Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's Azad Hind Fauj (INA) and the Railways

This article was previously published on the website of the Indian Railway Traffic Service (IRTS).

The Azad Hind Fauj or the Indian National Army (INA) grew from Singapore where on 15th February, 1942 eighty-five thousand men of the British army in Malaya surrendered to the Japanese. Out of these sixty thousand were Indians. From among these some twenty-five thousand Indian ranks in Japanese captivity including some officers threw off their allegiance to the British and opted to join the INA, the army of "Free India" under the presidency of Subhash Chandra Bose. As the last stages of the war were reached, the INA troops, according to Major General Shah Nawaz Khan, entered India in early May 1944 at Mowdok in Manipur on the Burma border one hundred miles north of Akyab in Burma. But According to S.A.Ayer, Netaji's confidante and later his Minister of Publicity and Propaganda in the Provisional Government of Azad Hind, they crossed the border on 18th March, 1944 and planted the Indian Tricolour at Moirang in Manipur. Shah Nawaz Khan tells us in his story that the INA came as close as two miles short of Imphal though history tells us that the Imphal Campaign finally failed and the INA had to retreat. Whatever the proximity of the INA to Imphal there was no occasion of any use of Railways. The then Indian government did not prove to be so poor strategically as to allow the INA capture the Assam Bengal Railway whose nearest station was Manipur Road (later Dimapur) near Kohima where the actual fighting did take place between the Japanese and British Indian Army troops with clear victory to the British. The Railways were therefore never used in India as a battle effort in actual operations by the INA.

But the INA did use the Railways as a means of transport for dispatching their troops in various campaigns in Burma. According to My Memories of INA and its Netaji (1946) by Major General Shah Nawaz Khan of the INA, who later became Deputy Minister of Railways in Independent India:

The advance parties of Regimental Headquarters and the two battalions viz. No 2 and 3 Battalions moved to Rangoon by the train to Mandalay on 4th and 5th February, 1944 but on the way owing to the railway bridges being blown by enemy aircraft the men had to cover considerable distances on foot [...] Later the INA troops from Mandalay left for Kalewa in Burma near the Indian border in parties of approximately of 300 men and performed the journey from Mandalay to Yeu in Burma by train and on foot. [...] From Tamu to Humine and Ukhrul in Manipur and then to Kharsom and Kohima on arrival our men hoisted the trilcolour on the lofty mountains around Kohima....

The British former Intelligence Officer Hugh Toye in his well-known classic Subhas Chandra Bose :The Springing Tiger (1959) prefaces the departure of INA troops by rail with an exciting background:

Bose arrived Rangoon with the key members of his Headquarters and Cabinet on January 17th, 1944 and he discussed with the Japanese Commander-in-Chief General Kwabe the coming invasion of India, for already the Subhash Regiment was preparing to move forward. He saw his national flag planted at Imphal, Kohima even on the banks of the Brahamputra and the people of India welcoming him with open arms. [...] On 24th January he spent the whole day with the Regiment reviewing, watching it at exercises and parade, talking to his officers, exerting his magic on it in a way that he had not attempted before. These were his comrades, the men by whose means he would uphold the rights and honour of India.

On 3rd February he bade farewell arousing them by his inspiring call: 'Blood is calling. Arise! We have no time to lose. Take up your arms [...] The road to Delhi is the road to freedom (Delhi chalo!).'

The regiment left for the front during the next three days and Netaji watched their trains move and he could not withhold his tears..."

Further:

...during March as the 2nd and 3rd regiments of the INA prepared their progress to Imphal, he again strove by speeches, inspections and personal contacts to foster their morale and heighten confidence. The move northwards from Rangoon began at the end of March. Once more there were farewell speeches [...] and the officers and men joined in the leave-taking as the troop trains began their long journeys from Rangoon to Mandalay. But there was less emotion ..."

Japanese troops and the INA crossed the Indian Frontier on 19th March. On 7th April, 1944 the Imphal Campaign was being launched with his own troops who were either involved in it or moving towards the front. Bose set up a small headquarters in the little town of Maymyo near Mandalay. The fall of Imphal was expected in three weeks at the most. Unfortunately it was never to be as both the Indian and Japanese troops had to retreat from Indian soil due to very adverse weather conditions and extremely poor logistics available to them in final stages.

Later Bose and his men would cover the weary marches from Rangoon into Siam (Thailand). As the little cavalcade of twenty one vehicles reached Moulmein road early on the 25th of April, he moved among his people attending to their food, drinking water, camouflage, and caring for the weak. He covered the last ten miles on foot to the Saltong River. He made three long night marches before the Japanese found enough vehicles for the whole party. Bose's personal courage, determination to share common suffering, tirelessness and leadership impressed all.

Moulmein in Burma was reached in May. From here after a pause half of the party left by train and the remaining half by road. The railway journey was a difficult and hazardous business as the bridges and trains were now tactical targets of British aircraft operating from airstrips in Manipur basin, nearby Kabaw valley and from air strips in extreme north-east Assam. Railfans can even now have a dekko at the distinct remains of a small airstrip and few bunkers in the Digboi Refinery area in Assam. So nothing moved by day. Trains could travel only by night consequently the progress was slow. Bose would of course visit his troops at halts of troop trains at stations to look after their welfare and progress. The troop trains were bound for Bangkok. Bose reached Bangkok on the 15th of May and besides his troops also arranged for the reception of Indian stragglers (refugees) from Burma because of the worsening conditions of the war there.

The above descriptions of train journeys of INA troops are sketchy from the point of view of an ardent rail fan as these do not give any idea of type of trains travelled by, their composition, marshalling, locomotives used and the details of their time tables and crew particulars, etc. Obviously this is because these narratives are by historians and not by rail historians, but maybe some day more descriptions of trains and railways the INA used will be available to us by researchers. All the same, luckily I could find a somewhat better idea of some of such troop trains in Peter Ward Jay's comprehensive and more balanced history of the INA in his The Forgotten Army -- India's Struggle For Independence, 1942-1945 (1994). It relates to trains at the time of the final evacuation of INA personnel from Burma via Siam (Thailand) as the war neared its end in 1945. Bose was especially very anxious about the safe evacuation of the INA's women personnel of its unique Rani of Jhansi regiment. Lt. Janaki Devar, who was leading a party of her hundred women troops, describes one such rail journey from Moulmein, western terminus of the notorious railway which later came to be known as the Death Railway. It was on the border of Burma and Thailand. Lt. Devar notes in her diary, "We are allotted a few goods wagons and are packed in like sardines. Anyhow it is better than marching in mud. Our train left Moulmein late at night. At one in the morning it came to a dead halt. A bridge was down, hit by American bombers ..." The Rani of Jhansi troops had to detrain, put on their packs and luggage on the alternative transport of bullock carts and start foot slogging in the night. Early next morning they stopped their march and took a camouflaged shelter near a railway station. There they observed a movement and handling of a troop train by the Japanese army. Since the day had dawned and the movements were only by night the Japanese were busy shunting and sorting out their train into piecemeal wagons and scattering them on track away over a distance trying to put the wagons (carrying their men and military material) in safe places from air attacks as they imagined best under the situation The train engine was also decoupled and sheltered under a bamboo "shed". Thereafter as soon as the dusk came the Japanese commander re-formed the train and the troops climbed on board and the train wheezed off in the comparative safety of night's darkness.

Thus by and by, the middle of May, 1945 saw Lt. Janaki Devar and her women's regiment of about a hundred and a total of about sixteen thousand other men troops reach Bangkok safely.

The Indian Railways paid their homage to Netaji by having started a train called Azad Hind Express between Howrah and Pune some years ago, and much later re-christening Gomoh Jn of Eastern Railway as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose (Gomoh) Jn. It was at Gomoh that on 17th January, 1941 Netaji had boarded a train for Delhi on way to Peshawar disguised as an insurance agent on to his legendary escape to Afghanistan from his virtual house arrest in Calcutta. The rest is his glorious history

Material provided by B M S Bisht, Copyright © 2010
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