The visit of the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to Moscow, earlier this month, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the victory over fascism reminded me of an incident in Rangoon ' or Yangon, as it is now called ' four years ago. Sitting in the Indian ambassador's office, Jaswant Singh, the visiting foreign minister, was reflecting on General William Slim's famous Burma campaign when the conversation drifted to Subhas Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army.
Burma was the launching pad of Bose's campaign to liberate India, riding piggyback on the Japanese army. Although the mission came to nought, some units of the INA had fought gallantly against Slim's advancing Allied army in 1944-45, particularly around the great nat shrine at Mount Popa, north of Mandalay. 'What became of the INA headquarters in Rangoon' the minister inquired. When informed that the building still existed, he suggested that India could sponsor a memorial at the site. 'That may pose a few problems,' replied the ambassador. 'There are very mixed feelings about the INA in Myanmar.'
The ambassador was right. To this day there is absolutely nothing to commemorate the memory of either Bose or the thousands of INA soldiers who fell in battle in Burma . Nor for that matter is there any memorial in Bangkok or Singapore .
The transformation of Bose into another of history's non-persons in south-east Asia epitomizes the daunting problems of assessing a momentous event like World War II. At one level, it was a war between good and evil that ended with the forces of 'good' prevailing over fascism and militarism. At the same time, and despite history being written by the victors, there are question marks over what indeed constituted 'good'. Were all those who supported Hitler and Emperor Hirohito driven by insane racial arrogance' Who were they' And were they naturally evil'
The uneasy answers to some of these questions are to be found in Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper's Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-45. When the Japanese swept into Burma in early-1942, they were supported by young Burmese radicals like Aung San, commander of the Burmese Independence Army. They committed themselves to overthrowing British rule and establishing a free Burma that would be part of the Japan-led Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Although complete independence was ruled out by the exigencies of war, an 'independent' Burma founded, as the declaration put it, 'on the union of blood and aspirations of Burmans' came into existence in August 1943. It was headed by Ba Maw, a former prime minister of Burma , with the 36-year-old U Nu as foreign minister and the 28-year-old Aung San its defence minister. The BIA was transformed into the Burma Defence Army.
From 1943 till March 27, 1945 , the Japanese army, the BDA and Bose's INA were strategic partners. Then, sensing the imminence of Japan 's defeat, Aung San stitched up a covert deal with the British and turned his guns on both Ba Maw and the Japanese. One of the casualties of Aung San's nimble-footedness was Bose. From being an honoured ally of 'free' Burma , he was overnight transformed into a stooge of the Japanese occupation army.
The obliteration of Bose from Myanmar 's public memory is a consequence of the ambiguities of that country's wartime preferences. The squeamishness, however, is not specific to Yangon 's military junta. Despite the prime minister's presence in Moscow, there is an awkwardness surrounding India's own stand in the war.
Formally, the government of India was firmly on the Allied side and many thousands of Indian soldiers fought and died in the war against Germany, Italy and Japan . Many lakhs of Indians also participated in the war effort as doctors, nurses, contractors and labourers. At the same time, Congress ministries in seven provinces resigned in protest against India being dragged into the war against Hitler's Germany. The Viceroy's unilaterism was just a ruse. Jawaharlal Nehru and C. Rajagopalachari apart, most Congress leaders did not believe fighting fascism was an Indian priority. The Congress was unmoved by Sir Stafford Cripps's post-dated cheque and Mahatma Gandhi launched the Quit India Movement to take maximum advantage of Britain's wartime vulnerability. Pitting the Empire against fascism was something that drove only the princes, the unionists in Punjab, the communists and oddballs like M.N. Roy. Others like V.D. Savarkar supported the war for their own specific ends.
In 1939, Hitler was not regarded as an ogre in India. Including Bose and M.S. Golwalkar, he had his admirers in nationalist circles. The pre-war German vice-consul, Baron von Richtofen, a nephew of the Red Baron, was a great favourite in Calcutta's social circle, and Nirad C. Chaudhuri has recorded the Bangali glee that greeted every German military victory. The bonds with imperial Japan went deeper. Japan 's triumph over a decadent British Empire would, it was believed, herald an Asiatic resurgence.
It was fortunate that India, unlike Burma, did not have to match its distant admiration for Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan with the grim realities of another occupation. The experience of regime change, from Ukraine to France and from Manchuria to Burma, clearly shows that there was no dearth of people willing to collaborate with fascism.
Their reasons weren't always dishonourable. If Aung San believed collaboration with Japan would foster Burma's independence, Bose proceeded on the belief that an enemy's enemy was a natural ally. Both were not very different from General Andrei Vlasov, a Soviet war-hero, who subsequently teamed up with the Germans to fight Stalin. Like the Indian Legion, the core of Vlasov's Russian Liberation Army was made up of renegade prisoners of war. Both were incorporated into the Waffen SS in the last year of the war.
Vlasov was a tragic figure, very much like Ibrahim Yaacob, the dynamic Malay who worked for his country's independence by aligning with the Japanese occupation. Yaacob was just 34 when Japan surrendered. They constitute the jarring footnotes of history which can't be airbrushed with the same casualness as the photographer, Yevgeny Khaldey, did to the trophy watches on the wrist of a soldier immortalized for hoisting the Red Flag over the Reichstag.
Some experiences, though, are incapable of being brushed under the carpet. Despite the mythology around De Gaulle and the Resistance, it is impossible to disregard the fact that for the four years of Vichy rule, France opted out of the anti-fascist struggle. More Frenchmen, it is said, bore arms for the Axis than the Allies. Marshal Petain's national revolution wasn't the handiwork of a handful of rudderless quislings. The Vichy government enjoyed solid backing in a France that blamed its national humiliation in 1940 on the permissiveness of the Third Republic. Stalwarts like Petain and Pierre Laval genuinely believed that France could recover its composure and preserve its Empire by buying peace with Hitler. Had Britain fallen in 1940, there is little doubt that it too would have its Petains and Lavals.
The full horrors of fascism and the savagery of Japan 's militarism became known only after 1945. Till then, the Axis powers were regarded by many as harbingers of a new world order. For a generation of nationalists and anti-imperialists, Germany, Italy and Japan provided an inspiration similar to the macabre hold Stalin exercised over the Left imagination.
Today, 50 years on, the repudiation of fascism may be complete, but the process of rejection was not uncontested. The rough edges from the past will continue to puncture the national legends of both the vanquished and the victors.