Today, January 23, is Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s birth anniversary.
In 1943, Netaji Subhas was seeking donations from Indians in south-east Asia for the Indian National Army (INA). The Chettiars, the Tamil business community, were the most affluent among them all. They invited Bose to their main Tendayuthapani Temple in Singapore to speak to the devotees where they would make a substantial donation to the INA by presenting him his weight in gold and jewels.
But there was a problem: the temple was notorious for its inegalitarian practices.
To Subhas, a large contribution he needed desperately was of no account if his officers were to be humiliated because of their caste or religion. Bose was the ultimate Indian. He pointed out that he could not enter a place of worship where not only Indians of other faith but even Hindus of ‘depressed’ castes were not allowed.
Rather than get outraged, the priests immediately apologised. Netaji went to the temple along with his Sikh, Muslim and Christian officers. The priests applied a ‘tilak’ to each one’s forehead and none objected. Bose delivered a moving speech in the innermost sanctorum of the temple where non-Hindus were never allowed.
When Subhas stepped out of the temple, he wiped off the ‘tilak’. When asked, he replied: “That’s personal”. Now that he’s once again leading the people, no religious symbolism stayed on him or his government.
Abid Hassan, who had coined the salutation “Jai Hind” and accompanied Subhas on his historic submarine journey, reminisced how “Netaji wiped the tilak from my forehead” as they left the Chettiar temple.
This was Netaji, who did not discriminate between religions; and did not let religion interfere in governance.
Netaji forged an innovative path to cosmopolitanism by nurturing a process of cultural intimacy among India’s diverse communities. If we are to honour Netaji, we should seek to emulate that accomplishment, wrote Sugata Bose, grandnephew of Subhas Bose and himself a historian.
When the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh announced its intention to hold a programme – ‘Netaji loho pronam’ – in Kolkata on January 23, Chandra Kumar Bose, another grandnephew of Netaji and former state vice president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, made a simple point. He urged its chief, Mohan Bhagwat to announce that the RSS was adopting the secular and inclusive ideals of Netaji if the organisation is serious about honouring the ‘patriot of patriots’.
However, Bhagwat, a few days later, claimed in an interview that the Hindus of India are fighting a 1000-year war to protect their religion and culture, and that Muslims can live in the country if they shed their sense of supremacy. It is obvious that Bhagwat’s thinking is in opposition to what Sugata Bose or Chandra Bose interprets as Netaji’s vision of India.
In sharp contrast to what Bhagwat sees as a Muslim sense of supremacy, Subhas saw that “In (the) past Hindus have enjoyed what may be regarded monopoly in matters of appointments. The claims of Mohammedans, Christians and Depressed Classes have to be favourably considered, though it is sure to give rise to a certain amount of heart-burning among the Hindu candidates”. So, he went ahead and appointed 25 Muslims out of 33 vacant posts in Calcutta Corporation as remedial action, and gave the remaining eight seats to Dalits and Anglo-Indians.
Those with a pro-Hindutva outlook deliberately misinterpret what Subhas was trying to do. According to their propaganda, he believed the onus for Hindu-Muslim unity lay on the shoulders of the Hindus alone – that Hindus should be willing to make unlimited and extreme sacrifices to that end and that “appeasing Muslims” is the only way to achieve national unity.
According to them, the Muslim League, though born in Bengal, had little support among Muslims in Bengal. It was Subhas Bose under the umbrella of Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das who cultivated Huseyn Suhrawardy, a Bengali barrister, and helped him to become a prominent politician. He later served as the prime minister of Pakistan from 1956 to 1957 and before that as the prime inister of Bengal from 1946 to 1947. It was under his watch that the notorious ‘Direct Action’ day took place in 1946, when Calcutta bathed in blood.
Hindutva ideologues also attack Netaji for apparently cold-shouldering Hindi and choosing ‘Hindustani’, a mixture of Hindi and Urdu spoken in daily life in a large part of the country:
“‘Azad Hind’, the official daily newspaper of the ‘Provisional Government of Free India’, was published from Singapore, in five languages. English, Tamil, Malayalam, Gujarati, and Urdu in Roman script as Bose had fancied. No Hindi…
“The motto he coined for the ‘Azad Hind Fauj’ was also pure Farsi in Roman script, “Ittefaq, Itmad, Qurbani” (Unity, Faith and Sacrifice). The provisional government he set up was officially titled ‘Arzi Huqumat-i-Azad Hind’, in pure Persian. No Hindi.
“The decorations of the Azad Hind Fauj were, ‘Sher-i-Hind’, ‘Sardar-i-Jang’, ‘Vir-e-Hind’, ‘Shahid-e-Bharat’, ‘Tamgha-e-bahaduro’…
“Never in his addresses would he end with the ‘Vande Matram!’ or ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ as was the tradition even within Congress, but instead with secular ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ in Farsi. Not even ‘Jai Hind’, with which he is incorrectly credited by his hagiographers. One should see his official broadcasts from Azad Hind Radio as are recorded, most of which he concludes with not ‘Jai Hind’, but ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ and ‘Azad Hind Zindabad’.”
How will Bhagwat pay tribute to Netaji?
Now, it will be interesting to see how Bhagwat as chief of the Sangh accommodates or skirts the supposed Urduphile and Islamophile nature of Netaji, and pays real tribute to him by asking his Swayamsevaks to implement Netaji’s concept of India as a sovereign, secular and democratic republic.
Sumeru Roy Chaudhury is an architecture graduate from IIT, Kharagpur. He was the chief architect of the CPWD. He has studied the Netaji files and related documents in detail.