The Netaji that Hindutva wants you to forget
Had Bose been alive in 1947, and, by some quirk of fate, had he, and not Nehru, been the PM, he too would have begun by praising Mahatma Gandhi. He too would have insisted that it was “wrong to suggest that in this country there would be the rule of a particular religion or sect”.Updated: Aug 24, 2019 21:37 IST
Church Street, in central Bengaluru, has five fabulous second-hand bookstores. In one of these stores, I recently picked up a book I had never heard of before, about a historical figure I knew a great deal about. Called Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: A Malaysian Perspective, the book was published by the Netaji Centre, Kuala Lumpur, in 1992. It sought “to focus on the role of the thousands of Indians resident in Malaya and Singapore who gave unstinted support to Netaji in his pursuit of Indian independence”.
I brought the book home and read it, fascinated by its contents. Its pages were pervaded with the spirit of interfaith solidarity. The contributors, all former Indian National Army (INA) soldiers, included Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians, this diversity in keeping with the fact that Bose’s army hoped to be truly Indian. For, as one essay points out, “an outstanding feature of life during the INA years was the spirit of unity among the various groups of the Indian community. The fervour for liberation transcended all barriers of language, religion and caste, as never before”.
A second theme in this obscure book is the importance to Netaji of gender equality. As Colonel Prem Sahgal writes, Bose “decided, much against the wishes of the Japanese and some conservative Indians, on the formation of a women’s corps named Rani of Jhansi Regiment”. This regiment was headed by Sahgal’s own future wife, the celebrated doctor-soldier, Captain Lakshmi.
A third theme is the deep admiration of many INA soldiers for Mahatma Gandhi. “During my early childhood in India”, writes one former soldier, “I saw the spirit of nationalism sweeping through every corner of the nation under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi”. Another notes: “No Indian, other than Mahatma Gandhi, had such a mesmeric hold on the Indian mind [in Malaya] as Netaji”. One contributor even carries the splendid name, M Gandhi Nathan.
Hindutva ideologues have fostered a posthumous rivalry between Subhas Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru. In fact, as Rudrangshu Mukherjee shows in his book on the two men, despite their disagreements on the question of violence, and on who was more evil — the British or the Japanese — on the central themes of interfaith harmony, gender equality, and admiration for Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Bose stood absolutely shoulder-to-shoulder. Notably, Netaji named the brigades of the INA after Gandhi, Maulana Azad, and Nehru himself.
Ideologues have spread lies that Nehru and his Congress government did nothing to honour Bose or his memory. In fact, as the declassified records of the National Archives show, after Bose’s death, Nehru’s government financially supported his widow for many years. In this book that I found in Bengaluru, there is a charming essay on the visit to India of Netaji’s daughter. It begins: “In February 1961, an 18-year-old of Indo-German parentage was accorded a VIP treatment by India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, although the girl was considered to be on a private visit. During her tour of many Indian States she was the guest of the respective Governors. Many receptions were held in her honour …. She was Anita Bose, daughter of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Emile Schenkl”.
Another fact that will irritate Hindutvawadis concerns Bose’s linguistic preferences. Bangla was of course his first language, but as a certain KR Das writes here, “I noticed Netaji spoke Urdu better than English. He used simple sentences constructed beautifully and delivered with such artistry that those who knew Urdu were electrified”.
This book also reveals that the major funders of the INA were businessmen who were Muslim by faith. One was a wealthy trader in Persian carpets named Amir Mohammed Khan. His patriotism ran so deep that not only did he lavishly fund the INA coffers, he also sent his eldest son, Wazir Khan, to fight on the Indo-Burma battlefront.
Subhas Bose died in 1945. Two years later, India became independent. When Nehru delivered his first speech as prime minister from the Red Fort, he began by praising their common mentor: “The country has achieved freedom under the brilliant leadership and guidance of Mahatma Gandhi. Our technique of fighting was different from that of other countries. Sometimes we had faltered and stumbled but finally we reached our goal. If credit is due to any man today it is to Gandhiji”.
Nehru continued: “On this day we must remember those who have made sacrifices and suffered for the cause of independence. It is needless for me to name all of them, but I cannot help mentioning Subhas Chandra Bose who left this country and formed the Indian National Army abroad and fought bravely for the freedom of the country. He hoisted this flag in foreign countries and when the day came for hoisting it on the Red Fort, he was not to see his dream fulfilled. This should have been the day of his return, but alas he is no longer in this world.”
After praising the soon-to-be-martyred Gandhi and the already deceased Bose, the new PM stated: “The first charge of the government will be to establish and maintain peace and tranquillity in the land and to ruthlessly suppress communal strife, for no government worth the name can look on while law-abiding citizens are leading a precarious life; while dealing with lawlessness there can be no discrimination. It is wrong to suggest that in this country there would be the rule of a particular religion or sect. All who owe allegiance to the flag will enjoy equal rights of citizenship, irrespective of caste or creed”.
Had Bose been alive in 1947, and, by some quirk of fate, had he, and not Nehru, been the PM, he too would have begun by praising Mahatma Gandhi. He too would have insisted that it was “wrong to suggest that in this country there would be the rule of a particular religion or sect”. Such was the Netaji whom Hindutva would like us to forget.
Ramachandra Guha is the author of Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World
The views expressed are personal