Despite Appropriating Netaji, the BJP Continues to Disregard his Secular, Pluralist Worldview 

In the face of the ruling party's attempts to appropriate Subhash Chandra Bose as a symbol of nationalism, the way forward can be navigated only by remaining attuned to Netaji's secular vision of India.

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Just a few days ago, the Union government announced that Republic Day celebrations would henceforth stretch from January 23-30 every year. January 23 was chosen because it marks the birth anniversary of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose; a date which Prime Minister Modi had earlier announced would be celebrated as ‘Parakram Diwas’.

After Modi assumed office, he had put several classified papers concerning Netaji in the public domain. Many believed that these papers would make some explosive revelations about Netaji’s supposedly adversarial relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru. On the contrary, they served to reflect the warmth and respect between the two men.

Modi and the BJP recurrently invoke Netaji’s name in their politics and often unfairly accuse Nehru of not affording the former adequate space in history. However, we must remember that Prime Minister Modi, ironically, abolished the Planning Commission, something deeply linked with the legacies of both Nehru and Netaji alike.

Abolishing the planning commission, a representation of Netaji’s legacy 

Netaji established the Planning Committee in 1938 as the president of Indian National Congress (INC) and appointed Nehru as its chairman. After India attained Independence, Nehru, as the first Prime Minister of India, continued with Netaji’s legacy by rechristening the Planning Committee as the ‘Planning Commission’. The Commission thus represented how Netaji’s legacy shaped our nation.

But today, a vestige of this legacy is, tragically, no longer present and in its place we have a new institution; the NITI Aayog, which has nothing to do with Bose’s world view.

As the Commission stands demolished, Netaji’s rich and enduring values in terms of his secular world view and religious pluralism, too, are being endangered through a systemic majoritarianism being pushed virulently at every level. The Hindu-Muslim binary is being employed ever so frequently to cause sharp polarisation within the society and polity at large, dividing people along the fault lines of religious faith.

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's death has been proved conclusively with evidence in Ashis Ray's book, Laid to Rest. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose reviewing the troops of Azad Hind Fauj – 1940s. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Netaji invoked Tipu Sultan’s legacy 

While reading out the historic proclamation of the Azad Hind Government while taking the oath as its first prime minister, Bose referred to the courage and bravery of numerous heroes and heroines who had laid down their lives in the fight against British rule and, among them, was Tipu Sultan.

Also read: Revisiting Events Celebrated By Subhas Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Government

Bose had done this to draw inspiration from them and fight for our freedom. Imagine how shocked he would have been to see BJP leaders oppose the Karnataka Congress government’s decision to celebrate Tipu Jayanti; to hear Prime Minister Modi mock the Congress for celebrating the “Jayantis of Sultans”.

Even President Ramnath Kovind’s glowing references to Tipu’s legacy in his address to the Karnataka legislative assembly in 2017 were derisively dismissed by BJP leaders who made the preposterous claim that the President speech had been drafted by the then Congress government in the state.

Such actions of the BJP leadership serve to undermine Netaji’s life and work.

Netaji upheld Urdu 

Netaji’s Azad Hind Fauj’s motto comprised three Urdu words: ‘Ittehad, itmad aur qurbani’ (unity, faith and sacrifice). He would have undoubtedly been aghast at the sight of the hatred for Urdu India has witnessed over the past few years.

In 2021, days before Diwali, when fashion brand Fabindia had released an ad featuring the Urdu words, ‘Jashn-e-Riwaaz’ as part of their festival campaign, BJP MP Tejasvi Surya had taken objection to ad, claiming that a Hindu festival cannot be “abrahamised” with the association of Urdu words, calling for citizens to boycott the brand. The ad was eventually withdrawn.

Such forces, representing hatred and the negation of our composite culture, would have not only flown in the face of the Indian National Army’s (INA) motto but also undermined the Urdu terms ‘Sipah-Salar’ (commander-in-chief) which were used to describe Netaji.

Also read: The BJP Has Turned Diwali Into a Festival of Hate

Netaji in the context of the BJP’s ‘Barah-sau saal ki gulami’ narrative

Bose would have been appalled by Modi’s divisive and distorted formulation, “Barah sau saal ki gulami ki maansikta humen pareshan kar rahi hai (‘The slave mentality of 1,200 years is troubling us’).

Such a twisted understanding of history, mischievously describing Mughal rule as a period of “slavery” solely on account of their faith, stands in sharp contrast to Netaji’s constructive vision of pre-British India, marked by a common, shared heritage forged by both the Hindus and Muslims.

In his book, An Indian Pilgrim, Bose outlined the composite culture of both communities who shared a common destiny for thousands of years and shaped their future together, in the face of all sorts of challenges. In the book, he described the Battle of Plassey as a joint Hindu-Muslim endeavour to confront an adversary which had caused an existential crisis. It is worthwhile to quote his words:

‘‘History will bear me out when I say that it is a misnomer to talk of Muslim rule when describing the political order in India prior to the advent of the British. Whether we talk of the Moghul Emperors at Delhi, or of the Muslim Kings of Bengal, we shall find that in either case the administration was run by Hindus and Muslims together, many of the prominent Cabinet Ministers and Generals being Hindus. Further, the consolidation of the Moghul Empire in India was affected with the help of Hindu commanders-in-chief. The Commander-in-chief of Nawab Sirajudowla, whom the British fought at Plassey in 1757 and defeated, was a Hindu.’’

Subhash Chandra Bose
An Indian Pilgrim
Jayasree Patrika Trust, January 23, 2013, originally published in 1937.

Netaji’s criticism of communal forces

Today, when majoritarianism poses a mortal danger to the ideas of equality and equal opportunity embodied in India’s constitutional vision, it is worthwhile to recall Bose’s words: ‘‘If we want to make India really great, we must build up a political democracy on the pedestal of a democratic society. Privileges based on birth, caste or creed should go and equal opportunities should be thrown open to all irrespective of caste, creed or religion.’’

In the context of the blood curdling calls to arms and for the genocide of Muslims, Netaji’s words, ‘‘religious fanaticism is the greatest thorn in the path of cultural intimacy… and there is no better remedy for fanaticism than secular and scientific education,’’ assume greater relevance than ever before.

These words represent exactly why Netaji was sharply critical of the communal forces represented by both the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League. In his book, The Indian Struggle, Bose outlines the common, sectarian approaches of Savarkar and Jinnah and how their outlook negated the broad and inclusive trends of nationalism.

Bose wrote: ‘‘Mr Jinnah was then thinking of only of how to realise his idea of Pakistan (division of India) with the help of the British. The idea of putting up a joint fight with the Congress for Indian independence did not appeal to him.”

“Mr Savarkar …was only thinking how Hindus could secure military training by entering Britain’s army in India. From these interviews I was forced to the conclusion that nothing could be expected from either the Muslim League or the Hindu Mahasabha.’’

On the occasion of Netaji’s 125th birth anniversary, there is an ominous upsurge of the religious fanaticism and sectarianism in the country and it is frighteningly represented by the open calls for mayhem and murder by Hindutva leaders, in the name of faith. Bose’s prescription for secular and scientific education assumes greater significance in addressing the gathering crises caused by mounting hate speeches, often endorsed by the government’s silence and tacit approval in spite of appeals by civil society to take punitive measures against those who deliberately fan hatred and violence.

Also read: ‘Arrest Haridwar Dharma Sansad Speakers’: Uttarakhand Politicians, Intellectuals Urge Governor

Gandhi called Netaji a ‘prince among patriots’

Netaji was the one to call Mahatma Gandhi the ‘father of the nation’ and even named the brigades of the INA after him, Nehru and Maulana Azad.

Gandhi, while disapproving of Netaji’s methods for attaining freedom for India, described him as a “prince among patriots”. Exactly one week before his assassination on January 30, 1948, Gandhi had invoked Netaji on the latter’s birthday on January 23, 1948, in a prayer meeting in New Delhi and had said he could enrol Hindus, Muslims, Parsis and Christians as soldiers in the INA with complete disregard for parochialism and caste distinctions; in his eyes, all were Indians and servants of India.

Locating Bose in the context of Hinduism, Gandhi said that a Hindu was one who had equal respect for all religions and affirmed that Bose had these very qualities, treating all faiths equally and winning the hearts of people easily.

The secular values and religious pluralism embodied by the life and work of Netaji were deeply reflected in the conduct of INA soldiers, whether they were in the battlefield fighting for India’s freedom or were suffering imprisonment on that very count. When Gandhi, on April 11, 1946, went to interact with INA soldiers in prison, he  was impressed to see officers representing so many of the different races and religions of India, united together for the common cause of  India’s freedom and living like members of one family. For him, it was like a “whiff of fresh invigorating air from the free India that is to be.”

Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose with members of the Azad Hind Fauj, circa 1940. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

‘Hindu tea’ and ‘Muslim tea’

The soldiers in detention informed Gandhi, with pain and sadness, that they had been made to face discrimination on the basis of religion by being served either ‘Hindu tea’ or ‘Mussalman tea’ and ‘Hindu food’ or ‘Musalman food’  by jail officials. Gandhi responded by asking, “Why do you suffer it?”

“We do not, ” the soldier answered, saying, “We mix Hindu tea and Mussalman tea, exactly half and half and then serve. The same with food.”

Gandhi had a hearty laugh and said, “That is very good.”

At a time when communal poison and violence is spread and justified in the name of faith, food and dress, the exemplary role played by INA soldiers in upholding the unity of India at the time of Partition-related violence assumes enormous significance. By remaining tuned to Netaji’s secular vision, the idea of India can be salvaged and defended.

S.N. Sahu served as OSD and press secretary to former President of India, K.R. Narayanan.