Indian Muslim soldiers: heroic role in Indonesia’s liberation

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Indonesia (then known as “Netherlands East Indies”) during the World War II was fighting its war of independence from the Dutch clutches. Allied forces (British and Dutch) under the pretext of fighting the Japanese were deployed at various places. The “Gurkha” regiment was part of these forces comprised of Muslims, Sikhs, Jats and Marhatas. During their operations, they found that they were not deployed to fight the Japanese but to suppress the Indonesians who were struggling to throw away the Dutch yoke of slavery. Repeated cries of “Allah-u-Akbar” from the resisting Indonesians and their villages made the Muslim soldiers realise that they were misled by the British and, in fact, were made to fight their co-religionists. Inspired by the zeal of jihad, 600 Muslim soldiers defected from the British forces and joined the Indonesian resistance group of freedom fighters alongwith their arms and ammunitions.

Though they were instructed not to listen to radio or mix with local people, Muslim soldiers in the British army quite often used to listen to radio and speeches by Mahatma Gandhi, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Muhammad Ali Jinnah urging them to fight against the imperialist forces and enlightening them about the plights of Muslims of Indonesia who were fighting for their independence.

These 600 soldiers fought shoulder to shoulder with the Indoneaisn freedom fighters and suffered heavy losses. By the time Indonesia gained its independence in 1945, the 600-strong band of deserters was reduced to only 75. With their mission coming to an end, many of the surviving soldiers preferred to remain in Indonesia which readily granted them regular ranks in the Indonesian army. Some of them married locally and those who opted to return to their homeland (India/Pakistan) were absorbed by the Indonesian embassies as security officers.

On 25 September 1945, Japan surrendered to the Allies after America dropped its atomic bombs on Nagasiki (5 August 1945). The British army was assigned the Indonesian region to disarm the surrendering Japanese forces. Three brigades of Muslim troops landed on the Dutch-held island of Java. Brigade I landed in Jakarta, Brigade 38 in Semarang and Brigade 49 in Surabaya. Division 32 of Brigade 1 was commanded by Abdul Matin and Ghulam Ali. Their first task was to disarm and take all Japanese as prisoners and confiscate weapons from local residents. When they heard appeals made by Gandhi, Azad and Jinnah, Muslim troops became reluctant in carrying out the British orders which they felt as detrimental to Indonesians.

Ghulam Ali and other Muslim soldiers unlocked a clothing warehouse and distributed clothes to the Indonesians. Many Indonesians did not have enough food and suffered from serious medical problems such as swollen feet. Ghulam Rasul distributed rice, sugar, salt and other items among them. Muslim troops jointly deserted from the British army and joined the Indonesian resistance army. They took their equipment and weapons too alongwith them. They were integrated into units of Tentara Keamanan Rakayat (TKR), Badan Keamanan Rakayat (BKR) etc. Major Ahmad Husein was made commander of Regiment III with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Without the knowledge of their British army commander, Ghulam Rasul and seven of his compatriots conducted a secret meeting and contacted the commanders of the army of the Republic of Indonesia in the Siliwangi division. Their code words for communication used to be “Assalamu ‘alaikum”.

In view of the refusal of 600 soldiers to cooperate with the British army, the British high command was obliged to change its original plans and they tried to impress upon the people of Indonesia and others that on 30 November 1946 they would quit Indonesia.

Recognising the significant contribution of these Indian soldiers, to their war of Independence, the Indonesian government awarded them with highest honours of the country. For many it was a posthumous award. Among the prominent soldiers who participated in this struggle of independence were Lance Naik Mir Khan, Gilmar Bani, Muhammad Yacub, Umar Din, Ghulam Rasul, Ghulam Ali, Major Abdul Sattar, Muhammad Sidik, Muhammad Khan, Fazul and Senjah Fazul Din. Even Major Ziaul-Haq who later became the President of Pakistan was also among these fighters. On one particular occasion, they rushed to rescue Soekarno (Bung Karno) who was surrounded by NICA soldiers (Netherlands Indies Civil Administration) trapped inside a car. Though Soekarno escaped unhurt, the car got highly damaged.

About the services of these soldiers, Nip M Karim said, “I cannot find the right word to express my gratitude. In those days of bleak revolution, they had come forward and participated in the freedom struggle. This should be never forgotten by the Indonesian people.”

Ghulam Ali received a Presidential order to receive the Yanautama award (1963). (Based on The Role of Pakistan During the Indonesia Struggle by Zahir Khan: Jakarta, 2004 (2010 ed), published by Zahir Khan Centre, Jakarta Utaru)