Not for your eyes: Govt holds on to Netaji death documents

  • Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Apr 10, 2015 12:40 IST

The BJP’s refusal to declassify documents related to Netaji Subhas Bose’s death is mystifying. We deserve explanations.

In late November the government rejected an application filed under the Right To Information Act (RTI) seeking access to documents pertaining to the death of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. The release of these documents, the government said, would adversely affect our relations with foreign countries.

At one level, this refusal should have come as no surprise. The UPA had also refused to release these papers on similar grounds. So the BJP was merely upholding an administrative position of long standing. But there was a problem: Throughout its time in Opposition the BJP attacked the UPA for not making the documents public. And Rajnath Singh even assured the country that a future BJP government would release the papers.

So, what explains this about turn? Why has the BJP changed its mind? And what do the documents contain that is so sensitive that it would damage our relations with other countries?

For Indian conspiracy buffs, the disappearance/death of Netaji is our equivalent of the assassination of John F Kennedy. Just as conspiracy theories continue to swirl around JFK’s death, there has always been disquiet in India over the official version of Netaji’s death. And with each passing year, the number of conspiracy theories grows.

The official version is that after the defeat of Japan in World War II, Netaji, whose Indian National Army (INA) had fought alongside the Japanese, sought safe haven elsewhere in the world. As part of this journey, Netaji flew out from Formosa (now Taiwan) on August 18, 1945. The plane broke into two while taking off and Netaji was badly burnt in the crash. He died a few hours later in a local hospital and his body was cremated within two days. His ashes were taken to Tokyo and handed over to the Renkoji Temple where they remain to this day.

While the Japanese swore that this version was accurate, offering up witnesses such as the attending doctors and nurses, it was greeted with some scepticism by Netaji’s followers. The British Raj commissioned an intelligence officer named John Figgess to investigate the death and after interviewing witnesses he confirmed the Japanese version of events. But though the Figgess report should have set the matter to rest, Netaji’s followers were not convinced.

During the later part of the freedom struggle, Bose’s approach (aligning with Britain’s enemies in World War II) had not found favour with Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru or Sardar Patel. So many of Bose’s supporters continued to believe that their leader was alive and would return to challenge the Congress triumvirate.

But if Bose was indeed alive and the Japanese were lying about the crash, then where exactly was he hiding and why?

Over the years, several different answers to these questions have been provided. The first was that he was in self-imposed exile and would re-appear at the right time. When he did not turn up, a second version developed: He had secretly returned to India and become a sadhu, a baba or a saint. Various sightings (including one at Jawaharlal Nehru’s funeral) were reported and though most were revealed to be mistaken, the Netaji-as-baba theory remains current, even popping up in a report commissioned by the NDA government.

But why would the martial-minded Netaji become a baba? Why would he not reveal himself to his family and followers? Why would he lie about his true identity?

Because there were no satisfactory answers to these questions and because, even if Netaji did survive the crash, he would almost certainly be dead by now, a new set of theories has emerged over the last decade.

In these accounts, Netaji went off to Russia to seek safe haven (contemporary accounts say he had considered this) and that the Japanese invented the plane crash story to keep the Allies from looking for him and lied to the British investigators. (This is just about plausible).

But what happened next? Well, here the theories diverge. Perhaps Stalin bumped him off. Perhaps he ended up in a gulag where he died eventually. Or (and this is the bit that gets Sanghi conspiracy theorists really excited), the Soviets did a deal with Jawaharlal Nehru to keep him in jail or kill him so that he could not return to India and upset the Congress apple-cart. In some versions of the story, Netaji was carrying steel boxes full of treasure which the Soviets and the Congress stole from him.

It is easy to laugh at these conspiracy theories but some facts are indisputable: Most of Bose’s lieutenants who had accompanied him on his travels were not allowed to get on the plane with him. They never saw a body. No photographs were taken of Bose after the crash. There are no photos of the body. And there is no death certificate. So it is possible to argue that the Japanese faked his death to allow him to escape the advancing British army.

Various Indian governments have attempted to put the mystery to rest and three different commissions have been appointed. But none of their reports (one of which was later rejected by the UPA government) did anything to stop the speculation — just as the many reports into the JFK assassination have been ignored by conspiracy buffs.

It was believed that if the government declassified the secret documents, it might help in establishing the truth once and for all. The BJP’s reversal of its earlier stand is, therefore, all the more mystifying. Nor does the reason offered (adversely affect relations with foreign countries) make any sense. Even if Stalin imprisoned or killed Netaji, the present Soviet regime is hardly likely to be held responsible. Nor would we blame today’s Japanese government for the actions of the World War II regime.

So why hide the papers? Why keep the conspiracy theories alive? And why deny India the truth about the death of one of its great freedom fighters?

We deserve some explanations.

The views expressed by the author are personal

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