Wednesday, February 8th, 2023 16:38:41

The True Secular Statesman

By Anil Dhir
Updated: January 31, 2022 4:38 pm

The Azad Hind Fauz, led by Netaji, was the epitome of religious unity. His biographer, Leonard A Gordan, had called Netaji a “privately religious Hindu”, but clarified that he was a staunch secularist in his politics. The Provisional Government of Bose united all religious and linguistic groups, set up a women’s regiment and stopped caste-based kitchens. Bose broke down caste and religious barriers at a time when Indian society was stratified and conservative. Bose’s brand of nationalism envisaged unifying communities, not dividing them. It was this positivity of an all-Indian force had rattled the British. The INA destroyed the British-created myth of martial races by recruiting from all classes of Indians.

The Azad Hind Fauz was made up in large part by Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and a smattering of Christians too. There were Odia, Telegu, Tamil, Bengali, Nepali and Punjabis. Bose was able to gain their absolute loyalty by his words and deeds.  Long after independence and partition, many of the veterans INA officers, who crossed over to Pakistan, would speak of Netaji with tears in their eyes.  Their children and grandchildren were brought up on stories of a man who inspired the utmost confidence and in whom people of every community could repose their faith.

In his unfinished autobiography, An Indian Pilgrim, Bose writes “I was lucky that the environment in which I grew up was on the whole conducive to the broadening of my mind”. He grew up in Katak in the Oriya bazaar area which was predominantly a Muslim locality and his family’s neighbours were mostly Muslims who treated his father, Janakinath Bose, like a patriarch. The house had Muslim servants and cooks and the Bose family participated in all Muslim festivals. Subhas goes on to say in his autobiography “In fact I cannot remember even to have looked upon Muslims as different from ourselves in any way except that they go to pray in a mosque.”

This attitude remained with him all his life.  Subhas was also opposed to all forms of caste-discrimination. As a student, he once spent weeks nursing a Dalit classmate who was suffering from cholera.  He wanted to see the end of caste differences and was a strong supporter of inter-caste marriages.

When he was elected as the chief executive officer of the Calcutta Corporation in 1924, Netaji was astounded to find that inspite of the nearly equal number of Hindu and Muslim population in the City, there were only a handful of Muslim employees.  He took remedial action instantly, out of the 33 posts that were vacant, he appointed 25 Muslims saying, “In the past Hindus have enjoyed what maybe regarded monopoly in matters of appointments. The claims of Mohammedans, Christians and Depressed Classes have to be favourably considered, though it is sure to give rise to a certain amount of heart-burning among the Hindu candidates.” Of the eight remaining seats, he appointed dalits and a few Anglo-Indians.

There are many instances of Netaji’s secular mindsets from the Singapore and Burma days. The Chettiars of Singapore, one of the richest mercantile communities of emigres from Tamil Nadu were the major donors for Netaji’s cause.  When they had invited him to visit the island’s famous Chettiar temple, for the purpose of being weighed in gold and silver coins which would  be donated, Netaji refused, complaining that the temple practiced orthodoxy and did not allow devotees of all castes to enter. On his insistence, they agreed to open up the temple for all religions and castes. Netaji intentionally visited the temple with a group of INA officers drawn from among Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Sandalwood tilaks were put on the heads of Netaji, Hasan and Mohammad Zaman Kiani. After the weighing ceremony was completed and Subhas came out of the temple, he immediately rubbed the tika off his own forehead saying that ‘mixing religion with my uniform will finish my army.’

His statesman like qualities are seen in many of his words and deeds. Even though Netaji left the Congress in disagreement with Gandhi, he never vilified the Mahatma. This could be best gauged from how he named the regiments of the Azad Hind Fauz as Gandhi Brigade, Nehru Brigade, Azad Brigade and Rani Lakshmi Bai Brigade. Barring the great Rani, all the regiments were named after the stalwarts of the Congress. Till the last, he believed that the true leaders of the national movement were Nehru, Gandhi and Azad. This is proved by  his Bangkok address in  1943, made on the 74th birthday of Gandhi. He had  described Gandhi’s contribution as ‘unique and unparalleled,’ adding that ‘‘no single man could have achieved more in one single lifetime under similar circumstances.’’ Commenting on Netaji’s version of secularism, Harvard University historian Sugata Bose has written  in his book ‘His Majesty’s Opposition’, that “Netaji was staking out a middle ground between Nehru’s secularism, with its distaste for expressions of religious difference, and Gandhi’s harnessing of various religious faiths in energising mass politics.” The drummed up posthumous rivalry between Netaji and Bose is a case of missing the woods for the trees. Both of them,  had their  disagreements on the question of violence, and on who was more evil; the British or the Japanese. However  both had a mutual belief on the  central themes of interfaith harmony, gender equality, and  both admired the  Mahatma. Even Gandhi, a strong critic of  Netaji, had to admit: “Though the INA failed in their immediate objective, they have a lot to their credit….The greatest among these was to gather together under one banner, men from all religions and races of India, and infuse into them the spirit of solidarity and oneness to the utter exclusion of all communal and parochial sentiment.”

Modern day politicians are  either busy temple-hopping to prove their Hindu credentials  or placating minorities with promises. Netaji observed a strict divide between politics and religion. He even spoke of Savarkar  in distasteful terms. In his book ‘The Indian Struggle’, Netaji recounted  his  meetings with Savarkar and Jinnah. He concluded that the politics of Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League  were very similar. Netaji wrote, ‘‘Jinnah was then thinking of only of how to realise his idea of Pakistan with the help of the British. The idea of putting up a joint fight with the Congress for Indian independence did not appeal to him. Savarkar seemed to be oblivious of the international situation and was only thinking how Hindus could secure military training by entering Britain’s army in India. From these interviews, I was forced to the conclusion that nothing could be expected from either the Muslim League or the Hindu Mahasabha.’’

In the fag-end of Netaji’s battle, when hundreds of INA soldiers  were imprisoned by the British and incarcerated in the Red Fort. Gandhi had gone to meet them. The tea that was being served to the prisoners  was classidied as  ‘Muslim tea’ and ‘Hindu tea’. These soldiers poured the tea from both containers into their canteens and said ‘We are Subhas’ soldiers and this is Hindustani tea.

The affirmation of Subhas’ unshrinking belief in the possibility of uniting people belonging to different faiths, regions, castes and linguistic groups was  seen when the Indian people responded to the Red Fort Trial of the three INA officers, Gen. Shahnawaz Khan, Col. P K Sahgal and Maj. G S Dhillon, a Muslim, Hindu and Sikh officer.  It was this trial that had made people aware of the formation of Subhas Bose’s INA.  The trial brought droves of people to the Red Fort everyday and demonstrations in support of the three INA officers spread all over the country.  Tens of thousands of people came out in the streets demanding their release. Sadly, this was the last demonstration of Hindu-Muslim unity before partition. Netaji and his provisional government had set high standards of secular amity, which left a lasting impact.

What Netaji  did not believe  was in a  false kind of  freedom, that  would  only  benefit  the bourgeois  upper  classes  and the elite,  he  like  Bhagat  Singh, sought a genuine freedom  that would  touch  every  section  of  society.  To him, mere political freedom, without emancipation of the poor and the   depressed classes meaningless. Today, India has a median age of 30 years, meaning that we have a very large number of young citizens who need attention. They have dreams of getting and equal opportunities. They should get disciplined training under the supervision of veterans and ex-servicemen, who constitute a highly qualified but underutilized human resource available across the country.

Bose is as relevant in 21st century India, so we need to mainstream his ideology into current day politics and governance. While a lot is known about Netaji’s contribution to the freedom struggle, we need to revisit Netaji s roadmap in governance priorities for a Free India.

Just as Gandhian values cannot be reduced to a Swachh Bharat cleanliness campaign, extolling Netaji’s military heroism sounds hollow if divorced from his unequivocal commitment to religious harmony. A holographic or granite statue will instill not suffice; rather a statue should be installed inside Parliament house complex. At least the protesting MP’s, who usually squat below the mahatma’s statue, will have an alternative.

I  conclude  this  post  with a quote of  what  he  said  about  himself, and leave  it  to  the  readers  to  judge.

Friends, I do not know if you will consider me to be Utopian in my theories or if you will dub me a visionary. But I shall plead guilty if I am accused of being a dreamer and I love my dreams. These dreams are to me as real as the workaday world is to the man in the street. From my dreams I derive inspiration and motive power. Without these dreams I can hardly live for life will lose its meaning and its charm. The dream that I love is that of a free India; India resplendent in all her power and glory. I want India to be the mistress of her own household and the queen of her own destiny; I want her to be a free republic with her own army, navy, and airforce and her own ambassadors in the capitals of free countries.

The events of the past seven decades, the failure of the two-nation theory based on synthetic identities, the violence and suffering imposed on people due to Partition, the continuing instability, the ensuing struggle and genocide resulting in the formation of Bangladesh and the meltdown of Western countries, to name a few, only confirm the relevance of his vision. These events are the outcome of proven historical blunders, the remnants of imperialism and signals of confusion and conflicts in the future. They have now become grounds for external forces making hostile incursions. As Bose had said, “Special efforts will be needed to keep our people together…because alien rule has demolished and disorganized us…”


By Anil Dhir

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