Rajpath, the 1911-vintage Kingsway built to welcome King George V, became Kartavya Path. A tall black-stone statue of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, described by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the “first Pradhan of united India”, was installed under the canopy where King George V’s statue stood. This is New India’s final push for dismantling colonial-era remnants. At the unveiling function, Modi described Rajpath as a symbol of slavery and hoped that Kartavya Path would motivate people’s representatives toward India’s “democratic past and universal ideals”.
India’s Independence movement was inspired not just by the desire to replace the British with Indian rulers but by the passion to return to its civilisational glory. Lala Lajpat Rai, Madan Mohan Malviya, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, V D Savarkar, Sri Aurobindo and M K Gandhi — many leaders were committed to that ideal. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, the Cambridge-educated young man whom Gandhi affectionately described once as “our Englishman”, was so determinedly anti-British that he threatened to resign from Congress in 1928 when the Nehru Committee, headed by his father Motilal Nehru, recommended that India may accept the British offer of dominion status. Nothing short of “Poorna Swaraj” — total independence — junior Nehru insisted.
Sadly though, those motivations waned when independence dawned. In 1948, India decided to join the so-called Commonwealth. Most of these Commonwealth countries have nothing in common except their colonial past — nor any wealth — yet India continues to be a member. The silver lining is that unlike countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, India didn’t remain under British dominion after independence.
Some half-hearted efforts were made after Independence to remove the symbols of colonialism. Names of some roads and buildings were changed. But the statue of King George V remained on Rajpath for a full two decades until a public agitation forced the government in 1968 to shift it to another venue. The canopy remained empty because the leadership was undecided over who should occupy it. Gandhi’s name was proposed several times but turned down during the regimes of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.
In the 75th year of independence, Modi is giving a new thrust to that effort. The new parliament building, Kartavya Path, National War Memorial and the statue of Netaji are all the new symbols of a decolonising India.
Some found the installation of Netaji’s statue on Kartavya Path less convincing. India’s identity from its Independence was that of non-violence, they argue. It is precisely that narrative which needs to change. India’s independence movement had many strands, the non-violent one led by Gandhi being the most prominent. But Netaji’s contribution was no less significant.
In fact, Netaji’s Azad Hind Fauj or Indian National Army (INA) had hit the last nail in the British coffin in the penultimate years of the Independence struggle. Netaji’s scintillating address at a rally in Burma, in which he gave the thunderous appeal, “Give me blood and I promise you freedom”, led to a tectonic shift in that struggle.
INA’s adventurous battles and the capture of Moirang in Manipur under the leadership of Lt Col Shaukat Ali on April 14, 1944, had triggered a wave of enthusiasm among the masses of India, who were disappointed by the failure of the Quit India Movement. This enthusiasm turned into anger when the British brought 11 INA soldiers to Red Fort for a trial in 1945. The fire lit by the INA was so fierce that rebellions broke out in the Royal Indian Navy with Indian soldiers, who constituted the majority in the force, refusing to obey the orders of their British officers.
The rebels, who started calling themselves the Indian National Navy on the lines of Netaji’s INA, mutinied initially at Bombay in 1946, but the unrest soon spread from Karachi to Calcutta. It involved over 20,000 sailors and 78 ships. At the peak of the revolt, sections of the Royal Indian Air Force and Royal Indian Army too joined the revolt. There were incidents of unrest in the army cantonments of Madras and Poona. The Indian soldiers started defying their British superiors and saluting with their left hand as a mark of revolt.
Although ideologically opposed to violent struggles, the Indian National Congress leadership too saw in the INA trials an opportunity to re-ignite the spirit of freedom among the masses and came forward to defend the INA soldiers. The defence team deployed by the Congress included prominent legal luminaries like Bhulabhai Desai, Asaf Ali, Sarat Chandra Bose, Tej Bahadur Sapru, Kailash Nath Katju and Lt. Col Horilal Varma. Even Jawaharlal Nehru scrambled for the black coat that he relinquished in 1922 and jumped to the defence of the INA soldiers at the Red Fort.
The British were rattled by these revolts and the massive popular support they received. Debates in the British House of Commons in the second half of 1946 stand testimony to it. Prime Minister Clement Atlee decided that it was time to quit India. He gave two principal reasons for his decision: One, that the Indian soldiers of the Royal Indian Army were no longer loyal to the crown, and second, that the British Army could no longer afford to send a large contingent of British soldiers to India, especially after the bloody experience of the Second World War.
Netaji’s and INA’s contribution to the independence struggle thus becomes no less important than that of Gandhi and Congress. The Modi government has used Amrit Mahotsav to accord appropriate recognition to that and many such contributions. A grateful nation should cherish the memories of all those great freedom fighters.
It is important to remember that all contributions were great. Nehru won’t become small by making Patel big; Gandhi won’t be dwarfed by making Netaji prominent.
In their lifetime, those leaders had probably disagreed but never hated each other. In fact, it was Netaji who gave Gandhi the title of the “Father of the Nation” in a message from Burma in 1944 on his 75th birthday. Why then should we politicise Modi’s sincere efforts to accord a place of glory to all the freedom fighters?
The writer is member, board of governors, India Foundation