Poswuyi Swuro, a 104-year-old freedom fighter, recalls his life with Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose

Impressed by Poswuyi’s acuity and eagerness to help, Bose appointed him the Area Administrator; thus Poswuyi Swuro’s name was recorded for posterity by Netaji in his lost diary

author_img Ravi Shankar Published :  05th June 2022 09:15 PM   |   Published :   |  05th June 2022 09:15 PM
Poswuyi Swuro near a Netaji cutout in the house where the INA chief stayed for nine days,Photographs by mongmei L Phom

Poswuyi Swuro near a Netaji cutout in the house where the INA chief stayed for nine days,Photographs by mongmei L Phom

A great war whose wing darkened the world’s stormy skies, as far away as Kohima and Imphal. A warrior demigod seeking redemption and freedom, whose life and death remain an enigma lost forever in the jungles of Taiwan. The spearhead of a combined invasion—85,000 soldiers strong—that swept through Asia, cutting through the jungles of Burma and Nagaland, which ultimately perished on the doomed battlefields of Imphal and Kohima. The war has been over for over seven decades. But not its memories in Nagaland’s verdant valleys and Mughalesque mountains, nor the remembrance of a leader, who, had he won, would have changed the destiny of free India. Not for 104-year-old Poswuyi Swuro, then all of 25 years old. 

“Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was tall, fair and handsome. He spoke to us in a soft voice,” remembers the tiny wizened man, a bright traditional Naga shawl draped across his shoulders. During the Second World War, Emperor Hirohito’s forces had swept through Malaya, Singapore, Manchuria, China, French Indochina, Burma and India. One of the routes the combined INA-Japanese forces had taken into India happened to pass through the small village of Rüzazho in Nagaland where Poswuyi lived. On April 4, 1944, Bose pitched camp there. Impressed by Poswuyi’s acuity and eagerness to help, Bose appointed him the Area Administrator; thus Poswuyi Swuro’s name was recorded for posterity by Netaji in his lost diary. 

The INA chief had been in the area since 1943, and had selected the cream of his forces to form the Subhas Brigade commanded by Major General Shah Nawaz Khan to spur his advance into Kohima. The Japanese, fearing for Bose’s safety, had opposed his presence. But this did not deter the courageous commander who crisscrossed the forests of Assam and Nagaland to encourage his men and somewhere along the way, incorporate the fierce Naga spirit in their fighting ranks.

In March 1944, Operation U Go went Code Green. The Subhas Brigade crossed the Chindwin River and marched towards Imphal and Kohima, with Delhi as the ultimate prize. There were few roads in the Naga Hills then—there still aren’t that many in the interior—and the few existing ones were brindle paths constructed by the British. Three Japanese columns in three formations moved towards Kohima—Miyazaji’s towards Urukhul village, another through Somra with General Sato taking the central route through Kharasom; but it was Khan who hoisted the tricolour on a peak overlooking Kohima.

Bose himself had halted at Somra village before reaching Rüzazho—a quaint mountain hamlet that time seems to have bypassed. Its wooden homes with flower boxes spilling over balconies, and stone-paved paths washed clean by the rain and meandering up and down amicable rows of houses, remain perhaps unchanged since Netaji’s turbulent times. A large wooden building where Netaji stayed, decorated with the skulls of mountain cattle mounted above the threshold, has been preserved as it is by the villagers except for a bulb glowing in the cool darkness.

Dr Vekho Swuro, Poswuyi’s son and Chairman of the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Memorial Development Society, Nagaland, points at a massive log bed where Bose had slept during his stopover in the village. The lofty building was cool and dark. Dust motes danced in the slanting beams of the mountain sun that came in through the window. Inside, a tall garlanded cutout of Netaji in uniform greets the visitor. “The roof used to be thatched then,” Poswuyi recalls, his old eyes crinkling with remembered mischief. “Bose and INA soldiers had arrived in the village on huge horses. The animals were hitched to the building posts and by the morning the roof was gone. The horses had eaten all the straw.”

Immediately after reaching Rüzazho, the INA had set up cordons in three concentric circles; the outmost one comprised only Japanese troops. The middle one was manned by INA soldiers and Indian POWs from the British Army. Netaji’s cordon was in the centre, right in the heart of the village. Poswuyi recalls that Bose’s bodyguards were large tall men of powerful stature; some were turbaned Sikhs. Bose, having avoided the heavy fighting in the Imphal Sector, went on to stay in Rüzazho for nine days. Those nine days are seared in Poswuyi’s mind. Nine days that made him a fighting man.

Upon arrival, Netaji asked for an educated villager. Poswuyi was the only one. As a child, he had walked all the 75 km from Rüzazho to Kohima to study. But the war shut down all schools and Poswuyi stayed back in the village. The imposing sight of the INA’s supreme commander impressed the simple Nagas. But unlike the British, Bose was kind and polite, and held his first council at a place named ‘methochophezhop’ beside the village’s tall wooden eastern gate, now darkened by time. Rüzazho was the first INA-administered village in India. During the first meeting, British jets flew over them, forcing Bose and his audience to dive for cover. “Netaji discussed the fight against the British, and asked how the villagers could help,” says Dr Vekho.

Most Nagas supported Bose, because the British humiliated the warlike tribes by not allowing them to wear caps or shoes and only dress in half-sleeved shirts. Netaji and his men who arrived in Rüzazho village were accompanied by POWs fresh from the Battle of Jessami where the INA and its Japanese ally had defeated the Assam Regiment commanded by the British. Among the POWs was Vesuyi Swuro, Poswuyi’s elder brother. Bose knew no Nagamese and the villagers couldn’t communicate in English or Bengali. One of them recognised Vesuyi who knew Hindi.

After that Vesuyi became Netaji’s valued interpreter. To protect the people from British fighter planes, Bose now organised meetings among the bamboo groves. “All the village women admired Netaji, and the men would tease them by saying that they were all in love with him. When Netaji came to know about it, he started laughing,” Poswuyi breaks in. Glancing up from the building, one can see a mist-crowned mountain peak overlooking the little village; the Tholhünyi Cetu-o (plateau above Rüzazho). Netaji and his soldiers had camped there before trekking down to the village and had come under severe Allied bombing.

“You can still see bomb craters, unexploded ordnance, and bullet casings littered there,” elaborates Sesato Swuro, chairman of the village council. Bose’s charisma inspired Poswuyi and fellow villagers to become India’s barefoot soldiers. At that time, Poswuyi was administering 200 square miles of territory through INA’s Hind Dal unit as directed by Bose. The villagers rose to his call—both men and women worked for the INA as porters carrying heavy materiel, water, firewood and rations through harsh mountain territory; they laboured to build dwellings and camps for the soldiers.

The soldiers were low on supplies. Poswuyi crossed the Tusuru River that slices through the valley to join the Chindwin River in Burma. He hurried through gorges and groves to reach faraway villages like Thuvopisu, Chozuba, Yoruba, Suthozu and Phugi from where he collected pigs, chickens, rice, corn, vegetables to be distributed to various INA and Japanese camps. “Netaji insisted on only eating very young chicken,” remembers Poswuyi. “He would loudly protest if the fowl was old.” But scouring for rations came with perils. Poswuyi’s face turns animated and his voice becomes vibrant with the memory of danger experienced and overcome. 

He and Vesuyi had been working as expert guides to take Netaji’s troops through the thick Naga jungles towards the frontline. On one such occasion, they ran into a British ambush near Dzulhami village. Three Japanese soldiers and one Naga scout were killed. Gesticulating with his frail hands and making sounds of bullets whirring past, the old freedom fighter has a piece of advice for anyone caught in an ambush—though an unlikely occurrence. “Never stay in the front or back of a column. Always be at the centre and throw yourself on the ground immediately. Then you have a good chance to survive.”

But history seems to have ambushed Poswuyi and other Nagas like him, both alive and dead. “I looked after Netaji and the INA but am yet to get any recognition from the government,” he rues. In the World War Cemetery in Kohima, Allied soldiers rest amidst the bustle of the city—no INA warrior is interred there. Many of them had fallen and were forgotten in Nagaland’s merciless mountain slopes—and beside nameless streams and valleys—forsaken apostrophes in the codex of conflict.

They are the unremembered martyrs of India’s freedom struggle. Jawaharlal Nehru’s Naga policy had made the hill people distrust the Indian government and agencies outside Nagaland. The flashpoint came on March 30, 1953, in Kohima. As his government dilly-dallied on the Naga rights after Independence, Nehru went to the city accompanied by Burmese Prime Minister U Nu to address a large meeting. The angry Nagas embarrassed him by pulling down their trousers and showing their bare bottoms and walking out. After that, Indian policy hardened towards Naga tribal demands and Indira Gandhi even ordered excessive military force to subdue militants.

During those years of bloodshed, respected elders like Poswuyi were left to bring peace and harmony between the Indian Army and warring Naga nationalists. It was only during the Vajpayee years that a tentative reconciliation began to form. In August 2015, in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s presence, state governor and interlocutor RN Ravi signed a framework agreement with the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland to end the insurgency; Ravi, a retired IPS officer who served as the interlocutor for Naga peace talks from 2014 to 2021, is now the Tamil Nadu governor. 

Dr Vekho recalls Ravi’s visit to Rüzazho and his interest in the proposed Netaji museum and memorial park; the village has donated 12 acres to the Nagaland government. The museum will house all Second World War relics and related objects dating to INA times and Netaji’s stay. Although Poswuyi has 15 children and 23 grandchildren, age has not slowed him down. He continues to be the evangelist at the impressive wooden church that combines colonial and Naga architectural styles and dominates Rüzazho’s skyline.

The Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Memorial Development Society will be holding its first conference this month in Chennai, attended by INA and Netaji enthusiasts from across the world. “All we ask from the Central government is for INA soldiers and Nagas who helped Netaji to be recognised as freedom fighters. They must be given the same benefits all freedom fighters get. That will make Netaji’s soul happy,” insists Dr Vekho. 

Caught in a spell cast by the ancient gods of the Naga mountain forests, the mist that wreathes the proud peaks becomes a metaphor for the Subhas Chandra Bose mystery. His plane may have been lost over China during the end of the war, but his mystique haunts the memories of the ever-witnessing hills and valleys of the frontier, and also of unacknowledged warriors like Poswuyi Swuro.