Most Indians look at Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose with awe and admiration. Many Indians also refuse to believe the official version that he had died way back in 1945 in a plane crash in Formosa (Taiwan). For them Netaji is a legend, an immortal figure. The legend of a living Netaji has been kept alive for the past 70 years. There has been much wrangling over his ‘disappearance’ since then. The controversy has become alive again after the West Bengal government declassified 64 files relating to him, putting pressure on the Centre to make public all the classified files relating to Netaji. After all, the present ruling party, when in opposition, had also demanded the declassification of the Netaji files.
It is not certain that the controversy about Netaji will die if all the files are de-classified. It is believed that the set of classified files in the Prime Minister’s Office contain ‘sensitive’ material about men, mostly dead, and ‘friendly’ foreign powers which the government can disclose only to invite embarrassment.
Whether it is true or not, what cannot be denied is the political overtones in the controversy over Netaji. The reports that first the British government and then the government of free India ‘snooped’ on him is a hot political potato. Some reports say that the Bose family was being spied upon well into the 1960s, if not later, when the Congress ruled the country. The British had a clear reason to spy on Netaji because he had not only threatened an armed struggle against them but had also been flirting with the enemies of the Allies in the West—Germany, Italy and Japan.
But why was the government of free India trailing the Bose family? Jawaharlal Nehru, a darling of an overwhelming number of Indians at the time, could not have faced any threat from a living Netaji. Was it to get a clue about his whereabouts, given the fact that many in the country, including former associates of Netaji, had refused to believe that he had died in a plane crash and, so, there were good reasons to believe that he might be in touch with his family—in India and abroad. His wife was German and Netaji had spent his last few years away from India, including Hitler’s Germany. This has been seen as his attempt to enlist active German involvement in India’s freedom struggle.
The opponents of the Congress have so far not been able to capitalise on reports of snooping over the Bose family. They might have been handicapped by the reluctance of the present BJP government to declassify the Bose files. Maybe, this ‘ammunition’ will be used at the time of the West Bengal assembly poll in about a year’s time.
In popular perception, the controversy about Netaji is more about his perceived survival after the crash than other matters relating to him or the Indian National Army that he headed. But also remember that the military plane which ‘crashed’ with Netaji and others on board was also carrying a lot of cash and valuable stones etc, all collected by him to help the INA. How can the reported disappearance of a treasure chest worth several thousand crores of rupees not be of wide interest in today’s India? There must be a great deal of curiosity to know the identity of those who laid their hands on all the cash and jewelry. Were they some of his former aides and associates, all ‘famous’ Indian nationals? It has been reported that the government of India had received the names of the suspects from its officials but the matter was hushed up.
Netaji had banked on donations by Indians and others to finance his armed freedom struggle. The response from the Indians, including the diaspora, was encouraging. Before his ‘disappearance’ Netaji had reportedly left an ‘INA Treasure’ in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam.
The question is whether all that wealth was apportioned by one or more well-known public figures? Or, by (now) a ‘friendly’ foreign power? Could that be the reason why all governments in the past and the present one have been shy of making public all the record relating to Netaji.
The disappearance of the money chest is rarely a subject of public debate because it is assumed that Netaji had nothing to do with it. His reputation as one of the greatest figures of the Indian freedom movement after Mahatma Gandhi remains intact. He had dared to challenge the might of an empire with the help of a small force of dedicated and fearless fighters who shared his belief that the British rule in India could not be overthrown by non-violent means that Mahatma Gandhi advocated.
But he also envisioned active support from the ‘fascist’ regimes of the time to achieve his goal of ‘swaraj’ (freedom). This again did not seem to go against him among a large section of Indians who thought getting rid of the British rulers was more important than worrying about the manner in which Bose sought to achieve it or the identity of the forces he sought as allies. After Netaji ‘disappearance’ two years before India won freedom the debate on his open or clandestine admiration for the likes of Hitler and Mussolini was relegated to the background. It was overtaken by various ‘conspiracy’ theories about his reported death.
The mystery about his ‘disappearance’ is unlikely to disappear soon. His extended family itself seems to be divided about the circumstances and the facts relating to his ‘disappearance’. But many in India, particularly in Bengal, steadfastly refuse to believe that Netaji died in a plane crash. They not only hold that Netaji had survived the plane crash in August 1945 but many also claim to have sighted him or even talked to him years after 1945. Some of these stories relate to the present time. If true, that would make Netaji a 118-year-old living legend. It will also make him perhaps the oldest man alive on our planet.
Giving in to the non-stop clamour to solve the ‘mystery’ about his ‘disappearance’, the government of India had appointed at least three commissions of inquiry to probe the matter. Two of them said Netaji had died in the 1945 plane crash. One held that he had ‘faked’ his own death, a report that was rejected by the government of India.
But the two other reports which uphold the belief that he perished in the plane crash have been rejected by many Indians, especially a section of politicians who swear by the legend of Netaji. There is obviously a lot of recoded material about Netaji’s activities in and out of India in files stored in dust-laden government offices.
The search for the truth about his ‘disappearance’ may continue, but a question that comes to mind is why Netaji, had he survived, not have ‘surfaced’ after India became free. He had nothing to fear. He was deeply loved and revered in India. He was not the kind of a man who would have liked to lead the life of a recluse or a mendicant, as many have suggested. He would have most decidedly become a very important figure in free India.