An Indian Army Refugee, 1942

With the creation of the Indian National Army, the connections that colonial rule had forged along the [British Southeast Asian] crescent were beginning to resurface. Nor was it just the politics of the Japanese Empire that were doing this, but also a flow of refugees that was beginning to make it across the crescent to territory still held by the British. Among the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons wandering through Burma in the later months of 1942 were a few members of the Indian army who had evaded capture in Singapore. These men bought valuable but disquieting news of the Indian National Army to the British. They included Captain Pritam Singh of 2/16 Punjab Regiment. Having seen Indian officers slapped and beaten by the Japanese in a ‘demonstration of love towards the Asiatic races’, as he put it, he decided to escape north by taxi and train in civilian clothes. He bought a false Japanese passport in Penang and got into Thailand. Further north, he stayed for some time with a Kiplingesque character called Khan Zada. The Khan was a Pathan who had spent twelve years in jail in Calcutta for murder, but ended up as a butcher on the Thai-Burmese border. Now aged seventy, he had recently shot his son in the thigh for some mild misdemeanor. Evading Japanese spies and staying in gurdwaras (Sikh temples), Pritam Singh eventually ended up in Kalewa, where the refugees had recently died in thousands. He shaved his head and beard to be less conspicuous and finally escaped into British India via Imphal.

SOURCE: Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire & the War with Japan, by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (Penguin, 2004), pp. 258-259

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