INA's Honour at the Battle of Imphal and its Catalysing Impetus to India's Independence

Yumnam Rajeshwor Singh *

 Indian National Army (INA) museum  at Moirang
Indian National Army (INA) museum at Moirang


The Indian National Army of which Netaji Subash Chandra Bose took personal command, was made up from civilians and Indian Officers and other rank prisoners of war, chiefly from those taken during the invasion and occupation of Malaya.

The Guerrilla regiment under the INA consist of four Brigades. They were:
1. Bose Brigade under Lt Col Shah Nawaz Khan;
2. Gandhi Brigade under Lt. Col. I.J. Kiani;
3. Azad Brigade under Major Gulzara Singh;
4. Nehru Brigade under Lt. Col Aziz Ahmad Khan;

The No 2 Guerilla Regiment. (Gandhi Brigade) and the Divisional Headquarter moved to Burma early in March, and after a short rest at Rangoon they started moving to the Imphal front early in April. The route and condition under which they travelled were the same as those faced by the Subhas Brigade.

The Division was commanded by Major General (then Colonel) M. Z Kiani, who was undoubtedly one of the most brilliant and daring Commanders of the INA. The Gandhi Brigade was commanded by Colonel I J. Kiani who was a cousin of Gen M Z Kiani. Col I. J Kiani was well known for his perseverance and doggedness.

Prelude to the battle of Imphal at Mittong Khunou

On arrival at Tamu, the Divisional commander found out that Imphal had not fallen yet and that severe fighting was going on in the vicinity of Pallel. He contacted the Japanese commander on thePallel front and in cooperation with him and with Major Fujiwara (of Singapore fame) who was now a Staff officer in the Japanese General Headquarters, it was decided that the No 1 Division would have an independent sector to the west of the main Tamu-Pallel road and from there carry out guerilla activity against the British forces on the Tamu front and against the Allied aerodrome at Pallel.

The Divisional Head Quarters were established at Chamol and the Regimental Headquarter at Mittong Khunou. Mittong khunou is located at the south east of Pallel Airfield. Although the Japanese concentrated its main effort on the Shenam bastion itself, Yamamoto did send the 'Gandhi Brigade' or 2nd Infantry Regiment of the 1st Indian National Army Division to capture Pallel from the south, the only time that the INA was used in an independent role.

Major Pritam Singh with a force of 300 men attack the Pallel airfield on 3rd May 1944. This attack on the aerodrome came as rude shock to the British who decided to counter attack and drive back the Gandhi Brigade from Mittong Khunou. After the Pallel Aerodrome attack, the British patrol activity increased very considerably.

Seaforth Highlanders Attack Mittong Khunou

Post Pallel airfield attack, the British Battalion strongly supported by heavy artillery, attacked the foremost company in the vicinity of Mittong Khunou. With propaganda weapons of loud-speakers and heavy artillery effectively to aid, the British launched a large-scale offensive. The loud speakers repeatedly disturbed the calmness of the jungle air by threatening the INA. "either surrender, or else get ready to face death in the hilly area of Imphal."

The loud-speakers shouted: "Gandhi Guerillas, beware. We are attacking with big topkhana and with the superiority of arms and ammunition. If you want safety, lay down your arms in half an hour's time. Now 20 minutes are left. Only 10 minutes are now between your life and death."

Addressing the commander, the loud-speaker shouted: "Listen well, Commander Kiani, we will completely blow up your weak defences. We pity you and your regiment."

The leading platoon of the forward company was commanded by a young Second Lieutenant Ajaib Singh who had been trained at the INA Officers' Training School in Singapore. The Scottish soldiers of the Sea Forth Highlanders knowing that they were up against the INA attacked fiercely. It was the first battle of the Gandhi Brigade against British troops, and at the very sight of them they became wild.

The British soldiers came almost upon the trenches occupied by INA men, but time and again, they were beaten back with heavy losses. After their first setback, the British fell back and after reorganizing their troops they attacked again, this time supported by artillery and air support, but the gallant platoon of the I N A led by their brave commander, held firm and continued to beat back attack after attack.

Eventually being unable to make any headway against the INA soldiers, the British called a halt and withdrew to their defences. Rallying his men, and collecting ammunition from the British dead and wounded left behind by the attackers, Lt. Ajaib Singh advanced from his position and approached the nearest British defence post.

Another gun battle started, this time with British on the defensive. Lt, Ajaib Singh had captured a large number of rifles and grenades in the first engagement and he use them. He fired 30 grenades using 303 rifles. Lt Ajaib Singh's small force had suffered severe losses, but he had inflicted far greater losses on the British. In the day's engagement, the British suffered at least 50 casualties, killed and wounded, while the INA losses were 10 killed and a few wounded.

During that time heavy rain had set in and made the ration and ammunition supply a most difficult problem. Due to the lack of proper food and medicines, the health of the INA troops deteriorated rapidly and by the middle of June, 1944, they had become so weak that they could hardly walk a few miles, but despite this they stuck to their posts and in the face of repeated British attacks never retreated. At about this time the tide of the battle had turned. The British had managed to substantially reinforce their beleaguered garrison m Imphal, and were now in a position to launch the main offensive.

Maj Gen. Shah Nawaz Khan in his account of the battle wrote "Their first move was to capture the heights occupied by the men of "Gandhi Brigade" around Mithong Khunou. This time it was an attack launched by a whole British Brigade, 3,000 strong, supported by heavy artillery and aeroplanes. Our old rivals, the "Seaforth", again led the attack. By a clever encircling movement, they surrounded one of our companies commanded by Capt. Rao, and it looked as if they would annihilate our force The situation looked extremely grave.

All the commanding heights and strategic points were in enemy hands Besides this the strength of the Gandhi Brigade was very much depleted owing to widespread illness and battle casualties In this particular action there were 600 INA men opposing approximately 3,000 well-fed British soldiers having infinitely superior arms and equipment. Our men fought most heroically. Col I J. Kiani, the Brigade commander, himself was in the area of the company that was encircled by the British He realized that unless the strategic heights were recaptured by them his garrison would be annihilated. He, therefore, issued orders to his officers to take possession of those heights at any cost".

The British force had the advantage over the INA as their defenses were at the top of the hills. The Regimental Commander, Colonel I J. Kiani had calculated that, if the INA captured the hill occupied by their enemy, it would save his whole regiment. To save the lives of 1,700, the Regimental Commander was ready to sacrifice, 300 of his men in this surprise attack. The weather was unusually bitter and the I. N. A. soldiers had no warm clothes to protect them from the biting cold.

 Statue of Netaji Subashchandra Bose at Indian National Army  museum at Moirang
Statue of Netaji Subashchandra Bose at Indian National Army museum at Moirang

The Valour of Lt. Mansukh Lall

Lt. Mansukh Lall was ordered to recapture one of the heights He was commanding a platoon consisting of approximately 30 men. With this small force he counter-attacked without any artillery covering fire, and recaptured one of the strongest posts occupied by the British. While leading his small, and semi-starved force up the steep ridge, he was wounded 13 times, through exhaustion and loss of blood, he staggered and fell to the ground His men seeing their gallant commander fall hesitated and slowed down their pace.

Lt. Mansukh Lall, like a tiger that is mortally wounded but is determined to make the last charge, roared to his men and exhorted them to continue their advance and not to worry about him. They were very near the summit, and making a last supreme effort, with 13 bullet wounds in his body, he rose to his feet and personally led the final assault on the height which was to decide the fate of Gandhi Brigade that day.

K R Palta wrote, "… Lt. Mansukh, who was in the front line, received serious bullet wounds in his chest, thigh, arm and right hand. He fell, but rose again and again he fell. Though he was completely exhausted, he rose once again to lead his men to victory. The revolutionary slogans, the heroic spirit and the determination of our •soldiers stood them in good stead. Brave Mansukh captured the hill and waved his hand cheerfully to his Commander, who was watching the battle. The Gandhi Guerillas were saved due, to the dare-devil spirit of Mansukh, the brave INA, lieutenant".

Lt. Ajaib Singh was immediately sent to relieve the seriously wounded Mansukh. The first thing Ajaib Singh did was to stop the enemy observation post functioning by killing the English major, who was in charge of the Outpost(OP). He also killed two British captains who were handling the OP. Now the British artillery was functioning blindly.

The British killed many of their own men by wrongly concentrating fire on their own lines. The attack, which started at 7.30 a.m. the previous day, was over with an INAvictory at 4 a.m. the following day. Seventeen British officers were killed and many of their men were either killed or wounded. On the INA side, four officers were killed and 150 other ranks killed or wounded.

The Gandhi Guerillas started withdrawing on July 18, 1944. By the time they reached Mandalay, out of 94 officers, only 17 were still alive, and out of 3,000 other ranks, only about 250 Jawans had managed to survive, all being in shattered health. The rest perished either fighting for the noble cause or suffered from diseases, which they had developed on the battlefield.

Medals and Awards

Many officers and other ranks of the Gandhi Brigade were recommended for the Shatru Nash. And many officers and men received the highest medals of bravery, the Sardar-e-Jang and, the Sher-e-Hind.

Those were
1. Major Pritam Singh, Sardar-e-Jang ;
2. Lt. Ajaib Singh, Sardar-e-Jang(Class II);
3. Lt. Taj Mohd. Sardar-e-Jang (Class II) ;
4. Sepoy Kehar Singh, Sher-e-Hind ;
5. Lt. Mansukh, Sardar-e-Jang ;
6. Captain Sadhu Singh ,Vir-e-Hind :
7. Capt. Rama Ji Rao, Sardar-e-Jang, and
8. Lt. Lai Singh, Sardar-e-Jang.

The INA fought extremely well in spite of serious handicaps and lack of armament and air support. They had no plane, no lorries for transport. The soldiers themselves had to carry munitions and supplies. The Japanese Air Force gave little or no assistance. The supplies of rations were extremely irregular and several INA men died of starvation.

"I do not know what is the idea behind this deliberate starvation of my men", writes Shah Nawaz on July 17th. When the retreat began Shah Nawaz again noted "Japanese have left us completely in the lurch. They are running away themselves and are not bothering about us'.

Battle of Imphal: Catalyst to India's Independence

The INA was defeated in the Battle of Imphal in March - June 1944. On August 15th 1945, with the Japanese surrender in the 2nd World War, the INA was left with no option but to surrender. Almost all of them surrendered after their retreat from the Indian Border.

It became one of the most important and difficult post war problems for the British Empire to decide how to deal with 19500 former INA officers and men who participate the Imphal Campaign. The disposal of the question might well decide the success or failure of the British control of post-war India. The trial was the most ominous event since the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Its outcome would produce enormous impact and have a decisive influence on Indian officers and men in the British Indian Army, the watchdog for the administration of the British Empire over India.

The British government of India thought it would demonstrate the prestige and power of the British Empire by executing betrayed INA officers following a military trial and by attempting to teach the Indian people, particularly Indian officers and men of the British Indian Army, a lesson in order to establish an unshakable control of India. The British thought it could be done. The decision produced a consequence opposite to their wishes; the British miscalculated and blundered despite their unrivalled experience in the administration of Indians, and their implementation of policy.

Gandhi, Nehru and other leaders of the Indian National Congress seized opportunity on the blunder of the British Empire. They took advantage of the trial whereby the British were determined to punish severely 20000 INA officers and men, whose relatives and friends were also serving in the British Indian Army.

Congress leaders tried to win British Indian Army officers and men to the Congress side and to mobilize the Indian masses in an anti- British movement. The trial was a God- given opportunity that would tip the scales of the movement decisively. It was as if Congress had laid a snare and the British Government had been caught.

On September 14, Congress held an executive Committee in Poona and adopted and declared the resolution that INA officers and men are heroes who fought for the independence of India and they should be released at once.

The mass movement had started by then. In December 1945, Col Dhillon once said, 'Don't worry. India will gain independence within a year. If they execute any one of us, no Englishman will leave India alive.' Netaji Subash Chandra Bose's discretion had enabled the INA to take part in the Imphal Campaign and had brought the INA within reach of Independence. Though the military campaign had ended in a fiasco, the political war of anti-British and pro-Independence agitation as a result of INA brought to victory.

With the progress of the first INA court martial, the Indian people's anti-British and pro-Independence agitation spread like a fire, gaining in intensity. India turned into a raging elephant. The court-martial, originally intended to consolidate British control over India, turned into a trial to pass judgments on the criminal act of British control over India for 200 years and to give it the coup de grace.

Transcending differences in religion, race, class, language, political affiliation, and military-civilian rivalry, 400 million Indians, with their wisdom, talents and energy, were united together in rebellion. It was an unprecedented spectacle in India's history. It was truly a great national war of the Indian people in which their destiny was at stake.

Violent mass protest movement erupted in Delhi, Calcutta, Lahore, Madras and other principal cities on 5th November when the trial re-open. On the same day, in Calcutta where Netaji Bose was born, 100000 people staged a huge demonstration, carrying with them placards bearing slogans such as 'Save INA National Heroes', 'Suspend the INA trial and release the defendants Immediately''British Go Home from India at Once'. They clashed with police everywhere and bloody tragedies spread in the city. Also there were riots in Madras resulting in countless number of casualties.

Every newspaper including The Hindustan Times (supporting Congress), The Dawn (supporting the Muslim League) and The Statesman (supporting the government) gave extensive news coverage to the INA trial and carried editorials about it.

The first court martial entered its final stage in late December. The prosecution tried desperately to establish the case of treason against the British Crown by the three defendants and of Murder and tortures by INA officers and men. The defense and the defendants counter-argued, 'The INA war of liberation is similar to the American War of Independence which fought against British control and exploitation' It was a justifiable act, acceptable amongst the military establishment of an independent nation, for the defendants to have executed men who violated wartime military discipline in the battlefield, according to the principle of the INA's military criminal codes'.

The INA as an army of the independent government, took part in a joint operation with the Japanese Army. It was not a puppet army. It was unjustifiable and illegal to try in a British military court the regular officers of an independent government which has the right to fight.

At the conclusion of the trial, Chief counsel Dr Desai delivered an eight-hour speech over two days declaring that ' a subjugated people have the right to fight'.

On 3rd January General Auchinleck suspended the life imprisonment sentence of the three of INA officers, General Shah Nawaz Khan, Lt Colonel P.K. Sahgal and Colonel G.S Dhillon. General Auchinleck was very conscious of the fact that even officers and men of the British Indian Army who were responsible for maintaining India's peace and security were becoming awakened to national Independence, and that they could not be relied upon any more. He was afraid of the British Indian Army turning from a watchdog of the British Empire to an arm of the Indian National Congress.

The British government had succumbed to the demands of the Indian masses and had chosen the path of giving up the power of administration. The British government realized the irreversible course of the situation and began secretly to formulate the second best alternative- an honorable withdrawal while maintaining and protecting British interest in India as far as possible. The military trial in the red fort, contrary to their original expectation and calculation, created the decisive factor for the British withdrawal from India.

The historical significance of the trial was clearly expressed in the article contributed by Nehru and published on 17th January, 1945 as quoted in its preface,'... The issue of the trial is neither the legality of the court nor eloquence. It is a power contest between the administrator who controls India and the will of the Indian people. Its outcome is a victory for the Indians... Will the trial, held in the last week of the year 1945, terminate the chapter of British control following that of the Mughal dynasty? Yes, the trial presages the end of that chapter'.


Shah Nawaz Khan, INA and Its Netaji, RajKamal Publications, Delhi, 1946.
Louis Allen, Burma The Longest War, Phoenix Press, London, 1984.
Geoffrey Evans & Antony Brett James, Imphal, Macmillan & CO Ltd, London, 1962.
K.R . Palta, My Adventures with the INA, Lion Press, Lahore, 1946.

(This article is just simply an academic exercise of historical analysis for incorporating it as chapter in the forthcoming book on Manipur and Second World War and has nothing to do with India's bilateral relation with any foreign country.)

* Yumnam Rajeshwor Singh wrote this article which was published at Imphal Times
The writer can be contacted at yrs001(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on January 11 2021 .

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