Forgotten Men: Indian troops captured by the Japanese in the Second World War

Kevin Noles is starting the second year of a part-time DPhil at New College, University of Oxford, researching Indian PoWs of the Japanese. Below, he writes about his research into this little-known aspect of captivity.

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Indian prisoners from the Hyderabad State Infantry after their liberation in 1945. Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

A notable gap in the research on Prisoners-of-War of the Japanese, is the fate of the large numbers of Indian troops of the British Indian Army who were captured alongside British and Australian troops, largely at the fall of Singapore. The total number of Indian prisoners captured during the Malayan campaign was 67,000, a figure greater than the number of British and Australian prisoners combined. While the experiences of Indian prisoners were often similar to their European counterparts, a striking difference is that some switched allegiance and fought alongside the Japanese under the banner of Indian Nationalism, in a force called the Indian National Army (INA). It is this aspect that has received the bulk of the attention from historians thus far. In contrast, the scope of my research covers all Indian prisoners of the Japanese: those who served alongside the Japanese, and the majority who did not.

The research itself is still in its early stages, although it is clear that there are a number of relevant archives in Britain, India, Australia and elsewhere, some of which have only recently become available. Because of concerns regarding the INA, British Military Intelligence took a keen interest in their activities and in the process generated a considerable number of reports. These also sometimes contain information on Indian prisoners who had not joined the force. In addition, there were over one hundred post-war war-crimes trials of Japanese personnel, charged with the murder and abuse of Indian prisoners, and these also represent a rich seam of material. Although the number of memoirs is limited, not least because many of the Indian troops were illiterate, the archival sources now available provide a significant opportunity for new research.

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Lieutenant Colonel Ishaq, commander of the Hyderabad State Infantry, after his liberation. Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

One of the challenges of the project will be giving due weight to the full range of experiences of Indian prisoners. The ten thousand sent in labour gangs to the Southwest Pacific suffered some of the worst conditions and consequently suffered some of the highest death rates. Amongst them were the men of the Hyderabad State Infantry seen in the photograph at the start of this post. Under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Ishaq, the men of this unit had refused to the join the INA and were sent to the area to work as forced labour. Despite his new uniform the strain of Ishaq’s time in captivity is evident. The Japanese deployed Indian labour gangs throughout Southeast Asia, and such employment was the dominant experience for most Indian prisoners.

A category of Indian prisoner experience that has received little attention is that of those men who served with the Japanese, but were not members of the INA. This includes those who were commanded directly by Japanese officers, such as some Anti-Aircraft and Motor Transport personnel, as well as those commanded by Indian officers, such as the Changi Guard who were used to guard British and Australian prisoners. From a British perspective the Changi Guard represents one of the most notorious episodes involving Indian troops, not least because the Guard was used to execute British and Australian prisoners on at least one occasion. Understanding how such units operated is an important part of the overall picture.

Then there is the INA itself. Although it is probably the best-known aspect of Indian prisoner experience, it is over twenty years since a major work was published on the subject. The current project will not try and reproduce another general account of the INA military campaigns in Burma, but instead will focus on its propaganda and intelligence work on the front line and elsewhere.

Finally, one aspect of the research that has proved difficult relates to my wish to make contact with former Indian prisoners and their families. This is partly to learn more about the prisoners themselves, but also to explore how their captivity impacted their families, both during the war, and afterwards.

If anyone has knowledge of former Indian prisoners or their families please get in touch, as Kevin would very much like to make contact with them.