Vanquishing The Great Leader: Netaji and The story of India’s Experiments with Lies
“Facts are facts and will not disappear on account of your likes.” -Jawaharlal Nehru
By S.B. Veda
Below Subhas Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru, Indian National Congress Annual General Meeting, 1938
What the Indian masses remember on January 23rd, the Government of India labours to forget: that a man named Subhas Chandra Bose was born on this day, that he dedicated a significant portion of his adult life to the struggle for independence from British Rule, and that his legend still never fails to inspire, even as his disappearance continues to perplex.
That the government of India wants to erase his memory from the public consciousness is evidenced most recently by the response of the Indian Home Ministry to a Right To Information (RTI) request by an average citizen on Bose’s contribution to the Freedom Struggle: “The information is not available in the records.” As implausible as it might sound, according to the Home Ministry in 2011, they had no records on Netaji’s involvement in the freedom movement!
In fact, to this day, just two Indian states mark his birth anniversary with a public holiday, much less warrant any notice from the Central Government.
For a government that seems not terribly interested in the events of the man’s life or his contributions to the nation, it is surprisingly obsessed with proving that his death occurred in a plane crash two years before India’s birth, holding three inquiries into it, and making a failed attempt to bring his ‘ashes’ home and get them accepted by family members.
Why? And, and what really happened?
These are the key questions that former Indian Express reporter, Anuj Dhar examines in an extensively researched new book on the mystery, appropriately titled “India’s Biggest Cover-up”, which was re-released in an easier to read paperback called “No Secrets” in 2013. The interview, which follows is an amalgamation of two meetings between the launces of each book.
My own personal journey with this story began when I was barely a teenager, and had just given a speech on Netaji for an Indo-Canadian heritage language school in Ottawa. The daughter of an Indian diplomat corrected me my ending, that nobody knows what happened to Bose after August, 1945. She claimed that his rivals in the Congress Party, including Jawarhalal Nehru not only knew but had also ‘arranged’ it so that Bose was never to be seen or heard from again. I listened patiently but rubbished the thought only to have it recycled, some years hence, when I learned that this girl’s father had been a highly placed intelligence officer for the Indian Government (though not posted as such in Ottawa).
More than two decades later, her words ring through my head as I climb the darkened stairwell to a third floor room of a little-known guest house in Kolkata. The hairs on my neck stiffen as the notion pervades me that, if I was a character in a mystery novel or Hollywood thriller, this would be about the time when either I’d encounter the killer or bear surprised witness to his lifeless prey!
A stout bespectacled middle-aged man ushers me into a room where someone sits casually on a bed, matching the picture I’ve seen on Google Images of journalist and researcher, Anuj Dhar. I breathe a sigh of relief. But it is short-lived.
“You’re the Canadian?” he asks.
I nod, and introduce myself.
“I’ve agreed to do this because you’re not Indian Press. This won’t be published in India will it?”
“Only Little India.” I reply with a grin. He seems not much amused but makes a half-smile, anyway.
“I have an agreement not to give interviews before the book launch. Only the press release is to be available to Indian media ahead of time. So, if you sell this to a local paper, say tomorrow, you’ll get me in heaps of trouble with the press, here, which is worse being in the bad books of the Government.”
Wondering if I do, indeed, have a genuine ‘scoop’ ahead of me, I sit down, and ask if I can record our session for reference. “Just don’t put it on youtube.” Says the bespectacled usher in a tone that makes me think he is not amused, either.
With the boundaries then drawn, I warily begin what evolves into an interview about a book that reads like a mystery or thriller, only it’s on India’s modern history.
S.B.Veda: I was at a conference, recently, and a speaker began his talk by quoting from a letter written in 1927 from Netaji to his elder brother in which he laments the politics of greed, corruption and unbridled self-interest in Indian politics. The speaker remarked on what little has changed in politics since, and I was amazed at the relevance of Bose to a South Indian business executive and author at an IT Conference, eighty five-years later. So, why is Netaji still relevant, today?
Anuj Dhar: Because he was a young man who sacrificed a bright future in the coveted Indian Civil Service to struggle against (the) oppressive rule of an imperialist power – we don’t see much of that sentiment, today; because he united Indians of all religions, castes, creeds, linguistic groups and even political affiliations, and encouraged their service irrespective of gender – we don’t see that kind of leadership, today; because was under house arrest, he escaped and was hunted by the most powerful country in the world at the time; and because his disappearance was never fully explained even by three public inquires. People wonder, too: what if? Suppose he hadn’t been exiled from the scene or vanquished from the freedom struggle? Would India be different, today? By extension would we be different, as Indians? He represents what we could have been, and maybe what we would have been. Maybe he embodies what we may yet have the chance to become. But before we can move forward, completely, we need to learn the truth about what happened to him.
Unfortunately, I can’t claim to know, definitively. But probably, the Government of India knows, and is suppressing this information. I’ll get to that, later. Let me tell you what didn’t happen: Netaji did not likely die in a plane crash in Formosa in 1945. Even, the Taiwanese Government says so…they asserted to the Mukherjee Commission that no evidence exists of a plane crash in Formosa (where Bose was alleged to have died) at that time, and the commission received corroboration of this from documents obtained from the US State Department.
What about the eye-witness testimony of the crash and his death?
You’re referring to Col. Habibur Rahman, who claimed to have seen his burnt body and Captain Yoshida (Taneyoshi) and others. Aside from the fact that the testimony of these people are riddled with contradictions and there was never any direct evidence of Netaji’s death – not even a clear photograph, much less a death certificate by a Japanese military doctor, which would have been required had he died under their treatment, Rahman is exactly the kind of confidant of Bose to perpetrate a misinformation campaign at Netaji’s behest, to camouflage his escape, which was planned with the Japanese.”\
So, where did Netaji escape to, if he wasn’t Tokyo-bound?
Well, four days after his death, he is spotted by an American war correspondent near Saigon, and this is reported in the US at the time. Then, around a week later, the US learn that his planned destination was not Tokyo but Manchuria at the Russian border. Then the following year, the British start receiving intelligence Bose was not only alive but also in Russia.
And why Russia?
Netaji’s reading of international relations was very adept. He could see an impending rift between the Soviets and the British. His political philosophy vis-à-vis opposing the British has never been in dispute…that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. He saw an opportunity in the friction between the two cagey allies and rival world powers, and set about biding his time as Gandhi himself put it, in Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Gandhi believed he was alive?
He not only believed it; he knew it. In1946 while addressing Congress faithful, he said his inner voice had convinced him that Subhas was alive and that even if his ashes were brought before him, Gandiji would not believe he was dead. In fact, we learned later that his inner voice was actually an intelligence report. People like think of Gandhi as a spiritual leader though he was also a lawyer by profession; his beliefs were not based on blind faith but rather fact, evidence. There is another interesting account, by the way, of a journalist, who witnessed Gandhiji rebuking both Nehru and Patel, and saying how he wished the other brother, the rebellious son, Subhas would return. When the journalist commented that Netaji was dead. Gandhi responded angrily “no he is not – he is in Russia!”.
Gandhi used the idea of Bose returning to try and reign-in the Congress leadership…Nehru and Patel.
This was a tactic – invoking Netaji’s name. The party, itself (Congress) used Bose’s legend whenever it was convenient. Though the INA (revolutionary Army of Bose) was has been ridiculed since by Congress and their favoured academics, the INA trials were what exploded British rule in the minds of the people. Bose and his revolutionary army had captured the collective imagination…and what would be better than the hero returning from exile to claim the mantle of leadership? Of course…this was a great fear of both the British and Bose’s political rivals.
But that never happened. If he was alive, why didn’t he return?
Well there are two theories about this. One is that the Russians held him in captivity to hold over Nehru’s government to gain his cooperation. The other is that he did return but decided to live in anonymity as a monk, named Bhagwanji Gumnami Baba in Uttar Pradesh. While evidence exists to support both theories, those who believe he died in a Soviet prison would say that the monk evidence is a smokescreen to distract from the Russian angle, though I find it hard to discount the monk angle. I have considered both, and go through the evidence of both theories in the book, and examine their respective plausibility.
One would think that given the friendship between Delhi and Moscow, it shouldn’t be difficult to gain their cooperation in revealing whether Bose was in Soviet Russia. Many KGB files were declassified after the fall of the Soviet Union, so why hasn’t the Russian angle been corroborated?
AD: It has been corroborated in terms of hearsay by ex-KGB operatives to Indian researchers, among them Dr. Purabi Roy of the Asiatic Society, who went to the Russian Federation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. She was advised that the documents verifying their claims could be released at the request of the Government of India because, you see, this was a time when many previously secret KGB documents were being brought to the public domain. Unfortunately, our government didn’t follow through. It was a missed opportunity when an Anti-Soviet Yeltsin government was in power.
I assume then, that the Indian Government ignored the request?
They paid it lip-service to it. Let’s take the example, which I cite in the book of Wallenberg. He was a Swedish national, who was like Oscar Schindler in that he saved many Jews from the Nazis. He was only the second non-American…someone not born in America to be made an honorary citizen for his efforts, etc.. News comes that Wallenberg has died in an accident in 1946. Then it comes out that no…he didn’t die in an accident; he was really in a Russian prison – a Siberian (prison) camp, in fact. So, the moment news starts trickling in that he is alive, his family and his government react in a most natural way because they have no bad intention. His mother and half-sister and half-brother approach the Swedish Prime Minister and they say this man was working for you, he was in your employ, so please find out what happened to him. Now, the reaction of the Swedes is very natural, they ask their ambassador in Moscow to take the matter up with the Russians at the highest levels. So, they have a highest level approach. It’s a very natural thing when nations want to seriously engage with one another. And, mind you, the Swedes did not have very good diplomatic relations with Russia at the time…certainly nothing like the closeness our country has to Russia. The matter is brought up at the highest levels during when the two nations communicate at every juncture. The result is that in 1947, after saying that an exhaustive search was conducted, the Russians confirmed that Wallenberg was not present in their territory. But the hearsay stories that Wallenberg is alive in a prison in the Soviet Union continue. And this is all mere hearsay, mind you…no direct evidence is presented to the Swedes but they persist in taking up the issue at the highest levels whenever new a story comes out. Then in 1957, the Swedish Prime Minister is in Russia, and he tells the Russians “Wallenberg has become a really big issue for us”. Though, Sweden did not have a statesman at the helm like us…we supposedly had world leaders, larger than life figures leading the country but Sweden clearly did not. And yet, would you believe that in 1957 Russia did an about-face and said that Wallenberg was in Russia, that he died at KGB headquarters of a heart attack while under interrogation? Obviously you don’t die of a heart attack by natural causes at age 39, so the interrogation went too far. I can cite other similar cases where the Russians stonewall and then due to diplomatic pressure at the highest levels, relent. But we, a country who are ruled by statesmen…these statesmen, who from 1947 until the break-up of the Soviet Union never asked the question. Despite having all these intelligence reports from the British and the Americans, Nehru called them cock and bull stories and refused to act. Then in the 1990s, after Russians, themselves started suggesting that Subhas was there, Indian researchers asked the government to take up the matter. Instead of issuing a even a demarche (the first step in showing that you’re serious about a matter with another country) let alone take the matter up at the highest levels, like the Swedes, the government issues a Note Verbal, which is a third person diplomatic communication between two nations…a very low-level interaction. No high officials, much less the foreign minister or head of government are in any way involved. Think about it, a little issue like Pranab Mukherjee as foreign minister was being checked (by security) at some airport in Russia warranted an Indian demarche but in the Bose matter, the Indian government doesn’t think it is as important as a Minister going through security at an airport!
So how did the Russians respond to the Note Verbal?
They stonewalled, just as they did with the Swedes but instead of persisting or elevating matters, the Foreign Ministry officials conclude in a secret document, excerpt of which I paste in the book that “It would be unrealistic for us to expect the Russians to give our scholars access to KGB archives.” So, they suggest that what would be appropriate is to ask the Russians to make a search of their archives on our behalf, and that the reasonable course of action would be to ask the Indian Ambassador in Moscow to make a suitable demarche to Russian authorities on this matter. Now, this recommendation is seen by then External Affairs Minister, Honourable Pranab Mukherjee, now our President, and he scrawls a note to the Joint Secretaries and Foreign Secretary “Need to discuss, urgently”. And they discuss and then conveniently all talk of issuing a demarche is forgotten. This is called the Black Magic of Bengal. What good is it being a Bengali when he (Mukherjee) is unwilling to take up the case on behalf of the most famous Bengali leader? He should have personally taken up the matter with his counterpart in Russia if he cared about it. Instead, he scuttles the issuance of even a demarche. And he dares to flaunt his Bengali credentials!
What would have been the harm in asking from India’s point of view?
Why would you ask when you know the answer? And rather, don’t want it to be revealed. It’s too dangerous a fact to reveal. In fact, there are many instances of the Indian Government lying publicly about an issue and then revealing the truth later on. One example is secret defense cooperation with Israel, especially in the nuclear area, that is now matter-of-factly acknowledged. But the idea that Bose was imprisoned by the Russians and possibly used as leverage to get their way with Nehru and his successors – this would explode the myth of Indian statesmanship, destroy the moral superiority of freedom struggle era Congress politicians, and maybe be the one thing that could break the stranglehold of the Congress party by a single family.
What’s the solution?
AD: We have to keep a popular movement going to make public all the files related to Netaji. No public inquiry into Netaji’s death would have been convened if not for public pressure. When we submitted RTIs on Subhas’s disappearance, only a handful of documents were provided. There are many documents, which have been held back by the government on the grounds that it could affect relations with foreign governments. What possible problem difficulties could it cause unless the Netaji was, indeed, used as a hostage?
So, you’re supporting the view that saying he died in a Russian prison?
He may well have been there but I don’t believe he met his end there. The Faizabad monk, Bhagwanji or Gumnami Baba who claimed to be Netaji, and died in 1985 had a lot of relics in his possession that someone like Netaji would have, and the descriptions match. Netaji’s family members have identified some as his likely possessions. Moreover, he had made notes in some of the books, and an independent handwriting expert concluded that the writing is Netaji’s, though this is disputed by Government hand-writing experts. So, it’s difficult to reach a conclusion until we see all the documentation. One cannot dismiss this angle, and I pay ample attention to it in the book.
But didn’t DNA testing using sampling from a relative prove that the monk was not Netaji?
The testing was done by a government lab. I think to be sure, one must commission testing at a private independent lab. Only then would such a test have credibility. After all, if one believes that the Indian government is trying to cover up that Netaji didn’t die in an air crash, why would such a government, why would one trust this same government to conduct the tests fairly?
I assume you will continue your campaign to reveal the truth until that time?
Absolutely. This is India’s JFK mystery, and the files just need to be freed.
Not long after this interview was conducted, members of Netaji’s family wrote to Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee urging her to take up the matter of declassifying the files with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. True to form, there is yet to be any action on this request.
Many of Netaji’s descendants have started an organization called “Open Platform” to advocate declassification of government files pertaining to Netaji and his disappearnce.