Netaji’s Ghost: The Freedom Struggle by N. S. Rajaram

{I have not been able to properly date this article and I am not sure about the source. It is probably from the Organiser. When I am able to, I will post the exact reference to this piece. I came across it around April 2001.}

Revisiting the years before Independence shows that Subhas Bose was the key figure in India’s freedom. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose is back, at least in spirit. Like Banquo’s Ghost in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Netaji’s ghost is beginning to cast a heavy shadow on the national political and intellectual scene. This is the message coming out of the hearings of the Justice Mukherji Commission, from the testimony of Dr Puriba Roy of Jadhavpur University in particular, who has been tirelessly investigating little known sources, especially in the Soviet Archives. And the picture emerging from her investigation has the potential to change the historical and even the political landscape of India.

Following India’s Independence in 1947, generations of Indians have been taught that the real heroes of the Freedom Movement were Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, with grudging respect paid to Sardar Patel. Subhas Bose is all but forgotten. Even worse, he is the victim of a propaganda campaign by the Nehru Government and its successors that runs along the following lines: (i) Subhas Bose was an ineffective dreamer who played an insignificant part in the Freedom Struggle; and (ii) anyone questioning the official ‘truth’, including the account of his death, is some kind of a crackpot. The following passage by Surjit Mansingh in the Historical Dictionary of India illustrates both:

“Many Indians, especially in Bengal and Maharashtra, refused to believe [in his death in an air crash]…, perhaps because of a deep seated need to believe in an immortal hero, a saintly warrior king, even a Kalki or a future incarnation of Vishnu who would return to the nation when needed.” And later, writing about Subhas Bose himself: “…the Bose cult has not died despite his lack of a broad political base or solid political achievement when alive.”

So, according to Mansingh, who incidentally is a JNU professor and a former fellow at the Nehru Museum and Library, Subhas Bose is nothing but a cult figure who did little when he was alive. While this happens to be the ‘official’ (read Congress-Communist) line, not many historians today are prepared to buy it. Probably the most distinguished historian to highlight Bose’s real contribution was the late R.C. Majumdar. In his monumental, three-volume History of the Freedom Movement in India (which the Congress-led by Maulana Azad tried to suppress), Majumdar provided the following extraordinary information:

“It seldom falls to the lot of a historian to have his views, differing radically from those generally accepted without demur, confirmed by such an unimpeachable authority. As far back as 1948 I wrote in an article that the contribution made by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose towards the achievement of freedom in 1947 was no less, and perhaps, far more important than that of Mahatma Gandhi…” The ‘unimpeachable authority’ he cited happens to be Clement Attlee, the Prime Minister of Britain at the time of India’s Independence. As this is of fundamental importance, and Majumdar’s conclusion so greatly at variance with conventional history, it is worth placing it on record. (See Volume III, pp. 609-10). When B.P. Chakravarti was acting as Governor of West Bengal, Lord Attlee visited India and stayed as his guest for three days at the Raj Bhavan. Chakravarti asked Attlee about the real grounds for granting Independence to India. Specifically, his question was, when the Quit India movement lay in ruins years before 1947, what was the need for the British to leave in such a hurry. Attlee’s response is most illuminating and important for history. Here is the Governor’s account of what Attlee told him:

“In reply Attlee cited several reasons, the most important were the activities of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose which weakened the very foundation of the attachment of the Indian land and naval forces to the British Government. Towards the end, I asked Lord Attlee about the extent to which the British decision to quit India was influenced by Gandhi’s activities. On hearing this question Attlee’s lips widened in a smile of disdain and he uttered, slowly, putting emphasis on each single letter-“mi-ni-mal”.”

This ‘unimpeachable’ truth will come as a shock to most Indians brought up to believe that the Congress movement driven by the ‘spiritual force’ of Mahatma Gandhi forced the British to leave India. But both the evidence and the logic of history are against this beautiful but childish fantasy; it was the fear of mutiny by the Indian armed forces-and not any ‘spiritual force’- that forced the issue of freedom. The British saw that the sooner they left India the better for themselves, for, at the end of the war, India had some three million men under arms. Majumdar had reached the same conclusion years earlier, as far back as 1948 as he records. The most dramatic event after the end of World War II was the INA Trials at the Red Fort—not any movement by Gandhi or Nehru. This led directly to the mutiny of the naval ratings, which, more than anything, helped the British make up their minds to leave India in a hurry. They sensed that it was only a matter of time before the spirit spread to other sections of the armed forces and the rest of the Government. None of this would have happened without Subhas Bose and the INA.

The crucial point to note is that thanks to Subhas Bose’s activities and the INA, the Armed Forces began to see themselves as defenders of India rather than upholders of the British Empire. This, more than anything else, was what led to India’s freedom. This is also the reason why the British Empire disappeared from the face of the earth within an astonishingly short space of twenty years. Indian soldiers, who were the main prop of the Empire, were no longer willing to fight to hold the Empire together.

Subhas Bose did not see the country become free. According to official accounts he left Saigon in a Japanese bomber and arrived at Taihoku in Farmosa (Taiwan) on August 18, 1945. He left in another plane for an unknown destination, after which there is a complete blank. The official version is that his plane crashed almost immediately after the take off, but there are serious gaps in the account. Japan surrendered on September 15, 1945, formally ending the war. After the war, the British Indian Government put on trial three men of the INA—a Hindu, a Muslim and a Sikh—for desertion and treason. This historic trial, held at the historic Red Fort at Delhi was a national sensation. The country, including many in the armed forces, regarded these men as patriots rather than traitors. The British Indian Army was now for all practical purposes the Indian National Army. This was Subhas Bose’s great achievement. After this the British had no choice but to leave. And now some historians are questioning official accounts even of his death. They claim that interested parties in three governments—India, Britain and the Soviet Union—had their own reasons for concealing the truth about Subhas Bose, who, according to them, died in a prison in the Soviet Union then under Stalin. This raises serious questions about Nehru’s conduct of foreign policy.

Netaji’s legacy

Although fifty years of Congress-Communist propaganda has succeeded to a substantial degree in erasing the memory of Subhas Bose and his true contribution, while turning Nehru into a colossus, the scene in India just before Independence looked quite different. Both Patel and Subhas Bose towered over him in the eyes of the public. In particular, during the crucial War years, with the Congress and its leadership in the wilderness following the collapse of the Quite India Movement, it was Subhas Bose and the INA that was the vanguard of the Freedom Movement. This is reflected in the major national events after the War—the INA Trials and the Naval Mutiny that led to British exit. Both stemmed from Subhas Bose’s activities—not anything that the Congress did. Now there is something else that may prove to be equally important: crucial foreign policy decisions in the first decade of Indian Independence might have been influenced by the possibility of Netaji being still alive in a Soviet prison-and of his return.

In a story on the Justice Mukherji hearings probing ‘Netaji’s alleged disappearance’, The Times of India (January 19, 2001) reported: “The Commission will ask the Centre to take up the matter with the Russian authorities; researchers, including Purabi Roy of Jadavpur University, have provided several documents which indicate that the final solution to the Netaji mystery may be resting in the Russian archives.”

This bland report does not do justice to the potentially explosive impact of the true facts. The Pioneer columnist Sandhya Jain wrote: “The now credible theory that he was not aboard the airplane that crashed fatally off Japan’s Taihoku Island in August 1945 has damning repercussions for the historical legitimacy of Jawaharlal Nehru as free India’s first Prime Minister. A truthful unravelling of the Netaji story-with every moment of his life and the manner of his death (murder?) in a Soviet concentration camp fully accounted for-cannot but have a wintry effect on Nehru’s personal reputation, the political and economic policies he foisted upon the nation, his sordid compromises in foreign policy, and finally, the credibility of his intellectual heirs…” These are serious charges, but a question naturally arises: Why should the Nehruvians and their allies (the Communists) fear the truth about Netaji’s ‘disappearance’ more than fifty years ago? To understand this it is necessary to recognise that both the British and the Soviets wanted the Anglophile, pro-Soviet Nehru rather than a firebrand nationalist like Subhas Bose as Prime Minister of India. As Nehru’s conduct of foreign policy shows, he could be made to subordinate India’s national interests to those of Britain (in Kashmir) and the Soviet Union’s most important ally, Communist China. Here are some new details relating to Netaji’s ‘disappearance’, as reported by Jain:

“Researching for the Asiatic Society in Moscow, Dr. [Purabi] Roy found archival evidence that Netaji was in Russia long after the plane crash that allegedly took his life. Deposing before the Commission, she revealed the startling contents of Document No. 22, a statement by the then Soviet envoy to Teheran. The ambassador had delivered a letter from Nehru to Stalin in October 1946, in which Nehru referred to Netaji’s stay in the USSR at that time. Another document records a meeting at Moscow in October 1946 between Stalin, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov and other high officials, in which Netaji is referred to “in the present tense”, and as present in the USSR at that time. …Reports suggest that Netaji went to the Soviet Union some time in 1945, via Manchuria. It is not clear how he was captured by the Soviets… According to the stray bits of information coming out, Netaji was spotted alive till at least 1949.”

This is extraordinary! From all this it may be surmised that in 1946, when it was clear that India would soon be independent, leaders in three countries—Britain (Mountbatten), India (Nehru) and the Soviet Union (Stalin)—knew that Netaji was alive and in a Soviet prison. And as previously noted, they wanted Nehru rather than a staunch nationalist like Subhas Bose (or Sardar Patel) as Prime Minister. If Subhas were available, Nehru had little chance. Even without Subhas, the Congress wanted Sardar Patel, but for reasons that are unclear, Gandhi prevailed on Patel to withdraw in favour of Nehru. It would be a different matter with Subhas Bose who had split with Gandhi in 1938. The question is-did the fact that Subhas Bose was alive in Soviet custody have a bearing on Nehru’s conduct of foreign policy? Put another way, why did Nehru pursue a policy that consistently favoured China at the cost of India’s interests?

Choosing China over India

In the year 1950, two momentous events shook Asia and the world. One was the Chinese invasion of Tibet, and the other, Chinese intervention in the Korean War. The first was near, on India’s borders, the other, far away in the Korean Peninsula where India had little at stake. By all canons of logic, India should have devoted the utmost attention to the immediate situation in Tibet, and let interested parties like China and the US sort it out in Korea. But Nehru did exactly the opposite. He abandoned Tibet to China while getting heavily involved in Korea. Nehru later complained that he had been “led to believe by the Chinese Foreign Office that the Chinese would settle the future of Tibet in a peaceful manner…” The truth is that he knew about the coming Chinese invasion for at least a year. In fact, he had himself written in September 1949: “Chinese Communists are likely to invade Tibet.” This came true in October 1950!

Even after this foreign policy disaster, Nehru continued to support Chinese interests at India’s cost. Panikkar, the Indian Ambassador in Beijing, went so far as to pretend that there was ‘lack of confirmation’ of the presence of Chinese troops in Tibet and that to protest the Chinese invasion of Tibet would be an “interference to India’s efforts on behalf of China in the UN”. This made Sardar Patel warn Nehru that Panikkar “has been at great pains to find an explanation or justification for Chinese policy and actions.”

Amazingly Nehru concurred with his pro-Chinese Ambassador. He wrote, “Recent developments in Korea have not strengthened China’s position, which will be further weakened by any aggressive action [by India] in Tibet.” So Nehru was ready to sacrifice India’s national security interests in Tibet so as not to weaken China’s case in the UN! The two greatest influences on Nehru at this crucial juncture in history were Krishna Menon and K.M. Panikkar, both Communists. He ignored Sardar Patel’s warning: “Even though we regard ourselves as friends of China, the Chinese do not regard us as friends.” Patel wrote a celebrated letter in which he expressed deep concern over developments in Tibet. He noted that a free and friendly Tibet was vital for India’s security, and everything including military measures should be considered to ensure it. Patel recognized that in 1950, China was in a vulnerable position, fully committed in Korea and by no means secure in its hold over the mainland. For months General MacArthur had been urging President Truman to “unleash Chiang Kai Shek” lying in wait in Formosa (Taiwan) with full American support. India had little to lose and everything to gain by a determined show of force when China was struggling to consolidate its hold. In addition, India had international support, with world opinion strongly against Chinese aggression in Tibet.

The highly influential English publication The Economist echoed the Western viewpoint when it wrote: “Having maintained complete independence of China since 1912, Tibet has a strong claim to be regard as an independent state. But it is for India to take a lead in this matter. If India decides to support independence of Tibet as a buffer state between itself and China, Britain and USA will do well to extend formal diplomatic recognition to it.” All this raises a fundamental question: did Nehru commit these colossal policy blunders because of his idealism, or was he influenced by the knowledge that China’s ally Soviet Union still held Subhas Bose in captivity who may be released any time? As Sandhya Jain puts it: “Since it is nobody’s case that the Congress would have suffered Nehru if Netaji were still alive, the former would logically have had to pay a price for such stupendous assistance. We will have to look very closely at the long road from August 15, 1947 as we seek the answers to these questions”. In other words, was India being made to pay for Nehru’s ambition to be Prime Minister, which was only possible as long as Subhas Bose was away from the scene?

Finding answers to these questions calls for full access to the records of the period. Scholars have found that important records in the Nehru Library and even the National Archives are not available to them without the permission of the ‘dynasty’, which means they are unavailable. As long as this situation prevails, with information coming in bits and pieces, there will be no end to conspiracy theories. These are state papers–not family property. The Government should help clear the air by releasing the Nehru papers to the public. It is also in the interests of the members of the dynasty.

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