The recent news cycle has thrown up two main versions of the historical endowments of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army (INA).
One of them aims to paint both Netaji and the INA as entities with a central role in the Indian freedom movement. The other attempts to portray Netaji as some sort of ‘strongman’, opposed to the ‘effete’ non-violence espoused by Mahatma Gandhi and the INA is sought to be presented as a counterweight to the legions of peaceful non-violent protestors who made up the Indian National Congress. There are problems of verity with both these versions of history.
First off, while he was alive, Netaji was never accorded the kind of centrality that his supporters would have wished for. This was partly because of his antagonism with Gandhi and Nehru. It is well-known that the interests of leading industrialists (Birla, Tata, Bajaj, others) in the pre-independence era were (in part) allied with Britain and they served as an interface between the colonialists and Gandhi.
It has also been contended that Gandhi and his closest disciples (Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajagopalachari, Rajendra Prasad) aimed to perpetuate their hegemony on the Indian National Congress through monetary muscle provided by large corporates and by using divisive politics, which appealed to parochialism. The industrialists were allowed to influence key political decisions, notwithstanding obvious conflicts of interest. The same icons of India’s independence struggle (Gandhi, Patel, Nehru) routinely exchanged intelligence and political information with Britain, the colonial master they purported to fight.
On the other hand, because of his willingness to ally with Nazi Germany, led by Hitler and with other fascist Axis powers, including Italy and Japan, Netaji’s archival footprint is smudged by the mud of authoritarianism and the sludge of anti-Semitism. This very attribute — his readiness to join hands with fascist and anti-Semitic forces, a source of embarrassment for liberals — has added to his appeal among right-wing elements. Glorified as a ‘man of action’, who turned his back on the ideology of non-violence and ‘turning the other cheek’ as espoused by Gandhi, Netaji’s mystique is perpetuated by conspiracy theories surrounding his death which sprung up as soon as his plane crashed in Taihoku (Japanese Taiwan) in 1945 and reports of a certain ‘Gumnami Baba’ appearing in India years later.
To the non-partisan eye, the truth lies somewhere in between these two accounts of the inimitable national figure that Netaji was and continues to be. His ideals of “Ittehad, Etemad, Qurbani” (Unity, Agreement, Sacrifice) and the slogan “Inquilab Zindabad!” (Long Live the Revolution!) appealed more to the young and the restless among the Indian freedom fighters. Gandhi’s long-drawn, protracted path of non-violent civil disobedience did not hold much attraction for this segment of society. At the same time, Netaji’s readiness to partner with fascist, authoritarian and openly anti-Semitic forces made many a liberal and conscientious person hesitant of openly expressing their support for him and the INA.
There is no doubting the fact that Netaji’s ideology and approach towards Indian independence was motivated by the best intentions and rooted in a strong tradition of nationalism and patriotism. This found him many followers, not least among the young and the young at heart. But the methods that he employed to reach his goal created a rift between his acolytes and provided fodder for his opponents. This, then, sums up the problem with Netaji’s chequered legacy.
It is unfortunate that the bequest of this great leader is being used for narrow political gains and one-upmanship, visible in the unveiling of his hologram statue in place of the Amar Jawan Jyoti at India Gate. It is the same spot where the statue of British King George V stood till 1968 before it was removed and replaced by the Amar Jawan Jyoti in 1972.
With the prevalent mood in Indian politics tilting resolutely towards overt right-wing nationalism and parochial grandstanding, it would be infelicitous if Netaji’s stature is reduced to that of a divisive figure eliciting strong emotions on both sides of the political divide and social dialogue in our country, and amounting to little else, in the larger scheme of things.