The book highlights the difference Bose had with Mahatma Gandhi over several issues, the most important being how to oust the British empire from the Indian subcontinent.


In one shot, Chandrachur Ghosh’s new tome on Subhas Chandra Bose has buried all the mysteries associated with India’s best known patriot who took a heroic stand against imperialism. Penguin India’s Bose, The Untold Story of An Unconventional Nationalist, is brilliant, especially for those who have the patience to finish the huge book in one shot. I did. It says anything and everything about the nationalist and tells Indians why they should now junk the British theory that Bose was a traitor who joined hands with Hitler. Well he did, the circumstances, argue Ghosh, were different.
For the record, the fate of Bose, leader of the Indian National Army, which collaborated with the Japanese and Germans against the British in the Second World War, remained a deep mystery after a six-year investigation into his disappearance contradicted the official version of events. The report said the respected leader had died of burns in a plane crash in Taiwan shortly after the Japanese surrender in August 1945. But a commission led by Supreme Court judge M.K. Mukherjee said Bose did not die in the crash and his supposed ashes, kept at Renkoji Temple near Tokyo, were those of a Japanese soldier, not those of the Indian hero.
And then came the Gumnami theory, pushed hard and hard by Ghosh and his partner Anuj Dhar. The Gumnami theory is important because it forms—in some ways—a crucial part of Bose. Ghosh and Dhar have travelled across India and also abroad and faced uncomfortable questions but remained firm on their theory that Gumnami Baba—seen in various parts of India and eventually in Faizabad—was Bose. Thanks to Ghosh and Dhar, the belief in Gumnami Baba’s existence now remains intact. Reports say Baba passed away on 16 September 1985, and his cremation was performed two days later.
So let’s delve deep into Bose.
The book highlights the difference Bose had with Mahatma Gandhi over several issues, the most important being how to oust the British empire from the Indian subcontinent. The book quotes from Gandhi’s writing in Harijan on 24 February 1946: “The hypnotism of the Indian National Army has cast its spell upon us. Netaji’s name is one to conjure with us. His patriotism is second to none. (I use the present tense intentionally). His bravery shines through all his actions. He aimed high but failed. Who has not failed? Ours is to aim high and to aim well. It is given to everyone to command success. My praise and admiration can go no further. For I know his action was doomed to failure, and that I would have said so even if he had brought the INA victorious to India, because the masses would not have come into their own in this manner. The lesson that Netaji and his army brings to us is one of self-sacrifice, unity irrespective of class and community, and discipline. If our adoration will be wise and discriminating, we will rigidly copy this trinity of virtues, but we will as rigidly abjure violence.”
Strong words for Bose and his acts.
Writes Ghosh: “Gandhi’s acknowledgement of the impact Subhas and the INA had on the Indian armed forces came out during his discussions with the army men at the Uruli Kanchan camp in Maharashtra. There was a time when soldiers in the Indian army were not allowed to read civil newspapers, but now they could tell their officers that they were going to meet Gandhi without the fear of being stopped. Yet, when the INA soldiers started receiving massive adulation across the country, Gandhi felt the need to reiterate his differences with them and their leader.”
The Gandhi-Bose divide often became a crucial trigger in India’s quest for independence. The nation remained divided in their loyalties over the two leaders.
Bose lifts much of the smokescreen pushed on the nation by successive governments at the Centre about the iconic leader. Academics have often argued that Bose disagreed with the arguments of racial superiority espoused by Japan and the Nazis. And then, there are historians who claim Bose was a pragmatist who considered an enemy’s enemy a friend.
I have a feeling Bose’s legend and enduring mystique stem from his remarkable wartime escapades. And also because the Cambridge-educated freedom fighter rejected Gandhi’s pacifism in favour of violent revolution. Bose escaped from house arrest in Calcutta in 1941, travelling via Kabul to Berlin where he met Hitler. The Fuhrer advised Bose to seek help from the advancing Japanese troops in Asia and offered him passage to Tokyo aboard a German U-boat.
I found the chapter on his marriage very, very engrossing. A letter from Bose to his family members caught my attention. Bose wrote this one in 1943, the day was February 8: “Today once again I am embarking on the path of danger. But this time towards home, I may not see the end of the road. If I meet with any such danger, I will not be able to send you any further news in this life. That is why today I am leaving my news here—it will reach you in due time. I have married here and I have a daughter. In my absence—please allow my wife and daughter love that you have given me throughout your life. May my wife and daughter complete and successfully fulfill my unfinished tasks—that is my ultimate prayer.”
Bose finally arrived in Burma at the head of an 80,000-strong INA and advanced to British India’s north eastern states. He had set up a government-in-exile and inspired revolts in the British Indian army. A movie, actually a biopic, showed him planting the Indian Tricolour on Indian soil for the first time.
Historians say many Indians remember the Independence triumph rather than the means many freedom fighters used to achieve them. In some ways, WWII still remains a tough subject to deal with in 20th century India, ostensibly because millions of Indians fought under British Army, but the Independence movement was split over which side to belong, which side to support. I heard stories of Bose in Beauty Boarding, Old Dhaka’s historical hotel and restaurant. Those who took me there said they heard from their ancestors how Bose would visit the eatery, eat puffed rice mixed with nuts and drink copious cups of tea and discuss how to overthrow the British government.
Bose puts India’s biggest nationalist firmly on the pedestal, and buries all misplaced theories. It is a riveting read.