Subhas Chandra Bose — A flawed hero

Uday Balakrishnan | Updated on September 04, 2020

Bose’s role in the freedom struggle is well known. But history often forgets his connection with the likes of Hitler and Mussolini

More than 75 years after his disappearance — or more likely, his death in a plane crash — in August 1945, Subhas Chandra Bose remains a popular Indian hero. His life has been commemorated in books and films including Shyam Benegal’s Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero and the Amazon Prime video series, The Forgotten Army — Azaadi Ke Liye.

At heart an aspiring strongman — his model was Kemal Ataturk — Bose believed that a “government by a strong party held together by military discipline” was best suited for India. Many alarmed by the divisive and corrupt nature of democracy in this country would agree.

Bose had an extraordinary capacity to inspire people at all levels. Amongst those who bought into his vision were, at one end, the late Lakshmi Sehgal — the famous head of the Indian National Army’s all-woman unit — and at the other, Perumal, an orderly who had once served in Bose’s entourage and now living (as journalist Amrith Lal and artist Riyas Komu discovered to their surprise) in a rundown Tamil locality in Yangon, Myanmar.

Leaving India

Even as he remained a member of the Congress, Bose never ceased aspiring to be a revolutionary. He convinced himself, and a lot of others, that only force would drive the British out of India and that he was the man to lead the charge. Former civil servant and author Achala Moulik recalled how her father Monin Moulik, an academic in Rome in the 1930s, arranged and then accompanied Bose to a meeting at the Grottanelli weapons factory to purchase arms for the struggle for freedom that the latter saw coming.

Bose represented a violent revolutionary thread in India’s struggle for freedom, which Mahatma Gandhi strongly opposed, and with good reason. After the Chauri Chaura incident, where a mob set fire to a police station killing 22 policemen in February 1922, Gandhiji was convinced that violence begat violence in a country as volatile as India, and was best avoided. Unsurprisingly, early in his second term in office as Congress President in 1939, Bose was compelled to resign after, as historian Sugata Bose noted, “having been comprehensively outwitted and outmanoeuvred by Gandhi”.

Once he had left the Congress and the huge organisational backing as well as the all-India platform it gave him, Bose’s chances of reclaiming his once primary position in the freedom struggle were lost, so long as he was within India. Bose came into his own only after he had made his dramatic escape to Nazi Germany.

Away from India, Gandhiji, Nehru and the Congress, Bose could do what he was best at — galvanise and lead people. His broadcasts were heard clandestinely by many in India, and were inspiring not the least because in them he emphasised the inevitability of the British defeat and of the Japanese and, therefore, his own triumph. He was astonishingly successful in raising an army of 40,000, more than half of which comprised Indian soldiers who had fought on behalf of the British and were in Japanese custody.

The sensational aspects of Bose’s life — and there were many — make for good copy and evoke awe at his brilliance and derring-do. His academic success in Cambridge and his clearing the ICS but refusing to be inducted into the elite service, inspired a whole generation of freedom fighters.

His daring escape from Calcutta (now Kolkata) and reappearance in Germany in April 1941, his long submarine journey to Japan in 1943 and assumption of the leadership of a resurrected Indian National Army — so well brought out by Hugh Toye, Sugata Bose and other biographers — is the stuff of legends. But there was another, and darker, side to Bose.

Wrong kind of company

Blinded by his intense dislike for imperialistic Britain, Bose did more than just make friends with its enemies, who were even more ruthless — he collaborated with them, a fact that Indian historians gloss over. It is inconceivable that Bose was not aware of the ongoing pogrom of the Jews in Germany. That was no secret and everyone in Berlin knew this, just as they were aware of the infamous Platform 17 of the Grunewald railway station in Berlin from where Jews were dispatched in their thousands in cattle cars to Auschwitz, starting soon after Bose made himself at home in the city.

In his well-researched book, Bose in Nazi Germany, historian Romain Hayes brings out how well Bose got along with the Nazis, amongst them Ribbentrop, Himmler and Goebbels. As he states, “for a relatively unknown exile, Bose rapidly earned the trust and respect of the Nazi leadership. Hitler thought highly of him, as is attested by a private conversation he had with his entourage in early 1942, in which he described Bose as having eclipsed Nehru.”

The Nazis treated Bose well. He could meet other Indians and broadcast to his countrymen. They also ensured he lived a luxurious life in a fine house in the best part of Berlin. He was even provided with a costly chauffeur-driven car. He moved easily with Hitler, Italy’s dictator Mussolini and japanese Prime Minister Tojo.

Bose showed great solidarity with his Axis hosts, going so far as to make a widely publicised visit to Nanjing, which was controlled by a Japanese puppet regime headed by Wang Jingwei. This was a mere six years after the Japanese army had massacred and raped between 50,000 and 300,000 of its residents in 1937-1938, infamously known as the ‘Rape of Nanjing.’

As Romain Hayes tells us, “Had Bose chosen a more moderate path akin to that of his less temperamental colleagues such as Azad and Nehru, and remained in India he would have played an important role, even a possibly decisive one, in the post-War period, opposing not only Partition but the emergence of the Gandhi-Nehru regime.’

Bose undoubtedly was a great nationalist and patriot. Arguably his greatest contribution to India was his unwavering commitment to secularism, something that later became the cornerstone of the Indian republic.

However, in collaborating with genocidal regimes with imperial aspirations which would almost surely have delivered India from one form of colonialism to another, Bose had erred grievously. If only for that reason, he will remain a flawed hero in history and also remembered as one who had wrongly believed that the end justifies the means. It almost never does.

The writer is a former fellow at NIAS, CEU Budapest and at CCS-IISc, where he also taught

Published on September 04, 2020

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