The Sangh’s Attempts to Appropriate the Secular Netaji Will Simply Not Work

Netaji was very clear that religion had no place in public life and could not be used to unite Indians.

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As a child, I remember hearing a story about a naughty bird, an ugly, naughty bird that wanted to produce beautiful chicks. This bird would sneak into the nest of a beautiful bird that had just laid some eggs and steal one of them, take it back to its own nest and then proceed to keep it warm until it hatched and the beautiful little chick pushed itself out.

I was reminded of this story recently when I saw photographs of our prime minister unveiling the statue of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose on September 8 in a rather obvious attempt to compensate not only for the lack of any freedom fighters in his own Sangh parivar but also for the lack of any notable success for their project of establishing V.D. Savarkar as a great freedom fighter in the eyes of the people. This was not for want of trying.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi named Savarkar along with Subhas Chandra Bose as great fighters for freedom from the ramparts of the Red Fort on August 15; in Karnataka, his partymen and the parivar members put up banners with photographs of both Subhas and Savarkar – but it has proved difficult to airbrush the fact that the militant, anti-British revolutionary Savarkar who was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Andaman Cellular Jail, went on to write abject letters of apology to the British begging them to forgive him and promising them his loyal services if they did. It is no secret that he went to great lengths to keep these promises and not only castigated the national movement and all those associated with it but spent much energy on deepening and widening the Hindu-Muslim divide. He also wrote his ‘Essentials of Hindutva’ in which he propagated the theory that all those like Muslims and Christians for whom India is not their ‘Punya Bhoomi’ or Holy Land must be deprived of equal rights of citizenship. The Sanghi clan adopted Hindutva as its political ideology early on.

Also Read: How Did Savarkar, a Staunch Supporter of British Colonialism, Come to Be Known as ‘Veer’?

It is interesting to note that Savarkar reserved his special ire for none other than Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. He called him a ‘Jehadi Hindu’ and castigated his readiness to adopt many symbols to promote Hindu-Muslim unity. For example, the INA flag was the tricolour with Tipu Sultan’s springing tiger in the centre, the INA’s slogan was ‘Ittehad, Ittemad, Qurbani’, many of his senior-most officers were Muslims, on his first visit to Burma, he offered a chadar at the Mazar of Bahadur Shah Zafar and so on.

The Sanghi clan continuously attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable – and the desperate attempt to appropriate some part of Subhas’ legacy while remaining true to Savarkar’s teachings is one of them. Tremendous planning went into the unveiling of Netaji’s statue by the prime minister. Nothing was left to chance. The spotlight was concentrated on him and the statue. No one else shared it, not the President, nor any of his cabinet colleagues, not even Netaji’s daughter, Anita Pfaff, or any other members of his family. There was just the prime minister and the statue, bathed in golden light, sharing a moment of hushed silence. Even that has not been enough, however, to bring the two together in the minds of the people.

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Photo: Public domain image

Huge crowds make their way every day to gaze at Netaji’s statue. In the evening, it is difficult to catch even a glimpse of it because of the surrounding crowds. His daughter, Anita, was asked in a recent interview whether she felt that the prime minister was bringing Subhas out of obscurity and finally giving him his due. She thought for a bit and then said “I don’t think that’s true. Subhas has always lived in the hearts of his countrywomen and countrymen. In fact, it never ceases to amaze me, how much he is loved and revered in every corner of the country.”

This is a truth to which many can attest. Subhas’ courage, his fierce commitment to the cause of freedom of his people from colonial oppression and his untimely death have made him a hero in the eyes of most Indians. Many of them have also developed a tremendous thirst to know more about him. His autobiography has just been re-published in a new edition eliciting a big response. Articles are being written about him more often than ever before in many periodicals in several languages. People are listening to his speeches by him and are avidly questioning people connected to him and to heroes and heroines of the INA about his beliefs, his personality and his contribution to India’s freedom.

Also Read: Modi’s Portrayal of Netaji as a Hindu Militarist Does the Secular, Socialist Bose a Disservice

Netaji’s secularism 

A question that many people ask is ‘Who came up with the slogan, Jai Hind?’ They are always surprised to hear that it was coined by Abid Hasan who, when Subhas arrived in Germany after his dramatic escape from house arrest in Calcutta, became his secretary. He then accompanied him on the long, dangerous journey by submarine from Germany to Japan. They would be even more surprised to learn that after their arrival in Asia, Subhas insisted that Abid Hasan stay with him, in the same house, everywhere that he went. So Abid lived with him in Singapore, Bangkok, Tokyo and Burma. While it is difficult enough to imagine our prime minister doing anything similar, it is quite impossible to imagine him accepting what, according to Abid Hasan, was Subhas’s understanding of secularism.

Hasan gave a very long interview which was recorded by Krishna Bose, wife of Sisir Bose, Subhas’ nephew. An exhaustive report of this interview has now been translated and published in a book of her articles, Netaji: Subhas Chandra Bose’s Life, Politics and Struggles.

Hasan told her that Indian prisoners of war in Germany were recruited by Netaji to form the Indian Legion and many of them, accompanied by himself, were sent for special training. Krishna Bose’s account goes on to say, “The Indian Legion’s camps had places of worship set aside for its soldiers. Soldiers could pray individually or together at a congregational centre of their choice – a small temple or mosque or gurdwara or church.”

But once the spirit of unity took hold (inculcated of course at Netaji’s prodding), some soldiers approached Abid Hasan with a proposal. They felt the soldiers could pray together, rather than in separate groups. Hasan was delighted. The soldiers then sat together and composed a prayer to be jointly offered to the Almighty. They decided to recite the prayer in unison the next time Netaji visited the camp and at the end of the visit, they stood in front of Netaji and proudly recited their common prayer together in one voice. Netaji showed no reaction. After a little while, Abid Hasan was summoned to meet Netaji in private and was asked, “What is this nonsense you have begun?”

A visitor looks at a picture of Subhas Chandra Bose, former leader of the Indian National Army, at a museum in Kolkata, India, October 16, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

He told Abid with great firmness that this approach to uniting Indians was flawed and must be shunned. Religious faith, he told Abid, was a private matter for the individual and should not play any role whatsoever in their political movement. Indian nationalism should transcend religious identities and sentiments. It must not, Netaji emphasised, be grounded in a philosophy of interfaith solidarity or a narrative of religious syncretism. Netaji told Abid: “By using religion to unite yourselves today, you are opening the door to someone else who will sow division tomorrow by using the same sentiments.”

The realisation of the correctness of Netaji’s analysis led Abid Hasan to think about a greeting for all Indians which had no religious connotations whatsoever and the result was ‘Jai Hind’ – which remains a popular greeting to this day. Men in police and military uniform use it when they salute their officers because of its non-denominational character – just as INA soldiers and officers did all those decades ago.

Netaji’s secularism was very different to Gandhi’s; it was also very different from the
“Sarva Dharma, Sama Bhava” (unity of all religions) line of thought which has been the way secularism has been interpreted in India. It was precisely this interpretation that he objected to so strenuously. The majoritarianism practised by our prime minister and the Sangh Parivar would have appalled him.

The story that I was told in my childhood about the naughty and ugly bird who stole eggs from the nests of beautiful birds and kept them warm till they hatched, ended with the beautiful little chick flying away from this impostor of a parent as soon as it sprouted wings and could make its way to its real family.

In much the same way, it is completely impossible for the legacy of Subhas to be appropriated by those who differ from him in every respect. His home is and always will be in the hearts and minds of his freedom-loving countrywomen and countrymen and not among those who yearn to bask in his reflected glory but share none of his principles.

Subhashini Ali is a former member of parliament from Kanpur and politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).