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Nationalist power

Millennium markers - Immigration

IN POST-WAR Malaya, the eagerness of Indians to take part in political and trade union activities was, to some extent, influenced by their involvement and participation in the Indian independence movement organised around the Indian Independence League and the Indian National Army.While the League provided a broad political framework for the recruitment and organisation of activities of Indians so they could support the objective of the liberation of India from British rule, the Indian National Army was specifically a military outfit designed to recruit and train Indians so that they could directly participate in the liberation of India. The activities of these two Indian organisations created an unprecedented feeling of nationalism among Indians of different religious and class persuasions. To date, there is no other movement that is quite comparable to this historic nationalistic movement. Given the sense of enthusiasm and euphoria created and sustained by it, Indian participation was, in a sense, total. It would be difficult to fathom Indian politics in general and their eagerness to take part in trade union activities in post-war Malaya without making an attempt to comprehend the various aspects of this Indian nationalist movement.For strategic reasons the Japanese sought to cultivate good ties with the Indian community so that they could be organised to confront the British. Even before the Japanese invasion and occupation of Malaya, plans were laid by Japan to encourage anti-British sentiment among Indians in South-East Asia and, in particular, Malaya. An Indian nationalist, Rash Behari Bose, who headed the Indian Independence League in Tokyo, was advised to set up branches in South-East Asia.

Once Malaya was occupied, the former Central Indian Association of Malaya elite took the initiative to establish Indian Independence League branches throughout the country. By August 1942, there were about 40 Indian Independence League branches with over 12,000 members throughout the country. In the same year, the Indian National Army was formally constituted with a membership of 16,300 Indian prisoners of war.

Although the movement made a good impression on the majority of Indians, conflicts between it and the Japanese soon developed. The attempt by the Japanese authorities to influence the direction of the movement merely for propagandistic reasons, disagreements over autonomy and decision-making, and personality differences between local officials and the Japanese constrained the effectiveness of the movement. As relationships deteriorated, key members of the former Central Indian Association leadership resigned from the movement. Then, the first Indian National Army was disbanded and its commander, Mohan Singh, was arrested by the Japanese.

At this point, Bose found it difficult to sustain the movement in any meaningful way. With the arrival of Subhas Chandra Bose (left) in July 1943, however, morale was once again lifted. Subhas Chandra was a former president of the Indian National Congress whose militant views had put him at odds with the British colonial administration, and who had fled India for Germany. He travelled to Japan, and then to Singapore where he established the Provisonal Government of Azad Hind in 1943, which was recognised by the Japanese and eight other countries, including Germany; it formally declared war on Britain and the United States in October of that year.

The rapid transformation of the Indian nationalist movement in Malaya under the leadership of Subhas Chandra was a result of several factors. First, his personality, charisma and powerful oratory skills exerted a powerful influence on Indians in Malaya. Second, his ability to convince senior Japanese leaders to allow the Indian National Army to participate in the liberation of India conveyed the message to Indians that Subhas Chandra was a true representative of Indian nationalism. Third, the honour bestowed upon him as the true president of the Provisonal Government of Azad Hind carried great weight with the masses.

These factors combined to create a phenomenal political resurgence of Indians in Malaya. Thousands of Indians were recruited and sent to camps set up for military training. Meetings and training sessions helped to strengthen the nationalist sentiments of Indians. The constant calls and exhortations by Subhas Chandra resulted in the accumulation of funds. By July 1944, the Indian Independence League's membership rose to 350,000. The mass enthusiasm for the movement was reached at the peak of the Imphal military campaign in north-east India.

The defeat of the Indo-Japanese forces there, however, proved to be the turning point of the Indian nationalist movement, creating a mood of political disillusionment and frustration.

Apart from the military debacle, there were other reasons why Indians generally became quite unhappy with the Japanese administration in Malaya, especially during the later stages of the occupation.

Indian workers- Siam-Burma railway project

The forced recruitment of Indian workers for the Siam-Burma railway project (the infamous Death Railway), the suffering endured by those who were recruited, the oppressive nature of financial exactions by the Japanese secret police, and, finally, the lack of adequate food supplies gave rise to suspicion and hostility about the true intentions of the Japanese.

Whatever the limitations of the occupation, the rise of the Indian independence movement is significant for two reasons. First, the role of the Indian Independence League and Indian National Army gave rise to unprecedented nationalist feeling among Indians of different religious and class backgrounds. Second, Indian participation in the activities of the movement imbued them with military training and discipline and, not the least, the ability to organise in pursuit of independence and self-respect. These qualities and attributes were drawn upon by Indian leaders later when there was a need to organise Indians along class and ethnic lines.

It would be a truism to state that many of the post-war Indian labour and political leaders were those who held important positions in the Indian nationalist movement.

Whether Indians in Malaysia will ever again have such a historic opportunity to be organised and lead on a broad pan-Indian basis remains to be seen.

Political developments in the last four decades or so suggests, however, that the organisational basis of the Indian community has changed somewhat. The rise of narrow ethnic politics not only among Indians but also among other races might pose a serious obstacle to the rise of politics that are broader in scope.

n Prof P. Ramasamy lectures political economy at the Political Science Department, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia; he is currently researching conditions of plantation labour in Sumatra, poverty among former plantation workers, and the impact of the Asean Free Trade Agreement on trade unions in Asean. Among his publications on these subjects is Plantation Labour, Unions, Capital and the State in Peninsular Malaysia (Oxford University Press, 1994).Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Leng, Universiti Malaya.

Notes: Modern Malaysia's strong labour movement that involved many Indians had its roots in the nationalist Indian movement that influenced Indian immigrants before World War II, writes Prof P. RAMASAMY.

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