Subhas Chandra Bose: The Afterlife of India’s Fascist Leader

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By Hugh Purcell | Published in History Today Volume: 60 Issue: 11 


The intriguing death of an Indian holy man in 1985 suggested that he was none other than Subhas Chandra Bose, the revolutionary and nationalist who, it is officially claimed, died in an air crash in 1945. The truth, however, is harder to find, as Hugh Purcell discovers.

Subhas Chandra Bose and Mohandas K. Gandhi at the Indian National Congress annual meeting in Haripura in 1938

Mohandas K. Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose at the Indian National Congress annual meeting in Haripura in 1938

On September 16th, 1985, in a dilapidated house in Faizabad, formerly the capital of Oudh province in India, a reclusive holy man known as Bhagwanji or Gumnami Baba (‘the saint with no name’) breathed his last. Locals had long suspected that he was none other than Subhas Chandra Bose (1897-1945), the Indian quasi-Fascist leader who in the 1930s had advocated a violent revolution against the British Empire to gain total independence for India.The Second World War had enabled him to practise what he preached and his Indian National Army had fought with the Japanese in Burma attempting to drive the British out of the subcontinent.

Although Netaji (Great Leader) Bose was reported killed in an air crash in August 1945, while trying to escape to the Soviet Union, many believed then and continue to believe now that, helped by his Japanese allies, he faked his death, reached Russia and returned to India many years later to lead the secret life of a hermit. Surprisingly for a poor sadhu (mystic) the ‘saint with no name’ left behind many trunks of possessions and in 1986, realising that these might solve the mystery once and for all, Bose’s niece Lalita obtained a high court order for an inventory to be made of their contents. Among the 2,673 items indexed, Lalita claimed she saw letters in her uncle’s handwriting and family photographs. Gumnami Baba’s belongings were re-packed in 23 boxes and sent to the District Treasury.

This was the latest but by no means the last of the dramas attending the fate of Bose. During the previous 40 years the Indian government had been forced to set up two inquiries into his death (the Nawaz Khan Committee in 1956 and the G.D. Khosla Commission 1970-74) and, although both confirmed the reported story that he died in an air crash, the rumours persisted. In 1999, reluctantly, but under pressure from Bose’s home state of Bengal in particular, the Indian government appointed Justice M.K. Mukherjee to ‘launch a vigorous inquiry ... to end the controversy ... over the reported death of [Bose] in 1945’.

On November 26th, 2001, Mukherjee drove up to the District Treasury in his official white Ambassador car. A large crowd had gathered to watch the boxes being opened. They included the Hindustan Times journalist Anuj Dhar who described to me what happened: out came a pair of German binoculars, a Corona typewriter, a pipe (taken away for DNA but without result), a Rolex watch – ‘Netaji’s watch,’ gasped a spectator in awe – a box of five teeth (also taken away but found not to belong to Bose) and a pair of silver, round-rimmed spectacles. Clearly, Gumnami Baba had been an extraordinary man. It was his collection of books that was most thought-provoking. Bear in mind that Bose had received an English education (finishing at Cambridge University) and, in the eyes of the British, had committed war crimes against them possibly escaping to the Soviet Union; then appreciate, for example, Gulliver’s Travels, P.G. Wodehouse’s The Inimitable Jeeves, the scarcely available International Military Tribunal for the Far East, The History of the Freedom Movement in India, The Last Days of the Raj, Moscow’s Shadow Over West Bengal and Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. This could not be the bedtime reading of a typical sadhu. Either he had been an obsessive collector of Bose memorabilia, or someone had added to his possessions posthumously as a hoax, or he really was Bose. Some of the books had writing in the margins that Anuj Dhar submitted to an expert. He issued a certificate that the handwriting belonged to Bose, but the Indian government promptly appointed an expert of its own who disagreed.

In his inquiry report, completed in 2006, Justice Mukherjee was categoric. He concluded: ‘Netaji Bose is dead [a safe bet as he would have been 109]. He did not die in the plane crash as alleged and the ashes in the Japanese temple in Tokyo [maintained by the Indian government since 1945] are not of Netaji.’ He was more narrowly legalistic about the Faizabad connection:

In the absence of any clinching evidence to prove that Bhagwanji/Gumnami Baba was Netaji the question whether he died in Faizabad on September 16th,1985, as testified by some of the witnesses, need not be answered.

Nevertheless, caught off guard in a TV interview in January 2010, Mukherjee can clearly be heard saying that he thinks Bhagwanji and Bose may well be the same person. This probably did not impress the Indian government which had already dismissed the Mukherjee Report as unreliable. Why have these rumours persisted for so long? Why do they continue to divide well-educated Indians, including Bose’s own extended family? And why for many less educated Bengalis has Bose assumed the semi-divine status of a sadhu? There are several reasons.

In the first place, Bengal needs Netaji now more than ever. Bose, twice Mayor of Calcutta (Kolkata) in the 1930s, was the one great Bengali national and international politician of the last 75 years. A recent opinion poll of Indian students ranked him second only to Gandhi and above Nehru as the greatest Indian statesman of the 20th century. He has become a legendary figure. Taxi drivers in Kolkata discussing the appalling roads or flooded pavements of their town will say, ‘If only Netaji was still alive!’ A play staged there last year was based on the premise that Bose returned to India after Independence. Forward Bloc, the political party he founded in 1939 after he was forced to resign the presidency of the Indian National Congress for advocating violent revolution, still exists under his name, campaigning for a form of national socialism. Associations with Bose distract from the diminished status of Kolkata today: no longer the political or economic capital of India but the centre of a partitioned state.

The afterlife notion also persists because Netaji’s real life encourages conspiracy theorists. When the story of Bose’s death in 1945 reached Viceroy Wavell he said: ‘I suspect it very much. It is just what should be given out if he meant to go “underground”.’ In 1946 Gandhi claimed that ‘inner voices’ were telling him ‘Subhas is still alive and biding his time somewhere’. Bose certainly had form as an escaper. He spent his life moving easily, sometimes secretly, from country to country. In 1941 he escaped from British house arrest in Calcutta and reached Afghanistan from where, aided by the Italian ambassador and disguised as an Italian businessman ‘Orlando Mazzota’, he travelled up through central Asia to Moscow and from there to Berlin. Soon Britons and Indians could hear his propaganda broadcasts stirring up revolt against the British Empire and boasting about his Indian Legion, a body of soldiers trained by and intended to fight alongside the German Wehrmacht. In 1943, discouraged by Hitler’s lacklustre support for Indian independence and aware that the theatre of war where he needed to pit his troops was now the Far East, he travelled half-way round the world under water by first German and then Japanese submarine to Japan. Admired there, he received official support and set up his 50,000-strong Azad Hind Fauj or Indian National Army (INA), recruited largely from Indian soldiers of the British Empire Army who had been captured by the Japanese in their successful offensive of 1942.

If Netaji became a mystic in his afterlife then this too had a precedent in his former life. Always ascetic and distant from personal relationships (although in 1937 he probably married his Austrian secretary with whom he had a child, Anita, in 1942), he was a student of Ramakrishna, the 19th-century Bengali mystic whose followers believe was an incarnation of God. As a student Bose left home in search of the religious life. In his unfinished autobiography Indian Pilgrim he wrote of this time: ‘The desire to find a guru grew stronger and stronger within me ... We looked up as many sadhus as we could and I returned home a wiser man.’

The enduring mystery of the death of Bose arises above all from the circumstances of his disappearance. The facts are these. In May 1945 Slim’s 14th Army pushed the Japanese 33rd Army, supported by the INA, out of Burma. For the INA (referred to dismissively by the British as ‘JIFS’ – Japanese Infiltrated Soldiers) it was an ignominious rout, exposing Bose’s hopeless idealism as a war leader. On August 10th a Russian army began its offensive through Manchuria. From the seas and skies the American navy and air force pounded Japan, culminating with the atomic bombs on August 6th and 9th. On August 14th Japan surrendered.

Bose, whose political acumen was a lot sharper than his military knowledge, realised that the Cold War was the new world war and that Russia could be India’s one remaining ally in its fight for freedom. He had already made contact with the Soviet embassy in Tokyo (in November 1944) and on August 16th at a meeting in Bangkok, Major General Isoda Saburo, head of the Hikari Kikan, or Japanese liaison with the INA, agreed to try to get Bose into Manchuria as the first step to reaching Moscow. The last photo of Netaji alive or dead shows him at Saigon airport on August 17th, 1945. Five days later, on August 23rd, the Japanese News Agency announced the death of Bose:

He was seriously injured when his plane crashed at Taihoku airfield [Taipei, then in Formosa, now in Taiwan] at 14.00 hours on August 18th. He was given treatment in a hospital in Japan [sic] where he died at midnight.

On September 7th Colonel Habibur Rahman, Bose’s sole INA travelling companion who said he had survived the plane crash and described how Netaji had died, arrived in Tokyo carrying an urn of ashes. They were placed in Renkoji temple and an announcement was made: ‘Netaji chale gaye’ (Netaji has gone). But in the absence of a body the controversy began. It intensified the following year when an Indian journalist, Harin Shah, visited Taipei and obtained, so he thought, the medical and police reports on the death of Netaji and the certificate issued permitting cremation. When these were translated into English all these documents referred to one Okara Ichiro who had died of heart failure on August 19th and had been cremated. When Harin Shah pointed this out, according to the Mukherjee report:

The Formosan clerks ... said the Japanese officer accompanying the dead body, under whose instruction they acted, told them that for state reasons, the particulars of the person had to be kept confidential.

Was the death of Netaji faked so that he could escape possible execution by the British as a traitor and take his fight for Indian independence unimpeded to Russia? There was a precedent. Subhas’ nephew Pradip Bose, a well-known writer in Delhi, recalls meeting Dr Ba Maw, President of Burma, in Rangoon in 1962: ‘He told me that the Japanese had announced his “death” in an air crash [in early 1945], while he was actually hiding in Japan [to escape the British].’

It was to resolve the question of a possible hoax and to quell rumours of reported sightings of Bose in India and elsewhere that the first two inquiries were launched in 1956 and 1970. What is convincing about their conclusions is that the several Japanese eye-witnesses of the air crash and death of Bose who gave evidence at both inquiries agreed about what they saw and stuck to their version of events over nearly 20 years. As Justice Khosla said in his summing up:

I am not prepared to accept the contention that the entire military organisation of Japan had entered into a  conspiracy to put forward a false story in order to cover up Bose’s escape, still less 11 [and now 25] years later when the trial of war criminals was over, when nothing could be gained by telling lies. Such a hypothesis just does not make sense.

Conspicuous among the eyewitnesses was Dr Taneyoshi Yoshimi, first interviewed in Stanley Gaol, in Hong Kong in 1946 by British Intelligence (the document is in the British Library), who claimed that he treated Bose and signed his death certificate, giving the cause of death as ‘burns of the third degree’. However the death certificate, if it ever existed, has disappeared. That is the trouble with long-held conspiracies; one fact begets a counter fact. Justice Mukherjee reports that he was shown a death certificate for Chandra Bose signed by Dr Yoshimi, but it was dated 1988, clearly a photocopy, and the aged Dr Yoshimi said he did not have a good memory of it.

What is equally convincing about Justice Mukherjee’s report is that, taking a rigorous approach that approves of primary documents and abhors circumstantial evidence, he finds that there is absolutely nothing to go on. There is no pictorial or written evidence of the crash in the Taipei airfield log, or in the local newspapers or held by the Taiwan government; there are no death certificates or cremation certificates for Bose and several others who are supposed to have died with him. Attempts by Mukherjee’s team to remove some of the ashes from Renkoji temple for DNA testing were unsuccessful, though it is doubtful whether such tests would have worked anyway. Mukherjee concluded:

a) There is no satisfactory evidence of the plane crash; on the contrary, the story given out in that respect is rather improbable.
b) In the absence of any contemporaneous record in the hospital, the Bureau and/or the crematorium, the oral account of the witnesses of Netaji’s death and cremation cannot be relied on to arrive at a definitive finding; and
c) A secret plan was contrived to ensure Netaji’s safe passage, to which Japanese military authority and Habibur Rahman were parties.

When the Congress Party has been in power it has always refused requests to return the ashes to India. In fact Bose’s admirers believe the Congress Party will never allow the truth about their hero to be known because it is the party of the Nehru family and Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) and Subhas Bose were bitter rivals. Some go further and believe that Prime Minister Nehru conspired with the Russians to prevent Bose returning to India after Independence because he felt threatened by him; hence the cover-up.

One thing is certain – if Bose did die in the air crash then he succeeded posthumously in his fight for India’s independence. Immediately after the war the British put on trial for treason in the Red Fort of Delhi three leaders of the INA, symbolically a Hindu, a Muslim and a Sikh. This caused uproar, not least among soldiers of the British Indian Army who only a short time before had been fighting their fellow Indians in the Burmese jungle. The war was over; it was India’s time for freedom now. Netaji was hailed as a martyr. To avoid further martyrs the British virtually acquitted the defendants, letting them off with the lightest sentences, and concluded that the time had come for the British to quit India too. On August 15th, 1947, almost two years after Bose’s reported death, India and Pakistan became free nations.

Over the next few years rumours were rife that Bose had reached Russia. An India Office document marked ‘Secret’ of May 2nd, 1946 includes this report from a Miss Hanchet:

The D.I.B. [Director of Intelligence Bureau in India] mentioned the receipt from various places in India of information that Subhas Bose was alive in Russia. In some cases circumstantial details have been added. Consequently he is not more than 90 per cent sure that Subhas is dead.

A stenographer, Sham Lal Jain, deposed before the Khosla Commission that ‘Pandit Nehru asked him to make typed copies of a hand-written note that said Bose had reached Russia via Dairen [Manchuria]’. He also alleged that Nehru asked him to type a letter to British Prime Minister Attlee that ‘Bose, your war criminal, has been allowed to enter Russian territory by Stalin’. According to the Hindustan Times of March 4th, 2001, Justice Mukherjee asked for this correspondence (when on a visit to London) but was told that the British Government will declassify Bose documents ‘only after 2021 if the Indian Government so desires’.

Netaji watchers report further circumstantial evidence that Bose was sent to the Gulag. In 2000, an Indian engineer, Ardhendu Sarkar, said he had worked in the Ukraine in the 1960s for a German engineer, Zerovin, who had known Bose in Berlin and had come across him again in 1948 after being sent to a camp in Siberia ‘for indoctrination’. Sarkar reported the meeting between Zerovin and Bose to the Indian Embassy in Moscow, after which he was suddenly recalled to India. Others reported to the Khosla Commission that the Indian ambassador to the USSR in the early 1950s, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, had seen Bose in Siberia.

The most persistent voice of the ‘Bose in Russia’ group belongs to a Professor of International Affairs at Kolkata’s Jadhavpur University, Dr Purabi Roy who specialises in Indo-Russian relations. She is convinced that Bose arrived in Russia and possibly died there because she dismisses any sadhu–in–Faizabad connection. She also related to me word-of-mouth ‘evidence’, the most plausible of which came from her colleague in the Russian Institute of Oriental Studies, former USSR General Alexander Kolesnikov. He told her that he had seen a file that noted the minutes of a Politburo meeting of August 1946 when Voroshilov, Mikoyan, Molotov and others discussed whether Bose should be allowed to stay in the Soviet Union. Dr Roy’s attempts to see this file ended in failure, however. At her urging, the Mukherjee Commission went to the Russian Federation, visited six archives and interviewed four witnesses though not Kolesnikov who was ordered abroad on the eve of his appearance.  The archives drew a blank and the witnesses refuted what Dr Roy claimed they had told her. Not surprisingly, Justice Mukherjee concluded that ‘the assertion of Dr Roy regarding Netaji’s presence in Russia cannot be acted upon’. However, she claims a book to be published this winter, will vindicate her position.

During the 1950s and 60s other stories about Netaji contended that he never left India but remained in hiding disguised as a peripatetic sadhu. We are in a position to judge the truth of these not only because of the evidence of the first inquiries but also because of the research of Bose’s biographer Leonard Gordon. He traced the supposed wanderings of Bose round India between 1948 and 1959 through the publications of the Subhasbadi Janata, a propaganda organisation under Major Satya Gupta, a former political ally of Netaji. According to this, Netaji attended Gandhi’s cremation in 1948 after which he roamed India three times doing tapasa, or penance, to save mankind. Gordon has exposed some of this account as fraudulent and believes the rest is myth. He is convinced Bose died on August 18th, 1945. He has no time for the Mukherjee report, though his biography was written some time before it came out, and he also believes that Professor Roy should put up her evidence or shut up.

The mystery of what happened to Netaji Bose will remain until the Indian Government opens some 100 classified files on the subject; and allows files in Russia and Britain to be opened also. Anuj Dhar and the Hindustan Times, convinced of a government cover-up, have been campaigning for this through their website www. The response of the Indian Government is revealing:

The disclosure of the nature and contents of these documents would hurt the sentiments of the people at large and may evoke widespread reactions. Diplomatic relations with friendly countries may also be adversely affected if the said documents are disclosed.

Justice Mukherjee complained at length in his Report (itself hard to obtain) about the lack of government disclosure and the many obstructions of officials he encountered when he was conducting his inquiry. Pradip Bose agrees that the only way to solve the Bose mystery is for the government censorship to end and the files to be opened. He asks why, if his uncle did die in the air crash, the government does not allow his ashes to be brought back from Japan ‘with the great national honour that he fully deserves’?

Meanwhile, in Bengal a cult called the Santan Dal is still waiting for Netaji ‘to appear again’. Its members rioted outside a cinema in Kolkata in 2005 when a biopic of Netaji The Forgotten Hero showed, accurately, that Bose had a sexual relationship with a western woman. There is no doubt that to many Bengalis, at least, Bose has assumed a semi-divine persona. One of many letters discovered in the Faizabad trunks said:

Crores [many millions] of Indians have put their eyes upon you. One day the Lord will himself salvage the sorrow of the people, the evil will be destroyed and God will prevail. You are our God in human form.

Bose saw his struggle as a moral crusade. The British Empire was evil and he was fighting for the good, in epic terms that Indians love –‘Give me your blood and I will give you freedom,’ was his cry. In a country where the lines between mortality, sainthood and the divine are finely drawn, why not bring back the epic hero, Netaji, as a symbolic figure to achieve a Divine Age on earth?

Hugh Purcell is a writer on British India. His latest book is The Maharaja of Bikaner in the Makers of the Modern World series (Haus Histories, 2010).

Further reading:

  • Leonard Gordon, Brothers Against the Raj, (Columbia University Press, 1990)
  • S.K.Bose, A. Werth and S.A. Ayer, A Beacon Across Asia (Orient Longman,1996)
  • Anuj Dhar, Back from the Dead (Manas Publications, 2005)
  • Purabi Roy, Riding the Tiger Purple (Peacock Books, Kolkata, Dec 2010)

Subhas Chandra Bose: The Afterlife of India’s Fascist Leader | History Today

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