Off-centre | The epic voyage that brought Subhas Chandra Bose onto centrestage of history
As India celebrates its 73rd Republic Day, it’s the right time to retrace Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s journey to Japan
As we celebrate our 73rd Republic Day, we would do well to remember that before we became a republic or even achieved Independence, great freedom fighters and revolutionaries had already announced India’s independence. Jawaharlal Nehru hoisted the Congress-designed flag of independent India on 31 December 1929 at Lahore.
This was a tiranga, but with a charkha or spinning wheel in the middle, white stripe. On 26 January 1930, the Congress promulgated its “purna swaraj” or complete independence resolution, declaring the independence of India. That is why we still commemorate it as our Republic Day.
But long before that, on 22 August 1907, Madame Bhikaji Cama unfurled the flag of Indian independence at the 2nd Socialist Congress in Germany at Stuttgart. This was a modification of the 1906 “Calcutta flag”, an early tricolour, in saffron, yellow, and green, with Hindu and Muslim symbols and “Vande Mataram” in the middle.
During the Great War, the Central Powers, consisting of the German empire or Kaiserreich, Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ottoman empire, and Tsardom of Bulgaria, sent a mission to Kabul to induce Afghanistan to declare independence and attack British India. This move came to be known as the Hindu-German conspiracy, marking the beginning of Indo-German exertions to promote a nationalist uprising.
Headed by two German officers, Oskar Niedermayer and Werner Otto von Hentig, the mission included an exiled Indian price, Raja Mahendra Pratap, as the representative of “independent India”, along with Maulavi Barkatullah and Chempakaraman Pillai. But the plan was foiled. Lord Hardinge personally intervened to ensure Afghan neutrality. Needless to say, the Allies won World War I and the British empire got another lease of life.
During World War II, these older Indo-German networks were once again activated, when Bose escaped from house arrest in Calcutta on 17 January 1941. Dressed as a Pathan, he was driven by his nephew, Sisir Kumar Bose, to Gomoh, now Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, station in Jharkhand. From there, he travelled overland and in disguise to Peshawar, then to the Soviet Union as the Italian Count Orlando Mazzotta, escorted from Afghanistan to Moscow by NKVD or the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs.
The Soviets, however, were not interested in helping him or the cause of Indian independence. They handed him over to Count von der Schulenburg, the German Ambassador. Under the non-aggression pact with Germany of 23 August 1939, they did not join the war against the Nazis till Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.
Flown in a special plane to Berlin in April, Bose met foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, Heinrich Luitpold Himmler, Head of the dreaded Schutzstaffel, more commonly known as SS, the Nazi party’s elite police corps, and the Geheime Staatspolizei, or state secret police, abbreviated as the Gestapo.
Bose also met the German Führer und Reichskanzler, or “Leader and Chancellor”, Adolf Hitler.
But the latter showed little concern or respect for the Indian freedom struggle, despite the racist “Aryan” state propaganda. Far being treated as a potential head of state, Bose was seconded to the India Special Bureau run by Adam von Trott zu Solz and only given a comfortable villa, with a staff and chauffeur driven car.
During his stay in Germany, Bose founded the Free India Centre in Berlin, raising a small army of 4,500 soldiers called the Indian Legion consisting of British Indian prisoners of war captured from North Africa. But the Indian Legion’s plan to invade India via Afghanistan came up a cropper. Germany was unable to devote the resources or manpower to free India, nor was an overland campaign through so many territories or terrains feasible.
Japan, on the other hand, had been spectacularly successful in the eastern front of World War II, with victory after sensational victory. Following the dramatic fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942, the mighty British empire itself did not look invincible.
A large number of British Indian soldiers were held captive in forced labour camps by the Japanese. In Europe, on the other hand, the tide of war began to turn against Germany. Bose, therefore, decided to try another strategy, to approach Japan instead of Germany, for help. And to invade India from the East rather than the West.
In February 1943, Netaji boarded a German Unterseeboot 180 (or U-180) submarine at Laboe, Northern Germany, first heading westward, across the heavily mined North Sea. His only companion, Abid Hasan Safrani, was originally from Hyderabad, and had gone to Germany to study engineering but, coming under Netaji’s spell, joined the Indische Legion to free India.
Bose and Hasan spent two months in the dark diesel-fumed hulk, leading Hasan to reminisce, “The fumes permeated everything. The bread we ate looked as if it was soaked in diesel oil, the blankets seemed drenched with it.” Bose and Hasan were confined to a small passageway, “Our corner was so small,” wrote Hasan, “that if you stood erect, you got in the way of somebody or the other.”
Bose transferred to a Japanese I-29 submarine after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, some 300 km south of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. The rest of the journey passed without mishap. On 11 May 1943, he finally reached Tokyo in Imperial Japan, after a short stop in Singapore. In Tokyo, he received the support of Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo as well as the army high command.
After being deprived and outmanoeuvred of his legitimate second term as Congress president by Mahatma Gandhi’s machinations in 1939, Bose had remained, more or less, on the sidelines of the freedom struggle. He had also parted company with Jawaharlal Nehru, forging his own socialist, political party, Forward Bloc. Given that he differed with the dominant Gandhian view that India could be liberated by non-violence means alone, he had felt frustrated and underutilised.
Now, after nearly five years of struggling in the political wilderness, perhaps, his moment on the centre stage of history had finally arrived.
This is Part 2 of the three-part ‘Giving Netaji his due’ series. Read Part 1 here
The author is a professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.
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