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Indian Air Force supported Azad Hind Fauj soldiers

Saquib Salim

“The Royal Indian Air Force cannot be regarded as reliable”, this was an observation made by the Cabinet Mission in 1946 while considering the reliability of the Indian Air Force in suppressing any anti-British movement in India. The Commander-in-Chief of the British Indian Army estimated that he would be needing at least five air transport squadrons in the event of mutiny by the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF).

Seldom do we appreciate the role of the Indian soldiers serving the British army in the Indian Freedom Struggle and even more rare is the realisation that the Air Force also took part in the Freedom Struggle. After the Azad Hind Fauj led by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose faced reverses in the Second World War and its soldiers were brought to India almost all sections of the British Indian Army started showing tendencies of mutinies in support of Azad Hind Fauj soldiers.

The Royal Naval Mutiny of February 1946 is more well known but the way was shown by Air Force officers. At several stations, Air Force personnel started showing dissatisfaction by going on strikes. Historian Deniss Judd writes, “Only in 1946 did a series of mutinies have the effect of galvanizing the British government…units of the Indian Air Force were the next to mutiny, and much worse was to follow”. 

On 18 February 1946, the ratings of the Royal Indian Navy mutinied in support of Azad Hind Fauj soldiers who had been taken as Prisoners of War. David Duncon who faced Court Martial proceedings about the Air Force mutiny near Karachi wrote, “When some of the ratings ashore were involved in skirmishes with soldiers, the mutineers on board the ships in the harbour trained their guns on the city and threatened a bombardment. Lieutenant-General R M M Lockhart, GOC, Southern Command, assumed command of all navy, army, and RAF forces, with instructions to restore order as quickly as possible. The RAF was ordered to prepare to sink the ships in the hands of the mutineers. The men surrendered, however, mainly in response to appeals from leaders of the Indian National Congress. There followed four days of riots in the city, and there were hundreds of casualties.”   

Kohat (now in Pakistan) was the only Air Force Station with an Indian Station Commander. Group Captain (later Air Chief Marshal) Aspy Engineer was the Station Commander. Airmen came to know that they might be ordered to bomb Naval mutineers. Maj. Gen. V. K Singh writes that Squadron Leader (later Vice Marshal) Harjinder Singh went to Kohat from Peshawar to diffuse the situation. 

V. K Singh writes, “After talking to the men, Harjinder found that they had heard that it was planned to bomb and machine gun the naval ratings that had gone on strike in Bombay. When asked for their demands, they said that the station commander should send a message to the commander-in-chief in Delhi telling him that the Indian Air Force Station Kohat refused to cooperate in bombing their colleagues in the navy. Also, in the signal it should be mentioned that the Air Force station Kohat sympathizes with the relatives of the people who have been killed in the firing at Bombay.”

Harjinder later recalled, “In fairness to Aspy I must say he sent the signal to General Auchinleck on the lines that I had promised the airmen.” It was unprecedented that an Indian Air Force officer sent a message to the Commander in Chief that they sympathized with Indian nationalists killed during the freedom struggle and would not obey any order to take action against their countrymen. 

There were many such incidents at dozens of Air Force Stations which alarmed the British Government. The writing on the wall was clear. The British could not rule over India anymore. After this, they hastily divided the country and left. 

There is no doubt that these conditions where the British could not trust Indian officers and soldiers had occurred after Subhas Chandra Bose created an army out of them. These mutinies of 1946 were also a direct outcome of the trials of Azad Hind Fauj soldiers which were opposed by the Indians united.



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