January 23 comes and goes. Every year. But only a handful of people, except in certain parts of the country, concern themselves with the significance of the day. 23 January 2016, however, was different. A number of questions began agitating people’s minds as the date approached, and as the National Archives worked at a furious pace to make possible Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of beginning the process of declassifying the files on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose long held by the Indian government as secret and top secret. These were the same files which the UPA government consistently refused to release in the public domain in response to Mission Netaji’s numerous requests under the Right to Information Act. Only on two occasions was the government compelled to declassify over 17,000 pages under the direction of the Central Information Commission — again due to the persistent efforts of Mission Netaji.
The questions that hung around, waiting impatiently for answers, were — what are these files going to reveal? Will they tell us definitively whether Netaji met his end in a plane crash on 18 August 1945? Will they really cause law and order disturbance as the UPA government had repeatedly claimed from 2006 to 2014, and the NDA government until mid-2015?
It has been a few weeks since the first tranche of secret files was out. India’s relations with her friendly neighbours and other foreign states haven’t been shaken a bit. So, what stopped our previous governments from taking stock of the prevalent situation before deciding to classify the Netaji files forever? Why would they fear other countries would be worried if, say Netaji’s daughter was supported financially until her marriage?
There is only one answer. Our past governments never wanted to share even a single page of information on Netaji with its people, the reasons for which rested largely in the minds of the leaders who took that decision. There is a possibility that those reasons may have been buried in some of these files. But since the Congress has been in power for a very long time, there is every chance that the files are “Congressified”.
Since foreign relations and law and order situations are of great importance, the task of the bureaucracy became easier. Not even a court of law would ask the government to declassify Netaji files by compromising foreign relations. So they made a standard template to respond to queries about Netaji: “Information on Netaji cannot be disclosed.”
To those who have been researching on the issue for the past many years, it was quite clear that these files would not dramatically change the official narrative on the fate of Netaji. Most of these files were seen by Justice Manoj Kumar Mukherjee during his investigation of Netaji’s mysterious disappearance, and if they really had some narrative-altering surprise, it would have found mention in his report. The real question, therefore, is what do these files tell us?
Allegations of foul play against those who assisted Netaji have been made previously. The files have revealed that the Indian National Army (INA) treasure was looted. Worse than that, India’s first Prime Minister turned a blind eye to this, allowing those responsible to go scot-free in free India.
What we have till now are over 15,000 pages distributed across 100 files — the first tranche of the release. Many more are to come. These files contain valuable information on the working of the three inquiries on Netaji’s disappearance, communication between different ministries, between bureaucrats at different levels and between Government of India and foreign countries such as Japan, Russia and the United Kingdom. Also available from the files are communications between the government and members of Netaji’s family, and several individuals who for many years strived to settle the mystery.
Many stories emerge from these pages, with even a greater number of plots and sub-plots, which, to be told properly would need no less than a voluminous book to be written. But if there is one message that runs across all these files it is this — the tone and tenor of the Congress party and the bureaucracy was steeped in the Nehruvian legacy that was set during the 1940s and 1950s when the first Prime Minister, for whatever reason, made up his mind that Subhas Bose had died in the plane crash, and that any further inquiry was unnecessary. The key dimension that was added to this was the bureaucrats’ and politicians’ going to the extent of falsifying records and obfuscating facts to prove their point. Let us look at a few instances.
MORE THAN 100 DOCUMENTS MIGHT HAVE VANISHED, FOREVER
In 2006, when we started Mission Netaji after the government’s rejection of the report produced by the Justice Mukherjee Commission of Inquiry (JMCI), our main objective was to get all documents related to Netaji out in the public domain. In June 2006, we requested the Ministry of Home Affairs to provide us with the documents that were used as exhibits by the first two inquiries — Shah Nawaz Khan Committee of 1956 and the G.D. Khosla Commission, which worked from 1970 to 1974. Exhibits are usually documents and other material that are listed out separately due to their relevance to the work of an inquiry, and can also be construed as the evidence based on which the inquiry reached its conclusion. The JMCI listed out 308 exhibits in its report. The documents cannot be provided, pat came the reply, since, according the ministry, documents more than 20 years old are exempt from release under the Act. After our appeal to the Central Information Commission (CIC), the ministry added more reasons for not releasing the documents, which was that the reports of these two inquiries did not have any list of exhibits attached to them. Moreover, all documents related to the two inquiries were given to the JMCI, and in case there were any exhibits, they would have to be searched from the voluminous records of the latter.
So effective was the position taken by the ministry officials during the hearings conducted by the CIC that the Information Commissioner in his interim order observed “that the matter was quite old and the institutional memory was quite blurred”.
When we were able to produce the list of exhibits to the CIC, the Home Ministry had no option but to accept the fact of its existence. Caught in the wrong foot, however, it now told the CIC that they could locate only 12 of the list of 202 documents. It also told the CIC that the public disclosure of such documents would lead to a serious law and order problem in the country, especially in West Bengal. Moreover, “It is the considered view of this Ministry not to supply the documents relating to various Commissions of Inquiry on disappearance of Netaji Subhash [sic] Chandra Bose in public interest…”
Many stories emerge from these pages, with even a greater number of plots and sub-plots, which, to be told properly would need no less than a voluminous book to be written.
The case went on until the full bench of the CIC met in July 2007 and asked the ministry to provide all the documents within three months. In November, we were told by the ministry that we could be given only 91 out of the 202 documents, as these were given to the JMCI. No explanation was given to us on why the other documents were not to be given.
File No 12014/8/2005-NCB II (Volume 1), one of the recently declassified files, now tell us the real story behind what we saw and heard publicly. Two things come out clearly: firstly, that all the while that the ministry officials kept claiming that there were no list of exhibits, they were aware that there was in fact such a list, albeit the list not being a part of the report of the Khosla Commission. Secondly, they downplayed, almost to the extent of suppression of fact, the fate of the documents mentioned in that list.
The abovementioned file shows that the Ministry was discussing internally in April 2006 the accusation of the JMCI that the documents mentioned in that list of exhibits were not provided to the inquiry, even as its officials maintained in August that year that there was no such list. In mild terms, this was misleading.
The second, and perhaps more important was the Ministry’s internal acceptance that apart from the 92 documents which were given to the JMCI, the remaining cannot be found. Stripped of its bureaucratic polish, this means that over 100 documents related to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose may have been lost forever.
Thus, instead of telling us at the first place that only 92 out of the 202 documents mentioned in the list of exhibits maintained by the G.D. Khosla Commission were available because the others were lost, the government first denied the existence of the list, then refused to provide the documents citing the risk of law and order disturbance, and finally gave us only 91 documents despite a clear order of the CIC to provide all, without explaining why the other documents were not given.
LOOT OF INA TREASURE
People of the country generally have high opinion about those who assisted Netaji in his campaign to attain independence for the country. There have been occasional allegations of foul play against some, but now the released files provide the specifics of what was in the air until now. Among others, they confirm previous claims that the Indian National Army (INA) treasure was looted. Worse than that, India’s first Prime Minister turned a blind eye, allowing them to go scot-free in free India.
Ministry of External Affairs file No 25/4/NGO — Volume 1 establishes that the Nehru government had zeroed in on the names of the perpetrators, two of which were former Netaji aides.
Munga Ramamurti, the head of Indian Independence League (IIL) in Tokyo, and Bose’s propaganda minister S.A. Ayer were accused in the file of having made away with the war chest Bose had created with public help to sustain the freedom struggle. Assisting the duo was Colonel J.G. Figgess, the military attaché at the British embassy.
Ramamurti, Ayer and Figgess are often cited in proving the reported death of Bose in Taiwan following an air crash. It now turns out that all of them had a reason to support the theory, which also held that the INA treasure was burnt along with Netaji. On 1 November 1955, a secret report on the issue was made in the Ministry of External Affairs for the perusal of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who had been kept in the loop throughout, as evidenced by several other reports kept in the file.
Titled “INA treasure and their handling by Messrs Ayer and Ramamurti”, this report was authored by R.D. Sathe, a would-be foreign secretary. Sathe confirmed that “Mr Iyer’s activities in Japan have been rather suspicious”.
Sathe also added: “Suspicion regarding the improper disposal of the treasure is thickened by the comparative affluence in 1946 of Mr Ramamurti when all other Indian nationals in Tokyo were suffering the greatest hardships. Another fact which suggests that the treasures were improperly disposed of is a sudden blossoming out into an oriental [word unclear] expert of Col Figgess, the military attaché of the British mission in Tokyo, and the reported invitation extended by the colonel to Ramamurti to settle down in UK.” The note carried the Prime Minister’s signature with date 5 November 1951 and the noting of the Foreign Secretary that “the PM has seen this note”. While Ramamurti continued to flourish in Japan for a while, Ayer was given a warm welcome by the Prime Minister when he met him in New Delhi on his return. His involvement in the loot of the treasure did not prevent Nehru from appointing Ayer in 1953 as an adviser for the publicity of his flagship five-year plans.
Mission Netaji is a pressure group which played a crucial role in the declassification of documents related to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.