The why of myths on Subhas Chandra Bose: Poor scholarship, bias and politicisation of history

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on 6 February, 2016. It is being republished in view of 23 January being Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's birth anniversary. Firstpost had carried a lengthy exploration of the meaning Subhas Chandra Bose holds to Indians. Given the polarised views such an inquiry normally elicits, we received censure and praise in equal measure. One email was of particular interest, rendered thus by the scholarly nature of its contents, and the measured arguments it offered. We invited the author of the message, Saswati Sarkar, to present a counter to the piece in question. She sent us a response of impressive length and erudition, co-authored by Shanmukh and Dikgaj. Firstpost will reproduce it in two parts, over two days, beginning with this one. This is the second segment of that repartee. The first one is available here.

We have not busted all the myths concerning Subhas Bose, but only a subset of them, in particular those that have appeared in FirstpostThe abuse of Indian history: Obsession over Subhas Chandra Bose indicates that India suffers from a paucity of heroes by Rajeev Srinivasan, which has sought to propagate the same without a single evidence based on primary source, including Bose’s own writings, or contemporary history. We now examine the arguments put forward by Rajeev Srinivasan in support of the myths in question, which would in turn drive home much that is wrong in recent efforts in "popular narration of history". The arguments are worth analysing because we have been told (on social media) that Srinivasan is a long-time blogger, "the original Internet-Hindu" who has written extensively on contemporary issues from the right wing perspective. In the course of this analysis, it would then emerge how many in the right wing space slavishly emulate the vices of the contributors of persuasions in the other extreme, the left.

We first reproduce the arguments in Rajeev Srinivasan's article verbatim:

1. "Was he (Bose) 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." Bose was indeed a leftist, but for reasons entirely different from those that Srinivasan gives. To the author, the evidence that Bose was leftist, does not come from Bose’s writings, speeches, but from the observation the party he formed ``is totally leftist’’ and the ``lunatic-fringe leftism’’ of visible faces in Bose’s extended family. To start with, the most insignificant point, is one of Bose’s grand-nephews Chandra Bose recently joined BJP, in presence of its president Amit Shah. It’s unclear if the BJP president welcomes ``lunatic-fringe leftists’’ or lesser-known ones of the Bose family, or the induction itself has cured Shri Chandra Bose of lunatic-fringe leftism. More pertinent points here are political parties often assume the persona of the leader, the Congress led by Lal-Bal-Pal substantially differed from that led by Gandhi in its relation to British, which then defined Congress party, similarly, the Congress government during the regime of Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh substantially diverged from that during the regime of PV Narsimha Rao in its social and fiscal policies. Is it appropriate to deduce the inclinations of Lal-Bal-Pal from that of Gandhi, or Narsimha Rao from those of (the later de-facto PM) Sonia Gandhi?

Also, as we had pointed out Bose had not formed Forward Bloc as even a socialist party, but as an anti-imperialist one. Next, as to deductions on Bose’s politics based on that of his descendants, it is pertinent to note that Bose’s father, Janaki Nath Bose, had become a Rai Bahadur in the British regime, a title that was bestowed only on loyalists. So, can we infer that Janaki Nath Bose was an anti-imperialist based on the turn that his famous son took. Examples of similar divergences in political persuasions of family members abound. Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee, served as a President of the All India Hindu Mahasabha, and was a close associate and party colleague of Shyamaprasad Mookerjee, the founder of BJS, a precursor of BJP. Yet, an offspring of Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee, became a renowned Marxist, who opposed Hindutva in all its forms – Somnath Chatterjee – a former speaker of Lok Sabha. By the deductive logic Srinivasan, Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee, and by association Shyamaprasad Mookerjee, would be a ``definite leftist.’’

Subhas Chandra Bose.

Subhas Chandra Bose.

Closer to our times, Rajiv Shukla, a brother in law of the current NDA central minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, is a top Congress leader. So, by the same deductive logic. Rajiv Shukla is completely BJP, or Ravi Shankar Prasad is a sworn Congressman. Similarly, celebrated RW ideologue Arun Shourie, becomes a Congress man because of the persuasions of his brother in law, Suman Dubey. Last but not the least, since Maneka Gandhi has been a minister in successive NDA governments and Varun Gandhi has been a BJP MP several times, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira, Rajiv, Rahul Gandhis are BJP leaders, in reality – implying that Bharat is already Congress Mukt, retroactively, for several years now.

2. "Was he (Bose) 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.’’ (Rajeev Srinivasan) We have clearly seen that Bose was not an atheist in his personal faith, unless he was repeatedly lying about his faith in his personal letters to his close family members and his life-long (apolitical) friends, which were not written for public consumption. The author has either conjectured without perusing these letters that are available in public domain, or have bought into the latter (fraudulent conduct of Bose with his family and friends) without citing any reason for doing so. The first is textbook ignorance, while the second is bigotry. In the author’s world, a ``leftist and a socialist’’ is disqualified from being a Hindu patriot. Since socialism is considered to be leftism worldwide, and Bose had characterized himself to be a socialist, the operative word ought to be the latter. Unlike communism, socialism makes no statement on religion, so again unclear why being a socialist disqualifies one from being a Hindu patriot. In one stroke of his pen, the author has divested socialists like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, B S Moonje, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee of the honor of being called a Hindu patriot. Thus, in the world view of Anuj Dhar (read the article here), all that they did to protect Hindu interests would be attempts to appease Hindu sentiments possibly for objectives other than for fighting for Indian freedom.

"Did he (Bose) 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’’ (Rajeev Srinivasan) First, Bose was using Hindustani, not Urdu, and by the author’s logic Patel, Rajagopalachari, Rajendra Prasad and fierce Hindu nationalists like Lala Har Dayal who had seeded the Ghadar revolution, Arya Samajis who sought to convert Muslims, Pandit Lekhram who had contested the theology of Islam and was murdered for doing the same, were all appeasing Muslims through their usage of Hindustani and/or Urdu. Second, the author is factually incorrect in proclaiming that it is a standard leftist behavior everywhere to be extra solicitous of Muslims. For example, Stalin had crushed both the Chechens and the Crimean Tartars ruthlessly, when they opposed his collectivisation and/or collaborated with the Nazis. Similarly, during the revolt against the Nizam of Hyderabad, a considerable amount of resistance, especially in the initial stages, against Nizami atrocities came from the Communists allied with the Andhra Mahasabha. Finally, the way in which the erstwhile USSR dealt with the Hezbollah in 1985, during the kidnapping of the Soviet embassy workers, was exceptionally ruthless. The author’s statement is true in the current Indian context, but is not substantiated worldwide and at all times (including in India). Third, the author does not bother to inform his readers who suggested that the leaping tiger of the INA flag was a nod to Tipu, but we will trace a possible source. What however the conjecture reflects is an acute bigotry whereby adoption of an ancient Indic symbol of valor will imply appeasement of Muslims only because that symbol (albeit in a different form) was usurped by a ruler who the author dislikes (with good reasons in this case). In the author’s world, Hinduism must be defined, not by its intrinsic values, but by negation of those who opposed it.

3. "Did he (Bose) 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." As we have shown, Azad Hind publicity, including all the momentous declarations, were simultaneously made in Hindustani and Tamil, something that no Indian government has done till date. This accusation is therefore again a product of ignorance or bigotry.

4. "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.’’ (Rajeev Srinivasan) We contend that a careful evaluation of all historical figures is of essence to get Indian history right, regardless of whether the truth glorifies or delegitimizes any historical figure, or any part of the polity, including the ``Nehruvian Stalinists’’. And that needs to be done using relevant primary sources and other documentation while scrupulously identifying the source of each. It is only a contempt for history as a scholarly discipline that sees the value of such rigorous studies in who it might embarrass. What if part of the truth that emerges is different from what one expects, and exonerate the ``Nehruvian Stalinists’’ (albeit unlikely)? Should those parts be concealed then just as a lot of Indian history has been concealed from Indians by the ``Nehruvian Stalinists’’? Is the author seeking to replace one set ``distortians’’ by another? Incidentally, BJP’s political opponents like Nitish Kumar have been ascribing similar motive to BJP’s declassification drive that the author believes is the principal value of Bose today. Nitish Kumar has said: ``The BJP whose leaders had no role in the Independence movement are basically interested in creating ‘conflict’ between different ideologies for political gains’’. PM Modi has of course publicly asserted that a nation that does not know its true history, does not make one, and getting national history right is what the goal of studying Bose or any other icon ought to be.

As a point of fact, we had asked the author to read primary sources on Netaji before arriving at conclusions on him, our articles on Durga Puja is certainly not a primary source on Bose, but reproduces some of the primary content and could be used for the parts reproduced. If the author felt it important enough to cite our interactions with him, we would have hoped that he would have reported the same accurately:

Since the author refers to interactions with us, and mentions writings by Bose that we had reproduced that didn’t change his mind, it would have been proper to reproduce the same or at leastcite the articles so that the reader can decide for himself (a standard scholarly practice which deconstructions of value must follow). Next, the author brings in the ethnicity of one in our team, none of us have discussed our ethnicities with him, we take it that he has discovered the same owing to particular interests he takes in us. Incidentally, the phrase Bengali-American commonly denotes ``Americans of Bengali origin’’ – for the sake of factual accuracy, the author should have pursued his interests in us to verify the nationality of the individual in question. But, the bigger issue here is the attempt to delegitimize arguments that contest his position by bringing in identities. If a support of Bose’s position by one who shares his ethnicity, becomes ethnic chauvinism, it would be legitimate to contend that the author’s defense of Hindu interests, as he is supposed to have done in his blogs (based on tweets to us on him), is owing to Hindu supremacy or Hindu chauvinism, if he happens to be a Hindu which we have not sought to ascertain. Is his (now invalidated) concern that Bose has not reached out to South Indians also driven by the author’s ethnic identity, if that happens to be South Indian? What the author needs to note is that Bose appealed to Indians of all ethnicities, he had strong support among the masses throughout India, particularly in Bengal, Madras Presidency, Punjab, rural united provinces, and had influential detractors in each of the above (Gandhian wing of the Provincial Congresses in each of these as also wealthy businessmen). The activists of Mission Netaji who are seeking to do justice to his legacy by uncovering the truth of his disappearance comprise of diverse ethnicities.

The concluding part of Srinivasan's The abuse of Indian history: Obsession over Subhas Chandra Bose indicates that India suffers from a paucity of heroes, as also the author’s tweets actually explain where the author’s conclusions are stemming from – intense reaction to buzzwords that he is phobic of – the words ``left’’ and ``Urdu’’:

1) "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.’’ (Rajeev Srinivasan)

We first examine if Bose's "Hindutva" statements/stances in Srinivasan's article can be dismissed on the assumption that he was doing it cynically and insincerely just as a manipulation tool to gather Hindu "sympathy". The logical fallacy with this line is that the hunger strikes where we find his statements were inside a British jail (Myth III), often far away (in Mandalay, Burma) from his native country of Hindu majority, surrounded by a largely non-Hindu (Buddhist) population outside the jail. His jailers were primarily British and hostile to Hindu feelings or interests, so internally where the British jail has full powers over him and his fellow Hindu detainees - raising the standard of Hindutva was unlikely to draw any sympathy or have any psychological pressure on the jailers. In the country where the jail was located there was a largely Buddhist population with, at that stage, still substantial but minority Hindu immigrant population, and thus regional-ethinic/national sentiments were unlikely to be aroused there either. Besides, when Bose issued these statements he would not have known if these would ever reach the outside world, or reach India, owing to British censorship, and if they did reach it would be after a substantial delay. Other than such public stances in jails, many of his statements of faiths were expressed in private letters to close family and friends which were not meant for public consumption at that stage. Hence wider social impact of his Hindutva call in these situations would have no "cynical/manipulative" value. If making personal belief statements along Hindu traditions is rendered cynical, politically manipulative insincere statements simply because in practical political steps the owner of the voice has apparently allied with Muslim groups in concrete political institutional framework - then both Shyamprasad Mookerjee and Veer Savarkar were insincere Hindus, since both justified their collaboration and participation in Muslim majority provincial governments as having benefited Hindus, all the while some of these governments were implementing discriminatory and repressive measure on Hindus, and the leaders of such Muslim groups having sponsored or promoted some of the worst perpetrators of anti-Hindu violence of the future. Since the collaborations and subsequent pogroms by Muslims happened within a very short span of 2-3 years, the allegation of cynical manipulation for Hindu sentiments would become applicable to the two acknowledged icons of Hindutva too.

As to the above statements in Srinivasan's article on left, the author does not know or does not care that that leftism encompasses several substantially different schools of thought, e.g., communism, socialism, anti-imperialism etc. One of these, that is communism does indeed come close to an organized religion, and so a confirmed communist may in theory be considered to be a convert from Hinduism, particularly as communism has denounced religion as a whole. In practice, most communists, junior level cadres and several leaders of Communist parties practice their respective religions including Hinduism. The author certainly does not have the mandate to define who is a Hindu, in fact one strength of Hinduism is that no one owns it and has the authority to excommunicate anyone else. But, that apart, there is some theoretical justification of considering a communist as a convert from Hinduism. But there is none whatsoever for considering socialists and anti-imperialists the same, the schools that Bose and many other leftists all over the world belong to. There is also no justification for equating leftism to communism (nor capitalism to Hinduism for that matter). It is only an ignorant and a bigoted mind that sees a socialist or an anti-imperialist as one who has converted out of Hinduism, and dismisses on that count the supposed convert’s defense of Hindu interest as cynical and calculated acts of appeasements:

Lastly, it is unclear to us if the author knows how closely he is emulating those members of the extended Bose family who he calls ``lunatic-left fringe’’ – Sugata Bose. Sugata Bose posits that Netaji had died in an air crash in August, 1945, and dismisses contrary conclusions invoking ethnic identities as appropriate. An enquiry commission led by Justice Mukherjee, former Supreme Court judge, has negated the air crash theory altogether. As mission Netaji activist Chandrachur Ghose observes, ``Instead of making an effort to logically disprove Justice Mukherjee’s findings, he begins by calling him a “retired Bengali judge”, trying to give this issue a regional colour.’’  Sugata Bose is more sophisticated in that unlike Rajeev Srinivasan, he does not explicitly accuse Justice Mukherjee of Bengali chauvinism, but does in effect insinuate the same. Not merely replicating Sugata Bose’s identity arguments, Srinivasan also echoes Sugata Bose’s opinions, knowingly or unknowingly, but without attribution. We reproduce Sugata Bose’s writing here: ``The Azad Hind government inculcated this spirit of unity with a subtle sense of purpose. ``Jai Hind!” - ``victory to India’’ – was chosen from the very outset as the common greeting or salutation when Indians met one another. Hindustani, a mixture of Hindi and Urdu written in the Roman script, became the national language; but given the large south Indian presence, translations into Tamil was provided at all public meetings. Even the proclamation of the Azad Hind government was read in Hindustani, Tamil, and English. A simple Hindustani translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s song ``Jana Gana Mana Adhinayak Jai He” became the national anthem. A springing tiger, evoking Tipu Sultan of Mysore’s gallant resistance against the British, featured as the emblem on the tricolor shoulder-pieces on uniforms. Gandhi’s charkha continued to adorn the center of the tricolor flags that INA soldiers were to carry on their march toward Delhi. Three Urdu words – Itmad (“Faith”), Ittefaq (“Unity”), and Kurbani (“Sacrifice”) – encapsulated the motto of the Azad Hind movement.” location 3424-3431, Kindle edition. The entire paragraph has one reference at the end – pp. 166-168 of [32], which states ``the Tiger will be India’s national emblem’’ without giving any reason whatsoever for such a choice. So that the statement that the tiger was chosen to evoke Tipu Sultan’s resistance against the British is at this point an unsubstantiated opinion of the supposed ``loony-leftist fringe’’ Sugata Bose; Srinivasan dutifully replicates the same opinion without citing any source, nor questioning the source that the author got it from. This then is the tragedy of the right wingers like Srinivasan, they despise the left for usurping all academic resources of the Indian nation, without ever pondering why the right could not build right-inclined intellectual institutions in the states they governed for substantial durations – but more they despise, more they seek to emulate those they despise – in all their vices, their hatred, bigotry and distortions in the name of scholarship. Who says the right-left twain can not meet – what is in a name after all?

Published Date: Jan 23, 2017 10:35 am | Updated Date: Jan 23, 2017 10:35 am

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