When a Japanese raid looked imminent. When fear gripped Madras. When residents fled the city to safer places

In 1942, Madras battled phantoms. The response to the threat of a Japanese attack was extreme and — in hindsight — unwarranted. Huge numbers of people deserted the city, some disposing of their properties at throwaway prices before evacuating to ‘safer' areas. The fear over an impending Japanese aggression was not totally unfounded: even the Government anticipated it. After air raids on Visakhapatnam and Kakinada, Madras appeared to be in line for a bombardment.

In a communiqué dated April 11 that year, the Government of Madras sounded the doomsday siren and advised residents — other than those engaged in essential services — to leave the city. Poor people who could not rely on relatives and friends for accommodation were asked to take shelter in Government camps established at far-flung suburban villages — Nandivaram, Periyapalayam, Attur, Vengattur, Thurapallam and Nandambakkam — that were located near railway stations.

The fear of a Japanese attack almost redefined the contours of daily life in Madras. Since the harbour was prone to raids, plans were afoot to shift public offices, commercial firms and banks in this section to interior areas. A proposal to shift the operations of the office of the Accountant-General — except for payment of pensions — to Bangalore was in the air.

Probably the saddest part of the evacuation was the shooting of wild animals and reptiles in the Madras zoo. When the option of sheltering the animals in some other part of the country was ruled out, this was seen as the only available course of action. The decision appeared rash and unjustified. Later, the Government explained it was taken to protect human life and that if “the apprehended danger had materialised,” dangerous animals on the loose would have wrecked havoc.

To help in the relocation, the Government paid an allowance to most sections of its employees, so did a few private companies. With panic reaching epidemic proportions, the city suddenly wore a deserted look. On April 16, the Surgeon-General noted that the in-patient population at the Madras General Hospital had whittled down to one-fourth of its usual numbers. Numerous patients had “left against medical advice.” In contrast, the railway stations were crowded. With people having left in droves, the nearly 22 miles of slit trenches — meant for protection during enemy shelling — that had been constructed within the city appeared to be an exercise in profligacy.

The exodus resulted in great distress for the remnant. Commercial establishments had been shut down. Hotels especially pulled down shutters for want of cooks and provisions. Milk and dairy products were in short supply because the milkmen had resettled elsewhere. The supply of provisions had been hampered by a breakdown in transport services. Another peculiar problem facing the hotels was the shortage of small change. The Reserve Bank stepped in and supplied small change to other banks. The Government spoke to hoteliers and assured them of succour that would enable them to resume their businesses.

In the prevailing panic, a few voices of sanity were heard. C. Rajagopalachari warned against “exaggeration of the danger of a Japanese invasion”. He was right. About three weeks after the government had issued the communique advising people to leave the city, Governor of Madras H. E. Sir Arthur Hope spoke to the residents in a broadcast on All-India Radio: “During the past few weeks much has happened to cause anxiety in this country and especially in the Madras Presidency. That anxiety is natural, but I want this evening to try to put things in their right perspective. When the Government issued their communiqué on April 11th, they had good reason to believe that there was a direct threat of invasion to the Madras coast and Madras City. Happily this threat did not materialise. There is, however, as the Commander-in-Chief said in his broadcast the other day, always the danger of an attempt at invasion, until the Japanese are driven from the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. This danger will lessen from week to week, as our reinforcements of all sorts pour in.”

Clearly, fear was Madras' major enemy; and the fight against the phantoms continued for many more weeks.