UNPICKING THE MYTHS

William Crawley on a book that attempts to separate fact from fabrication regarding the death of one of India’s most contentious heroes

Ashis Ray’s Laid to Rest: The Controversy over Subhas Chandra Bose’s Death is an absorbing book that sets out to settle once and for all the factual evidence surrounding not the life, but the death of the man known as Netaji who is regarded by many Indians, especially Bengalis, as India’s ‘lost leader’. Subhas Chandra Bose’s implacable opposition to British rule in India made him feared by the British government there, and to some extent suspected by older political rivals whose charisma and influence he could match on equal terms. His opposition to Gandhi and Nehru, both in tactics and strategy, and his swift rise to the Presidency of the Indian National Congress marked him as a powerful leader in his own right.

Like Nehru, Netaji was sympathetic to the socialist ideals that he saw in the Soviet Union, though was never himself a communist. But he parted from both Nehru and Gandhi in advocating the use of force rather than non-violent protest as a legitimate strategy in the struggle for India’s freedom. Regarded by the British as an extremist, he was not an advocate of terrorism but adopted a quasi-military role for himself as commander-in-chief of the Indian National Army, recruited from British-trained Indian troops held in Japanese prisoner of war camps to fight against their own countrymen. Bose may have had few illusions about the nature of European Fascism and the Nazi regime on the one hand, or Japanese imperialism on the other; but he was prepared to welcome alliances on the basis of an overriding opposition to British rule in India

Ray acknowledges that Bose’s close relations with the Nazi regime, which extended to seeking SS training for groups of the INA under his command, have done little for his subsequent reputation. However, Ray maintains that Bose in no way shared the Nazis’ racist views and, by implication, condemns critics of Bose who – with some justification – hold his collaboration with the regime against him. The old adage that‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ underpinned his collaboration with Germany, which among other things gave him a radio broadcasting platform to broadcast propaganda to India that delighted Joseph Goebbels.

Bose’s contact in the German Foreign Ministry was a cultivated, conservative German nationalist and one-time Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Adam von Trott zu Solz, who was executed for his involvement in the unsuccessful July 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life. Solz is commemorated in Oxford as a hero of the anti-Nazi resistance, though Bose probably knew nothing of his covert resistance activities.

If Bose eventually became disillusioned with the German regime and doubtful that it would advance in any way his dream of a free India, he was prepared to pin his hopes on Japan until the Japanese surrender a few days before the air crash that caused his death. One is tempted to compare the nimbler tactics of the Burmese leader General Aung San, who like Bose set up an army under Japanese sponsorship but changed sides as the probability of Japanese defeat loomed. In so doing, he positioned himself after the war to succeed to power in Burma with the cooperation ofa restored but much weakened British government. Aung San’s Burmese forces had essentially been sidelined by the Japanese. The status of Burma under Dr Ba Maw’s wartime surrogate government, and the Japanese sponsored Greater South East Asia Co Prosperity sphere, had not been an encouraging example of national self-determination.

Ray’s account of Bose’s final days essentially reinforces the verdict of most previous official enquiries, – Japanese British and Indian –and the testimony of numerous eyewitnesses, which confirmed that he had died of the extensive burns and other injurieshe sustained in the plane crash near Taipei in still Japanese-controlled Taiwan. His body was cremated and the ashes taken to Tokyo. Even in the chaotic aftermath of the destruction by atom bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Japanese surrender,the Japanese military authorities had made great effortsat a time of total national disaster to assist Bose’s search for a safe haven, probably eventually in the Soviet Union. They clearly regarded him as a leader of genuine stature rather than just a pawn in their own imperial project. Ray’s account confirms Bose’s personal courage following the plane crash, accepting calmly the likelihood of his own death and never complaining of the acute pain he was suffering.It is impossible to say whether he might have been ableto return eventually to Indian politics if he had survived.

Some of the detailed testimony of witnesses is repetitive, but faced with the initial secrecy and Japanese security protocols surrounding Bose’s death (a false name, ‘Ichiro Okura’, was given on his death certificate), a clutch of false rumours(‘cock and bull stories’),and apparently politically inspired tales to which the lack of official openness gave rise, Ray establishes the facts with forensic thoroughness. His account, supported by a raft of documentary appendices, is a fine refutation of specious contemporary arguments about the validity of so called ‘relative truth’ or ‘post truth’narratives which fly in the face of the evidence.

Should Bose’s ashes, still held in a temple in Tokyo, be returned to India? The former Indian prime minister PV Narasimha Rao,who is given credit for his role in getting most of the archival papers published, was cautious in advocating return of the ashes from Tokyo,in the face of persistent scepticism about their authenticity among some of Bose’s extended family at the time.. Ray now has the support of Bose’s daughter, Professor Anita Pfaff, in promoting DNA testing of the ashes and their possible restoration to India, assuming their genuineness were to be confirmed. With evidence already more than sufficient to satisfy even a sceptical historian, perhaps it should not be necessary, but potential political obstacles still exist and the present Indian government has been equivocal. Ray is sensitive to these concerns, going to some lengths to disclaim personal credit for his own role in lobbying for public access to all the records. But for him and the book, this is unfinished business.


William Crawley is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London

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