‘The hero who lives’: The life of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose

Netaji

On the 125th anniversary of the birth of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, an Indian national hero, Prof. Sugata Bose—grandnephew of Netaji and Gardiner Professor of History at Harvard University – speaks to Digital Ambassador, Amrita DasGupta about the Hero who Lives

While Netaji is a towering figure in Bengal and India, he remains an enigma in the West. It can perhaps even be said that Netaji’s political vision and legacy remains unclear for many Indians, including our politicians. Therefore, it is in this context, the interview gives the much needed clarity on the life and political vision of Netaji and its continued relevance in our current times.

Q: The Bose family was connected to the small, interrelated elites of Bengal and was perceived to be close to the Raj. So how is it that Netaji came to represent a very different set of values? Who were the earliest influences to inspire him to take up the nationalist cause? 

A: Netaji Subhas Bose was a towering figure across the whole of India and Asia and whenever he spoke to foreign audiences, he always made it clear that he was not a leader of Bengal but whole of India. 

Subhas Chandra Bose was deeply influenced by the headmaster of his school, who instilled some moral values in him and also his love for nature, but it was at the age of 15 that he read the works of the Hindu monk, Swami Vivekananda and he felt that he had found a mission in his life. He decided that service to humanity would be his chosen field. So that was quite early, and you can see that—in the letters he wrote to his mother as a 15-year-old in 1912-13, already you see that he had chosen a life of service to suffering humanity and to which he also included service to his country.  

Q: While Bose’s later role in the formation of the Indian National Army (INA) is better known, his role in the 1920s and 1930s in Bengal politics has somewhat faded from public memory. What was Netaji’s position and role in this process? Do we get a glimmer of federalist politics here?

A: Once Netaji resigned from the Indian Civil service and returned to India, he joined CR Das in the Swaraj Party. Netaji was actually very reluctant at first to become CEO of the Corporation, but once he decided to, he actually made a whole range of appointments of Muslims who were terribly under-represented in the Corporation. And this was criticized by some members of the Hindu elite.

Netaji  felt that there had to be an equitable power sharing arrangement between Hindus and Muslims –  not just in Bengal but also in the rest of India. So, he believed in equality among all religious communities, but he also believed in federalism: that you can see in a number of speeches he gave in the late 1920s, where he made it crystal clear that India’s political goal should be the building of India as a federal republic once independence was won. 

Now it’s natural that his role as the leader of the Azad Hind Fauj and the Azad Hind Government is better remembered these days because that was the climax of his political career and he destroyed the loyalty of Indian soldiers to the British King Emperor and replaced it with a new loyalty to the cause of the Indian nation. 

Bust of Netaji, Kolkata. Photograph: Shutterstock

Q: No discussion on Netaji will be complete without his greatest achievement i.e., his successful takeover of the Indian National Army, not to mention the creation of the all-women’s regiment-Rani of Jhansi Regiment. 

A: Yes, his leadership of the Indian National Army (INA) in 1943 was clearly a crowning achievement. For 20 years he had seen in India how the civilian masses had rallied to the Gandhi-led Indian National Congress but Indian soldiers had been kept insulated by the British quite successfully from the swirling currents of civilian discontent. 

Netaji wanted to take advantage of the international war crisis to reach these Indian soldiers and the only way and only place where he could find them was in scenarios where they been taken prisoners by the enemies of Britain both in Europe and in Asia  – in Asia he also had a very large civilian base of support because spread over all Southeast and East Asia were over perhaps 3 million Indian expatriates. 

While most of professional soldiers of the INA came from the Punjabis and the Pathans, whom the British had regarded as martial races, Netaji was able to break down this curious anthropological stereotype of martial races and non-martial races by recruiting a large number of South Indians from Tamil Nadu into his INA. This was in fact a very major achievement and he made sure that even in the smallest units there were soldiers from different communities and different regions. 

This applied to the question of gender as well – even from the late 1920s he talked about women’s rights in India, but in Southeast Asia he decided to form the Rani of Jhansi Regiment for women. Once again in the Rani of Jhansi Regiment the majority of the women happened to be from South India, particularly Tamils and there too he wanted to send a message about equality. 

Netaji was somebody who did not believe territory was the be all and end all of nationalism. Indians overseas were given citizenship and Bhulabhai Desai at the INA trials was able to produce something like 2,30,000 written oaths written by Indians living in Malaya alone who had sworn allegiance to the Azad Hind government. So, in all of these respects he was able to give the dignity of equal citizenship to Indians irrespective of religion, caste, gender, class. So that too is one of his major achievements.  

Q: In the West there is some unease about the fact that Bose formed a strategic partnership with Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan…

A: Netaji was a very sharp critic of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. In 1936 on his return from Europe he denounced the new German nationalism as ‘narrow, selfish, and arrogant.’ 

As for Japan, he had once referred to the Japanese as the British of the East. He had sympathy with China when Japan invaded China in 1937 and he had sent the Congress Medical Mission to China in 1938. 

So ideologically he was quite opposed to what Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan stood for in their domestic policies. But I think he felt the biggest scourge in the early twentieth century was British Imperialism and in order to bring that to an end it was necessary to take advantage of a war crisis which he saw as a conflict between the old imperial powers and the new imperial powers. He felt the colonized peoples of Asia and Africa had to take advantage of that international crisis to strike for their own freedom.

In 1943 there was more than 3 million Bengalis who died in a man-made famine holocaust. Netaji was trying to send rice from Burma in August and September 1943; an offer that the British nervously suppressed. So British Imperialism has been culpable for so many crimes against humanity that one can understand why a leader of a colonized people fighting for freedom would have to make some very difficult strategic choices in the quest for independence.        

Q: What do you think would have happened had Bose been alive at independence? Do you believe the partition could have been avoided? Even if it couldn’t be avoided do you think that India-Pakistan relations would have been much more cordial?

A: That is a big ‘if’ of history!  I would say that there is no doubt that Netaji would have commanded the trust of all the religious communities of India, certainly the Hindus and the Muslims. Therefore, Mahatma Gandhi with the full support of Netaji, I think would have been able to avert the tragic partition of India. 

Netaji would have been far more willing to work out an equitable power sharing agreement between Hindus and Muslims and the Congress and the Muslim League. I think his first step would have been to work out power sharing arrangements which would have allowed and prospering of a federalist India where all the religious and regional peoples would have a voice in India’s decision making.       

Q: Returning back to the personal. How was Bose as a person? Could you share some anecdotes about him, perhaps about the close relationship that he shared with your father- Sisir Kumar Bose? 

A: Well, what is very interesting is that Netaji wrote letters in English to his brother, but he wrote in Bengali to his mother. What you also find from his prison letters from Mandalay from 1920s that there was great deal of wit and humour in the letters he wrote, particularly to his sister-In-law in Bengali and of course he was giving advice on the education of his nephews and nieces including my father. 

My father has of course said that he would play with them as children, teach them songs, but ultimately, I think in 1940 in December when my father was called by his Rangakakababu, his radiant uncle and asked a question- ‘amar ekta kaaj korte parbe?’ (can you do some work for me?). At that time the relationship changed and so it became a relationship between a leader and his follower rather than uncle and nephew. 

My father often resisted being described simply as Netajis’ nephew and he said  to my father that you will be able to keep the secret for a while but eventually people may find out and you may have to go to prison. But I never overemphasize this question of being a family member because Netaji believed his family and country were co-terminus .

This has always been a challenge and since you are in Gender Studies you will know that there is a conservative streak in Bengali society and there are elements who would not allow Netaji to either marry or die. The fact of the matter is he married the love of his life and he left behind a daughter whom the mother had to bring up single handedly in very difficult post war conditions.           

Q: How was Bose’s relationship with his INA comrades such as Abid Hasan?

A:. I met Abid Hasan for the first time in 1970 as a 13-year-old when he came to give the Netaji Oration here. He was a wonderful man, and he is very important because he was with Netaji in Europe and on the long submarine voyage and he was very close to him in Singapore and Rangoon but he also went to fight in Imphal. And what I have found is that practically all of Netaji’s close associates were completely devoted to him and decades later when they talked about him including Abid Hasan they would weep for their lost leader. He commanded a certain kind of loyalty which had to be seen to be believed. 

I still remember trying to interview Mehboob Ahmed who was Netaji’s military secretary in 1945: he said ‘I had the good fortune of working with Mahatma Gandhi for a few months after independence and I worked with Jawaharlal Nehru because I joined the Indian Foreign Service and they were very great men but then he said there was only one man I was prepared to die for and that was Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.’ So that was the kind of devotion he inspired. He never asked his followers to take any risks that he would not take himself. 

Q: Finally, what is the message and political vision that we can learn and try to emulate from Netaji today?

A: In today’s context I would say the lesson that we really must emphasize is his absolute commitment to equal citizenship. He believed in equal rights for members of all religious communities, all linguistic groups, all genders, and so that is I think one aspect of his ideas that needs to be stressed today. 

The other is that even though he made occasional references to a strong government that would carry out social and economic reforms, if you read the entire corpus of his works- his writings and speeches then you get a clear sense that he believed in a vision of federal India where the cultural and administrative autonomy of the regional peoples had to respected and that was the only basis on which a union of India could be established and this too needs to be remembered because there is an assault by the forces of religious majoritarianism on the very principle of equal citizenship today. There is also an attempt to establish an over centralized state monolith which actually provokes more alienation and threatens to divide us rather than divide us.

Amrita DasGupta is a SOAS Digital Ambassador and is currently doing a PhD in Gender Studies. You can find her with her cats on Instagram @minminloo_mommom.

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