A critique of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose

Much has been made of the recent de-classification of files relating to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose by the West Bengal government of Mamata Banerjee. There had always been speculation that the Netaji did not die in an air-crash in 1945 as widely presumed but rather that some sinister plot of the Nehru government in post-Independence India led to his mysterious disappearance. Rumors swirled that the de-classified files have now confirmed the theory that Netaji was alive beyond the date of the purported crash and everything related to his death was an elaborate government cover-up. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The de-classified files have reports of the Intelligence Bureau which simply claims that they are not sure of Netaji’s death in the crash. Hardly the sort of convincing proof various people have been proclaiming on social media. There is now a greater push for the declassification of all files related to Netaji which are currently in the hands of the central government.

While greater transparency of old historical archives is always welcome, there is something unique about the story of Netaji that draws such feverish scrutiny from a large section of Indian society. A scrutiny which ironically misses some basic fact-checking on the freedom fighter.

There are two types of Netaji supporters. One, is found in his home state of West Bengal, where he holds a legendary and near mythical status. These are the legion of core committed supporters who idolize him and have been clamoring for more details on Netaji’s death since decades.

The other type of supporters have sprung up more recently. These are people of “right-wing persuasion” (as Romila Thapar put so elegantly), who have found their voices anew with the rise of the BJP over the last two decades. They detest their main political adversary, the Congress party, and by extension the early leaders of the Congress, like Nehru and Gandhi, who were at the center-stage of the fight for Independence from British rule. Their search for alternative leaders of the freedom struggle came up naught when they realized that right-wing political parties played a very very minor role in India’s freedom struggle. Hence, they have appropriated any leaders who seemed to have disagreements with Gandhi or Nehru; as if that was qualification enough to subsume them into the right-wing anti-congress fold.

Gandhi, Bose and Sardar Patel

One of the founding-fathers appropriated in this manner is Sardar Vallabhai Patel, who is seen as an icon more for the many constructive arguments and disagreements he has had with Nehru than for the immense efforts he put in to securing Indian Independence. The other natural candidate was Subhash Chandra Bose, popularly known as Netaji. Netaji started out in the Congress but disagreements with Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru over the nature of the Freedom struggle eventually led to his ouster from the party. He later built an army with which he attacked British India hoping to win freedom. This narrative of a martial and violent approach sits well with the right-wing who saw it as a more decisive and direct response to British rule than the slow but steady non-violent protests of Gandhi and the Congress party in their fight for Independence.

For many in the right-wing, finding declassified files pointing to the role of Nehru in the disappearance of Netaji Bose would be akin to finding their Holy Grail. The mischievous narrative that is hinted at here is that Nehru was afraid that if Netaji Bose returned to India he would prove to be a popular mass leader who would threaten Nehru’s position as Prime Minister. Hence, the narrative goes that, Nehru collaborated with the British or other foreign powers to ensure the disappearance of Netaji and covered it up with a story of his death in an Air crash. Never mind that countless investigation committees under various governments have never found reason to suspect the air-crash theory. It is in this light we must see the clamor for more details on Netaji’s death.

There is another angle to the Netaji story that I am more interested in. That is the fact that I have never come across anyone who has critiqued the Netaji. Every article on Netaji is one of deference and reverence of his achievements and exploits. This is quite unprecedented as there is probably no other leader of that period who has escaped scrutiny and critique in the manner in which it is avoided of Netaji. I am not sure why that is. Is it because of the romanticism and optimism with which he fought for independence defying all odds? Or is it because of his tragic and mysterious anti-climactic death? Whatever, be the reason, the dearth of any critical analysis of the Netaji phenomenon has spurred me to do one myself. I like nothing better than playing the Devil’s advocate in any given situation. Thus, while I have the utmost respect for Netaji and sacrifices he made in the cause of our freedom, I do want to look at his phenomenon with a more critical eye. While we have romanticized the story of Netaji, there are a few details, which to me, do not paint him in the same light as his supporters (especially new found) want us to see.

Netaji’s vision of India: A socialist dictatorship

It is interesting to note that Netaji was not interested in pursuing a democratic republic upon India’s Independence. He did not believe India was ready for a democracy yet. He wanted to run it as a dictatorship (refer Essential Writings of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose). Now a lot of right-wing conservatives will love him for this as they love the notion of authoritarian rule. But that’s where they misunderstand him. Netaji wanted to run a socialist dictatorship, a la Yugoslavia or many of the East European countries behind the Iron Curtain. The irony is that the same conservatives who didn’t like Nehru’s socialist approach to the economy seem more than happy to lavish praise on a man who wanted to run India as an extreme left Socialist Dictatorship. I think running India as an autocracy after independence would have been the worst possible idea and Subhash Chandra Bose does not get enough flak for trying to espouse this idea.

Netaji vs Nehru?

One of the popular perceptions is that Netaji rebelled against the Congress and quit due to his differences with Gandhi and Nehru. In this he is painted as anti-Gandhi and anti-Nehru by some of his conservative supporters to whom he is the anti-thesis of everything what Nehru-Gandhi stood for. The reality is far more nuanced.

Despite his disagreements with Nehru and Gandhi, he had immense respect for them. Two of the brigades raised in the INA were named The Nehru Brigade and The Gandhi Brigade. Hardly the thought process for a man who hated the Nehru-Gandhi alliance I would say. While the disagreements between them were real, people today forget that politicians in that time were much more magnanimous and mature than the ones around today. People see the bitter and childish feud between Sonia Gandhi and Narendra Modi peppered with abuse and name-calling and assume it must’ve been the same among the founding fathers. This was not true. Our founding fathers were true statesmen and despite all their disagreements they held immense respect for one another and welcomed diversity of opinion in a way we haven't seen since.

Nehru and Bose

An insecure Nehru?

A key motive for the conspiracy theories about Subhash Chandra Bose is the perception that Nehru feared for the return of Netaji to India and did his best to suppress and prevent that. However, this theory too does not hold scrutiny. Other influential members of the INA returned to India and went on to have very active personal and political lives sans any persecution by the Indian Government. Capt Lakshmi Sahgal, a key leader in the INA went on to join the Communist Party of India and was even a Presidential nominee in 2002 against Abdul Kalam. Hardly the trajectory for a persecuted leader.

When the top three key leaders of the INA were captured by the British and put to trial for treason, it was the Congress that constituted a defense committee to defend these men in court. There was no animosity between the Congress leadership and the INA.

Netaji’s Military Leadership

How good was Subhash Chandra Bose’s Military strategies? This has never been explored enough. Was he the right person to lead an army? Did he have the necessary experience? Optimism and Idealism can only carry you so far.

Did Netaji really expect to defeat a two million strong British Indian army using a 60,000 strong force of defeated Prisoners-of-War as the INA essentially was? It was brave, but was it also foolhardy? Is it a surprise they hardly made any progress through India?

A number of Japanese officers saw Bose as militarily inexperienced but full of idealism and determination. The Japanese initially intended to use the INA only for reconnaissance and propaganda but was eventually prevailed upon by Bose to use in combat. If the Japanese did not want to use the INA for combat, then the myth of the INA being a well-oiled disciplined military machine is probably just that: a myth. After initial early successes in Burma, the INA and Japanese Army collided against the wall of British Indian defense which led to the largest ever Japanese defeat at that point. Severe casualties were inflicted upon both the Japanese and the INA.

Netaji’s Allies: Hitler and Tojo

This is the most obvious indictment of Netaji’s policies. When he fled India from the British, he set up camp in Germany, associating himself with the Nazis and setting up his first regiments of the Indian National Army in Germany from the PoWs of the British Indian Army captured by Rommel in North Africa. His alliance with the Nazis was not one of mere convenience. He made no indications of his unease of the Nazi tactics and the genocide they were conducting in various countries in Europe. His dream was of a German army marching through a netural USSR and liberating India from the clutches of the British. The British Raj, loathsome though it was, would not come close to the kind of horrors that a Nazi occupying force could have wreaked on a pluralistic society like India in their quest for maintaining ‘Aryan purity’. Did Netaji not stop to ponder this? It is not revealed in any of his writings of that period.

When Germany attacked the Soviets and it was clear there would be no passage through USSR to India, Bose allied himself with the Japanese. The Japanese Imperial Army under Hideki Tojo was leaving behind its own trail of death and destruction in Asia that would make the Nazis seem like amateurs.

Independence under the Japanese?

What exactly did Subhash Chandra Bose seek to achieve? Was it complete Independence? If so, fighting British troops with the help of the Imperial Japanese Army would have hardly achieved that. At best, it would have replaced the British empire with a Japanese one. And let’s look at what occupation under the Japanese Imperial Army meant.

When the Japanese occupied the Chinese city of Nanking, they murdered over 300,000 civilians and prisoners. Over 20,000 women and children were raped, mutilated and then killed. 1000s of women were kidnapped each night. This event has been given the grim title of ‘The Rape of Nanking’. Such excessive brutality was not reserved only for the Chinese though. When the Japanese War Machine rolled into Philippines it left behind 100,000 civilians dead in its wake. When it reached Singapore, more than 50,000 civilians were massacred. In addition to civilian massacres, the Japanese army raped over 200,000 women across territories such as China, South Korea, Philippines, Burma, the Dutch East Indies, Australia etc. These were known as ‘comfort women’ and they were kept imprisoned for the course of the war to serve the needs of the Japanese Army.

Was this the army that Netaji wanted to bring in to India? And what was to have spared India the horrors of the Japanese Imperial Army? At best Netaji was too naïve to believe the Japanese would not carry out such horrors in India or at worst maybe he simply did not care of the consequences at which Indian Independence was to be achieved. Was a brutalized, raped and massacred country occupied by Japan more preferable to the British Raj for Bose? It is clear as day that for all its atrocities, the British Raj was nowhere as close to brutal to the Japanese. Why then does none question Subash Chandra Bose’s wisdom in allying with Japanese, which if successful, would have brought inevtiable doom for India?

Oh what’s that? You say that the Netaji would’ve prevented such things from happening in India and kept it safe from the ravenous appetite of the Japanese? That is simply not true.

The Homfreyganj Massacre

To understand the consequences of Subhash Chandra Bose leading an India under Japanese occupation, it is important to look at historical evidence. It so happens that there was a small sliver of India under the occupation of Japan. This was the Andaman and Nicobar islands which was occupied by Japan as early as in 1942. Almost immediately a wave of torture, executions and imprisonment was carried out by the Japanese. On December 1943, political control of the islands was handed to the Azad Hind Government led by Subhash Chandra Bose. This was the first Indian territory to be governed by the Azad Hind government and should have been used to set an example for Netaji’s vision. However, in practice the Japanese Army still controlled all aspects of the islands and there is no evidence to suggest Bose fought to gain control of it. He visited the island only once and made no attempt to determine the true fate of the people there. Why did Bose not take a greater interest in the affairs of the subjects of the first Azad Hind territory? If he had done so, the massacre that was to happen in the following months could have been prevented.

Barely two months had passed since Netaji became the leader of the islands, when 44 unarmed civilians were shot dead in cold-blood by the Japanese army on suspicion of spying. In 1945, the Japanese sent over 300 people to neighboring islands to grow food. Only 12 survived this episode and hundreds of skeletons were later found on the beach . Overall, close to 2000 people died as a result of the Japanese occupation of Andaman and Nicobar and over 500 were tortured. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was the notional leader of these islands. Could he do nothing to stop this ill-treatment of his fellow Indian citizens?

Is this not a failure of his leadership? Is this not a failure of his commitment to serve and protect India? Was he unaware of these massacres taking place, and if so what type of leader does that make him? Else, was he aware of the massacres but unable to stop them, and if so what type of leader does that make him? If his plan of liberating India with the help of the Japanese was successful, would we have seen a repeat of this across India? Do we have reason to believe he could have stopped in India what he did not in the Andamans? Was he fully aware of the consequences of leading a Japanese Army to free India or was he just naïve?

These are the uncomfortable questions that arise from the story of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and I'm not sure if anyone would like to know the answers.

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