Don't Let the Spurious Cult of Netaji Sideline His Message of an Inclusive India

As Netaji gets once more shrouded in meaningless mystery, India is in danger of losing sight of the life and work of a man who was much more than a mythical hero.

Subhas Chandra Bose at the Bardoli Ashram in 1940. Credit: LIFE/Wikimedia Commons

Subhas Chandra Bose at the Bardoli Ashram in 1940. Credit: LIFE/Wikimedia Commons

My father Sisir Kumar Bose, who drove his uncle Subhas Chandra Bose from Calcutta to Gomoh during the great escape of January 1941, lamented the emergence of “a strange and spurious Bose cult”. “Persistent rumours about Bose being alive and flights of fantasy in regard to his whereabouts,” he wrote in the introduction to the proceedings of an outstanding International Netaji Seminar in 1973, “prevented the development of a sober, scientific, historical appraisal of India’s only soldier-statesman of modern times.”

Recently opened files show that Sisir’s work to record the history of the freedom struggle at the Netaji Research Bureau was kept under intrusive intelligence surveillance by the post-colonial state at least until 1972. Taking advantage of the controversy over the declassification of historical files, the “spurious Bose cult” that he deplored is back with a vengeance. As Netaji gets once more shrouded in meaningless mystery, India is in danger of losing sight of the life and work of a man who was much more than a mythical hero. There is much to learn from Netaji’s book of life at this crucial moment when a curious combination of religious majoritarianism and unbridled capitalism threatens to overwhelm Indian democracy.

Democracy as human institution

“Democracy,” Bose told the Maharashtra provincial conference over which he presided in 1928, “is by no means a Western institution; it is a human institution.” He also put forward a reasoned defence of nationalism against its critics. Refusing to believe that nationalism necessarily hindered cosmopolitanism in the domain of culture, he espoused a variant of Indian nationalism that was not narrow, selfish or aggressive, but instilled “the spirit of service” and aroused “creative faculties” in its people. He argued the case for “a coalition between labor and nationalism”, using the term labor “in a wider sense to include the peasants as well”. India, he believed, should become “an independent Federal Republic”. He warned Indian nationalists not to become “a queer mixture of political democrats and social conservatives”. He declared in unequivocal terms:

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. The status of women should also be raised and women should be trained to take larger and a more intelligent interest in public affairs.

Secularism and cultural intimacy

While not being opposed to “any patch-up work” needed for “healing communal sores”, he sought a “deeper remedy” through “cultural rapprochement”. He regretted that the different communities inhabiting India were “too exclusive”. “Fanaticism is the greatest thorn in the path of cultural intimacy,” he told his audience, “and there is no better remedy for fanaticism than secular and scientific education.” This was the first occasion on which Bose used the term secular. For him secularism was not hostile to religiously informed cultural identities, but could help foster “cultural intimacy” among India’s diverse religious communities. He was staking out a middle ground between Nehru’s secularism with its distaste for expressions of religious difference and Gandhi’s harnessing of different religious faiths in energising mass politics.

In 1943 when priests of the main Chettiar temple in Singapore came to invite Netaji to a religious ceremony, they were at first turned away because of their inegalitarian practices. He acceded to their request only after they agreed to host a national meeting open to all castes and communities. He went to that temple gathering flanked by his Muslim comrades – Abid Hasan and Mohammad Zaman Kiani. “When we came to the temple,” Hasan has written, “I found it filled to capacity with the uniforms of the INA officers and men and the black caps of the South Indian Muslims glaringly evident.” He hesitated to enter the inner sanctum, but a priest gently pushed him in. Abid Hasan could not remember the speech that Netaji gave on that occasion. “The memory I retain,” he wrote much later, “is one of an invigorating music as that of a symphony dedicated to the unity of the motherland and the common purpose of all Indians to be united in their efforts to establish their identity.” It was the echo of that music that was to sustain him during the trials and tribulations on the battlefield.

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Members of the Azad Hind Fauj in the 1940's.

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Members of the Azad Hind Fauj in the 1940’s.

The Azad Hind government inculcated this spirit of unity with a subtle sense of purpose. “Jai Hind” (“Victory to India”) was chosen from the very outset as the common greeting or salutation when Indians met one another. Hindustani, an admixture of Hindi and Urdu, written in the Roman script became the national language, but given the large south Indian presence translation into Tamil was provided at all public meetings. Even the proclamation of the Azad Hind government was read in Hindustani, Tamil and English. A simple Hindustani translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s song ‘Jana Gana Mana Adhinayak Jai He’ became the national anthem. A springing tiger, evoking Tipu Sultan of Mysore’s gallant resistance against the British featured as the emblem on the tricolour shoulder-pieces on uniforms. Gandhi’s charkha continued to adorn the centre of the tri-colour flags that INA soldiers were to carry in their march towards Delhi. Three Urdu words – ‘Itmad’ (‘Faith’), ‘Ittefaq’ (‘Unity’) and ‘Kurbani’ (‘Sacrifice’) – encapsulated the motto of the Azad Hind movement.

Abid Hasan has described how when their Netaji came to see the retreating men from Imphal at Mandalay, the “Sikhs oiled their beards, the Punjabi Muslims, Dogras and Rajputs twirled their moustaches and we the indiscriminates put on as good a face as we could manage”. Their leader had not asked them to give up their distinct regional and religious identities, but had rather inspired them to transcend these for a larger cause. Netaji forged an innovative path to a cosmopolitan anti-colonialism by nurturing a process of cultural intimacy among India’s diverse communities. He implemented a strategy of combating religious prejudice without stumbling into the secularists’ pitfall of making religion the enemy of the nation.

Mortal end of a deathless hero

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was the only front-rank leader of the Indian independence movement who laid down his life for his country’s freedom on August 18, 1945. The younger generation in India today could learn from Mahatma Gandhi on how to come to terms with the mortal end of a deathless hero. Gandhi had initially hoped that Netaji had made another great escape. On March 30, 1946, he clarified his views on the matter in his journal Harijan. He referred to a 1942 report on Bose’s death, which he had believed but that later turned out to be incorrect. Since then he had “a feeling that Netaji could not leave us until his dreams of swaraj had been fulfilled”. “To lend strength to this feeling,” he added, “was the knowledge of Netaji’s great ability to hoodwink his enemies and even the world for the sake of his cherished goal.” He explained that he had nothing but his “instinct” to tell him “Netaji was alive”. He now conceded that no reliance could be placed on “such unsupported feeling” and there was “strong evidence to counteract the feeling”. “In the face of these proofs,” the Mahatma wrote, “I appeal to everyone to forget what I have said and, believing in the evidence before them, to reconcile themselves to the fact that Netaji has left us. All man’s ingenuity is as nothing before the might of the one God.”

Netaji had left us, but he left us a legacy of ideas, ideals and dreams. The most precious item in that legacy is his generous and imaginative approach towards achieving unity by respecting difference. Seven days before being assassinated on January 30, 1948, Gandhi had been “very glad” to take note of Subhas’s birthday, even though he “generally did not remember such dates” and “the deceased patriot believed in violence”, while he was wedded to non-violence. Subhas, according to the Mahatma, “knew no provincialism nor communal differences” and “had in his brave army men and women drawn from all over India without distinction and evoked affection and loyalty, which very few have been able to evoke”. If we are to honour Netaji, we should seek to emulate that accomplishment.

Sugata Bose is a historian and Member of Parliament from the Trinamool Congress