How Singapore remembers Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's legacy

Former Indian envoy to Singapore TCA Raghavan writes that the most endearing memory for him was Netaji's visit to the Chettiar Temple flanked by Abid Hasan and Mohammad Zaman Kiyani

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose

T.C.A. Raghavan

I recall being invited in February 2010 to attend a special screening at the Cathay Theatre in Singapore. What made the evening unusual was that the film being screened was not a new release but the occasion was nevertheless a special one. The then President of Singapore, S.R. Nathan (1924-1916) was the guest of honour and the audience included those who had served in the Indian National Army (INA) or their descendants.

The screening was of Shyam Benegal’s 2004 film Bose-The Forgotten Hero. I recall finding many in the audience at the end of the film in tears. For them Subhas Chandra Bose was not just a nationalist icon in distant India but a vital part of their own lives in Singapore.

I was not entirely surprised by the response. Since my arrival in Singapore some months previously I was constantly confronted by the somewhat unusual fact that so many Indians who had been living in Singapore for four or five, perhaps more, generations, preserved memories of their association with Netaji and the INA as part of their own distinctive Singaporean legacy.

I had had many visitors who would show a link, either their own but more usually of a parent or grandparent, with those dramatic years in the early 1940s- through a photograph, an Azad Hind government stamp or currency note, a cash receipt for a donation or even a curfew pass. There were also remnants of old uniforms, a cap or a badge or in some rare cases a letter or brief note signed by Netaji himself.

President S.R. Nathan himself was someone who had as a young man seen Netaji in Singapore and heard his compelling oratory. He explained to me that Bose had a distinctive legacy for Singapore Indians. His role in the Indian national movement, escape from custody and travel through Afghanistan to Germany, the daring and perilous submarine journey to reach Japan, his arrival in Singapore and the establishment of a Provisional Free Government of India-- all these events were the stuff of legend even as they occurred and were milestones of the Indian freedom movement. Yet for Singapore admirers of Netaji, his role in Singapore was much more than just a sense of pride in India’s historic freedom struggle.

Chettiar Temple or the Tank Road temple in Singapore
Chettiar Temple or the Tank Road temple in Singapore

In Singapore, or Malaya as the region was then called, Netaji’s inspiration empowered hitherto subservient Indians, the bulk of whom worked under very poor conditions in plantations. He gave them a sense of their own worth and self-esteem and as their self- confidence grew, both men and women joined the INA in significant numbers.

Thus in President Nathan’s view, Netaji had a dual role and contribution. The first was the obvious one whereby South East Asia became a front in the Indian National Movement.

The second was more subtle and had the greatest relevance for Indians in Malaya and Singapore: his message and presence cut across linguistic, caste and religious differences and gave them a sense of themselves as part of a larger community with its own inherent dignity and worth. It was this exposure and early politicization that made Nathan and many like him into life-long admirers and led many families to cherish their ancestors’ association with Netaji and the INA.

Subhas Chandra Bose’s legacy in Singapore is not uncontested. The majority of Singaporeans – ethnic Chinese-- suffered greatly during the Japanese occupation and that is part of the island’s collective memory. So, memories of 1942-45 are divided. For the Indians the establishment of the Provisional Government of Free India and Bose’s presence marked the raising of their morale and identity; for the Chinese this was a time of hardship, humiliation and degrading treatment including many massacres at the hands of the Japanese.

These divided memories inevitably form part of any discussion of Netaji and the INA in Singapore. Possibly Singapo-reans, both of Indians and Chinese origin, have wisely come to accept different readings and interpretations of the same history. If anything, their experience demonstrates that it is possible to live and even prosper with multiple, even conflicted, interpretations of history.

I found many memories of Netaji in Singapore if one cared to look. The Cathay theatre where the Netaji film was screened was where he had made his first public appearance in early July 1943 and where later on 21 October 1943, he announced the formation of a Provisional Government of Free India; the Padang, or the Maidan as we call it in India, where he gave the INA or the Azad Hind Fauj their famous slogan and battle cry of ‘Dilli Chalo’; the Ramakrishna Mission where he often meditated; the different houses he lived and worked in and many others.

Particularly poignant is the place on the coast where a memorial to the INA was constructed inscribed with the words Ettihad (Unity), Eatamad (Faith), Qurbani (Sacrifice). Once the British retook Singapore, amongst their first acts was dynamiting the structure. A historical marker now identifies the spot.

I found the most endearing memory of Netaji in a somewhat unusual place-- the Sri Tendayuthapani Temple known also as the Tank Road Temple or the Chettiar Temple. Netaji had been approached by the Tamil business community to visit their temple. He had demurred at first because entry to it was not unrestricted but subsequently agreed on being assured that the event would be open to all irrespective of caste or religion.

He went to the temple flanked by Abid Hasan and Mohammad Zaman Kiyani. Abid Hasan, an INA officer, had been with Netaji since Germany and was his companion on the perilous journey from Germany to Japan. He recalled that the temple courtyard was full with INA uniforms and black caps of South Indian Muslims.

Abid Hasan found himself gently pushed into the Garba Griha by the attendant priests along with the rest of the party and a tilak was put on each of them. He wrote afterwards, “The memory I retain is one of an invigorating music as that of a symphony dedicated to the unity of the motherland and the common purpose of all Indians to be united in their efforts to establish their identity”.

That memory struck me every time I happened to visit the Tank Road temple in Singapore as somehow Netaji’s imprint seemed so much more visible because of this event.

(TCA Raghavan is a former Indian High Commissioner to Singapore and Pakistan)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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