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Vol. XXXIV No. 1, April 16-30, 2024

The great flap of 1942 – How the Raj panicked over a Japanese non invasion 

-- by Sushila Ravindranath

Book Review

India is a very under-researched country with many gaps in its long history. Its recent history too is not that well recorded. The younger generation may not even be aware that between 1941 and 42, fearing Japanese invasion, there was an exodus from Madras with people fleeing away from the city. The Great Flap of 1942 by Mukund Padmanabhan – the title is a reference to the British term for the subject looks at the panic that gripped people in that year.It was a period of wild rumours and the rulers misreading the situation.There was complete ineptitude on the British side. It was also a time when the Japanese seemed invincible.

In 1941 with the collapse of Malaya and Singapore, people were leaving other major cities as well. They were convinced they would be the next target. Refugees had started arriving from Calcutta. Although nothing was spelt out, an atmosphere of panic and dismay was building up. Hoarding and speculation became rampant. There were riots in Madurai as a result of speculation. There was an artificial firewood famine.

It was a period when leaders were caught up in various positions – “the virtue of pacifism, the imperative to fight against fascism, the best course to fashion national unity were among the issues that divided leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and C. Rajagopalachari.”

Padmanabhan starts with the military fiasco the British faced in Malaya. More so than the troop loss, it was the selective and the surreptitious withdrawal of white civilians from Malaya which damaged British prestige. There were anxieties in the Madras Presidency as a large number of the Indians in Penang, as indeed elsewhere in Malaya were Tamil. In an attempt to address this, the Madras government put out a communique in early January explaining that the facilities to evacuate the entire population was inadequate. It attempted to allay apprehensions through a couple of lies. The statement claimed that the Japanese were observing international conventions in the territories they occupied, which was far from true. It also attempted to rationalise the limited evacuation by stating that many people did not want to abandon their homes and possessions.

The collapse of Singapore had major repercussions. Doubts about the staying power of the British and their commitment to protect the colonies were beginning to be questioned. Fear started spreading in India. Pamanabhan unearths many interesting events which took place and have been more or less forgotten. The chapter on bombings is particularly interesting as several cities were attacked by the Japanese. “The threat of full-fledged invasion by Japanese had more or less blown over by mid-April 1942. But over the next two years they continued to episodically bomb Indian cities. There were strikes intended to disrupt shipping, harass the administration, spread panic and undermine Indian confidence in Britain’s capacity to defend the country.” There were many bombings and many deaths.
Then there was the politics of war. The British genuinely believed that the Indians would rally behind them. Gandhi had different ideas. There was hardening of attitudes during the war. It was a time to negotiate transfer of power but attitudes hardened even more with Churchill taking over as prime minister. He famously declared that “he had not become the first Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British empire.”

It was becoming apparent that the independent movement was getting stronger by the day. The princely states were not caving into British rule as is popularly believed. Congress party had its own issues. It was not going to compromise on its demand for complete independence.

The war brought about many changes. Padmanabhan says, “We now know that Japan had no intention of invading India in 1942. So in truth, there was no real threat. All Japan wanted was to create disruption, foster anti-British sentiment, and create an impression that Britain was incapable of defending India. This it did very effectively through sporadic air raids and sustained propaganda.”

Eventually people started leaving cities in large numbers. Madras was the worst affected. Padmanabhan calls it the madness in Madras. “In Madras the exodus happened in phases, triggered by a succession of events. Those who left soon after the Japanese entered the war, the earliest phase, fell mainly into two categories. There were the wealthy who took houses in places like Kancheepuram and Chittoor in the interior but not far from Madras. And there were the business folks from the North (the Marwaris and the others) who left for their native places. As news of reverses in Malaya trickled in a little later the general population started to stream out of Madras (and other coastal towns in the Presidency). By the middle of 1942, Chief Secretary Ramamurthy was reporting that about 20 to 30 percent of the citizens had fled the city.”

Padmanabhan concludes with his epilogue – the slaughter of animals in the Madras Zoo. This single chapter brings out all the horrors of the war.

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