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Indian Independence: World War II Source 7

Letter from members of the Indian National Army Defence Committee to the Viceroy, 15 Oct 1945.

[MSS EUR D 977/14]

From Bhuhulabhai J. Desai, Esq. M. ASAF ALI, Esq.

October 15th, 1945

Your Excellency,

On behalf of the Committee appointed by the Working Committee of the Indian National Congress we make the following representation for your Government's consideration.

2. This Defence Committee consists of the following members:-

  1. The Rt. Hon. Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, P.C., K.C.S.I.
  2. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Member, Congress Working Committee, BARRISTER-AT-LAW.
  3. Shri Bhulabhai Desai, Advocate.
  4. Dr. K. N. Katju, M. A., LL.D., Advocate.
  5. Shri Raghunandan Saran.
  6. Rai Bahadur Badri Das. Advocate.
  7. M. Asaf Ali, Esq., Member, Congress Working Committee, BARRISTER-AT-LAW (CONVENOR).

On the 22nd September 1945 the Working Committee of the Congress, having regard to the profound interest and anxiety felt throughout India in the fate and future of the officers and men of the Indian National Army now held as prisoners of the British Government, appointed this Committee to take necessary steps for their defence.

3. At present three officers, namely, Shah Nawaz Khan, Sahgal and Dhillon have been formally charged with the offence of waging war against the King and other offences arising out of their activities as Officers off the I.N.A. on active service. The 5th November 1945 has been fixed for their trial before a Court-Martial. These officers have formally entrusted their defence before the Court-Martial to the above mentioned Defence Committee.

4. According to press reports, trials of other officers and men for similar or cognate offences are likely to follow in the near future.

5. These trials raise questions of such grave public importance that the Committee considers it imperatively necessary to address your Government on the matter at once.

6. The circumstances which led to the formation of an Indian National Army are now common knowledge all over India. It is no exaggeration to say that while some may doubt the propriety of the policies which led to the establishment of such an Army as an independent military organisation under the command of its own officers, Indians of all communities, all persuasions and of all schools of political thought recognise and appreciate the selfless patriotism which actuated those who took part in this movement.

7. After the conquest by Japan of the French and Dutch possessions in South-East Asia and the fall of Burma, Malaya and Singapore there arose a great desire in the minds of Indian inhabitants of these countries to organise themselves not only for their own defence and protection, but also for active participation in the movement for the liberation of their home country from foreign rule. Rapid movement of events throughout the World led to the further intensification of this resolve bid for the achievement of the Independence of India. Independence Leagues were established throughout the length and breadth of these countries and a provisional Government of Free India is reported to have been eventually set up, and a well-organised, well-trained and well-disciplined Indian National Army operated under its control. According to accounts available this Government was not a mere puppet Government under Japanese control, but was an independent Government with a definite international status.

8. It is understood that in addition to a large number of Indian Civilians residing in the locality, numerous officers and men of the Indian Army, who had been surrendered by the British to the enemy, joined the Indian National Army.

9. We do not propose to enter here into any discussion about the legal status of the officers or men of the I.N.A. and it would also be inappropriate to discuss here the question whether they can be said to be guilty of any offence. The only question at this stage is whether it would not be contrary to public interest to bring them to trial and assuming that it is not so, when and by whom such a decision should be taken.

10. These men of the I.N.A. are virtually being charged with having endeavoured to enter India with armed force to liberate it from British domination. That alleged offence primarily concerns the Indian people and the more so as the British Government have publicly announced that India will have the right to secede from the British Commonwealth if the Indian people so desire. So far back as 1924 the then Secretary of State for India, Mr. Wedgwood Benn, speaking on behalf of His Majesty's Government in the House of Commons said that whatever may be the deficiency in theory India already enjoyed "Dominion Status in Action". The first privilege of that status "in action" is that in a matter like this which vitally affects the lives and liberties of a large number of Indians drawn from all parts and principal communities of India, the wishes of the people of India should be ascertained and given effect to. Judging by the trend of public opinion in the country, this Committee urges that this matter of the trial of the I.N.A. should not be pursued any further.

11. At this juncture the Central Legislative Assembly and the Provincial Legislative assemblies have all been dissolved. But by the middle of December, 1945, the Central Legislative assembly will have been re-elected and by the month of March 1946, general elections in all the British Indian Provinces will have been held, and the British Government expects that soon thereafter Ministries in Provinces will be formed to undertake the task of Government in their respective spheres. His Excellency the Governor-General has also announced his intention to reconstitute his Executive Council soon after the general elections so that it may be representative of popular opinion in the country. All these constitutional events are due to take place in the next few months.

12. The Defence Committee believes that the Governor-General with his reconstituted Executive Council will be in a much better position to gauge public opinion in this matter. Representatives of the people will also have the opportunity to express their opinion upon it in the newly-elected Central and Provincial Legislative assemblies. All the Provinces are interested in the Indian National Army because men from every Province have contributed to its personnel. The new Government will be able to arrive at a proper decision whether the intended trial of the I.N.A. should take place at all and if so when and how.

13. The Defence Committee therefore earnestly urges that the trial fixed for the 5th November 1945 and all other contemplated trials should, if not abandoned, be at least postponed and the whole question relating to the I.N.A. be examined afresh after the Governor-General's Executive Council has been reconstituted and the Ministries in the provinces have begun to function.

14. The Defence Committee is convinced that it would be a tragedy if this matter were approached and disposed of in a narrow, technical and legalistic spirit. Unprecedented issues of this nature require to be decided in a broad and statesmanlike spirit. There are various aspects of these issues of great public and political importance and hasty decisions, not in consonance with popular will and sentiment, will have far-reaching repercussions throughout the length and breadth of India, so deep and widespread is the appreciation of the motives and aims of the movement of which the Indian National Army was an expression.

The Defence Committee requests that the matter of the trials of the I.N.A. by Courts-Martial be abandoned, or that in any event no proceedings before any Court Martial be commenced until after the formation of the Interim Government at the Centre and the functioning of Provincial Governments on the completion of the ensuing elections, and all necessary directions may be given to the authorities concerned. We beg to remain, SIR, Yours faithfully, BHULABHAI J. DESAI. M. ASAF ALI. Office of the I.N.A. Defence Committee, 82, Daryaganj, Delhi. October 15th, 1945.