When I was commissioned into the famous 7 Frontier Force Regiment in October 1976, I was quite overwhelmed by its rich history and traditions. Raised by Captain John Coke on 18 May 1849, a few years before the war of independence of 1857, the ‘paltan’ had come a long way from being part of a mercenary army to a truly nationalistic one. It fought with distinction in the first Kashmir War in 1948 and was rushed to hold the line in Lahore and Sialkot in the 1965 War. One of its officers earned a sitara-i-juraat for gallantry in East Pakistan in the 1971 war. In the early 1990s it would have the honour to be the first battalion in the world to land in war torn Mogadishu as part of the UN operations in Somalia (UNOSOM). In recent times it has had multiple tenures of duty in the restive tribal areas.
As a young subaltern I spent many happy hours browsing through the regimental history and going through the sepia photographs in the well preserved regimental albums. Making my way around the ante room of the officer’s mess in Multan I would look wonder struck at the regimental silver and the photographs adorning the walls. One photograph of the officers of the unit on the eve of war in Malaya showed one incongruous native officer, among a bunch made up entirely British men. The name below said he was Second Lieutenant Mehboob Ahmed. “Who is he and where did he go?” I remembered asking Rahman, the old waiter, who had served with the battalion in Malaya. “He remained behind in India and became an ambassador.” I never probed any further but something didn’t add up e.g. why didn’t he re-join the unit and why did he opt for India. The battalion had become prisoners of war in the Far East early in the Second World War. The British officers had been employed to construct what was known as the death railway to connect Burma with Thailand. Most of the Indian soldiers had joined the Indian national Army of Subhash Chandra Bose. Second Lieutenant Mehboob Ahmed was lost. He didn’t find any mention in the regimental history and wasn’t there, when the unit was re-raised after the war in 1945 in Rawalpindi. Something did not add up.
As I read more about military history I discovered about the Indian National Army (INA) and the charismatic personality Netaji (the leader) Subhash Chandra Bose. Bose, a leading Congress politician from Bengal had escaped from captivity in Calcutta and made his way first to Germany and later to Japan. He had raised the Azad Hind Fauj or the Indian National Army from among the Indian prisoners of war held in captivity by the Japanese. One thing distinct about the INA soldiers was that their cause defied religion, cast and creed. Hindu, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians were all joined together by their overwhelming desire to liberate India from the British. Unfortunately, after the War they found themselves to be on the losing side and once again became prisoners. The famous trials held in the Red Fort in Delhi made them a cause celebre among Indian nationalists. The British sensing that their end was near cashiered them from service. The armies of independent India and Pakistan were loath to rehabilitate their comrades, who had joined INA because they had defied their oath to the King and the Empire.
So much for INA, where did Mehboob Ahmed go? By a stroke of luck an acquaintance, whose passion is to research about freedom fighters belonging to the Ghadr party and INA gave me a photocopied autobiography of one Colonel Mehboob Ahmed, who was the military secretary to Netaji. The book is a fascinating account of Mehboob Ahmed for his love of his country and for his adulation of Bose. Nowhere in the book does he mention the time he spent in his British unit but he clearly recounts his defection in Malaya. He recalls in detail INA’s military campaign in Burma and Netaji leading from the front. It is poignant and moving to read his refusal to believe that Bose had been killed in an air crash. Towards the end Mehboob Ahmed appears to be disillusioned man because an independent India had not lived upto his expectations.
Last summer I checked into the British Archives in Kew Gardens in London to look for Mehboob Ahmed. My search yielded no results. First I was told to go to the British India Library, where all records of the erstwhile British Indian Army had been transferred but again I turned a blank. I was then told by the archivist that I should try the South Block in New Delhi, where all accounts of the Indian officers reside. With the kind of relations that our two countries have, I’ve momentarily put my urge to write to the Indian Army on hold.
All that I know about Second Lieutenant Mehboob Ahmed of 1/13 FF Rifles (now 7FF) and Colonel Mehboob Ahmed of INA is that in 1945 he was the military secretary to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. In 1946 Captain SK Sinha (later Lt Gen and governor of Assam and Jammu & Kashmir) met him in a PoW camp in Insein jail in Rangoon. He had known Mehboob Ahmed from his hometown Patna. He recalls Mehboob being very proud of having fought for India’s Independence and he considered those fighting for the British as mercenaries. He was inspired by Netaji’s personality and worshiped him immensely. After the infamous INA trials held at Red Fort, Mehboob was freed and was given a hero’s welcome in Patna.
In 1972, Mahboob Ahmed, then a senior official of the ministry of external affairs deposed before the Khosla Commission and stated the Japanese respected Bose and their common interest was to evict the British from India. In 1991 Mehboob Ahmed gave an interview to Sugata Bose, a relative of Subhash Chandra Bose for his book His Majesty’s Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose and India’s Struggle against Empire. If by any chance Col Mehboob Ahmed is alive today he must be a very old man. If he has passed away, perhaps he lies buried somewhere in his native Patna. I hope he is at peace with himself for having fought for the right cause.