Netaji's army as seen by a Ceylonese recruit
by PK Balachandran
It was in 1945, the year of the decisive defeat of the Japanese Imperial
Army and its auxiliary, the Indian National Army (INA) founded by Netaji
Subhas Chandra Bose.
Netaji's dream of freeing India (and incidentally Ceylon too) from the
British yoke, lay shattered.
The place was Singapore, which British Indian forces had taken back
from the Japanese in a swift operation. What was "Syonan" during the
Japanese occupation, got back to being the familiar "Singapore".
Angry with the INA, the first thing that the returning British did was to
blow up the 15 ft monument for the dead of the INA, which, to the
Indians, was the hallowed Azad Hind Fauj or the Free Indian Army.
But the shocking part of the blowing up episode was that the British
had got the job done by the Indian troops under their command!
Tissa Indrasoma, a 25-year-old Ceylonese ex-trooper of the INA, was
an eye witness to the vandalism.
In his diary entitled: Syonan: The fall of Singapore and how I coped
under Japanese occupation, he says: "Indian Sappers with rifles fixed
with bayonets surrounded the place and drove away the few people
who were there, including me. They then fixed their explosive charges
and blew off the top of the monument."
"The memorial built for the war dead of the Indian National Army under
Subhas Chandra Bose, our Netaji, our hero, was unfortunately blown
up by Indian troops of the British army under an Indian Major."
"He (the Major) should be ashamed to be such a slave to the British
and to blow up the memorial built for the Indian war dead," Indrasoma
The Ceylonese's reaction is poignant, especially because he was no
fanatic follower of Netaji's.
He was not entirely in agreement with the objectives of the INA. He
disliked Netaji's faith in the Japanese promise to let Indians and
Ceylonese rule their countries independently of the Japanese after
As a Ceylonese, he wondered if it was the right thing to latch on to the
INA, since its focus was India and not Ceylon.
Yet his reaction shows the deep attachment members of the Azad Hind
Fauj, had for Netaji, whether they were Indians or Ceylonese; at the
centre or the periphery of the outfit.
Insecurity drove Ceylonese to INA
It was insecurity, which drove many Ceylonese to support the Indian
Independence League (IIL) and the INA in Singapore and Malaya.
"The Japanese suspected the Ceylonese to be pro-British. Some of us
think it is better to go as Indians to save our skins," writes Indrasoma.
Fortunately for the Ceylonese, the Japanese tended to confuse them
with the Indians and always called them "Indians".
The fear of persecution was stark. Kempetai the notorious Japanese
Intelligence Service, and many of the officers of the Japanese Army
were extremely cruel to pro-British elements in the population.
Instant retribution in the form of public beheading was the order of the
day, says Indrasoma.
Most of the victims were of course the Chinese. But strictly speaking,
no community, other than the Indians, was exempt.
Joining the IIL meant not only security but perks, small mercies actually.
"I too thought of joining the Indian Independence League as I was
aware that the membership card entitled one to some privileges.
For instance, when you go to buy a railway ticket it is an easy matter if
you produced this card. On some days at their headquarters, one
could buy hard-to-get items like tooth paste, soap etc, at reasonable
IIL membership also meant that one could get letters from, and send
letters to, Ceylon, as the IIL was allowed to work with the Swiss Red
But Indrasoma, like many Ceylonese, was not in a great hurry to join.
His policy was to "wait and see".
Of the four Ceylonese communities in Singapore, the Sinhala
Buddhists were more sympathetic to the IIL and INA and Asian
nationalism in general, than the Sinhala Christians, the Jaffna Tamils
and the Ceylon Moors, Indrasoma says.
The Jaffna Tamils and Sinhala Christians generally tended to be very
pro-British. They trashed any suggestion that the Japanese were the
new dominant power in Asia and that British would not be able to stage
a come-back, he adds.
As far as the Indian community in Singapore was concerned, the
atmosphere was surcharged with high expectations from the IIL and
the INA in the early days of the War in the East.
Writes Indrasoma: "The daily newspapers are full of accounts of
Subhas Chandra bose, Rash Behari Bose and the Indian
Independence League. The Indian community is excited about some
future great happening and goes about greeting each other with their
'Jai Hind' (Victory to India)."
"Then, on the 4th of July we heard that Subhas Chandra Bose had
arrived in Syonan. He was to meet the local Indian leaders. The
conference was scheduled to be at Cathay Building.
A ticket to attend the meeting costs one hundred dollars as a
contribution to the Indian cause. The Indian merchants were paying
thousands, instead of a hundred."
But he adds that the Ceylonese "discretely kept away." For the
skeptics, the INA stood for "I Never Advance".
But for the Indians and a few Ceylonese, the INA was ready to fight the
British in India, drive them out and set up a national government.
There was a parade of the INA, which was reviewed by Subhas Bose
and General Hideki Tojo, the Prime Minister of Japan.
"We were able to see two world class leaders on the same day," writes
Indrasoma, who admired the Indian leader but thought it prudent to
keep a distance.
The next day, Netaji formed the Azad Hind or Free India Provisional
Government at a ceremony in Singapore.
"Bose in his speech asked for the full support of the local Indian
community, and fortunately or unfortunately, we the Ceylonese too
were included as local Indians," Indrasoma notes.
"Our firm (a Ceylonese firm of jewellers) being a well known institution
in Syonan, is expected not only to make contributions in money but
also in men."
"That was where I was concerned. If they start recruiting men, we in
our age group, will be the first to be roped in," he fears.
The Japanese were already using Indrasoma and many others for
guard duty. Soon it was made known that the Japanese wanted young
men for the construction of the Payar Lebar airport.
Indrasoma was drafted into the labour gang. But the work was hard
and his palms were full of sores. Since he had acquired a smattering
of Japanese, he was able to play truant from work and smoke with the
Japanese gang leader.
But soon another, deeper, fear crept into the mind of Indrasoma and
other non-Japanese in Singapore.
"Everyone said this volunteer labour racket of the Japanese will not
end here in Payar Lebar. Their ultimate intention, the Chinese said,
was to select young men in small groups and send them to work in
airports in North Malaya and eventually they will be transported to the
death railway in the Siam-Burma border. From there, no one comes
back," he writes grimly.
Incidentally, the 1950s Hollywood movie "Bridge on the River Kwai"
with David Niven as the hero, was about the death railway, and it was
shot in Ceylon!
"This (apprehension) also helped the Indian Independence League to
recruit volunteers for the INA where you are treated well. It is usual for
people in Syonan to refer to the local entrants to the INA as rice
"It was certainly better than getting caught to the Japanese labour
force and eventually ending up in Burma may be never to return."
"Life in Syonan for the youth is getting a little tough. We have to think
of ways to save our skin. It is not going to be easy," Indrasoma writes.
Enter Gladwin Kotalawela
It was at this time that Gladwin Kotalawela, a Sinhala from Malacca,
who had the right connections in Ceylon and was a friend of Subhas
Chandra Bose's, appeared in Syonan.
He had been given the task of organising a Ceylon Department in the
IIL and recruit Ceylonese for the "Lanka Unit" of the INA.
Kotalawela was a familiar figure in Indrasoma's shop, and before long,
he enrolled in the IIL.
According to Indrasoma, Kotalawela became pro-Japanese only to
show them that he had nothing to do with his employer, Pemadasa,
who had been executed for listening to the BBC and spreading the
news broadcast over it.
As PV Krishnamoorthy, a former broadcaster in All India Radio, Delhi,
said, the first thing that the Japanese did when they took over an area,
was to take away the short wave radio sets.
Therefore, all that was broadcast to South East Asia from New Delhi,
day after day, went unheard!
The Japanese tended to behead people on the slightest suspicion for
the smallest crimes or indiscretions.
All military officers carried a Samurai sword with which they beheaded
people at will, with one neat stroke. There was no appeal.
Kottalawela was Secretary of the Ceylon Department, Weeraratne was
the Assistant Secretary and Dodampe was the clerk.
But the IIL also used veiled threats to secure the obedience of its
A circular from one MV Pillai to the new recruits, asked for cooperation
but added that disregard for this request was "likely to result in a good
deal of inconvenience in the future."
In late 1943, when it was publicly announced that a Lanka Unit was
being formed as an adjunct to the INA, Kotalawela asked Indrasoma to
Indrasoma, however, felt that such a unit would be too small to make
any difference to the proposed Japanese invasion of Sri Lanka and
that it only served to show the world that Ceylonese were also fighting
with the Japs and Indians in Burma and Imphal.
According to Indrasoma, Kotalawela also thought on similar lines, but
decided to organize the unit as a "ruse to save our own skins".
The Ceylon Department in the IIL had some top Ceylonese journalists
working for it. Francis Cooray, a top Sinhalese journalist from Kuala
Lumpur, and his son Dodwell, were in it.
They were sent to Burma to broadcast to Ceylon in the Sinhala
language. [Courtesy: Hindustan Times]