Propaganda Wars – India in WW II

Part 1 - Azad Hind – Free India Radio

The group of ragged looking youngsters, some called them revolutionaries, huddled around the radio looking furtively around, before they tuned the set to the German shortwave frequency. Today was going to be a big day, the 19th of February 1942. The Far East was in turmoil, the Japanese were advancing. And then, more than a year after his dramatic escape from India, they heard Subash Bose’s voice: “This is Subhas Chandra Bose speaking to you over the Azad Hind Radio. For about a year I have waited in silence and patience for the march of events and now that the hour has struck, I come forward to speak. The fall of Singapore means the collapse of British Empire, the end of the iniquitous regime which it has symbolized and the dawn of a new era in Indian History”.….

Most of the written material and film documentaries on the INA tend to focus on the individual, namely its leader - Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Literature on previous struggles such as the Ghadar movement and a few other works between Ghadar and the Bose led INA, though sparse are just starting to arrive. There are a few books written by some of the other INA leaders, but the story of the foot soldier who threw his lot with the INA fails to peep through most of them. None detail the turmoil faced by millions of INA followers, or the many estate laborers in Malaya, Burma, Vietnam and other South East Asian locales. Stories of the British Indian soldiers who were captured by the Japanese and who formed the INA were also lost along the way, vanishing along with the stragglers who trudged the murderous route from Rangoon to India, through the jungles, ending up as bags of bones at the Eastern cities of India. Perhaps the shame of the loss at the battlefields overwhelmed them, very few talked or penned their memoirs.

After the Japanese started their Asian advances bombing the Victoria point airport at the southern tip of Burma, a fervor set in throughout the region, allowing Bose to create a virtual nation across the borders.  ‘Dilli Chalo’ was to be the culmination of it all, and together with the Japanese army, his forces were to march through the border gates and liberate Hindustan from the British. Only a few know that the INA and the Azad Hind bureaucracy in SE Asia were largely financed by the Tamil Chettiars and the Sindhi’s living in Burma, Malaya and Vietnam. Tragically, their contributions and losses have also been largely ignored, so also the terrible events resulting in the deaths of many tens of thousands of Tamil laborers drafted to work at the Japanese death railway project. I will tell you about all of them soon, but for today it is the story of the Azad Hind Radio, the INA’s propaganda machine.

If you recall, we had talked about the Desi Congress radio which operated illegally for a very short period before the people behind it were rounded up and jailed in Bombay. Transmissions and transmitters were banned in India and that was the reason why rebel radio stations were created and manned at Anti-British locales of the world. Let’s follow the story of the creation of the Azad Hind radio, check out its reach and in a follow up article, focus on the British response from India with the famous George Orwell countering Axis and Azad Hind propaganda, manning the mic himself, from Delhi.

Looking at the listening statistics, one wonders if it was indeed that important, for the number of wireless licenses bought across India, in 1932 was just 8,557, growing to 92,782 at the end of 1939, among a population of 380 million. By this time, faith on the British masters had eroded so much that any alternative news offering was lapped up with gusto, and that was how people started listening to the English and Hindi broadcasts from German and later on the Japanese radio.

Experiments with short-wave broadcasting were carried out in Germany from 1929, but there was no regular short-wave service until 1st April 1933, after the Nazis had come to power. Short-wave broadcasting was carried out on three wavelengths, with a couple of directional antennae. In 1936, twenty-eight countries signed a League of Nations convention agreeing not to transmit subversive propaganda and false news. But Germany and Italy were not party to this and so as you can imagine, the Anti-British radio transmissions emanated from Italy to start with and then moved to Germany, increasing multifold after Indian soldiers captured in the African theater were transferred to Berlin.

By October 1939, German radio stations were transmitting in 18 languages; in 1944, this had increased to nearly 50 programs in languages other than German. The powerful short-wave transmitter in the village of Zeesen near Berlin was used for propaganda broadcasts to regions of the British Empire such as South Africa and India depicting Germany and Japan as liberators from imperialism and professing support for the subjugated peoples. It beamed its service to Arabs, Turks, Persians, and Indians using freelance announcers and translators. During the war years listening to the radio in the Arab world took place primarily in public places like squares, bazaars and coffee houses. The Germans skillfully mixed anti-Semitic propaganda with quotations from the Quran and laced it all with Arabic music. There were special programs and translations for India, Africa and Arab countries of the Middle East. Indians at Berlin participated by delivering talks in Hindustani. The radio assault on India thus began well before Bose entered the scene. 

As the airs got filled with all kind of transmissions by the start of World War II, European powers established official monitoring posts, in order to assess the threat of incoming transmissions.

Himalaya Radio

A few Punjabi Ghadar activists had found their way to Rome in the 30’s, and it was Mohammad Iqbal Shedai and Sardar Ajith Singh, mainly the former, who started the Friends of India society.  The Italians, with Mussolini’s blessings helped them set up a station named Radio Himalaya, to broadcast their ideology towards Asia. With Ajit Singh and Labh Singh manning the mics, they broadcast regular programs in Hindi and Urdu.  Some historians cast them as amateurs, that the Italians were content with letting these three disgruntled old men rave and rant on radio, not only against the British but also the new nationalist leaders in India, and contemptuous of the passive Congress. As people started to take notice, the British were caught on the wrong foot and believed that the broadcasts were from within India or the NWF, while the announcers deliberately led listeners to believe that they were in cold caves close to the mountains. People listening felt it a pirate station on the run, lending mystery and creating its own aura.

After directional analysis (Where is the Himalayan radio station – Indian information vol 8-9, 1941) the Brits finally discovered that it was indeed part of the larger Axis propaganda setup. At this point, German radio did have a formal Hindustani service and the Himalaya Radio came in mostly after German broadcasts ended, but clashed with the BBC’s Hindi service. A blunder mentioning Himalaya’s frequency problems with the Italian service gave the game away to the British and its potential location in Rome.

Those radio transmissions were indeed stuff for propaganda, offering prayers for Hitler’s long life, fancy schemes such as pensions for everyone in India aged 50 and above should the Axis powers and their attacks (which would result in massive bloodshed), succeed. It was somewhat tilted in favor of Jinnah and separatism, and caused many problems for British intelligence owing to its popularity among the tribes of the NWFP. Shedai later went on to create a small force of some 350 soldiers recruited from POW’s, the Centro Militaire India (eventually disbanded in 1942 after a mutiny). While British parliament debates show that the radio existed as early as 1936, other accounts mention that transmissions came on and off towards 1940/41.

However, the experiment was short-lived and Shedai did not see eye to eye with Bose after the latter’s arrival, accusing Bose of herding a bunch of communists and improperly handling POWs transferred to Germany, while Bose accused Shedai of being a Muslim separatist. The Himalayan Radio sputtered on for a while, grinding to a stop after Bose’s Azad Hind radio became the main revolutionary channel. Interestingly the British pursued this phantom station in the Himalayas for many months before locating it in Italy, they even sent teams to Lhasa and Sikkim to check for a chain of radio stations, even thinking it was the brainchild of British MP and Nazi collaborator Timothy T Lincoln.

Azad Hind Radio – Huizen, Berlin

Bose entered the scene as HE Orlando Mazotta, (I had detailed his flight in a previous article) an Italian diplomat. There are some indications that his Italian passport was arranged in the NWF with the assistance of the same Iqbal Shedai (Schedai in German files). But when they met, their strong personalities clashed, with Bose was making it clear he will be the boss of all India related matters, and Shedai would have none of it. After Bose had settled down in Germany, their next tiff occurred when Bose wanted the many thousand Indian POWs interned at Rome, transferred to the German Annaburg camp. Bose’s intention was to train and persuade the prisoners, the Jangi Quaidis (Ordinary soldiers) to join the armed India legion or the 950th regiment.

Before we get to the Azad Hind radio, we should also touch on the so-called Radio Bhai Band broadcasting from Lacanau-ville (they published a newsletter too) in Germany for the prisoners at Annaburg, a station which was set up after Bose’s arrival. A low powered transmitter transmitted cultural programs, music and training instructions for the Legion, and its leaflet stated - You can listen daily in the evening. Between 5:30 PM to 6:00 PM: MW 449.1 and SW 47.6, Between 8:30 PM to 9:00 PM: SW 47.6, The Voice of Bhai [Brother] Band Radio. Broadcasts correct news from all over the world, plays Indian music and news for the betterment of Indian soldiers.

Getting back to Bose, who we now know was still in the guise of O Mazotta, reached Berlin. After cooling his heels and seeing that the German high command had little interest in India at that time, Bose tried to elicit support from Italy, but after a lack of response there and issues with Shedai, was undecided for a while. Disenchanted with Germany’s plans concerning Russia, Bose left for Bad Gastein in Austria with his partner Emilie, but returned to Berlin in the summer of 1941. The Germans agreed to support Bose with a propaganda unit, printing newspapers and manning a radio channel. He did not go on the microphone initially (remember that he was incognito as Mazotta and had still not divulged to the world that Mazotta was Bose) and wanted to divulge the news only after the Axis leaders had declared support for Free India.

Thus, with the support of the German foreign office, Bose/Mazotta focused on setting up the Azad Hind propaganda machine, with its press and radio. That was how Azad Hind Radio or Free India radio commenced its operations within the ZTI or the Free India Center in Nov 1942. Its first transmission was on 7th Jan 1942. The radio station became a part of the Concordia stations, namely station H, technically handled by Germans, while all the broadcasts and program material were created by an Indian team comprising GK Mookerjee, MR Vyas, BP Sharma, BL Keni, P Sengupta, JK Banerji, A Majumdar, AM Sultan, S Chandra, A Jhowry, A Naidu, B Moorthy, A Hakim, GD Lal, Bhatta, Kalyan Bose and AN Ahuja. They were generally not censored by the Germans and Azad Hind Radio were free to create their own scripts and programs. While the location of its transmitters was not public at that time, an impression was given that the speakers were in India. The actual broadcasts took place from Huizen in Netherlands on a Philips transmitter appropriated by the Nazis. It had originally been built to maintain contact with the Dutch at Java and had an identifier PHOHI. This was the unit taken over by the Germans when Netherlands was invaded.

However, Bose’s voice, when it eventually came through was electric and galvanized patriotic feelings. He addressed Indians for the first time telling them about the fall of Singapore and about his escape, in his first broadcast on 19th Feb 1942. Discarding his Mazotta cloak, Bose continued with regular personal speeches boosting not only the morale of his supporters but also his personal standing as the leader of a tougher front against the British. The Azad Hind radio thus stated its regular broadcasts early in 1942, in many Indian languages including Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, Pashto and also English. Naidu handled Tamil while Moorthy did the Telugu broadcasts. The team had to move frequently to escape allied bombardment, but continued their teamwork preparing for each day’s broadcasts. It also broadcast Indian classical music (re-recorded from BBC) together with the two daily news bulletins. While the quality of the broadcasts according to some listeners ranged from mediocre to slightly better than the British and ‘not a sheer waste of money’, most agreed that the announcers were professional, sounded like trained propagandists, and not just persons reading from a dull script.

The Berlin group also toyed with two other radio stations later, namely "National Congress Radio" and ‘Azad Muslim - Free Muslim Radio’ for Muslims manned by H Rahman and Sultan. The National Congress Radio of Berlin ("National Congress Radio," was another illegal transmitter of 1942 located in Bombay which I detailed sometime earlier) was more specialized and was reported to be highly popular. The Azad Muslim radio late merged with the 3-hour Waziristan transmissions.

As the war at the western front ground on, events moved with greater rapidly, in the Asian front and the Japanese victories convinced Bose that it would be better to focus his efforts from a location near the Indian border, if he were to plan an armed assault on the British together with the Japanese. As he left, ACN Nambiar was handed control of the radio, and all Azad Hind activities in Berlin.

Free India Radio – Singapore, Shanghai, Bangkok and Rangoon

When Bose realized that the war in Europe would not lend any support for Indian freedom, and that the Germans would not go up in arms against the British in India, he moved to the South East Asian operations, expecting Japanese support. Japan was already into the business of propaganda and had Rash Behari Bose and AM Nair at Japan guiding them along. After the Japanese had taken Singapore, Malaya and Burma, they were in control of the broadcast transmitters and allowed ‘Free India Radio’ programs manned by Indians. With the arrival of Bose these were marshalled into a mostly cohesive unit preparing the propaganda material in unison under the auspices of the Azad Hind Radio (though better known by the anglicized term Free India Radio). Broadcast teams with Indians were set up at Singapore, Bangkok, Rangoon, Shanghai and of course Japan. Not only was the radio used for propaganda and INA speeches, but also to send messages from SE Asian Indians to their families back in India. Many of these transmissions were carefully transcripted and filed away, and in some we can read that Bose, in his broadcasts termed the AIR as the Anti India Radio and the BBC as the Bluff and Bluster Corp!

The NHK international service in English from Japan commenced on two shortwave channels with seven programs, one of them, a three-hour daily session with India-based content, as early as in summer 1941. Once the war started, with the Japanese victories, strong anti-British & American propaganda was waged in all its broadcasts. After Rangoon had fallen and the Japanese were in control of the whole SE Asia, Japan's radio war on India was launched with an increase in broadcast time to the subcontinent, coinciding with the unrest in India and the Quit India movement. Around March 1942, Radio Tokyo inserted a news and features program spanning over three hours with announcers in Urdu and Tamil to start with, later adding Bengali and Punjabi.

In March 1942, the Singapore radio station was restarted and it became the center of all Indian independence related broadcasts, including variety programs in Tamil and Hindi, besides English. The Hsinking station in Manchuria and some of the repaired stations in Burma also beamed broadcasts aimed at India by this time. Shanghai already had Japanese manned stations, so also German and Italian services and started an Indian channel in Shanghai (Mar 1942) purported to be located "somewhere in India". Announcers stated that it was "The Voice of Free India" and "The Voice of Indian Independence", on two frequencies. BY the end of 42, programming was revamped and the station identified itself as "The Voice of the Indian Independence League".

Stations at Saigon, Bangkok and Bandung joined in and soon all of them were strengthened with powerful transmitters to form a coordinated onslaught at the British and to impress on the Indians of Japanese peaceful intentions and instill a perception as liberators of India from the British Yoke. Operated by the army and staffed partially by N.H.K. employees, these stations transmitted regular programs totaling to over 30 hours every day. But the response and Japan’s credibility in India changed when Gandhi in July, accused Japan of mercilessly attacking China without provocation, making it clear that it was unwise for India to be reliant on Japan.

After Bose's escape to the Far East (he arrived at Tokyo in June 1943), the Azad Hind was provided air-time in the Japanese schedule. The Provincial government of Free India and the INA were quickly established, and Rash Behari Bose broadcast from Tokyo that “You have, today, not only a National Army of your own outside the borders of India ready to come to your aid, but also the powerful co-operation and support of mighty Japanese Empire and the inexhaustible resources of entire East Asia”. By Dec the Singapore transmitter strength was increased to 50KW and two hours were sanctioned for the Free India Radio.

At Tokyo, Rash Behari Bose continued coordinating the Free India Hour" began at 9.15pm with the Indian National Anthem and proceeding with a commentary in English and recorded commentaries in various languages (Commentaries in Hindi, Bengali and Gujarati were broadcast on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and in Tamil on Sundays and Wednesdays). During a visit to China Subhas Chandra Bose also broadcast over Radio Nanking to unoccupied China, presenting Japan as the defender of the New Order in East Asia and exhorting Chiang Kai Shek to place his trust in Japan.

As the Imphal battle continued to seesaw, Ba Maw at Burma declared its independence, and the upgraded Rangoon radio started Free India transmissions. Burma radio broadcast in Burmese, Hindi and Bengali to Burma and India, and after the Burmese independence declaration in 1943, the radio focused on Indian issues, broadcasting in 13 Indian languages. Like Radio Shonan in Japan, Indians assisted at Radio Rangoon controlled by the Indian Independence League and Bose. The Saigon station broadcast to Australia and India and Radio Bangkok also broadcast to India. In Indonesia, Radio Batavia broadcast on short-wave to India, North America and Australia. Radio Taipei too retransmitted Japanese broadcasts to India.

We do know some more about the Saigon station from Gerald De Cruz’s interviews and biography. He joined the Saigon Free India radio primarily to communicate with his sister Hazel who had been sent away from Singapore to India, for safety. De Cruz who joined Radio Saigon, admired Bose, whom he had met several times but quickly discovered in Saigon that messages to India were being sent from another radio station operating from the Radio Saigon premises, which was the Free India Radio Saigon run by INA officers. The second-in-command there was Lieutenant-Colonel Inayet Hassan, with whom he became friendly. De Cruz thus started to broadcast talks on Free India Radio Saigon. He sent a message to his sister telling her that the family was well and asking her to reply urgently because their father was very ill, getting a reply sometime later that all was well.

Recalling the times in his oral History Interview, he recounted how the Japanese radio station sent out fabricated news about the war in the Pacific. But Free India Radio Saigon had an entirely different purpose: to send news about Indian prisoners of war and those who had joined the INA and get messages back for them. Also, it worked to increase anti-British feeling in India. Free India Radio Saigon supported Gandhi, Nehru and other Congress leaders who were in jail.

To summarize, the themes of the broadcasts did not vary much throughout the war. There was Abdul Wahid at Radio Batavia who frequently urged Indian Moslems to accept the leadership of Gandhi, and asked the Moslem League to unite with Congress in order to achieve independence. Speeches made by Bose from both Singapore and Tokyo promoted independence. Even after Japan's surrender Bose's tone remained defiant. His final message read over the Singapore station was, "The roads to Delhi are many, and Delhi still remains our goal”.

Indians who could be near radios did listen to these broadcasts and the common man was divided between Gandhi and Bose. Jagjivan Ram gives a vivid description – "One evening Subhas was to speak from Berlin. I tuned the radio set and was thrilled on listening the voice of Subhas Bose, I was advised to keep the volume of the receiver low as listening to broadcasts from Axis countries was banned. With thrill, we listened. Many of the things he said were highly appreciated by the listeners. The people gathered round radio sets in thousands of homes in the country to listen the message of Subhas Bose”. For many, listening to the programs of Radio Azad Hind became a daily ritual, although the British authorities tried in vain to forbid people to do so. Sugatha Bose mentions that some 120,000 sets in India tuned into these broadcasts after 1942 and we come across many mentions of people gathered around radio sets to listen to Azad Hind radio broadcasts, with rapt attention.

But then again, one must note that the Azad Hind radio and Axis radio broadcasts were different in nature and should not be confused to be one and the same. The common man on the street it appears trusted the Axis radio more than the British controlled BBC or the AIR, at that juncture. Isabel Huacuja Alonso explains the reasoning in the linked Scroll India article - In an environment where cynicism and mistrust ran high, manipulative and fake radio news, and outrageous rumours, gained currency. This helps explain why Axis radio was a lot more popular in India than, for example, in France.

Whatever one may conclude were the reactions within India to German, Japanese, and Indian nationalist broadcasts, its effect on the British administration was considerable. They created considerable concern in Britain, and resulted in the British debating and establishing a concerted counterattack. Part 2 will cover those British attempts to counter Axis and Free India broadcasts.


A Beacon Across Asia: A Biography of Subhas Chandra Bose - Ed Alexander Werth, Sisir Bose, SA Ayer
The sign of the Tiger – Rudolf Hartog
India in Axis Strategy – Milan Hauner
Directed Jihad (Made in the West) – Jyothirmony Banerjee
Tokyo Calling – Jane MJ Robbins
The Life and Times of Gerald de Cruz – Asad Latif
His Majesty’s opponent – Sugatha Bose

Pics – Wikimedia,,