Netaji: The Extra Dimensions
When the Deputy Commissioner of Police Shamsud-Doha shouted at the crowd, ‘Either you go away or I will smash you’, Ananda Bhattacharya, general secretary of the Bengal Provincial Student’s Federation retorted: “You can beat us, you can shoot us, but you cannot smash us.”
It was the 11th day of February in the year following the end of the Second World War.
The courage of Bhattacharya notwithstanding, the contemporary political climate had reached a crescendo with thousands of agitated youth in Calcutta (today’s Kolkata) in particular and several cities in the sub-continent in general, taking to the streets to protest against the trials of the then renegade Indian National Army (INA) officers. The specific incident in contention was in the context of seven years’ rigorous imprisonment awarded to INA officer Captain Abdul Rashid Ali.
The violent agitations had started in Calcutta from November 1945 when Delhi’s Mughal era Red Fort hosted the trial of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s three men – Major General Shah Nawaz Khan, Colonel Prem Kumar Sehgal and Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon. As the officers and soldiers of the INA were ready to sacrifice their lives on a single call of their Netaji (leader), Indian youth too were not far behind. After all, could the youth then and can the youth now, afford not to pay heed to a personality who exhibited an indomitable spirit? For that matter, can any human being with self-esteem not respond to Netaji’s clarion call for working towards the emancipation of the nation, when the man himself had shown exemplary courage and sacrifice for the motherland?
Relinquishing a plum job of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) at a time when most educated Indian youths would cherish such a post, fearlessly aiding the armed revolutionaries in terms of organisation, logistics and morale and for that not having any qualms of being pushed to the dungeons of the colonial retributive system, crossing swords with then Congress leadership in order to put forth his worldview of taking on Great Britain when the latter was cornered in the Second World War and finally moving into uncharted territories in Europe during the turbulent times of the Second World War. Whose imagination will not be stirred by the life sketch of such a maverick, patriot and brave soul? A man who did not think twice before embarking on a more than two month long submarine journey from European shores to South East Asia – all along fraught with dangers, needs to be adorned in the pages of modern Indian history.
Coming back to the unrest in the wake of the INA trials, the Intelligence Bureau reported that ‘there had seldom been a matter which attracted so much public interest and sympathy as the INA trials did in 1945-6’. The Bengali newspaper Amrita Bazar Patrika reported in November 1945 that over 30 people were killed and several hundred injured in the clashes between the students of Calcutta and the police. The situation had reached a boiling point and inflammatory speeches were delivered by Mrs BimalaPrativa Debi of the Congress Socialist Party. Cutting across party lines and gender, youth and students gathered under a single umbrella of anti-colonial agitations which turned violent at the drop of a hat.
Congress, Muslim League, and Hindu Mahasabha all protested. The INA trials unified the country, smoothened the prevailing Congress-League divide over the demand of Pakistan and of course incited the Navy and Air Force to rebel. The British appreciated the emerging challenges of managing the country amidst the growing sense of national consciousness among the Indians in the military. And the credit must go to one single individual – Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
More than a Leader
Mani and Ramasamy very correctly point out: “Bose was not just another leader in the landscape of the Indian nationalist movement, but a towering personality who provided an alternative conception of Indian nationalism to that of the views articulated by Gandhi and Nehru.” The authors further inform that Netaji’s arrival in South East Asia via the adventurous submarine journey kindled a newfound spirit amongst the Indians living over there. They suddenly discovered freedom from the Western colonial rule under the tutelage of the Azad Hind government of Bose. Indians living in South East Asia, especially in Malaya (Malaysia), Singapore and Burma enthusiastically joined the INA. Inspired by the vision of a free India, women in substantial numbers started joining the Rani Jhansi regiment. And it was not just pure romanticism which pulled the Indians into the INA, but they joined being fully aware of the consequences, writes Mani and Ramasamy.
South Asia expert Stephen P Cohen of the Brookings Institute wrote that while delving into memoirs and the testimonies during the INA trials, few reasons cropped up for the Indian officers’ corps joining the INA. Apart from nationalistic feelings, ‘the charismaof Subhas Chandra Bose was a major reason for the Indian officers of the British Indian Army to switch their allegiance’. Furthermore, Cohen informs that a deep reading of the literature on the INA denote that Subhas Bose had a singular role to play in order to transform the INA from a loose group of Indian Prisoners of War (PoW) into a de facto fighting force of close to 50,000 soldiers.
And if Bose’s vision of freeing India through armed assault against British military might appeared chimerical to many armchair revolutionaries and power-focused nationalists of that period, then neither they were knowledgeable about freedom movements in history, let alone being competent enough to speculate on the future. What the Spanish guerrillas and Italians could do for their nations in the 19th century, the Chinese and the Vietnamese could replicate similar actions successfully in the 20th century. And in each case, external/foreign aid in terms of soldiers, finance, technology, among other things, were crucial. Only a casual student of history would ignore the French assistance to the American patriot force in their War of Independence in the later half of the 18th century. So if Bose took the help of Germany and Japan to arm twist the British, he was doing it as a measure of realpolitik and not in naiveté. It is not that he was unaware of the ramifications of an Axis victory in the Second World War and its implications on Indian freedom post-British rule. If the INA would be strong enough to defeat the British military, of course with a resonant coupling of an uprising of people within India, that very INA or the ‘People’s Army’ would take on any other colonial force, be it Japan or Germany.
In fact, the Vietnamese did just that – defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu and thereafter took on the American forces for over two decades. To Bose, this ordeal, if required to be undertaken, was perhaps better to turn the country into a strong nation, rather than to accept partition in order to meekly agree a transfer of power from British hands.
If leadership skills were his prime forte, then Bose’s art of communication was an aspect that was praised by none other than the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Bose’s friend Dilip Kumar Roy in his letter dated 28th December 1925 mentions: “I could not resist the temptation of sending your letters to Rabindranath who wrote back to me a letter extending over four pages in appreciation of your letter. He has written a very nice letter to me indeed, which I will show you someday…”
Dilip Roy further mentions that Bose was in favour of forming powerful revolutionary organisations to combat the British rule. Bose’s apparent hobnobbing with the revolutionaries was the fundamental reason for which he was repeatedly incarcerated by the British police, which however hardly dented his spirits. His health nonetheless took a toll due to abuses he had to face in prisons. However, even then, Bose greeted prison life with much spirit. He wrote: ‘The prison authorities did not seem to be happy to receive us. Special arrangements had to be made for segregating us from the rest of the prison population and they had hardly any surplus accommodation. As the day advanced, our numbers began to swell and to our great delight (there is nothing so welcome in prison as companionship) when the time for evening lock-up came, we found that we were eighteen in number.’
On March 11, 1933 Bose was admitted to Fürth Sanatorium in Vienna and underwent thorough X-ray and clinical examinations, writes historian Sugata Bose. Netaji had suffered a serious attack of bronchial pneumonia in Mandalay (Burma/Myanmar) prison and doctors suspected that he might even have contracted tuberculosis from a fellow prisoner. Severe abdominal pains had even indicated the possibility of stones in the gallbladder. The medical facilities in Vienna were outstanding, writes Sugata Bose. Even though Netaji’s chest and stomach ailments were not immediately cured, Bose soon felt much better. His passport however had been endorsed specifically for Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and France. It was marked invalid for Britain and Germany. He was allowed to visit Europe purely on health grounds, and the reason he had been placed on arrest still held good, that is, his connection with armed revolutionaries.
Despite the restrictions imposed on him, Bose soon found ways to travel around Europe as the spokesman for India’s freedom. He had long felt that Indian nationalists did not properly utilize international diplomacy as a propaganda tool for their nationalist cause. Despite his recurring health problems, Bose travelled tirelessly for the next three years, inspiring Indian students studying abroad, establishing associations to promote friendship between India and various European countries, and meeting leaders of governments wherever possible, mentions Sugata Bose. During those years, he naturally grew from a radical leader into an international statesman, so correctly opines historian Sugata Bose.
Netaji’s popularity in European political circles could be easily guessed when in 1936 Madame Charlotte Despard, a well-known leader of the Irish Republican Party and a sympathizer of the Indian national movement, went to Dublin from Belfast to interview him – who was to the Irish militants, the epitome of Indian freedom movement. If Gandhi-Irwin pact is considered to be a path breaking event in modern Indian history where an Indian leader was viewed at par with a British viceroy, then Bose’s meetings with Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini on equal terms, definitely heralds a new era of Indian statesmanship. Nevertheless, it is a fact that in this pursuit of India’s freedom, SubhasChandra Bose felt like a “lonely traveler” in an “endless desert of solitude,” singing “If nobody hearkens to your call, march ahead alone.”And this sense of fearlessness and sacrifice for the motherland he imbibed from his hero, the karmayogi, the internationalist, Narendranath Dutta – Vivekananda.
Though a student of Philosophy in his graduation days in Presidency and Scottish Church Colleges in Calcutta, Netaji depicted well the overall political history of India from Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement onward to 1934 in his book ‘The Indian Struggle’. It was about this book, that Romain Rolland said: ‘Dear Mr. Subhas C. Bose, I duly received your volumewhich you were good enough to send me. I thank you for it and congratulate on it heartily. So interesting seemed the book to us that I ordered another copy so that my wife and sister should have one each. It is an indispensable work for the history of the Indian Movement. In it you show the best qualities of the historian: lucidity and high equity of mind. Rarely it happens that a man of action as you are is apt to judge without party spirit.’
A Courageous Author
Nevertheless, Bose was ready to castigate then top leadership of the Indian national movement. Talking about Jawaharlal Nehru, Bose wrote: ‘With a popularity only second to that of the Mahatma, with unbounded prestige among his countrymen, with a clear brain possessing the finest ideas, with an upto-date knowledge of modern world movements — that he should be found wanting in the essential quality of leadership, namely the capacity to make decisions and face unpopularity if need be, was a great disappointment. But there was no help for it. What had been expected of him had to be accomplished by lesser men.’
To up the ante as if, Bose wrote in The Indian Struggle: ‘There is something in Mahatma Gandhi, which appeals to the mass of the Indian people. Born in another country he might have been a complete misfit. What, for instance, would he have done in a country like Russia or Germany or Italy? His doctrine of non-violence would have led him to the cross or to the mental hospital.’ Bose however further opines, ‘When the Mahatma speaks, he does so in a language that they comprehend not in the language of Herbert Spencer and Edmund Burke, as for instance Sir SurendraNath Banerji would have done, but in that of the Bhagavad-Gita and the Ramayana. When he talks to them about Swaraj, he does not dilate on the virtues of provincial autonomy or federation, he reminds them of the glories of Rama-rajya (the kingdom of King Rama of old) and they understand. And when he talks of conquering through love and ahimsa (non-violence), they are reminded of Buddha and Mahavira and they accept him.’
Nonetheless, Bose’s intellectual assault on Gandhi continues: ‘He has failed because the strength of a leader depends not on the largeness — but on the character — of one’s following. With a much smaller following, other leaders have been able to liberate their country — while the Mahatma with a much larger following has not. He has failed, because while he has understood the character of his own people — he has not understood the character of his opponents. The logic of the Mahatma is not the logic which appeals to John Bull. He has failed, because his policy of putting all his cards on the table will not do. We have to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s — and in a political fight, the art of diplomacy cannot be dispensed with. He has failed, because he has not made use of the international weapon. If we desire to win our freedom through nonviolence, diplomacy and international propaganda are essential. He has failed, because the false unity of interests that are inherently opposed is not a source of strength but a source of weakness in political warfare. The future of India rests exclusively with those radical and militant forces that will be able to undergo the sacrifice and suffering necessary for winning freedom. Last but not least, the Mahatma has failed, because he had to play a dual role in one person — the role of the leader of an enslaved people and that of a world-teacher, who has a new doctrine to preach.’
His Vision for India
Bose was a visionary, who looked beyond India’s freedom and imagined what free India would be like. In this connection, in the mid-1930s, he wrote in ‘The Indian Struggle’ that there will ultimately emerge a new full-fledged party with a clear ideology, programme and plan of action. He even adumbrated the bare outlines of the plan of action of the party:
• The Party will stand for the interests of the masses, that is, of the peasants, workers, etc., and not for the vested interests, that is, the landlords, capitalists and money-lending classes.
• It will stand for the complete political and economic liberation of the Indian people.
• It will stand for a Federal Government for India as the ultimate goal, but will believe in a strong Central Government with dictatorial powers for some years to come, in order to put India on her feet.
• It will believe in a sound system of state-planning for the reorganisation of the agricultural and industrial life of the country.
• It will seek to build up a new social structure on the basis of the village communities of the past, that were ruled by the village ‘Panch’ and will strive to break down the existing social barriers like caste.
• It will seek to establish a new monetary and credit system in the light of the theories and the experiments that have been and are current in the modern world.
• It will seek to abolish landlordism and introduce a uniform landtenure system for the whole of India.
• It will not stand for a democracy in the mid-Victorian sense of the term, but will believe in government by a strong party bound together by military discipline, as the only means of holding India together and preventing a chaos
• It will not restrict itself to a campaign inside India but will resort to international propaganda in order to strengthen India’s case for liberty, and will attempt to utilise the existing international organisations.
• It will endeavour to unite all the radical organisations under a national executive so that whenever any action is taken, there will be simultaneous activity on many fronts.
As Sugata Bose mentions, Netaji accepted that Gandhi had opted for the correct method of struggle in 1920 and had roused the entire country, but the movement had been neither sufficiently militant nor sufficiently diplomatic. Gandhi had surrendered at the wrong moments, in 1922 and 1931, and on poor terms, felt Netaji. Bose went on to enunciate his own ideal: that of ‘samyavada’. “Samya means ‘equality,’” he explained to a young European interlocutor. “Samyavadi means ‘one who believes in equality.’
Bose gave credit to England for contributing ideas of constitutional and democratic government in the seventeenth century, to France for the transformative ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity in the eighteenth century, to Germany for the gift of Marxian philosophy in the nineteenth century, and to Russia for achievements in proletarian revolution and culture in the twentieth century. However, he proclaimed to the world audience that “India will be called upon to make the next remarkable contribution to the culture and civilization of the world.”
Bose was a patriot to the core and was ready to use any means to achieve the holy end of winning India’s independence. According to him, national struggle was the growth of mass consciousness. Peasant unrest and labour strikes were an expression of the further growth of mass consciousness. He favoured a broad anti-imperialist front. Interestingly, he even expressed belief in a synthesis of Communism and Fascism. However, he endorsed Fascism only as an aggressive form of nationalism, and nothing more. Moreover, if Communism was anti-national, Bose did not support it. Bose wanted to establish a socialist regime based on industrialization after independence. Bose was ready to indulge in all possible means to gain India’s independence. In this path, he would not be deterred by the philosophical notions of Gandhian non-violence or the sentimentalism of Nehru’s anti-Axis foreign policy. In sum, Bose was a patriot and realist. For him, adhering to ideologies strictly was never the option. He desired India’s independence and was pragmatic enough to embark on military means to oust the British.
Perhaps it was only Bose who could have said thus:
“My country calls me—my duty calls me—I must leave you and go back to my first love—my country.”
—Subhas Chandra Bose to Emilie Schenkl from Badgastein, Austria, March 1936
To question the motive of such an individual, to term him a Nazi collaborator as then Indian Communists did, is simply blasphemous. Bose manifested the very ideals of patriotism coupled with humanism – values which are exceptionally relevant today and which will remain germane for times to come as long as humanity exists.
The author is in India’s Central Civil Service and has contributed in various national and international outlets for over a decade
By Dr Uddipan Mukherjee
(The writer is PhD, and is in India’s Central Civil Service. Any opinion expressed here is of author’s own.)