How the memory of Subhas Chandra Bose was lost, then found again – Utpal Kumar

Subash Chandra Bose with the Indian National Army

Utpal KumarToday, as we celebrate the 125th birth anniversary of Netaji Bose, it’s time to give this great son of the soil his due. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s endeavour to install his grand granite statue at India Gate is a step in the right direction. He should follow this up with a decision to declassify all Netaji files, howsoever difficult it might be given … the challenges it might pose diplomatically vis-à-vis some of the big powers involved with his “disappearance”. – Utpal Kumar

When Julian Barnes, author of A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, wrote that “history isn’t what happened, history is just what historians tell us”, he was telling the truth, but only half of it. The reality is historians tell what their political masters/patrons often want us to be told.

Nothing explains this phenomenon better than the saga of Subhas Chandra Bose, whose role in India’s freedom struggle has been marginalised to such an extent that in the NCERT Class XII history textbook the very mention of Netaji’s INA (Indian National Army) exploits is conspicuous by their absence. The independence movement has been appropriated by two men with Gandhi and Nehru surnames. More on the lines of a song from 1954 film Jagriti: “De di humein azadi bina khadag bina dhal. Sabarmati ke sant tune kar diya kamaal.”

The British, however, saw the entire episode differently. For them, Mahatma Gandhi’s role in India’s freedom struggle was “m-i-n-i-m-a-l”, as then British Prime Minister Clement Attlee told Bengal’s acting governor Justice P.B. Chakraborty, slowly chewing out the word to make an instant, dramatic impact. According to him, the role played by Netaji’s INA was paramount in India being granted independence.

Recalling his interaction with the British prime minister, Justice Chakraborty said: “My direct question to Attlee was that since Gandhi’s Quit India Movement had tapered off quite some time ago and in 1947 no such new compelling situation had arisen that would necessitate a hasty British departure, why did they have to leave?” To this Attlee cited several reasons, foremost being “the erosion of loyalty to the British crown among the Indian army and navy personnel as a result of the military activities of Subhas Chandra Bose”.

Justice Chakraborty had a point. After all, the 1942 Quit India movement was easily crushed by the British. In fact, after the initial successes, the Gandhian satyagrahas failed to stun and stupefy the authorities, who had by then perfected the art of handling Gandhi and his men. At the very first sight of an agitation, the British would swoop down upon the entire Congress leadership, put them behind bars, and let them warm the prison till the protest peters out on its own! It was a comfortable setup for the colonial government and it would have endured had it not been for people like Bose.

Commander-in-Chief of British Indian armed forces General Claude Auchinleck too conceded on 24 November 1945, in his letter to Field Marshal Viscount Wavell, how “the present INA trials are agitating all sections of Indian public opinion deeply”. While saying that “any attempt to force the sentence would have led to chaos in the country at large and probably to mutiny and dissension in the army, culminating in its dissolution”, he also pointed at how the INA issue provided the Congress with “an excellent election cry”.

Anuj Dhar, who with Chandrachur Ghose and a few others has devoted his life to the cause of Netaji, writes in India’s Biggest Cover-Up about Captain Hari Badhwar, a British Military Intelligence mole in the Congress. Captain Badhwar first joined the INA, then switched sides and finally gave evidence against the INA men during the Red Fort trials. “It is a great shame that Badhwar should have led a comfortable life as a general in free India,” writes Dhar, exposing the Congress’ duplicity that found problems with recruiting INA men in the Army but was comfortable in extending the same courtesy to those who were in bed with India’s enemies.

Dhar tells us how it was on Captain Badhwar’s report, which found overwhelming support among the masses for the INA, that the Congress decided to take up the Red Fort trials. Badhwar had sourced his information to Asaf Ali, a leading Congress working Committee member who would later become free India’s first ambassador to the United States. “This inflamed feeling forced the Congress to take the line it did,” Badhwar told one of his handlers in the British military.

Such has been sympathy and support of Netaji and his INA men that in 1946, the Intelligence Bureau—the agency that had spied on Indians since 1887—said that “there has seldom been a matter that attracted so much Indian public interest and, it is safe to say, sympathy”. Even Gandhi, his long-time bete noire, couldn’t stop himself from saying: “If Bose had hypnotised the INA in 1943, the hypnotism of the INA has cast its spell upon us.”

The Congress’ hypocrisy was evident when after coming to power, the party “removed all INA men from the services and even put some of them on trial”, an apprehension that Asaf Ali had shared with Captain Badhwar. But the biggest fraud was committed on Netaji himself. The Congress, which in 1946, as per The New York Times, was “working day and night to build up Bose as the George Washington of India”, took an about turn soon after independence. He became the biggest of the untouchables. He was not to be invoked, remembered and, worse, celebrated.

According to Rudrangshu Mukherjee, in his book Nehru & Bose: Parallel Lives, Netaji in 1939 accused Nehru of betraying him when he was viciously targeted within the Congress at Gandhi’s behest. “Nobody has done more harm to me … than Jawaharlal Nehru,” Bose wrote. Had he been “alive” and present as India got Independence, he would have been further vindicated. For all his contributions, Netaji failed to find a mention in Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” speech. When the Constituent Assembly decided to put in a portrait of Gandhi in the House, H.V. Kamath, a member of the august house, pleaded to get the portraits of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Netaji Bose placed there too; he was snubbed. Later R.C. Majumdar, tallest among Indian historians along with Sir Jadunath Sarkar, found himself abruptly stopped from writing the official history of India when the powers-that-be realised that he might bring out the stellar role played by Bose in India’s freedom movement!

The Congress can be accused of being complicit in the conspiracy to kill Bose when it was very much possible that he was alive. The Nehruvian government could be seen enthusiastically propelling the Taiwan crash theory, despite several glaring loopholes—from credible reports confirming that there was no plane crash in Taiwan in that month, to the need for Bose to get into a crowded plane when his personal 12-seater with the INA insignia was very much available. And then there was a concerted attempt to kill his very memory. The government of free India worked overtime to ensure that every trace of Netaji was erased from public memory, and instead created new pantheons of its own that couldn’t go beyond two surnames—Gandhi and Nehru!

What the Nehruvian rulers and their court historians failed to realise was that Indians had a different way of looking at history, recording it, and even celebrating their heroes. This explains why Indians could forget Emperor Asoka despite the best of his military exploits meticulously recorded in rock edicts, but remember the likes of King Vikramaditya and Raja Bhoja for their cultural/civilisational exploits. Indians seem genetically attuned to remembering Vyasa, Valmiki and Tulsidas. They have been an integral part of the popular imagination and narrative in the remotest of villages. It is this innate and uniquely Indic sense of history that helped the likes of Maharana Pratap and Shivaji survive in the nation’s mindscape despite an ideological amnesia programme unleashed by those in power infected with an overtly secular virus that makes one take a compulsive left turn. It is this very phenomenon that has made Netaji Bose, Sardar Vallabhbhai and Dr B.R. Ambedkar, among others, survive a concerted attempt to cut them to size! The bigger the attempt was, the larger-than-life they ended up becoming.

Today, as we celebrate the 125th birth anniversary of Netaji Bose, it’s time to give this great son of the soil his due. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s endeavour to install his grand granite statue at India Gate is a step in the right direction. He should follow this up with a decision to declassify all Netaji files, howsoever difficult it might be given the bureaucratic propensity to resist change, and the challenges it might pose diplomatically vis-à-vis some of the big powers involved with his “disappearance”. Netaji deserves that much, at least. This will be the best tribute to the man who actually freed the country, especially as India is celebrating 75th year of Independence. – Firstpost, 23 Jauary 2022

Utpal Kumar is a feature writer for Firstpost in New Delhi.

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