RIGHT Foot Forward
Why Subhash Bose and Shastri matter: Under Narendra Modi, a veil of mystery obscuring leaders other than the usual kind has finally lifted
Suddenly, we see a slew of books and movies probing the lives and deaths of some of our most important, and totally overlooked, leaders. It is only the change in regime which made this possible.
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Among the few industries left in Bengal, apart from telebhaja (the Bengali version of pakoda) are Calcutta Nostalgia (read Christmas in Park Street) and the abiding mystery of Subhas Bose’ death.
Romanticising the city once painted in rather lurid light by Rudyard Kipling is largely a crowd-sourced initiative of Bengalis who moved out of Calcutta in the twilight years of the last millennium.
However, the controversy surrounding Subhas Bose’ afterlife is truly a product of private-public partnership.
The latter has survived for over 70 years, defying the law of the short longevity of Bengali enterprise. To its credit, the government has played the role of an equal shareholder in keeping the venture afloat. The original promoters, the Bose family, have progressively diluted their stake without surrendering the ‘title rights’. But from time to time, new investors have come on board.
The latest entrants into the arena are two intrepid researchers, Anuj Dhar and Chandrachur Ghose, both holding very impressive academic credentials. Just released is their new book Conundrum — which promises to be a seminal work on what they call “Subhas Bose’s Life After Death”.
Anuj Dhar and Chandrachur Ghose's Conundrum: Subhas Bose's Life After Death, Vitasta Publishing Pvt Ltd (Book cover)
Dhar and Ghose claim to have spent over 15 years reviewing voluminous material available from across the world, interviewing eyewitnesses and consulting experts.
Finally, they have come up with a thesis that ‘Gumnami Baba’ — a largely unseen, unnamed holy man, who lived in various parts of UP from the 1950s to 1985, was Subhas Bose himself.
Earlier, another scholar from Lucknow, Adheer Som, had published a “case history” on Gumnami Baba, putting together bits and pieces of the time between Lucknow, Faizabad and Naimisharanya.
Gumnami Baba is believed by many to have been Subhash Chandra Bose living in disguise in Uttar Pradesh. (Credit: Wikipedia Commons)
Dhar has under his belt two other books — India’s Biggest Cover-Up and Your Prime Minister is Dead. The first book, as the name suggests, was a prelude of sorts to Conundrum. It has been made into a web television series Bose: Dead/Alive, which created a stir.
Bose: Dead or Alive is based on India’s Biggest Cover-Up. (Credit: A still from the web series)
His second book is about the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, which has also been a subject of many conspiracy theories — The Tashkent Files, a film based on the book, hit the theatres earlier this month. A gripping docu-drama, it can compete with many of Hollywood’s finest political thrillers.
After a low-key release, the box-office collections steadily picked up in the following weeks. Certainly not a blockbuster by any stretch of imagination, it has got people talking, albeit in a niche circle.
The Tashkent Files is a movie based on Anuj Dhar's book Your Prime Minister is Dead, on the sudden passing of Shastri. (Film Poster)
The importance of these books and movies are not what they claim or seek to establish. It is also not in insinuations or doubts they raise — their real value lies in opening up possibilities of alternative conversations that were out of bounds or taboo earlier.
Narendra Modi had promised to release the Netaji papers after coming to power. Some think the commitment has only been part-fulfilled. While classified files of the National Archives have been brought into the public domain, many other secret documents in the Intelligence Bureau and Ministry of External Affairs still remain in the locker. The plea taken is that they are sensitive information that might affect relationships with friendly foreign countries.
Activists do not buy this logic.
They feel the files reveal what is indicative while hiding what is vital. But that itself should be considered progress. The veil may not have been lifted totally — but the public has certainly got more than a peek.
However, what is clear beyond doubt is that there was serious surveillance on members of the Bose family and others connected with Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj for an extended period. Intelligence records show that every whiff of rumour regarding Bose was subjected to rigorous intelligence probes. Bose and Dhar have raised a pertinent point — if the evidence of Subhas Bose’s death in the air crash was incontrovertible, why would the government be bothered about following through unconfirmed leads?
Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death was shrouded in bigger enigmas. Subsequent events too — such as the unnatural death of some of Shastri’s close personal staff — raised further needles of suspicion. Unfortunately, in the case of Shastri, there is even less information available. With his files still classified, there has been very little substantive public research.
For both Bose and Shastri, there are reasons to believe there were definite attempts to obstruct probes by private individuals.
In the case of Bose, the government was perceived to be trying to co-opt sections of his family and other researchers or experts to support the air-crash theory. All that inevitably leads to speculation about the government’s motives.
However, as Dhar and Ghose write in their book, it is not unusual for governments to deny certain facts for political or diplomatic reasons. It is only statutory limitations or public pressure that forces them to yield.
Further, in the era of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, nothing is leak-proof. Skeletons have a way of tumbling out of closets nowadays — sooner rather than later.
The even bigger question is not how a Bose or Shastri died. But it is an objective assessment of their contribution. Admirers of Bose and Shastri may have genuine reasons to believe contemporary historians have not been fair to them. Some may go to the extent of thinking the narrative has been deliberately and cleverly manipulated in which the dominant intellectual establishment have been complicit — whether by default or inclination.
Though Narendra Modi may not have delivered fully on the hopes Subhas Bose fans had pinned on him, by creating the INA Museum in Red Fort, he has done a greater service to Netaji. Having an INA veteran participate in the Republic Day parade was another symbolic acknowledgement of the Azad Hind Fauj’s role in the history of India’s struggle for Independence, which was all but forgotten.
PM Modi has honoured Subhash Bose's INA and brought the leader's legacy back in the public mind (Source: @PIB_India)
In the same manner, perhaps, Lal Bahadur Shastri would also receive greater attention after The Tashkent Files. Shastri’s achievement was much more than just winning the 1965 war against Pakistan — which was a huge morale booster for the country after the 1962 China war debacle. In his short tenure, Shastri set new policy directions for agriculture, defence preparedness and even economic reforms that laid the foundation for the future.
But it is not only these two gentlemen.
There are the stories of many national heroes from different regions and sections of society — tribals, minorities, backward classes — which are gathering dust in the archives or may not have been discovered at all.
Hopefully, these efforts will trigger a new trend to correct the imbalances and find the rightful place for many more forgotten heroes in the national pantheon.