Solving the Mystery of Netaji's ‘Disappearance’: Part One

Ten investigations into the death of Subhas Chandra Bose reached similar conclusions. But a popular yearning for a different story means that evidence is never enough.

Note: This article was originally published on January 23, 2019 and was republished on January 23, 2020.

This is the first in a two-part series. Read part two here.

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose remains one of India’s most revered icons, with every political organisation trying to shine in his reflected glory. His historic charisma is so great that some Indians believe he is still alive. Many more believe that he did not die on August 18, 1945, in a plane crash in Formosa – as every major biography of Netaji says.

One theory is that it was a ploy set up by Netaji himself, to hoodwink Allied forces and reach a safe place to continue his struggle.

Another says that Netaji became a recluse and settled down in north India. And another insists that he was betrayed by Nehru and Gandhi and imprisoned in a Soviet gulag. In recent years, these theories have eclipsed the life and achievements of Netaji – reducing them to a prelude to a political murder-mystery.

All theories must stand the test of investigation and in recent years, two incidents allow us to investigate afresh. In 2015, the West Bengal government released a set of files related to Netaji and his family from the state archives. Soon after, in January 2016, 304 ‘Netaji files’ were declassified by Central ministries.

Inside the #NetajiFiles

Contrary to popular belief, these Central files were not the only batch to be released; rather, they were the last lot. Since 1997, the government of India has released a total of 2,324 files – and has categorically declared in parliament on March 2, 2016 that there are no more classified ‘Netaji files’ left in its archives.

They present a wealth of data on the numerous independent investigations into ‘what happened to Netaji’ in August 1945.

Early investigations

Asked about investigations into the death of Netaji, most people will recall the Mukherjee Commission, as well as the Shahnawaz and Khosla commissions. Before the first of these was appointed in 1956, however, six formal investigations were carried out on the plane crash at Taihoku.

Importantly, these were carried out by the British Army, the government of British India, the government of Japan and the Allied Forces. The reason was simple – the British and Americans wanted to establish if Netaji, the most uncompromising of the Indian nationalists, whose Azad Hind Fauj had fought against them in the Burma and Imphal campaigns, was alive or not.

Review: Laying to Rest the Controversy Over Subhas Chandra Bose’s Death

These investigators had one advantage: time. As we know from every detective novel, the earlier investigators get to the site, the better.

Investigations by Allied forces

i) Soon after Japan’s surrender on August 30, 1945, Admiral Mountbatten, (the Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asian Command) sent a request to General MacArthur (the Supreme Commander for Allied Powers in Japan) for an enquiry about the death of Netaji.

On September 19, 1945, the Japanese government submitted a preliminary report (CLO-M No. 12) to MacArthur’s office. Among other details it stated that Bose was injured in an air crash on August 18, 1945 and died the same evening.

ii) Independent of the Americans, in September 1945, the British India government sent two superintendents of police, Finney and Davis, assisted by Inspectors H.K. Roy and K.P. Dey, to Bangkok, Saigon and Taihoku to investigate the same question.

Davies and Roy interrogated the in-charge of the Saigon airport, the military officers at Taihoku airport and the chief medical officer at the NanMon military hospital of Taipei. The Bangkok team complemented them by retrieving a telegram, dated August 20, 1945, sent from the chief-of-staff of Japan’s southern army to Hikari Kikan, a body set up to liaise between the Japanese government and the Azad Hind Government.

Using the code ‘T’ for Bose, the telegram read: “‘T’, while on his way to the capital [Tokyo], as a result of an accident to his aircraft at Taihoku at 2pm on the 18th was seriously injured and died at midnight on the same date.”

iii) These two investigations clearly concluded that Netaji was dead. But rumours continued in India that he was alive and ‘would return’ and the popular support for the INA veterans unnerved the British.

In mid-1946, Colonel John G. Figgess, a senior British intelligence officer on attachment in Tokyo, carried out another round of investigation into the fate of ‘His Majesty’s Opponent’. Between May and July of 1946, Figgess interrogated six Japanese officials in Tokyo. The most important testimony he collected was of the Japanese doctor, Toyoshi Tsuruta, who was present at the NanMon hospital where Netaji was taken after the crash.

Figgess wrote: “…. Bose asked him [Dr Tsuruta] in English if he would sit with him throughout the night. However, shortly after seven o’clock (in the evening) he suffered a relapse and although the doctor once again administered a camphor injection he sank into a coma and died shortly afterwards.”

Figgess submitted his report on July 25, 1946. He concluded: “It is confirmed for certain that SC Bose died in a Taihoku Military Hospital sometime between 1900 hours and 2000 hours local time on the 18th August 1945.”

The Figgess report. Credit: Declassified GOI files

iv) The medical officer in charge of the military hospital at Taihoku was Captain (Dr) Yoshimi Taneyoshi. After Japan’s surrender, he had been imprisoned at the Stanley Gaol in Hong Kong. His testimony was recorded there, by Captain Alfred Turner of the War Crimes Liaison Section of Taiwan, in October of 1946.

He said: “When he was laid on the bed, I personally cleaned his injuries with oils and dressed them. He was suffering from extensive burns over the whole of his body, though the most serious were those on his head, chest and thighs. There was very little left on his head in the way of hair or other identification marks.”

Yoshimi further testified: “As most of his speaking was in English, a request for an interpreter was made, and one was sent from the civil government offices named Nakamura. He informed me that he had very often interpreted for [Subhas] Chandra Bose and had had many conversations with him. He appeared to have no doubt that the man he was speaking with was Chandra Bose.”
“After the fourth hour [following his admission] he appeared to be sinking into unconsciousness. He murmured and muttered in his state of coma, but never regained consciousness. At about 11 pm, he died.”

Yoshimi repeated the same sequence of events few years later, before both Shahnawaz-led Netaji Inquiry Committee in 1956 and the 1974 Justice G.D. Khosla Commission.

Furthermore, in one of his later interviews in 1995, Yoshimi said: “A lieutenant called Nonomiya told me, this is Mr. Chandra Bose, a very important person, and that I should save his life at any cost. That’s how I knew who he was.

He also recalled that when it seemed obvious to him that Bose’s condition was sinking, he asked the patient: “What can I do for you?”

Bose replied: “I feel as if blood is rushing to my head. I would like to sleep a while.” Yoshimi gave him an injection, and Bose died soon after.

v) In January 1956, when India sought Japan’s permission to conduct an inquiry into Netaji’s death, Japan shared another report, comprising interviews with 13 witnesses, including Netaji’s co-passengers and the doctors who attended on him in the Military Hospital in Taipei.

Among other things, the investigators noted that when the pitch of the propellers was hiked, upon the plane reaching a height of 20 metres, “one petal of the three-petaled propeller of the left wing was suddenly broken, and the engine fell off. The airplane, subsequently unbalanced, crashed into ballast piles beside the strip of the airport.”

“Immediately after the plane’s fall, the passengers on board escaped from it but as the persons in the front deck were soaked with gasoline in auxiliary tanks all over their bodies, they suffered serious burns; Lt. Gnl. Shidei and other two men died within the plane.”

“Mr Bose, wrapped up in flames, got off the plane: Adjutant Rahman and other passengers exerted themselves to take his clothes off but as his thick sweater for cold weather was permeated with gasoline, his whole body was seriously wounded by burns.”

In the hospital, “in spite of several injections of heart stimulant and artificial aspiration, he could not survive.” By his side then was Dr Tsuruta, interpreter Nakamura, Netaji’s companion Habibur Rahman, and a guard.

In addition to other findings, the report mentions that Bose’s cremated remains “were handed over to Mr Ayyer, and the articles left by Mr Bose to Mr Murty”, by Lt. Col. Takakura on September 8 1945, at the Imperial Headquarters in Tokyo.

vi) In June 1956, on India’s request, the UK asked the Formosan government to interview employees of the Military Hospital and Taipei Municipal Health Centre. The Formosan government sent the eyewitnesses’ accounts to the UK Mission, who in turn sent it to the GOI. The Formosan report cast no doubts on the details of the crash or the subsequent death of Netaji.

Private investigations

The first Indian investigation was conducted by Harin Shah, a war correspondent of Bombay’s Free Press Journal. Shah visited Taihoku in September 1946, and published his findings in his book, Verdict from Formosa: The Gallant End of Netaji, Subhas Chandra Bose.

One of the highlights of Shah’s investigative journalism was the testimony of Tsan Pi Sha, a nurse at the NanMon hospital. She confirmed the account recorded by Figgess in September 1946.

She said: “He died here. I was by his side…He died on 18 August last year, (Subhas) Chandra Bose.”

“I am a surgical nurse and took care of him till he died… I was instructed to apply olive oil all over his body and that I did.”

Also Read: The Netaji Files Reveal a Tale of Nehru’s Warmth – Not Sinister Conspiracy

“Whenever he regained briefly his consciousness, he felt thirsty. With slight groaning, he would ask for water. I gave him water several times.”

She also took Shah to the ward and the bed where she said Bose had passed away.

Enter the Indian Independence League

In 1953, members of the Indian Independence League (IIL), carried out an investigation based on circumstantial evidence and individual contact. The IIL, by then defunct, had been the civilian administrative wing of the Provisional Government of Free India.

The IIL members agreed with the previous reports that Netaji had passed away on August 18, 1945. They concluded, however, that the aircraft crash had not been an accident but an act of sabotage.

According to the IIL, Japanese officials could neither risk shielding Netaji from the Allies lest he resurface, nor hand him over and endanger relations with India. To “save herself from the wrath of both India and the occupation forces”, Japanese officials first diverted Netaji’s plane, separated him from five of his six associates, and allowed only one to travel with him. (Japan still maintains three Netaji files as ‘Secret’, while other countries have declassified them.)

The first GOI inquiry

Notwithstanding these investigations, the demand for an official probe into the fate of Netaji continued to grow in India. In 1956, the government formed the Netaji Inquiry Committee, “to inquire into… the circumstances concerning the departure of Netaji … from Bangkok about the 16th August 1945, his alleged death as a result of an aircraft accident.”

The committee consisted of Shahnawaz Khan (a former major general in the INA, and then parliamentary secretary), Netaji’s older brother Suresh Chandra Bose, and S.N. Maitra of the Indian Civil Service. Its findings are a voluminous work, digitised and available in the public domain today.

The committee examined 67 witnesses including eleven eye-witnesses, who confirmed Netaji’s death as a result of burn injuries. They cross-examined five of the six persons who had accompanied Netaji on his last flight from Bangkok, including Habibur Rehman. The committee could not visit Taihoku, the crash site, as India did not yet have diplomatic relations with Formosa.

On concluding its inquiry, the committee prepared a three-page draft report. It contained the “Principal points agreed to”, which all three members signed. These included that:

i) there had been an air crash at Taihoku on August 18, 1945, in which Netaji met his death,

ii) that he was cremated there

iii) the ashes lying in the Renkoji Temple in Tokyo are his.

Strangely, soon after signing the draft report on July 2, 1956, Suresh Bose took a different view and did not sign the final report. The final report, signed by Khan and Maitra, was submitted on August 3, 1956. It was accepted by the Indian parliament in September 1956.

Suresh Bose’s dissenting report, dated October 9, 1956, concluded that the aircraft accident did not take place and Netaji did not die. It was also tabled in parliament. Besides his conclusions, Suresh made some personal allegations against Nehru, Khan, Maitra and B.C. Roy.

A decade later, in February 1966, Suresh Bose announced to the press that his brother, Subhas, would return in March. Obviously, that did not happen; but his dissident report added to some people’s belief that Netaji was alive and the controversy on Netaji’s non-appearance was not resolved.

The committee was criticised for not visiting Taihoku – and also because neither Shahnawaz nor Maitra had judicial experience. And the appearance of a Saradananda sadhu at Shoulomari Ashram in north Bengal in the ’60s, who many believed to be Netaji incognito, led to persistent demands for further inquiry.

The second GOI inquiry

Thus, in 1970, the GOI formed the Justice Khosla Commission, under retired Justice G.D. Khosla, to “inquire into all the facts and circumstances relating to the disappearance of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in 1945”.

Unsurprisingly, nothing new came out of the Khosla Commission. Justice Khosla interviewed four of Netaji’s co-passengers and five eye-witnesses to the crash. Over a period of four years, he also interviewed Shahnawaz Khan, Suresh Bose and 224 other witnesses. He concluded, like the others before him, that Netaji had been grievously injured by the aircraft crash at Taihoku and died the same night.

Yet the Khosla Commission also patiently recorded new ‘sightings’ of Bose – of an MP’s chance meeting with him at Marseilles airport in 1946 (para 7.3, 7.4 of JKCI Report); of an ardent admirer of Bose, who claimed that a Soviet Army officer saw “a well-dressed Bose publicly going to the Kremlin with high dignitaries on 24 Dec 1956” (para 6.52), and another MP’s claim about “Bose languishing in cell no. 45 of a prison in Siberia”.

Still others submitted photographs purportedly showing Bose visiting Peking in 1952 with a Mongolian Trade Union delegation (para 6.45), and in the same year, a Socialist Party member meeting Netaji dressed as a Burmese monk at Rangoon’s Ena Lake (para 7.10).

As story upon fantastic story piled up, Justice Khosla rightly wondered ”to what extent fantasy and perversion of truth can proceed.”

When counsels for the Forward Bloc party and the Bose family argued that the general disbelief about the air crash was due to “glaring discrepancies in the statements of witnesses”, Justice Khosla recorded “the discrepancies do not falsify the crash. They are due to passage of time and the memory of witnesses becoming somewhat vague regarding matters of detail.”

Most significantly, the report records Netaji’s nephew Amiya Nath Bose’s deposition: “I remember in December 1945, father (Sarat Chandra Bose, Netaji’s elder brother) took Netaji’s death for granted. He was very moved by seeing the [Netaji’s] watch and said ‘same watch …same watch’.” (para 4.105)

Ten investigations, one conclusion

In Brothers Against the Raj, an authoritative biography of the Bose brothers, Dr Leonard Gordon concluded, “The tremendous weight of evidence, I believe, supports his death following the crash.”

Gordon’s conclusion was based not only on the preceding investigations, but also his own interviews with witnesses and co-passengers, done in 1979.

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He also noted that “those who want to dispute this heavy weight of evidence… will do so… Their claims are usually based on emotion, not reason, and so any reasoning will not suffice.”

Gordon was right. Even with these investigations by recognised authorities at home and abroad, many people – including some of Netaji’s family – would not accept the findings. They preferred to believe tertiary, quaternary and quinary evidences. Thus, the government’s third inquiry commission: The Justice Mukherjee Commission of Inquiry, formed in 1999 – more than fifty years after 1945.

Sumeru Roy Chaudhury is an architect graduated from IIT, Kharagpur. He was the chief architect of the CPWD. He thanks Anirban Mitra for his assistance.