Book Review | Bose revisited: Whose Netaji is he anyway?

By DECCAN CHRONICLE | Monideepa Banerjie

3 December 2022

Krishna Bose was an authority on Netajis life and times and is the author of several books on him

On the 74th Republic Day of India, celebrations in capital New Delhi will be different on two counts.  The parade will go down Kartavya Path and not good old Rajpath. And a permanent chief guest will from now on watch the ceremonies — a 28-foot black granite statue of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.

The Prime Minister, who unveiled the statue on September 8, has not shied away from taking credit for the honour bestowed, as it were, on the freedom fighter.

“It is unfortunate that after Independence… the contribution of many great personalities was tried to be erased,” he said on Netaji’s 125th birth anniversary this January 23.  “The freedom struggle,” he added, “involved ‘tapasya’ of lakhs of countrymen, but attempts were made to confine their history… Today the country is boldly correcting those mistakes.”

In all probability, the finger of blame for so-called ‘mistakes’ is pointed at the Congress.

Krishna Bose, niece-in-law of Subhas Chandra Bose and author of Netaji: Life, Politics & Struggle, passed on in February 2020 before he became an object of political appropriation more overtly than at any other time in the past. But her essays on Netaji, authoritative, unaffected and intimate, place Subhas Bose way beyond being either the victim of mistakes or a beneficiary of their correction.

Married to his nephew Dr Sisir Bose in 1955, Krishna Bose had never met Netaji but she came to share her husband’s deep engagement with his uncle. It was Dr Bose who had driven Netaji to his great escape from house arrest in Kolkata in 1941. Dr Bose was also founder of the Netaji Research Bureau at the family home on Kolkata’s Elgin Street from where Netaji fled India for the last time.

Taking over the mantle of chairperson of Netaji Research Bureau after Dr Sisir Bose passed away, Krishna Bose was an authority on Netaji’s life and times and is the author of several books on him. But they were in Bengali. This set of essays are a mix of her English and Bengali articles written over the years on Netaji. They have been edited and translated, where required, into English by her son Prof. Sumantra Bose. In them, Subhas Chandra Bose emerges as a figure beyond the pale of petty politics of either the BJP today or the Congress in the past, master and maker of his own destiny.

One essay that is a must read is in a section titled “Netaji’s Relationships with Indian and World Leaders” called “Jawaharlal Nehru”, who raises political hackles in some quarters today and is routinely played off against Subhas Chandra Bose.

The essay lists similarities and dissimilarities in their lives and career trajectories, both of whom erupted on India’s political scene in the early 1920s, both brilliant young men, back from England, both giving up promising careers as a lawyer and bureaucrat, respectively, to join the freedom fight.

There was mutual respect and trust. As Congress president in 1938, Bose set up the National Planning Commission and urged Nehru to lead it, confident he would use the organisation to its fullest potential. Nehru agreed to lead the predecessor of independent India’s Planning Commission.

There were differences over how freedom was to be won. Nehru deferred entirely to Mahatma Gandhi. But Bose felt freedom would cost more than ahimsa, satyagraha and the spinning charkha. The differences resulted eventually in a parting of ways, Bose resigning as second-term Congress president in 1939 though he had fairly defeated Gandhi’s candidate Pattabhi Siddaramayyah.

Dr Krishna Bose has wondered in her essay “what would have happened if the two had been able to chalk out a common programme and India had been served at once by her two great sons”.

Another book on the two statesman is Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s 2014 book, Nehru and Bose: Parallel Lives, in which the historian tells the story of two men of “…contrasting personalities and intellectual orientations... friends but never soulmates and confidants… with no sense of rivalry… caught in turbulent times, testing their convictions sometimes against each other but always for India and its freedom”.

Krishna Bose wrote her article on Jawaharlal Nehru in English in 1964 soon after his death. Which perhaps explains why there is no reference to reports that surfaced in 2015 about IB surveillance on members of the Netaji family from 1948 to 1968. Nehru was Prime Minister for 16 of those 20 years. There is no reference to the espionage episode in Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s 2014 book either.

A companion essay to the one on Nehru is one on Bose’s relationship with Rabindranath Tagore which began in 1921 at sea when they were passengers on the same ship returning from England to India. But in 1933, on the eve of a journey back to Europe, when Bose requested Tagore for a letter of introduction he could use to meet eminent persons overseas, he was rebuffed.

She writes, “Tagore did not decline the request but provided a very brief and dry letter. Netaji was deeply hurt — indeed offended — and never used that letter during the next three years in Europe.”

But there was a thaw late 1938 when Tagore came out in favour of Bose as Congress president for the second time, in a way challenging his friend Mahatma Gandhi who was opposed to the idea.

In 1939, as the election process began, Tagore had wanted to felicitate Bose at a public meeting in Kolkata and even wrote a speech. But the event was never held. After Bose quit Congress, after he was arrested for the 11th time in 1940, after he fled India in 1941 and after the Nobel Laureate passed away, after World War II ended, the speech written in 1939 was finally published.

The speech is moving and translated in full in Dr Bose’s book. In it, Tagore conferred on Netaji the title of the protector of the nation, Deshanayak.

No book on Netaji can ignore the controversy over his death and Dr Bose, in her last chapter titled “Netaji’s Last Journey” has written in detail about her husband’s visit to the airport in Taipei in 1965, twenty years after what she and her family have no doubts about: that Netaji passed away in Taipei (then known as Taihoku) on August 18, 1945, after his plane crashed while take off for Saigon.

Dr Bose visited the crash site personally, in 1979, in 2002 and in 2005. Twice she stayed at the Grand Hotel from where you could see the runway of the airport. These were poignant pilgrimages.

She also visited Renkoji Temple in Japan several times where Netaji’s ashes are kept, a temple where Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee have paid homage. An annotation in the essay says Prime Minister Modi has been to Japan several times but has not visited the temple.

Netaji’s daughter Anita Pfaff has appealed as recently as September 8, 2022, the day Mr Modi unveiled the 28-foot granite statue on Kartavya Path, that it is high time her father’s ashes were brought home where they belonged. The 76-year wait continues.

Dr Krishna Bose’s book leaves you wanting more about one of the most extraordinary leaders India’s freedom struggle produced.

PS: My personal favourite story from the book is a letter Netaji wrote to Emilie Schenkl possibly in March 1936 just before leaving Europe for India. This is one of 163 letters Netaji wrote to her. It is a thing of beauty. Dr Sisir Bose had acquired 18 letters that Emilie Schenkl wrote to Netaji. Total 181 letters. Romantics can check out Dr Bose’s 2016 book Emilie and Subhas: A True Love Story.

Netaji: Subhas Chandra Bose’s Life, Politics & Struggle
By Krishna Bose
Edited and translated by Sumantra Bose
pp. 324, Rs.699

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