PRISONER OF WAR
He was a known physician. He was an unknown war hero
By Kallol Bhattacherjee
The people of Dehra Dun, during the 1970s and 80s, knew him as the grey-haired Sikh physician. What they did not know was that Major Dr Hari Singh Maini was a war hero. The brave heart lay buried in the physician for decades, only to be unearthed from his diaries 20 years after his death. Maini’s diaries shed light on the lives of Indian soldiers during World War II. The memoir tells us how the Indian soldiers mobilised and transported to Southeast Asia fought, survived or perished.
A burly Sikh from Abbottabad in North West Frontier Province, Maini was a successful physician in the sleepy town. World War II disrupted his family life in 1939. “Perhaps it was the lure of glittering stars on the shoulders that made me join the army,” he writes. He joined as a physician in the Indian Army Reserve of Officers in April 1940 at Abbottabad. In December he was appointed Commanding Officer of No.1 Indian Convalescence Depot at Rawalpindi.
The diaries talk of the gathering war clouds, as Japanese belligerence challenged Pax Britannica in Asia. The war was yet to break out in Southeast Asia. Maini and his compatriots at Rawalpindi were ordered to board a train to an “unknown destination” on April 6, 1941. It turned out to be Madras, where the entire unit was put on a ship called Tahua. After 48 hours, they were told that the Tahua was headed for Penang, Malaya.
At Penang, the Indian soldiers were stationed at No. 7 Mixed Reinforcement Camp, also known as the ‘Graveyard’ as it was close to a graveyard. Maini’s work included setting up a clinic for the wounded. “The war was declared on August 12, 1941 and we were not fully prepared,” he writes. On that day, Japanese aircraft bombed Singapore and launched a determined push into Malaya. Maini describes the first day of the war as the “unforeseen day” of his life. The Graveyard was to fall soon.
“On the night between February 10 and 11, 1942, there was intensified shelling of the island. This led to a fairly large number of casualties,” Maini writes. As communications broke down, his unit of soldiers and doctors got cut off from the rest of the Allied network. “On February 12, 1942 at 11:30 a.m., we were captured by the Japanese,” he writes.
Maini was now a prisoner of war. The Japanese treated him well, since he was to treat their wounded soldiers. He also had to learn Japanese. “You owe your life to your captor’s humanity and compassion,” he writes. The Japanese allowed Maini to keep his diary but stopped him from writing home. Back home, his wife, Inder Kaur, received two messages of his death. Soon after the Japanese assault on Malaya, the British conveyed a ‘missing in action’ message to Inder. Later, a fellow PoW from Penang, who escaped and reached Abbottabad, told her that he saw Maini being shot. But Inder refused to believe either of them.
Maini remained in Japanese custody till September 1945. On being freed, he sent a message to Inder and daughter, Harmohini, through the BBC. On September 13, 1945, the BBC Urdu service aired a message from Maini.
As their ship reached Madras months later, Maini and others dashed to the nearest restaurant only to find that their facial muscles were too stiff to chew proper meals. After a short recovery session in Madras, Maini reached Delhi, where his wife and daughter came to receive him. For a moment, they failed to recognise him. Three and a half years of starvation had transformed Maini into a skeleton of his former self. The family, now reunited, returned to Abbottabad. “Once home, he told us never to waste food,” says Harmohini. “Once I threw away a piece of apple and he recounted for me how PoWs would be starved for days to save valuable resources.”
Maini had no pro-Japan sentiments. He never bought the idea that the Japanese would liberate India from the British rule. “He had witnessed Japanese brutalities and saw no Japanese benevolence towards their Asian brethren,” Harmohini says. The diary also mentions Japanese war crimes on PoWs. Contrary to its Asian-friendly image cultivated by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, the Japanese indulged in numerous war crimes. They shelled even medical facilities. In February 1942, intensive shelling caused heavy casualty in Maini’s clinic. After they made prisoners of Maini’s unit, the Japanese singled out westerners for quick execution. Maini also saw the Japanese killing local Malays.
Maini returned home, but his Abbottabad clinic was burnt in the fire of Partition. But bad times did not last long, as good news came from London. Maini had been awarded Member of the British Empire for his extraordinary service during war years. But Maini could not collect the medal, as he did not have the money to travel to London. His sons, now settled in North America, are trying to get the medal that must be lying with the British government.
Maini recovered soon from the wounds of the war and the Partition, and left Rawalpindi for the bigger mass of the subcontinent. He did not like Delhi and found the likeness of Abbottabad in Dehra Dun, where he set up a clinic. Maini’s son Baltej Maini, a prominent cardiologist in Boston, preserved his father’s diary and shared it with THE WEEK. Harmohini, who lives in Delhi, feels deeds like her father’s should be highlighted as they help illuminate India’s ties with the outside world better. Thanks to his diaries, Hari Singh Maini is no more Dehra Dun’s grey-haired Sikh physician.