December 15, 2005
Yesterday upon the stair/ I met a man who wasn’t there./ He wasn’t there again today/ I wish that man would go away.
— Hugh Means (1875-1965)
Even six decades after he was last seen in public, 60 years after the plane carrying him allegedly crashed on the island of Formosa, Subhash Chandra Bose just refuses to go away. Neither is he here, nor is he going anywhere. And now that the Justice Mukherjee Commission has cast firm doubts on whether he died at all in the plane crash, the man who isn’t here is back again.
Of course, the Commission’s finding is merely corroborating evidence for what all Bengalis — and many non-Bengalis — have always believed. I have never met a Bengali who thought that Netaji died at Taihoku. In Bengal, What Happened to Netaji has been a thriving industry for long. Biographies the size of bricks have all been bestsellers. In the early ’80s, a book titled Netaji Ki Shaulmarir Sadhu? (Is Netaji The Sadhu Of Shaulmari?) sold thousands of copies. I remember dozens of alarmingly geriatric people practically fighting one another at the Calcutta Book Fair to lay their hands on the book. And no one thought it the least bit unusual.
There are other theories. A persistent one is that Bose was captured by the Russians and died in a gulag in Siberia. And Netaji lovers who hate Jawaharlal Nehru (and most of them do) are absolutely sure that when the Russians captured Bose, Stalin informed Mountbatten, who, under Nehru’s advice, asked Stalin to have him quietly shot dead. Then there are the various sadhu theories, that he returned to India as a sanyasi, to settle in Shaulmari or Faizabad. But the most interesting story I have heard about the man who wasn’t there is from a top bureaucrat (Bengali, obviously), who calmly told me that the heart attack that finally killed Nehru was due to a chance meeting with Bose. Apparently, just before the seizure, which happened on a Puri beach where Nehru was out for a stroll, an aged sadhu walked up to him and said: ‘‘Hello, Jawahar, do you recognise me?’’ ‘‘B-but, but, aren’t you dead?’’ blubbered Panditji before collapsing on the spot.
Successive Indian governments have found Netaji an itch that you can’t reach and never goes away. On the one hand, it had to contend with fanatical Forward Bloc MPs who would stall Parliament with stirring speeches about Netaji still being alive and demand that the government acknowledge this simple truth. On the other, the Japanese government has been, for decades, demanding that India take and look after the urn containing Netaji’s purported ashes at Tokyo’s Renkoji temple. A friend remembers a noting by the then External Affairs Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao on one such irate letter from Japan. Rao had written: ‘‘Do nothing about this. Repeat, do nothing.’’ No Indian government has ever emphatically claimed that the Tokyo ashes are Bose’s, or that they are not.
As a result, I have been told, the small memorial ceremony that is held at the Renkoji temple every year by his Japanese admirers on his birthday is an annual irritant for the Indian embassy in Tokyo. If the ambassador attends the ceremony, that’s official acceptance that the ashes are Bose’s. But if the embassy doesn’t send anyone, you are implying that they are not. The solution to this has been to send a junior diplomat to stand, head bowed, at the ceremony, and thus maintain crystal-clear ambiguity.
But what is it about this man that keeps us obsessing about him? As far as Bengalis go, the mania is easy to understand. We are a race that is beginning to accept grudgingly that our best days are behind us. So we clutch on to our heroes desperately. An Amartya Sen here, a Sourav Ganguly there. And Subhash Chandra Bose epitomises every frustration a typical Bengali feels, consciously or unconsciously, about the decline of his race. It is a conspiracy plotted and executed meticulously by non-Bengalis (Bengali is the only language I know of that has a word for ‘the other’, in this case, ‘abangali’, non-Bengali). Betrayed by Nehru, outwitted by Gandhi, Bose, in our minds, is the ultimate Bengali not allowed to flower by cunning, jealous and insecure non-Bengalis.
Yes, but what about the fact that framed pictures of Bose far outnumber those of, say, Nehru or Patel, in homes in Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, the Northeast? In spite of carefully crafted school history textbooks that downplay Bose’s contribution, the people of India have a peculiar fondness for this man who actually lost every battle he fought in his life. Or is it in fact because he lost? Gandhi’s machinations forced him to resign as Congress president. Finally elbowed out of the party itself, he set up Forward Bloc. Stealing out of house arrest, he made his way to Afghanistan, trying desperately to meet the Russian ambassador there. Failing, he travelled to Germany to seek Hitler’s help. Rebuffed, he managed to escape
Allied warships in a grueling submarine journey to land in Japan, and created the Azad Hind Fauj. The Fauj was crushed and he had to flee. Yet, he had coined for us the slogan Jai Hind, and created a totally secular army — his top three generals were a Hindu, a Sikh and a Muslim. He also, as Congress president, thought up the idea of a Planning Commission (and got Nehru to head it). And in a 1938 speech, actually predicted not only the Second World War, but also the Cold War to follow. In hindsight, it’s one of the most stunning speeches ever given by an Indian politician, in its global sweep and visionary perception.
Yet he was a loser. He lost every battle he fought. But with every defeat he scaled his stakes up even higher. He seems to have lived his life fueled by some strange fiery optimism, failing every time on a grander scale than before, every defeat but an incitement to a higher and more subversive dream. Maybe that’s why we obsess about him. He never reached, but he never turned back either. He is the embodiment of our suspicion that the dice are loaded, that the gods cheat. And each one of us has sensed them cheating.
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