Sinhalese who Fought with the National Army of ‘Netaji’ Subhash Chandra Bose against Britain

by P.K.Balachandran

(August 15th is the 65th anniversary of India’s Independence)

When the Japanese occupied Malaya and Singapore in 1942, a large number of Indians joined the Indian Independence League (IIL) and the Indian National Army (INA) headed by Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian freedom fighter who was striving to free India from the British, in collaboration with the Japanese armed forces.

Surprisingly, twenty five Ceylonese, under the leadership of Gladwin Kotalawela, also joined. A resident of Malacca in Malaya, Gladwin was the son of Sir Henry Kotalawela (who represented Uva in the Ceylon State Council for many years) and a nephew of Sir John Kotelawala, who was Prime Minister of independent Ceylon from 1953 to 1956.

There were many reasons why some Ceylonese joined the IIL, though it was an organization primarily dedicated to India’s independence. Some came with a thirst for freedom from British rule. They believed that a successful conclusion of the Indian independence movement would lead to the independence of Ceylon. There were others who were afraid of being suspected and punished by the Japanese for having pro-British leanings. And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, people joined simply to secure protection against the brutal and rapacious Japanese overlords.

According S.N.Arseculeratne, author of “Sinhalese Immigrants in Malaysia and Singapore: 1860-1990: History Through Recollections,” Gladwin Kotalawela felt that if India got her independence, Ceylon too would get it. When he joined the IIL, he told his wife, Muriel: “ If I should die, it will be for a good cause.” He would urge fellow Ceylonese not to believe that the British would come back. “If they do, the moon will turn blue!” he used to say. Kotalawela also believed that he would lead Ceylon after the exit of the British. As a scion of a wealthy and politically influential family in Ceylon, he had the necessary backing for entertaining such ambitions.

Bose on Ceylon

Subhas Chandra Bose himself was a believer in the existence of nationalistic sentiments among the Ceylonese. He also believed that ties between India and Ceylon were strong and described Ceylon as the “pendant” in the Indian necklace and therefore inseparable.

In an interview to the Malayan daily “Perak Times” dated 31 October 2603 (which is the Japanese equivalent of 1943) he said: “ During the last few weeks, I have had informal talks with prominent Sinhalese residents of Syonan (the Japanese name for Singapore) and Malai (the indigenous name of Malaya) and discussed with them, in a general way, the interest taken by the Sinhalese of East Asia in the future of their country. I gather from these talks that the Sinhalese community out here, shares with the nationalists at home, strong anti-British sentiments and aspirations for the freedom of Ceylon from British rule.”

And on Indo-Ceylon ties Bose said: “Like their compatriots at home, the Sinhalese in Syonan and Malai are fully conscious of their centuries-old bonds of racial, cultural and spiritual unity between India and Ceylon. They are vitally interested in the Indian freedom movement in East Asia, as without Indian independence there can be no freedom for Ceylon.”

Ceylonese on Bose

The Ceylonese who had occasion to meet Bose were charmed by him. Wimalatissa Indrasoma, author of “Syonan: The Fall of Singapore and How I Coped During the Japanese Occupation,” said: “ He looked a simple person, unlike when he was in uniform and speaking from a platform. He was very soft spoken and he treated us like an uncle treating his nephews. In fact, from the time I saw him, he reminded me of my own uncle in Ceylon, my father’s younger brother. He told us that he is glad that we have volunteered for a noble cause to liberate our country from foreigners. I remember in all his talk with us, he referred to Ceylon as ‘Lanka’. I thought it was a great honor to have met this great leader and to have listened to him.”

G.R.Wijedasa’s remark on Bose was pithy: “ A few words with him and one was hypnotized.” T.A. Simon, a Sinhalese, said that Bose would himself make tea and serve the Ceylonese recruits while the waiters looked on. “ I thought that was a good way to attract people and I was impressed,” Simon said. When H.D.Gunapala queried about the IIL’s plans for Ceylon, Bose said: “ Ceylon is like a pendant in the Indian chain, both must be together.”

However, after interviewing a number of Sinhalese involved with the IIL, Arseculeratne concluded that Bose’s comments on the wish of the Sinhalese to free their country from British rule was a “projection of his own nationalistic fervor as none of the Sinhalese members of the IIL and INA indicated zeal.”

“Just one or two expressed youthful, idealistic, anti-establishment feelings. Their motivation to enlist in the units of the IIL arose rather from either a sense of adventure or from the need to protect themselves from Japanese harassment,” Arseculeratne added.

Japanese Atrocities

“Harassment” is a mild term to describe the behavior of the Japanese forces and administrators. They were committing medieval atrocities in a modern age. The first wave of attacks by the Japanese army was always carried out by “shock troops” comprising mercenaries from occupied areas like Korea, Manchuria (East China) and Formosa (present day Taiwan). These brutes were licensed to loot, rape, kill, and generally shock and terrorize the locals. “The Manchurians had a cruel look,” remembered Florence Amarasekera. “Entirely ruthless,” added Dodwell Cooray, a reporter with “Malay Mail” who became a broadcaster for the IIL in Burma.

The real Japanese troops, who came later, were not so crude, but were cruel all the same. Beheading was common even in cases of minor infringements. Severed heads would be displayed in public places to serve as a grisly warning to others. The “Kempetai” (military police) and “Tekikan” (police intelligence unit) were a terror. They used locals extensively to spy on their kith and kin, friends and associates.

One Pamadasa (corruption of Premadasa) of Malacca was executed for listening to the banned BBC. A person could be tortured and executed for stealing, making fun of government collaborators or even complaining publicly about the rising cost of living. According to Daniel Appuhamy, the punishment for not bowing to a Japanese sentry was holding a severed head above one’s head for 10 minutes.

Death Railway

Young men were rounded up for slave labor for the construction of the Thailand-Burma “Death Railway”. Frederick Jayasinghe said that the Japanese would come to toddy shops, and like catching stray dogs, would take away the waiters and bystanders in trucks for work on the rail line. The trucks were fitted with machine guns. Even cinema houses were raided and young men dragged away.

Gunapala, who had escaped forced labor by enlisting in the IIL, said that the death rate in the railway was “one man for each railway sleeper.” Half the White prisoners of war who were working on the line, had died due to starvation, disease and torture. Of the 150,000 Malay, Burmese, Javanese and Indian laborers, 60,000 died.

Ceylonese Suspected

Among the Asians in Singapore and Malaya, the Chinese were the primary target of the Japanese because of the protracted Sino-Japanese war. But the Ceylonese were also suspect because they were thought to be incorrigibly pro-British. However, a few Ceylonese like Gladwin Kotalawela, began to feel that it might be wise for the community to collaborate with the Japanese for the sake for their protection. And the best way to do this was to join the pro-Japanese Indian Independence League headed by the dynamic Subhas Bose, whose word was respected by the Japanese.

As referred to earlier, the IIL was keen on recruiting Ceylonese. Soon, the Japanese too fell in line, as a Japanese invasion of Ceylon was on the cards and there was a need for local hands. The IIL first roped in influential Ceylonese like M.Saravanamuttu the editor of “The Straits Echo”, and expected them to get more recruits. But their efforts were in vain because most Ceylonese believed that the British would come back. Many felt that they need not join the IIL as they were not Indians.

Threat of Internment

But the turning point came when Kotalawela heard that the Japanese were going to round up recalcitrant Ceylonese and intern them in concentration camps. He went post haste to Subhas Bose, whom he knew personally, and expressed his anxiety. Being sympathetic to the Ceylonese, Bose suggested the formation of a Ceylon Department (CD) in the IIL to look after their interests. That done, Kotalawela formed the Lanka Unit (LI), in the CD, mainly to gather intelligence and carry out sabotage behind British lines.

However, even with the threat of internment, recruitment to the IIL was poor. Of the two main communities of Ceylon, the Ceylon Tamils were the more recalcitrant. According to Lionel Dodampe, a clerk in the CD, even the efforts of influential fellow Ceylon Tamils like R.P.S.Rajasooriyar and Dato Clough Thuraisingham, failed to cut ice in the community.

This made the IIL issue a stern warning with a thinly veiled threat of punishment. In a notice to all Ceylonese in Singapore dated 15 February 1944, M.V.Pillai of the Ceylon Department called upon all Ceylonese to enroll themselves in the IIL, pay the fees and wear the IIL badge. The punch line was in the warning at the end, which said: “It is requested that such instructions be carefully observed, as the disregard thereof, is likely to result in a good deal of inconvenience in the future.”

Considering the fact that only 25 Ceylonese joined the IIL in all (the others preferring to pay the punishment taxes), the threat issued by Pillai also did not work.

However, those who joined and strutted about wearing the IIL badge, were spared the punishing taxes and other indignities. The IIL badge wearers were not required to bow to the Japanese sentries or get down from their bicycles while passing by a sentry point. Many escaped arrest, torture and execution. When Lionel Dodampe was taken in for questioning by the “Kempetai” Kotalawela was able to secure his release by saying that he was about to join the IIL. Eventually Dodampe did join the IIL. If only Dodampe’s boss, Pamadasa, had joined the IIL when requested to do so by Kotalawela, he would not have been executed for listening to the BBC. “Gladwin’s joining the IIL might have had some protective effect on the Sinhalese from Japanese harassment,” said his wife, Muriel, after the war.

Dangerous Missions

While most Ceylonese were not recruited for military service, a few were sent on dangerous intelligence and sabotage missions to India and Ceylon ahead of a proposed invasion of India and Ceylon. The men were trained by “Hikari Kikan” a Japanese organization which liaised with the IIL and INA. Arseculeratne quotes G.J.Corr, author of “War of the Springing Tigers”, to say that a group of “Buddhists” (meaning Sinhalese) were sent by submarine to Ceylon in September 1942. “These men converged on the important naval base of Trincomalee and carried out minor acts of sabotage,” Corr had said.

According to Lt.Com Somasiri Devendra, in 1944, the Hikari Kikan sent to Ceylon a submarine carrying four young Ceylonese for spying and sabotage. But the mission ended in tragedy. “Tudor Gunaratne, Vernon Fernando and two brothers, Edwin and Joseph Jayakody, were supposed to land off Kirinde on the southern coast. But by some quirk of fate, the submarine dropped them off the Madras coast, where they were caught by the British and executed,” Com.Devendra said.

According Indrasoma, these spy missions generally failed because the Indian Commandant of the Japanese spy school at Penang was a British mole. Arsecularatne suspected that the mole was “Lt.Col.Durrani” who was awarded the George Cross by the British after the war for thwarting Japanese inspired spy missions to India. Mahmood Khan Durrani, a Captain in the Ist.Bahawalpur Infantry was a prisoner of war in Malaya who was tortured and forced to join the INA. But Durrani saw to it that the INA/Jap spy missions failed. Later, he joined the Pakistan Army and retired as a Lt.Colonel in 1971.

British Honor Kotalawela

After the war the British questioned Kotalawela, but let him off the hook. Subsequently, on return to Ceylon, he was even awarded an MBE, which set off the rumor that he had all along been a British spy. But he wasn’t.

The truth, as told by his wife Muriel, is that he believed in Bose and the Japanese slogan “Asia for Asians.” He would refuse to admit the failures of the INA, and did not believe that Bose had died in an air crash till long after the event. However, the more important and immediate reason for his being in the IIL was the protection of the Ceylonese community in Malaya and Singapore against the savagery of Japanese rule.

The British, who knew what Japanese rule was like in their colonies, appreciated Kotalawela’s action which they saw as the most pragmatic under the circumstances. At any rate, the British had become very lenient after the war, taking a tolerant view of anti-British actions on the part of Asians, in the context of emerging nationalistic movements throughout their Asian Empire. Even the leaders of the INA, who were ex-Indian army officers, were let off after a brief trial.

Acknowledgements:

Lt. Com (Rtd.) Somasiri Devendra for sharing his insights and Tissa Devendra for giving me the references.

Arseculeratne, S.N., Sinhalese Immigrants in Malaysia and Singapore 1860-1990: History Through Recollections, K.V.G. de Silva and Sons, Colombo, 1991.

Indrasoma, Tissa, The Fall of Singapore and How I Coped During the Japanese Occupation, Self published, Hikkaduwa, 1994.

Corr, G.H. The War of the Springing Tigers, London, Osprey, 1975