Singapore boy's life-changing encounter with Indian freedom fighter

V.K. SANTOSH KUMAR

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was just 1.74 metres tall. But he had a towering presence.

That was because of his immense ability to sway people with his words and the indomitable strength of his personality.

While Indian independence icon Mahatma Gandhi espoused non-violent methods to oust the British, Netaji believed that only an armed revolution would end colonial rule.

He sought the support of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan to achieve his goal and through motivational speeches got thousands of expatriate Indians in South-east Asia to join his fledgling army and provide financial support.

A young Ishar Singh did not know all this when he blocked Netaji from entering the Indian National Army's (INA) office at 18 Mount Rosie Road in Singapore in July 1943.

The Indian leader, who was born in Cuttack, Odisha, in 1897, had an appointment to meet Mr Rash Behari Bose, the commander-in-chief of the INA, which was formed by the Japanese in December 1941 to fight the British along with their own men.

But Ishar, who was 14 years old and worked as an assistant to Mr Rash Behari, did not know about it.

"Netaji was climbing up the stairs to meet my master Rash Behari Bose when I stopped him," said Mr Singh, now aged 90 and a resident of the Sree Narayana Mission Nursing Home in Yishun. "I told him he cannot go up.

"He looked at me, put his hand on my shoulder and laughed. He then asked me my name.

"I told him, 'Ishar Singh, son of Kajan Singh'. Netaji then told me, 'From today, you are ishwar ke lal (son of god)'.

"I immediately adopted that name, Ishwar Lall Singh. I added a second l to Lal because I wanted to be different."

Already mesmerised by Netaji, Mr Singh decided to become a full-time follower after he met the Indian nationalist a few more times at Mr Rash Behari's office.

"We made only small talk, but I was overwhelmed by his presence," said Mr Singh. "He had charisma. I could see a light around him.

"O koi tha (he was somebody). When he moved, something moved along with him."

Mr Singh found a full-time job at the INA office after Netaji, who escaped from India in January 1941 after the British tried to arrest him, took control of the organisation from Mr Rash Behari on July 4, 1943. But the boy wanted to be a member of the INA.

"I wanted to fight for India's freedom," said Mr Singh, who was born in Singapore in 1929 after his father, a cattle trader, arrived here from Kilianwali, a village in Fazilka district of Punjab, a couple of years earlier with his mother, Karam Kaur. "But the staff at the INA office said I could not join the INA because I was too young. They told me to join the Balak Sena (the INA boys' brigade) instead."

The INA was training boys to be the future leaders of the Indian independence movement.

"I joined it along with a group of 40 boys who were aged 14 to 15," said Mr Singh, who studied up to seventh standard. "They came from Singapore, Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur and Seremban.

"We were housed at the Azad School (2 Gilstead Road) and taught to handle rifles and other weapons. Some boys were even chosen to go for fighter-pilot training in Japan."

Mr Singh got the chance to directly ask Netaji about a role in the INA when the Indian patriot made his first public address at the Padang on July 9, 1943.

Four days earlier, Netaji had reviewed the INA troops at the Padang, where he delivered the famous "Dilli Chalo (Onwards to Delhi)" address.

His words galvanised the 13,000-strong force, whose morale was low after its first commander-in-chief Mohan Singh, a former British Indian Army officer and Japanese prisoner of war, was removed by the Japanese following disagreements.

"There were around 60,000 Indians (on July 9, 1943 at the Padang), but I was brave enough to walk up to Netaji and ask him if I could join the INA," said Mr Singh.

"He looked at me and said, 'You are too young, a time will come when you will join.

"I was sorrowful that he didn't take me. I wanted to join the INA. I was good at using weapons."

Mr Singh, nevertheless, devoted all his attention and time to Balak Sena. He received weapons training and was given the rank of havildar major (equivalent to sergeant) in 1944 after which he was sent to teach Hindi and Indian history to boys at the Ramakrishna Mission in Norris Road.

"I felt energised by Netaji's speeches at Waterloo Street (open ground)," said Mr Singh.

"I shouted inquilab (long live the revolution) when Netaji paused after making a patriotic statement. I really wanted to play a more active role in India's fight for independence."

Mr Singh's world came crashing down when the INA was dissolved in August 1945 after the Japanese surrendered to the British forces.

"I felt very bad," he said. "I was particularly upset that the British demolished the INA monument (whose foundation stone was laid by Netaji (on July 8, 1945) at the Esplanade. I wanted to take revenge."

According to Mr Singh, he and four other Balak Sena members decided to destroy the war memorial that the British had built around the same Esplanade area. "We had the explosives, but we couldn't place it because the memorial was always well guarded," he said. "We tried for three months and then gave up."

The "end of the INA movement" came for Mr Singh when he and a few Balak Sena mates "buried the three rifles we had in a hole in the ground at Farrer Park".

Subsequently, following his parents' orders, he found a job as a storeman with the British Royal Army Ordinance Corp (RAOC) and became a supervisor in 1949.

He was with the RAOC till 1956, before he joined the Singapore Volunteer Force as a recruit. Two years later, he became a sergeant and in 1962 was promoted to officer. He later served the Singapore Armed Forces for 22 years before retiring in 1984.

In 2014, Mr Singh lost his wife Jasbir Kaur, a Chinese homemaker he married in 1958. Soon after, he began to live with one of his three nephews, the children of his younger brother Satwant Singh who later went by the name Ishar Singh, as he did not have a child of his own to take care of him.

Last year, he decided to move to the Sree Narayana Mission Nursing Home after he had a series of falls and needed constant care. "My legs are weak but otherwise I'm healthy," said Mr Singh, who moves about on a wheelchair. "I'm not in touch with any INA veteran in Singapore but there is a group in India who give me the latest news about Netaji and the INA."

He is aware that filmmaker Kabir Khan's five-part series on the INA, The Forgotten Army: Azaadi ke liye, was recently launched on Amazon. He will watch it when he gets the chance.

santosh@sph.com.sg

"My uncle and father were once warriors. They were there during the Konfrantasi, my uncle in the Malaysian jungles (with the army) and my dad (with the police force) in Pasir Laba weeding out potential saboteurs.

The stories my uncle shares are not just his, but that of the brothers and sisters who showed no fear nor favour during the tumultuous years."

- Mr Melvinderpal Singh, nephew of Mr Ishwar Lall Singh and copy editor with The Straits Times

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