Recollections and reflections

Reminiscences, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai

I first came in contact with Subhas Bose in 1923 at Delhi when the Congress was divided into two groups over the question of what was known as 'Council Entry.'...Subhas Babu, as the favourite lieutenant of Deshabandhu, was playing a prominent part in the controversy. more>>

Questions about Netaji mystery you always wanted to ask  

In an upcoming documentary on Subhas Chandra Bose, Justice Manoj Kumar Mukherjee has been shown to make a comment which has given a new twist to the debate that has been going on since his report was rejected by the central government

The former Supreme Court judge, who was tasked in the first part of the decade with finding the truth about Bose's disappearance, has been captured on camera saying that he "strongly believes" that Bhagwanji of Faizabad was Subhas Bose in disguise.

This divergence between private belief and public verdict has been taken up as the stick to beat down the whole inquiry of six years by people with vested interests and those who stand to gain in any way from propagating a premeditated view. Added is the silence of those who till other day were swearing by Mukherjee's historic report.

As a result, half-truths and lies are being thrown around to confuse people. Many of them are being directed to Mission Netaji members who have for some time made attempts to resolve the issue rather than complicate it by getting into useless arguments.

It's about that this issue was addressed squarely and in a structured manner. Here, we attempt to answer some of the frequently asked questions about Bose mystery.

Q: Who's Justice Manoj Kumar Mukherjee?
A:  A former Supreme Court judge and eminent criminal law expert, he was appointed as the chairperson of Justice Mukherjee Commission of Inquiry (JMCI) in 1999. His name was recommended by the then Chief Justice of India. Mukherjee's inquiry was lauded by all those who had stakes in the matter in any way. He conducted his inquiry strictly in accordance with the Commissions of Inquiry Act and the terms and reference assigned by the Central Government. At a press conference in Kolkata on 26 May 2006, no less than 43 members of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's family praised Justice Mukherjee's efforts. Their joint statement said:

We, the overwhelming majority in the Bose family, deeply appreciate the arduous efforts that Mr Justice MK Mukherjee and his team in the Commission have made for seven years...we admired the way Mr Justice Mukherjee conducted himself in public hearing. Approaching delicate issues in an objective manner, he rigorously sought evidence for any statement made before him. Nobody can question either his competence or his integrity

Q: I know about that commission. It was set up by the BJP government.
A: The formation of Mukherjee Commission was not a political decision, for a start. This inquiry came into existence following an order of the Calcutta High Court in 1998. The court also framed the scope of its inquiry. The ruling from the bench of Chief Justice Prabha Shankar Mishra came after the government counsel repeated the official Government of India's view of 20 years about Netaji's reported death. That is: There are doubts about the death story and that there is a need to probe the matter. A core team of Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government, comprising Brijesh Mishra, L K Advani and Home Secretary Kamal Pande -- agreed with the court's views.

Q: I have a friend who says this Bose mystery is a useless issue.
A: No person of consequence in his right senses has ever said that publicly.  In any case, one is free to say whatever one likes. We Indians are not known for a great sense of history. There have been many controversies, but why is that the Bose mystery has endured for such a long time? The bottom line is that even the current government regards the issue as a matter of public importance. They formally stated that before Central Information Commission during the hearing a declassification case initiated by Mission Netaji. This is one aspect the government cannot run away from.

Q: He also says that we should be celebrating Netaji's life rather than wondering what happened to him.
A: It emerges that those who talked about celebrating Netaji's life did little to preserve his legacy in free India. If today we have a portrait of Bose in Parliament [it did not come about so long as Congress was in power] or that we have the INA veterans listed as freedom fighters [they were treated most unfairly in free India], it is due to the efforts of late Prof Samar Guha -- a key player in Netaji mystery. In our times, it is not the self proclaimed admirers of Netaji's life and times who have queried the records that have been kept hidden by the Government as top secret. Such people want to let everything remain under wraps - that's why they neither make any attempt to seek information and nor do they support the efforts of others who invariably happen to be mystery buffs like us.

Q: Is Justice Mukherjee related to the BJP, government or Subhas Bose’s family in any way?
A: Not that we know. But it is pertinent to recall that the heads of two previous inquires were close to government. Former INA man and Congress MP Shah Nawaz Khan, a closer relative of actor Shah Rukh Khan, was made a minister after he gave his report supporting the view of Pandit Nehru government. G D Khosla, who headed a most controversial commission in the 1970s, was a friend of Nehru's. His report poured unwarranted scorn on Bose, INA and their Japanese benefactors. Justice Mukherjee, in strike contrast, limited his inquiry just to find out the fate of Bose in strict accordance with evidence.

Q: There are members of Netaji's family who say that he died in a crash and that the Mukherjee inquiry was a waste of time or something like that.
A: It is their words which are a waste of time, unless of course you fancy flowery English. There is a minuscule but media savvy section of Bose family -- with Congress connection -- which has been supporting the air crash theory. However, their words ring hollow for simple reason that when they were called to make their case before Mukherjee Commission, they wrote that they knew nothing. But after the Commission report came out they got active.

Q: Netaji's daughter says that he died in the air crash.
A: There are people who know better than her. Like her late mother, who till her last believed that he was in the USSR. That's why she foiled the governmental effort -- spearheaded by Pranab Mukherjee -- to bring the so-called Bose's ashes to India. This matter has been brought on record by Netaji's relatives. In fact, none of Netaji's siblings believed that he died in the so-called air crash.

Q: So what did the Mukherjee report say?
A: It rejected the official view that Netaji had died in an air crash, suggesting that he flew towards the Soviet Russia as a part of escape plan. It also discussed the Bhagwanji angle. This conclusion was arrived after going through all relevant records - including detailed and classified testimonies of dead eyewitnesses - and also examining those who could render some evidence authoritatively.

Q: INA great Lakshmi Sehgal told commission that Bose died in an air crash. What more evidence do you need!
A: It is on record that Mrs Sehgal committed perjury. In countries like the US, she would have been in big trouble. When she told the commission that Netaji had died in an air crash, she was lying through her teeth. Because her personal view had earlier been captured on camera and it was quite the opposite. She believed in Russian angle and took a pot shot at Nehru. This is a matter of record and Mrs Sehgal cannot challenge it. We admired her all our lives, but she let us down.

Q: And then the UPA government rejected the Commission's report when it came out in 2005.
A: That was politically motivated. Because the government counsel before the commission continuously repeated the above official stand and, in fact, argued against the old official theory at the time of argument which took place when Manmohan Singh's government was in place. You cannot tell the commission that you don't buy the crash theory and then insist that the same crash theory is cardinal truth after the commission has upheld that the crash theory is false. A government cannot change stance like that. A top legal eagle can put them in serious trouble.

If you recall, the same UPA government had rejected the report of Nanavati Commission into November 1984 riots where thugs claiming allegiance to Congress party had butchered thousands of innocents in Delhi and elsewhere. But after some spirited public protests, the government accepted the same Nanavati report.

Q: You seem to be suggesting that Congress has something against Bose!
A: Is it a classified piece of information? Who doesn't know that Bose was humiliated and ousted from Congress?

Q: OK. What did the Mukherjee report say about Bhagwanji or Faizabad angle. I saw on TV that it was actually dismissed.
A:  It was not exactly a rejection if you read in between the lines. The commission report said that "in absence of any clinching evidence" it was not accepting this angle. That is, there was some evidence, but not enough. Though it found the witness accounts very credible, it said that there were other formidable facts and circumstances on record which stand in the way of this Commission in arriving at a conclusive finding that Bhagwanji/Gumnami Baba was none other than Netaji.

Q: Hang on. This Bhagwanji angle, for argument's sake, doesn't square up with the Russian angle. Isn't the commission's report suggesting that Netaji escape toward the USSR after a fake news of his death was circulated by his Japanese benefactors? 
A: Yes, the commission report says that. But once you start taking Bhagwanji angle seriously -- on account of some legally admissible evidence - you have got to pay some attention to what all he said. It is very strange that a man who on the face of was a poor ascetic often talked about his harrowing experiences in Siberian concentration camps. Also how he and his erstwhile friends had created a "concocted" story of air crash.

Q: What about legally admissible evidence?
A: The handwritings of Bhagwanji -- both in English and Bengali -- match with that of Bose. In fact this is the only direct and legally admissible evidence that Netaji was alive after 1945 -- and indeed upto 1985.

The numerous witness accounts would have tilted the scale in favour of this angle had the senior followers of Bhagwanji, who knew Bose for decades, were alive now. The prominent of them was Leela Roy, who knew Bose right from 1920s, was a notable freedom fighter and political leader. In fact her portrait was put up in Parliament in the presence of Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh recently. Surely a person of such eminence and stature must be taken most seriously when her writings, correspondence and statement to near and dear ones make it very clear that she took Bhagwanji to be Bose. None of Bhagwanji's top associates with formidable Netaji connections ever talked about his in their life times as they were told to keep things secret.

Q: The commission report also says that as per government expert the handwritings did not match.
A: It is our mortification to say that our own Government is a most unreliable entity when it comes to Subhas Bose. But, let's get fact straight about handwriting tests.

Three handwriting experts checked Bhagwanji's handwriting. The first among them was B Lal, a former Chief Examiner of Questioned Documents - the highest post for a handwriting expert in government. B Lal is a legendary figure in the field and one of the best. That's why he was initially approached by then Hindustan Times journalist Anuj Dhar, now with Mission Netaji. After B Lal gave a positive report, he was hired by the Mukherjee Commission and made available a large number of samples from both sides. B Lal gave a descriptive, first rate report backed by loads of exhibits. He duly appeared before the Commission when summoned and made his case brilliantly.

The other two reports were given by then Chief Examiner of Questioned Documents and a state government expert. A look at the state government expert's report would convince anyone of its fraudulent nature. While giving report, a handwriting expert is supposed to state reasons (as B Lal did) for the conclusions.

The central government report gave some reasons as their report first admitted that there were similarities in the handwriting and then changed tack in the end. That they were not sure of their ground was clear from the fact that they did not appear before the commission in Delhi where their former boss B Lal was also present at the time of hearing.

Q: You see, there was a DNA test on Bhagwanji's teeth and the result was negative.
A: There were two different DNA tests performed on some teeth presumed to be of Bhagwanji. While the Hyderabad lab gave an inconclusive report, the CFSL Kolkata report was negative. It is to be noted that for some reason the expert who supervised the DNA tests was not willing to appear before commission. He did so only after repeated summons.

It must be stressed here that Mukherjee Commission report criticized government of India for not cooperating with it. In fact the report said that certain actions/inactions of the government "put a spoke in the wheel of this inquiry".

It is also a matter on record that…

    • Government of India has from the start shown no interest in resolving this matter.
    • All the inquiries had to be constituted due to public pressure
    • Government continues to withhold several secret files on Bose's death
    • Government has destroyed or hushed up evidence on the matter
    • Their intentions is not to resolve the issue but to cover it up

In this context, any impartial person will draw a conclusion that with such mala fide intentions, the government's and its agencies' views cannot be relied upon. All the negative handwriting and DNA reports that have come through government agencies will not cut ice with anyone who knows the ABCD of the case which tells one to not to trust the government. We have seen recently how government labs have bungled in cases involving ordinary people. So, what is the guarantee is that same is not the case with this matter - which has great political implications?

Q: If Bhagwanji was Subhas Bose why did he not come out? How is that such a man remain in hiding in India for such a long time and no one knew?
A: Let's be clear about one thing. If Bhagwanji was indeed Bose, as the evidence indicates, the government at higher level knew about it. There are enough indications for that and moment the people of India began asking questions, the answers will tumble out. Bhagwanji said things that, if true, have the potential to change our modern history.

As to why Bhagwanji did not come out - it is a complicated question, and there are no snappy answers to this question. Bhagwanji was asked several times why he was not going public. His standard answer would be: “My coming out will not serve national interest.” It would seem that circumstances and his “post-death” activities had put him into some sort of spot. He talked about his having been branded, with the connivance of Government of India, as international war criminal and his playing some hidden role in world politics all of which put together made him spent years within the confines of four walls - from where he would regularly escape to do things he said people could not imagine.

Q: I am not satisfied with this answer!
A: Do you think we are happy the way things are? We also have limited knowledge. That’s why we are looking for answers. The fact is --  here a case where a number of journalists -- Ashok Tandon, Nirmal Nibedan, Kausar Hussain, V N Arora and Anuj Dhar -- and a handwriting expert of repute and now a former Supreme Court judge have reached a certain conclusion. This fact should make us to shake off the thinking that just because Bhagwanji angle is unbelievable, it cannot be true. We must get to the truth of the matter -- whatever it is. There are people who are saying that he was an imposter, set up by some government agency to divert public attention from the Russian angle. Let us factor in every possibility. If Bhagwanji was an imposter, let it be exposed so that those behind can be unmasked. This cannot be done with endlessly arguing over what one believes in or not, but by taking steps to resolve the matter.

Q: What are the steps?
A: We must tell our government to release to public all information -- specially those held by the intelligence agencies -- on the issue of Subhas Bose's so-called and death and his remaining alive.We must tell our government to make head of government level approach to Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, Japan, China and the United States to obtain all the information they are holding on Bose. Bhagwanji angle must be probed further.

Q: Finally, what do we make of Justice Mukherjee’s off the record remark? Why could he not have said something like that in his report? Please elaborate.
A: Justice Mukherjee’s off the record assertion might not have any legal implication, but it certainly raises myriad questions. The natural question that follows is why Justice Mukherjee did not say this in his report despite such absolute certainty? What could have stopped him? Going by his report, the reason for his rejecting the possibility of Bhagwanji being Bose was absence of any “clinching evidence”. Then how does one justify his certainty despite the absence of such clinching evidence?

The answer could lie in the evidence that was produced to him and also in the way the evidence was treated by him. To be able to make sense of his conviction, it is therefore important to understand the nature of the evidence that was produced and the way he treated it.

The two major categories of evidence which was produced were individual witness accounts and the personal belongings of Bhagwanji, which included over 2,600 numerous items -- books, letters, gold watch, Bose’s family photographs, etc. Among the belongings were also found by the commission a few teeth kept in a match box. They were said to be of Bhagwanji’s. The letters were sent for handwriting analysis and the teeth were sent for DNA analysis. This line of investigation – that is, to see whether forensic evidence corroborates witness accounts – can hardly be flawed. Yet another factor was the kind of people who wrote letters to Bhagwanji. There were letters from Prafulla Ghosh (the first chief minister of West Bengal), M S Golwalkar (the RSS chief and leader of the likes of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani), Leela Roy (a firebrand revolutionary and close associate of Bose from the 1920s), Pabitra Mohan Roy (former intelligence officer in the INA) and many others – some of whom lived to tell the commission what they saw.

Justice Mukherjee’s observation on this part of the evidence is revealing:

Apparently, there is no reason for not acting or relying upon the evidence of [those] who had seen Netaji before 1945 and also met Bhagwanji/Gunmami Baba face to face on a number of occasions.

But…

…there are other formidable facts and circumstances on record which stand in the way of this Commission in arriving at a conclusive finding that Bhagwanji / Gumnami Baba was none other than Netaji.

These “other formidable facts” and circumstances were reports of the handwriting analysis and the DNA analysis. While the independent report from B Lal, former Chief Examiner of Questioned Documents, and one of the foremost experts in this field, showed clearly in his analysis that the handwritings in both English and Bangla matched with that of Netaji's, the Government Examiner of Questioned Documents and Forensic Science Laboratory, Government of West Bengal, Kolkata gave the opposite opinion, but without providing any reasoned analysis. In fact, the state government expert gave no reason at all. The result of the DNA analysis done by CFSL, Kolkata was also negative. The other inconclusive DNA test report from Hyderabad was not considered by the commission because it offered no opinion.

Thus, this issue was not rejected summarily by Justice Mukherjee, but he could not accept the hypothesis as majority evidence from the forensic examination did not support it. It is however important to recall that reasonable doubt have been cast on the reports of the government labs. There have been allegations of improper examination.

Now that Justice Mukherjee has given his personal view, these raise further questions on the veracity of the forensic evidences that came from the government institutions. This is a serious issue which should not be allowed to be brushed under the carpet. In fact, while the commission inquiry was on, charges were made that the finding DNA test report was leaked to a newspaper hostile toward the matter even though the entire process was to remain secret till the Commission had made it public. It was also reported that commission officials were told over the phone that the DNA had matched, but when the report came, it was not the case.  Therefore, the entire story of negative DNA and handwriting reports from government’s side cannot be taken as gospel truth. Rather, they came from those who have obstructed justice in this matter for a long time.

Thus, Justice Mukherjee’s revelation now provides the biggest reason for re-opening the investigation. Any sensible government would get the message. Whether a prejudiced Indian government would, is another matter altogether. It has been consistently apathetic to one of the greatest sons of India.

For more information, mail to: admin@subhaschandrabose.org

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