Intelligence agencies keep their secrets well because they are intelligent as well as secretive. Governments keep files classified for three or five decades because they wait till both the principal personae and the issues are dead. On a very, very few occasions, documents boomerang. They wake up the dead. Subhas Chandra Bose has become the ghost at Macbeth’s banquet, a haunting reminder that power was once purchased at a price.

From the moment news filtered through the war haze that the plane carrying Bose, charismatic leader of the Indian National Army, had crashed in Taipei on 18 August 1945, his fate has been wrapped in alternative narratives best described in two words: “dead” and “disappeared”. The first was the preferred conclusion of the establishment; the second was the view of the people of India. If we want to understand why there was such a dramatic conflict over interpretation of an event, we must appreciate what the establishment of 1945 represented.

The crash took place just three days after Japan surrendered, and the United Nations [which was the formal name of the Allies led by America, Soviet Union and Britain] could formally claim victory over the Axis powers, led by Germany, Japan and Italy. India, under the British Raj, was an Ally, but a bit diluted, since Gandhi withdrew Congress support to the war effort on the grounds that the people of India had not been consulted. But the legitimate government of India, the British Raj, took the Indian armed services, along with forces of the princely states, to war. The Indian Army fought in Africa against the Germans, and in south-east Asia against Japan. Its formal opposition notwithstanding, Congress did not try to sabotage the British war effort by instigating any revolt in the armed forces. The man who did so was Bose, who had broken from Gandhi and Congress in 1939.

Bose had captured the imagination of Indians, particularly the young, with his extraordinary escape from Calcutta in 1941, his romantic, dangerous land journey from Bengal to Berlin via Afghanistan and Central Asia, his landmark meetings with Axis supremos, his secret submarine trip to Japan, and then his unprecedented mobilisation of fighting units from Indian Army officers and soldiers held as prisoners-of-war by Japan. Nothing enraged the British, still haunted by memories of 1857, more than this “mutiny”. But this was more than sentiment. The Raj knew that it rested on the loyalty of the British Indian Army. If this loyalty cracked, the Raj would not hold. And without India the empire would disintegrate.

The Bose impact was evident in the naval mutiny in Bombay just after the war. That began the countdown. Bose and his INA may have lost the war, but they had won a much larger victory worth its own golden chapter. Bose was the martial hero that India had not seen for a century. There were spontaneous mass uprisings when in 1946 the British put INA officers on trial for treason. For Indians, they were martyrs, not traitors.

Bose was eight years younger than Nehru; he had time on his side. He would have won power in Bengal and Orissa by 1952, magnetised an opposition alliance at the national level, whittled Congress in 1957 and routed it in the 1962 general elections.

The British prepared to leave India, but they still had plans for the India they would leave behind. An interesting collusion of political forces had one objective in common: the absence of Bose.

The British were implacably hostile to Bose. The Congress was amenable; Bose was not. The Muslim League did not want Bose, because the inspirational manner in which Bose soldered Hindu-Muslim-Sikh unity in INA was an obvious template for the India he wanted. Bose criticised Jinnah and the possibility of Pakistan bitterly in his radio broadcasts from south east Asia. With Bose in India, partition would have had a passionate opponent. Congress did not want Bose back for obvious reasons: he would be a claimant for power that the party, and its leader, Jawaharlal Nehru wanted for themselves.

Why would Nehru have continued surveillance on the Bose family if he was certain that Bose was dead? Why did Nehru panic on a visit to Japan in 1957, as documents prove?

If Bose survived, then where was he taken, and when and where exactly did he die? We do not know the truth. All we have is the official explanation that truth will impair relations with friendly nations. One such nation is certainly Britain, since IB under Nehru collaborated with Britain’s intelligence agency against Bose. The whisper is that the second nation was Stalin’s Soviet Union, a British ally in 1945. Stalin was, apparently, sold the pup that Bose was an unrepentant fascist. However, we cannot be certain until we know more from the still secret files.

The political calculus is simpler. Bose was eight years younger than Nehru; he had time on his side. He, or his party, would have won power in Bengal and Orissa by 1952. Bose would have magnetised an opposition alliance at the national level, whittled Congress in 1957 and routed it in the 1962 general elections. Would China have then attacked India? We cannot say. What is indisputable is that free India’s history would have been a different story.

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