Myanmar's Indian independence veterans demand recognition
- 17 March 2014
- From the section Asia
Veteran Indian soldiers in Myanmar who took up arms to fight against the British to secure Indian independence are demanding that they should qualify for a freedom fighter pension from the Indian government.
Thousands of Indian soldiers joined a militia formed by charismatic Bengali leader Subash Chandra Bose in the final years of the independence struggle.
With help from Hitler and imperial Japan he formed the Indian National Army (INA) to fight against British colonial rule. Bose even travelled to Berlin during the war to seek Hitler's help in providing arms and training.
Indian officers and soldiers of the British Indian Army - who were captured by the Japanese in the eastern front during the early years of World War Two - switched their loyalty to Bose and formed the core of the INA.
Indians from all walks of life, cutting across most religions, swelled the ranks. They included thousands of Tamils who lived in South-East Asia.
At the beginning of the 19th Century thousands of Tamils from south India went to what was then called Burma - now known as Myanmar - to work as farm labourers.
They were taken there by members of a wealthy trading caste known as Chettiars. By WWII, the descendants of those Tamils who had moved to Burma had become a thriving community of farmers and traders.
Lieutenant K Perumal lives with his large extended family in a wooden house in Yangon (formerly Rangoon). The youngest family member is barely a few months old.
In one corner of his cramped house, Mr Perumal, 88, keeps a steel box containing old press clippings and photos which take him back to WWII.
"I joined the INA in 1943. I was in the propaganda department. I along with others in my unit did door-to-door recruitment campaigns," he says.
Mr Perumal is a Tamil who was born in Burma. At the time of joining the INA he had not even seen India.
He vividly remembers places associated with Bose in Yangon and keeps in touch with other veterans like the 94-year-old SP Muthuvel, who was born in Puddukkottai in what is now in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
"I came to Burma at the age of 15 to work as an accountant. I was deeply influenced by Bose and left my job to join the INA. I worked in the logistics department and sometimes as an air raid watcher," Mr Muthuvel said.
After a brief stint with the INA, Mr Muthuvel went back to his previous existence and started working again as an accountant.
The decision by Tamils in Burma to sign up with Bose was in part motivated by what they considered to be Britain's discrimination against them.
Unlike Sikhs and Pathans, Tamils were not classified as martial races and therefore were not given preferential status by army recruiters.
"Bose did not believe in the [martial race] concept and was willing to take Tamils in large numbers," says Harvard university Professor Sugatha Bose, who is also an INA historian and Bose's grand-nephew.
"Burma was the springboard for the INA's military operations," he said.
"During the 1940s Tamils constituted the largest ethnic group among Indians who had settled in South-East Asia.
"Tamils from Burma, Singapore and Malaysia joined the INA in large numbers. Barring a few Bengalis, the women's battalion known as the Rani of Jhansi Regiment consisted entirely of Tamils."
The INA's advance towards north-eastern India alongside the Japanese army registered some initial gains, but was eventually held back by British counter-attacks.
Those who survived the war, like Mr Muthuvel, were mostly caught and imprisoned. But some, like Mr Perumal, escaped jail by keeping a low profile.
"My family members burnt my INA uniform and other official papers. Another family I know dumped all the items associated with the INA in a river," he recalls.
The overall effectiveness and the ultimate impact of Bose's armed campaign are highly contested. When and where he died is also in dispute. Yet what is not contested is the fact that he continues to remain a hugely inspirational figure for generations of Indians.
After India became independent in 1947 thousands of men like Mr Perumal and Mr Muthuvel decided to stay in Burma.
But they were not included when the government of India decided in 1970 to give pensions to INA war veterans of about $241 (£150) per month. It was decided that pensions should only be given to citizens of India - not to those who live outside the country.
Mr Perumal wrote to the prime minister's office several years ago demanding a review.
"The Indian government in turn asked me to come and settle in India," he said.
"But I have 17 children and grand-children here. I cannot leave everything and go to India.
"I am happy to be a citizen of Burma which has given me everything. The British government gives pensions to Gurkhas irrespective of where they live. The government of India should adopt a similar approach."
Dr Sugatha Bose also feels the government should be as magnanimous as possible.
"They should recognise the contribution of Indians living abroad and persons of Indian origin in the freedom struggle," he said.
INA veterans point out that there are now only a few hundred of them left in Myanmar who will benefit from any change in pensions policy.
Most of them are close to 90 and have no income or assets - they are dependent on their children.
The Indian government has a moral duty to look after them, they say.