On December 30, 2018, thousands of mobile flashlights lit up to honour Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose at the spot where he had hoisted the Indian Tricolour in Andaman 75 years ago. Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the enthusiastic crowd in full-throated chants of “Netaji Zindabad”. “When it comes to heroes of the freedom struggle,” he said, “we take the name of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose with pride.”
The Prime Minister must be commended for performing his duty of honouring the heroism and sacrifice of Netaji and the INA (Indian National Army). Yet donning the cap of the Azad Hind Fauj carries with it the responsibility of upholding the ideals and values held dear by India’s army of liberation.
Netaji’s visit to Andaman was the culmination of an extraordinary year of superhuman effort. My father Sisir Kumar Bose’s 1943 diary opens with this entry: “23 Jan. Sat. ’43: Rangakakababu’s birthday. What an auspicious day for our people! A sacred day for all of us. Forty-six years — lived as life should be lived.”
Sisir was not alone in feeling immense pride in Netaji’s achievements. But the most glorious phase in his uncle’s life was yet to begin.
A perilous 90-day submarine voyage between February and May 1943, including a mid-ocean transfer from a German to a Japanese submarine, brought Netaji and his aide Abid Hasan from Europe to Asia. On July 2, 1943, when Subhas Chandra Bose arrived in Singapore, he was greeted with a Hindustani song composed by Mumtaz Hussain: “Subhas-ji, Subhas-ji, woh jaan-e-Hind aa gaye, woh naaz jispe Hind ko, woh shan-e-Hind aa gaye.” “Asia ke Aftab” — “the light of Asia”, the song concluded, had now arrived in Asia.
On July 4, 1943, Subhas Chandra Bose rose to accept the leadership of the Indian freedom movement in Southeast Asia. In ringing tones, he told those who were prepared to follow him that he could offer “nothing but hunger, thirst, privation, forced marches and death”. When the sun rose next morning over Singapore harbour, it was “the proudest day” in Netaji’s life. The soldiers of the INA stood in front of him on the padang, the expanse of green, that stretched from the steps of the city hall towards the sea. It had pleased Providence, their supreme commander told them, for him to be able to announce that India’s army of liberation had come into being. Netaji gave his soldiers the slogan “Chalo Delhi”. He introduced the inspiring national greeting “Jai Hind”.
In the months that followed, Netaji electrified massive audiences of soldiers and civilians with his speeches. Thousands of civilians, mostly from south India, deemed non-martial by the British as part of their mythology about martial races and castes, enlisted in the INA. They received military training alongside professional soldiers from the northwestern regions of the subcontinent. On my visits to Punjab and Kerala last month, I witnessed the deep reverence for Netaji to this day in north and south India alike. During his submarine journey Netaji had dictated a speech to Abid Hasan, which he planned to deliver to a women’s regiment of the INA of his dreams. The speech was given on July 12 to the first recruits of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, which eventually enlisted a thousand young Indian women from Malaya and Burma.
In August, Subhas Chandra Bose tried to send rice from Burma to Bengal, which was being decimated by a man-made famine, but the British in India nervously suppressed his offer. On September 26, 1943, a ceremonial parade and prayers were held at Bahadur Shah’s tomb in Rangoon to signal the INA’s determination to march to the Red Fort of Delhi. The first division of the INA was put under the command of Mohammad Zaman Kiani. Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian soldiers dined together in a striking departure from the British custom of having separate messes. A warm camaraderie developed among soldiers drawn from different religious communities and linguistic groups. Netaji urged Hindus to be generous towards religious minorities. “He never even once spoke his God in public,” his colleague S A Ayer has written. “He lived him.”
On October 21, 1943, in Singapore, Netaji proclaimed the formation of the Provisional Government of Azad Hind, which guaranteed religious liberty, as well as equal rights and equal opportunities to its citizens. It declared its firm resolve to transcend “all the differences cunningly fostered by an alien government in the past”. What was notable about the composition of the cabinet was the strong representation given to members of religious minorities and the diversity of regional backgrounds.
Netaji achieved remarkable success in forging a spirit of unity and solidarity among different religious communities and linguistic groups. When priests of the main Chettiar temple in Singapore had come to invite Netaji to a religious ceremony earlier in October, they had been turned away because of their inegalitarian practices. He acceded to their request only after they agreed to host a national meeting open to all castes and communities. He went to that temple gathering flanked by his Muslim comrades — Abid Hasan and Mohammad Zaman Kiani. “When we came to the temple,” Hasan has written, “I found it filled to capacity with the uniforms of the INA officers and the black caps of the South Indian Muslims glaringly evident.”
The Azad Hind government inculcated this spirit of unity with a subtle sense of purpose. A simple Hindustani translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s song Jana Gana Mana Adhinayaka Jaya Hai became the national anthem. A springing tiger, evoking Tipu Sultan of Mysore’s gallant resistance against the British, featured as the emblem on the Tricolour shoulder-pieces on uniforms. Gandhi’s charkha continued to adorn the centre of the Tricolour flags that INA soldiers were to carry on their march towards Delhi.
The scale of Netaji’s success in forging Hindu-Muslim unity at a time when divisions along lines of religion were looming large within India cannot be exaggerated. Netaji forged an innovative path to a cosmopolitan anti-colonialism by nurturing a process of cultural intimacy among India’s diverse communities. To truly honour Netaji, the Prime Minister must take an unambiguous stand against his followers who are spreading the poison of religious hatred. If his symbolic gesture of donning the INA cap is to have any meaning, he must uphold the Azad Hind Government’s unswerving commitment to equal citizenship. The Citizenship Amendment Bill that the Modi government is trying to railroad through Parliament negates the fundamental principles on which Netaji’s Azad Hind movement was based.
For Netaji, territory was not the be-all and end-all of sovereignty. People were more important. The provisional government gave Indians domiciled abroad the option of accepting Indian citizenship. Before the INA entered India’s north-east in early 1944, the Azad Hind government acquired de jure sovereignty over the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean in much the same way as De Gaulle’s Free French had done over some islands off the French coast in the Atlantic.
Netaji redeemed his promise of setting foot on the soil of his motherland before the year’s end by arriving in Port Blair on December 29, 1943, for a three-day visit to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which he renamed Shaheed and Swaraj. He paid tribute to the revolutionaries who had suffered there and likened the opening of the gates of Cellular Jail to the liberation of the Bastille.
The final entry in my father’s 1943 diary reads as follows: “29 Dec. Wed. ’43: Ma janani passes away — midnight.” In early January 1944, wireless contact was established between revolutionaries in Calcutta and Netaji in Burma with the help of secret agents who had landed by submarine and made contact with Sisir. One of the earliest messages transmitted did not contain any valuable military intelligence. It conveyed the news of Prabhabati’s death. “You look tired,” Debnath Das said to Netaji that evening. “No, I am not tired,” Netaji replied. “I heard today that I have lost my mother.”