Octogenarian Krishna Bose’s voice is low but clear as she speaks of what, according to her, is Subhas Chandra Bose’s most important contribution. “He achieved the unity of India. I have heard officers of the Indian National Army (INA, the regiment founded by Bose to free India of British rule) recall how as a part of the INA they thought of themselves as Indians first. That is an especially important lesson today,” she says. We are sitting in a conference room in what used to be Netaji’s home in Calcutta’s Elgin Road and is today a museum dedicated to him. Outside is parked the car that Krishna’s late husband, Sisir Kumar Bose, the INA leader’s nephew, used in 1941 to whisk him away from under British surveillance and possible arrest in Calcutta. Netaji was driven to his brother’s house in Dhanbad and then to Gomoh, from where he made his way out of India, never to return.
It is ironic then, that a man who in his lifetime was a champion of unity should, in death, create such a division of opinion not only among his family members, but even among scholars and his countrymen. The news of Bose’s death following a plane crash in Taipei came in August 1945, soon after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In later years, former INA officer Habibur Rehman, who was with Netaji at the time of the crash, spoke of the leader’s last hours. There have been at least three commissions of enquiry formed to investigate his death, and a majority of those in the panel believed him dead. But the enquiries have done little to dent the faith of those who have refused to believe the crash happened. While some insisted that he continued to live in Russia, others sought him in godman Shoulamarir Sadhu, or Gumnami Baba, a recluse who lived in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh.
“I think I was the last or one of the last people to interview survivors of the plane crash in 1979, in the presence of Netaji’s daughter Anita who was there to attend a conference. I also interviewed Dr Yoshimi, who treated Netaji for the burns he received in the crash and witnessed his death, as well as several others who were involved in taking the ashes from the crematorium there to Japan. I am convinced that Netaji died from burns sustained in the crash even though there are no photographs or a surviving death certificate,” says Leonard Gordon, the author of two books on the leader. His stand was challenged by Netaji researcher Purabi Roy, who insists that Bose continued to live in Russia. “There are accounts of him having gone to Russia as Orlando Mazzota, the name he used in his passport during his foreign travels. I believe he lived there till his death sometime in the late 1950s,” she says.
DEMAND FOR DISCLOSURE
For years now, family members, scholars and Bose loyalists who refused to believe he died in the plane crash have pinned their hopes on a set of classified files available with the West Bengal and central governments. These would, they believed, bear out their theories on the leader’s whereabouts and also shed more light on his strategies and philosophies. Last week, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee declassified a set of 64 files available with the state. Following her move, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on Mann Ki Baat on September 20 that he would meet members of the Bose family in October.
In an email interview from Europe, where she is based, Netaji’s daughter, Anita Bose Pfaff, writes of her mother Emilie Schenkl’s hopes in the initial years. “At first my mother was devastated when she learned about my father’s death. If she had not had the responsibility for me as a very young child, she might have committed suicide. Gradually she began hoping that once again he may have just managed to disappear. Especially since my uncle Sarat Chandra Bose also kept hoping she was reinforced in this attitude. But as my father did not reappear, even after India became independent, she gradually gave up hope,” she writes.
While she does want all old files to be declassified, “There should be interesting details to corroborate or contradict previous informations from other sources,” Pfaff doubts “that the files will reveal anything spectacular about his death to interest ‘the man in the street’”. According to media reports, the 64 files declassified by the Mamata Banerjee government have added little to existing knowledge of the leader’s life. But that hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm of the extended Bose family in India, who believe that with Modi’s radio announcement, they are on the brink of making fresh discoveries about the best-known and most revered member of their family.
Most of the 50 scheduled to meet Modi in October have no first-hand knowledge of Subash Chandra Bose. The handful - nieces and nephews of the former leader - who came in contact with him, were children when Netaji made his great escape. Now mostly in their eighties, their memories are beginning to blur around the edges like fading black and white images from an old family album. Family anecdotes though have been passed down the generations, and often, the ones who haven’t seen him narrate the stories better, as if drawing comfort from that borrowed closeness.
Dressed in a blue kurta and churidar, 54-year-old Chandra Kumar Bose has a strong physical resemblance to Netaji. His eyes shine as he dons a black cap that he informs you had once belonged to the leader. “It was given to me by my late father Amiya Nath Bose. I also have his glasses. Among all his nephews, my father, Amiya, was closest to Netaji. He used to sleep in his room,” says Chandra with obvious pride as he rattles of Netaji’s achievements.
If Chandra’s stories revolve more around the leader’s political achievements, some like former member of parliament Subrata Bose remember him as a doting uncle. “My father, Sarat Bose, had a house in Kurseong. Uncle would visit us often when we were there. Once while he was playing with us, he fell and cut his hand. A small piece of flesh had come loose. He asked my mother for a pair of scissors and a candle, sterilised the scissors, cut of the flesh that was hanging loose, dressed and bandaged the wound, then started playing with us again,” says Subrata, as his daughter Sreeya adds, “Every year on Dussehra, he would write separate letters to each of his nephews and nieces.”
Her aunt, Sarat Bose’s daughter and Netaji’s niece, 84-year-old Chitra Ghosh has an interesting story to tell of the days after the leader’s escape from Elgin Road. “He had made his escape dressed as a Muslim gentleman. The outfit he wore had been bought from Wachel Molla’s departmental store in Calcutta. However, he found the shoes uncomfortable and wore one of his usual pair. When news of him being missing was finally revealed, the police came to question everyone. The servants were asked if anything was missing from the house. One of the servants did mention that he couldn’t find a pair of shoes, but the police didn’t take him seriously,” she says with a laugh.
Her sister’s son Abhijit remembers his mother’s account of her last meeting with the leader. “My mother Mira was the eldest daughter of Sarat Bose. My parents were living in UP at the time. My mother was visiting her parents in December when she saw her Rangakakababu, as Bose was called by his nephews and nieces, sporting a beard. She didn’t like it and joked that she would cut it off while he was sleeping,” he says. Another grand-nephew, Samiran, the grandson of Bose’s brother Suresh, speaks of how his uncle Aurobindo and aunt Ila, along with their cousin Dijen hid in Netaji’s room at the Elgin Road house and ate the food that was sent to him till the time that the rest of the family and public were told of his absence.
Though surviving members of the extended Bose clan speak of the leader having believed that his family was coterminous with his country, and not claiming a special relationship with him based on the accident of birth, one gets the feeling of a keen contest within to appear as the leader’s favourite.
A FAMILY DIVIDED
“We called Emilie Omama because Anita did,” says one, as the listener wonders whether it is affection or an attempt at familiarity. The demand for the declassification of the files and the refusal to believe in his death in the crash seem as much fuelled by family belief as the need to appear loyal to Netaji. Those unwilling to buy the plane crash theory see the faction of Krishna Bose and her son Sugata, who have accepted his death in the crash as conclusive, as ‘traitors’, a term used by Chandra for his cousin Sugata. Krishna, on the other hand, feels that the speculations surrounding his death have denied Netaji the status of a martyr. The next generation, though, is largely untouched by the controversies. “My son is working for the best part of the day. He knows I am working to have the files declassified, but he can’t actively participate,” says Abhijit.
What is above the debate surrounding the when and how of Bose’s death/disappearance is the respect and popularity that he continues to command. As his grand nephew Sugata writes in his book His Majesty’s Opponent, “All those who see themselves as fighting for freedom - political, social and economic - claim his mantle…”. It is this popularity that has drawn not only family and researchers, but many among the masses to the Police Museum in Kolkata’s Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy Road, where the declassified files are on display inside glass-topped counters. Computers in an adjoining room allow visitors to peruse the soft copies of the files. The contents vary from information on family members, the family’s correspondence, and that of INA personalities. In keeping with Netaji’s spirit of a fighter perhaps , the register where visitors have to sign their names has column heads referring to ‘number of muskets used’ and ‘ammunition’, rather than plain, old, ‘name’ and ‘contacts’. Or perhaps we are reading too much into the department’s attempt to recycle an old register!