More articles by

R Prasannan
R Prasannan


One life too many

  • Ice and fire
    Ice and fire: Mahatma Gandhi with Subhas Chandra Bose and Kasturba Gandhi at Birla House.
  • Power struggle
    Power struggle: Bose and Nehru.

1945 was not the first time Subhas Chandra Bose died

The enigma of Subhas Bose did not begin in the fertile imagination of any die-hard Bose fan or a conspiracy theorist. It began in the rational and intelligent minds of two men in India, who could also be called the most powerful men in India at that time. One was General Archibald Wavell, the viceroy of India. The other was Mahatma Gandhi, the man who ruled over the hearts of Indians.

On August 23, 1945, Tokyo Radio broadcast that Bose had died in an air crash in Formosa a week earlier. The next day Wavell cabled London: “I wonder if the Japanese announcement of Subhas Chandra Bose's death in an air crash is true. I suspect it very much; it is just what would be given out if he meant to go underground.”

Wavell asked his home member (home minister), Sir R.F. Mudie, to prepare a note on what to do with Bose (if he were found alive) and his INA. Then he cabled British intelligence in southeast Asia to make inquiries, and sent two British and two Indian officers to Bangkok and Formosa.

Mudie subsequently reported to Wavell that arresting Bose (if he were alive) and bringing him to trial in India as a war criminal could be dangerous, as that could anger Indians. Then he suggested, “In many ways the easiest course would be to leave him where he is and not ask for his release....”

It is now believed that either Wavell or Mudie told Gandhi about their disbelief. Later, when Gandhi met some of the INA prisoners (Netaji's followers who had been captured by the British) in Dum Dum jail in Calcutta, he told them that he believed Netaji was alive. Few knew about this meeting. But when he reiterated his belief at a public meeting in Contai in West Bengal on January 2, 1946, press reporter Sayan Chatterjee, who had been following Gandhi during his last years, flashed it on the wire services. The enigma was born in the public mind. (In 1996, Chatterjee, then working for Kesri newspaper in Delhi, told me that he was convinced that Gandhi had some authentic information.)

Why didn't Wavell believe the news? And what did Mudie find out and tell Wavell? What did Mudie or Wavell tell Gandhi? The answer to these questions could be in the classified files which successive prime ministers from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi have been refusing to divulge. Most governments have said that revelation of the papers might affect relations with foreign countries, and most suspect Russia.

But, apart from that, there has also been a fear that publication of the papers might compromise the image of Netaji himself—one reason why even A.B. Vajpayee and Modi, both of whom had asked for declassification when they were outside the government, have been reluctant after 'seeing' the contents of the files.

The fact is that several things about Netaji were not exactly flattering to the heroic image that has been cultivated in popular imagination. And now the fact that Modi has called the large Bose family to a meeting has further strengthened this belief. Could Modi be seeking their consent to reveal all the truth, howmuchever unpalatable it might be? As Bose's own kinsman Sugata Bose wrote in the otherwise flattering biography titled His Majesty's Opponent, Bose had made a pact with the devil, that is Hitler.

Bose has to be understood in the historical context in which he operated. After his heroic escape from India in 1941 and his adventurous journey through Afghanistan, he reached Europe and sought Germany's help to free India from the British. The news of his escape electrified the nation, including Gandhi and most Congress leaders, though they disapproved of his pact with the devil.

From Sugata Bose's book, it is clear that Hitler initially thought of helping him raise an army of Indian soldiers. Several Indian soldiers, who had been fighting on the British side in north Africa, had been captured by Germans, and many volunteered to join the German-led Axis ranks if they could liberate India.

There was another factor. Britain was virtually alone in opposing Hitler then. Soviet Russia had not yet joined the war; on the contrary, Stalin was perceived to be an ally of Hitler, having entered into a mutual non-aggression pact. So, when Bose made his way to Germany, he believed, as did many, that Hitler would soon persuade Stalin to invade British India through Afghanistan.

By the time Bose reached Germany, Hitler was having second thoughts. He realised that it wouldn't be easy to defeat Britain in all its colonial territories. Unknown to Bose, he was planning to invade Soviet Russia (which he did subsequently) and seek a compromise with Britain. He sent emissaries to London, asking Britain to let him be the overlord of Europe while Britain could retain its colonial possessions. It was when Britain refused his overtures that Hitler began bombing Britain, in what came to be known as the Battle of Britain, and invaded Soviet Russia.

Meanwhile, Hitler's eastern ally, Japan, was having designs on Britain's colonial possessions, including Singapore, Malaya, Burma and India. This suited Hitler. He could now ask Bose to tie up with the Japanese. By then, Rash Behari Bose had been recruiting Indians in Singapore and the Indian troops who were captured by the Japanese into an Indian National Army.

Britain's worst fears came true when Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942. British intelligence picked up the information that Bose was being sent to Japan. That posed a clearer and more present danger to them. Their worry was whether the Congress and the masses in India would be swayed if they came to know that Bose, who was immensely popular, was raising a liberation army and joining the Japanese to liberate India.

On March 24, 1942, British intelligence planted a news item in the wire services that Bose had been killed in an air crash on his way to Tokyo. (Yes, Bose's air crash death had been faked earlier, too.) The news fooled Gandhi. He sent a condolence message to Subhas's mother, Prabhabati. Anyway, Bose himself would broadcast from Germany the very next day that he was alive. “My death is perhaps an instance of wishful thinking,” he said. Gandhi, relieved but shamed, sent a cable to Prabhabati, expressing his joy.

But the incident hardened Gandhi's mind against the British who had declared India's support to the war effort without consulting Indian leaders. As London sent Sir Stafford Cripps on a peace mission, Bose broadcast an exhortation to the Congress to reject his offers. Gandhi and the Congress did. As Sugata wrote, “Gandhi was not of a mind to accept a postdated cheque on a bank that was obviously failing.”

By then Japan, which had designs on Britain's Indian empire, was warming up to Bose while Hitler, who had his eyes set on Europe and Africa, was turning tepid to him. Japan asked Germany and Italy to demand freedom to the Indians and the Arabs from British rule, but Hitler ignored it. On May 29, 1942, Bose had his first and last face-to-face meeting with Hitler, which is said to have been a disaster.

By then in India, Gandhi's mind was getting radicalised. His stance earlier was that India could support Britain's war effort if it were given freedom. Then he said, “If India were freed, her first step would probably be to negotiate with Japan.” As Gandhi launched the Quit India movement in August, Bose declared support to it from Germany.

But Bose also realised the futility of continuing in Germany, and so undertook his famous submarine voyage to the east, and landed in Singapore in July, took over control of the INA originally raised by Rash Behari Bose and began his march with the Japanese through Burma towards India.

But there were other forces at play. Though losing in Burma, the British had begun to reverse their falling fortunes in Africa. Field Marshal Montgomery's famous victory over the 'Desert Fox' Erwin Rommel turned the tide of the war in Africa. The Italians were effectively checked elsewhere, and Stalin's Russia was beginning its fightback against Germany. In what seemed to be their last stand, the British put up a ferocious fight in the battlefields of Kohima and Imphal, and stopped the Japanese and INA advance into India.

The Japanese retreated, and with that Bose's relations with the Japanese leadership also began to sour. As Marshall J. Getz recounted in his biography, Bose was a falling tiger by then. As the British launched a counter-offensive in the summer of 1944, “an INA unit in Singapore mutinied. Bose panicked and resorted to fascist methods in order to crush the impending rebellion in his camp.... As the helpless INA soldiers began to desert back to the British... or even commit suicide, the Japanese... completely scorned Bose.”

By then, the Axis powers were losing in Europe, but there were also cracks in the Allied lineup. By July 1945, last shots of World War II had been fired in Europe. Italy had been overrun by the Allies armies. Germany had capitulated under a massive Anglo-American invasion from the west and the south; the east had been completely overrun by the Soviets.

Only Japan stood out, but it was crumbling. At Potsdam on July 26, 1945, Britain and the US asked Japan to surrender or face “prompt and utter destruction”. By then, Japanese general staff were making secret overtures to Stalin's Soviet Russia. Bose, apparently, spotted an opportunity again of allying with the Russians (which apparently had been his original object when he escaped from India) to which the Japanese also agreed. On August 6, just ten days after making the threat of handing out “prompt and utter destruction” the US carried it out by atom-bombing Hiroshima and then Nagasaki.

The hope for Bose and a few Japanese general staff was that there had been a non-aggression pact between Japan and the Soviet Union though they had been on opposing sides. But their hopes died when Stalin formally declared war on Japan on August 10 and moved to occupy the Chinese territories that Japan had occupied during the war.

It is believed that Bose spotted an opportunity in seeking the help of Stalin to throw the British out of India. On August 17, “an exhausted and emotional Bose left Saigon in a Japanese bomber. The plane headed north, probably for either Manchuria, by then occupied by Stalin's Red Army, or to the Soviet Union,” wrote Getz. The plane refuelled in Formosa and crashed when it took off from there.

The Tokyo Radio broadcast about his death, which came a week after, was based on a dispatch by the Domei news agency which sourced its information from S.A. Ayer, publicity and broadcasting minister of the Azad Hind provisional government. But, Ayer later revealed that the plan had been to send Bose to Russia across Manchuria. The Japanese Secret Headquarters Main File had also documented Bose's intention, since October 1944, of going to Manchuria. What everyone now wants to know is whether he actually carried out his plan.

The British ruled India for two more years, but always worried about Stalin's Soviet Union. Most historians believe that the British intelligence suspected (rightly or wrongly) that Stalin would prop up Bose, whom they suspected to be in Russia, and send him to India to lead a communist uprising in India. And, given his magnetic personality and leadership qualities, that would have been more lethal than a Red Army itself.

Wouldn't that have worried Nehru, too?

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