phaned by war and pol­i­tics. It re­mains largely for­got­ten out­side his­tor­i­cal re­search.

The au­thor is an IIM Ahmed­abad alum­nus work­ing in the en­ergy sec­tor. He has a keen in­ter­est in his­tory, pol­i­tics and

strate­gic af­fairs.

—WIKI­ME­DIA COM­MONS

Sub­has Chan­dra Bose with Hein­rich Himm­ler in Ber­lin in mid-1941

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