In the first half of the 20th century, Malaya and Burma were very popular destinations for Malayali immigrants. From doctors working for the Indian Medical Service in Rangoon to labourers who built newly colonised cities, this migration transcended caste, religion and class.
For many of these people, the turning point in life was the Japanese Imperial Army’s invasion of these colonies. In the case of Burma, many Malayalis fled the country with the British, although their path to safety was more difficult than that for Europeans. A large number stayed back in these places that were under Japanese rule.
The new rulers of these lands were eager to win Indians over and the newly-formed Indian National Army (INA), led by Subash Chandra Bose, in Japanese-controlled territory attracted people from the diaspora.
History books don’t teach us much about the Malayalis who formed a part of the INA. The first name that comes to mind, without doubt, is Annakara-born Captain Lakshmi who set up the Rani of Jhansi regiment.
The INA did manage to find other Malayali recruits whose names can now only be found in archival documents that were declassified after the British left India.
At the time of Japan’s surrender in the Second World War in 1945, some INA cadets were being trained in the country. While officers and soldiers, especially those who were ex-Indian Army personnel, were taken back from reconquered territories by the British to India for trials, these cadets received lenient treatment.
In the winter of 1945, a group of 45 INA Cadets from Tokyo were taken on board IMS Glenearn. Some of these young men had joined the INA from Burma and Malaya and the original plan for the British victors was to dump them to the authorities in Singapore.
For some reason, though, this plan did not materialise, and they were taken to Madras. These young men hailed from various parts of the subcontinent.
The British were simply not keen on them living in India and would have preferred sending them back to their families in Burma or Malaya. “Our policy is that collaborators of non-Indian domicile should not ordinarily be permitted to come to India,” an unnamed official from the Home Department said in a note, dated May 16, 1946, to the Intelligence Bureau. The official added that it was not easy to kick them out of the country: “The persons concerned appear to be British subjects and no British subject, whether having his home in Burma or Malaya or anywhere else, can be forced to leave India except of course under the Restriction and Detention Ordinance, the use of which would not be justified.” The official suggested that authorities in other British-controlled territories be requested to not send such people to India.
L P Biggie, who was Assistant Director in the Intelligence Bureau, wrote in a message to the Home Department, dated May 22, 1946, “nothing serious about them has to come to our notice.” The declassified files suggest that attempts were made to track the movements of these cadets.
The list of INA Cadets contained a few who hailed from what is now Kerala. N Damodara Menon, son of N K Menon, gave a Penang address but added that his brother was a student at Presidency College, Madras. He had managed to evade the authorities after he was allowed into India.
Cecil Lakhsman Thevar, also a resident of Penang, gave an address in Thrissur in the care of Mrs C P M Menon of the Chorupal Pathipara House. This young man was also untraceable.
Another Malayali on the list was Rabindranath, son of Janardhanan Pillai, who was based in Johor. The cadet listed Mavelikkara as an alternative place of residence.
Brothers C P Narayana and C P Krishnan, sons of T P Kerunakaran who lived in Malacca, first went to Chittur in what is now the Palakkad district. From there they left for Calcutta, which had an INA Relief Committee that helped people move back to their place of domicile.
Not much is known of their lives after the end of the Second World War and India’s attainment of independence, but this article by Bengaluru-based author Tanvi Srivastava has updates on some of them from 1992. At least three of the Malayali cadets went on to have careers as pilots, according to the article
Dedicated research on the Malayali involvement in the INA would help us know a lot more about Malayali community life in Burma and Malaya before and during the Second World War.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)