Around this time of the year, reams of newsprint are dedicated to recounting the greatness of Gandhi and much column space devoted to Nehru, and as an extension, his dynasty (however dubious their contributions or integrity remain). It would be remiss of me to not talk about a third “forgotten hero”, considering I probably owe my own patriotism to him in large measure.
History is written by the winners. Which is perhaps why only a page or two in the history books encapsulate Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s role in India’s freedom movement. Born two generations later in the same family, I cannot claim to know Netaji much better than most other people. In many ways, he remains an enigma even for us.
While growing up, despite stories of his leadership, courage and sacrifice recounted by my grandfather (Sarat Bose’s son), Netaji was little more than a shadowy shape in my mind. Midnight escapes, imprisonment, exile, rousing army calls — my ancestors’ past was a land of unfathomable intrigue and heroism, but it felt more like fable than history. It didn’t help that the stories I heard at home were always slightly at odds with the ones I heard in school. Not in the facts so much, but in the essence. In the ways that the important people were spoken about. In the weight given to different aspects. There was nothing overt — parents are careful not shake a child’s faith in school — but once in a while, my mother pursed her lips and looked impatient. And on occasion, my father who was less reticent about his views snorted, “Nehru? That sycophant..”.
As I grew up, the veneer of civility was stripped away to reveal something like bitterness. And with good reason. Instead of getting into different versions of family history, I’ll just point you to the Hindustan Times special report on the “enigma of Subhash Chandra Bose”, which gives an inkling:
Strange as it may seem, Indian governments never really supported any probe to establish what really happened to Subhas Bose. The latest government attempt to stymie the probe is reflected in Home Secretary Kamal Pande’s refusal to share Subhas Bose files with the Mukherjee Commission.
He says the disclosure of the files will harm public interest, evoke widespread reactions, lower the image of Bose and adversely affect diplomatic ties with friendly countries.
In 1956, the Ministry of External Affairs told the Shah Nawaz Committee that “…any attempt to visit Formosa (the site of the crash) may well turn out to be embarrassing all round and lead to frustrating complications….
The Nehru Government was never in a mood to institute a probe. It was only when the Calcutta-based Netaji Smarak Samiti decided on October 6, 1955 to institute a non-official enquiry that the Shah Nawaz Committee was instituted
You can also take a look at this site. So the way Netaji’s death was handled (dismissed?) and the unanswered questions in its wake still rankle some of us, because of what the lack of interest implies more than anything else. The other issue is, of course, the fact that because he chose a different path from the Mahatma, he was sidelined in history. In a country that seems to think in black and white, there can be only true path, one voice for freedom, one clever politician achieving sainthood.
I admire Gandhi. He was a hugely charismatic leader who tapped into the collective consciousness of the people. He had his finger on the pulse of the masses. He gave them ways to get involved that were easier than giving blood. Like wearing khadi, fasting, going on marches. However, I’m highly skeptical of our freedom being attributed solely to his turn-the-other-cheek philosophy. A concerted effort on many fronts weakened an empire already fatigued by war. I tend to think that a non-violent approach may not be wholly sufficient when it comes to battles of dominance and accession as Swaminathan Aiyer says in this column.
As a child, I wondered about all the fuss surrounding Netaji’s death. (My reasoning was that he couldn’t still be alive — and even if he was, he’d be very old.) I was also ever so faintly bored with the retelling of his life and his struggle. It took me years to realize that stories must be retold so that they may stay alive. And to recognize the insidious ways in which he had affected my family, and therefore, me: deep-rooted patriotism, a tendency to find dissonance with common perceptions of our history, and the belief that yes, armies must exist and sometimes, blood must be shed.
How politically incorrect in this age of Munnabhai to say such things aloud. But let me be very clear. In the event of us being invaded by one of our friendly neighbours, I would not want our government to stage mass dharnas. I’d want them to get the army out there really fast.
And yes, as another year of freedom rolled by, I thought of all those who shed blood for it. All those who did not turn the other cheek. And a man who “desired to die so that India may live”.