Writing Conflicted Loyalties: An Indian Journalist's perspectives on the dilemmas of Indian troops in Indonesia, 1945

Heather Goodall (UTS), Professor (History)

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The Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic blasts in August 1945 seemed to bring the Second World War to an abrupt end – that is, if you were in Europe or the USA. For Asia, the Second World War ended much more slowly.

Here, the hostilities continued in many different forms, with the main protagonists all still very much involved. The Japanese remained largely where they had been before August 15. In some places they were in flight and under attack, but in many other places they were as bewildered and confused as the local people.

At the same time, the old hostilities which had often been the justification for fighting – like opposition to the long established European empires – were reasserting themselves once the immediate crisis of warfare was over. Opposition to European empires had, after all, been one of the rationales used by the Japanese for their rapid occupations in 1942, and it had certainly been a motive for the early tolerance or even support extended to the incoming Japanese by some previously colonised local people. There were many reasons. Indians in South East Asia were in the Indian National Army (INA) for example, but those who had chosen to join (rather than being coerced) had done so in the hope that the Japanese would assist them to bring an end to British colonisation. [1] For such people, the end of the war did not resolve their wider concerns. Rather than a sudden end to hostilities on August 15, the tensions in many ways escalated, as the European empires began moving to reassert their old powers.

The British were leading the South East Asian Command (SEAC), charged with accepting the Japanese surrender and ‘restoring order’ after Japanese military and civil occupation. Although the phrases of the 1941 Atlantic Charter – calling for self determination for all – continued to echo around Asia, it became clear that in most cases, SEAC under the British was simply going to facilitate the return of those old empires. [2]

The Indian troops in the British Army have been described as a model of the ‘colonial army’ – cheap and plentiful because recruited from among colonised peoples, and chosen according to the British ‘martial races’ mythology as being supposedly innately suited to combat and therefore loyalty to their colonial officers, rather than to any emerging anti-colonial nationalism. [3] Most were Hindus and Sikhs, with some Christians. Initially, there had been fewer Muslims, who were thought to be associated with the Mughal Empire which had been defeated by the British in the colonisation of the Raj. After the Rebellion of 1857, the British had in fact harboured a lingering suspicion also about the loyalty of Hindus and Sikhs, so from that time Indian troops had been organised into fighting units according to their ethnicity and origins, in a clear strategy of ‘divide and rule’. [4] Yet the Indians in the British Army, while often known as the ‘Indian Army’, with lower status and on lower rates of pay than British officers or troops, nevertheless included career soldiers who prided themselves on being a part of that British Army. [5] These loyalties were to come under intense challenge during this long end to World War 2, as the documents in this collection show.

These documents arise from observations of these troops during the uneasy period after August 15 in South East Asia, in which the Japanese, the Allies and local people all continued to come into armed conflict. These observations are unique in that they are the only extensive writing about Indian troops by another Indian, PRS Mani, a journalist commissioned as a Captain in the British Army, serving in the Public Relations unit. Despite Mani’s focus on the months after the Japanese surrender, these documents – and the course of this ‘long end’ to the war – were shaped directly by the events of the war itself. So this discussion will address both periods in order to allow some context for interpreting the documents here.

Furthermore, each type of source material we have is limited – this was an environment of many layers of communication – official military dispatches, government policies, newspapers, photographs, radio, newsreel film and, of course, constant rumours. The documentary sources which have survived might openly reference these other types of communication or might have just assumed that they were part of every reader’s awareness.

Indian Journalists in South East Asia during the war: Manipur and Burma, 1944

Indian journalists had been very involved in the war AS journalists both inside and outside of the conflicting armies. An example of a war correspondent for Indian newspapers was T. G. Narayanan, an outstanding journalist from the staff of the Hindu, who became well known in 1944 because of his published accounts of the gruelling famine in Bengal, which was so directly a result of the warfare conditions. Narayanan continued on the staff of the Hindu in Manipur and then Burma, covering the battles with the Japanese and then their retreat down the spine of Burma into Malaya. When Japan surrendered, Narayanan went to Batavia, still reporting for the Hindu, to cover the emerging conflict between the Indonesian Republicans, the SEAC under British command, the Dutch seeking to return and – in some cases – the Japanese whom the British recruited on occasions to maintain policing duties.

An example of journalists working inside the British Army was PRS Mani (known initially by his full name of PR Subrahmanyan) who was the author of most of the documents to be considered in this study. Mani was a young investigative reporter also from near Madras, on the south eastern coast of India and a close friend of T.G. Narayanan with whom he had attended Madras Christian College. Mani had been interested in Theosophy, meeting many of the European visitors to the Theosophical centre at Adyar during the 1930s, leaving him with an internationalist outlook as well as a sense of puzzlement that the Dutch colonialists he met in Indonesia were so different from the Dutch theosophists he had met at Adyar. His great passion however was for Indian nationalism and in 1939 he wrote an extended homage to Jawaharlal Nehru, whose commitment to grappling with real world problems seemed to Mani to embody the socialism to which he himself adhered.

Mani had worked for All India Radio in the early 1940s but he was passionately opposed to Fascism, and after the Japanese occupation of South East Asia and its threat to eastern India, Mani was determined to contribute to fighting the Japanese. He was commissioned as a Captain in the British Army and posted to the Public Relations division in Manipur, on the edge of the conflict with the Japanese in Burma. [6]

The British Army – and the British government – expected the Public Relations (PR) division to boost morale – and for Indian journalists in the PR department to focus their efforts on building up the fighting spirit of the Indian troops. [7] Its instruction book to PR staff first quoted Dusty Miller, a ‘famous boxer and Army trainer’, then explained the role expected of its PR officers:

You will never get a chap to fight if he has something on his mind: Today YOU officers, British and Indian, are true trainers and YOURS is the task of taking these ‘somethings’ off the mind of each soldier by understanding, by interest, by sympathy and by explanation. [8]

Mani did not see his role in this way. He always signed his dispatches as ‘Mani, Indian Army Observer’ (rather than ‘Public Relations’ officer). Like Narayanan, Mani was a Tamil which meant he was from a very different area and culture than the majority of Indians recruited into the Army, who had come from the states of the North West, like the Punjab and Maharashtra. Yet, although Mani fulfilled the British Army expectations by sending off regular dispatches, he acted to subvert the British strategy of ‘divide and rule’ in order to marginalise any unified Indian nationalist sentiments. Mani instead sought to inform all Indian troops – and the Indian public – about the diversity of their fellow countrymen in different units, despite their different religions or places of origin. He clearly felt, as he was to note in his diary in 1945, an intense loyalty to all these Indian troops who made up a substantial proportion of the British Army in South East Asia. He was aware that the British press and military information machine paid little attention to the Indian soldiers who were fighting so bravely and in so many different parts of the army. The Imperial War Museum (IWM) film footage of this period makes an instructive comparison – filmed by British cinematographers, the IWM cameras focussed consistently on the British troops, with shots composed so that the troops who were not British were on the edges of the frame or too far away to be individually identified.

Mani titled his 1944 dispatches as reports on The Battle of Manipur and they were very different from the IWM images. Each of Mani’s reports was a tightly crafted vignette highlighting the actions and personality of a different Indian soldier or group of fighting men, from many different local places in India, some from as far afield as Madras and other areas, many Hindu but some also Muslim and from a range of different castes. Some were subaltern foot soldiers and some were officers. Some were tank drivers, some were artillerymen and others were mule handlers. Mani profiled each in turn, introducing them in effect to each other, seeking out the many different origins and affiliations of Indian soldiers, celebrating their achievements and ensuring that all of them were recognised for their courage, initiative and resilience.

As well as researching and writing these dispatches, Mani was active in attending to the interests – and therefore the morale – of the Indian troops, ensuring for example that they had access to radio entertainment and news from home through the very modern electronic media with which he was so familiar.

Mani was doing far more, however, than attending to the men within the army. As an investigative journalist, he continued to see himself as seeking out and learning how to understand the local conditions. He was in close touch with T. G. Narayanan and Mani found many other southern Indians in South East Asia – not only in Manipur but – as the Japanese Army retreated – also down in Burma and Malaya. To find the southern Indians among the Indian troops, Mani had had to be very active in seeking them out for his dispatches. But in South East Asia there were substantial Tamil and Malayali-speaking communities. [9] Some of these people had fled the incoming Japanese – including the family of PRS Mani’s future wife – and were now in places like Manipur or moving further into the other eastern Indian states. Others – including those who had left India in protest against the rule of the British, like Gouri Sen’s father [10] – refused to leave Burma or Malaya when the Japanese occupied it. Instead they remained and often took up roles in the Indian Independence Leagues (IILs), the civilian organisations comprised of many southern Indians, which arose across South East Asia after 1942. The IILs articulated the interests of local diasporic Indian communities and expressed their opposition to the continued presence of the British in India. The Japanese tolerated the existence of these bodies but the relationship between the IILs and the Japanese was varied and often uneasy. Many of the IIL members either supported or joined the emerging Indian National Army (INA), which formed up for the second time under Subhas Chandra Bose (known as Netaji) in 1943. The INA aimed to use military force to attack British colonial control over India. It was endorsed by the Japanese although it appears that relationships between the INA and the Japanese were uneasy. The INA was composed of both Indian troops (who had previously been prisoners of the Japanese and had opted or been forced to join the INA) and of Indian volunteers (both men and women) from across South East Asia. Around 75 Indian men, for example, travelled from the Indian communities across what was then the Netherlands East Indies, to join the INA in Malaya. [11]

Mani was not sympathetic to Bose or the goals of the INA itself, because despite sharing the ideas of the INA’s nationalism, he had remained firmly committed to fighting what he saw as the Fascism of the Japanese. What he was very interested in, however, were the INA’s relationships with the local Indian populations in Burma and Malaya, whom Mani could see were often exploited as indentured plantation labourers in Malaya or as industrial workers in Burma. Others again were merchants or professional people, like Gouri Sen’s father who was a lawyer. Many of these people were therefore articulate and well able to present the facts of their conditions under both the present Japanese and the earlier British occupations. Mani assisted T.G. Narayanan to write a detailed report on the INA and the local Indian populations which Mani explained in his 1986 book. Narayanan had ‘painfully compiled the account over a period of several months, often seeking contacts in territory beyond the control of the British forces. Mani’s interest particularly lay in the way the INA and Bose had recognised the industrial and civil conditions of the local Indian populations, so that the INA leadership held not just military goals but social goals as well. [12]

After this extensive research report was compiled, Mani delivered it personally to Nehru himself, probably late in 1944 or early 1945, when he returned to India in his official PR role in the British Army to give radio broadcasts about the conditions of the Indian troops in Manipur and Burma. [13] The existence of the INA was at that stage being kept secret by the British Army and so Mani’s dispatches do not ever mention it – but the INA was broadcasting on short wave radio and it is understood that these broadcasts were informing people in eastern India to some extent about the existence and rationale of the INA. Indians who had remained inside Malaya and Burma have strong memories of these broadcasts. [14] Mani’s delivery of the INA report to Nehru was apparently successful but the report itself has not yet been found among the Nehru papers held in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

Another aspect of the INA to which Mani paid close attention was the relationship between the INA and the Japanese. He came to the conclusion, as he discussed in his later book, that the INA under Netaji may have been in alliance with the Japanese but was not by any means dependent on or subservient to Japan in either social or military direction. This conclusion was important in Mani’s later assessment of the Indonesian republicans like Sukarno, who had taken leadership roles under the Japanese and cooperated with their civil structure during the Japanese occupation, but still claimed to be independent of Japanese control. In Mani’s view, this claim could be valid, as he had seen the same type of retention of independence among the INA leadership despite the need to work with the Japanese during their occupation. [15]

So Mani’s early dispatches, until the Japanese surrender in August 1945, demonstrate that although the British saw Mani and other Indian journalists as being employed solely to ‘boost morale’ in accordance with British military goals, Mani himself saw his role very differently. He did fulfil the British expectation to boost morale but only in accordance with his own strategy of doing so by recognising and celebrating Indian troop achievements which were being routinely ignored by the British. But far more than this, Mani continued to see himself as an investigative journalist and he operated far beyond the range of the British instructions or indeed knowledge, to learn about and evaluate the situation of Indians and local people, both military and civilian, in the very difficult conditions of warfare. The outcomes of these investigations are more difficult to find than his dispatches to the military. His investigative work emerged only in his later writing or in some cases – such as that of the report on the INA from 1944 – it has not yet surfaced at all.

The War 'Ends'

When the Japanese surrendered, there did not seem to be a dramatic change for the Indians in the British army. There was no automatic discharge: their terms of duty continued and the British continued to regard them as reliable troops of its ‘colonial army’ who could be expected to go on obeying British orders without question.

Once the immediate threat of Japanese invasion appeared to be over, however, a simmering anger resurfaced within India about the refusal of the British to leave. This anger was widely evident in Indian newspapers of which not only Mani himself but Indian troops in general were well aware. [16] Already a committed Nationalist, Mani was perhaps even more fervent after his wartime experiences. He was alarmed to realise that he and the troops to whom he had become so close were all now to be moved over into the flashpoint areas of the region – in particular into Indochina and Indonesia – where nationalist movements had already emerged and yet where the British insisted their role was to restore the old European imperial controls. Mani’s papers suggest he was from the beginning very unhappy about this situation but believed he should remain with the troops, as he was one of the few who was recording their perspectives. [17] From the first landing at Batavia, Mani in his dispatch of September 29 was uneasy about the ‘lukewarm’ reception by Indonesians for the Indian troops, who while still at sea had confided in him that their goals were to reestablish the ancient bonds between Indian and Indonesian peoples. By the time Mani was writing his personal diary entries from Surabaya for October 25 to 28, the hostility of the Indonesians to what they saw as another colonial army was not only evident but was taking its toll on the morale of Indian troops. [18] Over the six months from August to December 1945, Mani wrestled with this dilemma. [19] He soon found himself in the most ferocious battle of all for the troops under Britain’s South East Asia Command (SEAC), the Battle of Surabaya, but he continued to submit dispatches to the British.

At the same time, however, he released his frustrations by keeping a diary, fragments of which survive, closely typed on fragile paper. The diary reveals a wide discrepancy between his view of any situation and the way he wrote about it for the British. Only when he eventually resigned his commission with the British, and became a foreign correspondent in March 1946 with the Free Press Journal of Bombay, did his views find a public platform. Mani did not take the route of publishing his frustrations in the Indian press while he was still in the army, although some other Indian journalists did. Indeed, events swept Mani up so rapidly that there was hardly time to consider what the alternatives might be. Yet his rising distress and frustration became clear in his diary entries, as the following documents show.

Indonesia, late 1945

When Mani arrived in Batavia on 28 September 1945, he was immediately concerned about the sullen response which the Indians received. He compared it to the welcome given to Indian troops arriving as part of the British Army into Singapore in August, where they were seen as liberating the city. Mani remarked poignantly that, while travelling on the ship heading for Indonesia, the Indian troops had told him that they were hoping that the Indonesians would welcome them as brothers, reuniting two related but long separated cultures.

Even before they landed in Indonesia, Mani and the Indian troops he travelled with were made aware of the enormous anger being expressed at home as nationalists across India protested bitterly at the British use of Indian troops, particularly in Indochina, where they had been deployed directly in armed conflict with the Annamites or Vietnamese Nationalists. Some English-born troops in the British Army in Indonesia were also uneasy about the role they were being asked to play, with one group writing to the Labour Prime Minister in London protesting at the position into which they were being forced. Indonesians had also heard about the use of British troops against the Indo-Chinese nationalists. So it was hardly surprising that when the troops and Mani arrived in Batavia (Jakarta) the crowds who greeted them were silent. Mani saw anti-British graffiti all over the buildings as they were taken into their barracks and it as clear that their arrival was not welcomed.

In these first few weeks in Batavia, in early October, Mani reported that Indian troops were largely asked to do no more than simple policing duties, although his dispatches showed that he was angered by the menial nature of the tasks they were asked to perform for British officers. [20] He suggested in general that Indian troops were uneasy about their position, but as yet had little sense of urgency. This was to change dramatically when the troops arrived at Surabaya on October 25.

Some of Mani’s account comes from his book, Story of Indonesian Revolution, published in 1986. He gathered together his papers from 1945 to write this book and seems to have been careful to rely on them. There were however some sections of his papers which were not included in the book – like his account of Manipur and Burma – while some vital contextual details for the 1945 documents are included only in the book. We learn from his book, for example, that in Indonesia – just as he had in Manipur and Burma – he went much further than the PR role which the British expected. As an investigative journalist, apart from supporting the Indian troops with recreational radio again, Mani set about meeting and getting to know the Indonesian nationalist leadership, becoming particularly close friends with Sutan Sjahrir and Amir Sjarifuddin. [21] The British in Batavia were scathing about Sukarno, whom they called a Quisling because of his history of working with the Japanese, and they also denigrated other Indonesian leaders, describing the town – in which substantial numbers of Dutch were present seeking to be restored to power – as confused and disordered. [22] Mani’s friend T. G. Narayanan was also in Batavia and Mani was in close contact with him. [23] In one of a series of thoughtful features for the Hindu, Narayanan explained that the chaos in Batavia was caused by the many competing forces in the city. He pointed the Hindu readers instead to Bandung, where the Nationalists were largely in control. Here Narayanan argued, order and calm prevailed. It was the Dutch and the British, he explained, who had been making Batavia ungovernable. [24]

After only a few weeks, the Indian troops with whom Mani was posted, the 23rd Indian Division, were sent to Surabaya. The division contained Mahratti and Rajput artillerymen, as well as troops from many other Indian regions. Surabaya was a busy maritime port with a highly politicised population like any port city. Moreover, it was completely in the hands of the Indonesian Republicans. The Japanese had surrendered to a small group of impatient Dutch – who were promptly imprisoned by the Indonesian Republicans who then assumed control of the whole Japanese armoury. This was in fact the only Indonesian city in which the Republicans formed the sole civil structure – for even in Bandung some British and Dutch were present. At Surabaya, the Indonesians had been running the city effectively for some weeks by the time the British and Indians arrived. The SEAC troops had been delayed by the logistics of evacuating internees from the other cities where they had been installed. So by the time the British and Indians arrived at Surabaya on October 25, the civil order of the city was firmly established under the Republicans. Again, Mani noted the hostility of the crowds at the docks: “As in Batavia, local reception was cold and unenthusiastic and anti-Dutch slogans greeted us all over the harbour.”

The British had by this stage made it clear they were not prepared to accept Republican control as ‘normalcy’ and they would insist on the start of talks with the Dutch to facilitate the return of the Dutch to control the port. Nevertheless, the initial British negotiation with the Republican mayor of the city appeared to commit the British to remaining in the port area itself, on the mouth of the river and at the edge of the town. Mani reported in his dispatch of October 25 that there ‘were no incidents’ and on October 26: “The occupation by Indian troops is proceeding peacefully according to plan… so far there has been no hitch….”.

The history of the 23rd Division, The Fighting Cock, by a British officer, Lieutenant-Colonel AJF Doulton, portrays the troops in Surabaya as being in complete isolation from any local population, other than in engagements with the people it identifies as ‘the enemy’. Again Mani’s accounts of these early days in Surabaya were different. He had already pointed out in dispatches from Batavia that some Indian soldiers had been born and raised in Indonesia, in Medan in one case, and spoke fluent Malay.

Now from Surabaya, Mani sent two dispatches on his third day there, October 27. The first one focussed on how Indian merchants living in Surabaya had been crucial to the peaceful initial landing. Mani describes the close communication between local Indonesian leaders and the resident Indians, who then approached an Indian Major leading troops into the city and successfully persuaded him to camp for the night outside the urban area. Such a recognition of the presence and active role of local Indian populations cannot be found in the British accounts of the day, except in the underlying suspicion with which the British military consistently regarded local Indians. [25]

In Mani’s second official dispatch of October 27, he gives a bland account of a meeting held by the British commanding officer, Brigadier Mallaby, with the Indonesian authorities after a leaflet was dropped across Surabaya, authorised by the British commander in Batavia, demanding all Indonesians disarm:

Brigadier told doctor [Mustafa – the Indonesian governor of East Java] that his orders to disarm the Indonesians were direct from SACSEA that voluntary disarmament should be complete by the end of the month….

Mani’s diary for these same dates tell a very different story in every respect. From the very first sight of the city, the anxiety amongst Indian troops increased. Mani had only hinted at this in his dispatches, but his diary entry for October 25 said:

The port is ‘decorated’ with anti-Dutch and anti-imperialist slogans, and for the first time in Java, slogans have also appeared in Hindustani: “Azadi ya Khunrezi!” (Freedom or Bloodshed!) Its effect on Indian troops, especially the Mahrattas and Rajrifs, who compose the Brigade, is remarkable. Reports have reached me that they are already beginning to ask their officers if they have to fight the Indonesians…. [26]

Mani was billeted away from most of the troops. He was at the Liberty Hotel with other PR staff and with the staff of the Allied forces RAPWI (Recovery of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees), whose job it was to find and repatriate allied troops and civilians who had been prisoners of war. From here, Mani made forays into the city to try to learn more about it and its people.

In this diary entry of 25 October Mani wrote that Mallaby had handled his first meeting with the Indonesians very poorly. As Mani saw it, Mallaby had been insensitive and rude and had apparently failed completely to appreciate the position of the Indonesian authorities who were trying to allay the anxieties of the various groups of nationalists in the city. Mani feared that the Indonesians were:

beginning to regard us as the vanguard of Dutch Imperialism… The pity is we are all Indians here and appreciate like their leaders in Batavia that we have not come to Java of our own volition. [27]

By the time he wrote the second Surabaya entry on October 26, Mani was seriously alarmed. Despite the dispassionate tone in his dispatches, his diary entries show that Mani felt that Mallaby’s next conference had also gone badly. Mallaby appeared to Mani to have been contemptuous of Indonesian armed strength.

In this entry, Mani wrote: “A thousand Regrets I am not a free correspondent to report what I observe. Anyway, duty by troops from my own country and cannot leave them.” He went to bed “with a vague suspicion there may be a bloodbath in store for us…..” [28]

Worse was to come on October 27 with the dropping of the leaflets in Indonesian – which Mani could read with the Malay he had picked up in the Malayan and Burma campaigns. Mani’s diary entry tells a very different story than his bland dispatch about this sequence of events, quoted above. This leaflet had demanded that the Indonesian forces give up their arms, which was explicitly contrary to the commitments Mani knew that Mallaby had given. Mani wrote: “I feel that the proud Indonesians would not give up their arms until the Dutch menace is removed.” [29] Yet Mallaby had displayed what Mani believed was ‘sheer arrogance’, telling the Indonesians that ‘he is the ruler of the place’.

Trying to find the real story, Mani went out again to see T.D.Kundan, the well-informed Sindhi merchant who was trusted by the Indonesian nationalists. Kundan gave Mani ‘plenty of dope on the local situation’. Mani wrote of his sorrow:

for the Indian troops who are weary of war and are longing to be back home. These famous warriors seem to be forever trapped in the web of destiny to which they so pathetically cling. [30]

What Mani did not know was that early the next day, on October 28, Mallaby ordered the Indian troops to be deployed across the city – far beyond the port area – in what was another contravention of the agreement previously reached with the local authorities. Mallaby ordered the Indian troops to set up in small units, referred to as ‘penny packets’, within the kampungs, or neighbourhoods (‘urban villages’). This could be no more than a symbolic occupation of the city. The Indian troops continued to be far outnumbered. [31]

In the morning of October 28, Mani spent more time with Kundan over lunch and returned to the hotel around 4pm. Not long afterwards, he heard the first shots ring out as the battle was beginning in earnest.

Their hotel was soon besieged and all radio communication outwards was cut off. Mani, as a Captain, was second in command for the Indian troops posted at the hotel who tried to defend the journalists and RAPWI staff – and themselves. Mani moved from position to position to support the soldiers but also tried to monitor the radio. Although he could not get messages out, Mani could hear the harrowing Mayday calls from the many isolated units of Indian troops which were now all under attack.

Then he heard their screams as their posts were overrun and they were killed, one by one. These broadcasts were also described by Major Henstock who recorded his memories of listening, similarly helpless, from the HQ radio. [32] Mani did not learn until later that other Indian soldiers had been burned alive when their post in a cinema was set on fire.

He was finally able to speak to Kundan, who was trying to get a message through to Mallaby at the British HQ to call a truce. Mani explained all communications were disrupted and begged Kundan to move through the city by car to get the message through. [33] Mani did not know either that he had been lucky to have been able to return to the hotel at all.