Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon (18 March 1914 – 6 February 2006) was an officer in the Indian National Army (INA) who was charged with “waging war against His Majesty the King Emperor”. Along with Shah Nawaz Khan and Prem Kumar Sahgal, he was tried at the end of World War II in the INA trials that began on 5 November 1945 at Red Fort. Dhillon also played an important role in the Indian independence negotiations.
Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon was born at Algon on 18 March 1914, the fourth child of Sardar Takhar Singh, a veterinary surgeon in the 8th King George’s Own light cavalry.
Dhillon’s early education was at Changa Manga, a government primary school. After passing 4th class he went on to a number of other schools, namely, Government High School, Chunian in Lahore district; Government High School, Dipalpore in Montgomery district; Vernacular Middle School, Raiwind in Lahore district; Victoria Dalip High School, Solan in Baghat; Dayanand Anglo Vernacular High School, Montgomery, and lastly Gordon Mission College, Rawalpindi.
His exposure to many different religions during this time made him into a secular person. He was a member of the Boy Scout Association. He spoke Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi and English.
In 1931, he graduated from Dayanand Anglo Vernacular High School, Montgomery, and joined the faculty of science in Gordon Mission College, Rawalpindi. He failed to qualify for an F.Sc. at Punjab University in 1933, ending his dream of becoming a doctor. Early that year, his father had retired from service, and after matriculation, he was unable to get a job.
J.F.L. Taylor, a friend of his father, suggested that Dhillon join the Indian Army as a sepoy and further improve his education. He joined the Training Battalion of the 10/14th Punjab Regiment on 29 May 1933, receiving pay of fifteen rupees per month. He completed his training in the first week of March 1934.
During June 1936, he was selected for training at Kitchner College, Nowgong as a prospective candidate for the Indian Military Academy at Dehradun. From Nowgong, he was sent to his parent unit, and from there to Dehradun. At the IMA, he was considered an average cadet. The start of World War II cut short his training in the Academy by one term and he graduated in March 1940. He was posted to the 1st Battalion of the 14th Punjab Regiment, which was called “Sher Dil Paltan”. He joined this battalion on the last day of March 1940 at Lahore, in the same barracks where he had been a sepoy. His battalion moved from Lahore to Secunderabad in September 1940.
In February 1941, Dhillon and his battalion were ordered to move overseas. They left Secunderabad on 3 March 1941 for Penang Island and from there to Ipoh, north of Kuala Lumpur in British Malaya. After about two months at Ipoh, the battalion moved to Sungei Pattani in South Kedah as a part of the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade under Brigadier Garrett.
The 3rd Cavalry was allotted the defence of Penang. Dhillon disembarked at Singapore and reported at the 7th Mixed Reinforcement Camp at Bidadari. From Singapore he was sent to Jitra, situated on the main road to Thailand, 26 kilometres (16 miles) south of the border. He arrived at Jitra on 5 December 1941.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the bombing of Singapore on the early morning of 7 December 1941, the United States declared war on Japan. The Japanese forces completely destroyed the squadrons of the Royal Air Force at Sungei, Alor Star, and Kota Bharu airfields. On 11 December 1941, 1/14th Punjab Regiment fought a pitched battle at Changlun near the Thai frontier. Dhillon commanded the Headquarters Company with his C.O. Colonel Fitzpatrick. The Battle of Changlun went on for eight hours, before ending in defeat. The Alor Star had also fallen.
On 13 December 1941 Dhillon arrived at Miami Beach near Penang. The unit was ordered to evacuate Penang, and guard a railway bridge at Nibong Tabol. They guarded the bridge for another two days until the arrival of Japanese. Then they were ordered to withdraw to Ipoh, where Dhillon contracted malaria. He was hospitalized and sent to Singapore.
By the dawn of 9 February 1942, almost two divisions of the Japanese had landed on Singapore. On 10 February 1942, 7 MRC was moved to Raffles Square, a business area. By that time it was apparent that the surrender of Singapore was imminent. On 13 February 1942, Raffles Square was bombed. 7 MRC suffered heavily, with about 300 killed and many more wounded. Dhillon, together with the second-in-command of the unit, a British major, had a difficult job disposing of the corpses, dropping them in the ocean. The Battle of Singapore concluded on 15 February 1942 resulting in the British Forces in Singapore surrendering unconditionally to the Japanese Army under General Yamashita.
The defeated and demoralized Indian soldiers collected themselves at Farrer Park in Singapore. Major Fujiwara, addressing the POWs, expressed that it was his firm belief that world peace and an independent Asia could not be achieved and maintained without an independent India. He further said that if Indian POWs in Malaya were prepared to fight British imperialism for the cause of achieving the independence of their motherland, the Imperial Japanese government would provide all out support. He suggested the formation of an Indian National Army, and handed over all the POWs in Malaya to Captain Mohan Singh.
At the stage on Farrer Park, Mohan Singh addressed the POWs that were to be the nucleus of the Indian National Army. The army was to fight under its own leadership, with, it was argued, a real and just cause to wage war.
Mohan Singh was from the same unit as Dhillon, and was a close friend. On 17 February 1942, Dhillon decided to join the Indian National Army and took a vow not to drink until India became free. Next morning Singh issued orders to for all the units of various camps on the island to march to their new allotted accommodation. Dhillon’s unit was to proceed to Nee Soon Camp, located in a village situated 13 miles (21 km) away from main town of Singapore. This camp was the former regimental centre of the Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery.
The Japanese had asked the Supreme Headquarters to provide 200 officers to guard the British and Australian prisoners of war at Changi Camp. Dhillon volunteered his services for this unpleasant task. At Changi Camp, Dhillon and other Indians were asked by the Japanese to give up the British drill and words of command and adopt Japanese ones. Here they kept the Allied POWs in five separate Camps – Australian Camp, Hospital area, 9th Indian Division Camp, 11th Indian Division Camp, and 18th British Camp. Each camp was commanded by its own officer, usually a general residing in the Camp. Changi was under the military control of the Japanese. After some time at Changi Camp, Dhillon fell seriously ill. He was released from the command of the Changi garrison, sent to Seletar Camp, and admitted to a POW hospital.
Dhillon’s health improved at Seletar Camp. Along with over thirty important senior officers from among the Indian POWs, he attended the Bidadari conference called by Mohan Singh on 24 April 1942. The resolutions of this conference, which came to be known as the “Bidadari Resolutions”, formed the backbone the INA. As resolved at the Tokyo Conference, a representative conference of the Indians met at Bangkok on 15 June 1942, and continued for ten days, and resulted in the Bangkok Resolution. Thirty INA volunteers nominated by Mohan Singh from among the Indian prisoners of war attended the conference. Dhillon received his commission on 1 September 1942, and was posted as a major on 10 September 1942. He was still ill, and so was attached to the Reinforcement Group.
Dhillon attended the first review of the INA, held at Padaung in front of the municipal buildings on 2 October 1942, the birthday of Mohandas K. Gandhi. Because of his continued poor health, he was recommended a month’s leave and sent to Penang. He returned to Singapore in the middle of November 1942. The Japanese had not yet ratified the Bangkok Resolutions, nor recognized the INA as an independent army. In early December 1942, the Japanese asked the INA Headquarters to dispatch an advance party to move to Burma to prepare camps and accommodation for the main body of the army. Meanwhile, differences developed between Mohan Singh and the Japanese, and Singh was arrested on 29 December 1942. On the advice of Rash Behari Bose, Dhillon continued in the INA despite the resulting crisis of command, and also encouraged others to remain.
Meanwhile, Subhas Chandra Bose was trying to come to the East. In anticipation of Netaji’s arrival, the revived INA was reorganized under its new headquarters, the Directorate of Military Bureau (DMB), with Colonel J.K. Bhonsle as the director. Dhillon was appointed as Deputy Quartermaster General in the “Q” Branch at Army Headquarters. He was to look after the Technical Branch, and was also responsible for accommodation. The Army Headquarters was organized by the middle of March 1943, and gazetted on 17 April 1943. On appointment, Dhillon collected the kit and clothing of those personnel who had decided to leave the INA. When Netaji arrived on 2 July 1943, the Army was enlarged, and Dhillon was transferred to the 5th Guerilla Regiment.
Dhillon was appointed second-in-command to Major J.W. Rodrigues in December 1943. Rodrigues raised the 5th Guerrilla Regiment at Bidadari in Singapore. Apart from helping in raising the regiment, Dhillon was responsible for training, discipline, morale, and welfare of the troops. The 5th Guerrilla Regiment was formed as part of the 2nd INA Division, which was organized under the command of Colonel N.S. Bhagat, after the 1st Division’s move to the front.
On 30 March 1944, the 5th Guerrilla Regiment moved to Ipoh in Perak. Dhillon proceeded with the advance party to make necessary arrangements for the regiment.
Dhillon was sent to the front at Alor Star. On 15 July 1944, he left Jitra for the journey to Kawashi, Mergui, and Tavoy through Thailand, and then to Moulmein and Rangoon in Burma. From Bangkok, they flew on 21 August 1944 to Rangoon on Netaji’s personal aircraft, the “Azad Hind”. They were billeted at Mingaladon Camp about 23 km (14 mi) from Rangoon. Dhillon officiated as the Deputy Adjutant General and also the Deputy Quartermaster General in the Divisional headquarters at the first anniversary of the Provisional Government of Azad Hind. As part of the celebrations of the anniversary, a review of the 2nd Division of the INA was arranged at Mingaladon. Dhillon made arrangements and issued orders for the ceremonial parade, which was held on 18 October 1944.
Dhillon met Subhas Chandra Bose on 15 October 1944 at his residence in Rangoon, and on 26 October, was promoted to commander of the Nehru Brigade. Towards the end of 1943, “The Nehru” had been placed under the First Division, and it has moved to Mandala in Burma in early 1944. The Nehru Brigade was to hold the Irrawaddy River from Nyaungu in the north to Pangan in the south. In mid December 1944, the Japanese Army Commander General S. Katamura visited The Nehru Brigade along with Colonel I. Fujiwara, the Japanese supporter of the INA.
Dhillon formed an advance party from the 9th Battalion and left for Pagan on 29 December 1944. Dhillon ordered the battalions to leave Myingyan by 4 February 1945, so as to be in their respective positions by 8 February 1945. The Nehru Brigade held the Irrawaddy as planned, and Dhillon kept his headquarters at Tetthe throughout the operation.
On 12 February 1945 enemy planes made a saturation bombing over the INA defences. The following night, the enemy launched an assault on the 8th battalion deployed at Pagon. These assaults failed and the enemy had to withdraw. The Nehru Brigade continued to hold the Irrawaddy, in what was to become the INA’s first military victory. After the failure at Pagan, the British tried another assault opposite Nyaungu, using outboard motors and rubber boats. This assault also failed, and hundreds of soldiers were killed, forcing the survivors to retreat. However, the INA’s victories could not be sustained, and, when it eventually withdrew, Dhillon had to proceed to Pagan.
Dhillon reached Pagan on 17 February 1945. On 23 February 1945, General Shah Nawaz visited the Commander of Khanjo Butai and discussed co-ordination of Indo-Japanese operations in the Popa and Kyauk Padaung area. Colonel Sahgal was ordered to prepare Popa as a strong base for future attacks. Dhillon’s regiment, the 4th Guerrilla, was ordered to check the enemy advance on to Kyauk Padaung from the west, where the British had established a strong bridgehead at Nyaungu. This was to be achieved by carrying out extensive and persistent guerrilla warfare in the area between Popa and Kyauk Padaung, to deny the enemy the use of the Nyaungu-Kyauk-Padaullg-Meiktila road. Shah Nawaz arrived at Popa on 12 March 1945, and relieved Dhillon to join his regiment. In the first half of March, 1945, British forces accepted a mass surrender of members of the Nehru Brigade which, together with the desertion of several officers, inspired several Special Orders of the Day by Bose against “cowardice and treachery” and, after providing an opportunity for soldiers to leave the I.N.A., condoned the execution of deserters.
On 4 April 1945 his division commander, Colonel Shah Nawaz Khan, ordered Dhillon to return from Khabok to Popa. By then, the 4th Guerrilla regiment had been in the area for over five weeks. Mount Popa and Kyaukpadaung was one pocket of resistance, which had so far defied all British attacks. Under constant raids by the INA, the British forces were forced to use longer routes that caused the them loss of time, greater consumption of fuel, and frequent breakdowns of their vehicles.
From early April 1945, the strategic situation began to change rapidly. The British launched a three-pronged attack on Mount Popa and Kyaukpadaung. On 5 April 1945, Dhillon was allotted the defence of Kyaukpadaung, south of Popa. In the second week of April, the area suffered daily bombing, and the British forces advanced in heavy tanks and armoured vehicles. Sustaining heavy casualties, the INA could not organize any defence, and the 2nd Division withdrew to Magwe, 160 km (100 mi) to the south.
After withdrawing from Magwe, they came to a village called Kanni. By this time, Burma had declared war on Japan, and so the villagers did not co-operate with INA. Their retreat was under the control of General Aung San’s People’s National Army, which had established a parallel government controlling around fifty villages. They crossed the Irrawaddy at Kama, and reached Prome on 1 May 1945. Most of the INA officers and men could not cross the river and were stranded on the east bank. It was apparent by then that they had lost the war, and Rangoon had already been evacuated.
From Prome, they retreated southeast through the jungles of the Pegu Yomas. Eleven days after leaving Prome, they reached a village called Wata about 30 km (20 mi) west of Pegu, and learned that Germany had recently surrendered, and Japan was suffering heavy bombing. The British forces had already occupied Pegu, and Rangoon fell during the last week of April. The surviving forces of INA decided to surrender to the British.
On 17 May 1945, the British encircled the Indian National Army, which surrendered without any formal ceremony. The POWs were sent to Pegu, and Shah Nawaz and Dhillon were taken to No. 3 Field Interrogation Centre under the command of Major C. Ore on 18 May 1945. On 31 May, Dhillon was sent to Rangoon Central Jail, where he was joined by Shah Nawaz on 9 June.
On 1 July 1945, Dhillon was brought to Calcutta by plane and from there, sent to Delhi by train. On 6 July he was sent to the Red Fort and interrogated by a man named Bannerjee from the Central Intelligence Department. The interrogation was concluded by the third week of July. On the 6 August 1945, Shah Nawaz, Sahgal, and Dhillon were jointly summoned to the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre for a trial of the INA. On 17 September 1945, the trio were charged with waging war against the King. The news of the trial was made public through the press and All India Radio.
The trial began on 5 November 1945, while a mass demonstration was going on outside the Red Fort. People gave voice to their resentment on the trials by shouting:
Lal Qile se aaee awaz,
Sahgal Dhillon Shah Nawaz,
Teenon ki ho umar daraz
(Meaning – Sahgal, Dhillon, Shah Nawaz, comes the voice from the Red Fort. May the trio live long)
The trial concluded on 31 December, and Dhillon, along with the other two defendants, became a symbol of the ongoing struggle for Indian independence. The verdict came the following day. All three were found guilty of waging war against the King Emperor, and the court was bound to sentence the accused either to death or to deportation for life. However, the Commander-in-Chief, Claude Auchinleck, taking into consideration the prevailing circumstances, decided to remit the sentences, and all three defendants were later released.
The release was of momentous significance at a national level, because the unprecedented publicity in the national papers and other media during the proceedings had enhanced the credibility of the independence struggle by the Indian National Army. On the day after the release, 4 January, the whole of Delhi gathered to participate in a rally.
Dhillon wrote an autobiography, From my Bones, in which he has recorded his experiences of the INA and the Red Fort trial. Dhillon also published some poetry, and, though not prolific in this field, his poems vividly capture some of the momentous events of recent history.
Dhillon married Basant Kaur at the age of fourteen in 1928. Their first child, Amrita, was born on 15 April 1947 at Simla. Amrita studied at Banasthali Vidyapith for eleven years, and later became a doctor. Dhillon had two sons, Amarjit and Sarvjit, both of whom settled at Shivpuri. His wife died on 19 March 1968 at Shivpuri.
Dhillon was living in “Dhillon’s Den” at the village of Hatod in the Shivpuri district of Madhya Pradesh during his last days of life. He died on 6 February 2006 in the intensive care unit of the J.A. Hospital, Gwalior, following a cardiac arrest after a prolonged illness. He was cremated with full military honours at Azad Hind Park in Shivpuri, on 8 February 2006.
At the first anniversary of his death, a large number of people from different sections of society attended a memorial service at the park.