Raj Sachdev, one of the last survivors of Netaji’s Balak Sena, reminisces his role in India’s Independence
On the 125th birth anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, it was fascinating to meet one of the two living members of his famed Balak Sena (Children’s Army) in Bangkok.
At the office of Raj Sachdev (Thai name: Sutham Sachaphimukh), the pictures of Netaji and Gandhiji are placed side by side, with an Indian flag on top. Raj was happy that on Netaji’s 125th birth anniversary, the Indian Embassy in Thailand held a photo exhibition of the great freedom fighter, which included the last photo of Netaji taken in Bangkok.
Raj Sachdev was only nine years old, when the Indian freedom fighter visited his Bharat Vidyalaya School in the “Indian” district near Pahurat in Bangkok. But he still remembers Netaji’s stirring speech urging them all to fight for India’s freedom. “You give us blood, we give you azadi,” he had declared with passion. It was soon after the speech, that 100 youngsters volunteered to form the Balak Sena in Bangkok.
Netaji came to Bangkok, after he was released from jail by the British, and Raj said that he was warmly received in Thailand by the Thais, as also the Japanese who were then occupying the country. He informed that the Indian freedom fighter visited Thailand at least eight times. Raj remembers one of his rousing public speeches, which was attended by all his family and friends.
“His speech was so inspiring that one lady immediately removed her gold jewels and gave them to him, another man shut his office, gave him a lot of cash, and said he would join his Army,” declared Raj.
Netaji formed the Indian National Army (INA) at Chonburi, outside Bangkok. And the youngsters of the Balak Sena were the ones who did numerous errands for them. “He started similar armies, both INA and Balak Sena, in different parts of Asia, like Singapore, Indonesia, Myanmar,” informed Raj.
One of Raj’s proudest moments came, when Netaji selected him and another youngster Tilak Raj Pawa (who is the only other survivor of the Balak Sena today), to deliver a letter to a British general who visited Thailand in 1947, to have talks with the government. The letter was yet another message from Netaji to the British, demanding freedom for his country.
“As we were small, we were allowed to go up to the British general and hand the letter. After that, we saluted, said Jai Hind, and left,” he said with pride.
Raj remembers Netaji’s much-talked about meeting with Gandhi, that was flashed in all the media outlets, about how he removed his cap, and said he was leaving the Congress party. “He told Gandhiji that while the latter’s way was ahimsa, his own way was taking on the British militarily,” muses Raj, “and that was the way he urged the members of his INA army to fight the British, too.”
Raj informed that out of the 60,000 members of the Indian National Army, at least 2,400 had died in the Independence struggle against the British.
Netaji’s death in a plane crash, en route to Japan, when he hurriedly left Thailand, at the end of World War II, saddened all of them greatly.
“But we were proud that we had all been involved with India’s Independence struggle, even though we lived outside India,” stated Raj.
For the 50th anniversary celebrations of Netaji’s death in India, Raj was invited to Raj Bhavan by the Indian government, and was delighted to meet many Balak Sena boys from around the world, who were all given plaques.
After Netaji’s death, Raj’s parents sent him to India, so that he could study the Hindi language. His mother, brothers, sisters also joined him there, as his mother had family members there.
They lived in Daska, which later became a part of Pakistan. Little did he realise that he and his family would get caught up in the terrible Hindu-Muslim riots following the Partition.
Raj remembers hiding in temples, running across sugarcane fields, witnessing corpses everywhere. He remembers being protected by Muslim families, as the mobs raged outside. Raj was separated from his family, lost a sister who died of starvation, and was finally rescued by the Indian Army, and taken to Delhi. It was there that he met his mother, two long years later.
It’s amazing that his memories have not scarred the gracious and positive Raj, who, with his dynamic wife Somsong, runs three well-known travel companies in Bangkok that cater to the Indian tourist market. It gives him an opportunity to visit India many times.
In fact, during one of her trips to India, Somsong visited the Netaji Subhash Chandra Museum in Kurseong, Darjeeling, and was thrilled to see a Balak Sena picture, where she spotted her husband as a young child!
The lady at the museum was thrilled to hear that, as her mother had been closely associated with Netaji, and had served him food, when he was in jail there.
“My memories of him will never fade” declared Raj Sachdev, adding, “Strong, committed and charismatic leaders like Netaji are so rare to find, today.”