The nationalist narrative has long projected the Second World War as a clash between the patriots of the Indian National Army (INA), supported by the Japanese Empire, and the evil British Empire. The soldiers of the Indian Army who fought for the British are immediately dismissed as stooges of the Raj. But the refusal of many who were taken prisoner to renege on their oaths of loyalty in the face of extreme torture also showed remarkable bravery.
After the fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942, 40,000 men of the Indian Army became prisoners of war (PoWs). Some 30,000 of them joined the INA. But those who refused were destined for torture in the Japanese concentration camps. They were first sent to transit camps in Batavia (now Djakarta) and Surabaya from where they were packed off to New Guinea, New Britain, and Bougainvillea.
The Sikhs were particularly insulted for their long hair and beards. In February, 1944, eight rescued Sikh PoWs narrated their tales of suffering and about the indignities heaped on them. "We were locked in a room for a night and a day without water. Next day, when our mouths were very dry, they took us out and made a sport of plucking our beards. For food we were given dry bread, but before we could eat it our hands were tied behind our backs. We writhed in pain to get at the bread, which was placed in our laps. One Indian commissioned officer who asked for water was hit on the head and shot. Another was forced to drink large quantities, and when he had finished the Japanese jumped on his stomach until the water poured from his mouth, ears, nose, and eyes," one of the men was quoted in the Canberra Times dated February 4, 1944.
The men further detailed how a Viceroy's Commissioned Officer (VCO) was hung upside down alive and bayoneted by the Japanese who also pulled his heart out.
But the most spine-chilling of all Japanese atrocities was their practice of cannibalism. One of the first to level charges of cannibalism against the Japanese was Jemadar Abdul Latif of 4/9 Jat Regiment of the Indian Army, a VCO who was rescued by the Australians at Sepik Bay in 1945. He alleged that not just Indian PoWs but even locals in New Guinea were killed and eaten by the Japanese. "At the village of Suaid, a Japanese medical officer periodically visited the Indian compound and selected each time the healthiest men. These men were taken away ostensibly for carrying out duties, but they never reappeared," the Melbourne correspondent of The Times, London, cabled this version of Jemadar Latif on November 5, 1946.
Then there were more similar testimonies by PoWs interned in other camps, such as Havildar Changdi Ram and Lance Naik Hatam Ali, who also gave details of cannibalism practised in their camps. John Baptist Crasta of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, also a PoW at Rabaul, wrote in his memoir (Eaten by the Japanese: The Memoir of an Unknown Indian Prisoner of War) about Japanese eating Indian soldiers. He was made part of the Allied investigation into Japanese war crimes later.
All these soldiers gave sworn testimonies to the war crimes investigation commissions set up by the Allies, based on which several Japanese officers and men were tried. The senior-most Japanese officer found guilty of cannibalism and hanged was Lieutenant General Yoshio Tachibana. The Japanese, though, were always dismissive of these charges. Then in 1992, a Japanese historian named Toshiyuki Tanaka found incontrovertible evidence of Japanese atrocities, including cannibalism, on Indians and other Allied prisoners. His initial findings were printed by The Japan Times. In 1997, Tanaka came out with his book, Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes In World War II. There, he refuted the Allies' conclusion that the Japanese resorted to cannibalism when their supplies dwindled. Tanaka said this was done under the supervision of senior officers and was perceived as a power projection tool.
UK-based military historian Amarpal Sidhu recalls his grandparents, who lived in Singapore during WWII, telling him about the fear psychosis among the Indian community in Singapore regarding Japanese cannibalism. "The issue of cannibalism and other atrocities committed against Indian POWs by the Japanese although widely known and talked about still remains one of the least researched and documented aspects of the last great war. As the last veterans of the World War die out, many first-hand accounts of these events are vanishing fast without being recorded," Sidhu told TOI.
The Japanese also tried to impose their military drill and words of command on the Indian PoWs. It's recorded that Captain Pirzai and other officers refused. The furious Japanese subjected the whole unit to savage treatment, but still, the men didn't yield, saying they were Indian Army officers and men and would only follow the drill of their army.
Another similar incident occurred At Komoriyama in New Britain in 1945. There, men of the 5/11 Sikh Regiment were given 'good conduct' badges to wear. The Indian officers protested, saying that they were men of the Indian Army and they would wear only badges and uniform worn in that army. The men were threatened, but they didn't budge. Then a machinegun was brought forward and the Japanese threatened to shoot down all. The Sikhs still didn't budge. This went on for five days at the end of which the Japanese lost patience and flogged most of the men till they passed out.
Only 5,500 Indians came out of Japanese captivity alive. And despite all the hardships, the men refused to break their Indian Army oath and join the Japanese-sponsored Indian Independence League or INA. What emerges from all these recorded incidents is a picture of amazing fortitude shown by Indian PoWs. A kind of professionalism and apolitical behaviour that perhaps still characterises the Indian Army of today.
The men were loyal to each other, to their regiments, to their officers. It was this loyalty that cemented such a diverse army like the Indian Army together. This loyalty, coupled with a strong sense of Indian identity, which had become stronger due to the ongoing National Movement back home, may have made the men endure all sorts of hardship. And it is this strong sense of Indian identity in the army that would shake up the Raj.
When India became independent in 1947, these same British-trained officers and men inherited a colonial army and transformed it into a national army that became the muse of patriots of all ages almost overnight.