By Dr Diya Gupta, Researcher, India and the Second World War
In July 1943, Indian soldier John Baptist Crasta discovered that he had caught malaria. Malnourished, drenched by torrential rain and bitten by mosquitoes in the island of New Britain, he felt physically ravaged:
“There on the ground I lay, shivering, helpless. The thin cotton blanket given to me being inadequate to protect me from the cold, I waited for the sun to warm me. I would shiver like a leaf. Then, seized by fever, my body would turn as hot as fire.”
Crasta was to spend three-and-a-half years as a prisoner-of-war under the Japanese, from the takeover of Singapore in February 1942 until the end of the war, when he was finally able to return home to India, terribly weak and ill.
Victory in Europe by Allied forces, including troops from the British Empire, on 8 May 1945 had not meant the end of the Second World War. On the other side of the world the Japanese threat loomed large. Between December 1941 and March 1942, Japan had seized British-controlled territories – Hongkong, Malaya, Singapore and Burma – in Southeast Asia with comparative ease, and taken 60,000 Indian troops, like Crasta, as prisoners.
The Allied response to this defeat relied heavily on the use of the British Indian Army: when the cosmopolitan Fourteenth Army, under the command of General Slim, was formed in 1943 to combat the Japanese, it included 700,000 Indian men. Shantilal Ray, a doctor from Bengal in eastern India, was one of them. While Crasta endured gruelling prisoner-of-war conditions in New Britain, Ray lived in makeshift foxholes in Burma during 1944, providing emergency medical care and compassion to the wounded on the battlefront.
While describing the details of his life just behind the battle lines, Ray tells us how hard he found it to feel at home. He had no fixed resting place, and the fox-holes where he would sleep at night often seemed claustrophobic. With just enough space for him to enter and lie down, and without much light or air, they became “a living tomb”. Feeling imprisoned, with nightmares crowding in, Ray often thought that the nights would never end. Added to this was the feeling of dread during the day, when he imagined Japanese machine guns hiding behind every mountain corner to be “the messenger of death” playing “hide-and-seek”.
Incredibly, despite all the difficulties they faced, neither Crasta nor Ray in their memoirs demonise the enemy. Crasta talks of his fellow-feeling towards Japanese sergeant Meena Gunsou, whom he calls the “good Meena”, who “knew how, when and to whom to be lenient. He had a fair education, knew a smattering of English, and had a liking for India.” Again, when Ray has to treat injured Japanese prisoners-of-war in Burma, he thinks of their pre-war world – “Sometime back, these very soldiers were living with their families, experiencing happiness and love, peacefully, without causing anyone harm.” As a doctor, he can only see his patients, Japanese or otherwise, as human.
It is in fact the “good Meena” who informs Crasta on 16 August 1945 that war is finally over, when Crasta’s “happiness knew no bounds.” Shantilal Ray had, by this time, already made his way home to Bengal from Burma. Neither witnessed the bloody confrontation at Kohima and Imphal on the Indo-Burmese border where the Fourteenth Army successfully held back Japanese forces. It was here that men in the British Indian Army came face-to-face with their brothers-in-arms – the soldiers in the Indian National Army (INA), comprising former prisoners-of-war in Southeast Asia and Indian expatriates, led by the political radical Subhas Chandra Bose. The INA fought alongside the Japanese.
Even on VJ Day, the battle for freedom was still far from over, both for Indian soldiers serving in the British Indian Army and for the INA men. While the former’s contributions are only beginning to be recognised now, it was the latter, who, just after the war, transformed into a rallying symbol for Indian independence from the British Empire
Author & journalist Shrabani Basu reflects on the 2 million men from the Indian subcontinent who volunteered to serve in the Second World War and the significance of the ‘Battle of the Tennis Court’: