Looking back on the mysterious disappearance of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose on his 125th Birthday

Subhash Chandra Bose was an Indian freedom fighter who also served as the president of the Indian National Congress in 1938. However, the question of his death still remains a mystery even after 75 years.

Looking back on the mysterious disappearance of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose on his 125th Birthday

On January 23, we celebrate the birth anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, an Indian nationalist whose patriotism made him one of the most influential and popular leaders in India.

Even though data shared by the government suggests that he died on August 18, 1945, in a plane crash, several Indians believe otherwise. The team of Mumbai Live got in touch with Rajesh Talwar, author of The Vanishing of Subhash Bose, that carefully analyses all three inquiries into Bose’s alleged disappearance.

1. Conspiracy theories around Netaji have been floating around for over half a century now, and many arguments have been forwarded in this regard. What do you think really happened and how much of that can we discover in your book?

As a writer, I’ve sometimes thought about writing a thriller on the lines of one of the fast-paced American novels I grew up reading. These suspenseful stories are often formulaic in terms of the plot. Typically, the hero is a spy or agent, but for various convoluted reasons – the need to protect the high and mighty – the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who happens to be his immediate employer disowns him. As a consequence, he is frequently on the run, escaping assassins and dodging bullets from both sides: those who are clearly his enemies, but also those who were supposed to be his friends and protectors but have turned against him.

I never wrote that book, but the life and times of Subhash Chandra Bose can be likened to one such thriller. If I were to make a film on the subject, instead of the blockbuster Hollywood film ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ I would choose ‘Springing Tiger, Crouching Dragons,’ for here the tiger is springing, not crouching. It is the ‘dragons’ who are both hidden and crouching.

Why the term springing tiger? It is in fact the epithet for Subhash used by Hugh Toye the English author of a book on Netaji and the Indian National Army (INA). This particular term was used for Bose because a springing tiger was the insignia on the INA uniform. If the ‘springing tiger’ represents Netaji, as any lover of this freedom fighter will already know, who then are the ‘crouching dragons’ in this book’s title?

The dragon has always been a symbol of great power, which begs the question: why are these powerful dragons crouching? Could it be that the dragons are crouching for they know that the truth if revealed will neutralize their power? They have adopted a crouching stance to prevent that from happening. More pointedly perhaps who are the dragons?

Certainly, in relation to Bose, the Allied Forces in World War 2 were dragons. Subhash represented an enemy for them, having joined forces with the Axis powers, notably Japan. These were, however, the known enemies in our hero’s story, but as is the case with the American thrillers I allude to, were there also others who were supposed to be his friends and protectors but who betrayed him? Were there important people who were leading the Indian freedom movement, fighting for the same cause as it were, although on different fronts, who should have been loyal to Bose, a fellow freedom fighter and erstwhile member of the Congress, but in fact abandoned him as soon as the reins of power fell into their grasp?

Was Subhash Bose not ‘the spy who came in from the cold’ incidentally the title of a classic from the late John Le Carre, but rather a patriot who was left out in the cold? This book deals with all these questions and all the various conspiracy theories, and I believe, provides satisfactory answers to them.

2. How or why do you think such an exploratory book is necessary at present?

Why this book? A valid question. After all, there are already numerous writings and even books on the subject of Netaji’s disappearance.  Additionally, there are conclusions and reports issued by a Committee and two Commissions, with some (though not all) of the material available in the public domain.  There are writings by Harvard professor Sugata Basu which support the government’s stance that Netaji died in an air crash. This is also the position of Columbia University historian Leonard A Gordan.  On the other hand, we have a Commission of Inquiry chaired by a former judge of the Indian Supreme Court who has sifted through new evidence that emerged following his visit to Taiwan which makes him conclude in his report, without any equivocation, that the air crash was a fabrication. There was no air crash – and therefore there is no question of Bose had died in it. This book will clear the air on that account. This might sound harsh, but in my view, anyone who still believes there was an air crash after reading my book is either a fool or a scoundrel. I mean, the Taiwanese government has itself provided irrefutable and categorical evidence that there was no air crash. I have visited Taiwan and seen how meticulous their record-keeping is.

My book is important also because it is necessary to clearly debunk most of the theories regarding Subhash Bose’s disappearance. Chapter 9 of the book is exclusively devoted to this subject and is titled ‘Fanciful Disappearance and Death Theories’. Various explanations were provided by Bose-lovers, some seemingly logical and others outlandish and even over-the-top on what happened to Netaji. The Mukherjee Commission considered the more prominent of these theories and gave its opinion on them. At least three of the theories have Netaji appearing in a saintly avatar. This would suggest that people wished to believe that Netaji became a sadhu or holy man.  In his report, Justice Mukherjee did not find favour with any of these theories. The idea floated that Subhash Bose, a man who straddled continents in pursuit of freedom for his country, the man is known as ‘the springing tiger’ would choose to live the anonymous and reclusive life of a sadhu out of fear that he would be assassinated by the Congress or anyone else is beyond pathetic and laughable.

Finally, it is hugely important to deal address false accusations against Subhash Bose where in the past Western and Indian intellectuals seemed to have teamed up in order to discredit and damage his reputation.

It is a sad and terrible truth that in revolutions around the world, thousands of people take part in the effort but when the great day finally arrives, oftentimes an over-ambitious section within the revolutionaries decides to take all the credit, and seize the reins of power. Those revolutionaries, who gave their all for the cause, but have been left out in the cold, by those with whom they once walked shoulder to shoulder, become sad, embittered individuals. In many cases they had no lust for power; all that they wanted was a thank you, a medal, even if it were made of tin, as an acknowledgement of their sacrifices.

In the case of India’s struggle for freedom, truth be told, the situation is hardly different. Nehru became prime minister and the Congress Party seized power. There was nothing wrong with that in itself, but they ignored those others who weren’t part of their ‘team’ so to speak but were nonetheless part of the broader effort with incredible sacrifices made for the cause.

Yes, it is tragic that Nehru did not hoist even a portrait of Netaji in the Central Halls of the Indian Parliament, but the tragedy lies only in part in ignoring the man himself.  Why focus on Netaji alone? None of the other heroes of the Indian National Army has their portrait there either. Even a portrait of the Rani of Jhansi regiment is missing! The real tragedy is that Nehru, the Congress and successive governments have not only ignored Bose, but they have also deliberately ignored the sacrifices made by the men and women of the Indian National Army that Bose commanded.

There are many who write with a great deal of truth that it was because of Netaji’s and the INA’s efforts that the British left. There are reports that suggest that Clement Attlee the British Prime Minister at the time of Indian independence attributed the departure of the British to Bose and the Indian National Army.   Although the INA had been defeated in the world war, a new spirit and consciousness had arisen across the country, most visible during the celebrated INA trials at the Red Fort. When Attlee was asked how much Gandhi had influenced the British decision, his response had been brief and sarcastic. ‘Minimal,’ he said.

Be that as it may, should we, as a nation, be reduced to squabbling about whose contribution was the greater, the Congresses or the Indian National Army’s. They both worked for the cause and Subhash Bose never lost sight of the fact that he believed that his cause – freedom from British rule – was also being fought, after their own fashion, by men like Gandhi and Nehru. Regiments were named after Gandhi and Nehru in the INA. Bose gave them full credit, but alas, they did not give him his due.

It is a sign of shameful pettiness to not share credit with others who have worked towards the same cause. Forget a great national struggle, even a film director must thank his entire team of actors and assistants, a singer must acknowledge the music director and lyricist. Something truly substantial is rarely if ever accomplished alone, and even in those cases where it is, credit must be given by such an achiever to those before him who inspired him. How terrible and shameful therefore that Nehru and the Congress hogged all the limelight.

Did they provide any justification for doing so? Some did, rather disingenuously. The main argument advanced is: Nehru was a true democrat, Netaji a man with dictatorial tendencies. What proof do they offer for this bold assertion? They pull some of Subhash Bose’s statements out of context to make this argument. As further proof, they speak of his alliance with the great dictators of the time, Hitler and Mussolini. Two plus two makes twenty-two in their arithmetic, and since Bose was allied with dictators, he must therefore himself perforce be a dictator. This is a patently false and despicable allegation to make against Bose! In Sagari Chhabra’s book ‘In Search of Freedom’ surviving women from the INA’s Rani of Jhansi Regiment tearfully recall how upon the INA’s defeat he insisted that he would be the last man out and sent them all to safety ahead of himself.  This is how democrats behave, even in the time of war.

Poor Netaji had no choice in this matter. The enemy of my enemy is my friend; that was his motif. Even had they not been fascists but cannibals he would not have hesitated to team up with them! It is natural for the English and the Americans to accuse Bose of teaming up with fascists, but it is a shame that our own Indian historians followed the same colonized historical mindset. Did not the English and the Americans team up with the Soviets, an ideological foe, in order to defeat Hitler and forces aligned themselves with him? As far as the Americans were concerned, history would show how they despised the communist system much more than ordinary dictatorships.

3. Tell us about the journey of writing this book - the research, challenges, discoveries.

It surprised me that despite there being so many books on Subhash Bose, including his disappearance no one had thought fit to carefully go through and analyse the findings and reports of all the three committees that examined the issue. As a trained international lawyer, I thought that this was an area I could use my expertise to ascertain what was true and what was patently false. Aside from a careful examination of all three reports I had to do a lot of background research not only into Bose’s life but that of Gandhi and Nehru and his relationship with these two men. I also travelled to Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Taiwan.

I am not a professional historian but during the course of my research, I discovered the bias of Indian and Western historians insofar as Subhash Bose was concerned. For instance, historian Mridula Mukherjee suggests that Bose was naïve enough to believe that fascism and communism had important things in common, not believing them to be ‘polar opposites’ as Nehru did.  We have the benefit of history (of what happened in communist regimes the world over from the killing fields of Cambodia to the gulags of the Soviet Union) to know that this idea of polar opposites was a myth. Subhash was right in his assessment even then in those early years of that great socialist political experiment.

Historians both Indian and Western allege that Subhash was a man with a dictatorial mind-set and he wished to be ‘The Leader.’ And yet these very same historians when commissioned to write the history of the Congress choose to gloss over the Emergency and the authoritarianism of Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi.  Arun Shourie writes in a book about the dominance of leftist historians in India;  this is only partially true. It would be more accurate to say that ‘free’ India has witnessed the joint dominance of both the leftist as well as the Congress-controlled historians. This is not in any way to condone the recent attempts by some right-wing elements to re-write Indian history after their own fashion.

4. What are some of the other topics that interest you and we might expect a book on in the future?

I am planning a book on Gandhi. Even though there are already thousands of books on him, I’m hoping to look at him differently than others have. Also in the pipeline is a book looking at the future of education in the world and comparing China with India in this regard.

5. If Netaji was alive, would he have been one of the most popular, if not powerful, political leaders of the world? If yes, how would the socio-political landscape in South Asia be impacted, given that Netaji had his fair share of international allies during INA?

This is a hypothetical question and difficult to answer. It is however clear that Netaji was far more popular than Nehru while they were both in the Congress. Forget Nehru, Netaji even defeated Gandhi’s candidate for the Congress Presidency.

Bose’s appearance in India would have certainly been inconvenient for Nehru for his position as prime minister would have immediately come under threat and his own image-building exercise would have come to a halt. The numero uno in Indian politics was Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru became prime minister courtesy Gandhi the kingmaker. When Gandhi asked Sardar Patel to step aside, Patel obliged unhappily and made room for his blue-eyed Kashmiri boy. Unlike Nehru, widely seen as Gandhi’s protégé, Bose had an independent stature, position and claim to the crown. Nehru could not have compared with Sardar Patel, and Patel himself could not compare in popularity with Subhash Bose.

One more thing. Pandit Nehru was a great man in his own way and made huge contributions to the shaping of modern India. Now Nehru’s papers are voluminous and have found pride of place in the Nehru Memorial Museum and the library at Teen Murti established in 1964 after Nehru’s death. There are hundreds of thousands of documents, far greater than the number of documents concerning Subhash Chandra Bose, for the simple reason that Nehru became prime minister of India and remained so from 1947 up until 1963, a year or so after the Chinese debacle.

As regards pre-Independence history though, Bose could clearly have given Nehru a run for his money both in terms of quantity and interesting material. Yes, Nehru was involved closely together with Gandhi in dealing with Lord Mountbatten and helping India become a free country, but then Bose, on the other hand, was raising an army, in record time, across different countries in South East Asia. The INA was also fighting battles, even if they were not being won!

The thousands of papers that have now been declassified (and the process continues) should have been released decades earlier. Just as there were repositories for Mahatma Gandhi’s papers and Nehru’s papers, so too should there have been a repository, possibly a large museum in central Delhi and Calcutta where the Bose papers should have been kept. They should have been microfilmed and historians were given access to them to do research. The Bose papers would have shed light not only on the Indian National Army’s struggle but on developments across the world, more specifically in Asia, in the context of the Second World War.

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