The patriot who will never die
By Ronojoy Sen
There are few Indian icons around whom there is such a vivid mythology and “life-after-life” as one biographer put it, as Netaji Subhas Bose. Leonard Gordon, who has written one of the standard biographies of Bose, noted in 1990 that Netaji’s story had “begun to resemble that of an Indian deity”. Not much has changed in 2021, the 125th birth anniversary of Bose.
As West Bengal heads to elections this year, Netaji’s legacy is once again up for grabs. The central government has announced that Netaji’s birth anniversary will be celebrated as Parakram Diwas. It has also set up a committee to plan year-long anniversary programmes. The Trinamool Congress has countered this by saying that the day should be remembered as Desh Prem Diwas. It has also pointed out that West Bengal celebrates Bose’s birthday every year as Subhas Diwas and that their plea that his birthday be declared a national holiday has found no takers.
Thus, Netaji is well and truly alive in Bengal politics and the people’s minds. While the current claims and counter claims over Bose is geared toward electoral gains, his memory endures because of the many what-ifs associated with him. That is why Gopalkrishna Gandhi suggests that Bose continues to be popular since he serves as an “alter ego to the nation’s power structure”.
Part of the continuing fascination with Bose is the attraction of the rebel. His dramatic escape from house arrest in Calcutta in 1941 and arrival in Berlin is the stuff of myth. Bose’s subsequent setting up of the Indian National Army and his alliance with the Japanese is also well known. What is less known is that Netaji was a maverick since his early days. He was not only expelled from the elite Presidency College, he also spurned, in 1921, the dream job of any self-respecting Bengali — a chance to become part of the Indian Civil Service. This non-conformism would surface at different phases of Netaji’s tumultuous political career.
A strong reason for Bose’s appeal is that, as historian Sugata Bose puts it, Netaji’s legend “cuts across religious, linguistic, and national boundaries.” Yet another cause for Bose’s popularity is the belief he was a strongman, who could have steered the nationalist movement and independent India in a different direction from Jawaharlal Nehru.
Netaji’s mysterious death in an air crash in Taiwan in August 1945 and the clutch of conspiracy theories around it have also fuelled the myths around Bose. Everybody loves a good conspiracy, especially those surrounding a sudden or violent death. In the case of Netaji, his antagonism to mainstream nationalist politics and his links with fascists made him a particularly apposite candidate for conspiracy theories.
Sugata Bose, who is also a grandnephew of Netaji, notes that an overwhelming majority of Netaji’s closest associates believed that he had died in the crash. However, since 1946, there began ‘’sightings’’ of Netaji in different locations. Perhaps the first such ‘’sighting’’ was recorded in 1946 when a certain KSM Swamy claimed to have met Netaji in a third-class compartment of the Bombay Express. Since then Netaji spotting became a cottage industry. One of the better known of these theories was the discovery that Netaji had resurfaced as a Hindu ascetic — Gumnami Baba — in Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh. Indeed, there were several Hindu sadhus who had been linked to Netaji at various times.
An organisation called the Subhasbadi Janata kept these stories in circulation through pamphlets, newspapers and weekly meetings. At the same time, there were rumours of Netaji having shown up in Russia or China. The Netaji sightings peaked in the 1960s when there was a general disillusionment with politics of the day.
These rumours might have died down had not the Indian State stepped in and set up a commission to investigate the death of Bose. This had the effect of legitimising, in a sense, the conspiracy theories. The first was the Netaji Inquiry Committee, set up in 1956, consisting of a former comrade of Netaji, Shah Nawaz Khan, an elder brother of Netaji, Suresh Bose, and a government officer. The committee went through the evidence, including interviewing the Japanese doctor who treated Netaji after the crash, and found that Netaji had died in 1945. Its findings were, however, undermined by the dissent of Suresh Bose who stated that Netaji was still alive.
In 1970, another inquiry commission headed by Justice G.D. Khosla was instituted. There was some remarkable testimony before the panel: A bank official from Sholapur claimed that he received direct messages from Netaji by tuning his body like a radio. The Khosla report, like the earlier commission, concluded that Netaji had indeed died in the crash.
A one-man commission, headed by a retired high court judge, Manoj Mukherjee, was the third such body to look into the Netaji mystery. After six years of hearings, Mukherjee concluded in 2006 that the air crash that killed Bose had not happened. It did so on the flimsy basis that the government of Taiwan did not have records of the crash. Sugata Bose has a simple explanation for this, pointing out that Taiwan had then been under Japanese occupation. He adds that the Mukherjee Commission “made no distinction between the highly probable and the utterly impossible.” However, the Mukherjee Commission, as well another one headed by Justice Vishnu Sahay, found no credible evidence that Gumnami Baba was Bose.
But this too has not stopped the conspiracy theories. In 2019, a Bengali feature film titled, Gumnaami, directed by Srijit Mukherjee lent credence to the theory that Gumnami Baba might indeed have been Netaji in disguise. The same year, a book titled Conundrum peddled the same theory. While several descendants of Bose publicly voiced their disapproval of the film, Mukherjee stated he was merely putting before the pubic different theories about Netaji’s “disappearance” in 1945.
Ronojoy Sen is Senior Research Fellow, ISAS & SASP, National University of Singapore. The views expressed are personal