During his first tenure as External Affairs Minister, Pranab Mukherjee included a visit to Renkoji Temple in Japan, where an urn containing what is believed to be the remains of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose is enshrined. He was not the first Indian dignitary to do so.
President Rajendra Prasad and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru preceded him in the 1950s. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee did likewise in 2002.
The Embassy of India, Tokyo, has been funding the upkeep of the shrine since long. In 1976, the ageing priest of the Buddhist shrine had requested the Indian government to shift the remains to a befitting memorial in India. This request was echoed by a group of Japanese war veterans, who had fought side by side with the Indian National Army when Pranab Mukherjee visited Renkoji. They greeted him by singing “kadam kadam barhaye ja”, the INA marching song, and also sang other battle songs of the INA.
The episode was recorded on video and the then bureau chief of CNN in New Delhi, Asish Ray, a grandnephew of Netaji, obtained a copy of this moving documentary and showed it to journalists in his Malcha Marg office—I was one of those so privileged.
Having taken a sabbatical from journalism, I was then working in the Planning Commission and Pranab Mukherjee was my boss in Yojana Bhavan. In that capacity, though not a part of his Foreign Office team, I had the opportunity to observe the events which followed my leader’s visit to Japan.
The Japanese veterans had told the minister that the generation of Japanese who knew and revered Netaji was fading away and as part of the new generation’s aversion for the war heritage, the memory of Netaji on Japanese soil was also withering. They, therefore, repeated what the priest had requested two decades earlier: take the remains to India.
It is now history that the matter was discussed in the government, and the P.V. Narasimha Rao Cabinet, acting on the advice of the Home Ministry (which essentially dittoed the view taken on the subject by the Intelligence Bureau in 1976), decided not to proceed on the matter. The funding of the Renkoji Temple was raised from 600,000 yen to a million yen as the government adopted a Nelson’s eye.
The ongoing controversy is best summed up by historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Vice Chancellor of the Ashoka University: “The problem with us, Indians, is that we don’t read our history. We are a nation that takes pride in its ignorance.”
Accompanying Pranab Mukherjee to Renkoji was the then PS to the External Affairs Minister, D. Bala Venkatesh Varma, the topper of the 1988 batch of IFS, who now distinguishes as India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Disarmament Talks in Geneva. Venky, as he is popularly known, belongs to a family which had been associated with Netaji in the INA. He narrated to me the moving scenes at Renkoji which Asish had shown me and journalist Jayanto Ghoshal post the visit. (Ghoshal’s story was held back by his editor in Bartamaan – it however appeared on the front page of the leading Bangla daily, Anandabazar Patrika, a few days later under the byline of Suman Chattopadhyay, who said that Pranab Mukherjee was exploring the possibility of bringing the remains back to India.)
Mukherjee also held consultations with INA veterans Laxmi Sehgal, Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon and S.S. Yadava. I had been detailed to receive these three legends at South Block’s Gate No 4 and usher them to the minister’s chamber. When I told the havildar of the CRPF detachment, which guarded the gate, who the visitors were, the Sikh gentleman agreed with me that they should be saluted by presenting arms. All three were visibly moved as the command “kandhey shastra” rang out on their arrival. Dhillon had tears in his eyes. “This is the first time that I have been officially saluted in free India,” he said.
The INA veterans were of the opinion that Netaji’s remains must be given pride of place on Indian soil.
Pranab Mukherjee thereafter met Netaji’s widow Emilie Schenkl and her daughter Anita Pfaff in Germany. Writer Anuj Dhar says that Schenkl disapproved of the move to bring the remains to India. She passed away in 1996. Dhar’s version has not been sustained either by Pfaff or her economist husband, Martin Pfaff (former Finance Minister of Germany), who too were present when the minister met Schenkl. Anita Pfaff has maintained her father perished in the Taihoku air crash, and in a recent interview to Hindustan Times’ Prasun Sonwalkar has reiterated that the remains in Renkoji are that of her father.
The mystery of Netaji’s disappearance shall linger. One hopes that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has done yeoman service to freedom of expression and the right to information by declassifying the Netaji files, would also use his special proximity with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe while pursuing with Vladimir Putin the labyrinth of L’affaire Netaji.
1995, when Pranab Mukherjee tried to reach to the root of the mystery, was a year ahead of Assembly elections in West Bengal. Now we have a section of the Bose family joining the BJP. Another section, while aligned with Trinamool Congress, whose leader Mamata Banerjee took the lead in declassifying Netaji files, feels that the Renkoji remains must get due honour.
The ongoing controversy is best summed up by historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Vice Chancellor of the Ashoka University: “The problem with us, Indians, is that we don’t read our history. We are a nation that takes pride in its ignorance. We are prone to blind hero-worship. We don’t bother to read what Gandhi, Nehru or Netaji wrote about each other. Instead, we prefer to stick to some ‘imaginary stories’ about our leaders.”
Shubhabrata Bhattacharya is a former Editor of Sunday and of National Herald.