In the late 1940s, a man in his mid-30s happened to help a young girl and her family when they became involved in an accident in Delhi. The man, the family later learnt, was someone who a few years ago had been the cynosure of all eyes. His name was Shahnawaz Khan, formerly a captain in the British-Indian Army and, later, a Major-General in the Indian National Army (INA).
The girl, whose name was Lateef Fatima, became something of an adopted daughter to Shahnawaz, so much so that her wedding was conducted at his residence in 1959. Later, in 1965, Lateef Fatima and her husband, Meer Taj Mohammed Khan became the parents of a boy who would attain fame as actor and superstar Shah Rukh Khan.
General Shahnawaz Khan was born in Rawalpindi on January 24, 1914. His father, Tikka Khan, was an officer in the British-Indian army and Shahnawaz duly followed in his footsteps and was commissioned into the army in 1935.
When World War II began, Shahnawaz, like many others, saw action in South East Asia. In February 1942, Singapore fell into Japanese hands after a protracted battle, and 40,000 Indian personnel were taken prisoner. Captain Shahnawaz was one of them. Close to 30,000 captured Indian personnel later threw in their lot with the INA of Subhas Chandra Bose and Mohan Singh.
The INA recruits were Indian soldiers from the British Indian Army who had surrendered in Singapore as well as Indian civilians from Malaya, Burma and Thailand.
To win freedom from the British, the INA had collaborated with fascist Japan and Germany. Subhas Chandra Bose’s effort was to establish an alternative to the stance adopted by the Congress party vis-à-vis the war and national independence. While the decision to ally with Japan and Germany has been questioned by many, the patriotism that drove the INA to fight against the British has never been in doubt.
In 1942, the Japanese occupied the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, renaming them Shahid Dweep (Andamans) and Swaraj Dweep (Nicobar). Bose also formed a provisional government named ‘Azad Hind Government’ and raised the tricolour on December 30, 1943. He asserted that they were the first liberated territories of ‘Free India’.
The Japanese invasion of mainland India began in March 1944, when a Japanese division moved to capture Kohima. The INA was to support the mainline Japanese army with strategic intelligence and run reconnaissance missions. The Battle of Kohima raged on till June 1944, before the Japanese army retreated, unable to break through the British defences.
Shahnawaz, who was commanding two battalions of the Subhas Regiment in the Chin Hills, and his men, suffered severe hardship during the course of this campaign. The ground was difficult and rations were scarce. Also, malaria laid many of the troops low and there was no medicine. Besides, there were no pack animals and half the men were being used as porters on the long mountainous communication line.
By early 1945, it was clear that the Japanese campaign was faltering on all fronts and they were in full retreat.
In May 1945, General Shahnawaz and about 50 of his men surrendered to British forces at Pegu in Burma and were taken prisoner.
In August 1945, the British government decided to try 600 INA men in a series of trials to be held at the Red Fort in Delhi. British censorship laws during the war had ensured that little was known in mainland India, both about the Japanese takeover of the Andamans as well as the INA.
Shahnawaz even observed and complained: ‘One thing we all found on arrival in India, and that was that the people inside the country knew very little about the real worth and activities of the INA.’ That, however, was remedied by the trials, which received wide publicity in the press.
The trials gripped the national imagination so much that close to two and a half decades after he had last donned the barrister’s robes, Jawaharlal Nehru deigned to appear as a legal counsel in a case. He assisted Bhulabhai Desai, Tej Bahadur Sapru, K N Katju and Asaf Ali, in what came to be known as the ‘Red Fort Trials’. In the first trial, three men were in the dock: Colonel Prem Sahgal, Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon and Major-General Shahnawaz Khan. They were to be tried on charges of murder, abetment to murder, and ‘waging war against the king-emperor’.
The public at large were outraged.
In late October 1945, ominous posters appeared in Delhi, threatening death to ’20 English Dogs’ if a single INA man was harmed. Huge meetings were held in different parts of the country to demonstrate support for the INA men, whose trials were to commence in November.
The British government viewed the INA men as ‘traitors’ and ‘deserters’
The British government had badly misjudged the public sentiment. While the British government viewed the INA men as ‘traitors’ and ‘deserters’, to the average Indian, high on nationalist sentiment, they were heroes and patriots. Intelligence Bureau reports of the time warned of a severe backlash from the general public in case of harsh punishment against the accused.
Still, the defence lost its case and the three 'traitors' were pronounced guilty. However, the Indian Army's Commander-in-Chief Claude Auchinleck, in response to the popular mood, commuted their sentences and they were released to a heroes’ welcome. In December 1945, at a historic rally in Lahore’s Minto Park, thousands greeted them with the slogan ‘Chaalis karodon ki ek hi awaaz, Sahgal, Dhillon, Shahnawaz!’ (‘Chaalis karodon’, or 40 crores, was India’s population at that time).
The INA Trials marked the last time the Congress and Muslim League cooperated. Also, the trials had sparked discontent in the Indian armed forces, which exploded in the Royal Indian Navy’s mutinous action in February 1946. By now, British rule in India was on its last legs. Their experiences during the INA trials and the subsequent naval mutiny convinced the British more than ever that it was time for them to leave.
After Independence, General Shahnawaz opted for India even though much of his family was based in Pakistan. He was elected as an MP from Meerut in the first Lok Sabha elections in 1952 and served as a Deputy Minister in the Railway Ministry till 1964.
In 1956, the Shahnawaz Committee was constituted to look into Subhas Chandra Bose’s mysterious death in August 1945. After extensive interviews with people in India and Japan, the committee concluded that Bose had indeed died in the plane crash and requested the Indian government to bring back to India his ashes, which were in the Renkoji Temple in Tokyo. Subhas’s brother, Suresh Chandra Bose, who was part of the committee, disagreed with the committee’s findings.
In the mid ‘60s and, later, in the early 70’s, General Shahnawaz served in the Labour, Food and Agriculture ministries. On two occasions (1967 and 1977), he was defeated in the elections. He died in 1983.
Some historians believe that the INA was naive to ally with the Axis powers in the belief that the latter would give India her independence once they won the war. But, given how the British readily abandoned their colonial subjects in most places where they came up against the Japanese, exposed the double-faced nature of the Empire. It was proof that the British cared only for their own and were happy to leave their other subjects in the lurch. It affirmed the belief that only independence could give colonial territories their true place in the world.
The discontent that this attitude engendered in Indians serving in the British-Indian Army was palpable during the INA Trials, when Shahnawaz, Sahgal and Dhillon were hailed in the cantonments as heroes. The British were quick to realise that their time in India was over, with both the general public and now, the armed forces against them.
That is perhaps the INA’s greatest legacy—that it hastened the departure of the British from India. And at the forefront of this was General Shahnawaz.
Karthik Venkatesh is a history enthusiast who writes on lesser known aspects of India’s history.