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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 41 New Delhi October 3, 2015

Netaji and Mystery of the Secret Files

Saturday 3 October 2015, by Mohan K. Tikku

Now that Mamata Banerjee has served the appetiser, everybody is hungering after the big meal. The 64 Netaji files running into 12,744 pages that the West Bengal Chief Minister declassified on September 18 seem to indicate that Netaji had survived the air crash. The rest is mostly marginal details, besides a few missing phrases or sentences in the papers that only deepen the mystery without revealing much. The real story though, one assumes, rests in the files in possession of the Central Government. All one can do at the moment is hope that the West Bengal disclosures will act as the thin edge of the wedge and help raise questions that would make it imperative for the Central Government to reveal some more even as a full disclosure appears to be a distant possibility. Apparently, it is not an easy decision to make for whoever is in power at the Centre.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which used to be so vociferous on the demand to release the Netaji files while in the Opposition, was not very forthcoming when it came to power under Atal Behari Vajpayee. Whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi will act very differently remains to be seen.

The version that has been officially peddled so far is that Netaji died in an air crash at the Taipei airport, and his ashes are lying in the Renkoji temple in Japan. But there are at least two other parallel versions. One, that he was alive and returned to India incognito and spent the rest of his days as a sadhu at different places in Uttar Pradesh. The other, and the more controversial, theory is that he ended up in a jail in Stalinist Russia, was subjected to torture and died in custody.

Though there have been some differences of opinion among sections of the Bose clan, there is near unanimity on one point: Everybody wants closure. Netaji’s daughter, Anita Pfaff, told me during an interview way back in the nineties, while she was here in connection with Netaji’s birth centenary celebrations, that she was realist enough to realise that her father would no longer be alive. But she wanted to know the circumstances in which he spent his last days. She shudders to think, she said, if her father was really tortured in a jail in Siberia.

During the nineties, I was following the progress of the Mukherjee Commission, appointed to take a fresh look at the subject. I also used to be in regular touch with Professor Purabi Roy of Jadavpur University who was helping the Commission in getting at the truth. The Mukherjee Commission report—like the West Bengal disclosures now—only hinted at various possibilities, letting the mysteries persist.

At one point during those years, I happened to meet the then Minister of State of External Affairs at a party. During the conversation I broached the subject of the Netaji files. He sounded very forthcoming and cooperative, and promised to let me see the papers. It was agreed that I shall call upon the Minister in his office on Monday morning. I turned up at the appointed hour. The Minister asked for the officer dealing with the subject. He was told the officer was on tour and would be back in two or three days. Accordingly, the Minister asked me to come back in a few days time.

When I went again a few days later, the Minister called for the concerned person, a Joint Secretary-level officer. The officer spent about 20 minutes with the Minister while I waited in the PA’s room. I was ushered in as soon as the officer had finished. The Minister this time sang a different tune. He said there were no Netaji files, and there was not much in the ones that were there. Obviously, he had been advised against letting me access Netaji’s files.

I tried a different route some time later. I used to know a New Delhi-based Russian corres-pondent quite well. He would sometimes drop in at my office for a chat. One day I asked him if he could check some details with his embassy on my behalf. I briefed him about who Netaji was and the story of his having spent his last days in a jail in Russia. He sounded enthusiastic and promised to help.

He turned up a few days later wearing a glum face. He said that he had been advised by his embassy that it was in nobody’s interest to ask these questions. He had been told that seeking answers to these questions would not do any good to anybody. It was best to let things be as they were.

Considering that the Russians had been quite open about the KGB papers after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was a bit surprising. The Russians, in fact, had sold many KGB papers to the Hoover Foundation at Stanford University as they were hard up for foreign exchange after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I, personally, had seen some of the papers at the Hoover Foundation. The ones that I had accessed—for example—had indicated that the Soviets were funding the Communist Party of India, and that both Stalin and Mao knew about it.

If even the Russians were being so secretive about the subject, it suggests that the facts may be far more critical than we imagine them to be. And the story, that the files had been kept under wraps just to protect Prime Minister Nehru’s role in the episode, may be far from the truth. If that be the case, it is doubtful that the Central Government would be any more forthcoming than before. And the dark secrets that the files hold won’t see the light of day!

Mohan K. Tikku has been a foreign correspondent based in Colombo. He is also author of Sri Lanka: A Land in Search of Itself.