VE Day: Recalling Memorable Successes by the Indian Armed Forces in Burma

The surrender of Nazi Germany saw a muted reaction from those in the frontlines of Burma, due to the recognition that Japan remained “unsubdued”. However, 75 years later, it presents us with an opportunity to reflect on the successes in the Pacific Theatre.

Indian engineers construct a wooden bridge over a shallow stream or 'chaung' during the advance to Rangoon. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/No 9 Army Film & Photographic Unit, Stubbs A (Sgt), Public domain

Indian engineers construct a wooden bridge over a shallow stream or ‘chaung’ during the advance to Rangoon. 

VE (Victory in Europe) Day marks the acceptance of Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Allies during World War II on May 8, 1945. In most of Europe, the US and Canada, the day saw huge celebrations, crowds in the streets and ringing speeches. It was treated as much less significant by troops on the Burma Front and in the Pacific Theatre.

The muted reaction in those theatres was, of course, due to the recognition that Japan remained “unsubdued”, as Winston Churchill said on VE Day, and seemingly still full of fight. Wartime precedents were not encouraging. Italy, the first of the major Axis powers to give in, had surrendered as early as October 1943, but Germany had continued to fight for a full seventeen months longer. Japan had suffered some defeats since 1942, but her spirit was unbroken, and the Japanese soldier remained the most tenacious of enemies in defence. Allied strategic planners considered it quite possible that Japan would hold out for a year or two longer; and the men doing the fighting were all too aware that their job was not yet done.

But there had in fact been some memorable successes by the Indian armed forces in Burma, around the same time. They were celebrated locally but were eclipsed in the press by momentous events in Europe at the time. Now seems a good time to recall some of them.

Two months earlier, on the Arakan coast of Burma (now Rakhine state in Myanmar), one of the key Allied army formations in the field had been the 51st Infantry Brigade, which as it happened, had just become the first entirely Indian brigade of the Raj-era Indian Army. All three constituent battalions were Indian (the British usually combined a maximum of two Indian battalions with a British or other Commonwealth battalion), and its commander was Brigadier K.S. Thimayya, the first Indian to command a brigade in action. The brigade had been successful and was closely supported from the air by Hurricane fighter-bombers of No 4 Squadron of the Indian Air Force (which, incidentally, had just been re-designated the Royal Indian Air Force). Their successes were adding to the growing narrative of the Indian armed forces’ contribution to Allied victory.

But even more significantly, in this theatre at this time, the main thrust and the most important objective was to try and capture Rangoon before the monsoon broke. Inland from the coastal actions, three great divisions of the Indian Army, nearly 40,000 soldiers, were fighting their way towards Rangoon, southwards along the great Irrawaddy River. The monsoon was already threatening, and it was crucial to reach Rangoon before the rains, as they would make much of the country virtually impassable.

As it happened, aerial reconnaissance on the first few days of May suggested that the Japanese had withdrawn from the city. Allied Prisoners of War held in the Rangoon Jail had scrounged some whitewash and scrawled, in huge letters on the prison roof, the message, “Japs Gone. Extract Digit”.  That memorable second phrase was intended, by its parliamentary re-phrasing of the intentionally vulgar military admonition, “Pull your finger out,” to convey authenticity, in a theatre where deception was common.

Rangoon Jail, with the PoWs’ message on the roof.

A few days before VE Day Group Captain John Grandy of the RAF, flying a Dakota transport aircraft, had dropped Allied flags into the jail courtyard and landed at Rangoon’s airfield. The same day, Indian paratroopers landed at the mouth of the Rangoon River. The next day, Hurricanes of the No 7 Squadron of the RIAF, led by their CO Squadron Leader P.C. Lal, flew in support over 26th Indian Division, as they landed on the river banks and marched into the city, literally just before the rains began. This was a highly satisfying closure of a military history circle, as the Allies, including some ill-prepared Indian troops, had been humiliatingly driven out of Rangoon by the Japanese in 1942.

Both Grandy and Lal would become chiefs of their respective countries’ Air Forces, and Thimayya would become the Indian Army Chief.

Perhaps most whimsically, back on the Arakan coast, No 2 Squadron of the RIAF, commanded by the swashbuckling Squadron Leader Jaswant Singh, was coming to the end of a successful tour of operations on the island of Akyab. And on that very day, they were hosting a party to bid farewell to the station and the RAF squadrons they were billeted alongside. The squadron diary records that the party started with a picnic on the beach, which had to hastily relocate indoors as the first showers of the season materialised.  A troupe of ENSA entertainers was visiting Akyab at the time, and the squadron was thrilled when three charming hostesses from the troupe joined their party.

RAF personnel watch Carolyn Wright and Roberta Robertson tap-dancing during an impromptu ENSA show at an airfield in Burma, February 1945.

Veterans of the squadron are hard-pressed to remember that it was VE Day, but most of them remember the ENSA hostesses who came to their party that evening. Fighting men’s memories can be quite selective!

The Real End of World War II and the Indian Servicemen Who Had a Ringside View of It

World War II (WW2), the world’s most destructive war, limped to its end in 1945. Germany had surrendered in May of that year, but that did not end the War. Only when Japan surrendered, recognised by Victory over Japan Day—VJ Day, August 15, 1945—was the war really over.

Among the Indian servicemen who had a ringside view to Japan’s surrender was 23-year-old Flying Officer C.G.I. Philip, of what was then the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF). His memories of that day, and a few days following, are those of a very junior officer. But they say something about India’s diverse experience of WW2.

Young Flying Officer Philip by his Spitfire.

Philip’s unit, 8 Squadron RIAF, the first Indian squadron to fly the iconic Spitfire aircraft, had been among the first Allied units to move back into Burma, as the Japanese fell back. Since July 1945, they had been flying out of Mingaladon, the airfield for Rangoon, the capital of Burma.

Early in August, two atom bombs were dropped on Japan. Their terrifying power (and spectacle) destroyed what years of military defeats had not: Japan’s will to resist. On August 14, Japan agreed to surrender, and combat operations were suspended.

The use of atomic weapons was controversial. Allied leaders saw them as having saved lives in the net reckoning, ending the war without the bloodbath of invading Malaya and Japan itself. Young Allied servicepeople were understandably relieved, and hence mostly untroubled by the moral questions. For months, many of them had been engaged in liberating occupied territories and prisoner of war (PoW) camps, where evidence of Japanese brutality was unambiguous. And Japanese atrocities in China had been known before the start of the war. These, plus gulfs of language, culture and ethnicity, probably contributed to stark “othering” of the enemy in this theatre, and some indifference to the long-term effects of the weapon.

The Japanese delegation flew into Rangoon, in two transport aircraft painted white for the occasion, escorted by relays of Allied fighters. For the last leg into Mingaladon, the escort included Spitfires of Philip’s squadron.

The squadron diary adds that squadron personnel were armed with Sten guns. This seems a trivial detail, but Sten guns were long-lasting cultural icons of the war. Their characteristic sounds were reproduced with gusto by schoolboy re-enactors for years afterwards.

Japanese delegates arrive at Mingaladon.

At Jubilee Hall, a handsome Rangoon landmark building commemorating Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, there was a series of speeches by both sides, haltingly interpreted. Then senior officers of the two sides sat down at separate rows of desks, facing each other across the polished wooden floor, and signed the preliminary surrender agreement. Allied clerks had sat up till the wee hours of that morning typing it out.

Once the Japanese had surrendered, Philip had another concern. He had grown up in the nearby town of Moulmein, and his mother, brothers and sisters had stayed on when the British fled in 1942. Philip’s commander granted him permission to fly there in the squadron’s “hack” aircraft, a two-seat Harvard.  One squadron-mate accompanied him in the Harvard; a few others seized the excuse to fly along in Spitfires, nominally as escort; and a couple more hitched a lift in a transport aircraft taking 20-odd Gurkha troops there.

Landing at Moulmein was not without risk. Allied troops had not yet reached there in force, and Japanese garrisons in some other locations had not honoured surrender orders. But in the event, this small expedition of Indian pilots and Gurkha troops was greeted with military rules.

Requisitioning Japanese swords

In the spur of the moment, Philip and his companions, who included Flight Lieutenant Ranjan Dutt (grandfather of Bollywood actor Tiger Shroff), decided to drive to Philip’s old house, looking for his mother. They accosted the Japanese colonel and announced they were requisitioning his car. Philip recalls, “I said, Lord Mountbatten will take care of it.” The colonel yielded his car, and Ranjan Dutt, with the adrenalin of victory coursing through his veins, took the colonel’s ceremonial sword from him.

Philip did manage to locate his mother, and the rest of his family, that day. They had remained in Moulmein throughout the war, though not actually in their own house; they had moved to a safer location on a friend’s farm. Contrary to the experience of many others in Japanese-occupied territories, the family had not been harassed in any way, although Philip’s brothers had been involved in resistance activities. The Japanese had even paid the family for the use of their house, albeit in Japanese-issued rupees, a now-useless occupation currency.

Sukhdev Thapar

Sukhdev Thapar (15 May 1908 – 23 March 1931) was an Indian revolutionary. A senior member of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, he participated in several actions alongside Bhagat Singh and Shivaram Rajguru, and was hanged by the British authorities on 23 March 1931 at the age of 23.

Sukhdev Thapar was born in LudhianaPunjabBritish India on 15 May 1908 to Ramlal Thapar and Ralli Devi.A Khatri, he was brought up by his uncle Lala Achintram after the death of his father.

Sukhdev was a member of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA), and organised revolutionary cells in Punjab and other areas of North India.[3] He was the chief of Punjab unit of HSRA and instrumental in taking decisions.

Sukhdev participated in numerous revolutionary activities such as a prison hunger strike in 1929; he is best known for his assaults in the Lahore Conspiracy Case (18 December 1928). He is best remembered for his involvement in the assassination of Deputy Superintendent of Police, J. P. Saunders, on 18 December 1928, by Bhagat Singh and Shivaram Rajguru, undertaken in response to the violent death of the veteran leader Lala Lajpat Rai.

Lahore Conspiracy Case

Sukhdev was the prime accused in the Lahore Conspiracy Case of 1930, whose official title was “Crown versus Sukhdev and others.” The first information report (FIR) of the case, filed by Hamilton Harding, senior superintendent of police, in the court of R.S. Pandit, the special magistrate in April 1929, mentions Sukhdev as accused number 1. It describes him as Swami alias villager, son of Ram Lal, caste Thapar Khatri. After the Central Assembly Hall bombings in New Delhi (8 April 1929), Sukhdev and his accomplices were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death.On 23 March 1931, Thapar was hanged in Lahore jail, along with Bhagat Singh and Shivaram Rajguru. Their bodies were secretly cremated at the banks of the River Sutlej.

Batukeshwar Dutt

Batukeshwar Dutt (18 November 1910–20 July 1965) was an Indianrevolutionary and independence fighter in the early 1900s. He is best known for having exploded a few bombs, along with Bhagat Singh, in the Central Legislative Assembly in New Delhi on 8 April 1929. After they were arrested, tied and imprisoned for life, he and Bhagat Singh initiated a historic hunger strike protesting against the abusive treatment of Indian political prisoners, and eventually secured some rights for them. He was also a member of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.

Batukeshwar Dutt — also known as B. K. Dutt, Battu, and Mohan — was a son of Goshtha Bihari Dutt. He was born on 18 November 1910 in a brahmin family in Oari village, Purba Bardhaman district, in what is now West Bengal. He graduated from P. P. N. High School in Cawnpore. He was a close associate of freedom fighters such as Chandrashekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh, the latter of whom he met in Cawnpore in 1924. He learned about bomb-making while working for the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) there.

To subdue the rise of revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, the British government decided to implement the Defence of India Act 1915, which gave the police a free hand.Influenced by a French anarchist who bombed the French Chamber of Deputies, Singh proposed to the HSRA his plan to explode a bomb inside the Central Legislative Assembly, which was agreed. Initially it was decided that Dutt and Sukhdev would plant the bomb while Singh would travel to the USSR. However, later the plan was changed and Dutt was entrusted with planting it alongside Singh. On 8 April 1929, Singh and Dutt threw two bombs inside the assembly rushing from Visitor’s Gallery. The smoke from the bomb filled the Hall and they shouted slogans of “Inquilab Zindabad!” and showered leaflets. The leaflet claimed that the act was done to oppose the Trade Disputes and the Public Safety Bill being presented in the Central Assembly and the death of Lala Lajapath Rai.Few sustained injuries in the explosion but there were no deaths; Singh and Dutt claimed that the act was intentional. Singh and Dutt were arrested, as planned.

Along with Singh and Sukhdev, Dutt was tried in the Central Assembly Bomb Case, and was sentenced in 1929 to life imprisonment by the Sessions Judge of Delhi under Section 307 of the Indian Penal Code & Section 4 of the Explosive Substances Act. He was deported to the Cellular JailAndaman and Nicobar Islands.

After his release from prison Dutt contracted tuberculosis. He nonetheless participated in the Quit India Movement of Mahatma Gandhi and was again jailed for four years. He was lodged in Motihari Jail (in Champaran district of Bihar). After India gained independence, he married Anjali in November 1947. Independent India did not accord him any recognition, and he spent his remaining life in poverty away from the political limelight. The later life of the freedom fighter was painful and tragic. Being released from jail due to tuberculosis, he was not valued in independent India, he grappled with destitution. He was forced into starting a transport business for livelihood. Dutt outlived all his comrades (except Jaydev Kapoor) and died on 20 July 1965 in the AIIMS hospital in Delhi after a long illness. He was cremated in Hussainiwala near Firozepur in Punjab where the bodies of his comrades Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were also cremated many years before. He was survived by his only daughter, Bharti Dutt Bagchi, in Patna where his house was situated in the Jakkanpur area

Shivaram Rajguru

Shivaram Hari Rajguru (24 August 1908 – 23 March 1931) was an Indianrevolutionary from Maharashtra, known mainly for his involvement in the assassination of a British Raj police officer. He also fought for the independence of India and On 23 March 1931 he was hanged by the British government along with Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev Thapar.

Rajguru was born on 24 August 1908 at Khed to Parvati Devi and Harinarain Rajguru in a Marathi Brahmin family Khed was located at the bank of river Bheema near Poona (present-day Pune). His father died when he was only six years old and the responsibility of family fell on his elder brother Dinkar. He received primary education at Khed and later studied in New English High School in Poona.

He was a member of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, who wanted India to be free from British rule by any means necessary.

Rajguru became a colleague of Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev, and took part in the assassination of a British police officer, J. P. Saunders, at Lahore in 1928. Their actions were to avenge the death of Lala Lajpat Rai who had died a fortnight after being hit by police while on a march protesting the Simon Commission. Rai’s death resulted from the police action.

The three men and 21 other co-conspirators were tried under the provisions of a regulation that was introduced in 1930 specifically for that purpose. All three were convicted of the charges.

Ashfaqulla Khan

Ashfaqulla Khan was born in ShahjahanpurNorth-Western ProvinceBritish India to Shafiqullah Khan and Mazharunissa.

In 1920, Mahatma Gandhi launched his Non-cooperation movement against the British rule in India. But after the Chauri Chaura incident in 1922, Mahatma Gandhi decided to withdraw the call for this movement. At that point, like many young people including Ashfaqulla Khan felt depressed. Ashfaqulla Khan then decided to form an organization with like minded freedom fighters which resulted in the formation of Hindustan Republican Association which was founded in 1924. This association’s purpose was to organize armed revolutions to achieve a free India.

Kakori train robbery

To give a boost to their movement and buy arms and ammunition to carry out their activities, the revolutionaries of Hindustan Socialist Republican Association organised a meeting on 8 August 1925 in Shahjahanpur. After a lot of deliberations, it was decided to loot the government treasury carried in the trains. On 9 August 1925, Ashfaqulla Khan and other revolutionaries, namely Ram Prasad BismilRajendra LahiriThakur Roshan SinghSachindra BakshiChandrashekar AzadKeshab ChakravartyBanwari LalMukundi LalManmathnath Gupta looted the train carrying British government money in Kakori near Lucknow.

A month passed after the train robbery, and yet none of the train robbers were arrested. Although the British government had spread a large investigative net. On the morning of 26 September 1925, Bismil was caught by the police and Ashfaqulla Khan was the only one untraced by the police. He went into hiding and moved to Banaras from Bihar, where he worked in an engineering company for 10 months. He wanted to move abroad to learn engineering to further help the freedom struggle and so he went to Delhi to find out ways to move out of the country. He took the help of one of his Pathan friends who also was his classmate in the past. This friend, in turn, betrayed him by informing the police about his whereabouts.

Ashfaqullah Khan was detained in the Faizabad jail and a case was filed against him. His brother Riyasatullah Khan was his legal counsel. While in jail, Ashfaqulla Khan recited the Quran and started saying his prayers regularly and during the Islamic month of Ramadan strictly fasted. The case for the Kakori dacoity was concluded by awarding death sentence to Bismil, Ashfaqulla Khan, Rajendra Lahiri and Thankur Roshan Singh. The others were given life sentences.

Ashfaqulla Khan was put to death by hanging on 19 December 1927 at Faizabad jail.This revolutionary man became a martyr and a legend among his people due to his love for the motherland, his clear thinking, unshakeable courage, firmness and loyalty

sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil mein hai

sarfaroshī kī tamannā ab hamāre dil meñ hai

dekhnā hai zor kitnā bāzū-e-qātil meñ hai

ai shahīd-e-mulk-o-millat maiñ tire uupar nisār

le tirī himmat kā charchā ġhair kī mahfil meñ hai

vaa.e qismat paañv kī ai kuchh chaltī nahīñ

kārvāñ apnā abhī tak pahlī hī manzil meñ hai

rahrav-e-rāh-e-mohabbat rah na jaanā raah meñ

lazzat-e-sahrā-navardī dūrī-e-manzil meñ hai

shauq se rāh-e-mohabbat kī musībat jhel le

ik ḳhushī kā raaz pinhāñ jāda-e-manzil meñ hai

aaj phir maqtal meñ qātil kah rahā hai baar baar

aa.eñ vo shauq-e-shahādat jin ke jin ke dil meñ hai

marne vaalo aao ab gardan kaTāo shauq se

ye ġhanīmat vaqt hai ḳhanjar kaf-e-qātil meñ hai

māne-e-iz.hār tum ko hai hayā, ham ko adab

kuchh tumhāre dil ke andar kuchh hamāre dil meñ hai

mai-kada sunsān ḳhum ulTe paḌe haiñ jaam chuur

sar-nigūñ baiThā hai saaqī jo tirī mahfil meñ hai

vaqt aane de dikhā deñge tujhe ai āsmāñ

ham abhī se kyuuñ batā.eñ kyā hamāre dil meñ hai

ab na agle valvale haiñ aur na vo armāñ kī bhiiḌ

sirf miT jaane kī ik hasrat dil-e-‘bismil’ meñ hai.

Ram Prasad Bismil

Ram Prasad Bismil was born in Shahjahanpur in 1897. He was sentenced to death by the British for what was known as the “Kakori conspiracy”. He was hanged on December 19, 1927, at the age of 30.

He was associated with the Arya Samaj and was inspired by books written by Swami Dayanand Saraswati. Born to a civic body worker, he was forced to drop out of school because of the lack of money. But that did not kill his passion for reading and poetry.

Bismil became a member of the Hindustan Republican Association at an early age. It was here that he met freedom fighters like Chandra Shekhar Azad, Ashfaqullah Khan, Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru and others.

On August 9, 1925, Bismil, Ashfaqullah Khan and their associates stopped a train at a town called Kakori, just before Lucknow, and looted cash boxes of the British government. Over 40 freedom fighters were arrested after the historic event.

The freedom fighter is also appreciated for his literary legacy.

Ram Prasad Bismil’s collection of poems – ‘Man Ki Lahar’ and ‘Swadeshi Rang’ are well known. The famous lines “Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil mein hai, dekhna hai zor kitna baazu-e-qatil mein hai” written by Urdu poet Bismil Azimabadi, for young freedom fighters, were Ram Prasad Bismil’s war cry.

Ram Mohan Roy

Ram Mohan Roy, Ram Mohan also spelled Rammohun, Rammohan, or Ram Mohun, (born May 22, 1772, Radhanagar, Bengal, India—died September 27, 1833, Bristol, Gloucestershire, England), Indian religious, social, and educational reformer who challenged traditional Hindu culture and indicated lines of progress for Indian society under British rule. He is sometimes called the father of modern India.

Early Life

He was born in British-ruled Bengal to a prosperous family of the Brahman class (varna). Little is known of his early life and education, but he seems to have developed unorthodox religious ideas at an early age. As a youth, he traveled widely outside Bengal and mastered several languages—SanskritPersianArabic, and English, in addition to his native Bengali and Hindi.

Roy supported himself by moneylending, managing his small estates, and speculating in British East India Company bonds. In 1805 he was employed by John Digby, a lower company official who introduced him to Western culture and literature. For the next 10 years Roy drifted in and out of British East India Company service as Digby’s assistant.

Roy continued his religious studies throughout that period. In 1803 he composed a tract denouncing what he regarded as India’s superstition and its religious divisions, both within Hinduism and between Hinduism and other religions. As a remedy for those ills, he advocated a monotheistic Hinduism in which reason guides the adherent to “the Absolute Originator who is the first principle of all religions.” He sought a philosophical basis for his religious beliefs in the Vedas (the sacred scriptures of Hinduism) and the Upanishads (speculative philosophical texts), translating those ancient Sanskrit treatises into Bengali, Hindi, and English and writing summaries and treatises on them. The central theme of those texts, for Roy, was the worship of the Supreme God who is beyond human knowledge and who supports the universe. In appreciation of his translations, the French Société Asiatique in 1824 elected him to an honorary membership.

In 1815 Roy founded the short-lived Atmiya-Sabha (Friendly Society) to propagate his doctrines of monotheistic Hinduism. He became interested in Christianity and learned Hebrew and Greek in order to read the Old (see Hebrew Bible) and New Testaments. In 1820 he published the ethical teachings of Christ, excerpted from the four Gospels, under the title Precepts of Jesus, the Guide to Peace and Happiness.

Social And Political Activism

In 1823, when the British imposed censorship upon the Calcutta (Kolkata) press, Roy, as founder and editor of two of India’s earliest weekly newspapers, organized a protest, arguing in favour of freedom of speech and religion as natural rights. That protest marked a turning point in Roy’s life, away from preoccupation with religious polemic and toward social and political action. In his newspapers, treatises, and books, Roy tirelessly criticized what he saw as the idolatry and superstition of traditional Hinduism. He denounced the caste system and attacked the custom of suttee (ritual burning of widows upon the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands). His writings emboldened the British East India Governing Council to act decisively on the matter, leading to the prohibition of suttee in 1829.

In 1822 Roy founded the Anglo-Hindu School and four years later the Vedanta College in order to teach his Hindu monotheistic doctrines. When the Bengal government proposed a more traditional Sanskrit college, in 1823, Roy protested that classical Indian literature would not prepare the youth of Bengal for the demands of modern life. He proposed instead a modern Western curriculum of study. Roy also led a protest against the outmoded British legal and revenue administration in India.

In August 1828 Roy formed the Brahmo Samaj (Society of Brahma), a Hindu reformist sect that utilized Unitarian and other liberal Christian elements in its beliefs. The Brahmo Samaj was to play an important part, later in the century, as a Hindu movement of reform.

In 1829 Roy journeyed to England as the unofficial representative of the titular king of Delhi. The king of Delhi granted him the title of raja, though it was unrecognized by the British. Roy was well received in England, especially by Unitarians there and by King William IV. Roy died of a fever while in the care of Unitarian friends at Bristol, where he was buried.

Roy’s importance in modern Indian history rests partly upon the broad scope of his social vision and the striking modernity of his thought. He was a tireless social reformer, yet he also revived interest in the ethical principles of the Vedanta school as a counterpoise to the Western assault on Indian culture. In his textbooks and treatises he contributed to the popularization of the Bengali language, while at the same time he was the first Indian to apply to the Indian environment the fundamental social and political ideas of the French and American revolutions.

Chandrasekhar Azad

Chandrasekhar Azad, original name Chandrasekhar Tiwari, Chandrasekhar also spelled Chandrashekhar or Chandra Shekhar, (born July 23, 1906, Bhabra, India—died February 27, 1931, Allahabad), Indian revolutionary who organized and led a band of militant youth during India’s independence movement.

Azad was drawn into the Indian national movement at a young age. When apprehended by the police at age 15 while participating in Mohandas K. Gandhi’s noncooperation movement (1920–22) at Banares (now Varanasi), he gave his name as Azad (Urdu: “Free” or “Liberated”) and his address as “prison.” Although because of his age he was not imprisoned, he was given a severe flogging by the police. The Indian National Congress (Congress Party) soon lionized him, and he gained popularity among the Indian people.

Azad was disappointed by Gandhi’s suspension of the noncooperation movement in February 1922, after several policemen had been murdered by a revolutionary mob at Chauri Chaura. Joining the radical Hindustan Republican Association (HRA), Azad participated in several violent crimes, notably the Kakori train robbery (1925) and the revenge killing of a British police officer (1928).

Known for his organizational skills, Azad played a key role in reorganizing the HRA as the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association after most of the HRA’s members had been killed or imprisoned. His crimes had made him a wanted man, but Azad was able to elude the police and its informants for several years. According to Jawaharlal Nehru’s autobiography, it was during this period of underground existence that Azad met Nehru in early 1931 to enquire whether—under the discussions being held that resulted in the signing of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact in March—the revolutionaries could expect a fair deal leading to their honourable rehabilitation.

Determined never to be captured by police, Azad was constantly on the move. On February 27, 1931, Azad arranged to meet a revolutionary at Allahabad’s Alfred Park (now Azad Park). He was betrayed to the police, who surrounded him as soon as he entered the park. A gun battle ensued, in which two police officers were wounded, and Azad was fatally shot.

Kakori Conspiracy

Kakori Conspiracy, also called Kakori Conspiracy Case or Kakori Train Robberyarmed robbery on August 9, 1925, of a train in what is now central Uttar Pradesh state, north-central India, and the subsequent court trial instituted by the government of British India against more than two dozen men accused of involvement, directly or otherwise, in the crime.

The robbery took place at the town of Kakori, about 10 miles (16 km) northwest of Lucknow, the train’s final destination. On board the train was money that had been collected from various railway stations enroute and that was to be deposited at Lucknow. In a well-planned operation, Ramprasad Bismil led a band of 10 revolutionary activists who stopped the train, subdued the train’s guard and passengers, and forced open the safe in the guard’s quarters before fleeing with the cash found within it. The raiders were members of the newly established Hindustan Republican Association (HRA), a militant organization dedicated to freeing India from British rule through revolution, including armed rebellion. To fund their activities, the HRA carried out raids such as the train robbery.

Within a month of the attack, more than two dozen HRA members had been arrested for conspiracy and for having perpetrated the act. More arrests followed, and in all, some 40 people were rounded up. Eventually, 29 individuals were put on trial before the special magistrate at Lucknow. Of those, three—including Chandrasekhar Azad, a leader of the HRA—remained at large, and two others became witnesses for the prosecution in return for lighter sentences. The trial continued for nearly 18 months, with many leading nationalist lawyers providing defense counsel for the accused.

The final judgments were pronounced on April 6, 1927. Three (later four) men were sentenced to death, and one was given life imprisonment. Most of the remaining defendants were given prison sentences of up to 14 years, although two were acquitted, and two more were pardoned. Azad remained unapprehended and was killed in an encounter with police in February 1931. The severity of the sentences—particularly of capital punishment—provoked considerable outcry among the general Indian populace. Several attempts were made to save the four who were sentenced to die, including passage of a motion in the legislative council of the United Provinces (the colonial precursor to Uttar Pradesh) and a petition to the British viceroy, but they were rejected. The four men were executed in December 1927.

Lakshmi Bai

Queen of Jhansi.

Lakshmi Bai, also spelled Laxmi Bai, (born c. November 19, 1835, Kashi, India—died June 17, 1858, Kotah-ki-Serai, near Gwalior), rani (queen) of Jhansi and a leader of the Indian Mutiny of 1857–58.

Brought up in the household of the peshwa (ruler) Baji Rao II, Lakshmi Bai had an unusual upbringing for a Brahman girl. Growing up with the boys in the peshwa’s court, she was trained in martial arts and became proficient in sword fighting and riding. She married the maharaja of Jhansi, Gangadhar Rao, but was widowed without bearing a surviving heir to the throne. Following established Hindu tradition, just before his death the maharaja adopted a boy as his heir. Lord Dalhousie, the British governor-general of India, refused to recognize the adopted heir and annexed Jhansi in accordance with the doctrine of lapse. An agent of the East India Company was posted in the small kingdom to look after administrative matters.

The 22-year-old queen refused to cede Jhansi to the British. Shortly after the beginning of the mutiny in 1857, which broke out in Meerut, Lakshmi Bai was proclaimed the regent of Jhansi, and she ruled on behalf of the minor heir. Joining the uprising against the British, she rapidly organized her troops and assumed charge of the rebels in the Bundelkhand region. Mutineers in the neighbouring areas headed toward Jhansi to offer her support.

Under Gen. Hugh Rose, the East India Company’s forces had begun their counteroffensive in Bundelkhand by January 1858. Advancing from Mhow, Rose captured Saugor (now Sagar) in February and then turned toward Jhansi in March. The company’s forces surrounded the fort of Jhansi, and a fierce battle raged. Offering stiff resistance to the invading forces, Lakshmi Bai did not surrender even after her troops were overwhelmed and the rescuing army of Tantia Tope, another rebel leader, was defeated at the Battle of Betwa. Lakshmi Bai managed to escape from the fort with a small force of palace guards and headed eastward, where other rebels joined her.Tantia Tope and Lakshmi Bai then mounted a successful assault on the city-fortress of Gwalior. The treasury and the arsenal were seized, and Nana Sahib, a prominent leader, was proclaimed as the peshwa (ruler). After taking Gwalior, Lakshmi Bai marched east to Morar to confront a British counterattack led by Rose. Dressed as a man, she fought a fierce battle and was killed in combat.

Indian Mutiny

Indian Mutiny, also called Sepoy Mutiny or First War of Independence, widespread but unsuccessful rebellion against British rule in India in 1857–59. Begun in Meerut by Indian troops (sepoys) in the service of the British East India Company, it spread to DelhiAgraKanpur, and Lucknow. In India it is often called the First War of Independence and other similar names.


To regard the rebellion merely as a sepoy mutiny is to underestimate the root causes leading to it. British paramountcy—i.e., the belief in British dominance in Indian political, economic, and cultural life—had been introduced in India about 1820. The British increasingly used a variety of tactics to usurp control of the Hindu princely states that were under what were called subsidiary alliances with the British. Everywhere the old Indian aristocracy was being replaced by British officials. One notable British technique was called the doctrine of lapse, first perpetrated by Lord Dalhousie in the late 1840s. It involved the British prohibiting a Hindu ruler without a natural heir from adopting a successor and, after the ruler died or abdicated, annexing his land. To those problems may be added the growing discontent of the Brahmans, many of whom had been dispossessed of their revenues or had lost lucrative positions.

Another serious concern was the increasing pace of Westernization, by which Hindu society was being affected by the introduction of Western ideas. Missionaries were challenging the religious beliefs of the Hindus. The humanitarian movement led to reforms that went deeper than the political superstructure. During his tenure as governor-general of India (1848–56), Lord Dalhousie made efforts toward emancipating women and had introduced a bill to remove all legal obstacles to the remarriage of Hindu widows. Converts to Christianity were to share with their Hindu relatives in the property of the family estate. There was a widespread belief that the British aimed at breaking down the caste system. The introduction of Western methods of education was a direct challenge to orthodoxy, both Hindu and Muslim.

The mutiny broke out in the Bengal army because it was only in the military sphere that Indians were organized. The pretext for revolt was the introduction of the new Enfield rifle. To load it, the sepoys had to bite off the ends of lubricated cartridges. A rumour spread among the sepoys that the grease used to lubricate the cartridges was a mixture of pigs’ and cows’ lard; thus, to have oral contact with it was an insult to both Muslims and Hindus. There is no conclusive evidence that either of these materials was actually used on any of the cartridges in question. However, the perception that the cartridges were tainted added to the larger suspicion that the British were trying to undermine Indian traditional society. For their part, the British did not pay enough attention to the growing level of sepoy discontent.

The Rebellion

In late March 1857 a sepoy named Mangal Pandey attacked British officers at the military garrison in Barrackpore. He was arrested and then executed by the British in early April. Later in April sepoy troopers at Meerut refused the Enfield cartridges, and, as punishment, they were given long prison terms, fettered, and put in jail. This punishment incensed their comrades, who rose on May 10, shot their British officers, and marched to Delhi, where there were no European troops. There the local sepoy garrison joined the Meerut men, and by nightfall the aged pensionary Mughal emperor Bahādur Shah II had been nominally restored to power by a tumultuous soldiery. The seizure of Delhi provided a focus and set the pattern for the whole mutiny, which then spread throughout northern India. With the exception of the Mughal emperor and his sons and Nana Sahib, the adopted son of the deposed Maratha peshwa, none of the important Indian princes joined the mutineers.

From the time of the mutineers’ seizure of Delhi, the British operations to suppress the mutiny were divided into three parts. First came the desperate struggles at Delhi, Kanpur, and Lucknow during the summer; then the operations around Lucknow in the winter of 1857–58, directed by Sir Colin Campbell; and finally the “mopping up” campaigns of Sir Hugh Rose in early 1858. Peace was officially declared on July 8, 1859.

A grim feature of the mutiny was the ferocity that accompanied it. The mutineers commonly shot their British officers on rising and were responsible for massacres at Delhi, Kanpur, and elsewhere. The murder of women and children enraged the British, but in fact some British officers began to take severe measures before they knew that any such murders had occurred. In the end the reprisals far outweighed the original excesses. Hundreds of sepoys were bayoneted or fired from cannons in a frenzy of British vengeance (though some British officers did protest the bloodshed).


The immediate result of the mutiny was a general housecleaning of the Indian administration. The East India Company was abolished in favour of the direct rule of India by the British government. In concrete terms, this did not mean much, but it introduced a more personal note into the government and removed the unimaginative commercialism that had lingered in the Court of Directors. The financial crisis caused by the mutiny led to a reorganization of the Indian administration’s finances on a modern basis. The Indian army was also extensively reorganized.

Another significant result of the mutiny was the beginning of the policy of consultation with Indians. The Legislative Council of 1853 had contained only Europeans and had arrogantly behaved as if it were a full-fledged parliament. It was widely felt that a lack of communication with Indian opinion had helped to precipitate the crisis. Accordingly, the new council of 1861 was given an Indian-nominated element. The educational and public works programs (roads, railways, telegraphs, and irrigation) continued with little interruption; in fact, some were stimulated by the thought of their value for the transport of troops in a crisis. But insensitive British-imposed social measures that affected Hindu society came to an abrupt end.

Finally, there was the effect of the mutiny on the people of India themselves. Traditional society had made its protest against the incoming alien influences, and it had failed. The princes and other natural leaders had either held aloof from the mutiny or had proved, for the most part, incompetent. From this time all serious hope of a revival of the past or an exclusion of the West diminished. The traditional structure of Indian society began to break down and was eventually superseded by a Westernized class system, from which emerged a strong middle class with a heightened sense of Indian nationalism.

Create your website at
Get started