At Surya Kumar Bose’s simple but elegant home in Hamburg, you cannot miss the large black-and-white portrait of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Showing Netaji reading out the proclamation of the provincial government of the Azad Hind Fauj in Singapore, the photo underlines a family legacy: Bose is the grandnephew of the man who led an armed movement against India’s erstwhile British rulers.

“If you take into account the fact that the Azad Hind Fauj was the first independent government of India, then Netaji could be considered India’s first head of state,” he says as we settle down for an interview. Bose is the president of the Hamburg chapter of the Deutsche Indische Gessellschaft (DIG), the Indo-German association that promotes ties between the two countries. “The DIG was set up on September 11, 1942, by Subhash Chandra Bose at Hotel Atlanta in Hamburg. That was also the occasion when Jana Gana Mana was first sung as the national anthem,” Bose recounts, adding that the DIG today is the largest bilateral organisation in Germany, with 27 branches. As a consultant he often guides Germans keen on working in the booming Indian IT sector. He is also a founder-member of the German-Indian Round Table, an informal gathering that seeks to further mutual business interests.

Back in the day, Netaji’s stay in Germany had proved instrumental in shaping his struggle. Decades later, that legacy would play a pivotal role in shaping his grandnephew’s career. Bose came to Germany on the advice of Alexander Werth, Netaji’s German interpreter in the Indian Legion. Thus began a lifelong association that has seen Bose carry on his family’s efforts to secure the declassification of documents related to Netaji even in Germany. Most recently, Bose met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the latter’s Germany visit in April. “I expected to meet Mr Modi for only around five minutes when he came to Hannover. But our discussion lasted 45 minutes. He assured me that his government would look into the declassification.”

Calls for the declassification have grown louder following recent revelations that the government of India had spied on Netaji’s family for close to 20 years. “My father, Amiya Nath Bose, was very close to Netaji, having carried Netaji’s appeal to the Soviets during the freedom struggle. When he visited Japan in 1957, he had a gut feeling that he was being watched. We were not active in politics. We had no reason to expect such thorough surveillance. I have often spotted RAW agents at my lectures and talks here in Germany,” he says, visibly angry over the treatment of his family. He says Indian officials have tried to discourage him from speaking against the official version of Netaji’s death. “I do not believe in the so-called ashes in Renkoji temple, and whenever I try to speak about this issue in public, Indian officials try to shut me up.”

The demand for declassification gained momentum after the Justice Mukherjee Commission had concluded in 2006 that Netaji did not die in a plane crash in Taiwan. Though the government rejected the report, Bose believes that of the three inquiry commissions looking into the mystery surrounding Netaji’s death, the Mukherjee Commission was the most honest. “Raimund Schnabel, a journalist from East Germany who wrote a book on Netaji, told Emilie Schenkl (Netaji’s wife) he had information from sources in the KGB that Netaji was imprisoned in Russia. He was being slowly poisoned and was losing his mind,” he says.

Other disturbing revelations further convinced Bose that the plane crash theory was false. “Henry Stokes, a well-known British journalist, once told me that when he arrived in Tokyo in 1964, he learnt that the MI6 was still looking for Netaji in Tokyo. Even the British did not believe that Netaji died in a plane crash in Taiwan!” For most of his life, Bose has searched for the ‘truth’ about the death. Official records, which can put the matter to rest, have proved a dead-end in his efforts. “Only if the Indian government makes a request to Russia can the KGB files concerning Netaji be released,” he says.

The grandnephew believes Netaji was let down by independent India’s leaders. “There are rumours that Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, who had travelled to Russia, knew that Netaji was being held there but chose not to bring this to light. Now that so much time has gone by, the government’s previous argument that declassification of the documents would jeopardise foreign relations no longer holds, and the nation has a right to know what happened to Netaji,” he argues. His anguish at this perceived betrayal at the highest levels is worsened by the fact that a branch of Netaji’s family had long ago accepted the plane crash theory.

Does Bose believe in the speculation that Netaji secretly lived as a hermit in north India, that he became a ‘Gumnami baba’? He doubts that a person of Netaji’s intellect and energy would have surrendered to a lifetime of anonymity and renunciation. He is full of praise for journalists like Anuj Dhar who have researched extensively on the subject of Netaji’s death. “Dhar has done great work with his books on Netaji, but I do not believe that the evidence used to support the Gumnami baba theory is conclusive... I am inclined to believe that Netaji was in the Soviet Union after the so-called plane crash. Only declassification can put the matter to rest.”

(Ragini Bhuyan is a Delhi-based writer)