Subhash Chandra Bose’s hold on the Bengali imagination has been of a rather enduring kind. A large section of the generation of Bengalis of his times truly believed that he was the man who could deliver the goods. And the goods were of course independence for India.
That Bose had gone off to Germany and then Japan in serch of Axis support for his campaign against the British colonial power seems to have had little impact on this generation for the simple reason that, in its view, Bose was the only political figure in India bold enough to take on the colonial government at that time.
The level of support, followed by the devotion which Bose inspired among Bengalis, came through clearly following the tragedy of the plane crash which reportedly led to his death in Taipei on 18 August 1945. Many Bengalis, Hindu as well as Muslim, were for years unwilling to believe that Bose had indeed died and were drawn to the more romantic thought of the former Congress politician-turned-Indian National Army leader having escaped in order to launch afresh his military campaign against the British. That of course did not happen.
New Pecreptions about Bose
And when it did not, new perceptions about Bose cropped up, particularly the belief that he did not die in the plane crash, that indeed he had been spirited away somewhere by the government with perhaps the concurrence of the Congress leadership at the time. Again, the bizarre thought that following the collapse of his mission in 1945 he escaped to the Soviet Union has also been doing the rounds. The ‘suspicion’ has grown increasingly, thanks to a plethora of books, written generally by Bengalis, on Bose that in Moscow he was detained by the Soviets on Joseph Stalin’s instructions, either in the hope that he would be installed in power in Delhi at an opportune time or because the Kremlin wished to have him get his comeuppance for his collaboration with Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tojo.
Reverence for Bose has gone beyond the generational. The children of the Bengalis who eulogised Bose in the 1940s and through the 1950s have remained awed by the life and career of the man. In both Bangladesh and West Bengal, the conviction has persisted that with Bose alive the history of India would have been different. Such sentiments are similar to those held about C.R. Das, about whom it has been said that had he not died in 1925, the shape of politics in India would be far removed, in that positive sense of the meaning, from what it eventually turned out to be in the later 1940s.
A Unifying Icon
With Das alive, it has always been maintained, the spectre of communalism which eventually sliced through the country would have died an early death and India would remain a united country based on the all-encompassing principle of secular democracy. It was this similar sentiment that later came to be associated with Bose who, it has been asserted quite vigorously by whole sections of Bengalis on both sides of the divide, would have been the unifying icon for the people of India in their march to independence. When he died, or disappeared, the dream of a united India quickly gave way to a nightmare.
In all this expression of love and devotion towards Subhash Chandra Bose — he is always referred to as Netaji in much the same way that Chittaranjan Das is known as Deshbandhu and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is referred to as Bangabandhu — short shrift is given to the links he established with the Nazis and imperial Japan in his quest for Indian freedom. A simple argument in his defence is proffered: if Bose was unwilling to have British colonialism carry on in India, there was no way he would have condoned Nazi or Japanese domination of a free India despite his alliance with the Axis Powers.
An Uncompromising Bose
His detractors certainly have not had cause to agree with such an assessment and indeed there have been elderly Bengalis, who were children when Bose’s career came to an end in August 1945, who have been dismissive of claims that the two Powers, especially Japan, would have permitted him to administer a free India once they had assisted him in driving the British out. The very record of Japanese atrocities in China and Korea, they pertinently point out, would have precluded any possibility of a truly free India governed by Subhash Chandra Bose.
But, again, the endless legions of Bose admirers are quick to dismiss such misgivings on grounds of the unequivocal positions Bose took with regard to the activities of the Nazis in Europe and the Japanese in Asia. His meeting in Berlin with Hitler did not go well, suggest these admirers, because Bose made it clear to the Fuhrer his disagreement with German policy and also his belief that in seeking German help for India’s freedom he was only asking for an alliance of equality and not a partnership where Berlin would dictate terms to Indians.
Likewise, Bose’s unambiguous statements to his Japanese friends that it would be a wholly Indian force, under Indian leadership that, with Japanese military assistance, would lead the struggle for independence from the British is part of history. There is hardly any reason to suppose, according to this club of Bose adherents, that having emerged on the road to the struggle for freedom Netaji would fall into a new period of repression imposed on him by a new colonial power.
"Sitaramayya's Defeat is My Defeat"
Of course, in more ways than one, judgment on Bose on the part of his fellow Bengalis is often clouded by fanatical admiration. That he did not die, that he had been spirited away, that indeed men like Gandhi and Nehru may have had a role in his end are points that many Bengalis remain willing to voice any time Bose comes up for discussion. Reference is endlessly made to the manner in which Gandhi created a distance between himself and Bose once the latter had been re-elected president of the Indian National Congress in 1939 through defeating Pattabhi Sitaramayya, Gandhi’s chosen candidate.
Gandhi’s indiscreet remark, “Sitaramayya’s defeat is my defeat”, has always rankled with Bengalis, many of whom have remained convinced that the larger group of politicians, all non-Bengalis, in the Congress were not ready to see a Bengali at the forefront of the anti-colonial struggle. Gandhi perhaps did not see the danger which underpinned his Sitaramayya remarks. But perhaps the bigger pain for Bose was that his friend Jawaharlal Nehru in the end chose to be with Gandhi, making little or no effort to stand up for Bose.
Gandhi’s support for Sitaramayya and Nehru’s reticence in speaking up for Bose, together with the concerted efforts engineered by Gandhi supporters in undermining Bose in the early stages of his second term as Congress President are frequently cited by Bengalis as instances to show that in the Congress scheme of things, pre- or post-1947, there would have been no place for Bose. It was only natural, therefore, for Bose to turn radical, a process which in any case had begun to come into his politics through his long, arduous spells in prison.
Netaji's Two-dimensional Approach in Politics
Bose’s clear position, in the opinion of his admirers, had by the early 1940s become a two-dimensional approach to politics. In the first place, he had convinced himself that nothing short of armed struggle could eject the British from India. In the second, he had gradually come round to the belief that the Congress, especially with the Gandhian commitment to non-violence, could not expect to extract promises of independence from the British. Hence his flight to Europe and then to East Asia to forge and lead a military campaign against the colonial power in India.
The question which has consistently exercised minds on both sides of Bengal relates to whether the INA, with Bose as its leader, truly had any chance of marching on Delhi in the mid-1940s. For nearly every Bengali, the answer comes with a qualification: had the Japanese not begun to slide in their war against the Allied Powers, Bose would easily have made a triumphant entry into India, his first stop being Bengal. He had gone through all the preparations related to his plans of securing India from the colonial power.
The briskness with which he went into reinventing the INA, which had seen its troop numbers fall to about 12,000 in late 1942 — and that was before Bose was anointed as the new voice of the Indian struggle by Rash Behari Bose —resulted in the numbers rising to as many as 40,000 and more. The imprint on such developments was Subhash Chandra Bose’s, for he was now in his new avatar as a military commander. He donned a military uniform and went into a regular programme of inspecting his troops along with delivering stirring speeches before them on the objectives that lay before them. The British of course saw it as demagoguery on his part, but the truth is that Bose quickly earned the respect and devotion of the men and women who flocked to the INA.
Bose approached the struggle for freedom from a modern perspective, which fundamentally was his belief that his armed movement for independence necessarily had to be a secular enterprise. It is interesting that Bose’s secular military struggle against the British was working out at a time when within India a deepening polarisation was systematically undermining the political movement for independence from British rule.
The All-India Muslim League, having adopted a resolution in Lahore in March 1940 in favour of the setting up of independent states for the Muslims of India in the east and west of the country, remained busy upping the pressure for the fulfilment of its demands. Much though the Congress opposed the League, the feeling gradually developed that Indian independence could in the end be attained only through a division of the country. A year after Bose’s death in August 1945, the riots which left between 5,000 and 10,000 Hindus and Muslims killed in Calcutta were to be the proverbial last nail in the coffin of a united India.
Bose's Secular Military Struggle
Could Bose’s secular military struggle, had it succeeded, have prevented the division of India along communal lines? In hindsight, one could reasonably suggest that that perhaps is the way things could well have turned out. In the INA, the presence of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs clearly pointed to the idealism which underpinned the military struggle against the British. Within the government which Bose formed and led, the strong presence of Muslims underscored the importance of a united, free India Netaji and his followers emphasised in their programme.
In addition to the principle of secularism, Bose was patently of the belief that the struggle necessitated an infusion of the modern in all its aspects. And that modernism he saw in the participation of women in the struggle. The arrival of the young doctor Lakshmi Swaminathan, an activist in the India Independence League, and the subsequent formation of the Rani of Jhansi Brigade as a women’s component of the INA, remain testimony to the India Bose thought needed to arise following the expulsion of the colonial power.
The Bengali imagination has always been peopled with the idea of moral if not political power. But the emergence of Subhash Chandra Bose quite clearly was an improvement on that perception. Here finally was a man, and a Bengali at that, who knew the meaning of power and the means of acquiring it and then employing it against those who had been keeping his country in subjugation. Bengalis in West Bengal and Bangladesh have generally had their complaints regarding the tactics employed by Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru and nearly everyone else on the best means of delivering India from the hands of the British. But where Bose’s strategy is concerned, the general feeling has been one of approval, save of course for some discomfort at Netaji’s connections with the Nazis and imperial Japan.
It is interesting that Bose’s evolution from a politician believing in constitutional politics, a stance he clearly maintained until his departure from the Congress following the rift with Gandhi, to a radical embracing the idea that nothing less than armed struggle could drive out the British is often contrasted with the career of that other fiery Bengali politician, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in neighbouring Bangladesh.
(Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Indian nationalist leader, was born on 23 January 1897 and died or disappeared on 18 August 1945)
About the Author
Syed Badrul Ahsan is the Chief Editorial Adviser of The Confluence; a journalist and author. He previously served as the Press Minister at the High Commission of Bangladesh, London and authored a biography on the Founder of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman entitled From Rebel to Founding Father: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.