Interview: On the Declassification of the Netaji Files and His Place in Indian History

Leonard Gordon on the content of the recently declassified 100 files on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, his relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru and his place in Indian history.

On January 23 this year, the 119th birth anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declassified 100 secret files on the freedom fighter. The Wire speaks to Leonard Gordon, a historian specialising in South Asia who is among those who has seen the files, to discuss the contents of those declassified documents, the ‘cowardly’ attitude of the Indian government and Subhas’s place in Indian history. Gordon’s book ‘Brothers Against The Raj: Sarat and Subhas Chandra Bose’ is considered the definitive biography on the two brothers.

What do you make of the Modi government’s decision to declassify 100 files related to the death of Subhas?

Why have they waited decades to do it? It’s absurd. There is nothing in them that either Sugata Bose or I have seen that’s of any use. I’ve read some of those files and I also took the opportunity to read some of the Mukherjee Commission evidence files. I learnt that even though Mukherjee interviewed me he didn’t put me in the list [of people he interviewed], and the books that he did list were mistitled and mislisted. Anyway, as I pointed out to some of the people who asked me already, the British government had a file called ‘Death of Netaji’ that was in the India Office library. Supposedly, British files were declassified after 30 years but they weren’t. Martin Moyers, a deputy director of the India Office library, said ‘there are files about your guy back there but you can’t see them’. So I kept trying. Finally in 1997 they declassified a whole category of files, and there was Death of Netaji. The paper that was supposed to be in the file, called the Figgis Report, was not there. A friend asked me to apply to see some of the private papers and there it was.

A high-ranking British intelligence officer went to Japan in late 1945 or early 1946 and investigated the death of Subhas for the British government. His report said that he had talked to all the relevant people, that Subhas died in the plane crash and that anybody who tries to make something else of it would be doing it for political advantage. Now, I published this one page in the Times of London’s higher education supplement. Was there anything for the British government to keep secret for 50 years? No. Is there anything that anybody’s seen so far in 100 files declassified by Modi or the 64 files declassified by Mamata Banerjee? No. Except, what I learnt from the West Bengal files is that they were reading my letters too.

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

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

Your letters to whom?

One to Sisir Bose and another which said that Mr Leonard Gordon of Brooklyn, New York has written to ‘the subject’ Sisir, and that he has met Emily Schenkel, widow of Subhas, in Vienna. So what? But that constituted a file. I mean, people in government mark everything secret, top secret, top top secret. But what for? Nothing has been learned from these Modi files except that for the last 70 years, the Indian government has believed that Subhas died in the plane crash. However, they’re too cowardly to bring back his ashes, supposedly kept in the Renkoji Temple. It appears that on at least five occasions they were about to do this and then said somebody in West Bengal might make a fuss.

So what were these five occasions?

I don’t know all of them exactly, but the closest one was in 1995. The them prime minister, PV Narasimha Rao, was just about to do it and then they said ‘can we do it before the centenary of Subhas [in 1997] or should we wait till just after?’ And then Rao’s government fell.

Sugata has a list of the five occasions. I saw some of the correspondence within the government which is on exhibit at the National Archives. But they always back away because they say somebody’s going to make a fuss. Why are they so cowardly?

Apart from intra-government correspondence, what else is there in these declassified files?

Absolutely nothing. Some of these government officials have gone to Japan and they know, as I could’ve told them, that there isn’t a single person in Japan who doesn’t believe that Subhas died in the plane crash. It’s an insult to the national pride of India that his ashes are in a Buddhist temple in Tokyo cared for by Japanese. Everyone who says Subhas is an Indian hero says that the ashes can’t be his so we can’t bring them back.’ They don’t know anything.

Soon after the files were declassified one member of the Bose family, namely Chandra Bose, joined the BJP. What do you make of his decision?

I know this fellow and I’ll give you my pet grievance while I’m at it. Every single member of the Bose family knows that I’m the person who did the legwork, who did the research. Not a single one of them did what I did. I traveled around the world in 1978-79, doing research in 14 countries and interviewing survivors of the plane crash. I interviewed Dr Yoshimi Taneyoshi, I found the Japanese private who was sitting in the room as Subhas was dying.

Leonard Gordon. Credit: Facebook

Leonard Gordon. Credit: Facebook

It’s only family members like Chandra who is ignorant and self-seeking, and who thinks he’s a noble truth-seeker. He sends out tweets everyday [which say] ‘absolutely no evidence of plane crash’. I met with him, his sister and his faction two years ago. They were very desirous of courting me and having me on their team. I said to them ‘open files! I read files’. Chandra and Madhuri Bose are the children of Amiyanath Bose, who was the second son of Sharat Bose, Sisir’s elder brother. There were eight children: four boys and four girls. Amiyanath was a barrister and Sisir a medical doctor. In the beginning of the Netaji Research Bureau, which began in 1950, lots of those children came and went. Amiyanath, who I knew, borrowed some material from the bureau. He told Sisir, who seemed to be in charge, that he’d return them in a week but he never did and he willed them to his children. In the ’70s, I asked him if I could see those materials. He refused. I went to see him in Rangoon when he was India’s High Commissioner to Burma. He said to me: ‘How could a person as ignorant as you consider writing a book on the Boses? If you come to Rangoon and sit at my feet I will tutor you.’ So I said, ‘Unfortunately, Mr Bose, Americans are only allowed to stay in Burma for a week. This is my last day here, so I can’t accept your offer.’ And I moved on. Madhuri has written a book called Bose Brothers.  It’s a fake. I’d be embarrassed to have my name on it. What she’s done is taken those documents he kept hidden for 50 years – some letters from Subhas and Sarat, and a very important letter written by Subhas’s wife in 1946 that he hid from the rest of the family.

What are the contents of that letter?

It’s just a very detailed account of life in Vienna and her relationship with Subhas about which most of the family didn’t know much. They knew she had been his secretary, that’s all. So to continue the story, this book is a puff piece for Amiyanath. She says he is the greatest Bose besides Subhas and Sarat. He’s the third of a great trio of stalwarts of Indian nationalism. From 1945-50 he was a private secretary of Sarat, because Sarat had a weakness for this man. To put it mildly, he was not helpful.

But let’s come back to Chandra joining the BJP…

So, this is my hypothesis. For several years, with his tweets, he’s been saying, ‘Open the files, open the files! We’re going to find out the truth.’ But when the files came out and he understood that there was nothing in them, he reversed course and didn’t talk about them anymore. He just thanked Modi for releasing the files, left the Forward Bloc and joined Modi. You don’t see anything in his tweets anymore about there being no evidence for the plane crash. So he’s made a turnabout to distract attention from his previous incarnation as a truth seeker. The other point is, he wants to be a political rival of Sugata [a Lok Sabha MP from the Trinamool Congress]. He campaigned against her in the Jadavpur constituency when she was running for parliament. So these people, Chandra and Madhuri, are dead set against Sugata and Krishna Bose, and so he’s chosen to join forces with the BJP.

Now, the problem is, you can’t assimilate Subhas to a Hindu nationalist party. He was a secular guy. He was a very religious person privately, but secular in politics – always. He and Sarat knew that Hindus and Muslims have to work together. Bengal has 54% Muslims. Every person who’ll be elected by democratic franchise has to get the votes of both. Look at the Trinamool, they are now reaching out to the Muslims. Anyway, they [BJP] can have Chandra.

There’s a letter doing the rounds on social media, which claims that Nehru called Subhas a war criminal. Could you tell us a bit about Nehru’s relationship with Subhas? What was it like?

I think up until the time that he was Congress president, they were quite cooperative and friendly. They were considered left and socialist in the Congress and they were the two people who pushed for an independence resolution at the end of the 1920s, which Gandhi didn’t want but eventually acceded to. Subhas was there in Europe when Nehru’s wife Kamala was dying. He was considered a family friend and was supportive. Even in their later correspondence, which is quite embittered, he says to Nehru, “I think of you as a kind of older brother.” When Subhas was Congress president, there was a letter from Kripalani to Nehru saying, “I can’t work with this man. I want to quit.” He didn’t quit. When I interviewed Kripalani and I showed him the letter, he said, “Don’t look at the letter. We got along beautifully.” I don’t know what stand Nehru took before the 1939 Congress presidential election. Gandhi came out very clearly for Bhogaraju Pattabhi Sitaryamayya. Subhas wanted a left-wing guy so he ran for the post and he won. Gandhi said it was his defeat, not Sitaryamayya’s. Nehru tried to mediate and Subhas was angrier at him than at Gandhi, because he felt Nehru should’ve been on his side against right-wing Gandhians like Vallabhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad. Even though Subhas resigned and formed the Forward Bloc, he still considered himself a Congressman all through.

Among the salient events of Subhas’s life is his meeting with Hitler. In India, some have interpreted this to mean that he had fascist/Nazi leanings. Is that a fair perception?

There’s another problem here. In the early 1930s, he spelt out what he called was his political philosophy. He said that India should create its own synthesis of the best elements of fascism and communism – whatever that was. I assume what he meant was a strong government, a planned economy, but equality of citizens. A little later on, when he was in London in January 1938, he had a meeting with R Palme Dutt [member of the Communist Party of Britain] and Dutt told him to drop the fascism bit. And he did. He never talked about it. He never said anything positive about fascism after that. Subhas said we’re allied with them because they’re British. He never said we’re allied with them because we like their philosophy.

How did he feel about Jews being persecuted by the Nazis? Is there evidence that sheds light on that?

Subhas was an Indian firster. He had a narrow vision. I think he understood and disliked [what was happening to the Jews] but didn’t say anything about it. But when it came to what Hitler said about the Asians and Indians – that they should be ruled by the British for another 100 years – he protested. He tried to get Hitler to change what he said.

So you’re saying Subhas’s alliance with Hitler was purely political?

Yes, absolutely.

What does it say about us as Indians that some of us don’t want to acknowledge Subhas’s role in the freedom struggle?

I thought for the most part especially after the Indian National Army trials [of 1945, in which officers were charged for treason during World War 2] that people would want to be associated with Subhas and the INA. The Communists who despised him as running dog of the fascists assimilated him afterwards. I have no idea what the BJP people are going to do to the history of India. I haven’t heard positive things, to say the least, so that’s something to watch.

Do you think history has been fair to Subhas?

Depends on the history writers. There are some writers who completely stress the Gandhi element. Some are quite fair. Just to give you one example that I always found annoying. There’s this very well known British historian, Judith Brown. She’s written several books about Gandhi, Nehru, history of modern India…she can’t deal with any person associated with acts of violence. So she’s simply left them out. She doesn’t mention Bhagat Singh, the Chittagong revolution, the INA. She doesn’t want to face up to the fact that there were acts of violence and non-violence in the Indian movement [for independence]. It depends on the history writer.

Aayush Soni is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. Follow him on Twitter @aayushsoni


Response by Madhuri Bose

I understand that owing to a transition to a new publishing system my rejoinder to Leonard Gordon’s ridiculous diatribe against my family including my father Amiya Nath Bose, brother Chandra and myself has been lost. Since Gordon’s interview remains available on The Wire, I feel compelled to put on record my objections to his baseless and uncalled for allegations and protestations. This man, who has written about the ‘Bose Brothers’ – Sarat and Subhas Chandra Bose, has complained repeatedly that my father refused to share Bose related ‘materials’ with him. My father Amiya, who following his father Sarat’s passing in 1950 became the custodian of the Bose Papers, was a principal architect of the Netaji Bhawan archives where he placed the bulk of his own materials and all of his collections from archives around the globe. Mr Gordon had full access to those materials at Netaji Bhawan when he was doing his research during 1978-79. Through the decades, Amiya wrote and lectured on the life and work of the Bose Brothers which are available in the public domain. What is most objectionable is the lie Gordon cooked up about Amiya “borrowing” materials from Netaji Bhawan and not returning them!

Mr Gordon goes on to claim that my book ‘The Bose Brothers and Indian Independence: An Insider’s Account’, SAGE India, 2016 is ‘a fake’! He says that I have used “those documents he (Amiya) kept hidden for 50 years … and a very important letter written by Subhas’s wife in 1946 that he (Amiya) hid from the rest of the family.” Poor Mr Gordon if at all it is Emilie Schenkl, wife of Subhas  who did not share this ‘very important letter’ with him when he interviewed her in Vienna in 1978.  Emilie had kept a copy of the letter which is now in the custody of daughter Anita Pfaff. Incidentally, since its launch five years ago my book on the Bose Brothers has been acclaimed by a number of scholars, both Indian and foreign, including Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson and biographer of Mahatma Gandhi, who also wrote the Foreword to my book.

As regards Mr Gordon’s comments against my brother Chandra they are so petty and inconsequential that we do not wish to even address them. Finally, just to recall what I had written in my earlier rejoinder – Would we want such a man to be a member of our ‘team’ as Mr Gordon put’s it? No, Mr Gordon I don’t think so.

Madhuri Bose is author of  The Bose Brothers and Indian Independence: An Insider’s Account, SAGE Publications India, 2016


Leonard Gordon responds      

I stand by what I have written, and readers should read my interview plus the books she and I have written