We measure power through size. Check any political poster. The boss gets the biggest face. Others in the pecking order descend till the miniature at the end.
Why was Subhas Chandra Bose struggling among the also-rans in the Bengal Republic Day tableau? Swami Vivekananda, understandably, had pride of place. But it might have been better to keep Bose out of the jumble rather than literally reduce his stature. If Bengal forgets, how long will India remember the only Indian to head a government of united India?
Bose declared independence before the British gave it in 1947. His government in exile did not have Gandhi’s sanction. It fought on the wrong side of the Second World War: but it was a proud and free government whose contribution to our freedom has been reduced by the domestic political forces he challenged.
Bose is an embarrassment to Congress because he challenged Gandhi, and was a powerful parallel icon to Nehru. Bose asked Indians to give him their blood, and he would give them freedom. Gandhi promised freedom without violence. Gandhi refused to join the British war effort in 1939; Bose went a step further, and led Indian troops on the side of the Germany-Italy-Japan axis. However, their horizon, freedom, was the same.
More than six decades later the argument might seem pedantic, and yet it is worth revisiting. Invaluable Indian blood and treasure helped Britain win the First World War. After victory, Britain reneged on its commitment to Indian self-rule within the empire without batting an eyelid. Instead of dominion status, Indians got vicious brutality at Jallianwala Bagh and the pernicious Rowlatt Act.
It is not generally known that Gandhi was not a pacifist: he served on British frontlines in the Boer and Zulu wars in South Africa, and was very eager to lead a medical unit to the killing fields of France in 1914, at the onset of the First World War. In 1918, Gandhi worked so hard as a recruiting agent for the British army, urging Gujaratis to prove they were not “effeminate” by picking up a gun that he almost died of exhaustion. Farewell bhajans began to be sung before he recovered. Gandhi lost hope in Britain only when he felt betrayed.
Britain had as much to protect in 1945 as in 1918. London knew that its empire would unravel at the point where it had begun, in India, once India became independent. What pushed Britain towards the exit gate? Of course there was the irresistible momentum of Gandhi’s nationwide struggle. But the British had faced this challenge before, in the non-cooperation movement 25 years before. The significant difference was the nationalist sentiment unleashed by Bose among Indians in uniform. Bose’s Indian National Army [INA] showed them where their national loyalties should lie. Bose’s war also inspired the young to surge beyond the confines of Congress.
Even Gandhi, who only had faint praise for Bose in a 1945 obituary [“Subhas Bose has died well. He was undoubtedly a patriot though misguided”], had to admit in an article published on 15 February 1946, “The hypnotism of the Indian National Army has cast its spell on us… [Netaji’s] patriotism is second to none… He aimed high but failed. Who has not failed?… The lesson that Netaji and his army brings to us is one of self-sacrifice, unity irrespective of class and community, and discipline…” When the British put three INA officers — Shah Nawaz, a Muslim, Sahgal, a Hindu, and Dhillon, a Sikh — on trial for sedition, India exploded in wrath. Nehru said on 24 December 1945, “The INA trial has created a mass upheaval.”
Bose broke the backbone of British rule when he destroyed trust between the British Raj and its armed forces. The eminently sensible Sir Claude Auchinleck, commander in chief, accepted that any extreme punishment for INA officers would make governance impossible, because Indians adored them as national heroes. This, he said, was the “general opinion held in India, not only by the public, but … by quite a considerable part of the Indian Army as well”.
Subhas Bose’s contribution to the formation of a Republic of India was no less than that of the very greatest of our founding fathers. Bose proved in practice what an Indian secular state would be. At a time when the Muslim League was in ascendant, he had the love and trust of Muslims. He lived his dream of gender equality when he set up the Rani of Jhansi regiment, under the fiery and beautiful Lakshmi Swaminathan. When Bose told the Japanese he was setting up a women’s-only force, they thought he was joking. I do not believe Bose could have fought alongside Hitler, who advised the British to shoot Gandhi dead, and resented the Japanese advance because he thought Asia was being lost to white Europeans. Hitler was an undisguised racist, as were all Nazis.
Perhaps India can survive without Bose. But such amnesia will only diminish India.