I have been quite intrigued by the emotionally-charged release of 100 files in the Netaji papers as promised by the Government of India on 23 January , 2016. That a presumably long-dead man is able to exert a huge influence on the public imagination today is an indication that India suffers from a paucity of heroes. Subhas Chandra Bose is a hero, albeit a flawed one; and the mystery behind his death has by no means been cleared up by the release of these papers.
Bose appeals to Indians for all the right reasons: he is the one person who took to arms to bring down the mightiest empire in the world. The fact that he came close to overthrowing the British, if only the Japanese sweep through Asia had not been halted in Assam, makes it all the more poignant. He clearly had charisma: he was elected to head the Congress (although he was maneuvered out of it), and he was able to convince 50,000 Indians, especially from Southeast Asia, to march in the Indian National Army. He had a brilliant mind, and he was a man of action as well as of thought.
Bose also never disappointed us by actually ruling us. That is the privilege of those who die young: in our imaginations they remain forever young, uncorrupted, idealistic. The contrast to those who did rule us, chiefly the Nehru dynasty, is dramatic. The Nehrus have made a right hash of things; and we imagine that Bose might not have. Who knows? It is one of the imponderables of history.
But there are also wrong reasons for remembering Bose. One is an idealization of him as some god-like creature: he was human, and therefore there were all-too-human failings.I was reminded of the truism that we are fresh out of messiahs. There are no knights in shining armor, either. This I have learned from bitter experience: all our heroes end up being flawed, and they will usually disappoint us, partly because we project our own hopes, insecurities and fears upon them. Thus, no leader (except some spiritual leaders – for instance Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo and the Dalai Lama) stands up to pitiless scrutiny.
And they should be scrutinised, not turned into little tin gods whom we put in the closet, and trot out with pious, insincere homilies every now and then. This is about to happen to Gandhi, on January 31st. He has become a shibboleth. All the humbugs will cry crocodile tears, but none will seriously question whether in fact it was Gandhi’s pacifism that got us independence. Nobody will question his crazy insistence that when facing murderers, we should just allow them to kill us: as he told Jews, and Hindus. His bizarre ‘experiments’ lying naked with his teenaged female relatives were simply outrageous.
Similarly, Dr Ambedkar was a great man, and a lot of what he said made sense: for instance, he foresaw the consequences of what would happen if there were no complete population transfer during Partition; he also realized that for SC/ST, it was better to stay in the Indic path of Buddhism than to convert to semitic faiths. But I hold against him his major ‘achievement’: an unreadable, over-long Constitution that over-reaches itself and attempts to anticipate all future eventualities. And it violates its own precepts of equality by explicitly giving extra privileges to certain religions via Articles 29 and 30.
Similarly with Netaji. Here are a few legitimate questions about him, and I think they are appropriate to ask, and here are my conjectures as to the answ/ers:
- Did the Nehru dynasty try to erase Netaji and many others from history? Yes. Why? That is a very good question. Eliminating competition (much like Mughal princes used to bump off most relatives)? General megalomania? Who knows? This should be explored as a case study in cynical thought control
- Did Netaji die in Taiwan in a plane crash? Unlikely, even though ‘unfortunate’ plane accidents are rather common to get rid of inconvenient people (eg Sanjay, Zia, Pilot, Reddy). The weight of accumulated evidence suggests that the plane crash story was a covert operation put about just to throw others off the trail
- Did he die in a Siberian gulag? Quite possibly. A Soviet gulag would be an excellent place to keep an eye on a difficult person. And Nehru was pretty chummy with the Soviets
- Was he justified in pursuing the ends, whatever the means? Probably. His ends were clear: complete independence. In this quest, he felt justified in allying with anybody, including the Germans and the Japanese. There were other great freedom fighters who advocated the same, such as Rashbehari Bose and Chempaka Raman Pillai. Besides, at least at that time, the Germans and Japanese looked like the lesser of the evils, compared to the known devil, the brutal British
- Was he wrong to advocate violence? Probably not. The British realized they were on precarious ground: they had managed to brainwash a lot of Indians into unthinkingly following orders (eg. the massacre at Jallianwallah Bagh). But if their Indian troops mutinied, the British would have been wiped out in days. Violent bullies that they were, the British understood violence
- Was he a leftist? Yes, definitely. The party he formed, the All-India Forward Bloc, is totally leftist. If you look at his family (other than his German wife and daughter) the better-known ones are lunatic-fringe leftists. Of course, he’s not responsible for them, and, to be charitable, Indian leftism then wasn’t Stalinism yet, it was mostly anti-imperialistic; but he definitely was a leftist
- Was he a Hindu patriot? I doubt it. He was a leftist and a socialist, which was fashionable at the time, and he may have actually believed in it. He may also have been an atheist. He may have tried to appease Hindu sentiment to unite all Indians to fight against the British
- Did he appease Muslims? Possibly. His excessive use of Urdu, even in all the forms used by the INA, and in the very words ‘Azad Hind Fauj’ and ‘Ittefaq, Etemad, Qurbani’ suggests this. He wanted the Muslims of what are now Pakistan and Bangladesh to support his struggle. There is a suggestion that the INA flag had a leaping tiger (instead of the Congress charkha) as a nod to Tipu. Besides, it is standard leftist behavior everywhere to be extra solicitous of Muslims
- Did he try to appeal to South Indians? Apparently not. Despite the irony that a large part of the INA that marched with him to India were Tamils from Southeast Asia (some of whom had never even been in India), he didn’t feel the need to indulge them, even though all the Urdu would have been completely meaningless to them
- Was he a war criminal? No. The term ‘war criminal’ in relation to WW2 really meant “someone who was against the west”. Thus, the war crimes trial in Japan, for instance, was opposed by the dissenting Indian jurist Radha Binod Pal as merely a kangaroo court, with victors taking revenge. The sworn testimony that Nehru wrote a letter to Clement Attlee naming Bose a war criminal brings into focus that Nehru himself was guilty of ‘crimes against humanity’ for policies that ensured that 500 million Indians have suffered from extreme poverty
- Would India have been a better place under him than Nehru? Sentiment says yes, but that is the $64,000 question. Bose was a better human being and a patriot, and he was not a brown sahib. He was also significantly smarter, and it is less likely that he would have been duped by the Brits (eg. Nehru taking Kashmir to the UN) or the Chinese (eg. Nehru in 1962). But it is entirely possible that Bose would have followed some kind of leftist policy akin to what Nehru did – that was conventional wisdom at the time.
So, on balance, we need to deconstruct Bose carefully. In fact, to be cynical, I’d say that the principal value of Bose today is as a stick to beat the Nehruvian Stalinists with; the latter do have reason to be embarrassed. There are those who do not understand this, and indulge in absurd hero-worship. One possible reason is Bengali chauvinism. I was reminded of this when I had a brief Twitter argument with one Saswati Sarkar, a Bengali-American professor. Well, ‘argument’ is the wrong word, because she attacked me; I was polite, but she kept abusing me till I finally gave up in disgust.
Sarkar’s contention was that I was ‘ignorant’ and ‘bigoted’. Ok, fine. She had written a very long essay on the Durga Puja where she quoted a few writings by Bose, and my crime was that I had not read it. But I did read it, and it did not change my mind. If you are a committed leftist, by definition you are converted to that pseudo-religion, and you can no longer be a Hindu: I see daily the gyrations of communists in Kerala to pretend to be Hindus (especially now that they are concerned about losing the Hindu vote). What she quotes could well have been cynical and calculated for effect.
To sum it up, we need to take a look at Netaji dispassionately and without prejudice, and evaluate him not only based on today’s 20:20 hindsight, but also based on the prevalent wisdom of his time. I believe he will come across as a hero still, but not some demi-god beyond criticism. We must do the same for all of our other beloved leaders. No, there are no messiahs, and if you believe in them, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.