Excerpts: India’s unexpected involvement in Indonesia’s fight for independence

Kitaab presents exclusive excerpts from “Asia Reborn: A Continent rises from the ravages of Colonialism and War to a New Dynamism”, by Prasenjit K. Basu (Aleph, 2017).

After Sukarno and Hatta’s declaration of independence on 17 August 1945, they moved quickly to consolidate their hold on power, particularly on the island of Java (home to more than six of every ten citizens of Indonesia, the former Dutch East Indies). But there were spontaneous declarations of support for the new Republican government from all the other islands and provinces, as the period of Japanese rule had cemented a romantic attachment to Indonesian nationalism across the archipelago, not least through the Japanese regime’s universal use of a unifying language (Bahasa Indonesia).

The new regime’s egalitarian rhetoric soon led many of the aristocrats in the outer islands to grow more ambivalent about their early endorsement of it, but by that point events were already beginning to slip out of the old elites’ control, as roving bands of ideologically-motivated pemuda (revolutionary youth) groups increasingly took control of public opinion, and the streets reverberated to their popular cry of ‘Merdeka’ (freedom).

The charismatic poet Chairil Anwar was emblematic of the pemuda spirit, challenging the settled bureaucratic ways of the old elite. The pemuda used an egalitarian (and seemingly crass) language that cut through the niceties of old Javanese, replacing priyayi hierarchies with the everyday term ‘bung’ (brother). The long-haired and gun-swinging Sutomo (popularly ‘Bung Tomo’), with his revolutionary rhetoric redolent of Paris 1789, became the rallying point for the pemuda, counterpoised to the relatively staid approach of the Republican government led by Sukarno and Hatta.

During the six-week interregnum between Japan’s surrender and the arrival of Mountbatten’s SEAC troops in Java, the Japanese had attempted to maintain order but without ever seriously challenging the authority of Sukarno’s fledgling republic based in Jakarta. The latter, however, also acted with great caution—not wishing to provoke the Allied powers—and this had incurred the wrath of the pemuda radicals. President Sukarno, for instance, asked PETA (the volunteer army formed during Japanese rule) to accede to Japanese demands to give up their weapons. Most did, although some (including the PETA battalion under the command of Sudirman) regained a lot of these weapons, and there were other raids on Japanese armouries in and around all three of Java’s biggest cities, resulting in the Republic’s informal army being very well stocked with arms and ammunition by the time the SEAC troops arrived.

Some of the confused and disoriented Japanese soldiers were lured into joining the Republic’s forces, a small number joined those forces out of conviction about Asians’ right to rule themselves, and numerous others who were sympathetic to the Republic let Indonesian nationalists gain access to Japanese weaponry. But apart from about 3,000 soldiers, the majority of Japanese troops obeyed their commanders, seeking to maintain order in the East Indies while they awaited the Allies’ arrangements for their repatriation to Japan.

Led by the iconic house of Yogyakarta (where Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX quickly threw in his lot with Sukarno’s Republic, and was rewarded with a promise to become Yogya’s governor for life), most royal houses had thrown their support behind Sukarno, as had most of the leadership of the outer islands. Recognizing this reality, the Japanese troops stayed largely within their military bases, allowing the Republic to take charge of most of the institutions of government across Indonesia, many of which had, in any case, been staffed by Indonesians (replacing previous Dutch incumbents) during the war years.

In mid-September, a series of triumphal ‘ocean’ rallies were held across Indonesia’s major cities to celebrate the spirit of Merdeka and the reality of a month of unfettered Indonesian independence. The communist PKI’s elusive founder, Tan Malaka, had quietly slipped back into Indonesia in 1942, working unobtrusively as a clerk in a Japanese-owned mine while clandestinely organizing workers and peasants around the country. He and the PKI likely played a key role in organizing these ‘ocean’ rallies, but Tan Malaka was outraged when Sukarno spoke emolliently at the biggest of these rallies in Jakarta’s Ikeda Square (later renamed Medan Merdeka), instructing the 200,000-strong crowd to disperse so as not to provoke the ring of Japanese sharpshooters who were guarding the square.

Hawthorne’s 23rd Indian Division did not have enough troops to take control of the whole of Java, so it initially concentrated on taking charge of ‘Batavia’ (as Jakarta was renamed), Surabaya and Semarang. Later Bandung was added, taking account of the fact that it contained the Japanese military headquarters with 15,000 troops and about 50,000 Allied prisoners. The Allies were greatly aided in Bandung by the Japanese troops, who acted to clear the city of pro-Republican forces, which were forced beyond the railway tracks at the edge of the city after some deadly skirmishes.

In these first few weeks, Sukarno’s Republic was observing the SEAC troops warily—cooperating with them on the implicit condition that the Allies would not facilitate the return of Dutch (KNIL) troops, and would work out a modus vivendi with the new Republic. But their suspicions were immediately aroused by the arrival, along with the British Indian troops, of Charles van der Plas, the former Dutch governor of East Java, and a couple of senior Dutch military commanders who had spent the war years at a camp outside Brisbane (Australia) plotting their return amid much racist rhetoric.

Completely oblivious to the vast metamorphosis that had occurred in their formerly placid East Indies, the Dutch made matters much worse with their colonial haughtiness: van der Plas made several broadcasts to the people of the archipelago, promising swift retribution to ‘traitors and collaborators’ (meaning Sukarno and Hatta), ignoring the fact that he did not possess the military means to enforce his threats. Already, the Dutch internees who had sought to return to their homes and offices (after being released from Japanese internment) had seen the initially empathetic response of Indonesians turn to anger, resentment and violence once the Dutch allowed their pre-War racial haughtiness to return.

By the time Brigadier Aubertin Mallaby arrived with the 49th Infantry Brigade of the 23rd Indian Division (comprising about 4,000 Rajput and Maratha troops) on 25 October, Surabaya was already in full revolutionary mode, ready for a veritable storming of the Bastille. Mallaby, who had spent much of his career in staff rather than combat situations, added fuel to the fire by seeking immediately to rescue a Dutch reconnaissance party that had been detained for several weeks by the Republicans. On 27 October, the situation was inflamed further when SEAC planes from Jakarta (supposedly without informing Mallaby) began showering Surabaya with leaflets demanding that all weapons in Indonesian hands be surrendered.

The following day, Mallaby’s Indian troops duly began seizing arms and impounding trucks. That afternoon, Sudirman’s Republican forces mounted a fierce counteroffensive. There were 20,000 well-armed and equipped Republican troops in Surabaya, plus close to 120,000 armed pemuda. The fighting blazed on all night, and isolated Maratha and Rajput units suffered more than 200 casualties. Many Dutch civilians they were seeking to protect also died. There were Indonesian casualties too in the fierce fighting, but Mallaby’s brigade was in greater danger of being wiped out, and appealed to Jakarta for urgent reinforcements.

Again, the Republic’s President Sukarno and his deputy Hatta proved to be the sobering voices, and were flown into Surabaya on 29 October 1945 to help calm the building tensions. Sukarno broadcast an appeal for a ceasefire, and Sudirman and Mallaby toured the city jointly as a symbolic gesture. The bigwigs left on the morning of 30 October, but that evening Mallaby and Sudirman went to the downtown area to help end a siege of a Maratha unit by a pemuda throng.

Having sorted out this dispute, they dispersed in different directions, but Mallaby’s car was soon besieged by another Republican militia near the Jembatan Merah (Red Bridge). What happened next remains in dispute: according to a Captain Smith who was in Mallaby’s car, a Republican soldier shot Mallaby dead after a short conversation, and Smith claims to then have thrown a hand grenade in the general direction of where the shooter had run to hide. The resulting explosion blew out the back seat of the car, and others credibly claimed that Mallaby was actually killed by that explosion. The upshot, however, was that Mallaby had been killed and The Times of London screamed on 1 November: ‘MALLABY KILLED; ALMOST WAR IN EAST JAVA’.

Lieutenant General Sir Philip Christison, the overall commander of SEAC troops in Indonesia, immediately began preparing for all-out (undeclared) war. He sent an ultimatum to the Republican forces in Surabaya to yield up the killers of Mallaby and surrender all arms and ammunition, or face the full brunt of British reprisals. (If Captain Smith’s account was true, Mallaby’s killer(s) may have died in the grenade explosion, but this was never given a second thought at the time.)

Over the next week, a further 24,000 troops of the 5th Indian Division led by Major General E. C. R. Mansergh with twenty-four Sherman tanks, twenty-four armed aircraft, three destroyers and two cruisers were sent as reinforcements to Surabaya. Sukarno broadcast a fervent appeal to the pemuda to desist from a foolhardy war: ‘Don’t let us be forced to face alone the whole military power of England and all the Allies.’ He ordered all fighting with the Allies to stop.

By this time, however, Sukarno’s regime formally had an army too. After initially resisting calls to form one (for fear of provoking the Japanese and the Allies), Sukarno had authorized the creation of the Tentara Keamanan Rakyat (TKR, People’s Security Army) on 5 October, with Major Urip Sumoharjo (the highest-ranking former member of the colonial KNIL) as its first chief. Urip had the near-impossible task of uniting relatively well-trained ex-KNIL units with the less well-trained but passionately nationalist and more numerous ex- PETA battalions (comprising 37,000 troops in Java, 20,000 in Sumatra and about 3,000 in Bali).

Additionally, the new TKR also sought to incorporate the inchoate but even more numerous forces of the ill-disciplined pemuda. Reflecting the democratic spirit of the times, the senior leaders of the TKR met on 12 November at Yogyakarta to formally elect their leader; in a close ballot, Sudirman edged out Urip but sought to keep the latter onside as the TKR’s chief of staff. In keeping with President Sukarno’s orders, most TKR units had been withdrawn from Surabaya by this time, in order not to provoke the SEAC.

But the British were determined to act on their threat of reprisals in the absence of an abject surrender by Surabaya’s pemuda. Mansergh issued a final ultimatum on 9 November for all arms to be relinquished by dawn the next day, knowing very well that it was impossible for Surabaya’s leadership to comply, and effectively obliging them to prepare for battle. As students from the religious schools in neighbouring regions poured into Surabaya to bolster the resistance amid growing calls to jihad, Bung Tomo responded through his Radio Pemberontakan (Revolutionary Radio): ‘Our slogan remains the same: Freedom or Death! Allahu Akbar!’

On 10 November, the SEAC (actually the 5th and 23rd Indian Divisions under British command) began a massive air and naval bombardment of Surabaya, which began early that morning and went on virtually non-stop for four days, during which over 500 bombs were dropped on the city. The hugely disproportionate bombing campaign (in reprisal for the killing of a single officer) was ostensibly aimed at easing the path of SEAC troops as they fought from street to street to gain control of Surabaya.

RAF Thunderbolt and Mosquito aircraft strafed buildings that were identified as being under Republican control, but (according to eyewitness accounts) also bombed fleeing civilians on the road south from the city. Far from a peacekeeping operation, the SEAC commanders fought and bombed just as fiercely as during the Burma campaign, and the Battle of Surabaya (lasting through the rest of November) became a fight to the bitter end.

It was fought on behalf of the British empire by the Rajputs, Marathas, Jats and Gurkhas of the Indian Army just as, unbeknownst to these soldiers, the INA trials were reaching their climax at the Red Fort in Delhi, still too distant to influence them directly. K’tut Tantri wrote that some of the Indian troops became susceptible to the nationalism of their fellow Asians, and occasionally supplied arms to them surreptitiously. The British tried to insinuate that the Japanese were secretly fighting the battle on behalf of the Indonesians, but this charge could never stand up to scrutiny, as very few Japanese bodies were discovered later in the smouldering ruins of the city.

The three-week resistance was authentically Indonesian—a heroic emblem of the Indonesian people’s passionate commitment to their fledgling independence. Forever afterwards, 10 November has been commemorated as Hari Pahlawan (Heroes’ Day) in Indonesia. The official SEAC estimate was that perhaps 10,000 Indonesians had died in the fighting (compared with 600 Indian soldiers killed fighting on the SEAC side), although a more realistic estimate of Indonesian deaths put them closer to 15,000, plus over 200,000 rendered homeless by the fighting.

At the end of November 1945, the Battle of Surabaya ended in a pyrrhic British (SEAC) victory—a final triumph of imperial hubris that demonstrated the impunity with which the British could flout the Geneva Conventions, and use troops from their Indian empire while doing so. From a military standpoint, it was a disaster for the Indonesians who lost not only 15,000 young soldiers and civilians but also a great deal of their military equipment and ammunition, and suffered the destruction of their most industrialized city.

But the Battle of Surabaya also served to invigorate the Republican forces in Indonesia, strengthening their resolve and demonstrating to the world the depth and seriousness of Indonesia’s determination to free itself of any vestige of colonial rule. And while war crimes trials would soon begin against the Japanese, and the INA trials were winding down in India, the British faced no criminal charges for this wildly disproportionate attack against the civilians of Indonesia’s second-largest city as ‘punishment’ for the killing of a single brigadier. The aftermath of the INA trials, and particularly the RIN and RIAF mutinies that followed, were to ensure that Indian troops could never again be used to pursue Britain’s imperial ambitions.

On 14 November, Sutan Sjahrir was appointed prime minister by Sukarno, who remained president but with less of a role in day-to-day governance. This was a transparent step to facilitate negotiations with SEAC and the Dutch, by removing the taint of ‘collaboration’ with Japan from the Republican government: the socialist Sjahrir had led the underground resistance to Japan (along with Sjarifuddin), and had particular cache with the pemuda that he had helped create.

The Dutch Lieutenant Governor, Dr Hubertus van Mook, had returned to Jakarta at the beginning of October to derisive slogans from the Indonesian public. Although born in Indonesia, both van Mook and van der Plas were utterly disdainful towards Indonesian nationalism—indeed, to the very idea of Indonesian nationhood in the absence of the Dutch (much like Churchill’s attitude towards India). They were wedded to the notion of a partnership between the Dutch and the Indonesians, believing that the paternalistic role of the Dutch and the ‘natural’ affinity between them and the Indonesians would be restored as soon as an iota of peace prevailed. Having ruled out negotiations with the ‘quislings’, van Mook could hardly reject talks with the cosmopolitan and untainted Sjahrir.

While sporadic fighting continued, van Mook and Sjahrir’s talks meandered on, with the Dutch attempting to turn the clock back to 1942, and to Dutch queen Wilhelmina’s pre-War plans for a ‘Commonwealth’. Sjahrir refused to consider any proposals until the Republic had been recognized, while van Mook felt he had time on his side, as more and more Dutch troops were returning to the East Indies, slowly taking the place of their SEAC counterparts.

Once Jawaharlal Nehru became India’s ‘interim prime minister’ in September 1946, he immediately demanded that all Indian troops be expeditiously repatriated, saying it was outrageous that they should still be fighting Britain’s colonial wars (as the naval mutineers had said with even greater eloquence in February that year). The new deadline for an agreement was 15 November 1946 since British Indian troops were to begin being withdrawn on that day. With Sukarno joining Sjahrir in the negotiations that went to the wire, an agreement between the Dutch and the Indonesian Republic was finally reached at Linggadjati in West Java on 15 November.

Republican leaders saw this federalist scheme as a transparent attempt to divide and rule, by seeking to create puppet regimes that would be beholden to the Netherlands and only nominally independent. In 1947, these disputes steadily widened the gulf between the two sides, with the Dutch focusing on bolstering their military preparedness, while the Republic sought primarily to gain greater international legitimacy.

The new constitutional arrangements were scheduled to come into effect only in January 1949, but the Republic demanded that in the interim Dutch troops must be removed from within its territory. The Dutch disingenuously argued that they needed to remain because the Republic was incapable of policing its own territory. Sutan Sjahrir was obliged to take the blame for the continuing disputes over the terms he had negotiated, and resigned as prime minister in June 1947, but was succeeded by his good friend and fellow socialist, Amir Sjarifuddin (who later admitted that he had been an undercover communist since 1935). Armed clashes between the two sides steadily increased, culminating in a full-scale invasion of the Republic’s territory in July 1947 by Dutch ground forces supported by aerial bombardment—which the Dutch termed a ‘police action’.

Crucially, a flamboyant ace pilot from India called Bijayananda (‘Biju’) Patnaik (who would later serve two terms as chief minister of Orissa) flew into Jakarta on 21 July 1947—tasked by Nehru with flying Sjahrir and Hatta out of Java, so that they could broadcast the Republic’s plight to the rest of the world. The former prime minister was trapped in a remote area, so Biju Patnaik had to land his Dakota in an improvised airfield surrounded by rice paddies on 22 July.

He then snatched Sutan Sjahrir from hostile Dutch-held territory and flew him out to Jakarta. From there, Biju flew Sjahrir and Hatta to Singapore, and onto New Delhi where they held a press conference, and Nehru took time out of fraught negotiations over the partition of India to condemn Dutch brutalities and formally throw India’s support behind the Indonesian cause.

He arranged for Sutan Sjahrir to be flown to New York, where India and Australia jointly sponsored a United Nations resolution condemning the Dutch invasion, and Sjahrir made an impassioned speech that resulted in the creation of a Good Offices Committee (GOC, comprising Belgium, Australia and the US) to help the two sides reach a settlement. Sjahrir was aided at the UN by an able team of Republican representatives led by Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, who had a doctorate in economics and whose father (Margono) headed the Republic’s central bank. (Sumitro’s eldest son, Prabowo, was the losing candidate for president of Indonesia in 2014). Sumitro had reached New York by charming a secretary in the US embassy in Singapore to finagle a visa for him, and smuggled rubber in order to raise the funds to travel there!

It was Biju who gave Sukarno’s eldest daughter the name Megawati. Patnaik remained a lifelong friend of the Sukarno family, and was showered with national honours by Indonesia. He was particularly happy to accept these, given the long-standing pre-colonial ties between his home state of Orissa, known then by its ancient name Kalinga, and the islands of Suvarnadwipa (Sumatra), Javadwipa and Bali (to which there used to be annual trading and pilgrimage ships from Orissa called the ‘Bali-jatra’, leading to ‘Keling’ becoming the colloquial term for ethnic Indians in Southeast Asia).

Prasenjit K. Basu is a Singapore-based economist. He was formerly chief economist for Southeast Asia & India at Credit Suisse First Boston, Chief Asia Economist at Daiwa Securities, and global head of research at Maybank group. He is a regular commentator on Asia on the BBC, Channel News Asia, CNBC, Zee Business, etc., and has written commentaries for the Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, The Statesman, Asian Age, Singapore’s Business Times, The Edge, and IndiaSe.