In 1946, British intelligence officials were keeping a close watch on members of freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA) who were being freed from jail as the empire’s decades-old grip over the subcontinent slackened.
But the British were concerned about one man whose release they felt could prompt a revival of the INA and spark unrest in Bengal, declassified files on Bose revealed.
Among the documents made public by the West Bengal government is a 1946 letter from the head of the army’s Eastern Command to a top spy chief in Delhi, requesting him to ensure that lieutenant colonel AC Chatterji was held under military captivity.
“This HQ is concerned at the probable return to Bengal in the near future of Lt Col AC Chatterji. This officer had very considerable influence in this province, and apart from his official status as Director of Public Health in Bengal before the war and his personal contacts with leaders of political strife, as appointed by Subhas Bose as the Governor Designate of the Liberated Countries,” a military officer wrote on February 5, 1946.
With support from Imperialist Japan, the INA was aiming to overthrow the colonial rule in India and it fought against British and Commonwealth forces during campaigns in Burma, Imphal and Kohima during World War 2.
“His (Chatterji’s) return at this juncture would revive excitement and enthusiasm in the INA, which at present is showing a tendency to switch to other forms of political propaganda such as cloth shortage, famine, release of political prisoners, and detenus and even defence of the Maharaja of Rewa,” the communication said.
The letter came months after Netaji, as Bose is popularly known, reportedly died in an air crash in Taiwan on August 18, 1945 at the age of 48, though this has been disputed by members of his family and others.
The officer wrote that Bengal intelligence officers were likely to ask the government of Bengal to pass orders for Chatterji’s detention, but the Eastern Command was unsure of the local administration’s response to such a proposal.
“As it is not known what the reaction of Govt of Bengal will be to such a request, the holding of this officer for two or three months in military custody would tide over a difficult period, at the end of which it is hoped the popularity of INA will have been further reduced,” the letter said.
He suggested that Chatterji be kept in military custody outside India. In case this was not possible, he should be kept in military custody outside the jurisdiction of the Eastern Command for “as long as possible”, or at least till one month after the Bengal provincial election that was scheduled in late March 1946, the officer said.
Bose appointed Chatterji as the minister of finance in the Provisional Government of Free India in February 1945. Chatterji evaded the British army in Saigon when his troops got stranded there following Japan’s sudden surrender to the Allied Powers, but was arrested after a few months.