Who of our generation does not remember Subhas Chandra Bose, the intrepid Netaji? In fact Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s imposing framed photo hangs proudly in the homes of thousands of Mauritians along with those of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and other prominent stalwarts of the Indian Independence movement. Those were the days when the calls of patriotism and Swaraj and reverberated in Mauritius and elsewhere among overseas Indians. Children were named after Netaji too.
For present-day Mauritians, Subhas Chandra Bose may be a vague name. It is good to recall that Subhas Chandra Bose, affectionately known as Netaji (the Leader), was described as “a patriot of patriots” by no less a person than Mahatma Gandhi. He was one of the greatest and fearless freedom fighters of India’s independence struggle. With every birthday or death anniversary of the great icon of patriotism, wild controversies rage for days on in the media in India. And political parties, succeeding governments of bygone days as well as the contemporary authorities grapple with the contentious saga of Netaji’s death or mysterious disappearance. No doubt, the fate of Netaji remains one of the thorniest “unresolved political mysteries” of our time.
The present BJP government too has not been insensitive to the persistent and raging controversy. In its issue of 10 April 2015, India Today in its lead story unearthed the news that the Bose family in Kolkata underwent a “discrete but rigorous” surveillance for twenty years by the Indian Intelligence Bureau. Prime Minister Modi made a prime move in October 2015 to meet with the Bose family members to put an end to this contentious issue. He announced to the family that all the files pertaining to Netaji would be declassified. In fact, on 23 January 2016, on the occasion of his 119th birth anniversary, the Indian PM pressed a button at the National Archives in New Delhi to release 100 classified files of Subhas Chandra Bose containing over 15,000 pages.
Mystery around Netaji’s death
The mystery around Netaji’s death has raged on for over 70 years and hangs on as a thick cloud over Indian society. It is believed that Subhas Chandra Bose died in a Japanese bomber aircraft crash. Flying from Singapore to Bangkok, Netaji’s plane lands at Saigon. He boards another aircraft and the plane lands at Taipei for refuelling prior to taking off for Japanese-occupied Manchuria. The engine failed soon after take-off on 18 August 1945. It is believed that the plane crashed from an altitude of 40 metres. The crew was killed instantly. But Netaji and his aide Habibur Rahman survived. However, they suffered grave third degree burns and died six hours later in a military hospital in Taiwan then known as Formosa. It is said that his body was cremated in Taiwan and the remains were flown to Japan and placed in the Renkoji Temple in Tokyo by the Indian Embassy.
The Bose family is insistent. The government should get the remains back to India and have DNA tests conducted. The myth of Bose being still alive has persisted to this day with great passion in India and abroad. Some people are of opinion that he lives in Germany. Others believe that he escaped and moved to India – disguised and living as a mendicant the “Gumnami Baba”.
As early as 1956 enquiries were set up, the first one known as the Shah Nawaz Committee. It established that Netaji died in the plane crash from deep burn injuries. Other inquiries were ordered by the Indian government, for example one led by Justice Gopal Das Khosla in 1970. Another inquiry, led by Justice Mukherjee in 2000, came to the conclusion that there was no plane crash in Taiwan. It asserted that Netaji faked death to escape, and that the remains in Renkoji temple are those of a Japanese soldier. However the then government rejected those findings.
Whereas the Shah Nawaz findings were accepted by the then government, they met with the public’s displeasure and the rejection by the Bose family. Justice Khosla’s findings was rejected by the Janata government in 1977.
Anita Bose, Netaji’s daughter – an economist, aged 73 and based in Germany – states to Sandeep Unnithan of India Today (8 February 2016): “You can present any amount of proof but certain people will not believe it. All the available evidence point to the fact that my father survived for a few hours after the crash.” And hence the furore to this day.
Who was Netaji?
Netaji fought for the independence of India with fervour, passion, valour and devotion. However, though he had great affection and respect for Mahatma Gandhi, he differed about the means to achieve the end. He was a buoyant militant and military activist as against Gandhiji’s non-violent, Ahimsa option. Whereas Gandhiji saw in the ‘Charkha’, the village industries, the answer to solve the problem of economic distress of the small man, Subhas Chandra Bose favoured industrialisation.
Netaji was extremely brilliant. Right from his childhood he showed signs of leadership. He was the son of a leading lawyer in Cuttack, Orissa, then part of the Presidency of Oudh, Bihar, Bengal and Orissa under British Raj. As a boy, he was immensely influenced by the writings, letters and teachings of Swami Vivekananda. He studied at Ravenshaw College in Cuttack and proceeded to Cambridge University. In 1920, he brilliantly passed the Indian Civil Service Examinations. But he resigned soon after and proceeded to India and joined Gandhiji’s non-cooperation movement and the Indian National Congress. Gandhiji advised him to work in Bengal under CR Das, Indian politician and founder of Swaraj Party.
As a fiery and prominent youth leader and journalist, he agitated and conducted political training sessions for the youths, which led to his imprisonment in 1921. On his release, he joined the Swaraj Party of Das and was appointed the CEO of the Corporation of Calcutta. But his youthful and restless energies were viewed suspiciously by the British and he was deported to Burma. He was suspected of having links with underground movements intent on toppling the British. On his release from jail, Gandhiji resumed his Congress activities, whereupon Subhas Chandra Bose was elected President of the Bengal branch of Congress. He was made general officer commanding the Indian National Congress volunteers. His imposing figure, discipline and undaunted spirit inspired and inflamed young blood in having a national militia.
Subhas Chandra Bose was the first one to move a resolution at a meeting of the Indian National Congress in 1928 in favour of India’s Independence but that initiative did not meet with much support. At the 1929 session, however, it was Gandhiji who sponsored the Independence Resolution with overwhelming support. Netaji was again arrested and jailed for a year in 1930. Nonetheless he was allowed to proceed to Europe. In enforced exile, he wrote ‘The Indian Struggle’ (1920-1934). After gathering strategic and tactical experiences about the war in Europe, he came back to India, and was again arrested.
Upon his release, he was elected President of the Indian National Congress in 1938. He founded the Forward Bloc (which name had inspired Sookdeo Bissoondoyal in Mauritius to form his own Independent Forward Bloc – IFB). Suspected of rallying radical elements, Netaji was again imprisoned in July 1940. He threatened to fast unto death. This frightened the British who could not underestimate Netaji’s hold on the masses. He was thus released.
He then decided to escape stealthily from his home as other plans to liberate India were brewing in his mind. He left for Germany. There he raised a huge body of Indian volunteers. However, it should be noted that Netaji had a strong dislike for Hitler and Nazism.
Trip from Europe to Far East in a Submarine
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and the seizure of Singapore incited him to come back to the Far East to base his operations for the liberation of India. He made a three months’ trip full of hazards in a German submarine and reached Penang off the West Coast of Malaya (now Malaysia). He then flew to Tokyo. He joined forces with the Japanese army to liberate India from the British. His plan was to obtain the freedom of British Indian soldiers of the British Indian Army held in captivity by the Japanese. These liberated soldiers then joined Netaji to form the Indian National Army. Other Indians from Singapore and South East Asia joined his army in a great fervour of patriotism. “Jai Hind” was the clarion call. He formed three contingents of trained army personnel, each 10,000 strong and supported by 20,000 volunteers. In October 1943 he proclaimed the setting up of an Independent Indian Government in exile from Singapore known as “Azad Hind Government”. The INA’s theme song “Kadam Kadam badhaye ja, khushi ke geet gayeja, ye zindagi he kaum ki kaum pe lootaye ja”, still reverberates in the memory of many here too.
The Indian National Army moved to Rangoon and over to the subcontinent of India. But without sustained Japanese air support, it was defeated at Kohima in North Eastern India. Defeat, however, did not deter him. He plodded on till his fateful crash on that ill-fated day of August 18, 1945.
Netaji has remained an icon of bravery and patriotism for Indians all over the world. At the news of his death, nobody would take it. It was widely believed he must have disappeared again on one of his mysterious escapades. Thus the mystery shrouding Subhas Chandra Bose lives on.
Netaji has contributed largely to the movement that led to the Indian Independence by his revolutionary ardour. No wonder besides the endearing title of Netaji, he was also known as the “The Springing Tiger” with his reckless courage, enthusiasm and prowess.
* Published in print edition on 12 February 2016