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Unearthing the truth about Subhas Chandra Bose's death, amidst proliferation of falsehoods

Editor's note — Ashis Ray's new book 'Laid to Rest: The Controversy Over Subhas Chandra Bose’s Death', examines the last moments of Subhas Chandra Bose's life and the events that followed, leading up to the fate of his mortal remains. It includes a foreward written by Bose's daughter, Anita Pfaff, and is published by Roli Books.

One day in 1987 I decided to visit the Public Records Office, now Britain’s National Archives, near London’s botanical delight of Kew Gardens. The immediate cause of this as far as I recall was my curiosity over whether Nirad Chaudhuri, the celebrated writer and author of Autobiography of an Unknown India, had ever worked as a British spy.

Chaudhuri, unapologetically pro-British but clearly competent in written English (and would, therefore, ably handle his boss’ correspondence), was private secretary to Sarat Bose, elder brother of the more famous Subhas, between 1937 and 1941. Subhas half suspected Chaudhuri – because of his views, which he would ventilate in the media – was an informer and is known to have disapproved of him. But Sarat, loath to be unkind to a man who had to support a family, continued to retain his services. Indeed, during his employment, Chaudhuri enjoyed a bird’s eye view of the Bose brothers’ politics, including the phase where Subhas was triumphantly elected president of the Indian National Congress twice, and of the party’s working committee meetings taking place at Sarat’s residence overlooking the Mecca of Indian tennis, the Calcutta South Club.

When Sarat, a barrister as well as a prominent figure in the Congress, was imprisoned by the British in 1941, Chaudhuri lost his job. Yet, he was absorbed as a script writer at All India Radio (AIR), which was then the Indian arm of British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). For a person to traverse so seamlessly from being an insider in a nationalist leader’s household to the epicentre of the British propaganda machinery in India, naturally raised eyebrows.

He continued to be employed by AIR even after Indian independence. But there came a point in the 1950s when the Indian government felt his opinion on various matters was at odds with the outlook of free India. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had adopted non-alignment as a pillar of Indian foreign policy, which was clearly in conflict with the Western Bloc to which Britain, France and the United States belonged. Chaudhuri was allegedly soft towards such powers. He was, therefore, relieved of his responsibilities.

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Laid to Rest asks questions about why the people who were with Subhas Chandra Bose in his last moments would fabricate stories about what they saw

In 1981, Siddhartha Ray, a Congress stalwart and a close confidante of Indira Gandhi, who had been chief minister of West Bengal, was to become governor of Punjab and later the Indian ambassador to the US, claimed there was a file in the Prime Minister’s Office which questioned his allegiance, including suspecting he had forwarded information to the intelligence department that led to Sarat’s arrest and four-year incarceration.

As far as I remember, when I inquired of the curator if there were any declassified files pertaining Chaudhuri, she said there could be one; but that this may have been sealed for an extended period as opening it could potentially bring harm to descendants. This was neither confirmation that he had been a spy nor that he hadn’t. I then asked for declassified files on Subhas. That is where my journey began in terms of gathering material about his death and has today culminated in Laid to Rest: The Controversy Over Subhas Chandra Bose’s Death.

To begin with, I not only had an open mind on the subject, but if anything, was inclined to disbelieve the story of the plane crash and Subhas’ consequent death. Very soon, though, as I ploughed through the British foreign office, India office and ministry of defense papers, a different picture began to emerge. Classified documents from Russia and visits to Japan, Taiwan and Pakistan filled in the blanks. Having spoken repeatedly to Naeemur Rehman, son of Colonel Habibur Rehman, Subhas’ trusted aide-de-camp who was fortunate to survive the air accident, the question I repeatedly asked myself was: Why would he lie about the episode? He had no motive to indulge in falsehood. Neither did the five Japanese survivors who repeatedly gave evidence to corroborate the tale.

And why would the doctors and nurses who treated Subhas when he was taken to a Japanese military hospital in a critical condition, as well as the interpreter who was also by his bedside when he breathed his last, fabricate? What had they to gain? Common sense told me it was a tragic but straightforward incident. Indeed, by 1995, I had sufficient hard evidence to request Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao to bring Subhas’ mortal remains to India from Tokyo, where they have been lying since 1945. The book narrates why Rao’s initiative ultimately failed.

I embarked on the project not merely to uphold the truth, but for humanitarian reasons. Subhas’ widow Emilie Schenkl passed away in 1996 without closure on the matter of the remains. Since 2007, his only child, Professor Anita Pfaff, has been knocking on the Indian government’s door without success. She feels her father’s desire to return to independent India was thwarted by his untimely and unnatural death. So, his remains should at least reach Indian soil. She also believes that as a final ritual, the remains should be immersed in the Ganga as is the Bengali Hindu custom.

The Netaji Papers declassified by the Narendra Modi government have ratified the position I have held since 1995. More importantly, it is the position held by Pfaff, and legally and morally she is the only person who matters. Therefore I plead that the Indian authorities have an obligation to honour her wishes. The Japanese government is not going to stand in the way of a request from New Delhi.

Pfaff’s husband Professor Martin Pfaff informed me in around 2006 or 2007 that Anita had accepted my 1995 proposal of a DNA test on the remains as a way forward. [This, given the Himalayan evidence (altogether 11 separate official or unofficial investigations were carried out by India, Britain, Japan and Taiwan) that has come into my possession since and is looked at in detail in the book, renders it unnecessary to tamper with the remains.] At the same time, I will support whichever way Anita wishes to proceed.

I would probably not have ventured into putting pen to paper but for the tsunami of falsehood that came to be heaped on unsuspecting people – without contradiction – between 2006 and 2015. The final straw was Modi encouraging the mendacity by meeting the perpetrators and promising to raise their untruth of Bose being executed in the Soviet Union with Russian President Vladimir Putin – when Moscow’s replies were sitting in Indian files since 1992.

The sand castle came crashing down, though, when Modi – acceding to the agitators’ demand – released the Netaji Papers in 2016. Yet, there remains a barrier in undertaking the next logical step of bringing Subhas’ remains to India – Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, where sentiments run high. Her populism drives her to unreasonably harp on about the non-existent ‘Russian angle’. The problem with many of Subhas’ followers is they haven’t come to terms with him not emerging as the leader of free India and tend to assign this to illusory skulduggery against him. I would urge her, as I would urge all Indians, to kindly read my book and undo the disrespect heaped on Subhas’ soul.

My effort is based on 30 years investigative journalism. I am deeply honoured that Anita Pfaff deemed it fit to write a foreword to the book.

London-based, Ashis Ray is the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent, having worked mainly for BBC and CNN. On 1 March, he spoke for the motion at a prestigious Oxford Union debate on ‘This House Regrets the Partition of India’. His team of Rajmohan Gandhi and himself prevailed over Salman Kurshid and Mridula Mukherjee by 108-76 votes.

Updated Date: Mar 10, 2018 17:00 PM

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