The Netaji Files Reveal a Tale of Nehru's Warmth – Not Sinister Conspiracy

The declassified ‘Netaji Files’ reveal how Prime Minister Nehru and chief minister Bidhan Chandra Roy took care of Subhas Chandra Bose’s family.

Note: This article was originally published on May 27, 2017 and was republished on May 27, 2020.

Berlin, 1942 – six months after Adolf Hitler had assured Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose that he could travel to Japan, he was still stuck in Germany. Politically, it was a loss of time. The only advantage of the delay was a personal one – in November 1942, Emilie Schenkl gave birth to their daughter, Anita.

But duty beckoned the warrior. On February 8, 1943, Bose bade them farewell and boarded a German U-180 boat. He would not see them again. So far, his marriage had been concealed, even from his family. But now, Bose dutifully left behind a letter, introducing his wife and daughter to his elder brother Sarat Chandra Bose – who was an outstanding leader in his own right, a leading figure in the Bengal Congress and member of the All India Congress Committee. The brothers had always been very close.

With exquisite sensitivity, Bose wrote that this could be the last time anyone would hear from him. He wrote, “I have married and we have a daughter” and then earnestly requested, “In my absence, please give my wife and daughter the same love and affection with which you have always blessed me.”

Two-and-half years later, towards the end of August 1945, Emelie was at home, in Vienna when the radio announced that Bose had been killed in a crash at Taipei. As she later recalled, the family sat in stunned silence. Then, she walked to the bedroom where little Anita lay asleep, “and I wept”.

Emilie Schenkl and Anita Bose

But life had to go on and Emelie went back to work at the post-office. Post-war Vienna was a difficult place for the common citizen; she later remembered that there was “no milk for the baby for weeks” and the family had been effectively starving. Emelie did send the letter introducing herself to Sarat and in 1948, Sarat and the family traveled to Vienna and met the new members of their family.

The ‘mysterious’ files

September 2015 – the West Bengal government declassifies a set of files related to Netaji. While Netaji himself is scarcely mentioned in these files, there are reports that the intelligence agencies had spied on the Bose family in the 1950s and 1960s. The sensationalism adds fuel to the widely-held speculation that it was Jawaharlal Nehru who constantly conspired against Bose. As public curiosity mounted, on January 23, 2016, the prime minister declassified the (in)famous ‘Netaji Files’ – a set of about 100 files that have been tucked away for decades in the vaults of the prime minister’s office and the foreign ministry. The enthusiasts were ecstatic because it has long been believed, quite passionately, that the files contain clinching evidence that Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi got Bose killed and that is why the files were never made public.

The conspiracy theories, however, find no support from the files; rather they corroborate what historians have concluded for decades. However, through the yellowed pages of letters, official notes and legal deeds – now digitised and available to all Indians – a remarkable little piece of history surfaced. It is a tale of warmth – a blend of official work and personal care, and it involves some of the finest of Indians.

Emilie Schenkl with husband Subhas Chandra Bose. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A request

The file PMO 1956-71: 2(67)56-71-PM, Vol 1 contains a letter dated June 10, 1952. It was addressed to Prime Minister Nehru and was written by Amiya Nath Bose, Sarat’s son. In the letter, Amiya made a request:

“I want to send, from time to time, small sums of money to my aunt in Vienna. If I proceed through the Reserve Bank of India and the Austrian National Bank, the latter may raise objections and create complications. I should therefore like to know if it can be arranged that I hand over the money to the foreign office in Calcutta and the vice-consul in Vienna passes on its equivalent in Austrian currency to her.”

Two days later, Nehru wrote to relevant officers:

“Will you please enquire from finance and from external affairs ministry if small sums of money can be sent this way? ….there should be no difficulty in external affairs dealing with this matter, as a rather special case…we should like to facilitate help being sent to her.”

The ministries and the RBI agreed and soon Amiya was informed that such transactions could be started.

Amiya’s request set forward a chain of events. It prompted Nehru to ask Asaf Ali, who was traveling to Vienna, to meet the widow and child of his long-lost comrade (or ‘opponent’ as many would believe). Ali responded that “the good lady was in no mood to be obliged by the government…however I shall try and see what I can do as you have desired to persuade her to accept some assistance from us, if not for herself, at least for the child.”

There were ‘controversies’, given that some doubted Bose’s marriage. Nehru’s response was unambiguous, “So far as we are concerned we have acknowledged her to be Subhas’s wife and there the matter ends.”

Schenkl had spoken to Ali about future assistance for her child. Nehru responded, “nobody can guarantee the future. What I wanted to do was to put some money at her disposal for the child. It need not be used till it is needed.”

Giving Schenkl the final say in the matter, he added, “However if she is not agreeable to this, the matter may rest there. Meanwhile, I am prepared to send you £100 which can be given to her for the child from time to time through our Vienna office. This money will not be from official sources. It will be from the Congress.”

As AICC president, Nehru followed up the case with other offices. He wrote, “I think we should arrange to send them £100 as a present at about Christmas time. This money could be sent from the INA fund with the AICC”.

The senior bureaucrats followed the premier’s instructions. By October 1952, K.V. Ramaswamy, chief of the Indian legation in Vienna, had been officially informed to “hereby send a draft for £100 in your favour, on the Imperial Bank of India, London. It is the prime minister’s wish that this amount be kept outside official account and disbursed to Frau Schenkl in cash or in some shape of gifts under the direction of our minister in Berne.”

And, Nehru went beyond the formalities of financial help. A touch of warmth is evident in a letter to the foreign secretary, dated August 15, 1952. He enquires, Is it possible to send some tea to our representative in Vienna for Subhas Bose’s wife?”

Subhas Chandra Bose (right) with Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarat Chandra Bose. Credit: Nehru Memorial Museum & Library

The trustees

The informal arrangement continued for a year, but by late 1953, Nehru had got the support of West Bengal’s iconic chief minister, Bidhan Chandra Roy, to make a trust that would provide “some money at her disposal for the child”. This was all the more necessary as Y.D. Gundevia, ambassador at Berne, had said that Schenkl was apprehensive. “She has, for some time past, been receiving a regular remittance of Rs 200 or 300 from the Bose family. She expects, for various reasons, that this is now going to stop,” he had said.

Soon, Roy wrote to Schenkl explaining that the AICC had decided “to place a sum of money in trust for your daughter” and had designated the job to Nehru and him. He explained that a part of the accumulated sum of Rs 2 lakhs “equivalent to about 15,000 English Pounds” was from the profits of a film depicting the career of Netaji. He had also asked her to suggest some other people to be trustees. Roy and Bose had been close comrades in their early days, but the relationship had turned very bitter in the tumultuous months of 1939-40 when Bose had been banished and the power of the Bengal Congress had been handed over to Maulana Azad and Roy. Perhaps, Roy wondered what Schenkl thought of her husband’s friend-turned-adversary. He ended the letter with I am sorry this is more or less a business letter but we are really keen on making some provision for the child.” Soon, he had got a legal document drafted and sent to Nehru for approval.

Nehru’s response, as recorded in a letter dated March 14, 1954, is hilarious and relatable to this day. He wrote, “This is drafted in pompous legal language which I do not even understand at the first reading”. The prime minister was clear as regards the objective. “The money is there and we wish to safeguard till the girl attains a certain age” and “I do not see why the money should be kept with us after the girl has attained 21”. He told his officers, “I would prefer some simpler method.”

By April that year, the law ministry had recommended simpler measures. In a series of correspondences which blend empathy with financial caution, Roy and Nehru decided, “the money should go to the mother in case Anita dies before she reaches the age of 21”. In case Schenkl also passed away the sum would revert back to the AICC which had given the money originally.

Thus, on May 23, 1954, “(1) Jawaharlal Nehru, son of Motilal Nehru deceased, of Allahabad now residing in New Delhi; (2) Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, son of Prakash Chandra Roy deceased of No. 36, Wellington Street in the town of Calcutta’ declared that Rs 2 lakhs has been set apart by the Working Committee of the Indian National Congress out of the INA fund lying with the All India Congress Committee for the benefit of Anita Bose, daughter of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.”

They declared “we shall hold the said sum…to invest it and we shall pay and make over the income of the trust fund to Frau Schenkl, wife the said Netaji.” As decided, Anita would get control of the sum when she became an adult. Senior leaders Kailash Nath Katju (also grandfather of Justice Markandey Katju) and Rafi Ahmed Kidwai signed as witnesses.

The news of the trust was received with joy. Sardar Shardul Singh, senior leader of Punjab and a long-term companion of Netaji responded, May God bless you for this noble gesture”. And Schenkl expressed her gratitude with the words, “It has, since a long time, been my earnest desire to meet you once and express my heartfelt thanks to you and through you to all those who, on your kind initiative, have taken so lively an interest in the welfare and fate of my daughter Anita”.

In the letter dated February 1, 1955, Schenkl also explained that her mother’s failing health had prevented her from accepting Nehru’s invitation for holidaying in India. She concluded with the joyous news that Anita was turning out to be a good student and that she takes already the liveliest interest in everything connected with India and is classified by her teachers as ‘expert on Indian questions’.”

Both Nehru and Roy kept themselves abreast with the transactions of the trust. In 1958, Nehru was alarmed to know that Anita had not received her payments for sometime and was in some financial difficulties”. Roy was informed and he ensured that Netaji’s child, now 15, received the arrears. The support continued after the deaths of Roy (July 1962) and Nehru (May 1964). In July 1964, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri was updated about the transactions of the Anita Bose Trust Fund and informed that the AICC had designated him and West Bengal chief minister Prafulla Chandra Sen as the trustees.

A file photo of Subhas Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru

Netaji’s daughter in Delhi

Anita had been trying to visit India for sometime, but, as Nehru and Roy noted, there were problems with the family and obviously neither man would get themselves entangled in matters of the Bose household. But in November 1960, Anita did convey that she would be visiting “her fatherland” in December and that she was honoured that the prime minister had asked her to be his guest at New Delhi. Anita’s words indicate that she was in awe of Nehru, but the relation also seems to have been frank enough for the 18-year-old to ask the internationally-respected statesman, “whether I am to go to Delhi or Calcutta first? Would your Excellency decide this question according to your convenience?”

Nehru’s reply was a caring one. He suggested it would be easier for Anita to fly to Delhi “as the airliners come here first” and added “whenever you come to Delhi, you will of course come and stay with me.” But he drew a line with the words “As for your programme in India, it is difficult for me to draw it up. Your family people should do so.” The press covered the visit  – ‘Netaji’s daughter in Delhi’. It reported that Anita was received at the airport by Nehru’s niece Nayantara Sehgal and that ‘Mr Nehru received her affectionately at his residence’.

A month later, the Daily Express, a London-based newspaper published a photo of Nehru receiving Anita and titled it ‘Quisling’s daughter meets Nehru’. When Nehru was asked, he replied, “It is not a very happy way of describing a person who is revered and considered so highly in his own country”.

Did Nehru have a sense of remorse that he had let Bose down when the Patel-Prasad-Pant wing had driven the latter out of the Congress? After all, for quite some time, Bose and Nehru – both left-leaning and staunchly secular leaders – had counted on each other’s support.

Anita Bose with the rest of the Bose family.

Letters from the 1930s reveal common academic interest with Bose asking Nehru for books and Nehru suggesting some rectifications in Bose’s The Indian Struggle. In 1937-38, Bose and Nehru had spearheaded the national planning committee and developed the blueprint that independent India would eventually follow. Did Nehru miss Bose’s critical support now that the new nation was being built along the guidelines that they had formulated? At the personal front too, there had been closeness. While Nehru was in jail, Bose had escorted the ailing Kamala Nehru to the TB sanatorium in Switzerland. He had also been by Nehru side when Kamala passed away in 1936. Was it the natural concern for the family of a fallen comrade, or the famous love for children by Chacha Nehru? We will never know for sure.

But now thanks to the declassified files, the myth of Bose and Nehru’s permanent enmity has taken another round of beating. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this nation, in an interesting way, is grateful to the present prime minister for declassifying the Netaji Files.

Anirban Mitra is a molecular biologist and a teacher residing in Kolkata.