The Sangh Parivar’s Netaji Dilemma
The existence and popularity of the INA refuted the two nation theory
On the face of it, the Bharatiya Janata Party seems to have realised it was time it did something to honour Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, after the new government declassified some files on Netaji and sent them to the National Archives, researchers and admirers of Bose hoped it would move forward some more, and set right the distorted history of that period of India’s struggle for independence, on which Netaji has left his distinct, indelible imprint.
Sadly, that has not happened.
Last year the prime minister hoisted the national flag at the Red Fort in Delhi to commemorate 75 years since the founding of the ‘Government of Independent India’, heaping accolades on Netaji and the Indian National Army. Just a few days back he donned the INA cap once more to renamed Ross Island in the Andamans as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Dweep, Neil Island as Shaheed Dweep, and Havelock Island as Swaraj Dweep.
These steps, belated though they are, have raised among Netaji’s admirers the hope that at last the contribution of one of our tallest national heroes is going to be recognised by the union government, and the BJP. One must welcome it if the BJP has indeed changed its assessment of Netaji - as did the communists many years ago - but some doubts persist.
So far as the assessment of Subhash Bose is concerned, the BJP appears to be in a greater dilemma than even the communists. In 1939 the leftist groups within the Congress supported Bose’s election as Congress president for the second time, defeating Gandhi’s own candidate.
However, with Germany turning against the Soviet Union, the communists took the line that as Communist Russia was under attack by the Nazis, anyone aligning with the Axis powers was their enemy. They heaped the choicest abuse on Bose and denounced his activities.
As realisation dawned on communist parties across the world that policies for different countries must be adapted to their ground realities, the Indian communists also changed their policies and reviewed some previously held notions. There was no change in their basic assessment of the Congress and its leadership, whose interests they felt were aligned to those of the capitalists.
But in the changed international and domestic scenarios, they announced that their assessment of Subhash Bose had been wrong. They paid him rich tributes for his contribution to India’s freedom struggle.
The Parivar’s dilemma with Netaji is different. The ideological divide between Subhash Bose and the Parivar is too fundamental and wide to be simply overlooked or bridged easily.
The basic premise of the ideology and vision of Savarkar - and indeed of Jinnah - was that the Hindus and Muslims constituted two separate nations, who could never stay peacefully together in undivided India.
In the pre-partition days (and later as well) the Hindu Mahasabha fixed its vision on the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra in India, and to fulfil that objective even cooperation with the British was not anathema to it. For it the country's freedom was of secondary importance.
Thus, in his book The Indian Struggle we find Bose expressing disappointment after meeting Savarkar - that instead of plunging into the struggle for freedom, the Mahasabha was busy looking for ways to have more Hindus recruited into the British Indian Armed Forces!
Bose, on the contrary, was a strong critic throughout of the Hindu Mahasabha’s and the Muslim League's two nation theory, and their policy of mixing religion with politics. In many of his speeches and writings he speaks of the dangers these sectarian ideologies and outfits pose to the unity of the country.
For Netaji, India's independence from imperialist Britain was the primary objective. To attain it he was ready to befriend the devil itself. He was firm in his belief that once the British were out of the picture, Indians would themselves find ways and means of solving their problems, including those arising from religious diversity or inequality.
It is well known that in his personal life Subhash Chandra Bose was a devout Hindu, inspired by the life and teachings of Swami Vivekananda. Once, in his youth, he had left home with a view to becoming a monk. We learn from various sources that even during the toughest days of the war and in the midst of unimaginable dangers he found time for meditation and prayer.
But where state affairs were concerned, he was absolutely secular in his outlook. He drew his closest lieutenants from among his Muslim, Hindu and Sikh officers alike. In forming the Indian Legion in Germany, or later while organising the Indian National Army, Bose’s approach was absolutely non-sectarian.
His extraordinary charisma and soul stirring oratory would infuse such a strong sense of patriotism in the INA's officers and men that they almost forgot their religious, racial or caste identities.
Not only was the INA a glowing example of unity and equality in diversity, its very existence and popularity were a strong rebuttal to the two nation theory, the pet theory of both Savarkar and Jinnah.
It is this fundamental difference between Netaji’s vision and the Parivar’s that compels one to take the BJP’s sudden display of love for Netaji with a large pinch of salt.
It seems little more than an attempt to gain some political mileage, by playing on people’s sentiments about Netaji and the Indian National Army. We may see more such gestures as the Lok Sabha polls draw near.
Its pro-Netaji posturing also gives the BJP another excellent stick to use on both Nehru and the Congress. In any such discussion Jawaharlal Nehru's opposition to Bose, and his known reluctance to take any real step to unravel Netaji’s mysterious disappearance, are bound to come to the fore.
Nehru being the Parivar’s most hated figure - and perhaps the Congress’s most vulnerable underbelly - anything that blackens his image is welcome to the BJP.
Bose was forced by Gandhi and his loyalists to resign from the Congress following his re-election as party president. Foremost among the Gandhi loyalists were Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel. Neither rose to the occasion to prevail upon Gandhi to refrain from pushing Bose out of the Congress, in the greater interest of the party’s unity at a crucial phase of the anti-British movement.
If Nehru was opposed to Netaji, so was Sardar Patel. It would be a distortion of facts to say that Nehru alone was responsible for ousting Bose from the Congress. No dispassionate criticism of Nehru on this count can overlook the culpability of Patel and other followers of Gandhi.
Yet, ironically, Sardar Patel - a Congress leader of great stature who was unflinching in his loyalty to Gandhi - has become a highly valued BJP icon. In sullying Nehru’s image by playing the Subhash card while remaining silent on Patel’s role in the matter, the BJP is trying to eat its cake and have it too.
If the present government is indeed interested in resolving the Netaji mystery, it might at least reverse the previous government's decision to reject the Mukherjee Commission's report.
Once it is accepted that there was no air crash in Taipei on August 18, 1945, what will remain to be done is a DNA analysis of the remains purported to be Netaji's, kept at the Renkoji Shrine in Tokyo. If enough DNA can be extracted, it will give a decent burial to the crash theory.
The question of what happened to Netaji after Japan's surrender will remain unanswered until other facts are unearthed, but at least one enduring untruth will have been removed from our history books.
If in the process our image of Nehru or any other leader takes a beating, so be it. They were but human after all - and we are a mature nation now.
Sandip Mitra was in the Ministry of External Affairs from 1978 until his retirement in 2015.