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December 2004 - January 2005

Political News

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose

by Sashanka Sekhar Banerjee

It is time to Resurrect the legacy of a charismatic leader

Subhas Chandra Bose was no ordinary man. After half a century of India’s post-independence history of economic failure, enveloping corruption, social upheavals, political polarisation, gathering momentum of regional aspirations, the rising tide of separatist movements and constantly threatened by the hostility of foreign powers, Bose remains head and shoulders above all other political figures of contemporary India as an untainted icon: the Hero of the Indian War of Independence. He died young, said to be in an air crash in Taipei in 1945. He will be remembered eternally for his young, fresh and inspiring face.

Gandhi conferred on Bose the honorific of Netaji, the Leader, the only one to be so honoured among a galaxy of stalwarts of the freedom struggle. Despite fading memories of a historic past, he is still held in high esteem by large sections of India’s teeming millions.

Netaji Subhas Bose had articulated an alternative political philosophy, an entirely different model for running the freedom struggle. Both in style and substance, it was diametrically opposite to Gandhi’s own convictions on the issue. Bose firmly believed that British imperial rule over India could be dislodged only by the use of force. He raised a full-fledged conventional army, built a web of military alliances and did the most honourable thing: wage a war against the colonial masters.
Mahatma Gandhi, on the other hand, believed in non-violence and prescribed passive resistance, non-cooperation and civil disobedience as the operative tools for the running of the independence movement.

Rabindra Nath Tagore – the shining beacon of India’s cultural renaissance – had described Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as the Mahatma – the Great Soul. In the words of Albert Einstein, Gandhi was one of the greatest men to have ever walked the earth in flesh and blood. By describing Gandhi as the Mahatma, Tagore anointed him as a Saint. In a deeply spiritual country, Gandhi thus became the Patron Saint of India just as St Patrick is the Patron Saint of Ireland, which like India is also a deeply religious society.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, described the Mahatma as the Father of the Nation. The deification of Gandhi, a politician unlike any other of his time, was thus complete.

At the other end of the spectrum, entirely a victim of the political dynamics of post-independent India, Netaji Subhas Bose and his political philosophy were relegated to the backwaters by the ruling establishment of India. The prodigal son was found to be too much of a political inconvenience for the political elite.

At the personal level, despite differences that existed between Gandhi and Bose, the respect the two individuals had for each other was ungrudging. Subhas Bose never failed to address Mohandas Gandhi in his various speeches and writings at home and abroad as the Mahatma. Gandhi’s admiration of Bose’s towering leadership qualities was manifest in his unfailing references to him as the Netaji.

Yet the political differences between the Saint and the Leader were fundamental and irreconcilable.
In his advocacy of the ideal of “Ahimsa” or non-violence as the guiding philosophy of India’s independence movement, Gandhi had placed the nation on notice that he would absolutely have no compromise on his commitment to these ideals.

Gandhi borrowed the ideas of passive resistance, non-cooperation and civil dis-obedience from Western thinkers like Emerson and others but the ideal of non-violence was home-grown. It is deeply rooted in Jainism – one of India’s ancient religions which has widespread following in Gujarat where Gandhi was born and grew up. He often resorted to fasting to forcefully make a political point with his people. This too has its origins in Gujarat.

Gandhi was convinced that the British Empire could not be dislodged by the use of low-level force. Wielding bamboo sticks, shooting 303 rifles and hurling a few hand grenades had no chance of winning against a colonial ruler commanding a disciplined army equipped with superior firepower. Launching a terrorist movement would have meant killing innocent bystanders. In the context of India’s freedom struggle the dead innocent bystanders would have been none other than his very own fellow Indians. How could he justify killing his own people, however worthy the cause? Such barbarism had no place in Gandhi’s moral compass.

Rejecting violence therefore meant for Gandhi harking back to traditional religious thought. It also meant applying realpolitik to a given situation. Gandhi used his considerable organisational skills in mass mobilisation to promote his ideals of non-violence in his struggle for independence.
Gandhi also believed that the British, among the European imperial powers at the time, were more accessible than others to debate. They loved a good argument. If he succeeded in winning the argument, convincing them of his case, he could achieve his cherished goal.

Bose had no time for Ahimsa, believing that the practice of this ideal in the conduct of India’s freedom struggle would make no impression with the mighty British Imperial Power. The British Empire relied on brute military force to sustain its colonial possessions and only military force could dislodge it.

Bose hailed from Bengal where the dominant contemporary religious thought revolved round the practices of tantric rituals where the sight of red blood from animal sacrifices such as those in the Temple of Kalighat was a daily routine. During Durga Puja, one can see a million images of the Mother Goddess extolling the application of violence to vanquish evil. These influences played a dominant role in the making of Bose’s mind. However, he refused to accept the contention that the need to mount an armed struggle against the oppressors had anything to do with religious beliefs. He saw it as a political imperative.


The concept of non-violence was not unknown in Bengal nor was Bose unaware of it. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu had started a reform movement within Hinduism about 500 years ago known as Vaishnavism founded on the ideals of devotion to Lord Krishna and selfless love of fellow human beings based on a rejection of the caste system. These ideals were popularised and propagated through the traditional and spiritually potent devotional music. Professor Arnold Toynbee, the Oxford historian, saw in Vaishnavism a reform movement within Hinduism in the context of his Challenge and Response Theory of History. He interpreted it as a reforming response to the challenge of Islam in Bengal just as Adi Sankaracharyra’s campaigns 1500 years ago were intended to save Hinduism from the challenge of Buddhism. Bose did not see any political use of the ideals of non-violence including those contained in Vaishnavism in the running of the freedom struggle. Vaishnavism in Bengal , just as Jainism in Gujarat, were essentially pacifist religious movements. Bose was convinced that it would be dangerous to mix politics with religion.

Although the Netaji believed that there was no alternative to armed struggle in India’s quest for freedom from British Colonialism, he rejected proxy wars or sub-conventional warfare or use of terrorism as an acceptable instrument for the prosecution of the war of independence. There was thus a convergence of opinion between Bose and Gandhi on terrorism. Both found it morally repugnant. Although terrorism was used by small groups of hot-headed nationalists to frighten away foreign colonial rulers, the fact remains that they remained at the margins of the Indian freedom movement. Terrorism ran against the very grain of the cultural ethos of India.

Subhas Bose had several parallels with George Washington but he never acknowledged him as his role model. But the manner in which Bose raised the Indian National Army (INA) outside the borders of India - a gargantuan task of great heroism - and launched himself to engage and fight the Empire and the Allied Forces in the Second World War’s Eastern Theatre, have some resonance with the American War of Independence. Both the leaders were fighting for a common cause: to secure freedoms for their people - and the common enemy was the colonial rulers. Both were at the helm of their respective campaigns. Bose invaded the Empire from outside while Washington invaded the enemy from inside. Washington won the American War of Independence and became the President of the United States. Bose was cruelly cut down in his prime, dying prematurely in what was said to be an air crash.

The people of India, particularly those from Bengal, have never accepted the claims of Bose’s death in the air crash. They have consistently taken the view that the story of the plane crash was cooked up and therefore baseless. In a recent missive, the Government of Taiwan confirmed that there was no report of an air crash recorded in Taipei on the day when the accident was claimed to have occurred in August 1945. The allied powers regarded Bose as an accused for having waged war against the British Empire. He was being hunted down to stand trial for war crimes. But Bose was a national hero in India. Putting him on trial for war crimes would have caused a mass uprising in India and unravelled the Empire. Removing him from the scene prematurely had therefore many temptations. The truth, however, may never be told.

The Red Fort trials of the INA’s second rung leadership at the end of the WW2 became a hugely emotive issue with the people of India. The event’s popularity rating went up by leaps and bounds after Jawaharlal Nehru who was to become the first Prime Minister of independent India took up the task of defending the accused. A mutiny in Bombay’s Naval base in support of the INA sealed the fate of the British Empire in India.


Judging by the euphoric mood of the people at the time, it would perhaps not be a mistake to assume that, had Bose returned home in flesh and blood, he would have been the front rank contender for the office of the Prime Minister of India.

Netaji Subhas Bose was however not the one to go without a military victory. He will be remembered in history to have unfurled for the first time on the soil of India the flag of the nation’s independence at Imphal in Manipur, now a State in the North Eastern Region of India. It was a symbolic act but it meant a lot for the Indians.

As war broke out in Europe in 1939, the political differences between Gandhi and Bose were degenerating into a clash of personalities. Bose wanted to test his popularity and put forward his name for election to the office of the President of the All India Congress Committee. Fearing that Bose, with his youthful appeal, enormous charisma and intellectual powers may soon occupy the centre stage of India’s independence movement, Gandhi opposed the move and put up his own candidate Pattabhi Sitaramayya to contest against Bose. Bose won effortlessly and comfortably.

This set the stage for a show down in slow-motion. Bose used the platform of the Haripur Party Conference of the Indian National Congress to set forth his vision for the future of India. He believed in big-ticket planned industrialisation of India with giant public sector projects like steel mills, hydro-electric projects, fertiliser factories, agricultural development, research in science and technology etc. All this was at variance with Gandhi’s prescription of developing a traditional village based economy for the nation. Bose’s vision of planned economic development for India thus became the precursor and the guideline to the Nehruvian model of economic development. It was obvious that both were strongly influenced by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Bose also wanted an equitable social infrastructure with mass education and secularism at the heart of it all in the context of an undivided India.

Bose’s rapid rise to supreme leadership within the ranks of the Indian National Congress and indeed the wider freedom movement in India, was not taken kindly by Gandhi. A looming split down the middle stared at the face of the Party. Realising that such a denouement could irreparably weaken the freedom struggle and strengthen and prolong the British Empire in India, Bose decided to make a personal sacrifice. The cause of freedom was more important to him than his personal ambition. He left the country. He wanted Gandhi to consolidate his campaign for freedom unfettered by any obstacle. Bose chose to open a second front against the colonial rulers of India.

The escape of Subhas Bose surrounded in utmost secrecy to Berlin at the height of WW2 became the stuff of a real-life thriller of extraordinary daring and courage. As he met the Axis leaders, Adolf Hitler the Nazi leader in Berlin, Benito Mussolini the Fascist leader in Rome and finally General Tojo the Commander in Chief of the Imperial Japanese Army in Tokyo, seeking their support and material help in his struggle against the British colonial rulers, Netaji Subhas Bose ran into serious controversy both at home and abroad.

Gandhi in an astute political move had declared the support of the Indian National Congress to the war effort of Britain and its Allies against Germany and Japan. This opened the doors for Britain to recruit Indian soldiers for the British Indian Army to fight on the side the Allied Powers. Gandhi believed positioning India on the side of the forces of democracy was not only morally right, it also formed part of his campaign to win the hearts and minds of the colonial rulers towards achieving his ultimate goal of Purna Swaraj – full independence at the end of the war. Such a move could also open a bargaining counter with the British Colonial Office in his future talks in advancing the date for independence.

Subhas Bose firmly stood his ground in defending India’s national interests and made no compromises whatsoever with any one of these leaders: Hitler, Mussolini or Tojo. There was no ideological common ground. It was pure realpolitik that guided Bose to seek the help of the Axis Powers. In a war-like situation, an enemy’s enemy could be an useful ally in achieving tactical advantage.

According to uncorroborated press reports, Nirad C. Choudhury was said to have argued that Bose had diminished himself by shaking hands with Hitler, the Nazi tyrant. I knew Nirad Babu and asked him to confirm if he had said this. He denied it completely claiming that such reports attributed to him were a canard against him. I was not sure if I believed his disclaimer. In the ensuing discussion I told him that in the world of realpolitik, Winston Churchill had also shaken hands with Joseph Stalin, the Communist tyrant, and welcomed him as an ally of Britain in WW2. It was meant to serve British national interest, which was to defeat Hitler. Churchill and Stalin were the icons of two diametrically opposite ideological worlds. Their convictions remained unshaken despite their coming together for tactical military advantage. George Washington had also accepted the help of General Lafayette, the French General based in New Orleans in his American War of Independence against the British Colonialists. It was a tactical alliance, put in place, to hasten the departure of British rule out of America. More recently US President Ronald Reagan had chosen to support the Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein. This was also for tactical reasons.

The full version of this article is available in the print edition.

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