This January 23rd marked another turn in a tale of enduring mystery plotted against a background of world war, the fall of empires, and the birth of nations. The story starts in tumultuous times, the likes of which the world has never seen.
The Second World War, the most terrible war in human history, was coming to a blood-soaked end. Nazi Germany had surrendered three months earlier, in May 1945, with the fall of Berlin.
Now, in August 1945, Japan was surrendering; the most terrible weapon ever invented, the atom bomb, had been used days earlier to terrorise two defenceless cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on August 6 and August 9. Whole populations of civilians — men, women and children — had been wiped off the face of the earth in moments.
The Japanese empire was finally forced to concede defeat. Emperor Hirohito announced surrender on August 15th. Two days later, on August 17, an ally of the Japanese, Subhas Chandra Bose, the rebel ‘head of state’ of an Indian government in exile named Azad Hind provisional government, boarded a Japanese military flight from Saigon in Vietnam to Manchuria in China.
In those last days of the world war, a new battle had just broken out over there. On August 8, the Soviet Red Army had invaded Manchuria, which was then a Japanese territory nominally ruled by Pu Yi, the last emperor of China.
Along with Bose on that plane was Lt Gen T. Shidei of the Japanese imperial army. Shidei had served earlier in Manchuria as Chief of Staff of the ‘1 Area Army’; now, he was on his way back to take charge as Vice Chief of the Japanese Kwantung Army which was facing the Red Army in Manchuria.
Shidei had contacts on the Russian side.
Former Harvard University professor Sugata Bose, a descendant of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, wrote in his biography of the charismatic leader that, “Mr Nehishi, the Japanese interpreter attached to Netaji from Singapore, described Shidei as an expert in Russian affairs and a ‘key man for negotiations with Russia’.”
The plan, according to the testimony of Lt Col Tadao Sakao of the Japanese 15th Army, which had fought alongside the Azad Hind Fauj in the Imphal theatre, was for Bose and his aide Col Habib ur Rahman Khan to contact Soviet authorities in Manchuria in order to continue the fight for India’s independence from British rule with Soviet help. This testimony dates back to 1945 and occurs in a secret file titled “Netaji Enquiry Committee Findings” which is among the 100 now declassified.
The negotiations never happened, as far as we know, because the plane never made it to Dalian in Manchuria. Shidei and Bose apparently died when the flight crashed while taking off after a refuelling stop at Taipei in Taiwan. Or did they fake their own deaths with help from the Japanese authorities at the moment of Japan’s defeat in World War II?
This is the doubt that has fuelled a persistent myth around Subhas Bose. There are many who continue to believe that he did not die in that air crash; in fact, that the plane never crashed at all.
The clamour for conclusive evidence on Bose’s fate existed in 1947, and exists now. There have been three official commissions of enquiry so far; two concluded he died in the Taiwan air crash, while one concluded that he did not.
The release of 100 selected documents by the Indian government this January 23rd, on Bose’s 119th birth anniversary, was expected to shed some new light on the mystery. So far, though, the only thing that supporters and opponents of various theories about Bose’s fate agree on is that the files released now are unlikely to change anyone’s conclusions.
“These documents merely confirm what we had all along known — that Bose died in a plane crash near the Taihoku aerodrome in Taipei on August 18, 1945. All Prime Ministers from Nehru to Manmohan Singh and all top officials of Government of India knew this,” says former Harvard historian Sugata Bose.
Mr Bose, who is a grandnephew of Subhas Bose, is now a Trinamul Congress member of parliament. He had read nearly all the declassified files on display at the National Archives but did not come across any startling disclosure, Mr Bose said.
“Will these files bring a closure? I do not really know. Those who are adamant on seeing a conspiracy theory will not see reason and will not be convinced. There has always been evidence and all reasonable and sensible people have accepted it,” he said.
Renowned historian Leonard A. Gordon, whose Brothers Against the Raj published in 1990 is considered the definitive biography of Bose, was present at Sugata Bose’s Kolkata home when our correspondent visited him. He said that while researching his book, he had interviewed the doctor who treated Bose as well as three of the survivors in Japan in 1979.
“In fact, the eyewitnesses recounted in great detail how the plane crashed, and the third-degree burns that Bose suffered. Anita Bose (Bose’s only daughter) was present when I was interviewing the survivors,” Mr Gordon said. Mr Gordon pointed out that the Khosla Commission (second of the three commissions) also concluded that Bose was killed in the crash. According to Mr Gordon, a British intelligence official, John Figgess, who conducted an extensive investigation and spoke to survivors, doctors and others also concluded that he died in the crash.
“His investigation report was completed by July 1946 and he had no reason to fabricate the death-in-crash theory,” he added. Sugata Bose’s mother Krishna Bose, who was a Lok Sabha MP of the Congress and later the Trinamul Congress, said that his own daughter and most of the family members were convinced that he had died in the air crash.
“The only problem is that some people are looking for a mystery where none exists,” she added. For 15 years now, researcher Anuj Dhar has been at the vanguard of those insisting there is indeed a mystery. Till 26th January afternoon, when he spoke to this newspaper, he had had no time to have more than a cursory glance at the declassified files. “From what I can make out, these are the ones deemed not very sensitive,” he says.
However, this is not the end, he points out; this is the start. The Narendra Modi government has promised to release 25 more files every month. To Dhar, it represents a huge change.
“When we started with the Right to Information queries in 2006, such was the level of secrecy that they wouldn’t even tell us how many documents were there,” he says. It took the personal intervention of former Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah to get any information out. Dhar says the current declassifications represent “a change in the culture”.
Renowned historian Ramachandra Guha sees no such change. “This declassification was merely to placate the Bengali voters before the elections,” he said in an email. “The Congress will never make available Indira Gandhi’s papers; the BJP after coming power destroyed hundreds of Home Ministry files, possibly dealing with the RSS. No political party is interested in serious, authentic, or unbiased history writing; no political party is at all transparent, whether in power or out of power,” he laments.
However, he too shares the view that the 100 files released now will do nothing to solve the Bose mystery. “The evidence so far has strongly suggested Bose died in the air crash in Taipei in August 1945. The ‘new’ material does not contest or qualify that conclusion,” he says.
Dhar — a Kashmiri whose grandfather fought on the British side against Netaji’s army in World War II — on his part is confident that Bose did not die in any air crash in Taiwan in August 1945, because no Japanese bomber crashed in Taipei that month.
He has in his possession an email from the Taiwan Minister of Transportation and Communication, Lin Ling-San, dating back to 2003, that says, “After reviewing all hand-over records during the period from 8/14/1945 to 10/25/1945, there was no evidence to show that one plane had ever crashed at old Matsuyama airport (now Taipei domestic airport) carrying Mr Subhas Chandra Bose.”
The Taiwanese government repeated this to the Justice Mukherjee Commission of Enquiry. Justice Manoj Mukherjee, a former Supreme Court judge who had personally visited Taiwan to make enquiries, confirmed this to the media in 2005.
Forward Bloc MP Subrata Bose — a nephew of Subhas Bose — had pointed out in a Parliament speech that there was no death certificate in the departed leader’s name until 43 years after his 1945 death. The death certificate was in the name of Ichiro Okura.
The evidence in support of Bose’s death in the Taipei air crash relies on the accounts of Japanese army and intelligence officers which were published in the Yomiuri Shimbun, a prominent Japanese newspaper, in serialised form starting August 27 1945, and on the eyewitness testimony of Habib ur Rahman, who was the only Indian other than Bose on that flight. Two doctors at the military hospital in Taipei where Rahman said he and Bose were taken after the crash corroborated the account, with minor discrepancies.
Rahman emerged unscathed. Bose, Shidei and the two pilots, Takizawa and Aoyagi, were the notable casualties. Of seven others on the flight, who all survived, six narrated their accounts of the crash in subsequent years, saying Bose and Shidei had died that day.
Maj Gen Mohammad Zaman Kiani, who Bose had appointed as representative of the “Provisional Govern-ment of Azad Hind” in his absence, recounted in his memoirs that “apparently the crash itself was not serious, but since the plane caught fire on impact, Subhas, whose clothes got sprinkled with gasoline, got seriously burnt before his clothes could be removed. By the time he managed to leave the plane he was badly charred.”
His body is said to have been cremated, and the ashes stored in an urn at the Renkoji Temple, a Buddhist temple in Japan, along with Shidei’s ashes. However, Subrata Bose had stated in Parliament that the ashes said to be Bose’s were probably Okura’s, and the Mukherjee commission agreed with this view.
The Russia connection
Is there any evidence of Bose’s presence in Russia after 1945? Professor Purabi Roy, who retired from the Department of International Relations in Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, suspected there is. In a book titled The Search for Netaji: New Findings published in 2011 she had claimed that Netaji was present in the former Soviet Union after his supposed death in 1945. Roy, who was able to access Russian sources, claimed that former Soviet General Aleksandr Kolesnikov had told her of the existence of a file he had seen that contained minutes of a meeting of the Politburo in 1946 in which the Soviet leadership discussed what to do with Bose.
The Russian Federal Archives Agency informed the Mukherjee Commission in 2004 that it had found no documents connected with the fate of Subhash Bose in Russian State Military Archives, State Archives of the Russian Federation, Russian State Historical Archives of the Far East, and the Russian State Archives of Cinema. However, the Commission was told that its members would only be allowed to work with open documents in the archives in Omsk and Irkutsk.
That Bose had socialist leanings, did not want to go to Hitler’s Germany, and was keen to reach Russia, are well known. After escaping house arrest in Calcutta in January 1941, he had gone in disguise to Kabul and tried to contact the Russian emissary there.
However, his efforts failed, as Russia was an ally of Britain and America in the World War. When the Italian government offered to help him reach Berlin, he accepted. He went to Berlin via Moscow at the height of World War II; diplomatic relations between Berlin and Rome on one side and Moscow on the other — though they were at war with one another — had not broken down, and Bose was issued a visa by the Soviets.
The man he picked as his deputy on reaching Berlin was a communist from Kerala, A.C.N. Nambiar, who had been expelled by Nazi Germany after being suspected of involvement in setting the German parliament, the Reichstag, on fire shortly after Adolf Hitler assumed office.
British intelligence files declassified in 2014 revealed that Nambiar had been on their watch-list for surveillance in the category of “Soviet Intelligence Agents and suspected agents.”
“Nambiar, who had fled Germany after being expelled in 1933 by the Nazis for his alleged Communist activities, joined Bose in 1942 as his deputy. After setting up the Free India Centre, Azad Hind Office and the India Legion of Indian soldiers (3,000 strong), Bose left for the Far East secretly on February 8, 1943 handing over the charge to Nambiar,” says former senior RAW officer Vappala Balachandran. “I met him in 1980 in Zurich and was quite close to him till his death in 1986 in Delhi.”
“Bose had the idea of making Asia his main centre of operations even as he left India for Europe. This he told Nambiar in January 1942 when he joined him in Berlin. He wanted to make his European stay as short as he could,” adds Balachandran.
However, communication between Bose and Nambiar broke down as the war progressed into 1945. Nambiar was arrested by the Allied army after Germany’s surrender in May, but managed somehow to escape to Switzerland. “Thus, he had no clear idea about the second phase of Bose’s life in the Far East, especially his death in an air crash,” Balachandran says.
The only person who would have had a clear idea about that second phase was Habib ur Rahman. Rahman himself is long dead. Subhash Bose’s life and death are likely to be debated even more hotly in days to come. The stories of some others among the dramatis personae are more reliably and un-controversially known. Nambiar returned to Germany in style in 1951, after being appointed the first ambassador of India to that country by Jawaharlal Nehru’s government.
Bose’s lieutenant Shah Nawaz Khan, who led the first commission of enquiry that concluded he died in Taipei, became a minister in Nehru’s cabinet. The three-member commission had one member, Subhas Bose’s brother Suresh Chandra Bose, who submitted a dissenting note disagreeing with the committee’s conclusion.
He also charged the government of India with pressurising him to accept the conclusions of the other two members. Habibur Rahman and MZ Kiani both ended up in Pakistan, where both became senior officials of the Pakistan government in Gilgit-Baltistan.
And Pu Yi, the last emperor of China? He wound up in Siberia, after being arrested by Soviet troops from Mukden airport in Manchuria on August 16, 1945. The Soviets handed him over to China in 1950. The Maoist government, after years of imprisonment, appointed him assistant gardener at the Beijing Botanical Gardens. He died of cancer in 1967. It was a life stranger than fiction. Those were times like that.
(With inputs from Parwez Hafeez in Kolkata)...