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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 6 New Delhi January 30, 2016

Reflections on Netaji Subhas

Saturday 30 January 2016, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

The birth centenary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose is to be celebrated by the country shortly. The government has set up a National Committee under the Chairmanship of the Prime Minister for the purpose. It is scheduled to hold its first meeting this week. Consisting of 72 members, of whom about 50 are non-officials and the rest is made up of Ministers, Chief Ministers and Governors, the National Committee has been entrusted with the task of celebrating Netaji’s birth centenary “in a befitting manner“.

Many suggestions are already before the government, but the final decision on them would be taken at the meeting of the National Committee. It is learnt that one senior member has already broached as many as 42 suggestions to be made part of the celebration programme.

It is important to note that in the fifty years since his disappearance in 1945, the Government of India had made little efforts to celebrate Netaji’s birthday in a manner consonant with his standing in the leadership of the national struggle for independence. The birth anniversary of many leaders of lesser breed have been celebrated—sometimes over and over again as a constant reminder—but Subhas Chandra Bose has remained by and large unhonoured, at least scantily honoured, in his motherland. The generation to which the present writer belongs had the good fortune of witnessing a whole galaxy of great leaders rarely to be found all together in the annals of the freedom struggle of any country. In that gallery of the great, Subhas was the hero of the youth much more than Nehru because he espoused the militant wing of the national movement.

In fact, Subhas’ exit from the Congress in 1939 was taken by a whole generation of intrepid nationalists as the departure of uncompromising nationalism from the High Command of the national front that the Congress was at the time. His dramatic escape from detention and hazardous journey to Afghanistan and then onward through Russia to Germany formed an inspiring folk-lore of the freedom struggle. Then as the country was engaged in the ‘Quit India’ struggle with Gandhiji’s call for Do-or-Die, the movement of Subhas Bose, his historic submarine voyage from Germany to Japan and then the formation of the Azad Hind Fauj and the establishment of the Azad Hind Government with equal conisderation for the Muslim, the Sikh and the Hindu, and finally the formation of the women’s column for active service—all these inspired the country even from a distance. His foray came right within the Manipur frontier, but the Japanese, unaware of the mood of the people, decided to withdraw purely on professional military understanding of the situation. Had they had any understanding of the electrifying impact that the appearance of Subhas Bose would have had on the people of Assam, and through them across the whole of India, then a little more advance by Netaji himself onto the Indian soil would have been like a thunderclap for India’s struggle for liberation.

A qualitatively new situation of tremendous significance for the Indian people would have opened up, and the example of India would have shaken the colonial powers all over the world. It may be worth noting that by the time Netaji appeared in the proximity of the Indian frontier in 1944-45, the ‘Quit India’ movement had passed its initial phase of great mass upheaval. Had this been followed by Subhas Chandra Bose’s appearance with the Azad Hind Fauj, there is no doubt that the British could have stayed. It was indeed a historic moment of missed opportunity for the nation. Hypo-thetical presentation of history has the danger of its being a mispresentation, but after fifty years, there is no harm in speculation about the ‘ifs and buts of history’. For one thing, Netaji’s arrival at the final round of the freedom struggle would have changed the very nature of that struggle, and instead of the compromise that the ignominious partition under British super-vision, there would have been the definite possibility of an outright transfer of power without the blood-soaked partition. In the very nature of his government-in-exile, one could see his remarkable statesmanship in forging communal brotherhood.

It is a pity that the Left as a whole did not grasp its significance at that moment, and the Communists went off on a tangent because of this mistaken ideological approach to the entire War. Netaji’s arrival would have made a qualitative difference in the content of our independence and the manner of securing it. Such a historic phenomenon needs to be re-examined with stern objectivity and this could trigger a discussion for generations to come about the missed opportunity fifty years ago.

This takes one back by another decade in the history of our national movement. Reared by Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, Subhas never missed the difference between the tactical consideration and the strategic approach. It was his joining hands with young Jawaharlal that enabled the radical wing inside the Congress overpowering the compromising moderates. In a sense, that was at the root of his difference with Gandhiji who seemed to have calculated that a tilt towards the radicals might divide the Congress which he wanted to preserve intact.

In the thirties there was a feeling of unease among the democratic public that Subhas might have had a soft corner for fascism because in his book at the time he had concluded by saying that what India needed was a synthesis of Fascism and Socialism. This led many to fear that perhaps ultimately he might be attracted by the frenzied commitment of fascism. But Subhas as he saw the unfolding of Hitler’s Nazism realised the unreality of his hope for a synthesis between Fascism and Socialism. This was clear from an interview that he gave to the British Communist newspaper, Daily Worker, in which he was candid enough to declare that there could be no room for fascism as providing a way-out for a country like ours.

The question is often raised—as it used to be at the time—that Subhas had a sneaking admiration for Nazism, and that was why he went to Germany to seek assistance in his fight for India’s independence. This is a wrong view of the reason for his flight to Germany. It needs to be recalled that for every ardent nationalist in those days, the slogan was my-enemy’s-enemy-is-my-friend. This was the tradition set before Indian revolutionaries even during the First World War, when a whole host of revolutionary leaders had gone to Germany and Russia. The famous Berlin Committee of World War I had young revolutionaries. Raja Mahendra Pratap had taken the help of the German authorities to set up his Provisional Government of India at Kabul. Besides, Subhas in his negotiations with the German authrorities made it clear that his Azad Hind Fauj would not fight against the Soviet Union nor against the underground partisan groups of France fighting the German Army.

After his exit from the Congress in 1939, there were strained relations between him and the Congress High Command. In fact this split created a strong, rather bitter, feeling in Bengal and among radical segments in other parts of the country, that Subhas was badly treated by the Congress High Command. This feeling persisted and is at the root of the widespread feeling that had he come back then the Congress leadership would not have been ensnared by the Mountbatten Plan. He had a sturdy confidence that he would be able to keep the two communities together: no doubt he would have directly intervened and soldered the damage wrought by the alienation of the Muslim masses from the Congress which provided the mass base for the Muslim League. The fact that even in the formation of the armed force he kept the imperative of keeping the Hindus and Muslims together shows his far-sighted statesmanship.

After independence, there has been a general neglect on the part of our government to educate the young generations in the glorious history of our freedom struggle. Although forming part of the prescribed textbook, the subject has never been part of an ideological drive for nation-building. That is one of the reasons why Attenborough’s Gandhi attracted such big crowds of young viewers, many of whom never knew that we had such a remarkable man in our midst. This neglect of the nation’s asset could be seen more blatantly in the case of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Although he is a part of the folk-lore of India’s struggle for freedom, very little has been written about him by our distinguished historians. Books on Subhas are few and they are more in the nature of direct personal reminiscences, more than an evaluation of a great leader of this country.

In this context, it is good for us to keep in mind that there is no clear evidence of his death, when, how and where. The official Japanese version of Netaji’s death at the Taihaku airport (presently Taipu in Taiwan) in an air crash on August 18, 1945 has been questioned over and over again. Although two enquiry committees were set up by the government—the Shah Nawaz Committee in 1956 and the Khosla Commission in 1971—neither could establish the actual circumstances of his death, and the question raised could not be answered by either of them. Morarji Desai as the Prime Minister of the Janata Party Government assured Parlia-ment in 1979 that a fresh probe would be made into the question, but his government fell before it could be done. It is reported that President Venkataraman before retiring had urged the present government to take up the matter. It needs to be added that there is evidence that Gandhiji did not believe in the theory of Netaji having died following an air crash. At the other end, Lord Wavell, the British Viceroy at that time, did not believe in this version of Netaji’s death. Lately a research team from Calcutta’s Asiatic Society had spent time in the archives in Moscow in connection with their work on some aspects of Indo-Russian relations. They had heard that there was some material about Netaji in some of the confidential archives, which are not directly under the Russian Foreign Office. In 1992, a Russian scholar by the name of Vinogradov, in an article in a Moscow journal, is reported to have mentioned that Subhas was kept under detention at the city of Omsk, which is at the heart of Siberia. With such widely conflicting reports, it is necessary for the govern-ment and the National Celebration Committee to seek the help of Russian authorities for a thorough examination of papers pertaining to Subhas Chandra Bose.

It is only such an examination that would lift the veil of mystery about Netaji’s death. Until this is done, it would be unwise on the part of the government to bring back from a Tokyo temple the ashes of a person alleged to have perished in an air crash at Taihaku in 1945 and accept this as Netaji’s ashes. Simultaneously, it would be useful to go through all the papers of Jawaharlal Nehru kept carefully in the Teen Murti to find out if they could throw any light on this subject.

No doubt the National Committee will consider many proposals to commemorate the memory of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, and these need to be considered carefully. At the same time there should be a clear view of his last days, and let us not just accept uncritically the current story about his death at Taihaku. The nation owes at least this much of the memory of the man who gave us the ringing call of ‘Jai Hind!’.

(Mainstream, January 27, 1996)