The Netaji riddle

In the 1950s, the Netaji mystery was a political question. Today, it is an academic issue, centred on dusting away some cobwebs of history.

January 23 was a public holiday in West Bengal and has been so since Independence. It is the birthday of Subhas Chandra Bose, the Netaji that most Bengalis and many other Indians believe, should rightfully have been at the helm of the post-1947 dispensation.

In the 1950s and until the early-1960s, almost every January 23 was marked by the whisper that this was the day Netaji would miraculously reappear to lead India to a new dawn. The most ardent of Netaji’s followers never bought the story that the head of the Indian National Army died in a Taipei hospital after an aircrash shortly after the Japanese surrender in August 1945. Like his elder brother Sarat Chandra Bose, who once announced in 1949 that Subhas was actually in China and would return to India soon, they felt that the last word on Netaji’s supposed death had not been heard. Samar Guha, one of India’s more vocal Opposition MPs in the Lok Sabha (1967 to 1980), used to be vociferous in claiming that Netaji was not dead but actually living as a sadhu in Faizabad. Earlier, others had insisted that a sadhu in North Bengal was actually Subhas Bose.
In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was another twist in the tale. It is known that after the Japanese surrender, Netaji had no intention of surrendering to the Allied Powers for trial as a war criminal. With India still under a tottering British Raj, he planned to reach Manchuria and then cross over into the Soviet Union. Having been in touch with the Soviet embassy in Tokyo, Netaji believed (perhaps out of desperation) that he could remain an undercover guest of Stalin until it was opportune to return to India. It was while undertaking this journey to Manchuria, or so the story went, that he died in the air-crash.
Netaji loyalists have disputed this theory. The Taipei air-crash story, they believed was a deliberate piece of misinformation put out by both Netaji and his Japanese hosts, to mislead the Anglo-American fugitive hunters. In reality, they say, Netaji reached the Soviet Union. But what happened subsequently was unknown. The Soviet authorities and all successor Russian governments have steadfastly maintained that there is no record of Bose having entered Soviet territory. Yet, there is some uncorroborated anecdotal evidence suggesting that Netaji was kept as a “guest” by the Stalinist regime in Siberia presumably because they didn’t quite know what to do with him.
In his book India’s Biggest Cover-up, Anuj Dhar the indefatigable Netaji-hunter has rightly mentioned the Soviet Union’s record of suppressing information and plain lying. He mentioned the case of the Swedish human rights activist Raoul Wallenberg who was claimed by the Soviet authorities to have been murdered by pro-German forces in Hungary towards in April 1945. Relentless pursuit of the story by Swedish and American investigators led to the sensational discovery that Wallenberg had, in fact, been kept as a Soviet prisoner until his death in 1957. Had something similar happened to India’s Netaji?
The truth, Dhar has suggested, can never be unearthed unless independent research is backed up by unceasing diplomatic pressure by India on Russia. Unfortunately, he say, the Government of India has merely made perfunctory noises that suggest a disinclination to find real answers to an abiding mystery.
Over the years, the Netaji mystery has attracted a small clutch of serious researchers but a larger band of conspiracy-theorists and cranks. After three commissions of inquiry there is an understandable exasperation with the whole controversy. Common sense would inform us that even if Netaji didn’t die in Taipei in August 1945, it is unlikely he is alive today. As such, a Netaji hunt of 2013 has a different connotation from a similar exercise in the 1950s when a possible re-emergence would have unsettled the regime of Jawaharlal Nehru. In the 1950s, when anxious Bengalis waited for him to emerge from his spiritual retreat, the Netaji mystery was a political question. Today, it is an academic issue, centred on dusting away some of the cobwebs of history.
There are enough grounds to suggest that the commissions headed by INA veteran Shah Nawaz Khan and Justice G.D. Khosla were a little too mindful of the political ramifications of suggesting that there is no conclusive evidence of either a plane crash in Taipei in late-August 1945 or the death of Netaji. Certainly neither inquiries were rigorous in chasing all the available leads. The final inquiry by Justice M.K. Mukherjee concluded that there was no certainty that Netaji died in August 1945. However, its inquiries were marred by government indifference, bordering on hostility.
To suggest that there should be yet another commission of inquiry into Netaji’s disappearance is absolutely needless. But what can legitimately be demanded is that the papers relating to the man and his disappearance which have been classified by successive governments are sent to the archives for public access. These must include the relevant records in the PMO, foreign ministry and the Intelligence Bureau. It is not that the files will bring us one step closer to solving the Netaji riddle. But at least they could help dispel the belief that the Government of India was party to a monumental conspiracy to suppress the truth about the fate of one of India’s most prominent freedom fighters. It is time that this controversy is finally laid to rest.

The writer is a senior journalist

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