The War for Indian Independence, Fought in Singapore

Chapter One: Mutiny

15 February 1915,

It is the last evening of the Chinese New Year holiday. There is little sign of life in Alexandra Barracks. Most of the personnel have left to celebrate the festivities or enjoy the day off.

Nothing seems out of place.

Then all of a sudden, the silence is broken by a single shot being fired. The loud sound draws puzzled faces out of their dorms. These expressions scrunch up even more as not long after they hear screams followed by the clutter of furniture being thrown around as though in a struggle. A voice cries out in shock – a few English officers have been found dead.

The sepoys (Indian soldiers) have left the camp, bearing ammunition.

There is fear in the air, tainted only with confusion at the sudden bloodlust of what were assumed to be loyal troops of the British Army. Every update gets only worse — they soon receive word that the mutineers have taken to the streets, killing every European they find.

The officers are caught entirely off-guard but soon regain their senses and adapt to the circumstances of the emergency. They mobilise a counter-attack force consisting of members of the Singapore Volunteer Corps, policemen, soldiers supplied by the Sultan of Johor and foreign sailors from docking naval ships. They are lucky – with a weak leadership and the abandonment of the released German troops, the mutiny soon loses direction and becomes easy to quell.

22 February 1915, Mutineers being publicly executed at Outram prison. Source.

While the 1915 mutiny itself only lasted a day, the rounding up of the mutineers took a whole week. On 23 February, a month-long Court of Inquiry began. Forty-seven of the mutineers were publicly executed. More than a hundred others were sentenced to transportation or imprisonment.

The mutiny had been relatively successfully quelled, but this was in no way the end of the struggle for Indian independence on Singaporean soil.

Chapter 2: Origins

Why did these soldiers suddenly act out in so aggressive a manner? To better understand their motivations, we have to backtrack a little.

Throughout the 18th Century, European colonisers had frequently used colonised populations as soldiers. In particular, the British had mainly gotten their troops from India, using these soldiers to guard their other colonies such as Singapore. With the outbreak of World War 1, the roles of these sepoys expanded, with many of them finding themselves being engaged in active combat in far-flung corners of the globe including Europe and Africa. While the shock of war resulted in numerous reports of low morale and even self-harm among these Indian soldiers, they still managed to thrived – many earned awards for their valour and prowess in combat.

But these achievements were occurring within a brewing backdrop of discontent with their European overlords.

Racism and Nationalism

During the 1900s, India saw a mass emigration towards white-dominated states such as the US and Canada, the latter being under British rule at the time, as a reaction to shrinking economic opportunities back home. These emigrations were met with strong negative responses from whites in these countries to what was termed the ‘Brown Invasion’. These sentiments were echoed in policy, with one manifestation being the ‘Continuous Journey Regulation’ of 1908 which prohibited non-Canadians from landing in Canada if they did not reach it through a direct route from their country of origin, which was virtually impossible for Indians since such a route did not exist.

The onslaught of these racist reactions resulted in the growth of anti-British sentiments and the rise of pro-independence Indian political parties. One of the most prominent among these was the Ghadar party, founded in 1913. The party was formed primarily around a weekly paper that gained sympathy and support from Indian emigrants worldwide, including those in Singapore.

With its fiery, nationalistic rhetoric, the paper became highly effective in arousing discontent among Indians in Singapore, including the sepoys. At the same time, these sentiments were being enhanced by the discontent that these soldiers already had as a result of various factors. In particular were individuals like Kassim Mansoor, who actively sowed anti-British sentiments among these soldiers through his talks with them.

Mansoor was a Gujarati coffee shop owner whose wealth and social status allowed him to easily gain influence within the Indian community in Singapore. Perhaps due to the same disaffection toward the British Raj, contributed to by the influence of the Ghadar publication, he had made it his mission to feed these soldiers information that placed the British in an increasingly negative light. With both a charismatic personality and the personal clout that gave him credibility, he succeeded in his mission.  

Tipping Point and a Rumour

The sepoys in Singapore had been tasked with guarding the German war prisoners in Tanglin Barracks. Having completed their duties, they were scheduled to be redeployed to Hong Kong on 16 February 1915. However, word got around that they were to be sent off to fight the Ottomans instead, who were Muslim — like a significant number of the Indian soldiers.

On the morning of the 15th, the troops were given a farewell address which neglected to mention that they were in fact actually bound for Hong Kong. With their suspicions being enhanced, the fires were irreversibly stoked, paving the way for the violence to follow.

This was not the first time that suspected British indifference to the sensitivities of faith had resulted in major backlash among colonised Indians

Chapter 3: Indian National Army

17 February 1942,

Forty-five thousand Indian troops have been marched to a field in Farrer Park. It was only hours earlier that they were hastily segregated from their British and Australian counterparts across the Island. The men, who belonged to the British Army, fear what’s to come — it has only been two days since Britain surrendered Singapore and its troops to the Japanese. So sudden and shocking was this defeat, that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called it “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”.

In what is now known as the Farrer Park Address, Lieutenant Colonel Iwaichi Fujiwara of the Imperial Japanese Army takes to the stage with a translator next to him. The men, silent, sit on grass. His message? An unexpected one of friendship: work with us, and we’ll liberate your country with you. More specifically he laid out Japanese plans for a “liberation army” to help free India from the British. He then passes the floor to a Captain Mohan Singh.

Earlier, Captain Mohan Singh had become a Prisoner of War in Kedah, Malaya. He had been approached by Fujiwara who convinced him to unite with the Japanese to gain independence for India. In his speech, Captain Mohan Singh, throws out a simple question: how many of you will volunteer for the independence of India. Nearly all the hands in the field go up — some are so enthusiastic that they raise both their hands. What followed was a wave of mania, with people throwing their caps in the air, literally jumping for joy and shouting slogans. Inquilab Zindabad! (Long live the revolution!), Azad Hind Zindabad! (Long live free India!).

Feelings of defeat and betrayal were now replaced by optimism and excitement. And just like that, the Indian National Army was born.

Military Exploits

Subhas Chandra Bose (third from left) with officers from the INA. Source.

Under the leadership of Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose, the INA fought against British and Commonwealth forces in various parts of Southeast Asia, with the aim of eventually reaching India and wresting her from Britain by force. Setting off from Singapore, the army used guerrilla tactics to relative success, with one battalion managing to reach Chittagong (a city in modern-day Bangladesh) after defeating the British West African Division there. Elsewhere, INA soldiers were also able to defend their Japanese allies against pro-Allied Burmese guerrillas.

But this streak of victories was not to last. With fast diminishing supplies and in the face of an enemy that had access to superior air power, the army was soon forced to withdraw. Many did not see the end of this retreat, succumbing to both disease and starvation.

Despite attempts to prolong their hold over Burma, INA leaders who had stationed themselves in Rangoon were eventually forced to also retreat to Singapore due to the same supply constraints and a relentless Allied Burma campaign. Recognising that defeat was imminent, many of the INA’s soldiers eventually surrendered to the Commonwealth forces that had managed to encircle them.

Red Fort Trials

In an attempt to pit public opinion against the INA, Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief of the British-Indian Army, decided to conduct public trials against various members of the INA at the Red Fort in Delhi. The first individuals to stand trial were Gurubaksh Singh Dhillon, Prem Saghal and Shah Nawaz Khan, all high-ranking soldiers of the army, who were accused of murdering fellow INA members while in Burma.

However, this strategy backfired when it was found that these killings had been done following due process and in accordance with INA law – the argument provided by the defense that the INA was a legitimate combatant army made these executions fair as part of the conduct of war. With the failure of this attempt to characterise these leaders as murderers came a wave of overwhelming support from the Indian populace, who now saw the INA and its members as true national heroes.

Further, perceptions of the INA as being a truly national army were intensified by the fact that the three accused were from the three major religions of India, namely Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam, as juxtaposed against the British-Indian Army which still segregated its troops according to religion and caste.

As a reaction to the trials, many civilians engaged in violent and riotous protests, as well as softer but nonetheless impactful shows of discontent like refusing to light lamps as per tradition during Diwali. These protests spread to Indian soldiers within the British-Indian Army who sympathised with the prisoners and began to mutiny as well.

While the trials were eventually completed with the defendants being found guilty on numerous charges and being sentenced to deportation for life, the sentences were never carried out.

Chapter 4: Conclusion

Indian PM Modi paying homage at the Indian National Army Memorial Marker, in Singapore. Source.

As isolated phenomena, neither the 1915 Singapore Mutiny nor the INA managed to reach the end that its leaders had envisioned. Nonetheless they became important chapters in the struggle for a highly oppressed and exploited people to finally gain its freedom. The 1915 Mutiny contributed to a heightened consciousness of Indian nationalism. The INA, while defeated, managed to exert significant pressure against British colonialism and brought several key figures to prominence – among the members of the INA Defence Committee was Jawaharlal Nehru who would go on to become the nation’s first Prime Minister; several INA members who had worked closely with Bose also later rose to prominent political positions in independent India.

Singapore was such an important battleground for Indian independence, that in 1948, when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, his ashes were partly brought over to Singapore. Thousands filled the Victoria Concert Hall to pay their respects — with his ashes then being scattered at sea near Clifford Pier.

One could possibly take pride in the fact that key events leading to another nation’s liberation occurred in one’s own home. If pride is too self-indulgent a term, perhaps we could simply be glad that the extraordinary stories of one of our main Asian partners is actually very much intermingled with our own.

Featured image from netaji.org.

In a world that is bubbling with clickbait, sensationalism and oversimplifications, Kopi aims to bring long-form journalism back to South-East Asia.

Through deeply analysed articles, we uncover and explain the complex and multifaceted issues facing our societies. Through engaging narratives, we tell stories that are bold and unique.

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