In August 1945, after the Japanese News Agency announced the death of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose in a plane crash, Mahatma Gandhi believed in the report of his death and added that one should learn from how Netaji lived. Seventy-two years since the report of Bose’s death, however, the country continues to debate whether or not the plane crash story holds any ground. The raging controversy resulted in the government setting up two official inquiries into the death and later appointing Justice M K Mukherjee to re-examine the findings. Later, in 2015, the government of India decided to declassify the files relating to Bose and make them accessible to the public in the National Archives of India. On Wednesday, the Centre, in a surprise move, responded to a Right to Information (RTI) application on his death report and stated that Bose did indeed pass away in the place crash that took place on August 18, 1945.
“After considering the reports of Shahnawaz Committee, Justice G D Khosla Commission and Justice Mukherjee Commission of Inquiry, the government has come to the conclusion that Netaji has died in plane crash in 1945,” the Home ministry report stated in the RTI reply.
The sudden announcement by the Centre has once again brought upfront the controversy surrounding the death of Bose. Specifically, the piece of news has come as a blow to certain sections of Bose’ family who have been living with the firm conviction that Bose did not pass away in the plane crash. Condemning the announcement made by the Centre, Netaji’s grand nephew and Bengal BJP’s vice president Chandra Bose said he would take up the matter with the Prime Minister and said the family would take out a rally in protest against the announcement.
What was the official report on Netaji’s death?
In August 1945, after the Japanese had surrendered, Netaji took off on a Japanese bomber to go to Manchuria from Bangkok. However, minutes after the plane took off, it crashed. Bose was travelling along with Japanese General Shidei and other Japanese officers. Bose was burnt badly in the crash and was taken to a general hospital where he was declared dead. His body was reported to be cremated the same day and the ashes taken to Tokyo, where they were said to have been buried in a Buddhist temple. However, in the aftermath of the cremation, no photographs or death certificate were made available, which is what initiated the controversy.
What is the controversy surrounding the death report?
While most people believed the death report, there were some who believed the story had been cooked up to enable Bose to escape to Russia. There were several rumours of him being still alive and people spotting him. In February 1954, journalist Elliot Erikson wrote in the National Republic that there is a strong possibility of Bose being alive and that several people had spotted him including the nurse who treated him.
One of the most persistent voices rejecting the plane crash theory is that of Dr. Purabi Roy, former professor of International Affairs at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University. Roy is of the firm belief that Bose had taken refuge in Russia. Writing in History Today, journalist Hugh Purcell had mentioned a conversation with Roy wherein she spoke of a file kept in Russia that has minutes of a Politburo meeting of August 1946, when Voroshilov, Mikoyan, Molotov and others discussed whether Bose should be allowed to stay in the Soviet Union.
Further, there is also a theory that Bose returned to India and lived as a hermit in Faizabad in Oudh. A reclusive old man who went by the name, Bhagwanji or Gumnami Baba lived there and was believed by locals to be none other than Bose. When the old man in Faizabad passed away in 1985, he is believed to have left behind a number of his trunks. In an attempt to solve the death mystery, Bose’s niece Lalitha obtained a High Court order to look into the contents of the trunks. She claimed to have seen letters written in the handwriting of Bose and family photographs among other things in the trunks left behind by Gumnami Baba, all of which was sent to the District Treasury.
The high court order obtained by Lalitha led to the appointment of Justice M K Mukherjee to start a rigorous inquiry into the plane crash theory. This was, however, not the first such attempt made by the Indian government to solve the death mystery. Previously, two other inquiries had been set up to examine the Bose death mystery,
What were the findings of the official inquiries set up by the Indian government?
In 1946, confronted by swirling rumours, Governor-General Lord Mountbatten asked Colonel John Figgess to enquire into the death mystery. The Figgess report stated the following:
“As a result of a series of interrogations of individuals named in the following paragraphs it is confirmed as certain that S C Bose died in a Taihoku Military Hospital (Nammon Ward) sometime between 1700 hours and 2000 hours local time on the August 18, 1945. The cause of death was heart failure resulting from multiple burns and shock.”
The report consisted of interviews with survivors of the plane crash, the doctors who treated Bose and those who were involved in his post death arrangements. Later, in 1956, the government of India appointed a three- member committee headed by Shah Nawaz Khan to investigate the plane crash theory. The Shah Nawaz committee too confirmed the Figgs report. However, the report was dismissed by Bose’s family, in particular by his brother, Suresh Chandra Bose who accused the committee of withholding important information.
In 1970, a new commission was put in place, the G D Khosla commission, which once again confirmed the plane crash theory. However, the rumours of Bose persisted and so did pressure from Bose’s family members. Finally, on account of the high court order obtained by Bose’s niece, Lalitha, the government in 1999 appointed Justice M.K. Mukherjee to launch a vigorous inquiry. As described by journalist Hugh Purcell, Justice Mukherjee drove to the District Treasury to take a look at the contents of the boxes acquired from Gumnami baba. The contents of the box included a pair of German binoculars, a Corona typewriter, a pipe, a Rolex watch (believed to be Netaji’s watch by one of the spectators), a box of five teeth and a pair of silver round spectacles. Along with these there appeared a large collection of English classic novels and books. In his 2006 report, Justice Mukherjee concluded that though Netaji is definitely dead now, he definitely did not die in the plane crash and the ashes kept in the temple are not his. Though he did not publicly subscribe to the view that Netaji and Gumnami baba were the same people, Purcell mentioned in his article that in 2010 Mukherjee was caught off guard in a TV interview saying that he thinks Bose was indeed the old man who lived in Faizabad.
Despite the findings of the Mukherjee Commission, a Japanese investigation confirmed in 2016 that Bose had died in the plane crash. The recent announcement made by the Centre has once again stuck to this view, much to the disappointment of Bose’s family who agree with the report of Justice Mukherjee.