other renegades paraded by Nazi handlers, including Jerusalem’s Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husayni.
Indian opinion was at first hardly more favourable. Nehru’s communist sympathies led him to oppose the alignment of Indian nationalism with the invaders of the Soviet Union, while Gandhi deeply distrusted Bose and resisted any alignment that might involve bloodshed. The 1942 Quit India movement – and the ferocious British clampdown that landed all the Congress leaders back in jail for the rest of the war – changed all this and played straight into Bose’s hands. As the only Congress president still at liberty to plead the cause of Indian freedom, his stance began to command respect and his movements to attract interest. The enigma was about to be recast as a legend.
Congress and the Muslim League. Nehru would take a very different line, insisting on a strong central government even if it meant partitioning the subcontinent to satisfy the League’s insistence on self-determination for the ‘Muslim nation’. Not appeasing sectarian (‘communal’) sensibilities was the essence of Nehruvian secularism; but for Bose confessional and linguistic allegiances were facts of life, even a source of strength. The INA set a remarkable example in this respect, with Muslim, Sikh and Hindu servicemen and women eating in the same mess and fighting in the same battalions. Had Bose been around in 1946–7, the disaster of a partition based on severing the subcontinent’s Muslim-majority areas – Pakistan – might well have been avoided. Whether the provinces (now ‘states’) of India would have retained greater autonomy is more questionable. The
His 1941 escape from Calcutta to Kabul in the improbable disguise of a deaf-mute Pathan – improbable for a bespectacled and loquacious Bengali, that is – was now seen as near-miraculous; so was his return to the German soundwaves within days of his supposed death in an air crash in 1942; and likewise his 1943 reincarnation in Southeast Asia as the unifor med supremo of an ar my poised to expel the Br itish by force. ‘Delhi chalo’ – ‘Delhi here we come’ – was both Bose’s promise and the INA’s rallying cry. Sensing an opportunity, Nehru began revising his opinion of the Bengali Scarlet Pimpernel. Meanwhile Gandhi, though noting that INA men might shoot to kill in Burma, somehow persuaded himself that they would be ‘non-violent soldiers of freedom’ once on Indian soil.
Führer’s dictatorial proclivities seem to have rubbed off on Netaji to the extent that by 1944 he favoured a period of ‘disciplined’ authoritarian rule in India prior to the reintroduction of democratic and federal norms. Sugata Bose concedes this, yet fails to offer an answer to the more obvious question of how a freedom-loving patr iot could have stomached the obscenities and atrocities being heaped on other subject peoples by his Axis sponsors. He was scarcely unaware of them. He had taken Mussolini to task over the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, had expressed a mild interest in the fate of Germany’s Jews and would lap up Japanese hospitality in the Yangzi city of Nanjing, the ‘Rape’ of which in 1937 epitomised the bestiality of the Sino-Japanese war. A suggestion that what he called ‘the internal policies’ of the Axis powers were none of his business simply beggars consideration.
This was never tested. Alongside the Ja panese, t he INA re a ched I ndia ’s northeastern extremity at Imphal but earned greater distinction in the painful retreat that ensued. By the time of Hiroshima, Bose had disbanded his army and was on the move again. Reports of his death after another plane crash, this time in Taiwan, were not much credited – and still aren’t, despite overwhelming cor roborative evidence and umpteen enquir ies. In India the legend comfortably outlives the enigma and ensures Bose’s unique place in the pantheon of Independence leaders.
Bose taking the salute, Singapore, July 1943
In His Majesty’s Opponent, Sugata Bose, Gardiner Professor of History at Harvard as well as a great-nephew of the man himself, presents an admirably restrained account of this flawed patriot. Making good use of the family archives, he reaches out to the widest possible audience with a compelling narrative that sacrifices none of its author’s academic credentials. Of particular interest is the stress laid on Bose’s preference for a federal form of gover nment and some power-shar ing between the
Romain Hayes, in a cr isp and judicious account of Subhas Chandra Bose in Nazi Germany, does at least try to confront this conundrum. Mining the Nazi archives as well as Bose’s output, Hayes finds not a single expression of ‘concern or sympathy for the millions who died in concentration camps’. Nor did Bose show any remorse when in early 1945 the horror of the Holocaust became public knowledge. Instead we are to believe that Bose’s brand of radical nationalism induced a myopia that blinded him to the plight of anyone but Indians. It also blinded him to the possibility that an Axis ‘liberation’ of India might have resulted in something worse than the Raj; and it has seemingly blinded his supporters to the fact that Indian nationalism was ser iously tarnished by these wartime associations. A legend in the land of his birth, elsewhere Bose is still an enigma. To order ‘His Majesty’s Opponent’, see LR bookshop on page 16
LITERARY REVIEW June 2011