In the last 15 odd years that I have endeavoured to get at the truth about Subhas Chandra Bose’s fate, there have been occasions that could well inspire plots similar to those seen in movies based on the works of John le Carré. “There is a house somewhere in this city where Alleline and the others meet Witchcraft’s London representative.” George Smiley’s retort to the minister about the MI6 safehouse in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy bore a similarity to a response I received from the West Bengal government. “Required information… may be available from secret cell of this organisation” was just about as far as the state government’s home department would go in response to my November 2013 RTI request seeking a list of classified files concerning Bose.
Now, the West Bengal government plans to put in the public domain 64-odd files on Bose that are in its possession. The news reports on what the files actually contain were, therefore, like a “light at the end of the tunnel” for me.
To understand where all this is leading, we need to go back a little. In 2006, the home ministry had refused to disclose copies of certain documents sought by Mission Netaji, a pressure group I am part of. That was the beginning of a paradigm shift in the way India saw the Netaji mystery. The matter started to be seen as an issue of transparency, not as a conspiracy theory.
In August 2006, the home ministry wrote to the Information Commission, asserting that certain papers on Bose’s fate were so sensitive that disclosing them “may lead to a serious law and order problem in the country, especially in West Bengal”. Further, the prime minister’s office (PMO) blankly refused to provide the list — a mere list — of secret Bose files for fear of harming relations with foreign states. The ministry of external affairs (MEA), in response to a subsequent RTI application, admitted to holding, but refused to release, copies of the correspondence India had had with the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation over the issue of Bose’s fate. The R&AW flatly denied having any information on Bose, but an official home ministry document showed otherwise.
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Bose’s reported death in a plane crash 70 years ago left in its wake a jittery establishment, not sure if colonial India’s Enemy No 1 was really dead. “I suspect it very much, it is just what should be given out if he meant to go underground,” observed Viceroy Archibald Wavell on the day he heard the Japanese announcement. A few days later, the first spotting of Bose after his death was reported. Not by a gullible native, but by an American journalist embedded with the US army. Alfred Wagg, a stringer for The Chicago Tribune, rudely interrupted a press conference of Jawaharlal Nehru to shout that Bose was “alive and seen in Saigon four days ago”.
Since Bose’s body or a picture of it was not produced to substantiate the suspect Japanese account, intelligence sleuths and military officers mounted investigations. They came across intelligence, even from Soviet sources, that Bose might have escaped to the Soviet Union, the only country that could have sheltered him back then.
Post Independence, Bose continued to haunt the powers that be and heaps of classified material on him were generated. Even after several instances of destruction, the classified paper trail reaches 41 PMO files, 27 MEA files, 77 (possibly more) IB files and something like 60,000 pages with the home ministry. For its part, Bose’s home state piled up a small tranche of its own. In 2001, it comprised 64 home department files and a few more with the chief minister’s office. And what do these files contain? Well, expect nothing earth shattering — for the issue was never in the remit of the state government. The real stuff lies in New Delhi, and most likely in Moscow and other capitals.
But now that Kolkata has decided to disclose the papers, Delhi would come under severe pressure to release its lot. And then there will be demands for taking up the matter with Russia.
Dhar is author of ‘India’s Biggest Cover-up’
(This article first appeared in print under the headline ‘Now, over to Delhi’)