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'What we are seeing today is not the country of our dreams, it is some injustice of God'

They had not expected this, not after months of sacrifice and deprivation. They had dreamt of a free India, of a glorious national future, of a welcome reserved for heros who had sacrificed their all for their nation.

What the Indian National Army soldiers got instead were a Red Fort trial, dishonourable discharge from an army that refused to accept them even after Independence, no pension and a swift disappearance from an extremely short public memory.

Besides, both the INA personnel and their families also faced mental trauma. Says Avtar Singh Khera, "Soon after my father, Lt Shangara Singh Khera, joined the INA, we got a letter saying that he had become a casualty. We believed them and even performed the bhog ceremony. Three years later, my father returned home safely." Such false reports led to traumatic consequences as many women set up homes with other men, thinking their husbands had died.

Khera, senior, who died two years ago, left a boxful of documents in Urdu, which reveal that he had strongly objected to the formation of the Rani of Jhansi regiment for women and advised Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose not to waste his meagre resources on it. Netaji told Khera he hoped the Indian soldiers in the British army would not fire against Indian women in uniform and would even revolt against the British.

The INA soldiers believe India would have been different had Netaji survived the 1945 air crash in which he perished. All of them agree they would have been drafted into the national army. And, as 75-year-old Pritam Singh, a wireless operator with the INA, puts it, "All this corruption would not not have happened. Netaji realised the need for a limited dictatorship for India. Only then would have the people realised the value of their votes."

Avtar Singh, military officer in the INA's intelligence service, adds, "Netaji's single-minded devotion to the country is the need of the hour today. We (the former INA personnel) too would not have faced so many problems if he was there. We are facing this step-motherly treatment only because of the Congress's opposition to the INA movement and the fact that there was no dynamic leader after Netaji."

It was only in 1972, after many of their comrades-in-arms had died in abject poverty, that INA veterans were awarded a pension. No wonder then, the disillusioned survivors of Netaji's INA are in no way enthused by the celebrations plans for the 50th anniversary of Indian Independence.

''This is not what we had fought for. What we are seeing today is not the country of our dreams, it is some injustice of God,'' says Pritam Singh. While Lt Kartar Singh, whose discharge card reads ''dismissed from service for being an ex-INA member,'' is most disturbed by highly placed politicians who indulge in corruption. He feels the anniversary celebrations are just a show to gain political mileage.

Both Pritam Singh and Kartar Singh believe the INA hastened the Independence process. Their bravery motivated the soldiers in the regular army to revolt against the British; the naval mutiny in Bombay was, they believe, a fallout of the INA's battle for Independence.

They also mourn the fact that the INA was not successful in freeing India from the clutches of the British. Avtar Singh insists this failure was the direct result of a lack of dedication in many INA soldiers who had joined the force only in order to reach India. "Many of them just threw away their weapons and surrendered on reaching the Indian borders," he mourns.

The more fatalistic Pritam Singh says God foiled the INA's intentions by bringing in the monsoon a fortnight ahead of schedule. The INA was caught unawares in Imphal as "rivulets became rivers and all movement came to a standstill."

Even in those circumstances, Netaji never caved in. Pritam Singh recalls Netaji's ADC, Captain Shamsher Singh's words, "You (the soldiers) are better off during the air raids in Rangoon. You can at least take shelter. Netaji does not even get up from his desk during the raids."

Widows of INA veterans who survived the war related how their husbands were unable to adjust to the new environment or to the fact that they did not get their due from Indian society.

The veterans feel they should be part of the golden jubilee celebrations. As Pritam Singh says, "Very few of us are left; they should involve us in some way so that the young generations will be inspired."

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