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Exodus from Burma, 1941-42; a Memoir by Captain Nadir S. Tyabji: Part 5

Chrestomather | December 12, 2014 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (0)


Mandalay, March 1942




Nadir S. Tyabji (left) with British and Indian officers

Nadir S. Tyabji (left) with British and Indian officers



As the days went by, almost all my time began to be devoted to Air Evacuation problems which forced me to shift into Mandalay Town itself from the comfortable little cottage in Sagaing some 8 miles away.

An old friend placed a suite of rooms conveniently situated in the Bazar area at my disposal which I used both as office and living quarters. The friend also arranged for my meals which saved me both time and effort. There was a continuous flow of people wanting air passage and prepared to pay for it. However, I stuck to the norms agreed upon, and by and large, had little trouble enforcing the rules. My capacity to say ‘NO’ emphatically and without faltering was a handy tool in the circumstances though I did use my discretionary powers in order to help out deserving cases without bothering too much about adverse reaction from others.

I invariably managed to get well padded gentlemen to meet the passage money in return for an out of turn allocation of a seat going empty – as happened frequently, since families did not wish to be separated in those turbulent time. Here is an actual illustration: One fine morning a tall young man (6’4”) bounded into the Office grabbed me up and danced around the room in a gust of exuberance shouting ‘ho gaya, ho gaya’ as if he had won a lottery. It was Akram Khan, an old school friend who had gone into the Transport business and emerged a millionaire in the course of a year or so.


American-made trucks on the Burma Road

American-made trucks on the Burma Road

His lorries were operating on the Burma-China road on government contract and he had shifted lock, stock and barrel (which included the family, of course!) to Mandalay.








Himself a bachelor, he was anxious to evacuate his ailing mother and two sisters (18 & 20) by air to Calcutta. The sisters obviously did not qualify but I made a deal. He should pay for 10 seats and the three could go. He paid for 10 without batting an eye-lid and told me that he would be quite prepared to pay for any deserving case on my recommendation. By the time air-evacuation ended he had paid for more than 20 passages and I had no hesitation whatsoever in allocating an empty seat to him on the very last flight which left with 5 empty seats!



Troops boarding Douglas "Dakota" aircraft, Burma, 1944.

Troops boarding Douglas “Dakota” aircraft, Burma, 1944.



The Kyaw Htoons also decided to leave by air and I managed to accommodate the three of them on one flight. Mother left a couple of days later and this lifted a considerable load from my shoulders.










It was about this time that I persuaded the Agent to agree to our two ‘babus’ also leaving for India in a special aircraft which had landed at Shwebo with medicines. I kept back the Code Books to be destroyed before I hit the Road myself. All this left me completely free and I had only myself, my ruck sac and cycle to look after. I kept the cottage in Sagaing but was seldom able to use it. By the middle of March, the Japanese had already started consolidating their position in Rangoon and with the air-field under their command Toungoo and the smaller towns along the main Rangoon-Mandalay axis and the Irrawaddy came under constant attacks, and it became clear that all this activity was leading to a complete disruption of communication along the North-South axis with particular reference to Mandalay and Maymyo which had become the main staging centres for large Military and refugee columns making their way northwards – the former Via Myitkyina and the latter Via Tamu-Imphal. This also meant that all northern airfields would soon become targets for Japanese bombing attacks in order to deny them completely to the much reduced air component of the British Indian Forces as also to prevent them from being used for urgent supply and evacuation flights as was being done till then.

Our air evacuations scheme was being gradually wound down due to some uncertainty regarding aircraft availability, Japanese air activity in the area and a dramatic fall in demand for air tickets. The land evacuations, however, was in full swing though certainly not as smooth as could be wished.





World War II; Indian refugees flee Burma before advancing Japanese army (George Rodger, Magnum)

Mandalay had become a seething mass of refugees from every entry point – north, south, east and west. Cholera had reached epidemic proportions and the hospitals and casualty stations choked with patients whilst thousands waited for admission.









As if this was not enough riots erupted in the heart of the town between Chinese and Burmese on one side and Indians on the other. This led to widespread arson, looting and murder and my estimate of casualties as reported to the Government of India was approximately 600 killed and over 3,000 injured. This cast a further strain on our infra-structural resources and be-devilled the atmosphere with an all-pervasive sense of suspicion, bitterness and hatred which had a seriously adverse effect on the administration of our evacuation programme where these two groups of communities stood at either end of the line; Indians as beneficiaries and Burmese etc. as controllers.

This sur-charged atmosphere resulted as we had feared in a ghastly tragedy at the Mandalay end of the Sagaing Bridge which by itself was estimated to have taken a toll of some 6,000 lives – men, women and children. Despite establishing control points in the shape of a police out-post at the Bridge-head only allowing entry to the bridge on the basis of what came to be known as the ‘Yellow Chit’ which originally had been devised to ensure that each refuge received his/her anti-cholera inoculation before being allowed to cross the bridge. This became a major weapon for fleecing the mostly illiterate refugees.

It came to our notice that up to Rs.3/= was being charged per individual by the Burmese Police and its Civil components. Considering over 20 lakh refugees are known to have crossed the bridge the total amount involved would have been a staggering 50 lakh or more which must have come as a windfall to a wide range of functionaries belonging to various units of the government – Police, Public health, PWD, etc. We were also worried at the thought of too many refugees being let loose on the road to Pakokku since there was little information available regarding the actual functional status of camps along the road and the ability of the camp staffs to cope with a viable level of efficiency with the sort of numbers which seemed almost astronomical at that stage. However, I soon got used to thinking about problems in those terms and this approach came in handy later when I became totally responsible for day-to-day planning of logistics and management of all Camps up to Tamu.



Palace walls and moat, Mandalay

Palace walls and moat, Mandalay


By the end of March 1942, Mandalay had been turned into a huge refugee camp with very little evidence left of its once reasonably efficient civic facilities.









Summer was setting in and the temperature had begun shooting up. The monsoon was almost a month away, but I was certainly not looking forward to it with its additional problems. The daily casualty figure (deaths) fluctuated between 100 – 300 and disposal of the corpses was posing a serious problem. In addition there was a constant depletion of medical and public health personnel, with substantial numbers deserting their posts and vanishing without trace. Some camps had neither doctor nor public-health staff and we were forced to conscript younger men and women (below 40) against permission to use camp facilities till the time came for them to hit the road. I spent 3 – 4 hours each morning (starting at 6 a.m.) going from Camp to Camp on my bicycle but made it a point of getting back to my ‘office’ by 11 a.m. by which time a horde of refugees would have collected outside (mostly well-to-do middle class men/women) wanting me to arrange special facilities for them e.g. bullock carts to carry them to Tamu, special rations, since they were not used to just rice and salt, requests to leave money and valuables (jewellery etc.) for safe-custody and delivery at some destination in India, arrangement for storage of household items (furniture, car, sewing machines etc.) at Mandalay or Maymyo for the duration of the Japanese occupation, transfer of important documents (leases, agreements, Loan receipts, Property ownership paper etc.) to India in my personal custody etc. etc. All in all it disclosed a level of selfishness, total unconcern for and ignorance of the tragedy and misery around them and the absolute conviction that the ability to pay conferred on them the right to expect such services as they required from someone like myself.

The on-going trauma of having to watch at close quarters and inevitably get involved in the tragedies resulting from whole families being wiped out in the course of a couple of days leaving behind young of all ages to be cared for, was a burden I had to carry right up to the time till I crossed into Manipur almost two months later, though not quite. The constant pressure imposed by other people’s misery and my own frustration had done my temper no good, and there were times when I could bear it no more and just lashed out in spasms of violent out breaks. All the same, however seemingly unreasonable, we did manage to help a fair number of people and I must confess that despite my rudeness and stupid out-breaks, I managed somehow to retain far more goodwill and consideration than I perhaps deserved.

There was the touching case of a young zerbadi couple from Moulmein in the far south who would wait patiently in my office for hours each day in the hope of being introduced to a compatible group for the long journey ahead to Tamu. I knew what was required and told them it would be done, but would take time. After a couple of days they realised I was not being able to get away for meals and quite unobtrusively took matters into their own hands. On the 3rd day as it approached 2 p.m. they suddenly stepped up to my desk and too charge. She firmly told all my visitors that I had to have my meal, cleared the desk of all papers and laid out a tiffin-carrier full of delicious Burmese dishes – my favourite. In the meantime, the husband sat down at another desk and noted down names and relevant details of my visitors till I had finished. It took me almost a week to find the right group for them to join – mostly young couples in the 30 – 40 age group. I am glad to say that they did eventually get to Calcutta but have no idea what happened to them later.





Exodus from Burma, 1941-42; a Memoir by Captain Nadir S. Tyabji: Part 4

Chrestomather | December 9, 2014 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (0)


February 1942


Mandalay was already chock-a-block with refugees who had turned the city into a public health time bomb. Cholera had started taking hold and our total indent for anti-cholera vaccine on the Government of India reached 20 lakh injections for the Mandalay area alone. The news from the south was increasingly disturbing and after sending off a telegram to the Agent, I decided to make my way down south by river get off at Minbu-Magwe and then, if necessary pick up a bicycle and try to reach Rangoon by road (some 200 miles further south). We were now into the 3rd week of February and the weather still mild in the Burmese context.



Boats of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company

Boats of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company


I managed to get aboard a paddle-steamer belonging to the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. Ltd. on its way south and we reached Minbu 2 days later.









Minbu and Magwe are twin cities on the left and right banks of the Irrawaddy river respectively. I was aware that the Kyaw Htoons, very close friends of the family, had a country house in Magwe and that there could be a remote possibility that Mother may have teamed up with them in the event of a general evacuation from Rangoon. It was worth taking a chance before rushing off to Rangoon and getting caught in turmoil there. I got off at Minbu and looked up an old Moplah business friend to get the latest news. He told me that Rangoon had fallen and the city was in a state of chaos. He advised me that even thinking of Rangoon it that state would be sheer madness. I asked him to get me a cycle on purchase and that I would settle with him on my return to Magwe which I decided to travel to in the same steamer waiting to cross over.



Salahuddin and Akhtar Tyabji, with the Kyaw Htoons, Magwe 1942

Salahuddin and Akhtar Tyabji, with the Kyaw Htoons, Magwe 1942


Getting off at Magwe I dashed off to the Kyaw Htoons who had a large bungalow overlooking the river and there, to my disbelieving astonishment I found Mother with the rest of the Htoon family enjoying a cup of tea!








Mr. Kyaw Htoon was a Karen lawyer happily married to an Englishwoman.; 2 children – Olga and Vernon – all of us in the same age group. It was quite tumultuous meeting and as soon as the excitement died down I was given an overall round-up of events so far.

As Rangoon was ordered to be abandoned, father joined the Army convoys with one of his own comprising of some 30 odd lorries carrying rice-milling equipment in full working order and another 50 loaded with un-husked paddy. Before moving off, however, father arranged for 2 lorries to be placed at Mother’s disposal; these carried spares for the rice mills but there was sufficient room for 5 individuals with baggage in each and this turned out to be a boon.


Farewell party for Akhtar Tyabji (centre) Monday Afternoon Club


Mother, knowing that the Kyaw Htoons were in Magwe, decided to stop at Minbu and crossed over to persuade them to join her on the journey to Mandalay and, in fact, stick together for the rest of the stay in Burma.












The Kyaw Htoons were undecided but I told them categorically that they had no option. There would be nothing for him to do and that there was every possibility of the law and order situation breaking down and creating an ugly situation. I also told him that I had everything arranged in Mandalay in the way of shelter and once there, a decision would have to be taken regarding further movement towards India.

Fortunately, both Olga and Vernon Htoon were enthusiastic about the plan. She had fortunately passed her BA exams early in 1941 and he (Vernon) had managed to secure a Commission in the Burma Rifles whose Training Centre was in Mandalay.




The little Austin with the driver Yakub formed part of Mother’s little convoy and it was decided that Mother and the elder Kyaw Htoons would travel in the Austin and the younger three in the lorries.







The Kyaw Htoons took this decision, which could well mean a long and uncertain separation from their homeland, with typical stoicism and were packed and ready for the road within an hour’s time. The house too had to be locked up and secured, more for psychological satisfaction than conviction regarding safety. We crossed over to Minbu by steamer and mounted our respective vehicles with our baggage which consisted of a suitcase each. My moplah friend was asked to return the bicycle with thanks and we were on the move.



The Great Raid on Magwe, March 1942 by the Japanese

The Great Raid on Magwe, March 1942 by the Japanese
















We  stopped the night at Toungoo had a good night’s rest and reached Sagaing, my temporary home, late the following evening. The cottage received general approval and we settled in without much ado. Vernon decided to leave for his regiment the very next morning and that was the last I saw of him. A wonderful friend, he rose to command a battalion and kept in touch well into the 60’s after which there has been total silence.

The Agent reached Mandalay the next morning and after a brief session concerning our programme of work and main priorities in terms of setting up Refugee Camps along the Mandalay-Tamu route and their provisioning for the hordes of evacuees expected along that route. This, of course, had to be the sole responsibility of the Government of Burma but I was directed to associate myself closely with every aspect of the work in order to be in a position to take over at short notice. This was significant since it was an indication that the Government of India was increasingly taking over responsibility (financial and administrative) for all aspects of the massive Evacuation infra-structure that was being built up in order to cope with the problem at every stage.

Our discussion made it clear that the major factor responsible for unnecessary misunderstandings, delays and friction was the lack of understanding and agreement between the Burmese government officials and ourselves in regard to specific areas of responsibility, administrative and financial as also powers to issue passes for crossing the Sagaing bridge on certification of completion of health formalities.



Sagaing Bridge, built 1934, partly demolished by British 1942; not rebuilt till 1954

Sagaing Bridge, built 1934, partly demolished by British 1942; not rebuilt till 1954














The Agent decided to call on the Governor at the summer capital Maymyo, immediately in order to finalize a host of issues and problems pending decision for sometime. On his return that evening, I was in for a rude shock. Quite simply, I was to represent the Agent/Government of India in all matters involving law and order problems, Camp management, health clearances and issue of passes and daily review of infra-structure development along the evacuation route.

The Agent had decided to keep the bombshell for the last. As I was getting up to leave he casually asked me to stay on, lit a cigarette asked me to light my pipe and then let fly. I was told without any preamble that a regular Air Evacuation Scheme was to commence in 2 days time and that I was to take charge of it! I almost collapsed in my chair since we had discussed the problems involved in operating such a scheme earlier on and had agreed that, at best, it would be the most thankless job on the Evacuation platter. Of the more critical aspects, obviously the selection of passengers on each flight would be the most troublesome. Of the thousands who would lay claim to a seat from the 40 available each day –


Douglas Dakotas in the Royal Air Force

Dakotas in the Royal Air Force


the Dakotas were considered new at the time – selection would have to be on the basis of criteria to be strictly applied in each case.









We kept them simple and straightforward: Women, 40 years and above; ill or ailing handicapped children below 16 years; those prepared to pay the 120/= per seat fixed by the Government of India up to Calcutta. Men above 50 years with otherwise similar qualifications. The bottom-line was that I had absolute power to make exceptions as considered appropriate. I used these powers to help a number of deserving individuals – old disabled and sick, as will be seen later.





Exodus from Burma, 1941-42; a Memoir by Captain Nadir S. Tyabji: Part 3

Chrestomather | December 7, 2014 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (2)



January 2, 1942


Started back for Rangoon 2nd afternoon & drove straight up to the Agent’s House-cum-office




Windermere (now Kandawgyi) Park, Rangoon


situated in Windermere Park – thickly wooded & lush green. He agreed with my assessment of the situation and was on the phone immediately to inform the Chief Secretary








of what he termed the Government of India’s assessment of the situation including the various problems connected with the Prome-Taung Up route and so on and got an immediate acceptance in principle of the Agent’s suggestions/proposals. An hour was spent discussing the next day’s programme which was entirely devoted to the situation within Rangoon city and specifically as it concerned the Indian community. It was after 12 o’clock when I got back to the Club and Father refused to allow me to turn in till he had got a detailed report regarding the Prome trip. Apart from getting familiar with the Government of India procedures, a major effort went into acquiring absolute confidence in handling the Codes for I had been made aware that I would be operating on my own shortly and it was imperative to send all reports, requests, etc. by Code, whether back to Rangoon or towards New Delhi.

The air raids on Rangoon continued on a daily cycle of day and night bombings in order to keep the population and the administration off balance. Rangoon city and its suburbs was fast filling up with Indian refugees from the south and south-east; the ones from the hinterlands further north were taking the various feeder roads joining up with the main Rangoon-Mandalay highway and the Japanese subjected these various streams to a regular dose of low level strafing with machine guns which not only caused serious casualties but also almost unthinking panic leading to further bizarre tragedies such as bridge collapses, boat capsizings and so on. From this chaos emerged an oasis of calm, disciplined and rational control in the shape of the Zeyawady Zamindari owned by the Raja of Zeyawady (Raja Sahib Sinha).

The Zamindari which had been conferred on the Sinha family of Patna, Bihar, around 1870 comprised of some 20,000 acres of rich agricultural land suitable for sugar-cane and paddy. Apart from the zamindari the family owned another 10,000 acres and the total population of share-croppers, and farm labourers with families was in the neighbourhood of approx. 20,000. The Agent was in close touch with the Raja sahib on an on-going basis and the Raja had given an assurance that he would not allow any of his people to take the road till such time as the initial congestion had eased and even then in well defined self- contained batches each with its own train of bullock carts loaded with rations to see the group though to Mandalay.



Japanese conquest of Burma, 1942

Japanese conquest of Burma, 1942


Since all the Zayawady labour was from Bihar it constituted homogenous, cohesive groups each in charge of a leader who managed to keep the groups from breaking up at least till Mandalay was reached. From then onwards it was each family for itself and the devil take the hindmost.











As a matter of historic interest the Sinha family (Bihari zamindars) had been persuaded to help the British by establishing a regular system under which indentured labour was shipped to Rangoon for various categories of work including agriculture. The Sinhas, in fact, acted as Labour Contractors and amassed a fortune from the enterprise. It was in recognition of this assistance that the British rewarded the Senior Sinha with the Zamindari and the title of Raja of Zayawady.

Apart from close personal friendship between the two families, Father had been acting as Political Adviser to the Sinhas since the early Thirties and for all I know his name still stands in the Books. The friendship stood fast in spite of several serious differences on matters of policy. Its depth and sincerity can be judged from the fact that when Father was lying seriously ill in Mussoorie on his return from Burma, the Raja Sahib thought it fit to send his eldest son all the way from Patna in order to inform Mother that the Sinhas had taken over the responsibility for Father’s treatment and she was not to worry. The son, Raj Bihari Sinha stayed in Mussoorie till such time as father was declared by the doctor completely out of danger.[1]

There was another large Zamindari in the name of Khan Bahadur Zain-ul-Abedin of Kalewa, some 200 miles north of the Capital. He was of Afghan descent , his grandfather having been exiled to Burma after the Afghan War. Unfortunately this could not be compared to the Zeyawady Estate in the matter of efficient operations and business-like administration and thus had little or no impact in the overall politics of Indian Labour Policy in Burma. We spent some wonderful holidays on the estate and it was there that I had my first sighting of a tiger, in the wild.




It was about the 3rd week of February 1942 when the Agent decided that the time had come to make a tactical withdrawal to Mandalay










by setting up a small mobile office there in order to be in position by the time the first major influx of refugees from the south hit that city in full force. I was to be in charge of operations there and was duly accredited to the Governor and the Chief Commissioner as the Agent’s representative in all matters concerning Indian refugees – their reception, shelter, medical, food and water and lastly evacuation by the Mandalay-Kalewa-Tamu-Imphal-Dimapur route. I was also to involve myself with the setting up of refugee camps along the route which had been sadly neglected until then.

We (myself and 2 permanent India-based staff) left for Mandalay by train one fine morning on the understanding that my return to Rangoon would depend on developments in the south but, in any case, I was not to leave Mandalay without specific instructions to that effect. We were in Mandalay the next morning and as I had taken the bicycle with me, I instructed my two stalwarts to remain at the station with the Codes and our meagre luggage whilst I cycled across the Irrawady river bridge




Sagaing, 2012


to Sagaing to meet the Commissioner and arrange some sort of accommodation for our office and living accommodation for myself and the staff.








The Commissioner, Mr. Roberts, ICS, met me most cordially and I soon had a well secured room allotted to me for the office within the Commissioner’s office complex equipped with a good safe for the sage custody of the Code Books. I was also able to rent two Burmese style bamboo cottages for myself and the staff. Having done this, I cycled back the 8 odd mile to the Railway Station, hired a ‘tikka gadi’ (horse drawn carriage) and shifted my two Tamil friends and luggage to Sagaing. We were settled in by sunset and that was the beginning of a fairly eventful phase of my life and work as a minute limb of the Government of India in Burma. The next morning was spent getting in touch with Burmese officials with whom I would have to deal and, as must be expected, I got the clear impression that things would not be all that easy. The pressure of refugees on Mandalay was increasing by the day and from an inspection of the camps set up for their reception I had the sinking feeling that we were in for big trouble – no latrines, no drinking water, no medical facilities.

The food stock – rice and salt was totally inadequate in terms of reserves. Each camp was meant to accommodate 40,000 refugees and It had been agreed that each man, woman and child above 6 would receive a cigarette tin full of rice per day together with a table-spoon full of salt. Firewood etc. had to be arranged by the refugees themselves. They reduced the problem by 3 to 4 or more families pooling their resources in order to economise on expenses.



Indian civilians in Burma, fleeing northwards

Indian civilians in Burma, fleeing northwards


There was a more serious problem however – the distance of the Camp sites from the City centre, invariably over six miles in each case had led to families just dumping themselves on any open ground








along the city roads creating critical public hygiene and health problems not only for the refugees but the permanent population as well. This also resulted in a running feud between the Burmese and refugee Indians resulting in senseless loss of life and property on both sides. They also constituted sitting targets for the odd Japanese raiders which sneaked in 2 or 3 times a day in order to machine gun these refugees in order to keep them of balance and in a state of terror without respite. Total lack of discipline and cohesion on the one hand and complete disregard of elementary precautions precipitated a horrendous public health problem resulting in almost 100 deaths from cholera each day.

At our request the Government of India despatched a large consignment of 2,50,000 doses of anti-cholera vaccine by air and we put into effect an attempt at immunisation of the total refugee population with the inducement of a yellow card which would entitle the holder to cross the Sagaing Bridge – the gateway to the north.




Mingun Pagoda, Sagaing












Unfortunately a large concentration of refugees was building up at the Mandalay end of the bridge and once the cholera broke out among the squalor and filth, I found it difficult to keep a tally of the daily casualties. It was one of the more gruesome situations I had the misfortune to experience.



Fire after bombing sweeps Maymyo (Life magazine)

Fire after bombing sweeps Maymyo (Life magazine)


As may be imagined, this was keeping me on the hop till late into the night, with odd trips to Maymyo the summer capital (some 40 miles from Mandalay) in order to clear matters with the Commissioner.







The news from Rangoon became increasingly alarming and the most disturbing aspect was the dichotomy between the Government version on radio and the first hand accounts from evacuees from Rangoon and Toungoo indicating that the Japanese were almost knocking on the gates of the capital and that general evacuation had been ordered. And then came the famous broadcast by the Governor of Burma one evening assuring the population that the British Indian forces had consolidated their position around Rangoon and that the Burmese Capital would prove to be a second Stalingrad. I remember telling my staff that evening that Rangoon was finished and that we were to prepare for the final exodus from Burma! So much for credibility!




Rangoon 1942, Night Scene in the Suburbs, George Rodger, Magnum

Rangoon 1942, Night Scene in the Suburbs, George Rodger, Magnum


All my sense of discipline and rationality seemed to fly out of the window at that moment and I convinced myself that it was essential for me to get back to Rangoon at any cost.







My main concern at that moment was how Mother would be able to face up to the chaos and total disruption of administration in the wake of a general exodus being ordered. At that moment I quite overlooked the fact that Father was holding a key position in both the military and civil arms of the Government and that Mother would also be adequately cared for.

I sent off a telegram to the Agent informing him that I would be leaving for Rangoon by the first available train unless I received specific directions from him to the contrary. Cycled down to Mandalay Railway Station the next morning and informed the Station Master of my intention to board the first available train to Rangoon. We had become quite friendly over the last few days and I liked him. He happened to be a Karen Christian, very devout, and a firm believer in Providence as a major determinant in human affairs. He flew into an absolute rage telling me bluntly that he thought I was going mad and that he would have no hand in getting me a ticket; I could get it directly at the window, myself. I did, and was told that I was only the second 1st class passenger booked so far.

The next train to down South to Rangoon was due to leave at 6 p.m. the following day and not having received any message from Rangoon till 4 p.m. I packed my ruck-sac and got to the station at 5 p.m. My two young Tamils did not know what to make of all this and the Commissioner had serious reservations about the wisdom of what I was up to. Needless to say the train was almost empty since it had been broadcast that it would be the last train to leave Mandalay. The First Class bogey was next to the engine on the very edge of the platform and as I dumped my ruck sac on to a berth, I found that my co-passenger was a large-sized, weather beaten Anglo-Indian who, on closer acquaintance turned out to be a retired Engine Driver returning to his home in Toungoo half way to Rangoon. He noticed my pipe and immediately offered me a cut from his South African rope tobacco. I discovered that he had been recently retired and was returning home after settling his account, pension etc. obviously highly satisfied with whatever he had managed to secure. He told me that apart from us there was a bogy full of girls also returning to their Convent school in Toungoo. I did not think anything of the incongruity of the situation at that time.

The station platform was crowded with refugees and their belongings and the noise level was almost that of a continuous roar. As the train was about to leave, I was leaning out of the open door and looking back idly at the crowds when I suddenly became aware of the Guard’s shrill whistle in short staccato blasts unlike the normal signal and at the same time saw the Station Master dashing down the platform shouting something at the top of his voice. The train had started to move by then but came to a halt with a jerk leaving our bogy well clear of the platform. As the train stopped the Station Master came pelting down, I suddenly realised he was shouting my name. I jumped down and he handed me the piece of yellow paper he was holding. It was a telegram from the Agent, c/o the Station Master directing me not to leave Mandalay unless so ordered. My co-passenger handed down the ruck sac, we said goodbye and wishing him well, I walked back to the Station Master’s office.

I learnt the next morning that the train was attacked by Japanese Night Fighters somewhere north of Toungoo. My friend was killed and of the 120 girls on their way to Toungoo, only 10 escaped alive. I was too stunned to realise what a touch and go affair it had been and I took quite some time for the full impact of what could have been to sink in to my brain. By the time that happened, there were other things to worry about.





[1] In a letter accompanying the ms, Hashim Tyabji writes that he has recently learnt that the Raja of Zayawady’s family was closely connected with the zamindari of Dumraon, in Bihar. He adds that without his being aware of any earlier links between his family and that of Dumraon,


HNT & Man Vijay Singh Dumraon Tiger Topsthe connection has continued, as evidenced by this picture, taken in 1980, of himself with Man Vijai Singh Dumraon.

To this day the area around Zayawady has the appearance of rural Bihar.










Exodus from Burma, 1941-42; a Memoir by Captain Nadir S. Tyabji: Part 2

Chrestomather | December 5, 2014 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (3)


[December 25- 26, 1941



Lt. Nadir S. Tyabji, 1943

Lt. Nadir S. Tyabji, 1943

By the time I started back for home it was late afternoon and what I saw started raising butterflies in my stomach. I stepped on the pedals of my Sunbeam racer and as I reached the house – a typical wooden 2-storeyed dwelling within its own grounds – my heart took a violent somersault. Half the roof was gone and there were clear signs that the morning’s work had left it in bad shape.











We lived on the first floor and miraculously the wooden stairway was intact. I knew Mother would be there since she was on night-shift as Ambulance Driver at the Red Cross Casualty Station, and bounded up shouting for her. She’d had a harrowing experience with a miracle thrown in for good measure.





Rangoon bombing raid, WW II



Jehangir our old and faithful retainer also appeared and gave me a brief account of what had actually transpired. At the time the planes came over she was at the dining table writing letters.








Jehangir came rushing up and literally carried her off downstairs to a small air-raid trench we had dug in the garden with an old derelict ‘sampan’ for a splinter-proof roof! Soon the whole area came under attack and two A.P. bombs hit the house. One took away part of the roof and the second went straight down through the dining table and wooden floor and buried itself in the ground floor without exploding.

Apart from the gaping holes the house still stood four-square with the furniture etc. intact. However, we were advised to move out with whatever we could carry away in the small Austin 10 which, with its young driver Yakub sat unscratched in the garage. With that unexploded bomb comfortably ensconced in the ground floor haste was called for and we took remarkably little time in getting way from that beautiful little house and dumping ourselves on the premises of the Ladies Monday Afternoon Club on the Royal Lake, of which mother was President at the time.

At this time the family consisted of just the three of us – Father, Mother and myself; Ahsan had shifted to Calcutta as secretary to Mr. G.L. Mehta of Scindia Steamship Co. There has been no mention of Father till now. Though we knew his appointments for the day, it was obvious that after the bombing the priorities would have changed. As the Japanese push into Burma developed the realisation grew that a general withdrawal of the British Indian forces together with the Administrative set-up had to be considered a distinct possibility and it also dawned on the authorities that a massive withdrawal on the scale envisaged would also require an efficient commissariat organisation headed by someone who not only knew where the resources could be found but had the necessary stature, respect and leadership to be able to commandeer these resources on an equitable basis.




Old Rangoon Sketch Map

Old Rangoon Sketch Map



In Burma the basic item had to be Rice and it has to be said that there was no one who had a deeper knowledge of the various facets of the Rice Trade in Burma from Cultivation to Labour, Marketing, Export etc. etc. as also the identity of the major Companies and individuals involved in various aspects of the trade. His various Papers and Notes on the rice industry of Burma had been acknowledged as constituting Basic Reference Material for Govt. Policy formulations. With these credentials his appointment as Director of Civil Supplies to be quickly extended to cover Army supplies as well was inevitable and I think he was the first and perhaps the last Congressman to be given the rank of Honorary Lieut. Colonel in the British Indian Army. He was a difficult man to keep pace with but one had no option; it became a matter of family prestige. On the 25th we managed to track him down at one of his Emergency Meetings to meet the growing state of unrest in the country and he was told that his next meal would be available at the Monday Afternoon Club, as also hopefully, a Bed.

A view of the 'Cantonment Gardens' (now Kandaw Mingalar Garden), Rangoon (Wikimedia Commons)

A view of the ‘Cantonment Gardens’ (now Kandaw Mingalar Garden), Rangoon (Wikimedia Commons)

The Club was beautifully sited in a large compound below the Lake Bund. That night Rangoon was in mourning and a great deal of time was spent trying to locate friends who had been forced out of their homes due to bomb damage.











Some had lost close members of the family; we mourned for them but there were no tears. Mother’s main concern then was the safety and welfare of her students studying in Zeenat Islam Girls High School started by her some ten years back. The School building was safe and in course of time it also turned out that none of her 1000 odd students suffered any hurt or damage either then or in later attacks. So far so good. Father returned home about 11 p.m. and Jehangir in his usual unobtrusive fashion managed to serve up an excellent hot meal after which things began to acquire a less sombre hue.

It was just after midnight and the three of us were going over the previous day’s events and discussing our respective schedules for the day – 26th Dec. 1941 – when we noticed the headlamps of a car turning into the drive. It belonged to Mr. Robert Hutchings, ICS, Agent to the Government of India in Burma and the driver carried an envelope for me; and from that moment my life took a completely new direction.

From Trade & commerce I was to take a leap into the service of the Government of India in the Ministry of Commonwealth Affairs to be followed by the Ministry of Steel Production (6 months) the Indian Navy till 1963 and finally IOC Ltd. till final retirement in 1971. However all this was well beyond the horizon at that moment in time. My main concern was what the letter had to say. It was official, on the Agent’s letterhead intimating, in stark terms, my appointment with immediate effect as Assistant to the Agent of the Government of India in Burma on the same salary as I had been drawing from TOMCO which considering Govt. salaries at the time, was most satisfactory. It also informed me that the management of Tata Oil Mills Co. Ltd., had agreed to my ‘transfer’ to the Government of India till as long as required.



Rickshaws, Rangoon

Rickshaws, Rangoon











I had greatly enjoyed my 7 years with TOMCO and the Company had been very good to me.In any case, with our Godown having received a direct hit and the Japanese almost at the front door it was obvious to me that I would either have to return to India, losing my independent status or resign a dilemma from which I was neatly saved by the letter in question.

Whilst all this may read well on paper, I must make it clear in all honesty that I had been aware for some time, ever since the Japanese moved in Singapore, that the Agent’s fertile brain had been busy (in its spare moments) on devising a scheme for high jacking my services. I discovered later that he had already written to Mr. Bozman, ICS, Secretary, Commonwealth Affairs in this connection obtaining his approval in principle, to the scheme.

With my temperament and zest for the unusual and exciting, I did not waste too many minutes in confirming my delight in accepting the appointment and informing my new Boss that I would present myself at the Office at 0800 hrs sharp, which I did. I had not the foggiest notion then as to where it would lead me but the road was open and the horizon beckoned. At 29, you don’t ask for much more! My parents had no hesitation in approving my decision and – on the other hand, I greatly liked and admired Mr. Hutchings – sentiments which were to be considerably strengthened in the months ahead.

At 0800 hours on Boxing Day 26th December 1941, on the dot, I presented myself at the Agent’s Office, housed in a part of his largish residence in Windermere Park. The Agent and Mrs. Hutchings had just finished breakfast and were on their second cup of coffee when I was asked to join them and that set the pattern for the next 5 to 6 months whenever I happened to be at ‘Headquarters’ e.g. wherever the Agent had his office at the time.

Working with Mr Hutchings was a major influence in my life. He laid no claims to being an intellectual but his sheer dynamism and air of confident authority made me proud of being a part of his team. He was junior to many of the ICS officers serving in the Govt. of Burma but he represented the Government of India, and that was enough. He let no one forget that it happened to be the brightest Jewel in the British Imperial Crown! Tall, gaunt of face with an oversized aquiline nose, he could turn into a raging behemoth when the occasion demanded and mostly against his own countrymen but had the grace to laugh at himself in an embarrassed sort of way. However his ability to laugh at his own foibles seldom left behind any perceptible ill feeling or bitterness on the part of his opponents.

He had the rare gift of being able to get to the core of the problem and then unravelling it methodically in order to be able to work out the various options available for its solution. I would be in office at the stroke of 8 a.m. and we would go over the day’s programme over a cup of coffee which Mrs Hutchings would pour out as soon as she heard the tinkle of my bicycle bell. Those were busy days and I had no reason to miss not getting my evening games since I got all the exercise I needed from cycling around the city. Often enough there was additional excitement trying to keep out of the way of Japanese Zeroes belting down low over the highway in pursuit of Heavy Vehicle Convoys, military and civil, on the Windermere Park Road which happened to be a byepass for the road to Mandalay. I can remember one hairraising occasion when under a somewhat egoistic notion that the Japanese Air Force had designated me personally as their main obstacle to the conquest of Burma, I flung myself off my bicycle and dived headlong into the roadside monsoon ditch. It was a matter of minutes and on finally reaching office I discovered that the Agent was out. Poor Mrs. Hutchings was quit aghast at my appearance and promptly produced a pair of shorts and a shirt belonging to Mr Hutchings which by their enormous size turned me into a scarecrow providing much amusement all round. He was 6 feet plus as against my somewhat more modest 5’!

Another of Mr. Hutchings strong points was his ability and willingness to trust and devolve powers without laying down inhibiting reservations, which in my case created a bond that I greatly cherished. There was never a question of British or Indian. Within a matter of days he made me aware of his confidence and never resorted to spoon-feeding. I knew what was required to be done and why and the rest was my business.

For me January 1942 was a month of intense activity and toil working late into the night preparing myself for the tasks and responsibilities ahead. The Agent had taken me fully into his confidence regarding our future status in the developing situation and in particular, what he foresaw as being my responsibilities vis-à-vis the Refugees and the whole process of Evacuation particularly from Mandalay northward to Manipur. It is remarkable how correct his assessment turned out to be in the final analysis. January 1942 also witnessed a massive surge of refugees from southern districts into Rangoon and the surrounding areas. The first stream to leave Rangoon took the road to Prome with some hazy notions of moving on from there to Cox’s Bazar on the Arakan Coast thence to TaungUp, Chittagong and finally Calcutta. We had to know more. No one seemed to have a clear picture of what this long march could entail and it fell to the Agent to make the first positive move in this direction. He decided to send me to Prome on a swift recce mission and since I still have a copy of the original Movement Order, I am reproducing it below since it provides and excellent example of his manner of working.


Movement Order


You will proceed on 31st January 1942 to Prome in Car No. 1999. At Prome you should report to the Deputy Commissioner, or in his absence the District Superintendent of Police, and enquire generally into the number of Indians waiting in Prome district to go up the Prome Taung Up road and as to their condition. You will also report what you find of Indians settled in camps and villages at the Rangoon-Prome road. You shall return to headquarters not later than the afternoon of Monday the 2nd February 1942.

Sd/= R.H. Hutchings

Agent of the Government of


  1. Tyabji, Esq.,

Assistant to the Agent

of the Govt. of India in Burma




Rangoon 1942; spectators gather around the body of a downed Japanese airman (George Rodger, Magnum)

Rangoon 1942; spectators gather around the body of a downed Japanese airman (George Rodger, Magnum)













This Memo was received after midnight and I was on the road to Prome at 5 a.m. sharp. Even at that hour I found the road almost choked with Indians fleeing the stricken city in a blind endeavour to put as much distance as possible between themselves and Rangoon. Men, women and children carrying whatever they had managed to salvage on their heads and shoulders. The northward migration had begun as a trickle with the first air-raids on the Capital over a month back and had alerted both the Government of India and the Government of Burma to two major problems (1) the critical need to prevent a general exodus by Indian labour in order to maintain stevedoring services, civil public health, railways and the host of other services which were dominated by Indian labour merely on the ground that Burmese labour was both inefficient and therefore more costly, and (2) the obvious dangers inherent in a mass exodus of this magnitude in terms of outbreak of cholera, degradation of the areas on either side of the roads and above all, providing this mass of humanity with minimum essential facilities such as shelter, rations and drinking water at pre-determined halting sites. Camps were being set up 20 miles apart (that being a day’s march) and were to be stocked with rice and salt only. I stopped at regular intervals to talk to individuals and groups concerning their intentions and resources and to find out if they had any idea of the route to take and why and the difficulties and hardships ahead.

I discovered that the vast majority in that stream were Oriyas from Orissa travelling in well defined groups, village or caste-wise, with cash resources ranging from 50/= to 1000/= rupees per family which was all the money they had been able to lay their hands on at short notice. Many had fled leaving behind substantial sums owing to them by employers/contractors or maistrys. Almost none had any idea of the long and arduous trek ahead of them but then neither did I. according to my reckoning there were just 50,000 Indians on that road that day, 31st January 1942, between Rangoon and Prome, a distance of approx. 120 miles. Reached Prome around mid-day and met both the Commissioner & DSP (both British) with whom I was to establish an excellent working relationship without ado. I got a good idea of established and projected Camps in and around Prome, facilities available in resources and man-power and anticipated shortages and bottlenecks. I was told that finance would not be a problem. As planned, Prome district would be able to handle approx. 50,000 refugees on a 24 hour cycle which meant that the Camps would have to be emptied every 24 hours to accommodate fresh arrivals. This in turn meant that the facilities along the Prome-Taung Up road, including adequate provision of boats for crossing the Irrawaddy at Prome or other selected sites would have to be suitably strengthened in order to avoid ‘piling’ up of refugees at these points resulting in the creation of a host of problems like hygiene and law and order which in the overall would cause friction between local Burmese and refugees resulting in dis-order and chaos. Apart from all this was the harassment of refugees by the Burma police and petty officials which even at that early stage had assumed critical proportion and was strongly brought to my attention by Indian settlers, traders and shop-keepers in the area, many of whom were known to me from my earlier visits as TOMCO representative.

I lodged a complaint with the Commissioner and brought it to the Agent’s notice in my report on return to Rangoon. My major concern at that stage was the realisation that neither the Burmese administration nor anyone else seemed to have any clear idea of the physical difficulties likely to be encountered by the refugees along the Prome Taung Up route which in a general way ran along the foothills of the Arakan Yomas. There was no positive information even in respect of availability of water and suitable camp sites for such large numbers along the route. The attitude of the tribal population along the Prome Taung Up route was another worrying factor about which nothing was known. It was obvious to me that the first few batches were likely to face tremendous problems but my suggestion that we should hold back any movement northwards till such time as a proper recce had been carried was received with no particular enthusiasm from the Commissioner and DSP and even less from the refugees themselves. In fact, it led to a near riot and I withdrew the suggestion for the time being. I regret to have to record that in the event, the first batches of these ill-equipped men, women and children met with total disaster and from information which reached us later it was evident that only a handful had managed to struggle through to Akyab and beyond. The only positive outcome of this ill-fated venture was to give a small boost to my credibility status; my views were taken somewhat more seriously by the agent as well as the Burmese administration and this proved to be of considerable help later on when I moved up to Mandalay for the final phase of Evacuation from Burma.


(to be continued…)

Exodus from Burma, 1941-42; a Memoir by Captain Nadir S. Tyabji: Part 1

Chrestomather | December 4, 2014 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (1)




Hashim Tyabji, 1980

Hashim Tyabji, many years ago

On the 15th of November, 2013, I received a letter from a boyhood acquaintance.










Hi Amitav,

I have been a great fan ever since In An Antique Land but for reasons of personal connection The Glass Palace is the book that my mother and I have re-read a few times. My father grew up in Burma and it is uncanny how the Burmese elements of that book echo the stories that I grew up with – from my father, Uncle and Grandfather. When war came my father was co-opted by the Government of India to help with the refugee problem and was one of the last Indians on the Mandalay – Kalewa – Tamu route to exit Burma. My grandfather came out of the northern route through the Hukawng Valley and barely managed to survive the terrible malaria that seems to have infected so many of the people on that route.

Sadly my father died before The Glass Palace was published. But he did manage to leave behind a short account of his experiences on the trek out which is interesting reading. I have finally begun to read more about that whole event, with a vague idea of filling out my father’s account with more background material and the stories of others who had shared this experience. While doing some web searches I chanced upon a story told to you by another refugee who took this same route. Frustratingly, despite having bookmarked that page (as I thought), I now can’t find it. So I thought I’d write to you and ask if you had found any more such accounts that you could perhaps put me on to? There are a handful of British accounts and books of this event, but by and large the British were given much greater help and assistance – including better amenities at the refugee camps as my father mentions – so their experience was perhaps a little bit different to that of the Indians. But of course it all adds to the ‘thickness of the stew’ in terms of the story I am somewhat desultorily thinking of putting together (purely for private circulation amongst the family).

It would be very good to hear from you Amitav and I would be very grateful for any help/pointers.

Best wishes

Hashim Tyabji

PS: In case you are interested in reading my father’s story I can mail it to you. I think your family had a similar experience? My father then joined the RINVR and volunteered to join the commandos and fought through the Arakan campaign.



A few days later I wrote back:


Dear Hashim

Very nice to hear from you. I didn’t know about your Burma connection but somehow am not surprised at all. Many Indian families had close links with Burma at the time.

I think the post that you are referring to is this one: . Do look at the comments thread – a lot of people have written in with their experiences.

I am really glad to know that your father wrote an account of the 1941-42 exodus from Burma. I think it’s important to compile every scrap of material about that event. There are very few published accounts written by Indians. The best source that I’ve ever found is a diary by an Indian doctor (one Dr Ghosh actually). It’s an unpublished hand-written ms – completely fascinating. What is interesting is that unlike British accounts of the march it does not focus primarily on disease, hardships etc – much of it is actually about the racial aspects. As you are probably aware, the routes were segregated into ‘black’ and ‘white’ routes, the former being much more taxing. Many Indians, especially people of means, did their best to get permission to use the white routes. I think this may be one reason why they found it difficult to write about the march.

I’d certainly be interested in seeing your father’s account. And if you would like to write something about your family’s Burma connection I would be glad to post it on my blog. I’ve been thinking of setting up a ‘Burma Exodus Archive’ on my website, to serve as a resource for future research. Your father’s memoir would be perfect for that. I very much look forward to reading it.

And what have you been doing all these years? Do let me know.

With my best wishes



I learnt later that Hashim had been wandering the jungles of Nepal and India after finishing a history degree at Loyola College, Chennai. Denied entry into the Army due to poor eyesight, he went to work for Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Nepal for what was supposed to be a short stint. But once in the jungle he found his true vocation as a naturalist, ending up as Director of operations for Tiger Mountain India. At the age of 30 he left the company and built himself a house at the edge of Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in 1991, where he lived for several years working with local communities in development and conservation, serving as an honorary wildlife warden and as a member of the Indian Board of Wildlife. An interest in birds lead to a long-term bird survey of Bandhavgarh which was published as a paper in the Journal of the BNHS and a guide to the park. He has also been scientific advisor to wildlife films and co-authored a couple of books on Indian wildlife and tigers. In 2001, along with a few friends he started a company called Wild India Camps.



Hashim Tyabji 2014

The company owns the Bagh Van Lodge (currently Taj-managed), which pioneered tourism in Pench, and Forsyth Lodge which helped create a new tourism model in Satpura Tiger Reserve. Hashim now spends much of his time in England where his wife is a GP. But he retains strong connections with central India and continues to be involved in conservation work.














The typescript of The Burma Story, 1941 – 1942, by Captain Nadir Salahuddin Tyabji, (Hashim’s father) arrived in my mailbox shortly afterwards.

The roughly 30,000 word memoir was composed over many years. Hashim writes: ‘[My father] was born on 13 July 1913 and died on 13 Oct 1996. He had just turned 29 at the end of the memoir. Father had kept a rather patchy diary through this period but many pages had disappeared or were too badly water damaged to read. He did also consult bits of his official report – again I only saw fragments (when the National Archive people came to take all my grandfather’s papers in the 1980’s I think they took some of father’s papers as well). He actually dictated the first draft some time in the mid-1980’s on the insistence of his maternal cousin Saad Ali. He then took several years as I recall in finalising the memoir. I was working away from home all this time and sadly didn’t take enough interest in his diaries.



Lt Nadir S. Tyabji, in training

Lt Nadir S. Tyabji, training


Both Saad and I were also keen that he write the next chapter of the Burma story. This was his service with the navy when he volunteered for the beach commandos. But he died before that.’











In researching my books I have read many wartime memoirs. Captain Tyabji’s is without a doubt, among the best of them. I know of no better account of the evacuation of refugees from Burma in the initial phases of the war. Richly textured and remarkably well-written, The Burma Story also brings vividly to life a milieu that vanished almost overnight after the Japanese invasion of Burma: the urbane, cosmopolitan world of pre-war Rangoon.

Captain Tyabji was born into a family of unusual distinction. His grand uncle, Badruddin Tyabji, was the first Indian Chief Justice of the Bombay (now Mumbai) Supreme Court and was famously progressive in his views, especially where it concerned the rights of women. He was also one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress and was elected president of the party in 1887. His grandfather Abbas Tyabji was Chief Justice of the Baroda High Court when, in disgust over the Jalianwallah Bagh massacre, he left to join Gandhiji. He and many other members of the family were ardent Gandhians and close personal friends of Mahatma Gandhi. Indeed Abbas Tyabji was designated his deputy on the Dandi Salt March and took over after Gandhiji was arrested.

As Sulaimani Bohra Muslims from Surat, in Gujarat, the Tyabjis belonged to one of the Indian subcontinent’s most successful mercantile communities. They were perhaps somewhat unusual in that they were primarily a family of lawyers and jurists, but they also had extensive business interests. At one time they owned half of Bombay’s Malabar Hill; their palatial residence is now the campus of Sophia College. A Mumbai street and several institutions still bear the Tyabji name.

Like many South Asian mercantile families the Tyabjis also had commercial interests in Burma. Captain Tyabji’s father, Salahuddin Abbas Shamsuddin Tyabji, owned rice mills and was deeply involved in Rangoon’s civic affairs. Captain Tyabji writes of him: ‘Father was variously involved as member of the Burmese Legislative Assembly, Member of the Rangoon Electricity Board, Member, Railway Board, Member Exec. Committee, Indian Chamber of Commerce etc. etc. His work schedule covered a minimum of 12 – 14 hours per day but I can never remember him losing his jaunty alert carriage and general briskness.’




Salahuddin A.S. & Akhtar Tyabji at Govt House reception Rangoon January 24, 1940

Salahuddin & Akhtar Tyabji at a Govt House reception, Rangoon, January 24, 1940


Captain Tyabji’s mother, Akhtar Tyabji, was also active in Rangoon’s social circles.














She founded and presided


Needlework class Zeenat ul Islam school Rangoon Teacher Gowher

Needlework class Zeenat ul Islam school Rangoon


over the Zeenat ul-Islam school










for girls and


Boys home trust Rangoon Boxing 1940

Boys Home Trust, Rangoon, Boxing 1940

various other charitable institutions endowed by the family.













One of Akhtar Tyabji’s most successful ventures was aimed at bringing together Burmese, Indian and British women.



Farewell party Monday Afternoon Club, February 1942

Farewell party Monday Afternoon Club, February 1942


It was the Monday Afternoon Club, which also assisted her in some of her other initiatives.










Captain Nadir Tyabji, however, chose not to enter the family business. In 1941, when this memoir begins, he was the Sales Representative in Burma for Tata Oil Mills Co. (TOMCO). He writes: ‘Being basically responsible for Promotion and Marketing I had an invaluable opportunity of visiting the remotest corners of the country for detailed market surveys which led to my acquiring, willy nilly, deep insights into the distribution pattern of Indian communities… The Indians and Chinese constituted between them, the most efficient distributive agency in the country and were, literally, all pervasive, even at the hamlet and village level.’

This background is important, I think, in situating Captain Tyabji’s wartime experiences. He belonged to Rangoon’s elite, mixing easily with the city’s officialdom,



 Nadir S. Tyabji &  Salahuddin A. S. Tyabji at the races, Rangoon

Nadir S. Tyabji &
Salahuddin A. S. Tyabji at the races, Rangoon



visiting the Race Course, frequenting exclusive clubs, and so on.











Yet, as a member of a small but wealthy minority community,



Rangoon dinner party, February 1940

Rangoon dinner party, February 1940


he occupied an interstitial position in the complex social web of colonial Burma.













He was thus able to look upon his world with unusually clear eyes, as for example in this striking passage: ‘There is little point in hovering over this heart-rending aspect of a war which held no meaning for the vast majority of the population – Burmese, Indian or Chinese. There was neither sympathy nor understanding for the British. They dominated the administration and economy of this country but were seen as a transient element with which the common people had no point of contact at any level. The Japanese advance into Burma further destroyed the myth of western invincibility and with it whatever tenuous links may have survived the hundred odd years of exploitation and mindless domination at all levels.’

But it is clear also that this story was moulded and mellowed by the circumstances of its telling, which came about after the passage of many years: it is hard to believe that Captain Tyabji could have maintained so equable a tone had he been writing in the immediate aftermath of the events he had witnessed. Yet every now and again something of the raw horror of those experiences does break through, as for example in this passage: ‘I dared not lift my head but tried to take a quick look from the corner of my eyes at the scene around me. Even in that limited field of vision I could make out the extent of devastation and death; bodies and limbs scattered close to me with the smell of blood mixed with that of cordite, impossible to keep from penetrating my nostrils.

Every survivor of that terrible ordeal must have witnessed similar scenes; they must all have been haunted, through the rest of their days, by images like this one. Sadly, only a handful recorded their experiences. We are fortunate that Captain Tyabji was among the few who did.

I am grateful to Hashim Tyabji and his family for giving me permission to post the memoir, and the accompanying pictures, on this site. Captain Tyabji’s memoir will appear here in a series of twelve instalments, through the month of December.

The first instalment is below.






The Burma Story

(Dec 1941 to July 1942)



Lt. Nadir S. Tyabji, 1943

Lt. Nadir S. Tyabji, 1943

Captain Nadir Salahuddin Tyabji

(Indian Navy Retd.)












What follows is the story of my last four months in Burma at the tail-end of a thirty year sojourn which I remember as the happiest, most carefree years of my life.

  1. These 4 months covered the period December ’41 to April-May ’42 during which I became a part of the giant Evacuation exercise entailing the migration of hundreds of thousands of Indian settlers in Burma the number involved has been variously estimated at between 10 – 20 lakh using three major routes e.g. Prome – Taung-Up in the rain shadow of the Arakan Yomas; Mandalay-Kalewa-Tamu-Palel-Imphal-Dimapur route through Manipur and the Mandalay-Myithykina route mostly confined to the retreating British Indian Army for re-grouping in India.
  2. The Japanese Army occupied Malaysia end 1941 and made no secret of its intention of making a dash for India through Burma without loss of time. However, the Government of Burma seemed to be supremely confident of its ability to deal with the Japanese if and when they moved up; this confidence did not extend to the citizenry at large for it was increasingly evident that neither the Army nor the Air Force were either qualitatively or quantitatively equipped to stem the Japanese tide.
  3. My last trip down south to Moulmein, Yem, Tavoy & Mergui was made in October ’41 in connection with my work as TOMCO representative in Burma, and it was then that I became fully alerted to the extent and intensity of Japanese probing and intelligence operations in the Tenasserim archipalego contiguous to Siam. I was told that Japanese patrols were blatantly driving up to Mergui Tavoy and even Ye on probing and intelligence missions and in the process had been terrorising, molesting and literally looting the villagers along their axis of operations. It was on these trips that I acquired a clearer idea of the implications of any turmoil created by a Japanese advance, on the small Indian population in the area (mostly small shopkeepers and agricultural labour). I also got the feeling that the Burmese were just waiting for an opportunity to drive the Indians out and take their place in the scheme of thing, however ill-equipped to do so. Until then the Indians were a vital element in the Burmese economy – urban and rural – providing a hardworking and cheap labour force for the vital sectors of Burmese economy – agriculture, rice milling, saw milling and transport. On the other hand it was the Indian trader, small or big, who provided the vast distribution and collection network in the rural areas and dominated trade and commerce in the urban centres. These people had begun to get restive and from odd bits of gossip which I picked up at Ye, it became evident that any Japanese advance from the south would result in a massive movement of Indians towards Rangoon as a take-off point for the run to India mainly by the sea routes as the quickest and cheapest. With the reduction of steamer services, these people would have no alternative but to take the overland routes of which at the time, I was myself woefully ignorant but which obviously would be a hazardous alternative.
  4. The Japanese advance into Burma commenced Nov-Dec ’41 and was preceded by mounting air activity on the Moulmein, Thaton, Pegu and Rangoon not so much to inflict damage as to create a sense of terror and panic among the labour concentrations (all Indian), leading to their taking to the major road systems, running in a North-South axis and thus creating a critical problem for the movement of essential military and government traffic. These Indian streams were joined by an outpouring of Indian communities settled in the interior and this mighty tide started making its way north by every available or affordable means – Road transport, river steamers and boats and the railway. This inexorable tide took almost a month to reach its peak, end December 1941 and it was at that stage that I became a part and parcel of the organisation which was being set up in order to ensure that this mighty surge of humanity driven by almost primordial forces away from the Eye of the Wind did not destroy itself by the very dynamics of an upheaval of such vast proportions.

As already mentioned almost daily bombing raids by the Japanese and the growing public realisation of the pathetic inadequacy of defence preparedness both in the air and on the ground had led to a growing certainty that the British were on their way out. The dilemma for the majority of Indians and other foreigners concerned the grim options offered by the situation, whether to stay back and make their peace with the Japanese or risk the hazards of a trek of some hundreds of miles with wives and children, braving all the horrors inherent in such a journey – shelter, food and disease compounded by the continuous Japanese air attacks on the three moving columns as also Burmese brigandage along the hill tracks further north. And of course, above everything else was the clear realisation that a decision to move out would mean the end of a relatively comfortable life style and abandoning not only a well established source of livelihood but also the various assets created or gathered during the sojourn in Burma. It would also mean starting a new life at the end of the road in India – a nebulous question mark in itself.

However, for many the Day of Decision arrived sooner than anticipated in the shape of massive Japanese bombing raids on Rangoon on 23rd and 25th December 1941. Although 23rd was bad enough the 25th proved critical. At 0800 hrs. that morning Home Guard Volunteers of which I was one had been called for their normal parade including various Air Raid Drills. A slight tension at the Police Station soon erupted into a Red Alert indicating Bomber formations moving towards Rangoon.

The estimated number of aircraft was about 150 in three boxes of 50 each (light bombers with their fighter escort. The Home Guards were held firmly inside the Police Station and then round about 9 a.m. all hell broke loose. Most of the ack-ack guns were sited on roof tops together with Light and Medium Machine guns as morale boosters. However the Japanese pressed home their raid on various areas of the City using mostly Anti-personnel and incendiary bombs which created havoc and panic particularly in the Indian labour colonies around the Port area and Rice & Saw Mill complexes in suburbs like Kemmendine, Mahlwagon, Puzundaung and Botatung.



Rangoon, after bombing raid

Downtown Rangoon, wartime destruction


The Japanese did lose some aircraft but pushed home their attack relentlessly succeeding beyond any doubt in inflicting major damage to life and property in the heart of the City











and disrupting the City’s excellent Public services like Power, Water, road transport and telephones.

On the ‘All Clear’ being sounded the Home Guard Volunteers moved into their designated areas to ensure rescue, first aid and protection at the primary level and shift the homeless to appropriate Refugee Camps which had been set up in safer areas. It must be mentioned here that the Labour Colonies had received the severest treatment – all of them had been set ablaze and the inhabitants trying to get away had been literally mowed down by A.P. anti-personnel Bombs leaving the areas looking more like open-air butcheries than human habitations.

My ‘beat’ was in the Puzundaung area but in trying to get there on my bicycle I witnessed for the first time (not, unfortunately the last) the sheer scale of devastation in terms of property and human lives which such meticulously planned raids could achieve. Though we had taken every precaution to inform and educate the population on the absolute need not to be caught out of doors during a raid it was obvious that curiosity and an utter lack of comprehension of a totally new concept of terror as a strategic weapon had been responsible for the population – men, women and children – being caught out in the open and mowed down by the merciless accuracy of low level A.P. bombing.

In the result the streets were strewn with severed limbs, torsos sliced in half by shrapnel and bits and pieces of flesh and bone which had not so long ago been part of a moving thinking and handsome man or woman.

I eventually reached my Beat did what was expected mostly alas, in the shape of ensuring safety of property for the rightful owners, sending the injured to emergency centres for attention and trying to identify such of the corpses as were capable of being identified.

There is little point in hovering over this heart-rending aspect of a war which held no meaning for the vast majority of the population – Burmese, Indian or Chinese. There was neither sympathy nor understanding for the British. They dominated the administration and economy of this country but were seen as a transient element with which the common people had no point of contact at any level. The Japanese advance into Burma further destroyed the myth of western invincibility and with it whatever tenuous links may have survived the hundred odd years of exploitation and mindless domination at all levels.

In the event, this was my last visit to Puzundaung but it could not have mattered. There was little left to salvage and none to solace. I have no idea when it was rehabilitated – if at all.








Flood of Fire cover

Chrestomather | November 28, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)




It is 1839 and tension has been rapidly mounting between China and British India following the crackdown on opium smuggling by Beijing. With no resolution in sight, the colonial government declares war. 

One of the vessels requisitioned for the attack, the Hind, travels eastwards from Bengal to China, sailing into the midst of the First Opium War. The turbulent voyage brings together a diverse group of travellers, each with their own agenda to pursue. Among them is Kesri Singh, a havildar in the East India Company who leads a company of Indian sepoys; Zachary Reid, an impoverished young sailor searching for his lost love, and Shireen Modi, a determined widow en route to China to reclaim her opium-trader husband’s wealth and reputation. Flood of Fire follows a varied cast of characters from India to China, through the outbreak of the First Opium War and China’s devastating defeat, to Britain’s seizure of Hong Kong. 

 To be published May 2015 in the UK  (John Murray) and India (Penguin India). Pre-order your copy here:

Two responses to ‘Parallel Journeys’

Chrestomather | November 26, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)



I received many interesting responses to my post on Turkey’s experience of AKP rule and its portents for India under the BJP. Two that were particularly instructive came from writers with extensive experience of both India and Turkey. The first was  from Vedica Kant [@vedicakant]:


Dear Amitav,

I read the piece with a lot of interest and enjoyed it very much. The comparisons between the AKP and the current government in Delhi are ones that I have often thought about (and have in fact occasionally thought of writing about!). There is hardly anything there that I disagree with, and I particularly liked section three.

I thought I should mention though that the AKP and the BJP haven’t (or in the AKP’s case hadn’t) only managed to appeal to religious constituencies (conservative and modern); I think a key part of their success has been their ability of get votes from sections of society who, while uncomfortable with the religious tenor of these parties, have bought into the neo-liberal economic model and feel that these parties are the best political options when it comes to delivering economic growth. The AKP in its early years did indeed deliver on this promise and that was important in its ability to increase its hold on to power. I think the BJP too realises that it will have to cater to this segment of its vote base if it wants to hold on to power. In Turkey a key factor in the AKPs initial success was also the fact that a number of Turkish liberals were willing to support the party against the military, but while the waning power of the Turkish military is no doubt a good thing it has meant that the AKP’s power today is quite unchallenged.

One of the things I was struck by while reading the piece was how the 80s were particularly crucial decades for the both the AKP and the BJP leading to the kind of religious violence of the 1990s that you describe. In Turkey it was (ironically) the right-wing military regime post the coup that promoted an idea of ‘Turkish-Islamic’ synthesis that used religion to counter left-wing ideology and really gave impetus to Islamist parties. In India too the late 80s were crucial years in the rise of the BJP as the Congress took a turn to the right and dabbled in religious politics.

An aside: interestingly one of the things Modi mentioned during his speech in New York was that he wanted to see every Indian family have a home by 2022. That made me think immediately of Erdogan who embarked on such a project immediately after he first came to power. He instituted TOKI, Turkey’s Housing Development Authority, which worked semi-autonomously under the Prime Minister’s office and went about building a massive (very ugly) housing stock across Turkey. TOKI has been crucial in creating and sustaining a real estate fueled growth model in Turkey. It has diversified its portfolio entering partnerships with private companies making the malls and luxury housing complexes that dot Turkey today and that have been responsible for the destruction of the urban fabric of Turkey’s cities and has been a major cause of the Gezi protests.

(I love this graffiti on the topic.)







If that’s the fate for India, it is terrifying. I can only hope that the BJP does look at such failed models and policies and avoids replicating them, but I am not all that hopeful.

Best wishes,




The second was from Kapil Komireddi (@kapskom)


Dear Amitav


It’s an interesting piece and the parallels are striking. You’re spot on about the causes of the Syrian uprising, which most observers in the west explain away using templates of familiar revolutions. Assad was of course a favourite of many western leaders. He was opening up the economy. This made some people very rich and created symbols of excess in Damascus – while at the same time living standards in rural Syria worsened as a consequence of drought. However, Erdogan’s role in the Syrian conflict has been deeply corrosive. He was a close friend of Assad’s, perhaps even saw himself, with characteristic narcissism, as a father figure. There’s another parallel that’s interesting. A number of RSS figures want Kathmandu to restore Hinduism’s status in Nepal as a state religion. Similarly, Erdogan pushed Assad to decriminalise the Syrian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood (membership is a capital offence in Syria). Assad declined and, according to people I talked to, was furious. And this was the beginning of the rift. In a bid to displace Assad, Erdogan opened up Turkey to malign forces – they may yet threaten Turkey. There’s of course another question: had Europe been more open to Ankara’s membership effort, might Turkey today be as receptive to Erdogan’s brand of politics?

I wrote about these issues in a piece published in June 2013: ‘… it’s [Erdogan’s] interference in Syria, short-sightedly accommodated by the West and Israel, that has most severely damaged the stability of the region. By all accounts Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, accorded tremendous respect to Erdogan; by some accounts, he even treated Erdogan like a surrogate father. Yet he was baffled by Erdogan’s demand – first made in 2009 – that Damascus decriminalize the Syrian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood. To suggest – as Western commentators repeatedly have – that Erdogan repudiated Assad because the latter opened fire on Syrian demonstrators is to be exceedingly charitable to Erdogan. As we have witnessed over the last week, when his own authority is challenged, Erdogan can easily assume the deportment of a dictator.

‘Assad is a secularist defeated by his despotic inheritance. Erdogan is an Islamist constrained, for now, by Turkey’s defective secular democracy. But the complexion of Turkey’s neighborhood is quickly changing. Once hailed as a model for “Muslim democracy”, the idea of a “secular Turkey” is already beginning to seem odd in a region that the Turkish leadership is labouring so hard to deliver to Islamists.

‘Those who are prepared to make peace with this new Middle East and are abetting its formation will soon discover that faith in this region is not merely one aspect of national identity; it cannot be subordinated like that. Its claim on the individual, on society, tends towards the absolute.

‘Ataturk grasped that. But protected by the army and cosseted in uncontested privilege, his successors never developed an imagination for inclusive politics. Ataturk toured the villages to educate the masses; his secularizing heirs sneered at the villagers. They are responsible for their own downfall.






Parallel Journeys? Turkey’s experience of AKP rule and its portents for India under the BJP

Chrestomather | November 24, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (10)



Back in March 2013, when I received and accepted an invitation to visit Bogazici University,[1] I did not for a moment imagine that my arrival in Turkey would follow hot on the heels of a historic election in India. But so it did: I landed in Istanbul on June 1, 2014, five days after the swearing-in of India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). For the Indian National Congress, which has long carried the banner of secular nationalism in India, the election was a humiliation – an unprecedented defeat, at the hands of an organization that is closely associated with Hindu-nationalist groups, some of which, like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have even been banned in the past.

The outcome of the election, while not a surprise, was still a moment of reckoning for those such as myself, whose revulsion at the dynasticism and corruption of the Congress was outweighed by concerns about the BJP’s right-wing economic program and its espousal of majoritarian politics. The prime ministerial candidate’s record during his tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat was itself the greatest of these concerns, especially in relation to his conduct during the anti-Muslim violence that had convulsed his state in 2002.

Before 2014, no Hindu-nationalist party had ever won an outright majority of seats in India’s legislature. That the BJP had now come to power with a mandate far larger than predicted was clearly a sign of an upheaval in the country’s political firmament. How had this come about? What did it portend for the future?

It was only when I arrived in Istanbul that it struck me that Turkey had been through a similar moment eleven years before, in March 2003, when an election had brought in a new Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the founder of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). He too was heir to a long tradition of opposition to his country’s dominant secular-nationalist order; his party had also been closely linked with formerly-banned religious organizations. He had himself been accused of inciting religious hatred and had even served a brief term in prison.[2]

The margins of victory too were oddly similar: in 2003 Prime Minister Erdogan came to power with 32.26% of the popular vote and 363 of 550 seats in Parliament.[3] In 2014 the coalition of parties headed by Prime Minister Modi won 336 of 543 parliamentary seats; his own party’s share of the vote was 31%.

The parallels are striking. In both cases an entrenched secular-nationalist elite had been dislodged by a coalition that explicitly embraced the religion of a demographic majority. Secularism was itself a point of hot dispute in both elections, with the insurgent parties seeking to present the concept as a thinly-veiled means for monopolizing power and discriminating against the majority. But the ideological tussle over secularism and religion was a secondary matter: the winning candidates had both campaigned primarily on issues related to the economy and governance, promising to clean up corruption and create rapid economic growth.

The parallels extend even to biographical details. Recep Tayyip Erdogan was raised in straitened circumstances in a poor part of Istanbul; his parents were immigrants from the small town of Rize, on the Black Sea, and he had earned money in his childhood by selling ‘lemonade and pastry on the streets’.[4] Narendra Modi was born in the small town of Vadnagar, in Gujarat, and as a child he had helped his father sell tea at the local railway station. Later, he and his brother had run a tea-stall of their own. Both men have been associated with religious groups since their early youth and both profess a deep personal piety. Both also have claims to physical prowess: Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a semi-professional footballer, and Narendra Modi has been known to boast of his 56-inch chest. Both leaders are powerful orators;[5] both exert a charismatic sway over their followers and maintain an unchallenged grip on their party machinery.



This is by no means the first time that political developments in India and Turkey have mirrored each other. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s both countries were shaken by left-wing student radicalism and trade union unrest. The next decade, similarly, was a time of deepening conflict between the state and minority groups: Kurds and Alevis in the case of Turkey; and Sikhs, Kashmiris, Nagas, Mizos and a host of others in India.

Between the years 1975-77 India went through a period of brutal repression under a State of Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi; in Turkey the coup of 12th September, 1980, led to mass imprisonments, torture and killings.[6] In both countries the violence reached a climax in 1984: in Turkey an all-out war broke out between the army and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); it was in this year too that the Indian army stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar, which was followed by the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the massacre of thousands of Sikhs.

The parallels continue into the 1990s. In December 1992, an agitation launched by the BJP and its allies culminated in the tearing down of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, by a mob of Hindu activists; this in turn led to months of rioting and thousands of deaths. In Turkey, in July 1993, a gathering of prominent Alevis, was attacked by an Islamist mob in the town of Sivas: dozens of men and women were killed. In both cases it was the inaction of the authorities that permitted the violence to escalate.[7]

The ‘liberalization’ of the Turkish and Indian economies also occurred in tandem, in the 1980s and ‘90s. It was in these decades too that the secular-nationalist establishment of both countries began to suffer major setbacks, with religious parties steadily gaining ground.



That political developments in India and Turkey have occasionally mirrored each other is in some ways surprising, since the historical trajectories of the two republics have little in common. Unlike India, Turkey was never colonized; to the contrary it was itself a major imperial power until the First World War. In the second half of the 20th century, Turkey’s politics differed from India’s in that they were dominated by the army. As a close ally of the United States, Turkey’s international alignments were also different from India’s through those decades. Perhaps more significantly, in material terms Turkey is (and has long been) far better off than India: its people are more prosperous and better educated, and its infrastructure is more ‘advanced’ in almost every respect. Indeed Turkey is effectively a First World country while India ranks in the lower levels of almost every index of ‘development’. Moreover India, with more than a billion people, is vastly larger than Turkey with its population of 77 million.

Yet the two countries do have at least one very important commonality: both are multi-ethnic and multi-religious, with very marked differences between regions. It is for this reason perhaps that the transition to nationhood was accompanied by similar traumas in both India and Turkey: indeed it could be said that it is in their dreams and nightmares, their anxieties and aspirations, that their commonalities find their most eloquent expression.[8]

Both republics were born amidst civil conflict, war and massive exchanges of population. In no small part was it due to these experiences that secularism came to attain an unusual salience in the two countries: it was considered indispensable for the maintenance of peace and equity within diverse populations. But secularism was thought to be indispensable also to the aspirations for material advancement that lay at the heart of the Kemalist and Nehruvian projects.[9] For the elites of both countries there was little difference between ‘secularism’ and ‘secularization’: the ultimate aspiration was for a general progression towards what Nehru liked to call the ‘scientific temper’. This was thought to be essential to the attainment of modern ways of living, as exemplified by the West. But since religion plays an important role in the lives of the vast majority of Indians and Turks, secularism was always an embattled aspiration, in both countries. Yet, through the latter decades of the 20th century, even as the banners of secular-nationalism were beginning to look increasingly tattered, their bearers somehow managed to retain their hold on power in both Turkey and India.

This does not mean, of course, that religious parties never had any taste of power before the ascent of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Narendra Modi. Just as Erdogan’s advent was presaged by two former Prime Ministers, Turgut Özal and Necmettin Erbakan, so too was Narendra Modi preceded as PM by another leader of the BJP: Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Why then did the elections that brought Erdogan and Modi to power seem so pivotal? In part it was because these elections had each been preceded by a tectonic shift in the political landscape; a development that was most notably evident, in both cases, in the collapse of the traditional left. In Turkey this collapse came about well before the election of 2003. This is how Jenny White, an anthropologist, puts it: ‘In previous decades, the Turkish left had carried the banner of ideological resistance to economic injustice. But the left had fallen victim to a double knockout punch: the post coup military crackdown and the global decline of socialism. Both left- and right-of-center parties abandoned the terrain of economic justice for more global issues. Islamist institutions and party platforms took over the role of the left as champions of economic justice…’[10]

A similar dynamic was at work in India ten years later, most notably in my home state, West Bengal, where a Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), had been dominant for more than three decades. But in the latter years of its rule the Left Front had come to be seen as corrupt and subservient to moneyed interests. Its rupture with the class that had brought it to power – small and marginal farmers – was set in motion by an effort to bring heavy industries into the state. This resulted in a series of land disputes between small farmers and corporations: by intervening on behalf of the latter, the Left Front sealed its own fate. In the election of 2014 the left parties suffered a defeat so catastrophic as to all but eliminate them as a major factor in national politics. This is undoubtedly a radical break for a country where the left has often held the balance of power.

But there was a break also in the nature of the support that Erdogan and Modi were able to mobilize: they both succeeded in extending their bases beyond traditional religious groupings. Erdogan, for example, was able to draw on the resources of the vast network of educational, social and media-related organizations created by Fethullah Gülen, a religious figure who is in many respects quite different from traditional Islamist leaders.[11] So too was Modi able to enlist not just the old Hindu-nationalist organizations like the RSS, but also a number of gurus, godmen and pundits who have recently risen to prominence. Among them are some who have created new constituencies of Hindu activists in universities, tech companies and the like. This enabled the BJP to counter some of the charges that had proved most effective against religious conservatives in the past: that they are obscurantist and old fashioned; that they are a hindrance in the march to modernity; and so on. Instead, the BJP (like the AKP before it),[12] was able to turn the tables on the secularists: it succeeded in presenting itself as more modern than its opponent, being less statist, less corrupt and less tainted by the past. That the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate was a self-made man, not a dynastic scion, was frequently cited to suggest that he would bring a new dynamism to the country’s politics.



The similarities in these two political careers are such as to suggest that something more than coincidence is at work here, something systemic. Erdogan and Modi are men of their time and have both come to power by riding a wave of neo-liberal globalization: their rise is proof that an economic ideology, when wrapped in a packaging of religious symbols and gestures, can have a tremendous electoral allure.

The process by which the neo-liberal program was sacralized in Turkey has been described thus by the scholar Cihan Tugal: ‘Starting with its establishment in 2001, the AKP’s ideologues presented it as the expression of an economic shift, but they did so using a quite spiritual language. Nazif Gurdogan, a conservative ideologue and a member of a predominantly elite religious order, interpreted this party (in Sufi language) as the representative of the ‘forces of light’ against the ‘forces of darkness’. He further defined the latter as proponents of centralized, hierarchical, and rigid organizations based on trust, transparency, and distribution of authority. In political economic language he saw the party as the agent of flexible capitalism against organized capitalism represented by the nationalized sectors of the bourgeoisie. Religious civil society… combined its forces to sacralize the AKP’s economic program. Without this spiritualization, neoliberalism could not be sustained.’[13]

Or, as another student of Turkish politics has put it: ‘… greater access to global resources, wealth accumulation, and communication technologies has redirected ‘political Islam’ toward an increasingly rationalized, post-political manifestation of something that might be termed ‘market Islam’.’[14]

That this shift took longer in India than in Turkey is perhaps partly attributable to Hinduism itself: it is no easy matter, after all, to superimpose an ideology of ‘growth’ and consumerism upon a religion in which asceticism and renunciation are foundational values. But over the last two decades an emergent alliance of right-wing economists, revisionist thinkers and electorally savvy politicians and strategists has pulled off the seemingly impossible. Through a re-branding exercise of the sort that contemporary corporations are so adept at, they have successfully invented and sold a new product – ‘Market Hinduism’.

As with many other re-branded products the goods are actually rather shop-soiled. They consist of pretty much the same set of ideas that motivated 19th century opium traders, many of whom were devout evangelical Protestants, to claim that by smuggling drugs into China they were merely upholding the divinely-ordained laws of Free Trade, and thereby doing God’s work.

The irony – a terrible one for people of a genuinely spiritual bent – is that this ideology has the power to impoverish the religions that it touches, emptying them of all that is distinctive in their traditions.[15] Instead it infects those religions with ideas that are not only ‘secularized’ but are also directly opposed to many of the values that have historically been cherished by every religion.



Are there any portents for India in Turkey’s experience of AKP rule? I believe there are.

The first lesson is that the Narendra Modi’s tenure is likely to pose many surprises for liberals, left-wingers and others opposed to the BJP. As Cihan Tugal writes: ‘The first three years of AKP rule were a liberal’s dream. The party passed many democratic reforms, recognized the existence of minorities hitherto rejected by official discourse, and liberalized the political system.’

Just as Erdogan was able to distance himself from his predecessors’ posture in relation to minority groups, it is perfectly possible that Modi too will take a different stance towards some of India’s troubled regions.[16]

Equally, there may be some surprises ahead for New Delhi’s security hawks. Just as the AKP’s former Foreign Affairs Minister (and current PM), Ahmet Davutoglu, was able to engineer some significant changes in Turkey’s relationship with its neighbours, Narendra Modi too may be able to alter the regional dynamic in southern and eastern Asia. There are signs already that under his leadership India’s relations with China and Bangladesh will take a different tack.

In matters of governance, it is generally accepted that Erdogan has been more efficient and effective than his immediate predecessors. It is quite likely that this will be the case with Modi as well.

But what of Narendra Modi’s core promises: growth and economic expansion? Here the eleven-year time lag between Erdogan’s election and Modi’s may be of critical importance. Through Erdogan’s first term as Prime Minister, Turkey’s Gross Domestic Product grew at an average rate of 7.2%.[17] But this probably came about because of  a global upswing that happened to occur at a time when ‘emerging’ economies abounded in low-hanging fruit. [18] In India too the economy was expanding at similar rates in that period, under a Congress-led government. But after the global economic downturn, there has been a marked slowing of growth in both India and Turkey. It would seem that unlike Prime Minister Erdogan, who had the good fortune to come to power with a favorable economic wind behind him, Narendra Modi’s ascent has coincided instead with a strengthening downdraft.

What will happen if expanding expectations of growth are hemmed in by a tightening horizon of possibility? If the Turkish experience is any indication, the likelihood is that the attempt to pursue old strategies of ‘growth’ will become increasingly frenzied. More malls will be built and more public lands will be sold off; real-estate bubbles will proliferate, accompanied by revelations of corruption; the privatization of natural resources will accelerate, perhaps even leading to the sale of rights to rivers.[19] At the same time, grass-roots opposition will be suppressed and every effort will be made to silence environmentalists. But only for a brief period will it be possible to get away with this. At a certain point people will push back, as they did in Turkey, during the Gezi Park protests of 2013.[20]

Indeed the one area in which there is certain to be headlong growth is that of protest – a whiplash effect, ironically, of the same neo-liberal wave that has brought the AKP and the BJP to power.[21] For it is now evident that the very currents that send tsunamis of capital and information hurtling around the world also have the effect of throwing up sand-bars of protest, many of which self-consciously mimic each other. But governments have also been quick to learn: from Hong Kong to Seattle, Istanbul to London, the powers-that-be have found ways to contain and ultimately disperse these movements. As a result their principal effect is often merely to bruise the egos of whichever leaders they happen to be directed against.

When protests break out in India, as they surely will, how will Narendra Modi respond? Will he take a leaf out of Erdogan’s book and become more authoritarian and repressive? Will he retreat into Sultan-ish isolation? Will political pressures ultimately lead to a break between him and some of the organizations that helped to bring him to power (as has been the case with Erdogan and the Gülenists)? Only time will tell.

No matter what Modi’s response, the contradictions between neo-liberal promises of growth and the constraints of the environment will not go away. Not only will they cause domestic disruptions, they will also impinge, with increasing insistence, on matters deemed to be ‘external’. Thus has the AKP’s ambitious foreign policy been disastrously waylaid by events beyond its borders, most notably by a conflict that has, to a significant degree, been shaped by climate-change: the civil war in Syria, which was triggered by the catastrophic drought that began in 2008.[22]

India, like Turkey, happens to be located in a region that is exceptionally turbulent, both politically and climatically. It is more than likely that the BJP’s foreign policy will also be susceptible to similar disruptions.

Indeed perhaps the most important lesson of the Turkey’s recent past is that the world is now entering a period of extreme volatility, when governments will be so overwhelmed by crises and firefighting requirements that they will be less and less able to implement coherent programs and policies.


Amitav Ghosh

November 24, 2014




[1] Unfortunately the encoding of this blog does not support certain symbols, so I have had to omit some of the diacritical marks of  the Turkish alphabet, for example the breve accent on the ‘g’ in ‘Bogazici’ and ‘Erdogan’.

[2] See Dexter Filkins: The Deep State, The New Yorker, March 12, 2012.

[3] M. Hakan Yavuz: Islamic Political Identity in Turkey, Oxford, 2003, p. 256.

[4] Cf. Jenny White: Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks, Princeton, 2013, p. 47; & Kerem Öktem: Angry Nation: Turkey since 1989, Zed Books, London, 2011, p. 131 (my thanks to Vedica Kant for bringing the latter to my notice).

[5] See Jenny B. White: Islamist Mobilization in Turkey, p. 154.

[6] My account of the events in Turkey is based mainly on Kerem Öktem, op. cit., pp. 43 – 55.

[7] Kerem Öktem, op. cit., p. 96.

[8] See Jenny White: Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks, Princeton, 2013, pp. 54 – 79, for a detailed discussion of the creation of a Turkish ‘national subject’.

[9] For the centrality of secularism in the Kemalist state see Erik-Jan Zürcher: The Importance of Being Secular: Islam in the Service of the National and Pre-National State, in Turkey’s Engagement with Modernity: Conflict and Change in the Twentieth Century, ed. Celia Kerslake, Kerem Oktem & Philip Robins, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2010, pp. 55-68.

[10] Jenny B. White: Islamist Mobilization in Turkey, Univ of Washington Press, Seattle, 2002, p. 123.

[11] Cf. Elizabeth Özdalga: Transformation of Sufi-Based Communities in Modern Turkey, in Turkey’s Engagement with Modernity: Conflict and Change in the Twentieth Century, ed. Celia Kerslake, Kerem Oktem & Philip Robins, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2010, pp. 69-91.

[12] As M. Hakan Yavuz puts it, the AKP represents a ‘new, hybrid, national, Islamic, modern identity.’

[13] Cihan Tu?al: Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism, Stanford University Press, 2009, p. 55.

[14] Joshua D. Hendrick: Gülen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World, NYU Press, 2013, p. 236.

[15] Cihan Tu?al observes of Islamists that: ‘They no longer emphasize what differentiates Islam from other religions and secularism.’ [Op. cit. p. 8] He cites an interesting example of an activist who buys into ‘Market Islam’ but only to grow disillusioned with its ‘this-worldliness’.

[16] As I was writing this I came upon a headline article that suggests that Modi is already trying to create a rapprochement with Kashmiri leaders: “Ex-Kashmiri separatist leader Sajjad Lone praises PM Modi: ‘He talked as if I was PM, not him’”

[17] Ziya Önis and Fikret Senses (eds.): Turkey and the Global Economy: Neo-Liberal Restructuring and Integration in the post-crisis era, Routledge, 2010; p. 5.

[18] Thus, Ziya Önis and Fikret Senses write: ‘In retrospect, Turkey’s growth prospects were clearly helped by an unusual combination of favorable circumstances. The fact that the world economy was experiencing one of its major boom periods of the postwar era provided a major boost to growth in all emerging markets from which Turkey has also benefited’ (Ibid., p. 6)

[19] See for example, this article : Turkey’s Government Plans Sweeping Water Privatisation in Run-up to World Water Forum in Istanbul .

[20] Cf. Alev Scott: Turkish Awakening: A Personal Discovery of Modern Turkey, Faber & Faber, 2014, p. 277.

[21] Cf, the following post on the Washington Blog Permanent Instability’.

22] Cf.  this report by the American Meteorological Society. See also: Johnstone, Sarah & Jeffery Mazo: Global Warming and the Arab Spring, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 53 (2011): 11-17.


‘We had to cross many hills and mountains': a censored letter about the Burma exodus of 1942

Chrestomather | November 7, 2014 in 1942 Burma Exodus Archives | Comments (2)



Below is a rare example of a letter written by an Indian survivor of the exodus out of Burma, following the Japanese invasion of 1941-42 (a photocopy of it came into my hands thanks to my wife, Deborah Baker, who found it in the Special Branch Police Archive, Police Museum, Kolkata).




I have transcribed the letter exactly as it was written, keeping the original spellings etc.; a few indecipherable words are  indicated by a question mark.














[Readers of The Glass Palace the_glass_palacewill recognize the air raids described in the fourth paragraph of the letter; they overlap with the events of Chapter 39 in the novel.]












This letter, which was written in Bombay, on July 4, 1942, was intercepted by censors from the Special Branch and may never have reached the addressee. This copy was made for the Special Branch in Calcutta.

The copyist’s note is at the top of the page (it’s quite possible that it was the copyist who was responsible for the peculiarities of the syntax, spelling etc.).

If anybody who reads this should happen to know of the writer and his family I would be glad to hear from them.





Copy of the letter written to Dulu by her Bardada (eldest brother) (Bombay) found in an envelope addressed to one Mrs Nirmala Bala Roy c/o A… [?] Ch. Roy of 348 Pratapaditya Rd.





Bombay 4.7.42


My dear Dulu


            I am very glad to receive your letter of the 28th ultimo and hope that your eagerness to learn something about the recent situation of India and Burma will bring you true knowledge. Always try to write good English. Leave aside your shyness which will bring you debacles in the way of your acquiring outside knowledge.

            I am hereafter, explaining to you, your queries para by para in shortest way, but I hope I will be able to tell you the facts, which I have seen with my own eyes, when I come to Calcutta.


  1. Japanese plane – Their planes seem to be much lighter. Sound is also very low. The planes are of silvery white colour. Although I had the opportunity of seeing the damaged Japanese planes, but in this respect I am a layman and quite unable to form any judgement about its quality and capacity. Their planes used to visit our place in the broad day light, but sometimes they used to come in the night time, when there was moonlight.


  1. First Air Raid in Rangoon.

On the 13th of December, we heard the sound of a siren and immediately we got out of the building and saw one Japanese plane, but nothing happened that day. Again on 23rd the signal for danger was given and immediately we got out of the building and went nearly 4 furlong away near a lake, from where we could see what was happening in the air. When we were going away


[Page] – 2 –




George Rodger: Rangoon, World War II. 'Indians and Burmans look in awed silence at the body of a Japanese airman shot down by the Flying Tigers. 1942'

George Rodger: Rangoon, World War II. ‘Indians and Burmans look in awed silence at the body of a Japanese airman shot down by the Flying Tigers. 1942′


in a car, we could see nearly 35 planes flying over our heads. Immediately we reached a certain place the bombing started. From the place where we were, we could see the smoke as well as we could hear the sound of bombs + Anti Aircraft guns.












Over our heads we could see the fighting of the planes. We could see planes shot down by our British air pilots. Nearly after two hours of this happening, we went to our office but could not see anybody there. Being very much afraid when we were about to return home, I was very eager to see the place which was bombed. Not very far away from the Railway Station where we could not get the trains, we could see the heaps of dead bodies lying scattered here and there. Thirty buildings sustained damage very severely, but a few building were levelled to the earth.





Downtown Rangoon in the aftermath of WW II

Fire started in the locality and the A.R.P.[i] volunteers were very busy removing the injured in the hospital or to the nearest shelter. Particularly one road where there were heavy casualties, was full of blood.










Some stairs leading to the first floor of the nearest buildings were stained with blood and human flesh. It was such a horrible scenery, that none could keep courage to see his own relatives whether dead or alive. In the heaps of dead bodies, I tried to locate and find out whether there was any Bengali or not, but as my brother-in-law, who was with me, was afraid beyond imagination, I had to come home on foot as there was no conveyance available at that time. Again on 25th Dec 1941, bombing started but the damage and casualties were not so heavy as that


[Page 3]



of the previous day It so happened after a few days that there were air-raids six or eight times within 24 hours. Some nights we had to pass without sleeping and some days we had to pass without food. Nearly after a fortnight we were accustomed to bear all these difficulties. We were able to distinguish by sound the Japanese planes. In the month of February when it was quite impossible for us to stay there, we came to Mandalay, where also the place was first bombed on the 19th February.

            Expecting the grave situation, we determined to come to India by overland route and proceeded immediately.





George Rodger; ‘World War II; Indian refugees flee Burma before advancing Japanese army.’

We had to cross many hills and mountain. First we hired a country boat in which we were for 16 days continuously. This journey we took [started in] a place named Monywa. After 16 days journey we reached Kalewa. From Kalewa we came to Kyigon by country boat.










From Kyigon we hired a lorry for Rs 1000/- and came to Tamu which is about 96 miles away from Kyigon. From Tamu we got a bullock cart in which we could keep our office papers, but we had to walk all along and reached Mintha 36 miles away from Tamu. From Mintha  we could engage 16 coolies who helped us in our safe arrival to Imphal, the capital of Manipur. This was the most hazardous journey when we started from Mintha, as we had to cross many hills which are over six thousand feet above sea level. Every fifth or tenth minute, we had to take rest, otherwise it would have been quite impossible to reach India. There was such a scarcity of water in these hill tracks


[Page 3]


we had to pass couple of days without water … we have seen plenty of people in dying condition. From our company also we lost two. When we were above the hills, we were very eager to see the low land, as the continuous journey over the hills, which was most risky + made us more weaker. But through the grace of God, we could pass through the ordeal of journey + could reach Imphal and I could be my old self which I reached home.

            I think I have not been able to give you the vivid description of what happened but if I be able to see you, I will explain to you personally everything point by point.When you are so interested to knowall these things I will not keep you uninformed.

            Nothing more today. My love to you, Bulu, Ranu, Sisir + Gaetry and my respect to Babu and Ma.

            I am quite well, hoping you all to be the same. Your Boudi[ii] with all the children are quite alright.








[i] Air Raid Precautions

§ Posted on this website is an aerial photo of the bombing of Rangoon on Dec 23, 1941, taken from a Japanese plane. The picture is described as having been accompanied by a news flash from Japanese Imperial Army Headquarters, on Dec. 24, 1941, 5:10 PM: ‘Severe Bombing of Rangoon: Yesterday, on December 23rd, the combined Imperial Army Air Force heavily bombed the Rangoon Airport; Spitfire fighters (along with possible Buffalos) engaged the bombers in violent aerial battle. Ten fighters were shot down with others (an accurate count could not be determined); also, four fighter planes on the ground plus two bombers were hit and burned. Four of our planes did not return.

[ii] ‘Sister-in-law’, probably a reference to the writer’s wife






Remembering the past: an unfinished conversation

Chrestomather | October 31, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)




Last week my Twitter feed led me to a thought-provoking piece by Raghu Karnad on Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Karnad writes: ‘The subject of The Narrow Road is cruelty and survival along the ‘Burma Death Railway’, one of the worst Japanese atrocities in the Second World War.’ Pointing out that the great majority of the men who worked on the railway were Asians – including a large number of Indians – Karnad notes that these men are almost always excluded from the historical account. He concludes: ‘Had The Narrow Road been a memoir, I’d have no questions about what Flanagan chose to include, or not to. Since it is fiction, though, one can wish that he had extended himself toward those many others that were chained to those same rails. Instead, it is a troubling tale of how literature can visit an atrocity again and again, and continue to omit most of its victims.’

I disagree with Karnad on several counts. To begin with I don’t see why the burden of providing a rounded narrative should fall more heavily on a novelist than on the writer of a memoir. If anything, it should be the other way around since a memoir, being a work of non-fiction, necessarily makes certain truth-claims, which is not the case with a novel. Nor do I believe that novelists have a duty to represent every aspect of a historical situation: if that were at all possible then the task would surely fall more to the historian than the novelist. And whether literature has a special responsibility towards victims is another question that is not easily resolved.

But the broader issue that Karnad raises certainly sounded a chord with me: I have long struggled to understand why Indians, and other Asians, are so often omitted from historical accounts of events in which they played a major part. The power to narrate, and who possesses it, is of course at the heart of the matter; equally important perhaps is the ambivalence of those who participated in these events, most notably sepoys.

But there is another aspect to it too, as I discovered while working on my 2000 novel, The Glass Palace. In researching the book’s historical background I






took to the road in Malaysia,







seeking out men,













and women, of Indian origin






[Puan Sri Janaky Athi Nahappan of the Rani of Jhansi regiment]













who had played a part in the Second World War.


Many of the men who worked on the Death Railway were Indian (mainly Tamil) workers from the rubber plantations of what was then the British colony of Malaya. I visited several such plantations, hoping to find survivors: even though the war was then more than fifty years in the past, it did not seem impossible that a few men who had worked on the railway would still be alive. But my efforts were unavailing: I met none.

On one occasion I was saddened to learn that a Death Railway survivor had died quite recently on the plantation I happened to be visiting: after the war he had returned to the only home he had ever known and had raised a family there. At the suggestion of one of the managers I went to see the survivor’s son, hoping to learn something about his father’s experiences. This man was, as I remember, in his forties, and spoke a little Hindi as well as English. He confirmed that his father had worked on the Death Railway but was unable to tell me much else. At length, trying to jog his memory, I said: Didn’t your father talk about his wartime experiences? He must surely have spoken of the horrors of the Death Railway?

He fell silent and thought about the question for a bit. His answer, when it came, was to the following effect:

You must understand – the Burma railway was of course a horror beyond imagining for the English and the other white men who worked on it. But at that time, under colonial rule, conditions on rubber plantations were also terrible. For men like my father the difference between what they had to endure there and here was not so very great.

I recall that conversation every time I read about the Death Railway: to think about the implications of those words is to confront degrees of complexity that extend far beyond ‘The War’.

Which war? When? Where?




ucuz ukash