Extract published from The Great Flap of 1942: How the Raj Panicked over a Japanese Non-invasion by Mukund Padmanabhan, published by Vintage Books.

The Madras port was closed and banks were asked to move out of the Fortress area. Many private companies moved out of adjoining Georgetown, including one of the oldest and most famous ones— Parry and Co. Ltd, which was founded by Welshman Thomas Parry in 1788. The accounts department shifted to Coimbatore, but others went no further than the expansive bungalows of their managers—sugar and spirits to Hodgson’s, chemicals to Davis’ and sales to Wilkinson’s.24 Prisoners in the city’s penitentiary, one of the oldest jails in the country, were moved to the one in Alipuram, near Bellary in today’s Karnataka. The Madras Corporation ordered that the dead should be cremated sufficiently early in the afternoon so that smouldering pyres were not visible from the air after dusk. The magnificent Ripon Building, where the Corporation was headquartered, wore a ‘pall of grey’ instead of the usual glistening white, which would have made ‘a picture from the sea’ and therefore an easy target for bombers. Among the other ‘threatened’ buildings painted grey was Queen Mary’s College, the first college for women in Madras, located opposite the city’s Marina beach.

In Madras, Hope’s government took some steps to reduce the pain of departure. While maintaining normal railway services, special trains were announced to stations within 40 miles of the city at no cost to passengers. The six camps set up near these stations provided food, water and accommodation for a few days or until people made decisions to leave for places of their choosing. However, most people opted to leave for other towns as paying passengers and the camp facilities were availed only to an extent. Banks were urged to stay open on the Tamil New Year holiday, Tuesday, 14 April, for people to cash cheques not exceeding Rs 1,000 to ‘meet necessary expenses’ for leaving the city.

Explaining the reason for his government’s sudden scattering, Hope told Linlithgow that the military was anxious to have everyone out of the way. They were particular about clearing Fort St George and the area around it, where the Secretariat and the Madras High Court functioned, before a landing. Moreover, Hope felt he could not risk the whole government being captured. ‘Madras is right in the front line and to have the whole administration involved in possible street fighting was unthinkable.’27 As for the panic, he claimed it was the result of ‘an accumulation of events’, starting with the ‘timidity of the people’ and ending with the government communiqué based on false military intelligence. It was this wrong information that was entirely responsible for the evacuation of his government and its advice that non-essentials should leave. ‘I would like to hear of military enquiry if possible,’ he wrote to Linlithgow. The Viceroy replied that Commander- in-Chief Wavell was said to have ordered an inquiry to ‘ascertain facts’ and ‘fix responsibility’. But it is not clear what, if anything, came of this. So how many people fled Madras? Pre-exodus, the city’s population was around 8,00,000.* There was no overall official estimate of how many people fled between December 1941 and April 1943. According to Chief Secretary Ramamurthy, 30 per cent of the population (2,40,000 people) left Madras by mid-February1942. He also noted that in the seven tumultuous days between he air raid alarm and the end of 14 April, another 2,00,000 people fled.28 (Interestingly, The Hindu reported that 3,00,000 left the city during the same period.)29 Together, the two government estimates suggest there was an exodus of 4,40,000 people (or 55 per cent of the population).

This is, of course, a gross underestimate for at least three reasons. First, by the government’s own admission, there was a constant stream of people moving to the interior between February and April. Second, it was probably in the government’s interest to play down the number of people who left Madras. And finally, 55 per cent is much smaller than a raft of other assessments about how many who took flight.

According to the Indian Express, Madras’ population was reduced to about 25 per cent.30 This was exactly in line with the estimate of Rao Bahadur C. Tadulinga Mudaliar who said, just before becoming the city’s Mayor, that a total of 75 per cent of the population had fled—a figure reaffirmed by another councillor.

CR Srinivasan, Editor of the venerable Swadesamitran, among the oldest vernacular newspapers in the country, estimated that five-sixths of the population (over 83 per cent) had left. But even this was smaller than the number ICS officer Paul M. Jayarajan threw up. In his reckoning, 7 lakh (7,00,000) out of the city’s population of 8,00,000 took flight—a staggering 87.5 per cent!

While this figure may seem incredible, it is far from implausible. Those mandated to stay under the Essential Services (Maintenance) Ordinance issued in late 1941 were people working in specific sectors such as water supply, sanitary services, oil companies, banks and bus services. The others, presumably the non-essentials, made up almost the entire population.

Of course, in Madras, from where most of the government dispersed, it raised the obvious but ironic question—did the government regard itself as non-essential? Moreover, the exodus had its own internal dynamic—the more people left, the more people had to go. The shortage of such things as labour and household help was one thing. But by April, the provision shops had shuttered, the restaurants were closed and there was an acute shortage of food — a situation that left people with no option but to depart. For instance, the family of Radha Padmanabhan (née Prabhu) made the decision to up and go when the milkman stopped coming. ‘He probably fled like so many others. That was the day my father declared, “It’s time to pack up”.’ Departures were hasty and unplanned. ‘Everyone was prepared to put up with any difficulty to reach a safe place,’ observed the author Pudhumaipithan. ‘Bullock carts carried children, the old, the sick, utensils, almost everything from one place to another.’ Those who had motor vehicles overtook the rows of bullock carts ‘like opportunists in politics’

Technically, the government’s April communiqué only advised people to leave, allowing it to maintain the pretence that the evacuation was entirely ‘voluntary’. But the sequence of messages about the threats seemed calculated to make people flee. A letter to the Editor of the Mail written by an ‘Unwilling Voluntary Evacuee’ described this aptly: ‘This [April] communiqué is the culmination of a series of communiqués all of which, I have been noticing, have had the tendency to scare the people unnecessarily and make them run away.’

Radha Krishnamurthy’s account of her family’s departure from Madras suggests some arms of the government went well beyond advising evacuation. As a twelve-year-old, she was in school when many parents, including her mother, rushed in before noon on a date she cannot exactly recall. ‘There were policemen in cars screaming on the road, asking people to quit Madras and go to their native places. We packed in a hurry taking only clothes and valuables and took a train south from Egmore.’ The family stayed in Lalgudi, where they rented a house for about five months before returning to Chennai.

Extracted with permission from Penguin Random House.

Check out the book on Amazon

About the book
Title: The Great Flap of 1942: How the Raj Panicked over a Japanese Non-invasion
Author: Mukund Padmanahban
Publisher: Vintage Books
Price: ₹599