Now, Netaji gets a makeover

rediscover:“Any credible rehabilitation of Bose can only begin with a proper and clear-eyed reconstruction of his life.” Picture shows BJP National President Amit Shah with party senior leader Sushil Kumar Modi in front of Bose’s statue Patna.— Photo: Ranjeet Kumar  

Seventy years after Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose purportedly died in an air crash on August 18, 1945, he could well be poised for a political makeover. Nothing else would explain the interest Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken in this problematic icon, who he has called a “ mahapurush ” (great man). He has already promised to declassify documents that could lead to a better assessment of Netaji. It is presumable that when Mr. Modi meets the descendants of the Bose family, who have been clamouring for full disclosure, it will not be an empty photo opportunity.

The signs are all there: three years ago, commemorating the Foundation Day of the Azad Hind Fauj, on July 6, also the birth date of Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Mr. Modi vowed, “we will keep history alive” and that personalities like Sardar Patel and Bose ought not to be forgotten. His national security advisor Ajit Doval quoted former British Prime Minister Clement Atlee’s statement that the British quit India spurred by fears of the “spark” that Netaji had lit among Indian soldiers. He cited the Karachi, Jabalpur, and Asansol revolts, which were triggered by the inquisitions of soldiers of the Indian National Army that was cobbled together by Bose during World War II. The implication: Britain had lost its grip over the armed forces and hence could not hold on indefinitely to India.

That the dispensation in Delhi was going to politically refurbish more new icons has also been evident in its recent treatment of Babasaheb Ambedkar. As far back as October 2014, Mohan Bhagwat, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Sarsanghachalak, gave notice when he advised the “new policy makers” to “take advantage of the vision and experience of great Bharatiya leaders” from Swamy Vivekananda to Ram Manohar Lohia, including Mahatma Gandhi, Lokmanya Tilak, Netaji and Vinoba Bhave, among others.

Rehabilitating Bose

The rehabilitation of Bose obviously begins with the Justice Mukherjee Commission set up during Atal Behari Vajpayee’s term. Justice Mukherjee was able to determine that the ashes in Renkoji Temple were not those of Bose but of Ichiro Okura, a member of the Taiwanese army who died of heart failure on August 19, 1945. Mukherjee adduced that Bose did not die in a plane crash. In fact, he found no evidence of such a crash in Taiwan. Neither did he find any documentation of the cremation of the others who purportedly died in the same crash, including the pilot, co-pilot, or the Japanese General allegedly also in the plane. He found the survivor accounts as furnished by Col. Habibur Rahman, Netaji’s fellow traveller, unconvincing. Justice Mukherjee observed that the Central Daily News of Taipei did not publish the plane crash news, odd considering that several Japanese soldiers, including a general, reportedly perished in it. He concluded that the story was concocted to obviate Netaji having to surrender to the Allied forces.

The prism through which Bose, who had access to historical personalities like Mussolini, Hitler and General Hideki Tojo, has been viewed has so far been romantic, a tale filled with escapades, derring-do and boundless valour. Yet it is less well known that before the INA briefly unfurled the tricolour in the mountains around Kohima on April 14, 1944, INA’s Col. Loganathan was already Chief Commissioner of Andaman and Nicobar islands, reporting monthly to the ‘Prime Minister and the Supreme Commander of the Army of the Government of Free India in Singapore’. For Bose, it was not the easiest of posts to hold. From available accounts, he had to constantly goad Gen. Tojo into first announcing that Andaman and Nicobar, which had fallen into Japanese hands on March 23, 1942, would devolve to Netaji’s administration and, thereafter, allow at least some peripheral part of the administration to come under Indian supervision. When it finally happened, it was freedom with serious caveats. Netaji himself drew it up, sitting across the table from Admiral Ishikawa, head of the Japanese administration, keeping Japanese objectives firmly in view. Col. Loganathan seems to have been so comprehensively stymied by the Japanese at every turn that he handed over the baton to another INA colleague, Maj. Alvi, and returned to Singapore under the pretext of ill health.

Overlooking brutality

It is a matter of deep historical irony that when Bose visited Port Blair for three days in 1943 he managed to overlook the sheer brutality and tyranny that the Japanese had unleashed on the islands and declared blithely that “These islands stood as a symbolic hell of British tyranny, where hundreds of freedom fighters had been treated with inhuman tortures.” Netaji made no attempt to break through the cocoon of his Japanese minders to reach into the grim reality of the islands under the Japanese bayonet. The Japanese made the English seem almost civilised. They used the Nicobarese as slave labour, much like in the infamous Death Railway, to build the runway in Lamba line, where Bose landed by plane to survey the ‘free’ part of India and declare famously that his visit to the Cellular Jail was akin to the storming of the Bastille.

It was also from the Gymkhana Ground at Port Blair that Netaji was to sound his “give me blood and I’ll give you freedom” bugle. Again, ironically, in what has been compared to Hitler’s Final Solution, on August 4, 1945, after the Japanese rule of the islands brought extreme deprivation and misery, hundreds of people were corralled into ships and taken off Havelock Island and thrown into the sea. Survivors were fired upon and sliced by the ships’ propellers. Days before the Japanese surrender, 300 more islanders were taken to Tarmugli Island, lined up, and shot. It is not clear if Netaji was able to wholly decipher the coded messages that Col. Loganathan sent that tried to speak of the true situation in that part of “free India”. Certainly there is some evidence that Netaji did attempt to intervene but not with any solid results.

Any credible rehabilitation of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose can only begin with a proper and clear-eyed reconstruction of his life. Can this government do that?