What Bose family doesn't want you to know about Netaji mystery

This article has been co-authored by Anuj Dhar and Chandrachur Ghose.

 |  24-minute read |   24-06-2016
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Several second generation members of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's family have been airing their personal opinion about matters relating to their celebrated ancestor. Especially about the case of his reported death - the "Netaji mystery" of common parlance. The epithet of "Netaji kin" has been taken to certify expertise on anything and everything to do with Netaji.

In a condescendingly titled article "The Dishonesty of Those Who Exploit and Abuse the Name of Netaji", a grandnephew and grandniece of Netaji, Surya Kumar Bose and his sister Madhuri Bose, have tried to take a moral high ground based on their understanding of Netaji's persona and issue of his fate through the prism of their father Amiya Nath Bose's opinion.

It attempts a demarcation between true followers of Netaji and others (presumably false followers), those who are working to protect Netaji's image (for example, the Bose family) and those who are wreaking havoc to destroy Netaji's image.

They denounce the "cynicism and dishonesty of those who would use the name of Netaji and his now legendary deeds for their own selfish ends", but limit their tirade against those who have claimed that Netaji returned to India or would do so in future. They solemnly proclaim that "imposters have come and gone".

Although the authors begin with a broad brush, it becomes clear rather quickly that their main problem is with what is now famous as the "Gumnami Baba" case. Barring the first three paragraphs, the entire article is an attempt to discredit this possibility.

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On the face of it, this could have been treated as just another article expressing the personal views of the authors, and non-problematic to that extent. However, a closer scrutiny reveals problems at several levels.

Firstly, there's the problem of the attempt to derive authority on the basis of kinship. Having been accorded varying degrees of importance overnight for the simple reason of being a "Bose", some family members appear to have started believing that their personal opinions are superior to established facts and that being a Netaji kin grants them the automatic licence to juggle facts to suit their prejudices. Notably, the two authors are introduced in the said article as grandnephew and grandniece of Netaji, and not in their individual capacity - not even as grandson and granddaughter of Sarat Bose, a stalwart in his own right.

Added to this is the contest within the family to emerge as the authentic voice of the family, based on deriving legitimacy from proximity to Netaji. While the children of Netaji's nephew Sisir Bose like to portray their father as the closest confidante of Netaji, the authors of the referred article present their father Amiya Nath Bose as the authority in interpreting his uncle Netaji's life and ideas.

Other family members barely feature in their discourse. The truth is that the Bose family speaks in multiple voices. How this contest for legitimacy has resulted in a distortion of reality, frustrating the genuine efforts to bring a closure to the vexing mystery, will be clearer as we move on to the next problem.

The second problem is that of the approach of the authors (and other family members) to bring a closure to this longest running mystery in independent India.

What happened to Netaji?

As it stands now, there are three predominant theories. One, Bose was reportedly killed in an air crash in Taiwan (a view backed by Sisir Bose, dynastically repeated by Sugata Bose). Two, it has been alleged, that he was killed or died (probably after being tortured) in the erstwhile USSR (a view adopted by Amiya Nath Bose, dynastically inherited and propagated by his children). Three, Netaji is said to have returned to India, living in the disguise of a mostly unseen holy man known as Bhagwanji (commonly known as Gumnami Baba) in various parts of Uttar Pradesh till 1985, when he would have been 88 years old.

All three possibilities were looked into by the Justice Manoj Kumar Mukherjee Commission of Inquiry, formed in 1999 following a court order. Justice Mukherjee, a former Supreme Court judge, rejected the air crash theory "on the basis of robust circumstantial evidence" establishing conclusively that a fake news of Bose's death was planted to ensure his passage towards Soviet Russia. Much to the delight of Sugata Bose, now a Lok Sabha MP, the Congress government rejected the findings only to suit their convenience in upholding the air crash theory.

Also read: Why was UPA government hell-bent to 'kill' Netaji?

Also read: How the UPA government buried the Mukherjee Commission's findings on Netaji

This disgraceful attempt at covering up facts was remedied to a slight extent by the present government as minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju told Lok Sabha in April this year that "we are not in a position to say actually what had happened to Netaji".

What could have happened to Netaji after August 18, 1945, Justice Mukherjee couldn't tell, as he was not given access to some vital security and intelligence-related archives during his Russia visit. At the same time, the commission found no merit in the claims made by Purabi Roy, the most well-known votary of the "Netaji was killed in Soviet Russia" conspiracy theory.

The theories of the Boses

While Sisir Bose, his wife Krishna and their son Sugata continue to peddle the story of Netaji's death in the air crash in 1945, they never cared to present their evidence of Netaji's death before any of the inquiries. That, however, has not stopped them from belittling the inquiry and findings of Justice Mukherjee, with Sugata stooping to the level of labelling him a "Bengali judge".

Also joining their side is Ashis Ray, Sugata's London-based journalist cousin and a Congress party supporter. Ray first raised doubts about the air crash theory and then, with the return of the Congress to power in 1991, began toeing the official line. It is to be noted that both late Sisir Bose and wife Krishna joined the Congress. This was much to the annoyance of the majority of the Bose family members, who cannot even stand the mention of the party that virtually ran down Netaji's legacy in free India.

Interestingly, before he began gravitating towards the Congress, Sisir Bose himself was bitter about the treatment his uncle's legacy was receiving in independent India.

"If you were in India today, you will get the feeling that in India's struggle two men mattered - Gandhi and Nehru. The rest were just extras," he scornfully wrote on July 14, 1955 in a letter intercepted by the intelligence department.

His elder brother Amiya was more forthcoming as he questioned official propaganda in a letter to writer Carl Vincent Krugmann in 1958. "Gandhi's movement of 'non-violent non-cooperation' did not bring independence to India... the immediate cause of British withdrawal was the INA trial held in Red Fort".

On the other hand, several Bose family members, including Surya Bose - who is not supportive of Congress - continue to circulate the theory of Netaji's imprisonment and probable death in the erstwhile USSR with the most imaginative add-ons. For instance, Surya has been telling media that Netaji was slowly poisoned in a Soviet concentration camp, as a result of which he became deranged.

Surya and Madhuri have inherited much of their worldview regarding Netaji from their father, the late Amiya Nath Bose. Described by the siblings as someone possessing an "astute legal brain", Amiya was evidently given to believing in hearsays, as long as they had a touch of the glamour of international politics. The following news story taken from a declassified file serves as an example.

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Interestingly, no members of the Bose family, including Surya Bose, who deposed either before the Mukhrjee Commission or the previous Khosla Commission and Shah Nawaz Committee, stated on record that Netaji was killed in Soviet Russia or that something bad happened to him there.

And yet that did not stop the family members from fanning the theory. Amiya told the media in 1990 that his father and Netaji's elder brother Sarat Bose had received information that Subhas "might have been executed in Soviet Russia or he had been held in custody in a concentration camp".

He had made no such claim during his deposition before the Khosla Commission. In fact, he was tentative at the time of deposing before the commission. Never stoutly contesting the story of the plane crash, he told Justice GD Khosla in December 1972, "What I always felt is if it is established that he did die in that air crash and these ashes are Netaji's ashes, I think we have shown scant respect to the ashes of the greatest Indian leader [sic]."

He also tried to block the most well-known proponent of "imprisoned in a Soviet gulag" theory of the day, former MP Satyanarayan Sinha, from being allowed to present his case before the commission because "the entirety of his evidence is hearsay". Moreover, it needs to be explained on what principle a vague claim by a Swedish diplomat over telephone should be treated as more credible than one made by many in India who claimed to have met Netaji time and again.

Deposing before the same commission, Pradeep Bose, another nephew of Netaji asserted that neither was there any proof of Netaji's death in the alleged plane crash, nor was there any evidence of his being alive. Yet, he went on insisting that N Raghavan, Netaji's finance minister in the Azad Hind government had tried to impress upon the Nehru government that Netaji was in East Asia and was therefore posted as India's ambassador to China to find out whether Netaji was really in there.

Another Netaji aide, Abid Hassan, was posted as Raghavan's first secretary. Needless to say, none of this was taken into account by the Khosla Commission as Pradeep could not back up his claims with any material evidence. Pradeep wondered why Hassan was suddenly declared persona non grata by the Chinese.

The purpose of revisiting these snippets from the past is not to negate the role of some of the Bose family members in the effort to bring closure to this longest running mystery. It is just to point out that propagating baseless stories are equally liable to be condemned as exploitation and abuse of Netaji's name. Not too long ago, writer Nirad C Chaudhury, whose niece was married to Sisir Bose, said that Netaji had become "a good business proposition" for a section of his family. Hence, Surya and Madhuri Bose would have done well to focus the searchlight on the family before rushing to occupy the moral high seat.

Especially so in view of the antics of one Rajyashree Chaudhuri - a Hindu Mahasabha leader who claims to be a grandniece of Netaji - and has been at the forefront of spreading conspiracy theories, including projecting Netaji as the holy man whose followers recently caused violence in Mathura.

The Bose family is fully aware of her antics and those associated with her, but has for some strange reasons, chosen not to do anything about it. In fact, a few months back, Chaudhuri was invited to attend Madhuri Bose's book release function at governor's house in Kolkata along with a select audience of family and friends. This in spite of her having gone to the extent of repeatedly making the most defamatory comments about the parentage of Anita Pfaff.

The problematic Gumnami Baba

There is no doubt that it has not been conclusively proven that Gumnami Baba was indeed Netaji living incognito. It is also true that on the face of it, the story sounds as fantastic as a story can be. Then why this clamour for an investigation?

It is solely because there is a solid body of compelling evidence. Apart from the investigative series published in 1980s in the now defunct newspaper Northern India Patrika and the Ganga magazine and then in 2001 in the Hindustan Times, the Justice Mukherjee Commission scrutinised the available evidence to a good degree. All this is in the public domain. More evidence has emerged in recent times.

Therefore, when the Bose siblings appear clueless in asking "where's the evidence?" and in demanding that "those who are now proclaiming that Gumnami baba was indeed Netaji must come forward and place all the 'evidence' they have gathered in the public domain..." it is clear that they have not taken the trouble of going through the available evidence.

Neither have they bothered to check the National Archives records, nor have they knocked on the door of the Faizabad Treasury, let alone trying to find out the veracity of the accounts of those who claim to have met the nameless saint, by meeting them, or even those Bose family members who have made personal inquiries into the matter. Their denial, thus, is nothing but opinion. They are clearly reluctant to apply the same principle of scrutiny on themselves which they demand from others.

The Mukherjee Commission had looked into the Gumnami Baba theory and concluded that the evidence for it was not "clinching". That is to say that despite the strength of the evidence in favour of the Gumnami Baba angle, the counter-evidence, which is in the form of forensic tests, was the stumbling block.

Against this, the evidence for the theory of Netaji being imprisoned or killed in Russia was, and is, zilch. No matter what certain Bose family members claim about Netaji poisoned in Russia, the Russians have formally denied any knowledge of it more than once. The members insist, in private talks, that official Russian and even Indian stand is not believable. At the same time, they expect the Gumnami Baba believers to swallow without any complaints whatever is given out at official levels.

In 2010, some off-the-record comments of Justice Mukherjee were inadvertently recorded by a documentary filmmaker. The judge said that his personal opinion was that the mostly unseen holy man was Bose, but he could not prove it on account of forensic fraud in the government laboratories and non-cooperation of certain members of the Bose family. Very quickly, the very Bose family members who had publicly praised the judge for having led the fairest inquiry into Netaji's fate found his view unacceptable.

The denial is presented in the garb of apprehension about the potential damage to Netaji's image. As the writers have put it:

"Our concern is, above all, for the potential damage by both the deeply cynical as well as short-sighted Netaji admirers, to the legacy of Netaji as an ardent nationalist, a statesman, and a warrior saint. Could he really have retreated totally from his deeply-held principles, from his stupendous activism, and from his lofty ambitions for India and her people? The short and succinct answer to this is a resounding 'No'."

In support of their contention, the authors have presented old writings of Bose where he spoke against renouncing the world to take resort to a secluded life like that of Sri Aurobindo. Their argument is thus based on two assumptions that - (a) Subhas could not change his views ever, and (b) Gumnami baba, if Netaji, disassociated with his earlier principles and lived a life unconnected with his motherland.

People change their opinions with the passage of time and so did Bose. A case in point is of his view of sex. His steadfastness on Brahmacharya (sexual abstinence) is well known. As a staunch puritan he wouldn't even consider the idea of marrying.

However, while writing An Indian Pilgrim, he noted, "As I have gradually turned from a purely spiritual ideal to a life of social service, my views on sex has undergone transformation."

What that transformation was he did not elaborate, but that sentence adequately demonstrates that he was not an immutable personality who would never change. It appears that the authors are not ready to accept a possible change in Subhas' worldview because he did not care to drop a letter informing them about changes in his views.

The second assumption of the writers of course is clearly based on a lack of familiarity with the nameless saint's life, works and thoughts. From whatever has come out in the public domain and what we have been able to understand by talking to the several people who were in touch with him, the man was preoccupied only with the thoughts of India's progress, her strategic interests, security considerations, and so on even as he engaged in spiritual quest. He chose to describe himself as Yodha Sanyasi, the warrior saint.

The authors also seem to be unaware of the fact that almost all notable steps taken by the government to honour Netaji and to act on his disappearance mystery were mainly owing to the efforts of people associated with Gumnami Baba. For instance, the Mukherjee Commission happened because his followers filed a PIL in Calcutta High Court.

Before rushing to their conclusion of a "resounding 'No'", Surya and Madhuri should have done their homework. There are several points that are inexplicable in the Gumnami Baba account but what the siblings have pointed out are trite arguments.

Judges don't understand evidence; the Boses do

When Gumnami Baba, who never allowed himself to be photographed, was reported dead in 1985, his belongings - largely books and correspondence in Bengali and English - were scoured through by the local police and some kind of connection to Netaji was suspected.

Shortly afterwards, Lalita Bose, a niece of Subhas, arrived in Faizabad to make a personal inquiry, which convinced her that the nameless saint was her uncle indeed. Finding that the state government intended to cover up the matter, Lalita moved the Allahabad High Court seeking an inquiry.

The court ordered preservation of the belongings of Gumnami Baba in 1986. Nearly two decades later, stating in its 2013 order that the "materials and belongings of Gumnami Baba are national assets and must be protected for future generations", the Allahabad High Court directed that they be moved to a local museum. The court also suggested that an inquiry headed by a retired judge be carried out to ascertain the identity of Bhagwanji, "treated as Netaji by the substantial section of public".

In other words, the court saw credible evidence to kick start an inquiry to settle Gumnami Baba's identity, in view of his connection to Bose. If Justice Mukherjee's words could be discounted as his private belief as opposed to a judge's pronouncement, Justice DP Singh's written order is hard to wish away.

It is astonishing that despite such a formidable background to the case, Surya and Madhuri Bose have not felt the need to even refer to the court verdict in their article. At the same time, they have engaged in a banal rhetoric that claims in favour of Gumnami Baba "must be strongly challenged with rational arguments and scientific evidence".

This naturally raises the question that if some Bose family members had rational arguments and scientific evidence against the Gumnami Baba angle, what prevented them from presenting such arguments and evidence before Justice Mukherjee? Not one Bose family member challenged this theory on record.

In February this year, three members from Subhas Bose's family, accompanied by members of pressure group "Mission Netaji", including the writers, met Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav to press for an impartial inquiry as suggested by the Allahabad High Court.

We emphasised that the terms of reference of this probe should include the "allegations that said Baba was an imposter and/or a foreign spy and/or a 'dummy' set up to misguide the people of India, and if these allegations are found to be true, to identify the perpetrators of such abominable criminality".

This is to say that what some members of the Bose family have been alleging in private talks, we brought on record because we felt that an inquiry would clear the air. According to an India Today special report, on April 3 the Akhilesh government "breathed life into this riddle by green-lighting an inquiry committee to probe Gumnami Baba's origins". It should not be too difficult to spot where dishonesty has manifested itself when the actions of Mission Netaji and the hollow allegations of the siblings are compared.

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The dishonesty of suppressing inconvenient facts

Even as the Bose siblings are deeply worried about the potential damage to Netaji's image by the "deeply cynical as well as short-sighted Netaji admirers", they tend to overlook the fact that these are traits, not dishonesty.

Dishonesty is that when one suppresses inconvenient facts and yet utilises the Bose surname for appropriating public platform to misinform, misguide and obfuscate. That is the real exploitation and abuse of Netaji's name.

Unknown to most people (except those who have struggled to get the records declassified and have studied them), there are pieces of evidence on record to show that the Bose family (elders of Surya and Madhuri who are no longer alive to present their case before media) actually gave out signs that, in hindsight, appears to be in favour of the Gumnami Baba theory.

Appearing on behalf of the Bose family before the Khosla Commission, which probed Netaji's disappearance from 1970 to 1974, eminent barrister and former law minister of Bengal Niharendu Dutt Majumdar, pressed the family's view that Netaji was yet regarded a war criminal.

To quote GD Khosla, "Mr Mazumdar has, on behalf of the family of Bose, argued with considerable vehemence and persistence that the government of India has deliberately suppressed or destroyed evidence which would have proved that Bose's name was included in the list of war criminals who were to be tried by the War Crimes Tribunal."

The family told the Khosla Commission that the charge that Bose was still a war criminal was the "most important, if not the only reason, for his remaining incognito" in early 1970s.

This position is nothing but an amplification of utterances of Gumnami Baba. If Netaji had died in Taipei or subsequently killed in a Siberian gulag, there was no question of his being treated a war criminal as late as 1971 as the family counsel argued the following before the commission.

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Why would Gumnami Baba allow "access only to a select few and not members of his family closest to him", ask the siblings. How did they know that Gumnami Baba did not reach out to "his" family? Obviously they assume, as in every other argument of theirs. Leave aside what Gumnami Baba's followers have told us, available records show that at least two members of the Bose family were apparently aware of his existence.

Suresh Bose was Subhas' elder brother, and the most relevant person in the context of the Netaji mystery considering that he was part of the Shah Nawaz Committee set up in 1956 to inquire into his brother's fate.

From 1963, the year he came to know about Gumnami Baba, Suresh Bose made repeated public statements that Subhas was alive. Making this position legally tenable is his 1972 assertion before the Khosla Commission under oath. This was sometime before Suresh died. The following comes from Volume XII of the record of oral evidence before Khosla Commission accessed by the writers under the Right to Information Act in 2007.

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But Suresh Bose wouldn't give any more details. Gumnami Baba did not want the world to know about him in "national interest". Bluntly, Suresh Bose told the Khosla Commission in response to a poser: "There is no reason why I should take this commission into confidence. I want to know why should I do it and for what purpose?"

Can someone in the Bose family explain why Suresh Bose said so?

After Gumnami Baba was reported dead in 1985 and an inventory of his belongings was being made following the interim order of Allahabad High Court, a copy of Suresh Bose's testimony and the original summons sent by Khosla Commission to him were located among the belongings of Gumnami Baba. Lalita Bose, Suresh Bose's daughter thereafter revealed in April 1986 to the media that her father used to confabulate with a rustic-looking visitor from Basti (where Gumnami Baba lived in the 1960s) to take messages from "Subi" - his brother. She rued she had not believed her elderly father then.

Also located from the belongings of Gumnami Baba was a copy of the record of oral evidence before the Khosla Commission by freedom fighter and Netaji's nephew Dwijendra Nath Bose.

Dwijendra was asked by a counsel if he had indeed made a statement on March 6, 1966 in Thiruvananthapuram that "Netaji was still alive and was working in a place very near the borders of India". "Yes I did say," Dwijendra affirmed. Asked why Bose was still in hiding, Dwijendra retorted that "It was not correct to say that."

"He is still working for India. He will come out... at the appropriate time..."

Of all the Netaji kin, the name that stands the tallest is that of Sarat Bose - Netaji's elder brother and grandfather of Surya, Madhuri, Sugata, Ashis, Chandra Kumar Bose.

Sarat Bose was without any doubt the closest person to Subhas. If Netaji had not died in 1945 and was in a position to communicate, the one person he would have reached out to was his "Mejda" Sarat. It so happened that before he passed away in 1950, Sarat made a public assertion that Subhas was alive and in China. It defies imagination why Sarat's own grandchildren are pretending not to know about their grandfather's stand. Is it owing to the fact that it doesn't support either the air crash or the Russia killing theory?

Sarat told the United Press of America correspondent in October 1949, "The government of India was in possession of definite information that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was in Red China of Mao Tse-tung". "If Bose was in China, why was he not coming to India?" Sarat Bose was asked. "I don't think the time is ripe for his coming back home," he replied.

Five or so years later, Gumnami Baba, by his own account, slipped into India from China.

This was not the only time Sarat made such assertions about Subhas being alive. Declassified West Bengal government intelligence files contain reference to many.

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So it leaves one wondering if the grandchildren of Sarat would level the same charge of dishonesty and abuse of Netaji's name against their grandfather in their keenness to appear morally superior. The bigger question, as mentioned above, is why they have chosen to remain silent about these utterances of their elders. Is it incidental or deliberate?

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater

The attempt by Surya and Madhuri Bose to tie the Mathura incident, or for that matter all other ridiculous Baba stories to Gumnami Baba in order to discredit the angle is reprehensible. Whoever he was, Gumnami Baba was no criminal and it could be said with reasonable confidence that he was no "Baba" either.

Anybody familiar with the Indian society will understand that the term "Baba" is an honorific whose use follows no particular rule. The name Gumnami Baba or Pardewala Baba are creations of circumstances by people who got to know about the man living incognito. To be enamoured with that name, without going deeper into the details, reflects a superfluous attitude.

Also read: What has Swadheen Bharat Subhash Sena got to do with Netaji?

Before stepping out to lecture the world on morality, the Boses would do well to inform themselves of the details of the case and to learn how to separate the grain from the chaff. There are more things in heaven and earth than their prejudiced opinions. Hence the normal thing to do is to support the campaign of Mission Netaji asking for an inquiry on Gumnami Baba as much as a multi-disciplinary investigation to settle the question of Netaji's fate (which not too long ago they did).

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