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Fight For Freedom

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August 2002
Fight For Freedom

As we commemorate another year of India?s freedom, two men go down memory lane and recall their personal contributions and the experiences that make each of them cherish the mammoth efforts that made the dream of freedom a reality.

By KAVITA CHHIBBER NARULA

Colonel Ashok Dave

Born in 1928, Colonel Ashok Dave grew up in a very patriotic family. He recalls how in 1941, the first Satyagrahi was Vinoba Bhave and how in 1942, Gandhiji made Satyagraha a mass movement. ?When we were studying in high school, we were all very inspired by the talk of the freedom movement because our parents and neighbors were all involved, and we used to hear a lot about Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev. We would get together as kids and sing nationalist songs. We became message carriers for the politicians and freedom fighters. The police did not suspect us. The movement continued until 1947, and we also grew up and continued our efforts to help those involved in the freedom movement.?

The first major task undertaken by Col. Dave was near Baroda at a place called Adas, a village on the mainline to Ahmedabad. The British army was passing by in a military train headed to Bombay to check on the Satyagrahis. ?We were told to sabotage their departure. It was a secret mission, and 12-15 youngsters including my cousin and I were part of the team. But somehow or the other, I was told to drop out and stay at Baroda. The next day we read in the papers that the army train did stop at Adas and could not go further due to the damage done to the rails. The army jawans came out of the train and shot about half of the boys. I guess I was destined to live. Then I shifted to north Gujarat, where my father was practicing medicine. We burnt post offices, vandalized government property and hoisted the Indian flag wherever we could.?

Col. Dave also recalls how as youngsters, he and his peers used to be in pheris and processions and shout slogans and sing patriotic songs. They also did the underground work of feeding hidden freedom fighters and alerting them of police raids. While at a medical college in Bombay, his group became even more active. ?We would go on strikes and have the factories closed. As medical students, we used to go to the slums, which were often badly affected by the riots, give medical assistance to the wounded, and comfort them. We were undertaking military training, and it was the time of the Second World War. The British said that if we wanted to join the Royal Indian Army, they will take us now, and we will get our college degree. A lot of students filled the forms. I refused. I said if I have to join I would only join the Indian National Army.?

?Finally came 1947 and freedom, and that movement was over. We were in Bombay, and when August 15th arrived, we were mad with joy and excitement - shouting slogans stating the end of the oppressor?s rule and the beginning of the rule of the people. I can?t even describe the scene and the feeling. In 1952, when India became a republic, the same excitement was generated.?

Air Commodore Ramesh Benegal

Air Commodore Ramesh Benegal was born in Burma. When the Second World War began, his mother was sent to India while he was left behind with an uncle. This circumstance brought him into close contact with Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army. In an exclusive interview from Bangalore, India, Air Commodore Benengal shared his memories of those days.

In 1943, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose came by submarine to the East and started the Indian National Army. Troops used to pass through where Air Commodore Benegal and his cousin would meet them. Immensely inspired by the site of the troops, the two volunteered to join the INA (Indian National Army). However, because they were underage, they were initially put in the INA?s subsidiary. Later, when the INA began sending youngsters to Japan for military training, Air Commodore Benegal applied and was selected along with four other volunteers.

The night before their departure from Rangoon, the five eager youths had dinner with Netaji at their headquarters. Remembering his first meeting with Netaji, Air Commodore Benegal said, ?A leader of the eminence of Netaji will always cause a sense of awe. But it was not just that he was a leader. He had tremendous charisma, and his personality was overpowering. It had nothing to do with his uniform because he never sported any ribbons or medals. He carried himself with his head held high and had an intensity of purpose, which was to free India from foreign rule. I still remember his opening words to us at dinner. He said, ?I would like you to remember that you are going as foreign cadets, members of a free nation. At no time should you act servile or feel inferior to anybody there. This does not mean you will go against the rules or discipline that your training might entail. But always remember that you are members of a free nation. This is a time of war, and at no times should you let your religion interfere with your work. You may be vegetarian, but you may have to eat all sorts of things.? That was true because later we did end up eating things like octopus, horse flesh, etc. - which we could never have imagined.?

The cadets? journey from the edge of Burma to the beginning of Thailand took them 23 days. As they traversed the river Kwai, they saw British prisoners-of-war in a very sorry state helping to build bridges of which half would break, forcing people to go by boat and catch another train. ?It was miserable. Often we did not have food, and there were wild animals.? The cadets reached Singapore, and after undergoing training and learning Japanese, they started for Japan as part of a convoy of two ships, two oil tankers, and four gun boats. All was well until they reached the deepest part of the ocean, where American submarines passing by torpedoed their ship. Only nine youngsters and approximately twenty other officers survived. Recalls Air Commodore Benegal, ?We went to the Philippines, and we spent ten miserable days there without food in the jungle. We were eventually rescued by the Japanese, taken to Manila, and then sent to Japan.?

They then trained at a preparatory school in Tokyo and were visited by Netaji.. ?Netaji visited us and made it a point of visiting each and every one of us in our rooms,? says Air Commodore Benegal. ?I have been a commander and a commander is supposed to know the names of all his officers and soldiers. It?s close to impossible, and we normally cheat by asking beforehand the person?s name. But Netaji?s memory was phenomenal. There were 45 of us, and he asked me, ?Does your brother write to you regularly?? He remembered little personal details like that and had a personal comment for each one of us.? The group had almost finished their first leg of training when they heard news of Netaji?s plane crash. Needless to say, they were all devastated. A few days later, Netaji?s ashes were brought to Japan and taken to a temple where a priest performed a Shinto ceremony. To this day, the ashes remain there.

The cadets? training stopped immediately, and they did not know what to do or what their fate would be. While being moved, they fell into British hands and were treated as prisoners-of-war. They were spit on and booed by British soldiers and put in solitary confinement at a prison in Hong Kong until a senior British officer arrived and realized they were too young to be prisoners-of war. Finally, after another harrowing journey, they landed in Madras. Some of the boys went to Calcutta after staying in a Madras concentration camp as guests of Netaji?s brother, Sharat Chandra Bose. Faintly recollecting having a relative in Bombay, Air Commodore Benegal decided to head west. By a strange twist of fate, he found his older brother waiting for him. To his disappointment, he found out there was no help from the government since everyone looked down on the INA. ?In 1947 India became independent, and I applied to the air force. I was selected, but a week before I was to join, I received a letter saying I could not join because of my INA background. I became a flying instructor and was finally requested to join the air force in 1950 because of a shortage of pilots.?

Air Commodore Benegal says that the stories of Netaji?s being alive are untrue but adds,

?It?s a crying shame that 57 years later, the ashes of Netaji are still in Japan being looked after by a small group of dedicated Japanese who are associated in some ways with the INA and are admirers of Netaji. They have been performing a ceremony without fail on Netaji?s birth and death anniversaries. It is more sad still that every single government from the time of independence has catered to petty politics and hesitated in bringing this great leader?s ashes to his homeland with the honor befitting some one of his stature.?


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