Western narrative on Subhas Chandra Bose suffers from revisionist history and rank hypocrisy – Sreemoy Talukdar

Netaji Bose Hologram Image

Sreemoy TalukdarThe vilification of Bose by the Western elite reeks of confirmation bias and politicisation of history. Any objective assessment of the move to install the icon’s statue would recognise it as a long overdue recognition – Sreemoy Talukdar

It seems the prime minister’s decision to install at India Gate a statue of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose—a key anti-imperialist figure and a giant of India’s movement for Independence from British Raj—has triggered Western commentators more than Bose’s own countrymen. Unlike in the West where the narrative on Bose is steeped in moral duplicity, he is a venerated figure in India and especially in West Bengal, where Bose is a tragic hero who was denied due appreciation owing to petty factionalism in Congress party.

While Indians have applauded the move and welcomed the belated political recognition of one of India’s favourite sons, with some states going for competitive displays of veneration, some western scholars and commentators have called Narendra Modi a “textbook fascist” for reinstating Bose and accused him of “going too far”.

Among the pontificating pundits is one Edward Luce of London-based Financial Times who called Bose “an admirer of Hitler and a pawn of the Axis powers” and his proposed statue the “latest exhibit of Modi’s fascist ideology.”

On receiving a stern push-back online for his factually inaccurate, racist, rhetorical bombast, Luce came up with an article, Please keep your eyes on India’s Modi, where, along with more factual inaccuracies he unsurprisingly played the victim card and proposed that calling out of his chicanery exposes the “dark side” of critics with the implication being that they should have unquestioningly internalised the white man’s wisdom.

It would be unfair to single out one commentator, however. Another one regards Bose’s move to seek alliance with Hitler “morally offensive” and is of the opinion that “India has always had a rather ambivalent attitude to Subhas Chandra Bose”.

We shall come to the “morally offensive” part in a bit, but it is interesting that for a “South Asia specialist”, Myra MacDonald is unaware of the fact in parts of India, Bose is considered a bigger leader for the Indian independence movement than even Mahatma Gandhi, with whom he had a public fallout over a power struggle. Certainly in Bengal, Bose is a myth larger than the man.

His hoodwinking of security forces while escaping house arrest by the British remains stuff of folklore. Many Bengalis believed Bose was alive many years even after he “disappeared” and was declared “dead”. The declassified files on Bose, displayed in Kolkata Police Museum, still draws daily footfalls. Countless lanes and by-lanes of the state are named after him, thousands of local clubs, corner stores, sweet shops bear his name and so do residential colonies and urban spaces. Millions of children are named after him and parents proudly dress their toddlers as “Netaji” in fancy-dress competitions.

In short, even after decades of attempts by the Congress party—led by Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors—to undermine his contribution in India’s freedom struggle, Bose remains embedded firmly in public imagination. His very mention triggers a passion not reserved for any other leader.

But the popularity of Bose—who according to former British prime minister Clement Atlee was the chief architect behind India’s freedom movement—isn’t restricted to Bengal. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee says Netaji “is even more popular in Punjab and parts of South India than in Bengal”.

Bose is a key figure in India’s popular culture, a subject of multiple movies, biopics, acclaimed scholarship and the fulcrum of India’s post-colonial nationalism sentiment.

And therein lies the rub. Bose’s image as a nationalist leader and his appropriation by a nationalist government in India is a red flag for the West, where the narrative on Bose suffers from poor scholarship, revisionist history and rank hypocrisy. For instance, the true evaluation of Joseph Stalin, also a Nazi collaborator, was airbrushed because the Soviet leader joined Allied powers and emerged on the right side of history after World War II.

Whereas tactical overture towards Adolf Hitler to secure India’s liberty from British colonial occupation condemned Bose to the dustbin of history, the Allied powers’ alliance with Stalin’s USSR—that had on August 23, 1939, struck a mutual nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany before Operation Barbarossa in 1941 ripped up the agreement—carries no moral stench. It is strange that MacDonald, who presumably knows her history, does not find Britain’s dalliance with Stalin—who according to some estimates killed more people than Hitler ever did—morally repugnant.

It is not my case that Bose was a flawless hero. Lawyer A.G. Noorani points out that Bose remained silent on Hitler’s atrocities. Yet it is also to be noted, as the trilingual biography of Bose A Beacon Across Asia illustrates, the Indian revolutionary leader in a letter to Dr Thierfelder, President of the Deutsche Akademie, a German cultural institution, had written on 25 March, 1936, “When I first visited Germany in 1933, I had hopes that the new German nation which had risen to a consciousness of its national strength and self-respect would instinctively feel deep sympathy for other nations struggling in the same direction. Today, I regret that I have to return to India with the conviction that the new nationalism of Germany is not only narrow and selfish but arrogant. … The new racial philosophy which has a very weak scientific foundation stands for the glorification of the white races in general, and the German race in particular…” He goes on to write that “the new nationalism in Germany is inspired by selfishness and racial arrogance”.

Bose was a nationalist, who saw no moral contradiction in seeking an opportunistic alliance with the powers opposed to the colonising power under the rubric of “enemy’s enemy is my friend”. To paint him as a Nazi collaborator, closet fascist and dictator fanboy is to militate against the annals of history.

Retrospective rewriting of history by the victors may pose Second World War as a battle between “light and darkness”, but the “Liberalism vs Nazism and Fascism” framework that has now become ratified history and a determinant of the post-Second World War power structure and global politics, was an ex post-facto ideological plastic surgery on the reality of a power struggle for the fate of Europe.

Had that not been the case, and if the Allied forces had been guided solely by idealism and not realpolitik, then Britain, France and the US wouldn’t have found it expedient to partner with Stalin’s USSR. Stalin’s preference for Hitler and his personal push for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to divide eastern Europe into respective spheres of interest was the truest form of Nazi collaboration.

By that metric, the Allied powers and its front-line leaders such as Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill are bigger culprits than Bose for having partnered a dictator who comes worse off in a morbid comparison with Hitler on who was the biggest mass murderer and genocidal maniac in history. If Hitler inflicted the horror of Holocaust, Stalin’s regime “killed far, far more people, tens of millions it was often claimed, in the endless wastes of the Gulag.”

So far, the West has uncomfortably accepted the “mass murderer” tag on Stalin but not genocide, that tops all moral perversions. However, as Stanford history professor Norman Naimark points out in his book “Stalin’s Genocides”, “the Soviet elimination of a social class, the kulaks (who were higher-income farmers), and the subsequent killer famine among all Ukrainian peasants—as well as the notorious 1937 order No. 00447 that called for the mass execution and exile of “socially harmful elements” as “enemies of the people”—were, in fact, genocide.” The author writes, “It’s a horrific case of genocide—the purposeful elimination of all or part of a social group, a political group.”

When the lines blur, the moral certitudes of history fall apart. And if we are doing an evaluation of Bose, who was a man of his times and driven by the compulsions and forces of history that shaped his choice, then we must also focus the light on Churchill, who despite valiant hagiographic attempts, lionising in popular culture and airbrushing of history, leaves behind a troubling legacy of racism, admiration for fascism and dictatorship and as British prime minister, for playing the key role behind 1943 Bengal famine that killed over three million people.

Churchill's Bengal Famine 1943

For India, at least, Churchill is an even bigger villain than Hitler. He held views that transcend the temporal sensibilities and reflect the true nature of a morally unscrupulous and a bitterly racist genocidaire for whom Indians were a “beastly people with a beastly religion”.

Churchill’s racism is well documented. His genocidal tendencies are less so. As Johann Hari writes in The Independent, “as Colonial Secretary in the 1920s, Churchill unleashed the notorious Black and Tan thugs on Ireland’s Catholic civilians, and when the Kurds rebelled against British rule, he said: ‘I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. … [It] would spread a lively terror’.”

He was also a great admirer of Benito Mussolini and the fascist movement which the Italian dictator founded in 1919. As author and Parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor points out, “Churchill was an open admirer of Mussolini, declaring in the 1920s that the Italian Fascist movement had ‘rendered a service to the whole world’. Had it been necessary, Churchill stated, he was prepared to do in Britain what Mussolini had done in Italy: ‘If I had been an Italian I am sure that I should have been wholeheartedly with you from the start to finish in your triumphant struggle.’ Travelling to Rome in 1927 to express his admiration for the Fascist Duce, Churchill announced that he ‘could not help being charmed, like so many other people have been, by Signor Mussolini’s gentle and simple bearing and by his calm detached poise in spite of so many burdens and dangers. Secondly, anyone could see that he thought of nothing but the lasting good, as he understands it, of the Italian people.'” (The Times, 21 January 1927)

Was Churchill a bulwark against fascism who saved the world from Nazi Germany, or was he the man who tortured former US president Barack Obama’s Kenyan grandfather Hussein Onyango Obama and kept him imprisoned for two years without trial, as Richard Toye relates in his book, Churchill’s Empire?

Was Churchill the man who was posthumously voted as the “greatest Briton” and celebrated as Britain’s “greatest ever prime minister” or is he the man who raged at Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign of peaceful resistance by saying, that he “ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new viceroy seated on its back.”

A scientific study has found conclusive evidence that it was Churchill’s policies that resulted in the Bengal famine of 1943, and this conclusion is supported by other studies including one by journalist Madhusree Mukherjee who argues that “the famine was exacerbated by the decisions of Winston Churchill’s wartime cabinet in London.” The author presents evidence that Churchill’s cabinet was “warned repeatedly that the exhaustive use of Indian resources for the war effort could result in famine, but it opted to continue exporting rice from India to elsewhere in the empire.”

It led to author and Indian Parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor calling Churchill as one of the worst genocidal dictators of the 20th century. “This is a man the British would have us hail as an apostle of freedom and democracy, when he has as much blood on his hands as some of the worst genocidal dictators of the 20th century,” said Tharoor at an event, adding: “People started dying and Churchill said well it’s all their fault anyway for breeding like rabbits.”

In his article for News18, Tharoor writes, “In extenuation, Churchill apologists say the deaths were the consequence of difficult wartime decisions, not, as with Hitler or Stalin, a deliberate desire to kill. Adam Jones, editor of the Journal of Genocide Research, begs to disagree. He has called Churchill ‘a genuine genocidaire’, who saw Indians as a ‘foul race’ and urged the British air force chief to ‘send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them’”.

If the argument is that Churchill is a British hero, and his worship is a signifier for British nationalism, then it stands to reason that Bose is an even bigger Indian hero for standing up to the empire that brought such misery, death and humiliation to his people. The vilification of Bose by the Western elite, therefore, reeks of confirmation bias and politicisation of history. Any objective assessment of the move to install Bose’s statue would recognise it as a long overdue political recognition. Modi, in fact, deserves greater praise for honouring the memory of Bose, who was a member of the Congress party and a staunch critic of Veer Savarkar.

Luce, for instance, bats for Nehru’s statue to be erected instead of Bose. The irony of lecturing the “natives” on who they should celebrate as their hero notwithstanding, the British hack may not perhaps be aware that Nehru was a great admirer of Stalin, and upon his death paid a eulogy to Stalin where Nehru made no mention of the atrocities committed by the Soviet dictator, and dismissed Stalin’s genocidal record with the flick of a rhetoric. “He may in the opinion of some have made mistakes or succeeded—it is immaterial. But everyone must necessarily agree about his giant stature and about his mighty achievements.”

History, as we can see, is complicated. If the charge of the liberal crusaders against Modi is that of anti-Semitism, then it is a laughable one. While ties with Israel have steadily developed with the establishing of full-fledged, formal diplomatic ties in January 29, 1992, bilateral ties have developed exponentially under Modi, a fact that has been noted and mentioned by Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett.

If ties against Jews is the yardstick, then India has passed the test with flying colours. As Modi pointed out in his speech to mark three decades formal diplomatic ties, “for hundreds of years our Jewish community has lived and flourished in a harmonious environment in Indian society without any discrimination. It has made significant contributions to our development journey”.

One suspects the real target here is Modi and his nationalist brand of politics. Western scholars and commentators would do well to wrap their heads around the fact that “nationalism” holds a different connotation in Asia, especially among post-colonial states. Imposition of the Eurocentric template to India, where nationalism helped defeat colonialism, would result in faulty conclusions. Nationalism in India is a positive political force and unlike the history of Europe, it does not carry the baggage of faith or identity politics.

In the end, the relentless fear mongering on Modi is the manifestation of West’s discomfort with India’s rise on its own terms. Liberal internationalists cannot come to terms with the fact that a rising India is seeking to interpret the world as it deems fit and is not looking for external validation.

This tension will endure. – Firstpost, 2 february 2022

› Sreemoy Talukdar is a senior editor at Firstpost in Kolkata.