Obituary: Niranjan Singh Gill

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Niranjan Singh Gill, soldier and diplomat, born Majitha (Punjab state) 15 January 1906, Indian ambassador to Ethiopia 1955-60, Thailand 1962-64, Mexico 1964-66, died Amritsar 19 August 1992.

NIRANJAN SINGH GILL, founder of the renegade Indian National Army, raised from amongst Indian prisoners of war with Japanese encouragement and arms to fight the British for independence during the Second World War, was one of the heroes of the Indian freedom struggle. He later served as ambassador to several countries.

After the war Gill, one of the first Indian officers in the British- Indian army, was imprisoned in the historic Red Fort in New Delhi, categorised 'Black' and cashiered. Sixteen months later, after India's independence in 1947, he was declared a freedom fighter and for 11 years was variously ambassador to Ethiopia, Thailand and Mexico.

Taken prisoner by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore in 1942, Gill and fellow Indian officers, aided by the Japanese, raised the first Indian National Army (INA) to strike a blow for India's freedom by attacking the British via Burma. But vacillation by the Japanese high command in ordering an offensive on poorly defended Burma in 1942 skewered Gill's initiative and led to his being tortured and placed in solitary confinement by the Kemptai, the Japanese secret police, for the remaining 33 months of the war.

But Gill's success in raising the INA was reaped by Subhash Chander Bose, a firebrand Bengali revolutionary who believed that India's independence could only come through violence. Unanimously chosen to lead the INA at its formal founding in Tokyo in March 1942, Bose was initially unable to assume command as he was busy organising anti-British groups in Europe as a guest of Hitler and Mussolini. In mid 1943, however, he took charge of the INA in Singapore having formed the Provisional Government of Free India and declared war on the Allies. Although frugally armed and appallingly equipped, the INA fought alongside the Japanese, accompanying them in their thrust into north-eastern India from Burma before eventually surrendering in 1945. Bose escaped, but died soon after when his aircraft crashed in Tapei en route to Russia, where he was hoping to continue India's independence struggle.

Gill was born in 1906 near Amritsar, into a landed Sikh family. Educated at Aitcheson Chiefs College in Lahore (now in Pakistan), he was commissioned from the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, in 1925, first into the 7th cavalry, before transferring to the 4/19 Hyderabad Regiment which surrendered in Singapore in 1942.

As POW Gill met Captain Mohan Singh, a fellow Sikh officer who, embittered by the attitude of British officers to Indian soldiers, initiated him into raising the INA from amongst 45,000 Indian POWs. Gill travelled to Tokyo, met General Tojo, the Japanese premier, and was one of a handful of Indians present when the INA was formally launched.

Soon after, he raised the first division of the INA with 17,000 soldiers and was despatched to Rangoon with the idea of establishing the INA's forward headquarters. After months of inexplicable inactivity, during which the Japanese clashed with INA members in Singapore over refusing publicly to declare they stood for India's independence, Gill was recalled to Singapore and arrested.

Charged with desertion after the Japanese defeat in 1945, Gill was gaoled in Delhi's Red Fort and the existence of the INA - till now a military secret out to prevent other Indian troops from mutinying - was made public. But the independence struggle was at its height and overnight the incarcerated INA members became heroes, forcing the British to cashier merely a handful of officers including Gill and imprisoning only three others, soon freed under public pressure.

After independence Gill worked for the rehabilitation of former INA colleagues before being offered the Ethiopian ambassadorship by Prime Minister Nehru in 1955. He was envoy to Thailand in 1962 and Mexico in 1964 before retiring to charity and social work in Amritsar.