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Review: His Majesty’s Opponent

Some great ‘ifs’ of history are like unconsummated loves: they gnaw at the mind, they tantalize, they torment with all the wistfulness of the ‘what might have been’.

books Updated: Apr 11, 2012 05:40 IST

Some great ‘ifs’ of history are like unconsummated loves: they gnaw at the mind, they tantalize, they torment with all the wistfulness of the ‘what might have been’. The lover thwarted, for whatever reason, from his/her passion feels the pain the more acutely for having contracted a union less than fulfilling, a settlement less than satisfactory, a compromise far from contenting. Depending on circumstance, there is always the permanent residue of feeling that he/she has gained only fool’s gold, and that the loss was immeasurably precious, hopelessly irretrievable – and somewhere deeply recessed, a niggle that it might perhaps have been avoided.

In the political history of a nation, especially if that history is a chequered one, such imponderables are often as numerous as they are futile of contemplation. Indeed, most are at best academic. But a few refuse the space allotted to them on the dusty shelves of history: they resolutely demand, even compel active notice long after the stage has been cleared of the props of circumstance. These are the enigmas, the ghosts that refuse to fade away; and like all ghosts that haunt persistently they are the symptom of a tristesse, an unassuaged ache, a dream or desire unfulfilled.

In the vaunted story of India’s independence as scripted by the Congress Party – the mise en scène of the Gandhis, Nehrus and bad boy Jinnahs – the shade of Netaji Subhas stalks like an embarrassment that cannot be wished away, the ghost of Banquo at the table. Disavowal by God (read Gandhi), excommunication, the fortuitous hand of fate in the rebel’s exile, his corporeal annihilation in a land conveniently distant, and six decades of carefully crafted institutional effacement have done little to keep his spirit or his story safely buried.

The latest resurrection – Prof. Sugata Bose’s splendidly researched biography (“His Majesty’s Opponent”) – is by far the most compelling, the most lifelike: and certainly (for this reviewer at least) the first flesh-and-blood sculpture of the legend that was Netaji Subhas.

The beginnings are told with economy: Bose’s birth in Cuttack to a well to do Bengali family, the initial solid foundation of the English language, Latin and the classics (to the inevitable neglect of the mother tongue), his discovery of Vivekananda’s pragmatic, rational and egalitarian Hinduism, the first stirrings of discontent at the country’s enslavement and penury, the gradual shift to radicalism as the means to liberation; the stormy Presidency College years, the falling foul of the Establishment. And then the Scottish Church years where he honed his philosophical and dialectical skills – for, without question, he was the finest of all the brains in that nascent political scene, cutting his teeth on the intellectual rigour of the German masters. Next, a brilliant stint at Cambridge, followed by his spectacular success at the ICS examination (he stood fourth in the list), and his immediate resignation from the coveted heaven-born service against all counsels. For he was clear in his mind that he would be no part of an instrument of colonial endeavour, when his mission was nothing less than its overthrow.

Given the fact that the only unified organization fighting the British at the time was the Congress Party it was inevitable that Bose would join it sooner or later, although he apprenticed himself to Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das rather than to its presiding deity Gandhi. It was just as inevitable that his temperament – an all or nothing intractability – couldn’t quite allow him to spin ‘charkhas’ fatuously and to little practical use: the spinning wheel was hardly a potent weapon (whatever its proponents might delude themselves with) against colonialism, and as far as he was concerned Gandhian non-violence was at best of limited utility; and even this was blunted when Gandhi unaccountably called off his civil disobedience movement.

His tenure in the Congress was accordingly tenuous at best: it was foregone that he would soon part ways with Gandhi, the latter’s protégé Nehru and the other lights of the Party. The (in)famous 1939 Congress Party presidential election – which Bose won handsomely – and its sordid aftermath of machinations by Gandhi and his lieutenants made short work of whatever vestigial illusions he might have had. For it soon became apparent that Gandhi, for all his saintly garb, had taken the defeat of his own candidate as a blow to his ego; and (if it needed spelling out), saw Bose as an alarmingly potent threat to himself and his primacy. Using ‘non-cooperation’ and subtle emotional blackmail with a wiliness that would have done Machiavelli credit Gandhi successfully eased Bose out: and the power vultures heaved a sigh when Bose resigned his presidency. One is tempted to speculate on what might have happened had Bose stood his ground and called Gandhi’s bluff: but Bose was far too transparent, far too noble to sully himself in those impure waters – despite spirited encouragement from an unlikely quarter, viz. Rabindranath Tagore, who had been his constant ally in his radical endeavours.

Bose’s quietly spectacular escape in 1940 from his brother Sarat Bose’s house and out of the country, a fugitive now, wanted for waging war against the King Emperor; and under various disguises, across Afghanistan, Central Asia, Russia and finally to Europe to the chancelleries of Mussolini and Hitler read like something out of John Buchan.

Detractors (both domestic and western) have been quick (and tiresomely repetitive) to pounce on Netaji’s gravitation to the fascist regimes of Europe, and later Japan and hold it up as evidence of his own tendencies. However, Prof. Sugata Bose’s book makes it amply clear that where Netaji was concerned, his primary and supreme goal, viz. the ridding of India of the British justified any means, however dubious. He was prepared to sup with the Devil if the payoff was independence for his country – and for those who cry ‘fascist’, it may be mentioned here that Netaji’s one (telling) comment on Hitler after his meeting with him, made in Bengali, was “boddo paagol” (stark mad). Further, his dissatisfaction with the Hitler regime was sufficiently manifest: the Reich’s ambivalence towards India’s independence and Bose’s plans for achieving it left no room for any illusions, although the Bose charisma certainly elicited the gift of a German submarine to transport him back to the East.

And thus from the hero ascendant to the hero in eclipse. The Japanese alliance, the INA years, were Bose’s greatest trial of will. It was true that thousands flocked to his banner; his soldier’s image, his exemplary leadership, his enviable ability to carry people of every faith and calling, his common touch were irresistibly seductive charms. But it was just as true that hundreds deserted to the same British ranks once forsaken by them – saying much thereby probably for the pull of regimental traditions of old and established armies, to say nothing of fickleness of individual character.

Besides, what Bose failed to realize, doubtless on account of an excess of idealism and revolutionary zeal was the near impossibility of raising a rebel army from scratch. That he succeeded even to the extent that he did was a testimonial to him and the nobility of his cause.

Netaji’s dream of “Chalo Dilli” finally foundered on the shoals of betrayal: betrayal by his people, betrayal by the Japanese (although many in the exalted ranks of the Imperial Japanese Army held him in great regard), and in the last analysis, betrayal by his compatriots at home.

Prof. Bose’s book is scrupulously objective, and it is evident that he took more than ordinary pains to ensure this: after all, he was family, and emotionally close to the subject, being Netaji’s grand-nephew. It would be well to bear th

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