Interview | Why Netaji Bose remains an inconvenient nationalist despite being immensely popular

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Chandrachur Ghose, with Anuj Dhar, has devoted his entire life to Mission Netaji — an endeavour that works towards decoding the mystery surrounding Subhas Chandra Bose’s ‘life’ post-1945. Unlike the official history that says that Bose died in a plane crash in Taiwan on 18 August 1945, Ghose cites new data to prove that no crash took place on that particular day. His new book, Bose: The Untold Story of an Inconvenient Nationalist (Penguin), however, isn’t just about Netaji post-1945, but about some “missing gaps” in his life that will help understand the ‘inconvenient nationalist’ better. Excerpts:

Please tell us about your new book on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, and how is it different from other biographies on him?

I started focusing on the disappearance of Netaji Bose in 2004-05. One thing that struck me in the past 17 years was that it would be difficult to answer the Netaji questions post-1945, if we don’t understand him as a person, his thought process, his viewpoints, his characteristics as a leader, as a man, and as a spiritual devotee.

As to why another book on Netaji, I must tell you most books on Bose followed a predictable resume-like pattern. We tried breaking that predictable mould. I agree that there is no new story to be told in the Netaji saga. As a biographer, all we have to do is to fill the gaps between certain periods, especially in the 1930s. Then, of course, there have been attempts to show Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru were very close friends, and everything was hunky-dory. But when I started digging into contemporary newspapers, archival documents and letters, I found a different picture.

File image of Jawaharlal Nehru. News18 Hindi

Through this book, I would also like to clear the air about Bose: That he was just a man of action. My research suggests that Bose was a man of action, but he was also an erudite person, a learned man, and a thinker by nature. We just saw how some people called him names — from being a Nazi collaborator to the friend of Hitler — when the government decided to install his statue at India Gate. This book will also help project Netaji from the right perspective.

Why do you call Netaji an inconvenient nationalist?

I know, it's a bit provocative, but nonetheless very accurate. There has been a tendency to put a person in a box, even if that distorts reality. So, Netaji was made to fit in as a man of action in a military suit riding a white horse with his shining sword and driving away the British. And globally, he was seen to be Nazi collaborator.

There is not much attention being given between 1934 and 1939-40. He was in Congress and such was his popularity that he could defeat Gandhi’s nominee in a Congress presidential election in 1938. And then he was cornered and forced to leave the party. The Left parties were uneasy with him as they feared he would take all the limelight. The Hindu Mahasabha didn’t like him. And even the Muslim League, with whom he was in an alliance in Bengal, was looking for opportunities to sideline him. There’s an interesting comment from the then governor of Bengal who said that Muslim leaders think that they have brought Bose under their thumb, but they have no idea what kind of a man he is; that he can overturn them at any moment. Even the Congress Socialist Party was campaigning against him.

Bose was popular across the country. He belonged to all and not just to one particular constituency. So, nobody could ignore him but no one was comfortable with him either. No one could deny his stature as a national hero, yet almost every party in India’s political spectrum has had their own set of problems with him. That’s the reason why I named him the inconvenient nationalist.

As was seen recently when the government decided to install a statue of Netaji at India Gate, he evoked different emotions. While many adore him, there are some like Edward Luce who see Netaji as an admirer of Hitler.

Bose’s first recorded reference to fascism appears in his first speech as the mayor of the Calcutta Corporation on 24 September 1930. Elaborating on his plan for the Corporation, he said, “We have here in this policy and programme a synthesis of what modern Europe calls Socialism and Fascism.” He added, “We have here the justice, the equality, the love, which is the basis of Socialism, and combined with that we have the efficiency and discipline of Fascism as it stands in Europe today.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that a statue of freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose will be installed at Delhi’s India Gate. Twitter/Narendra Modi

Those who quote the above statements to showcase Bose’s early conversion into fascism need to note what the British Chancellor of the Exchequer said in January 1927. “If I had been an Italian I am sure I would have been wholeheartedly from start to finish with Fascismo’s triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism,” the Chancellor said. About Mussolini, he added, “I could not help being charmed, as so many other people have been, by his gentle, simple bearing and his calm, detached poise, despite so many burdens and dangers.” Interestingly, Winston Churchill was the Mussolini-admirer Chancellor. But today, no one calls Churchill a fascist or a Mussolini lover.

We need to understand that morality and moral principles are all good but foreign affairs are often dictated by national interest. This explains why India is today seen negotiating with the Myanmar junta. This was also well-manifested by then British PM David Cameron who conceded that Britain supported the candidature of Saudi Arabia in the Human Rights Council because “they give us intelligence”, an important ingredient for national security.

As the book suggests, Bose’s approach vis-à-vis Hitler and Japan was based on national interest. In Germany, Bose didn't show any love for Hitler or for other Nazi officers. We see him working tirelessly in favour of the Indian students there, who were facing the racist onslaught of the German government. The memoirs of Bose’s nephew Asoke Nath show how Netaji engaged with the Indian students in Europe in making known his objections to the Nazi racist points of view and observations. He himself wrote a memorandum on 5 April 1934 to Foreign Office councillor Dyckhoff, sharply critical of the German attitude towards Indians. In his letter in 1936, he also observed that “new nationalism of Germany is not only narrow and selfish but arrogant”.

Indian nationalist leader Subhash Chandra Bose and Adolf Hitler in Berlin, Germany. Getty Images

Bose had a complicated relationship with Nehru. How do you see that?

In terms of, say, economic thought or having a modern outlook, the two were pretty close until 1929. In that year’s Congress session, Bose and Nehru had a fallout: While the former wanted to push ahead for declaration for Independence, the latter was happy with independence being the ultimate goal.

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Although in terms of radical thought and programme, Nehru and Bose were on the same line, whenever it came to implementation or taking a decision, Nehru would invariably cow down and surrender himself to Gandhi.

They came close to each other when Nehru was in Europe looking after his ill wife. But again they parted ways quite acrimoniously when Bose was forced to leave the Congress in 1939. Thereafter Nehru got himself firmly positioned in the Gandhian camp, much to the annoyance of Bose.

What about Bose-Gandhi ties?

Let me make it clear that Bose was not apprehensive about Gandhi's line of action; he was constantly asking people to support the Quit India movement. But he could never forget what his political guru CR Das had once told him: That Gandhi opens a campaign in a brilliant fashion, then he moves from victory to victory until he reaches the peak, and finally he squanders everything. The division between Gandhi and Bose further deepened after 1939. They, however, remained courteous with each other in public.

Coming to another contentious issue: Who got India Independence — Gandhi or Bose? Ahimsa or INA?

Speaking from the Red Fort on 16 August 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru declared that India “has achieved freedom under the brilliant leadership and guidance of Mahatma Gandhi”. Without denying the role played by the Mahatma, Nehru’s statement was not quite true. The fact is that the only Gandhian movement nearly a decade after the Civil Disobedience Movement was snuffed out at the planning stage and thereafter there was no Gandhian movement. If anything troubled the British government, it was the impact of the INA trials. Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief of British Indian Army, conceded this when he wrote to Archibald Wavell, Viceroy of India, on 26 November 1945: “I do not think any senior British officer today knows what is the real feeling among the Indian ranks regarding the INA. I myself feel, largely from my own instinct, but also from the information I have had from various sources, that there is a growing feeling of sympathy for the INA.”

Members of the Indian National Congress on the dais at Haripura. From left to right, Seth Jamnalal Bajaj, Darbar Gopoldas Dasai, Mahatma Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose. Getty Images

British PM Clement Attlee, in a meeting with MPs, summed up the situation on 13 February 1946: “There are two alternative ways of meeting this common desire (a) that we should arrange to get out, (b) that we should wait to be driven out…” A decade later, in a meeting with the Bengal Governor, Attlee categorically said that the role of Gandhi in India’s Independence was “m-i-n-i-m-a-l”.

As your arduous research suggests, there was no crash on the day we are told Netaji died. It is slowly becoming clear that he was alive after Independence. What makes the government resist new findings?

It may be due to the fear of extreme reactions from the masses after they are told that Netaji was alive and it was known to the Government of India. But I am sure we are slowly moving towards that direction. Who, after all, would have thought in the past that the West Bengal government would be seeking the complete declassification of the Netaji files so vigorously. I am hopeful the day would come when we would be told the truth about Bose. The people of India deserve to know that. And, the Netaji saga deserves closure too.

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Interview | Why Netaji Bose remains an inconvenient nationalist despite being immensely popular
Interview | Why Netaji Bose remains an inconvenient nationalist despite being immensely popular
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