One of the panellists at the Kolkata launch of Laid to Rest suggested The Last Word would have been a more appropriate title for this passionately argued book which delves through masses of letters, reports and records in several countries. Another panellist at once said that in spite of Ashis Ray’s claim to provide final and irrefutable proof that Subhas Chandra Bose died in a plane crash in Taiwan on August 18, 1945, and was cremated on August 22 after which his ashes were stored in Tokyo’s Renkoji temple, there never will be a last word. The debate will go on.
The fault is neither the author’s nor his subject’s. It must be traced to an orphaned Bengal desperately seeking a redeemer. Bose became a legend in his lifetime. He is a myth after death, revered for what imagination wants him to be, his memory kept alive as much by those who worship the idea of a heroic Bengali striding the national and international stage as by those who batten on his name. They will not easily give up. A recent Internet posting claimed that the death certificate for “Chandra Bose” that Dr Taneyoshi Yoshimi, surgeon at the Nanmon branch of Taipei Army Hospital, issued was a “fake” produced 43 years later. It’s part of the same argument that the August 22 cremation at the Taipei municipal crematorium was of a Japanese soldier called Ichiro Okura, the name on the document presented to the crematorium officials.
The late Tapan Raychaudhuri, professor of Indian History and Civilisation at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, voiced a more serious reservation shortly before his death at the end of 2014. He pointed to documentary evidence that Lord Wavell, his Home Member, Sir Robert Mudie, and his private secretary, Sir Evan Jenkins, were discussing what to do with Bose at least six days after the supposedly fatal crash in Taiwan. The author explains this by suggesting the authorities in London and New Delhi knew nothing of Bose’s death and cremation until August 24 when newspapers published the brief Reuters report that is reproduced in Laid to Rest. As was the norm in those days, the story doesn’t have a personal by-line. But by-line or no by-line, the authorship must have been known in the Reuters office. Even if Britain’s global network of intelligence agents failed in their task, it’s hardly conceivable that Reuters, a British company with headquarters in Fleet Street, did not immediately convey this startling news to the British Foreign Office a couple of miles away in Whitehall.
As for the muddled names, Ray claims the Japanese were so embarrassed when a dignitary they regarded as a head of state (of the “Provisional Government of Free India”) perished in a defective aircraft provided by them that they tried to hush up the accident. Hence the Ichiro Okura death certificate and general clumsiness of the funeral arrangements. One need look no further, Ray says, than the 1956 Shah Nawaz Khan Committee’s blunt majority assertion that Bose “met his death in an air crash, and that the ashes now at Renkoji temple, Tokyo, are his ashes.” Not that any of this is of much consequence any longer. However heroic he may have been, a man who was born on January 23, 1897 must long ago have gone the way of all flesh. All that really matters now is a proper appraisal of his role in history so that his memory is treated accordingly. One suspects the author would agree with Ba Maw who wrote in Breakthrough in Burma: Memoirs of a Revolution, 1939-1946 that Bose (“a man you could not forget once you knew him; his greatness was manifest”) was the real architect of India’s independence. “Only the usual thing happened: one man sowed and others reaped after him.” Ray’s is a labour of love. Bose was his grand-uncle and is his hero. Despite a murmured “it is difficult to validate an alliance with Hitler” and a slightly disapproving mention of Bose’s “end-justifies-the-means-tendency”, he finds it “incredible” and “shameful” that the Indian government has not brought back the ashes. He demands this on behalf of Anita Pfaff, Bose’s Austrian daughter, who has written the foreword and whose case he vehemently champions in what is obviously a bitter family feud. “A majority of her cousins, nephews and nieces — none of whom has any legal standing on the issue — have posed a hurdle in the path of the ashes coming to India, which is their rightful place. They have no leg to stand on, for they don’t have a shred of proof to contradict the truth. They have no locus standi on the matter — only Pfaff has.”
Such emotional advocacy cannot but make readers wonder about the arguments advanced by Bose’s other relatives and why the government appears to heed them more than the Ray-Pfaff lobby. It would also be interesting to know what happened to the “13 boxes of jewellery, gold and other valuables” Ray mentions. The question cropped up sometimes even when I was living in Singapore in the 1900s and early 2000s. In life Ray tells us “most of his (Bose’s) relatives were uncritically in awe of him”. After death, they are too busy squabbling over his legacy to attempt rational answers. Subhas Chandra Bose is dead. Despite books such as this, his legend goes marching on.