The role of the Indian National Army (INA) is often under rated when we discuss India’s freedom struggle. It singularly threatened to achieve what the British Empire was mortally scared of – a repeat of the events of 1857, with the added advantage of a highly-trained and modernised army. It is with relation to this INA that we find the name of Durga Malla, a Gorkha soldier from Dehradun, who fought against the British armies in the Second World War.
Durga Malla was born in 1913 in Doiwala near Dehradun. His father was working in the Gorkha Rifles as a Naib Subhedar. Right from a young age, he wanted to free India from the shackles of British rule. The British even suspected him of having pasted pro-freedom posters inside the Gurkha Regiment quarters. He was 14 or 15 at that time. He also participated in protests and processions during the Civil Disobedience Movement. Durga Malla went to the Gorkha Military Middle School in Dehradun and later joined the Gorkha Rifles in Dharamshala.
Since his level of education was relatively higher, better than others, he was sent to Pune for further training and promoted to Signal Havaldar. Perhaps, it was the training at this rank that helped him later in carrying out reconnaissance duties for the Azad Hind Fauj.
Joining The INA
The Gorkha regiments were sent to the Malaya islands in 1941 and were soon fighting the Japanese. In the midst of those battles, Captain Mohan Singh realised that they were merely fighting to extend the British Empire and should, in fact, use their skills for fighting against the British. Likewise, the INA was raised in 1942 at Singapore. This was the first INA, raised by Captain Mohan Singh, consisting mainly of Indian prisoners of war (POWs). Although the time was ripe, it unfortunately could not achieve much success, with the Japanese still lording over the skies and seas.
Durga Malla was first involved with drawing recruits to the INA, which he did with aplomb, and thousands of Gorkhas joined the Azad Hind Fauj. Later, he was promoted to the rank of Major and played an important role in the intelligence department.
The Battle For Imphal And Kohima
The second INA was raised under the aegis of Subhash Chandra Bose. Durga Malla was tasked with intelligence-related operations. Bose intended to establish his own government (Arz-e-Hukumat-e-Hind), the provisional government of India. This campaign, lasting from about March 1944 to July 1944, in the jungles of North East India, has been described by the British as the toughest in the entire war. The INA distinguished itself by many a tough battle.
In the jungles and ravines of Burma and North East, guerilla warfare was the way forward, and with it, came the need for a functioning intelligence department. Durga Malla was tasked with this job, and was required to send information to the INA headquarters in Rangoon.
Durga Malla entered Assam from Burma. At the time, Assam was firmly in British hands, though Burma had been taken by the Japanese. The plan was to capture Imphal and Dimapur on India’s eastern border. This, the Japanese believed, would provide not only a secure base to launch further in, but also take care of the logistics once the British stores were captured. Inspite of huge problems in logistics and communications, Durga Malla successfully transmitted information regarding the allied troops to the INA.
Unfortunately, just at the start of the campaign, on the 27 March 1944, Durga Malla was captured from Ukhrul. That the INA and Japanese managed to advance this far, and feign an attack on Chittagong, is a tribute to the intelligence department manned by officers such as Durga Malla. The diversion created at Chittagong and the huge troop build-up in Burma, which went largely unnoticed, was due to a functioning intelligence arm. Most historians reckon that only if the Japanese had a reasonably good airforce at that point in time, the North East and Bengal would have been free very soon.
Durga Malla was brought to the Red Fort and made to stand in the INA trial. He was given a few opportunities to indict the INA, accept that he was wrong to join Netaji Bose – to be able to escape the death penalty. The proud Gorkha refused. Then, his wife was brought before him – whom he had barely spent time with since getting married. Durga Malla would not budge. He is said to have proudly declared, “Crores of Indians are with you. I am sacrificing my life for my motherland. This sacrifice shall not go in vain. India shall be free.”
He was sentenced to death on 15 August, and hanged from the gallows at Delhi’s Central Jail on 25 August 1944.
Some historians regard the INA trials and executions as one of the triggers for the revolt of the armed forces that followed in 1946, especially in Mumbai and Karachi. The British Empire’s backbone had been their carefully-crafted army and the INA had played its role in breaking it. The Azad Hind Fauj and martyrs like Durga Malla made many soldiers rethink their place in the British Indian Army, leading to those revolts of 1946. The British government realised that their hold on the Indian army was now untenable, and with it, their hold on India.
Durga Malla is remembered on “Balidan Diwas” observed by the country’s Gorkha community every year. A statue is dedicated to him on the Parliament grounds.
There is an epitaph at the Kohima War Cemetery, which reads: “When you go home, tell them of us and say. For their tomorrow, we gave our today”. It has been raised to honour soldiers who fought for the British; perhaps, applies as much to INA soldiers like Durga Malla.
Aneesh Gokhale is the author of ‘Sahyadris to Hindukush’, and 'Battles of the Maratha Empire'.
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