How much of a hero is Subhas Chandra Bose?

The fact that Bose had allowed his guttural hatred for British imperialism to cloud his better judgment on all other issues was to become the tragic flaw he would live and die with.

 |   Long-form |   20-09-2015
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Nehru and Bose. The two were mirror images of each other.

Good looking, charming, arrogant, imperious, well informed and widely travelled, from upper caste backgrounds and wealthy families, and above all, charismatic to a fault. Tough to see how they could have coexisted in the same frame. The surprise was not how they parted ways but how they managed to stay together for quite a while.

Till 1938 Nehru and Bose were the two young Turks always shaking a sleepy Congress, dominated by Gandhi who appeared to have the patience of Job. Bose was younger and stormier of the two, forever ready to go where angels feared to tread. So probably was Nehru but he was careful never to cross the Lakshman Rekha vis-a-vis Gandhi.

The problem for Bose was never Nehru. Their antipathy towards each other has been exaggerated in recent years usually for political reasons. The problem was Gandhi. And Patel who had a visceral dislike for Bose.

Bose could understand and therefore tackle Nehru. But Gandhi could well have been from a different planet. He was all that Bose could never be. Gandhi had created a new political idiom which Bose was not equipped to handle. Bose was essentially a to-the-manor-born leader from Bengal, Gandhi was a storm which would sooner or later consume all regional loyalties. Bose understood this.

The paths of Nehru and Bose were to diverge at multiple levels.

Till the turn of the end of the First War Bengal had been the scene of all political activity in India. But with establishment of New Delhi as the capital in 1911 and the arrival on the scene of people like Tilak and later Gandhi, Patel and Nehru, the fulcrum of the freedom struggle was shifting away from Calcutta. This could hardly have been good news for brothers Sarat and Subhash Chandra Bose belonging to the state that had produced luminaries like Ram Mohan Roy, Henry Derozio, Bipin Pal, Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, CR Dass and Tagore. Some amount of angst and frustration was natural.

But that was not all. Bose and Nehru were renaissance personalities with a global world-view. Gandhi was the exact opposite. If Bose’s world began with the globe and ended grudgingly at India, Gandhi’s world began with the village and ended at India. Nehru’s world was probably in-between the two but but much closer to Bose than Gandhi. In fact it is quite likely that the two of them would have found the India of Gandhi’s dreams far more oppressive and intolerable than under the British. But since independence was not imminent, there had never been any need to align their strategic vision.

Till 1939, when events brought their differences to the fore.

Bose had been elected President of the Congress in 1938 and was expecting a second term for 1939. Earlier in 1938 there had been some bitterness when Gandhi had vetoed the chance of Congress forming a coalition government in Bengal despite a strong recommendation by Bose.

For the election in 1939, in a show of unprecedented hostility and egged on by Patel whose dislike for Bose was the stuff of legends, Gandhi set up a candidate against Bose and canvassed openly for him. Despite Gandhi’s backing, Bose won. This was an insult the Father of the Nation who could be incredibly petty when cornered, would never forget. In order to tie Bose down, the Gandhi coterie moved a resolution to disband the elected Congress Working Committee and have it reconstituted by Gandhi’s nominees. This did not actually happen but created enough bad-blood. One thing led to another and the already brittle relationship between the two snapped.

While this drama was being enacted, Nehru, who Bose considered a natural ally chose to sit on the sidelines and did not support him. This was to become a major bone of contention between Bose and Nehru. Bose felt badly let down. And he was probably right. Only Nehru had the stature to prevent the injustice meted out to Bose but did not act.

The election and subsequent resignation of Bose as Congress President in 1939 was only a catalyst. Through the thirties, Bose and Nehru were drifting apart on another far more strategic issue.

From the very beginning, there had always been a streak of the militarist in Bose. He had never made any effort to hide his admiration for the totalitarian but effective systems being run by Hitler and Mussolini. Even though he did not agree with some of Hitler's excesses, he made no effort to to hide his instinctive admiration for the disciplineand committment inherent with the systems being run by Hitler and Mussolini. Conversely he disliked the British imperialism and the British system which was far too grey for a person who preferred black and white.

Nothing could have been politically less acceptable to the Congress than one of their own appreciating fascism. Hitler had shot into prominence with the publication of his autobiography Mien Kampf in 1925. The book had created waves, revealing a fiercely bigoted and violent mind-set which was on the ascendant in Germany. His belief in the superiority of the white race, his naked hatred for Judaism and his declaration that Germany’s destiny was to conquer and colonize the second class citizens of the world was bound to unsettle even the most intrepid of political thinkers in India. In fact in his book, Hitler commended the British colonisation of India by the British.

On assuming power in 1933, Hitler lost no time in starting persecution of the Jews. The process climaxed in Nov 1938 when over two days, hundreds of synagogues and cemeteries were destroyed, businesses ransacked and thousands of Jews sent to concentration camps. This was the fag end of Bose’s first term as Congress President in India; elections for 1939 would happen in a couple of months.

Bose would have known about the atrocities being committed against the Jews not just through the media but also first hand through his girl friend and later German wife Emile who lived in Germany. But despite this knowledge, Bose’s ambivalence continued. While he may have criticised the violence on the odd occasion, he made no efforts to hide his admiration for the fascist systems of both Hitler and Mussolini. In fact he was particularly close to the latter who was to be Bose's conduit to reach Hitler.

Having a stormy petrel as the President was bad enough for an otherwise conservative Congress but having a President whose views were at complete divergence from the rest of the party at a time in which the world could be at war was unacceptable. This resulted in a constant battle of wits between him and the rest and probably explained the gulf between them.

The fact that Bose had allowed his guttural hatred for British imperialism to cloud his better judgment on all other issues was to become the tragic flaw he would live and die with.

Though they went through the motions of trying to reconcile their differences but that was not to be. Bose resigned to start the Forward Bloc which would be a non-starter. War was declared on 3 Sept 1939. Bose travelled through the country raising the pitch against the British and was ultimately put under house arrest.

On escaping his house-arrest in 1940, he first went to Moscow hoping to get support of the USSR for India’s freedom but met with tepid response. He then headed for Germany where he was to spend about three years hoping that an announcement by the Axis (read Hitler) India would be freed by them would create a groundswell of anti-British feeling and the empire would collapse. This was a pipe-dream, of course, revealing only the naivete of a man who believed that in the middle of the world’s most complex war being fought for territory, Hitler or any of the Axis powers wwould make freeing India as his top priority.

For three years, while India went through Quit India and other movements, Bose was little more than an NRI, a self-professed prince without a kingdom used by people he thought he was using. Though some historians would like to paint otherwise, he had a very limited role in influencing events in India, one way or another.

Italy was polite but did little to help. Germany was cold, dismissive and sometimes even rude and Japan saw in him a few thousands of easily dispensable soldiers. No more. No less. Though he was able to meet Mussolini fairly easily, the meeting with Hitler took a year and from all accounts, it was a dialogue of the deaf as most meetings with Hitler used to be. He had hoped to get a formal announcement that the Axis powers were committed to using force to free India but all he managed was a ride to Singapore in a German submarine.

Cut off from India, Bose spent his time running shortwave broadcasts hoping to foment an uprising in India. It is any one’s guess how useful that may have been for the country with less than 10,000 radio sets.

For a while, he also led the so-called Indian Legion, a force of a few thousand created with POWs of Indian origin captured by Italy and Germany. The exact raison d’etre of this force, later to be called Azad Hind Fauj was unclear. Bose took it over on the condition that it would be used only for operations to liberate India. Which was nonsense anyway as neither Italy nor Germany had any intention of attacking India. This force was finally sent to France and the Netherlands on non-combat duties and simply dissipated after Bose suddenly made his way to Singapore.

Bose arrived in Singapore in May 1943 soon after it had been taken over by the Japanese.

After three years of doing little except radio broadcast he now had the kind of challenge he would revel in. His first action was to declare a provisional government of India operating from Singapore. This must have created a stir for a while as at that time it did appear that Japan could launch a serious military action against India and INAs support would help.

Simultaneously, he took charge of the INA, created by Mohan Singh earlier in the same year and now being run by Rash Behari Bose. The concept was the same as the Azad Hind Fauj. POWs of Indian origin were offered a degree of freedom if they would join the INA and fight the British Army.

Bose provided INA with the leadership it needed and was able to convert it into a decent fighting force. This was more his style. For one thing, unlike the Azad Hind Fauj, the INA had larger numbers and could at least technically make a difference. Secondly the theater was closer home and an attack on India was well within the realms of possibility.

He was able to instill confidence more and more POWs who were inherently not happy with their Japanese masters to actually join for the cause. He travelled through south-east Asia collecting donations from rich Indian supporters as well as enlisting civilians into the INA. At its peak the INA had about 40000 men and women though it had equipment for barely half the number.

But the problem was the same predictable one. When you are dependent on the big brother for money, arms, ammunition and equipment, your objectives become subservient to his.

The INA consistently had to cast its priorities with those of Japan for whom there were many more challenges than freeing India. And so when Japan could have attacked India, it focused its energies on Indonesia, Philipines and Australia. In the end INA saw action in action in Kohima, Imphal and Burma but always alongside the Japanese Army. It neither embarrassed nor distinguished itself in any significant way. The war ended suddenly with the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan surrendered. Soon thereafter Bose flew away on a Japanese plane which crashed. And the INA was disbanded unceremoniously.

Destiny was kind that India was spared the ultimate disgrace of one set of Indians under one alien flag fighting another set of Indians under another alien flag. Even by our own very poor standards of fighting between ourselves and allowing outsiders to conquer us that would have been catastrophic. No one is luckier than Bose that no such thing happened. It would have been a disaster for which he would have been held responsible, irrespective of who may have won or lost. Particularly in view of the fact that India won its freedom anyway.

So where does that place Subhash Bose in the Indian pantheon of freedom fighters?

In terms of sheer talent Bose was right there at the top next only to Gandhi and ahead of Nehru. He was daring and fearless and had the rare ability of making things happen. He dared dream a different dream and was able to take it to its fruition completely alone despite opposition by no less than Gandhi and the entire Congress. That could not have been easy.

But in terms of actual contribution to the freedom struggle, his role was far more limited than made out. India's independence did not happen a day too soon because of his efforts. By the end of the Second War, Britain was a greatly depleted country and had neither the moral nor the financial wherewithal to retain India.

Bose's three year flirtation with Germany had been a complete waste of time at a crucial period in the early forties. This was the time when he completely lost touch with the people. Had he stayed on in India, sooner or later he would have understood the foolishness of choosing to go with Germany and running the risk of thousands of deaths of Indians in a conflict between German and Britain. That he believed that a victorious Germany would mean freedom for India can only be termed embarrassing innocence since neither Hitler nor the Japs had ever tried to hide their desire for acquiring land.

His tenure in South East Asia was better but even there the achievements are limited. The truth is that the INA fought as an adjunct tio the Japanese Army and could neither be credited with successes nor blamed for failures. It had rhetorical success. No more , no less.

In the end an extraordinary man let down by hubris. A hero? 50/50. Or less.

(The article was first published on the author's Facebook page.) 

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Preet KS Bedi Preet KS Bedi

Chief Executive Officer of Percept Pictures Company.

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