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Shashi Warrier has written fairy tales, thrillers, a semi-fictional biography, satires, and a love story. Besides writing, he teaches strategic communication at a business school.

Book Review | Relook at Netaji, the inconvenient one who made all the hard choices

Published May 1, 2022, 12:27 am IST
Updated May 1, 2022, 7:27 am IST
Cover image of the book 'Bose: The Untold Story of an Inconvenient Nationalist' by Chandrachur Ghose. (By Arrangement)
 Cover image of the book 'Bose: The Untold Story of an Inconvenient Nationalist' by Chandrachur Ghose. (By Arrangement)

In today’s increasingly polarised and intolerant world, this book has lessons for us. It revisits some of the fundamental questions asked of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, one of the most energetic, most active, yet most enigmatic heroes of India’s Independence movement. It’s perhaps the best-documented biography of Netaji to surface yet: the list of references is almost a hundred pages long. Despite all the documentation, though, the book instead of offering answers, tries to clarify some of the inner conflicts and turmoil that Netaji faced during his meteoric career. After all, he did more in two decades than most other heroes achieved in a lifetime, and his untimely passing has raised more what-if questions than there were during his life.

Close on the heels of those questions asked of Netaji come other, more profound, and perhaps more urgent questions regarding our view of history, and, in particular, of twentieth century history. The Second World War was the last war seen the world over as one in which there were clearly defined good guys and bad guys, the Allies and the Axis respectively, and which the good guys won.

From this view came – and still comes – whatever condemnation there was of Netaji. Why, knowing what was public knowledge at the time, through most of 1942, did he try to ally with the Nazi-Italian Axis, and, when that failed, try harder to ally with Imperial Japan? Both regimes, Nazi and Japanese, were known to be brutal and racist: the Nazi policy on Jews was out in the open, as was Hitler’s view of the Slavic peoples as untermenschen, while the Japan-sponsored Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, GEACPS, had begun to exploit ruthlessly large parts of Asia.

There’s plenty of material on his immense intellect and the force of his arguments, his independence of mind, and his determination, and even charm.

Here is a story from young Subhas’s school days, when he shifted to a school where Bengali was part of the syllabus. Subhas’s Bengali was none too good though it was his mother-tongue, and his first essay raised laughter in the class when the teacher read it out. Subhas shrank as he heard the laughter, but, by the end of the school year, he was topping the Bengali exams. He was brilliant, no doubt, but then, in college, he was accused of involvement in a physical attack on a professor, and rusticated. He never admitted involvement, but he had led the students’ protests, and he did think the students had acted under great provocation. In the event, he accepted his punishment, completing his degree late, and in another college.

By this time he was already into politics and the freedom struggle. When his father offered him the option of going to London to prepare for the ICS exams, he thought only a few hours before deciding to take up the offer even though he had only eight months to prepare. He went to England, and there found an atmosphere where he could debate and argue as he wished. He got fourth rank in the initial ICS exams, and there were six available slots, so his chances of getting through the next round of exams were excellent. But after much soul-searching, he decided that an administrative career was not for him: he would do better returning to India and working on getting independence from the Raj. This he did whole-heartedly, opposing the British, being exiled, imprisoned, and even escaping them before reaching Europe via Afghanistan and trying to organize the means to rid India of the British. In the midst of all this, he defied convention and had a relationship with Emilie Schenkl, with whom he had a daughter, but his focus remained on freeing India.

There were those unforgettable atrocities of the British Empire in India. Jallianwala Bagh was still fresh in Indian minds, and, the famine that killed millions in Bengal. Hearing of the famine, in fact, Netaji “made an unconditional offer of 1,00,000 tons of rice, which he said was stored at a harbour close to India… The moment the British Government accepted his offer, he would reveal the name of the harbour and arrange for safe conduct of ships to collect the rice.” Needless to say, the British turned down his offer. In Netaji’s mind, at least, this would have constituted another atrocity.

Netaji knew full well what the British had done and continued to do to India. The British were his enemy, and that enemy’s enemies, the Nazis and the Japanese, were his friends. The Nazis were unwilling to cooperate, and had, besides,  attacked the Soviet Union, which left Netaji devastated. Only the Japanese remained as a possible source of support. Were the Imperial Japanese plans for ruling their own empires any worse than what the British had been doing to their colonies for centuries? It’s clear from his actions that he decided that working with the Japanese and the GEACPS was better than living under the British. The Japanese, for him, constituted the lesser evil.

He had other factors in his mind. The Japanese Army would play a supplementary role in any attack on India: it would be led by the INA. That was his safeguard: that much is clear from his notes. That brings up another of those questions which are unlikely to be answered: were the INA’s military capabilities as Netaji imagined? Was he himself as capable a military leader as he imagined, and on the scale that an attack on India required?

Regardless of all these doubts, though, what stands out is that the man tried to think his way through to what might work and what might not. For Mahatma Gandhi, the principle of ahimsa was the arbiter. Netaji, on the other hand, kept working on the more down-to-earth principle of accepting the lesser evil. Many would argue that that is precisely what we need in today’s world.

Excerpt (p. 435, para 3):

[Field Marshal Count Hisaichi] Terauchi’s terms [that Japanese forces do the fighting in India, with the INA in a supporting role] were naturally humiliating for Subhas and he would not accept them under any circumstances. ‘Any liberation of India secured through Japanese sacrifices is to me worse than slavery,’ he bluntly told Terauchi. For the soldiers of the Azad Hind Fauj to stay behind the Japanese Army, in what essentially was a battle for India’s independence, was against national honour… The maximum sacrifices should come from Indians themselves. Terauchi had to give in to Subhas’s passionate and forceful arguments. He proposed that one regiment of the Fauj would be deployed in the ensuing Imphal campaign as a test case, and if their performance could meet the Japanese standard, the rest of the Fauj would be deployed too.

Bose: The Untold Story of an Inconvenient Nationalist

By Chandrachur Ghose

Penguin Viking

pp. 714, Rs. 799

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