Grade Crossing

Why India didn't recognise Netaji's contribution

The government's decision to keep the Bose files classified is an outlandish treatment for someone who fought for his country's freedom in the most unusual way.

 |  Grade Crossing  |  5-minute read |   06-05-2015
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Recently, a Shiv Sena Member of Parliament (MP) with a "Godse" surname had to seek an official approbation so that his name could be uttered in the parliament. Reason? "Godse" is considered unparliamentary and hence "unmentionable". Considering a name unparliamentary is sheer idiocy, as the heinous crime Godse committed is, in no way, justified by the utterance of his name. Proscribing the mention of the name does not hang him twice either.

That made me think about the "unmentionable" man in the Indian history - Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the sufferer of "classified racism", for both political and bureaucratic reasons. Everything about Netaji remains classified as it would, putatively, destroy India's sovereignty and foreign relations. The Prime Minister's Office (PMO), in response to a Right to Information (RTI) request I filed early this year, informed that in India, secret files would be reviewed every five years to check if they could be declassified. That means, the PMO has gone over some Bose files with a fine-tooth comb as many as ten times, but still decided to maintain the status quo - an outlandish treatment for someone who fought for his country's freedom in the most unusual way.

As he is most noted for, Netaji raised the Indian National Army (INA), which was in every way, the first organised army of India. Different numbers are quoted by historians about the actual strength of the INA, but it is generally estimated that it was more than 40,000. This was with little support from within the British Indian borders. During the Second World War, the INA-Japanese combine attacked the north-east of India, mainly Imphal and Kohima. With "Chalo Delhi" chants on their lips, the INA men took the fight to the British camps, along with the Japanese. The British, British-Indian, and American forces had to try collectively to thwart the attackers in their attempt to descend on the Indian north-east.

The Brits were in for a serious shock and they had to think of plans B and C to prevent the advancing forces. Fortune did not favour the brave for once, as a ghastly monsoon prevented the supplies from reaching the attackers in the north-east. Severe dearth of supplies, related-difficulties, and diseases finally forced the INA to take the hard decision to pull back from there.

Now, one may argue that the attacks on British India were hatched up by the Japanese and that the INA had a minimal role in it. But Bose's regiments, named after his political parallels - Gandhi, Nehru, and Azad - displayed such vigour and fortitude in the battles that their commanders were later tried at the Red Fort for a charge no less than "waging war against the King". They would have been executed or deported for life, but the INA mustered great support from the public, so unwonted in magnitude that fearing a brewing unrest, Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck had to decide to let them go! Although barrister Jawaharlal Nehru was on the defence committee of the Red Fort trials, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru decided to slough off the INA men after 1947. Against popular demand, the valiant INA soldiers were not inducted into the Indian Army, for reasons, which in Nehru's own words, were strictly "non-political".

The INA trials gave gunpowder for the Royal Indian Navy Revolt, a contagious strike that affected 78 ships and an estimated 20,000 sailors. The British took the INA more seriously than many thought. When they subjugated Singapore, Louis Mountbatten ordered that the INA memorial at the Esplanade Park be razed to the ground. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was banned from airing news related to the INA. Bose was quickly being remoulded into a forgotten hero - the unmentionable lead in an unmentionable story.

One can easily shrug off these as things of the past. But a couple of years ago, the National Army Museum in West London selected the combined Imphal-Kohima battle as Britain's greatest battle ever. This was selected by more than 100 invited guests, through a secret ballot poll. The gravity of the Imphal-Kohima battle placed it well above the battles of D-Day and Waterloo.

What does the Imphal-Kohima battle mean to India? Nothing if you are a Netaji follower, but quite a lot if you want to disparage the efforts of the INA and feel enraptured by the pseudo-pride of beating the attackers of (British) India. For example, this official webpage of the Indian Army talks at length about the heroic tales of our army (read British Indian Army) during the Second World War. It discusses how we toppled the Japanese at Imphal, Kohima, and Irrawaddy river. What the Indian Army explained away is that in all these battles, they fought for the British empire, and that they defeated their own INA brethren, who under a charismatic leader were fighting to see if monarchy could be supplanted by swaraj.

The last paragraph of that page most brazenly confutes the former paragraphs, and venerates Netaji's men as liberators and flays the colonial powers! "When we stand, the Azad Hind Fauj has to be like a wall of granite; when we march, the Azad Hind Fauj has to be like a steamroller", said Netaji. Unfortunately, the modern Indian Army just ran the steamroller over Netaji's legacy in its attempt to extol the greatness of the British Indian Army. No wonder we chose to inscribe Lord Macaulay's lines at the Rezang La Memorial to the heroes of the Sino-Indian war - perhaps, an apposite example of the "Macaulay's Children" effect!

I searched the websites of the other armed forces, for more such heroic sagas that wax lyrical about colonialism. There was this vainglorious moment for the Indian Navy, when Prime Minister Nehru used pathetic fallacy to engage INS Trishul to lay a wreath of marigolds on the waves of the English Channel, at the funeral of Edwina Mountbatten. Thank god, I couldn't find what I was looking for. Perhaps the Navy didn't, but definitely Nehru knew the reason that warranted the Indian prime minister to send a Whitby-class frigate to Portsmouth to pay his last respects to the wife of Louis Mountbatten - a reason which, borrowing Nehru's own words, was strictly "non-political".


Sreejith Panickar Sreejith Panickar @panickars

The writer is a columnist, researcher and social activist. He is the founder-member of Mission Netaji.

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