Did India’s freedom fighter survive WWII? A nation ponders opening the Netaji Pandora’s box
Did India’s charismatic freedom fighter “Netaji” Subhas Chandra Bose live in disguise for forty years after being declared dead in a plane crash in Taihoku airport in Taiwan, on Aug. 18, 1945? This seven decades long, intriguing story of independent India now moves dangerously close to a more complicated than conclusive phase, with the Indian government under increasing pressure to declassify its files on Bose.
But instead of clarity and closure, the 70-year old governmental documents could produce more conflict and confusion with partial truths. Or even if the actual truth emerges about the “death” and later life of Netaji, can millions of Netaji admirers handle the truth?
On Sept. 11, 2015, Bose’s home state West Bengal announced making public 12,744 pages of classified Netaji Subhas Bose documents. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is meeting Bose’s family members next month – either to be convinced about declassifying the central government’s top secret documents on Bose, or for the prime minister to explain to Bose’s family members why it is wiser to leave things as they are. Declassifying the documents could be opening a Pandora’s Box.
Like many other Indians, to me the stories and “sightings” of Netaji being alive, long after he was declared dead in 1945, seemed like never-ending conspiracy theories on who killed US President John F. Kennedy and why.
In Kolkata, with its Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport, I had visited the ancestral home of Bose which is being preserved as a museum. The German-made Wanderer car that a disguised Netaji used to escape house arrest from the British is still parked near the entrance, to the left of the gate. Never did I think Bose escaped death in the air crash of 1945.
My disinterest about Bose sightings changed in May 2014. I read a newspaper report on prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi meeting a former driver of Bose who said that he had met Bose many years after he was declared dead in 1945. I could not dismiss this as another hallucination, wishful imagination or in category of the Himalayan Yeti and the creature of Loch Ness.
Soon after, from whatever research I could do on Netaji’s “death,” to me the real mystery then became not whether “Netaji” was living in India for decades after 1945, but why he lived in secrecy.
Those reasons could change public perceptions of two of the most well-known figures in modern Indian history: Subhas Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister of India in the two decades after Netaji’s “death” in 1945. Words like “treachery” and “betrayal” loom as sinister shadows in the secret chapters between what may be Netaji’s fake death and his real passing away forty years later.
Pathways through Google search brought my virtual journey to Faizabad town in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, on the banks of the river that locals call ‘Saryu’. In this town that was once capital of the princely state of Awadh a hermit called “Gumnami Baba” passed away in 1985. Neighbours could not exactly recollect when this “Baba” or “holy man” first came to town. But they remembered “Gumnami Baba” was very reclusive, rarely met locals but sometimes had visitors late at night. “Gumnami” means “one with no name.”
Was “Gumnami Baba” a disguised Subhas Chandra Bose living in hiding, using the identity he assumed in the last years of his life? This seems to have been established by Anuj Dhar, a leading Subhas Chandra Bose researcher and newspaper reporter, and Justice Manoj Kumar Mukherjee, the one-man commission probing the disappearance of Subhas Bose.
Justice Mukherjee categorically dismissed that Bose had died in the air crash of 1945. And yet India continued pondering whether Bose was alive after 1945, instead of asking why did he fake his own death? Why was he living in hiding?
Here I entered very tricky regions, the dark territory. I found words like “war criminal” appearing. I do not know whether the term was used by the British in the sense as “Quisling” of Norway, and if so no problem as in India the British were the invading enemy. Or was the term used as applicable to those accused in the Nuremberg trials after Nazi Germany was destroyed, a “war criminal” accused as accomplice in Japanese atrocities? Then I came across these words stunningly attributed to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru informing the British, “Your war criminal is in Russia.”
This is opening the Pandora’s Box. According to this explosive content of events, a person X, supposed to be dead but fleeing to seek refuge and support in Russia, was instead captured and used in the barter of spoils after World War II, between Josef Stalin and the British, following which this person X was put through the horrors of prison life in Siberia. Two years after Stalin died in 1953, this person X was brought back to India by the government of India. Was this person X “Gumnami Baba,” the “Baba” with “no name”?
For decades, the official governmental stance is that declassifying the Netaji files would “damage” India’s relations with friendly countries. Likewise on Sept. 19, Parliamentary Affairs minister Venkaiah Naidu said the central government will decide on declassifying its Netaji files only after studying its impact on India’s relations with other countries.
A more accurate reason could be the truth, or the “truth,” might damage India’s perceptions of either Netaji or Nehru.
Nehru died in 1964, and I have no problems in accepting that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the man who met Adolf Hitler to raise an army to free India, died as the mysterious “Gumnami Baba” or “Bhagwanji” in 1985 (*1).
So we return to the opening question: in those looking for the truth about Netaji handle the truth? Even the bare idea seems unacceptable to many that Netaji, one the most charismatic figures in India’s struggle for independence, could willingly live in hiding in his own country, and read newspaper reports of his death.
A newspaper reader Sudeshna Chakraborty from Guwahati wrote: “I have read both the book written by Mr. Anuj Dhar ‘India’s biggest cover up’ and ‘Back from Dead’. His untiring effort and dedication to the cause will certainly pave the way of solving the mystery of Netaji’s disappearance. But somewhere deep down in my heart, I cannot digest the fact that Netaji was living in India and still he remained in hiding. He was bravery personified; he could never do that when the country was suffering.”
Difficult to accept that idols have clay feet, that our heroes could have dark sides. Our perceptions about people and events could be accurate as much as being inaccurate, distorted, far removed from the truth. History can be often a personal point of view with limited evidence.
Before joining the general clamor to know the “truth” of Netaji, I remember this always classic caveat: be careful about what you ask, because you could get it. So I ask myself: If Netaji died in 1945, no more questions. But Netaji’s family members scheduled to meet Prime Minister Modi in October have rejected the idea that Bose died in 1945. If not, can they face the truth if it becomes the ugly truth?
Were there good or unwholesome reasons for Netaji incognito? Would the reason shake up India’s perceptions about a favorite hero, or make him an even greater hero?
Or, would “Gumnami Baba,” alias “Bhagwanji,” be proof of the character Harvey Dent saying in the Batman movie “The Dark Knight”: “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” In 1945, a young Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose died a hero.
Refusing to accept the closure of 1945 opens the story to any possibility. But the truth, or entire picture, may not be fully revealed in documented or partially documented history, classified government files or files classified after more explosive contents may have been destroyed by the government of the time with vested interests in hiding or distorting the truth.
In fact, what I had expected would happen if the central government declassified the Netaji files exactly happened after chief minister Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal made public 64 files on Bose on Sept. 11: promptly there was suspicion that the state government did not release all the files it had on Netaji.
Like the 1947 Roswell “UFO” crash and the US government, public suspicion will continually linger of the entire truth about Bose being hidden — whatever the central or state government says or does not say, declassifies or does not declassify.
Whatever the truth, the truth is also inescapable that both Jawaharlal Nehru and Netaji Subhas Chandra sacrificed their youth to free their motherland. Both were well-educated, came from wealthy families, and could easily have lived a life of ease and luxury chumming up the British instead of being frequently arrested, imprisoned in dungeons in fighting to throw them out of the country.
As I mentioned earlier, declassifying the Netaji files would not solve the mystery. It could only raise more questions for which the only people who have the answers are long dead and gone. Better to take into account the difference between the need to know the truth and gratification of curiosity. The truth is that for service to country and their sacrifices to free the motherland, both Nehru and Netaji deserve to left in peace and remembered with gratitude.
*1. “Bhagwanji’s belongings – by Anuj Dhar
“Almost a year after Bhagwanji’s death in 1985, the Uttar Pradesh High Court had his belongings listed and sent to the Faizabad treasury.
“The work on the inventory, which started on March 23, 1986, continued for one and a half years, at the end of which more than 2,700 items were listed and sealed in dozens of boxes. The court order came after Lalita Bose, MA Haleem (both are now dead) and Vishwa Bandhu Tiwari in a writ petition said that since the man could be Netaji, his belongings needed to be preserved. Earlier, the local administration had planned to auction them.
“On November 26, 2001, the seals were broken before Justice Manoj Kumar Mukherjee, chairman of the one-man commission probing the disappearance of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. After the belongings were examined, a few articles were marked for handwriting and DNA sampling. The articles included, notes left behind in English, Bangla and Hindi, and teeth found in matchboxes.
The hermit’s belongings, as listed in the inventory, can be found here (This list is incomplete)
Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.
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