The enigma remains

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s decision to declassify 64 files pertaining to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose has resurrected a seven-decades-old controversy. The files have little in terms of definitive evidence on Bose’s death or disappearance post-1945, but have documented unconfirmed reports that he may have survived the plane crash of 1945 in Taiwan in which he was supposed to have been killed. The release of the files in Kolkata has stepped up pressure on the Narendra Modi government to declassify those in the Central government’s custody so that the truth about whether Netaji indeed died in the crash comes out. Although the BJP had while in opposition at the Centre demanded the declassification of the files, the Prime Minister’s Office under Mr. Modi recently turned down a request made under the Right to Information Act, citing concerns over relations with other nations.

The Bose story has been the stuff of legends, and many anecdotes have been heard over time. Some said he was sighted in Russia, others that he returned to India as a sadhu . There is little in terms of compelling evidence any which way. However, rumours kept the issue simmering. There have been subtexts of conspiracy theories. Bose’s grandnephew and scholar Sugata Bose wrote in his book, His Majesty’s Opponent , that even in Nehru’s lifetime “some rumourmongers hinted darkly at foul play by Nehru himself”. Here, the controversy acquires political undercurrents. While the book says available evidence suggests Bose died in hospital after the crash, stories that he outlived it allow attacks on the Nehru regime and, by implication, the Nehru-Gandhi family and the Congress. In the fact that the Bose family was snooped upon for a time after Independence, some saw Nehru’s ‘fear’ of the family. Little can be said about the motives of the snooping till all the files are available. Also, keeping an eye on political leaders is widely believed to be an aspect, however unfortunate, of statecraft, even if it has implications for citizens’ privacy. There has also been a belief that Bose was “wronged” by Mahatma Gandhi and his supporters in 1939, when Gandhi refused to work with Bose as Congress president, citing ideological differences; the latter had to resign. Many feel Nehru didn’t back Bose enough, though evidence suggests that Nehru did try to broker peace between Gandhi and Bose. The issue has a strong emotive appeal in West Bengal. Chief Minister Banerjee’s master stroke has put pressure on the BJP, which was expecting to ride the Bose legacy in a State where it has had hardly any presence. Pressure will now mount on the Centre to declassify the files in its own custody, before the State goes to the polls in 2016.

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