NETAJI SUBHAS CHANDRA BOSE : A GLORIOUS ENIGMA
We seem to have just begun to see Subhas Chandra Bose being bestowed with the honour that he deserved, through the installation of his statue at Rajpath in New Delhi. During the last seventy-five years he was a hero of heroes in his home province of West Bengal, and venerated as a great leader by a very large number of individuals all over India–but not by the government, certainly not to the extent Mohandas Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru have been. Yet, can anyone say that he was less of a hero than either of them?
Subhas Chandra Bose is not alone in this regard. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who was at least as great a leader as Nehru was on the point of being swept under the carpet—till he was resurrected by Narendra Modi and immortalized through the Statue of Unity. Other outstanding leaders of earlier times, such as C.R.Das, Vithalbhai Patel, Lala Lajpat Rai, Bipin Chandra Pal, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and the revolutionaries of Bengal, Punjab and else where, such as Bhagat Singh, Khudiram Bose, and many others had all been relegated to obscurity. They all need to be resurrected.
This short article deals only with certain enigmatic or mysterious aspects of the life and death of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose (hereafter simply ‘Netaji’). The reasons why Netajihas been called an enigma should not be far to seek. His life is fairly well documented till January 1941, that is when he left the shores of India. To recount the same very briefly, he was born in Cuttack, then Bengal Presidency (now Odisha) to Janaki Nath Bose, a wealthy advocate, and spent his early days in Cuttack and Calcutta. His father had a huge house built for himself in upmarket Elgin Road, Calcutta where Netaji spent his days with his thirteen siblings, among them Sarat Chandra Bose, one of the most prominent Congressmen of Bengal. He studied in Presidency College, travelled to England as all children from wealthy families did in those days, studied at Cambridge, qualified for the coveted job in the Indian Civil Service (ICS), but resigned from the same to seek a career in politics and devote his life to Indian independence. He was jailed by the British in Mandalay, Burma (now Myanmar), released, travelled to Vienna and elsewhere in Europe, returned to India and was anointed by Mohandas Gandhiji as the President of the Indian National Congress held in Haripura in 1938. However, immediately after this he began to have serious differences with Gandhiji, and competed for the same post again against Gandhiji’s chosen candidate and won. He was then elbowed out of the Congress and had a go at Municipal politics in Calcutta. Meanwhile, the Second World War had broken out, although it was still confined to Europe. Around this time he decided to take advantage of the situation, join up with anti-British forces and began to hatch plans of escaping from India. He made a dramatic escape in January 1941 and travelled to Germany over a very arduous overland route through Afghanistan and USSR with a view to allying with the Nazi German forcesand take on the British. He organized the India Legion in Germany, but did not receive much help from the Germans. He then left the Legion in the care of his colleague A.C.N. Nambiar, and travelled a perilous voyage to Japan by submarine to begin the most eventful period of his life.
Because Netaji collaborated with the vanquished Axis powers, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the victors, the Allied powers, understandably did not show great interest in his history. Indian leaders and chroniclers had no access to him at the time. As a result, definitive information, though somewhat sketchy and differing in details, is available on him only till his disappearance in August 1945. There were, however, some exceptions in respect of researching him from the Allied Powers’ side: Hugh Toye, a British intelligence officer, who produced a short book titled Subhas Chandra Bose: The Springing Tiger; and Leonard A. Gordon, an American researcher, whose voluminous treatise is titled Brothers Against The Raj: A Biography of Indian Nationalists Sarat and Subhas Chandra Bose. Toye was no researcher, and his account is moreover somewhat coloured by his national feelings and prejudices; though, to do the man justice, he has tried to be objective. But Gordon was a professor of history and his book is profusely referenced and footnoted,and the narrations are in objective language, as a work of research should be. In my view this is the most authoritative account of the life of the two brothers. Among other historians who have made important contributions to research on his death and disappearance, mention may be made of Joyce Chapman Lebra, Christopher Bayly, Peter Ward Fay and Tim Harper. There are quite a few books in Bengali by various authors; but Netaji Subhas is almost deified in West Bengal, and the books are laced with such emotion and hero-worship as to be of little historical value. Incidentally, although he belonged to undivided Bengal, the Muslim-dominated sovereign state of Bangladesh does not care much for him.
His being an enigma has two aspects, factual and inferential. The factual aspect is much more important and relates to his disappearance, presumed death and rumours of his resurfacing, as also his marriage. Netaji had hoisted the Azad Hind Flag at the Gymkhana Club at Port Blair, Andaman Islands, on British Indian territory, on December 29, 1943. Thereafter he travelled back to Burma and directed the INA campaign into North Burma and India in collaboration with the Japanese. The Indian tricolourwas hoisted on mainland Indian soil at Moirang, Manipur, on 14th April, 1944, and even a municipal administration was set up in a village called Ruzhazo, now in Nagaland. However, owing to overstretching of Japanese supply lines, the campaign could not be sustained and Japanese and the INA were forced to retreat south into Lower Burma. Thereafter following this retreat, by July 1945 Netaji was in Singapore, still a stronghold of the Japanese. During this stay he was broadcasting nightly from Azad Hind Radio to Indian audiences. So far the narrative is not in question except for minor details.
The versions begin to differ from this point. The general and official line is that after Japan had surrendered unconditionally following the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Netajihad apparently decided to go to Dairen (now Dalian) in Manchuria (still under Japanese occupation), and thence to the Soviet union to surrender and be a prisoner if necessary. Soviet Union was a short hop from Dairen. The reason for this could only be that, by then differences had begun to develop between Britain and the Soviet Union, and Netaji thought he would be able to obtain sanctuary in USSR and carry on his campaign for Indian independence from there. However, USSR had in the meanwhile declared war on Japan and invaded Japanese- held Manchuria. Therefore Netaji could be in USSR only as a prisoner. But, as he is said to have told his interpreter Negishi, that he would prefer that, because he thought that only the USSR could and would fight the British.
He took off from Singapore on 16th or 17th August 1945. Versions differ on his route, and whether he met Japanese Field Marshal Terauchi at Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) or General Isoda. But he did make a stopover at Saigon in French Indochina (now Vietnam). According to the official version, his next stop, presumably for refueling, was at Taihoku, Formosa (now Taipei, Taiwan). Then the plane caught fire shortly after takeoff from Taihokuand crashed. Habibur Rahman was also in the aircraft and had extensive burns, but survived. He narrated the accident later to S.A. Ayer, a journalist who was associated with Netaji. Netaji was thoroughly burnt, but still alive, and was immediately put on treatment under Dr. Taneyoshi Yoshimi, the surgeon in charge. He spoke to people while in hospital, albeit with great difficulty. Among people who had testified as to these were Habibur Rahman and T.Negishi, Netaji’s longtime interpreter. Then he succumbed to his injuries on 18th August 1945, and his body was cremated. His ashes have been preserved at the Renkoji Temple in Japan.
Now about his marriage: according to what I consider absolutely reliable accounts, Emilie Schenckl (1910-1996), and Netaji were married in a secret Hindu ceremony, though without a Hindu priest, witnesses or civil record, somewhere in Germany or Austria in 1937. Schenckl was Austrian,Catholic by birth, was Netaji’s assistant and stenographer, and spoke good English. Netaji left Germany shortly after his marriage but returned in 1941. They had a daughter Anita, now Anita Bose Pfaff, a German national, born in November 1942. The Pfaffs have a son Peter, a photo-journalist by profession whom I have met, and also another son called Martin and a daughter, Maya.Netaji left Germany for Japan in February 1942, and that was the last time the couple had met. Before his departure Netaji left a letter addressed to his elder brother Sarat, written in Bengali, with Emilie, that was to be shown to his brother if something should happen to him. Emilie contacted Sarat after the war and Sarat and his family travelled to Vienna in 1948 to meet her and her daughter. They had a very pleasant conversation over several days and were accepted without reservation into the Bose family. However, Emilie turned out to be a very private person and refused to come to Calcutta. Anita, who was only six then, visited India later several times. She is an economist by training and worked as Professor in the University of Augsburg. She was also active as a politician in the German Social Democratic Party.
Now the enigma part of it. There were people till the nineteen-nineties, particularly in West Bengal, who refused to believe that Netaji was dead and even indulged in violence if so much as a suggestion to that effect was made. Importantly, Netaji researchers, such as Dr. Purabi Roy and Anuj Dhar have challenged the Taihoku crash narrative, though they also do not agree between themselves. When I was a child in Calcutta in the nineteen-fifties we often would hear people shouting in the streets at the top of their voices after dark, “Teligiraam, Teligiraam, Netaji phireesechhen”, trying to sell special issues of papers announcing fictitiousstories of Netaji’s return. At different points of time rumours have been floated that Netaji has been found to be residing incognito – once as a sadhu at a place called Shoulmari in Northern West Bengal, and once as another Sadhu called Gumnami Baba. This was the view supported by Anuj Dhar. Dr. Purabi Roy, on the other hand, averred that Netaji was in USSR at least till 1956. We Indians have a tendency to deify people we admire – it had been done to Gandhiji and even Jawaharlal Nehru, but possibly to no one more than Netaji, and nowhere more than in West Bengal.
Incidentally, Netaji was completely free of all religious prejudices, so much so that he chose Habibur Rahman as his companion in his last fateful journey. However, this Habibur, and another INA officer called Mohammed ZamanKiani later went to Pakistan and fought against India in the Kashmir battle of 1948. As already mentioned, neither Pakistan nor Bangladesh have ever cared a fig about Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, proving that religious tolerance and catholicity is often not reciprocated. On the other hand when there was rampant persecution of Hindus in erstwhile East Pakistan in 1950, many of the Hindu victims took comfort from the belief that Netaji will soon reappear and set everything right.
There have been as many as five sets of inquiry into Netaji’s disappearance: Shah Nawaz Commission (1956), Khosla Commission (1970) and Manoj Mukherjee Commission (2005) by India, the Figges Report (1946) by Britain and the Japanese Government Report, declassified in 2016. All except the Manoj Mukherjee Commission had concluded that Netaji did indeed die in the Taihoku fire. The Manoj Mukherjee Commission however, differed. Although oral accounts were in favour of the plane crash, the commission concluded that those accounts could not be relied upon and that there was a secret plan to ensure Bose’s safe passage to the USSR with the knowledge of Japanese authorities and Habibur Rahman. The commission also concluded that the ashes kept at the Renkoji temple (which supposedly contain skeletal remains) reported to be Bose’s, were of Ichiro Okura, a Japanese soldier who died of cardiac arrest but asked for a DNA test. It also determined Gumnami Baba to be different from Subhas Bose in light of a DNA profiling test.The Mukherjee Commission submitted its report to on 8 November 2005 after 3 extensions and it was tabled in the Indian Parliament on 17 May 2006. The Government rejected the findings of the commission.
The enigma around his marriage is even more difficult to understand. It springs from an innate Hindu belief of a connection between heroism and celibacy – which is probably why Gandhiji and Kasturba had decided, when he was only 37, not to have conjugal relations any more, and made a public announcement to that effect. The people who believe his marriage to be fake say that he could not have married till India got its independence, because he was sworn to Brahmacharya. I have not come across anything in which he had made any such oath. Netaji probably had apprehensions that his countrymen would not have believed in his marriage, which is why he left that letter in his own handwriting, written in Bengali, addressed to Sarat Bose. Emilie also never made any public announcement about the letter until SaratBose accepted it. Emilie’s conduct, after Netaji’s departure from Germany was also unexceptionable. She did not marry again and supported herself, her daughter and her mother by working as a telephone operator.
Someone’s marriage is also an intensely personal and family affair, having nothing to do with politics. The extended Bose family accepted the fact of Netaji’s marriage without batting an eyelid. Anyone would have, because it would have been impossible, barring super-extraordinary efforts, for the lonely Emilie in impoverished and war-ravaged postwar Germany to have faked Netaji’s letter to Sarat Bose in Bengali. Therefore why Emilie should be disbelieved is beyond me. But she was. And one person nearly physically hit me when I emphasized that there could remain no doubts about the marriage and Anita’s parentage. Some have even been such cads as to challenge Anita to a DNA test. I told one such person, would he agree to a DNA test if I said his father was not his biological father? Or would he be scandalized? That person was indeed scandalized!
The inferential enigmas around Netaji are much less important. Now that it is considered almost a sacrilege to say anything derogatory about Netaji in West Bengal, even the Communists who had abused Netaji in the foulest possible language, and depicted him in the vilest possible cartoons during WWII, are now trying to make use of his name. These principally concern Netaji’s opposition to Savarkar and Syama Prasad Mookerjee. Actually Netaji and Syama Prasad had an overlap of just about one year in politics, in 1940. The time was not very pleasant, because they crossed swords on municipal elections of Calcutta. I personally think that a leader of such international stature as Netaji’s should not have dabbled in something as petty as municipal politics. But it was just a tiny speck in Netaji’shuge canvas of political life, and Communists are a gone case anyway.
It is not very often that a great man appears in the firmament of a nation and has such a tragic end. Netaji was one such person. He was unlucky not to see his beloved India becoming independent, but lucky at the same time not to see it simultaneously partitioned and his trusted lieutenants like Habibur and Kianifighting India on behalf of the Islamic state, something he so detested.
By Tathagata Roy
(The writer is former Governor of Meghalaya)
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