The mystery continues: Did Netaji end up in Soviet Russia?

A documentary charts the fascinating last days of Subhas Bose.

 |  5-minute read |   18-08-2016
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Seventy-one years ago on this day, August 18, 1945, an Imperial Japanese Army bomber crashed and exploded into flames soon after take off from Taihoku airfield in Japanese-occupied Formosa.

The loss of the twin-engined Mitsubishi Ki-21 "Sally" went unnoticed because it was overshadowed by a momentous event three days before.

On August 15, 1945, the Empire of Japan, attacked by twin nuclear bombs, had announced its surrender ending the Second World War.

Yet, 71 years later, this crash continues to resonate as India's most controversial accident because of its illustrious passenger on board, Indian revolutionary Subhas Chandra Bose

The accident predated Indian Independence by two full years and, as some would argue, forever altering the country's destiny.

The official version comes from Bose's aide Captain Habibur Rahman and five Japanese army officials who survived the crash. Bose, they say, survived the crash but sustained grievous third-degree burn injuries.

netaji1-embed_081816035516.jpg Netaji's war chest.

His cotton military uniform, splashed with aviation fuel, had ignited, turning him into a human torch. Bose died in hospital later that evening, his body was cremated two days later and the ashes flown to Tokyo where they remain in the Renkoji Temple.

This version has been questioned by the Bose family and several researchers and political parties.

This is why the circumstances of Bose's disappearance have been the subject of at least five inquiries - three of them appointed by the government of India between 1956 and 1996.

It is India's longest running mystery, one which Subhas Chandra Bose The Mystery, a 46-minute documentary by Iqbal Malhotra, says "has fascinated generations of Indians".

The Mystery recently telecast on Discovery Channel recreates Bose's last journey across South East Asia and questions his disappearance in the air crash.

Debunking the air crash would be vital for anyone trying to establish that Bose escaped and survived. The Justice Mukherjee commission of inquiry said in 2006 that no air crash took place. Its findings have not been accepted by the government.

But where did Bose go if he survived the crash? Trying to plot his purported movements after the crash is an attempt that assumes the spirit and intensity of Ufology.

Also read: Netaji files: How Subhas Bose's daughter flip-flopped on his DNA test

The pseudoscience studied unidentified flying objects during the paranoid Cold War years. Ufologists believed governments were hiding evidence, including crashed UFOs in the secluded "Area 51" US Air Force facility in the Nevada desert.

Area 51 for decades was the Ufologists' Holy Grail, evidence of a deep government conspiracy. (The US Air Force's refusal to confirm or deny secret activities only added to its mystery).

Bose researchers say he completed his journey into the Soviet Union, others like Anuj Dhar believe he crossed back into India, living incognito, as an unnamed Indian monk 'Gumnami baba' in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh, until his death in 1985.

The Mystery seizes the Russian angle. The filmmaker finds its Area 51 in the Soviet archives, in Russian military archives hidden behind the Iron Curtain.

The film follows Siddhartha Satbhai, a London-based ethical hacker, who seizes pictures of a man superficially resembling Bose, on the sidelights of the Lal Bahadur Shastri-Ayub Khan summit at Tashkent declaration in 1966.

Satbhai's rather incredulous theory, based on facial mapping analysis, suggests that 'The Tashkent man' was Bose himself.

Also read: Netaji files: Did Nehru hide the fact that Subhas Bose was in Russia?

Purabi Roy, author and visiting professor at the Moscow State University, and a retired Major General Aleksandr Kolesnikov, weigh in to support Bose's presence in the Soviet Union - Roy, given a rare glimpse of Russian archives in the 1990s, and General Kolesnikov who tells of secret papers stored at the former KGB (now FSB) headquarters in Podolsk.

Top Soviet officials discuss what to do with Netaji Bose in 1946, a year after the crash, General Kolesnikov affirms.

It is their word against that of Ashish Ray, a London-based journalist and grand-nephew of Bose. Ray, one of the foremost debunkers of Bose disappearance theories, meticulously lays out the official line.

The air crash did indeed take place: there were at least five survivors and several people around Bose's bedside as he breathed his last on the night of August 18 and his ashes were flown to Tokyo.

The documentary uses the testimony of a descendant of a former Bose associate in Saigon and not in Taipei on August 18, 1945.

The entire air crash, the Bose conspiracy theorists say, was fabricated by the leader and his Japanese hosts. A subterfuge that would help him stage his final escape from the British Empire.

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

Such suspicion is not always unfounded. Who would, for instance, have believed the government of free India would have snooped on Bose's family for three decades? (Exposed by Anuj Dhar in 2015 and reported by India Today magazine).

Nor are such spectacular escapades alien to Bose's character. If someone told an Indian in British colonial India - cut off from the rest of the world thanks to the wartime emergency - of an Indian revolutionary who travelled across Stalin's Russia, shook hands with Hitler and voyaged under the oceans to raise a revolutionary army - he would have been dismissed outright as a fool.

Bose did all of this and more, boldly going where no Indian had gone before, even managing the spectacular feat of getting the Soviet Union to recognise his provisional government of Azad Hind in 1943. This, despite Stalin being an ally of Great Britain.

General Kolesnikov personally believes in a secret pact between the USSR and Great Britain over the fate of Bose.

There are questions but no clear answers. The superbly crafted documentary, however, leaves us none the wiser. But perhaps that is the point.

General Kolesnikov suggests the only way India can get answers - an official request from the Prime Minister to President Vladimir Putin.

The end of a quest, or the beginning of a new one.


Sandeep Unnithan Sandeep Unnithan @sandeepunnithan

The writer is Executive Editor, India Today.

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