Netaji: Great Bengali, proud Indian, supreme patriot

In an era of historical distortions or frequent misreadings of history, the resolve of Indians to keep Netaji on a high pedestal is remarkable

Syed Badrul AhsanSyed Badrul Ahsan
Published : 22 Jan 2023, 10:12 PM
Updated : 22 Jan 2023, 10:12 PM

Seventy-seven years after his death or disappearance, in the corporeal sense of the meaning, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose continues to exert tremendous influence on Bengali lives. It is therefore only natural that we go back to him and try to understand the man and the politics he represented before he vanished for all time. And that word ‘vanished’ is at the core of much of our research on Netaji, for there are many of us who remain convinced that he did not die in August 1945 but may have been spirited away somewhere.

Over the decades, students of the Netaji mystique have propagated the notion that he was abducted and taken away to Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union -- because of his unforgivable dealings with the likes of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo -- and never returned. There have been writers who have quoted people in the know about the reported plane crash in Taipei as suggesting that on the day in question, nothing in the nature of a plane coming down or burning up in flames occurred.

The mystery behind Netaji’s disappearance has therefore never been resolved. The generation of Bengalis, born in the 1920s and which worshipped him without question, did not believe that he died in 1945. Various ideas were bandied about --- that he had walked away from the scene when the inevitability of failure in the struggle against British rule stared him in the face, that he had quietly moved off into seclusion in a remote part of India and lived out what remained of his life there, that he had been spirited away by enemies unwilling to see him re-establish a foothold in Indian politics.

In May 1964, as people filed past Jawaharlal Nehru’s body to pay respects to him, newspapers reported the presence of a saffron-clad sadhu who came and stood quietly before the recently deceased prime minister’s corpse for a while before disappearing into the crowds. He bore something of an uncanny resemblance to Netaji, which fact led the media to have the image of the man published in the newspapers and ask the natural question: Could he have been Subhas Chandra Bose? No one saw the mysterious visitor again once he had walked away from Nehru’s bier.

In the more than seven decades since August 1945, a veritable library of works on Netaji’s life, politics and death/disappearance has come up in India, which works have of course drawn passionate responses, especially from Bengalis around the world. Among the more significant works on Netaji is Sugata Bose’s detailed His Majesty’s Opponent and Leonard Gordon’s Brothers Against the Raj, the latter a compendium of the struggle against British colonial rule by Subhas and Sarat Chandra Bose. Add to that the fairly recent Nehru and Bose: Parallel Lives by Rudrangshu Mukherjee.

There are of course scores of others, some extremely emotional in tone and tenor and others dealing with the fraught relations Netaji had with both Gandhi and Nehru. To the credit of Indian historians and political leaders, though, Subhas Chandra Bose’s place in Indian history has never been questioned. Nothing has ever been done to airbrush him out of history on the ground that he solicited German and Japanese support in his war against British colonialism. In an era of historical distortions or frequent misreadings of history, the resolve of Indians to keep Netaji on a high pedestal is remarkable.

Subhas Chandra Bose is today part of Indian and of course Bengali folklore. That the Indian national flag owes its original form to Netaji is remembered. Recalled too is his contribution to the choice of Rabindranath Tagore’s jana gana mana as independent India’s national anthem. Netaji’s sufferings, which were to a higher degree than the pains gone through by other Indian leaders at the hands of the Raj, have made a legend of the man. His principles were clear and unalloyed by convenience. At a time when any other politician would have heeded Gandhi’s advice to stay away from seeking a second term as president of the Indian National Congress, in the late 1930s, Bose went ahead to defeat the Mahatma’s man Pattabhi Sitaramaiya and reassert his appeal among Congressmen.

It is of course another matter that Gandhi was peeved at Netaji’s victory. It remains a huge question as to how Indian history would have evolved had Gandhi not turned his back on Bose. Netaji did not receive the kind of support he thought would be coming from Nehru in his struggle, but of course, Nehru had his reasons to stay clear of what he saw as a growing radicalisation of Bose’s politics.

Rabindranath Tagore saw the future in Subhas Chandra Bose. In a preceding era, Bose for his part believed that Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das embodied the aspirations of freedom-seeking Indians. Das’ unexpected death in 1925 was an immense shock for Netaji and in a way left him to carry on the struggle alone, all by himself. It is a tribute to Netaji’s valour and wisdom that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman saw in him the heroic figure from whom he could draw inspiration for his own political struggles.

Subhas Chandra Bose remains an authentic epic tale in our telling and retelling of history. Would history be any different from the way it turned out in August 1947? Would Netaji, having given shape to his government, Arzi Hukumat-e-Azad Hind, in 1943, having formed the Indian National Army, forge ahead to consolidate Indian unity and thereby prevent the partition of the country? Would he be able to carry the country, its Hindus and Muslims, with him?

Questions and then more questions. The irony is that the many questions that have consistently been asked about Netaji have never been answered to public satisfaction. That keeps the spotlight on him. That shines a light on him. History has lost him. And yet, paradoxically, he is symbolic of history, beyond and above his contemporaries. The bloody division of the subcontinent diminished the men whose implacable opposition to his politics compelled him to go out to the world beyond colonised India.

Seventy-five years after the break-up of India, Subhas Chandra Bose -- having consistently argued for a sovereign India at home and abroad -- is the political leader India, undivided, undiluted and sovereign, never had. But then again, the politicians who outlived him did not possess the magic that marked his resolve to have India free of foreign subjugation.

The magic endures.

(Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was born on Jan 23, 1897, and died/disappeared on Aug 18, 1945)