By Rishpal Singh Sidhu
This article traces Mohan Singh’s early life and military career, leading to his involvement in the Indian nationalist movement and subsequent elevation as the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian National Army (INA).
Mohan Singh was born on 3 January 1909 in Ugoke Village near Sialkot (now in present day Pakistan), the only son of Tara Singh and Hukam Kaur. His father passed away two months before he was born, and he was brought up by his mother at her parents’ home in Badiana in the Sialkot vicinity.
Following his high school studies, Mohan Singh joined the 14th Punjab Regiment of the British Indian Army in 1927. On completion of recruit training, he was assigned to the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment in the North-West Frontier Province. He was fortunate to be selected for officer training at the Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun in 1931 and was commissioned on 1 February 1934. He then served for a year in the 2nd Battalion Border Regiment before being posted on 24 February 1936 to the 1st Battalion, 14th Punjab Regiment (also called “Sher Dil Paltan”) stationed at Jhelum.
With the impending threat of Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia, this battalion underwent intensive training at Secunderabad before being posted out for operational duties in the Far East. In the interim, Mohan Singh received a promotion to Captain and married Jaswant Kaur, the sister of a fellow officer, before being posted out to Malaya with his unit on 4 March 1941. Another Sikh officer, Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, also belonged to this regiment and was posted out together with Mohan Singh.
SEE ALSO: Sikh women in Rani Jhansi Regiment
Not long after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, the Japanese army overran Southeast Asia within a matter of weeks. Earlier, in September 1941, the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters (IGHQ) had set up a military intelligence operation, Fujiwara Kikan (F-Kikan) named after its head, Major Fujiwara Iwaichi. Fujiwara was chief of military intelligence within the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff and he travelled to Bangkok in October 1941 with the aim of intelligence gathering, developing links with, and assisting fledgling independence movements in British India, Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies. Fujiwara’s military intelligence unit included five commissioned officers and two Hindi speaking interpreters.
Fujiwara had earlier been in contact with Sikh missionary Giani Pritam Singh Dhillon, an Indian freedom fighter and member of the Ghadar Party that took part in the failed 1915 Ghadar conspiracy aimed at fomenting revolt in the British Indian Army and overthrowing British rule over the Indian subcontinent. Following the revolt, Giani Pritam Singh had fled to Bangkok. Giani Pritam Singh Dhillon was close friends with Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, a fellow officer from the same regiment as Mohan Singh. Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon also had sympathies with the Indian independence movement.
The 1915 Singapore Mutiny (also known as the 1915 Sepoy Mutiny or the Mutiny of the 5th Light Infantry) was a related event linked to the 1915 Ghadar Conspiracy, and involved half a regiment of 850 sepoys. As at 15 February 1915, the regiment had 818 Indian officers and men with nine British officers, and about 300-400 sepoys mutinied against the British in Singapore. Many reasons have been put forward for this outbreak and it was effectively quelled within a week by the British and allied naval forces.
Mohan Singh’s battalion was overpowered by the invading Japanese forces at Jitra in Kedah. Major Fujiwara, Giani Pritam Singh, and Mohan Singh had their first meeting in a rubber plantation at Kuala Nerang near Jitra on 15 December 1941 to discuss the formation of an Indian National Army. Given his background as a formidable Indian freedom fighter, it is more than highly likely that the original idea of forming an INA would have been hatched by Giani Pritam Singh Dhillon quite some time before he and Major Fujiwara met with Captain Mohan Singh to persuade him to lead such an army comprising close to 40,000 captured Indian Prisoners of War (POWs). Mohan Singh initially had his reservations but relented and agreement was reached for him to establish the INA from the Indian POWs. The INA was formed at Taiping on 31 December 1941, but the official announcement of its formation was withheld until after it was firmly established. The INA played an active role in the Japanese assault on Singapore which was captured on 15 February 1942.
On 17 February 1942, 40,000 Indian prisoners of war gathered at Farrer Park in Singapore and were addressed in turn, first by Lieutenant-Colonel Hunt of the British Malaya Command who officially handed over the captured troops to Japanese command under Major Fujiwara who spoke next, first in Japanese which was then translated into English and Hindi and he “is said to have told the troops of the Asian co-prosperity sphere under the leadership of Japan, the Japanese vision of an independent India, its importance to the co-prosperity sphere, and of Japanese intentions to help raise a liberation army for the independence of India”1 Fujiwara further exhorted the troops by telling them that they were not going to be treated as prisoners of war, but rather as friends and allies, and ended his address by saying that he was passing on their responsibilities and command to Mohan Singh.2 The third and final address was by Captain Mohan Singh. He spoke in Hindi and “told the troops of forming an Indian National Army (Azad Hind Fauj/Free India Army/National Army of Independent India) to fight for an independent India, and invited the troops to join it. As an Indian jawan present at the time remembers, Mohan Singh’s speech was powerful and touched a chord, and the troops responded with wild enthusiasm and excitement.”3 It is estimated that nearly half of those present at the Farrer Park address later joined the INA.4
The Indian Independence League (IIL) was a political organization originally known as the Independence League of India and it was formed in Tokyo by Rash Behari Bose in 1934. Its aim was to galvanize support of non-resident Indians into seeking the removal of British colonial rule over India, and held a conference in Bangkok from 15 to 23 June 1942. Thirty-five resolutions were passed at this conference, one of which formally appointed Mohan Singh as Commander-in-Chief of the “Army of Liberation for India”, that is the Indian National Army.
The Japanese however never publicly acknowledged recognition of the INA’s existence as a separate independence army and rather tended to regard it as a part of the Japanese Army. In his dealings with the headquarters of the Japanese Army, Mohan Singh began to doubt their real intentions and soon came to the realization that the Japanese agenda was not Indian independence. Following disagreements with some senior Japanese army commanders, the INA was disbanded towards the end of December 1942. Mohan Singh was removed from his command on 29 December 1942, arrested, and taken into custody by the Kempeitai (the military police arm of the Imperial Japanese Army. It was more of a secret police rather than a conventional military police). He was exiled to Pulau Ubin and kept under guard.
It was not until the arrival of Subhas Chandra Bose in Singapore on 2 July 1943 that the Indian National Army was re-formed and called Azad Hind Fauj with Bose as the Commander-in-Chief. Mohan Singh played no part in this revived army. The Indian National Army also had a separate women’s unit, the Rani of Jhansi Regiment headed by Captain Lakshmi Swaminathan. Charismatic as he was, Bose was militarily unskilled.5 In the interim, Bose announced the forming of the Provisional Government of Free India in the Japanese occupied Andaman and Nicobar Islands, with himself as the Head of State, Prime Minister, Minister of War and Foreign Affairs from 1943 to 1945. These islands were re-occupied by the British at the end of the war in 1945.
The revived Indian National Army fought alongside the Japanese and the Burmese National Army and laid siege to the Indian border towns of Imphal and Kohima. They were eventually beaten back by the Commonwealth forces and forced to retreat to Burma. The retreating Japanese and Indian National Armies then fought key battles against the British Indian Army in its Burma campaign. With the fall of Rangoon, some elements of the Indian National Army were captured, while others retreated with Bose to Malaya or Thailand. Bose himself chose not to surrender. He planned to escape to Manchuria with the aim of seeking a future in the Soviet Union in the belief that it was turning anti-British. He never made it to the Soviet Union and died from third degree burns when the plane he was travelling in crashed in Taihoku (present day Taipei) in Japanese occupied Taiwan on 18 August 1945. With Japan’s surrender at the end of the war on 12 September 1945 in Singapore, the remaining elements of the Indian National Army surrendered and were repatriated to India.
Close to 300 INA officers were charged with treason in the INA trials held in the Red Fort in Delhi (Red Fort Trials) between 5 November 1945 and May 1946. Prominent among them was Mohan Singh, together with Colonel Gurbaksh Singh (a fellow officer from the same unit as Mohan Singh), Colonel Prem Saghal, and Major General Shah Nawaz. They were court-martialled and charged with waging war against the King-Emperor. The trials attracted much publicity, public sentiment, and sympathy as they were considered patriots fighting for India’s independence from the British Empire. Others saw the INA officers as traitors and wanted them punished. Although the British Raj was never under serious threat from the INA, the tide was starting to turn against them, and calls for Indian independence were getting increasingly strident. The INA officers were found guilty, cashiered from the army, and had their sentences remitted by the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, Field Marshal Sir Claude John Eyre Auchinleck.
Giani Pritam Singh Dhillon was born on 18 November 1910 in Nagoke Sarli Village in the district of Lyallpur in present day Pakistan. He was flying from Saigon to a conference in Tokyo with six other INA officials on 24 March 1942 when he died in a plane crash at the airport in Tokyo. His wife had earlier passed away in 1938. On his death, his two children were repatriated back to India by an INA officer Colonel Niranjan Singh.6
Mohan Singh joined the Indian National Congress in February 1947 and served as a legislator in Punjab. He was also elected to the Rajya Sabha (upper house of the Indian Parliament) and served for two terms. In public life he continued to fight for the recognition of INA members as freedom fighters in the cause for India’s independence. He settled in Jugiana Village near Ludhiana and passed away on 26 December 1989 at the age of 80.
Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon (known to his close friends as Tatu Ji) wrote an autobiography “From my bones” in which he recounted his experiences of the INA and the Red Fort trials. He also published some poetry that aptly captured some momentous events of India’s history. The Indian Postal Service issued a stamp in 1997 to commemorate Dhillon’s contribution to the liberation of India, and he was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1998 (the Padma Bhushan is the third-highest civilian award of the Republic of India, conferred on distinguished service of a high order, without distinction of race, occupation, position, or gender). He passed away in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh on 6 December 2006 at the age of 92.
Fujiwara Iwaichi returned to Japan at the end of the Second World War and served as Commander of the Home Defense Force in 1955 and the 1st Division (Tokyo) in 1956. He retired with the rank of Lieutenant General in 1964 and two decades later wrote a book F. Kikan: Japanese Army intelligence operations in Southeast Asia during World War II in which he described himself as the “Lawrence of Arabia of Southeast Asia”. The book was published by Heinemann in 1983. Fujiwara passed away on 24 February 1986.
- Fay, Peter W. (1993). The forgotten army: India’s armed struggle for independence, 1942 -1945. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, p. 83.
- Ibid, 1993, p. 83.
- Ibid, 1993, p. 84.
- Lebra, Joyce C. (1977). Japanese trained armies in South-East Asia. New York, Columbia University Press, p. 25.
- Gordon, Leonard A. (1990). Brothers against the Raj: a biography of Indian nationalists Sarat and Subhas Chandra Bose. Columbia University Press, p. 517.
- Gurcharan Singh Kulim. Posting on the Sikhnet, 30 July 2015.
- The writer also consulted Dr. Ranjit Singh Malhi to confirm the accuracy of certain facts in this article.
Rishpal Singh Sidhu has been involved in library and information services management in Singapore, New Zealand, and Australia over the past four decades. He has a passion for research, writing, and teaching. He is the compiler and editor of the book, Singapore’s early Sikh pioneers: Origins, settlement, contributions and Institutions, published by the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board in Singapore in 2017. He is presently based in Sydney, Australia.
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