His Majesty's Opponent A Review


A new book, but where is the value addition?

Since the first biographical sketch of Subhas Chandra Bose was published in 1927 by his friend Hemanta Kumar Sarkar, hundreds of books have been written on him, covering almost all aspects of his life. The obvious question that therefore comes to mind with the launch of a new book (and subsequently its Bengali translation) is what does it have to offer? Expectations naturally scale up when the author is no less than a grandnephew of Subhas, a professor of History at the Harvard University, and with the archives at Netaji Bhawan at his disposal.

Expectations further escalate when public relations campaign of the book describes it as "the definitive" biography written by The Oxford Dictionary of English defines definitive as "the most authoritative of its kind." Authoritative, in the same Dictionary, means "best of its kind and unlikely to be improved upon." Now that makes the claim pretty tall, especially after some outstanding works such as Milan Hauner's India in Axis Strategy, Leonard Gordon's Brothers Against the Raj in English and Shankari Prasad Basu's Samakalin Bharate Subhas Chandra. The author also told the news portal Rediff.com as to how he wanted to "do" a book that is "very major and significant."

Not only the book lacks significant new information, it leaves out too much information that is critical in appreciating the complex phenomenon that was Subhas. Additionally, the process of Subhas's political and philosophical evolution, contextualised in the local and global realities of the day, is barely discernible.

The astounding range of omissions will certainly perplex the reader. These include as basic information regarding his interaction with student groups while studying in Calcutta, many of whom were associated with revolutionary groups, and would rise to leadership positions in Bengal politics in later life; what happened to his studies in Cambridge after Subhas resigned from the ICS; the dynamics of Bengal politics and Subhas's relationship with other key figures when he joined politics; the mind-boggling range of issues that kept Subhas pre-occupied in the Mandalay jail - from the minute details of administration of Calcutta Corporation to delving to the depth of religion and philosophy, combined with a keen sense of humour; that Subhas was a member of the Bengal Legislative Council; the Poona Pact and the incidence of firing on prisoners at the Hijli detention centre; Subhas's subsequent resignation as the president of the BPCC and as an alderman of the Calcutta Corporation. Also missing are the initiatives that Subhas thereafter took to reconcile the differences between the different factions in Bengal Congress; nature of his relationship with the revolutionary groups such as Anushilan, Jugantar and Sri Sangha; how Subhas tried to maintain balance the complex dynamics between the leftist groups (the Congress Socialist Party, the communists and the followers of MN Roy) and the Gandhian High Command during his years of presidentship; the internal conflicts within the first INA.

At a certain places, the author's views and interpretations seem to be forced by the desire to appear innovative, but end up as misinterpretations or half-baked conclusions. The author deals at some length with the Oaten affair and seems to suggest that Subhas indeed lay his hands on Edward Oaten; though on what basis he draws this conclusion is left unclear. Shankari Prasad Basu's research clearly establishes the opposite.

Subhas's appointment as the CEO was not as smooth as it is made out to be, namely, that he was simply appointed by Das. He had to face strong opposition from both within the Congress as well as from the Europeans. From within the Congress, amongst others it was Birendra Nath Sasmal, a stalwart of the Bengal Congress. Das was initially inclined to make Sasmal the CEO, but the radicals in the party supported Subhas. But such detailed insights seem to be outside the scope of this book, which does not as much mention that Subhas was defeated in the 1928 Mayoral elections and that he remained a councillor of the corporation subsequently.

During the protests against the Simon Commission, the author writes, Subhas "called on Mahatma Gandhi at his ashram in Sabarmati and asked him to lead a new mass movement. He then undertook an extensive tour of the country..." What can be a more casual narration? Why did Subhas make such a request to Gandhi when the agitation against the Simon Commission was raging across the country? Was it a courtesy call and a general and vague request? Far from it: Subhas felt the Congress was letting an opportunity slip by due to lack of foresight. He made his thoughts clear in The Indian Struggle.

Similar casualness is observed when the author in an effort to illustrate Subhas's involvement with labour movements writes that he "provided leadership to the workers in an industrial action against the owners of the Tata Iron and Steel Company in Jamshedpur." Sure he did, but it was not as rosy as this sentence would imply; Subhas had to face much harangue from opposing labour leaders, which again exemplifies the complex relationship between the several strands of labour movement and industry groups' relations to political leaders. At the same time, he moved about untiringly to build the Congress organisation, none of which can be learned from this book. This casualness continues in describing the later phases of Subhas's life.

Misrepresentation is evident in the way the author deals with Subhas's meeting with a Nazi official in 1938. In December 1938, Subhas met in Bombay Dr Oswald Urchs, the head of the Nazi foreign organisation in India. Subhas wanted some concrete support from Germany for India's struggle, but at the same time was critical of the Germans for their poor treatment of Indian students. Urchs' cover was that of an employee of a dye importing chemical firm. The author very strangely presents this meeting, as a "conversation with some German businessman," that was "misreported as a conspiratorial meeting."

Later, while dwelling on the issue of why Germany and Italy dilly dallied on the issue of declaration of Free India, the author says "One reason... was that the tripartite powers had tacitly agreed that India was within the Russian sphere of influence, and they could not at this stage publicly repudiate that position." If that was the sole reason, one wonders what stopped them from issuing the declaration after 22 June 1941, when Germany went to war with Russia. Why did Japan not give its consent to the declaration? To blame it on "lack of trust and coordination" between Germany and Japan, as the author does, is to oversimplify the matter. As Hauner has shown, the Japanese Government was not yet ready to fully side with Subhas by ignoring the Indian National Congress, despite repeated pleas from the Indians in South East Asia.

Yet another feature of the book is the author's laboured effort to portray Subhas's relations with Nehru and Gandhi as overtly friendly. The author tries to present the obvious conflicts between these three leaders more as exceptions rather than the rule. Even to a lay reader, the fundamental differences between the world views of the three leaders would be clear, but the author chooses to skip the unpleasant bits unless they are absolutely unavoidable.

In the early 1930s Subhas's relationship with Nehru was congenial, but not as hunky dory as portrayed by the author. Not only does this come out from the way he portrayed Nehru in The Indian Struggle, but also from his letters. Subhas wrote to Satyendra Nath Majumdar in February 1934, "I cannot understand Jawaharlal Nehru - how he can at the same time support 'Gandhism' and 'Communism' is incomprehensible to me." Nehru was at his sarcastic best in 1939 - "Subhas Bose is going to pieces," and that he "does not seem to have an idea in his head," he wrote. By 1942, he was stinging in his criticism of Subhas for seeking foreign help. "His politics show sharp differences. They seem to be unbridgeable," was Gandhi's take on him. Strikingly, the details of the Congress intrigues after Subhas's expulsion are also missing.

There was indeed an outward similarity between the methods of Gandhi and Subhas during the August struggle of 1942, and probably Gandhi was in some way influenced by Subhas's activities as pointed out later by Azad. The author takes an unthinking position to play that up by saying "During the spring and summer of 1942, Gandhi and Bose drew closer in their aims and tactics in relation to World War II and the final struggle for Indian freedom." Trying to create an impression that Subhas was solidly behind Gandhi, he also writes, "Bose gave unstinted and enthusiastic support as Gandhi move toward launching the Quit India Movement." This is plain misleading. Subhas's speeches and letters and Gandhi's utterances clearly show that the gap between the two was unbridgeable, a point that the author does not seem to have comprehended. "Gandhi, while talking of independence, always keeps the door open for a compromise with the British...Gandhi today is no longer a dynamic and revolutionary figure. Only pressure of public opinion can now make him act...there is no room for cooperation with Gandhi. It would be a fatal mistake now to lionise Gandhi or praise him too much...To expect that Gandhi will come over to our point of view is only an idle dream," Subhas wrote to Rash Behari Bose on 11 July 1942. In the same letter he wrote, "Nehru is fanatically anti-Axis and he is much worse than Gandhi." In August 1942, Subhas said, "I must say that there is always the danger of the situation being mishandled by Gandhi at a later stage...Therefore, while giving our full support to Gandhi in his demand for the immediate withdrawal of British rule, we should be careful in our attitude towards the whole campaign." "Unstinted and enthusiastic support" did someone say? The favour was of course returned. "I do not feel flattered when Subhas Babu says I am right. I am not right in the sense he means," - was Gandhi's view.

The author's effort to prove Nehru's love for Subhas continues when he says that "there is evidence that he was truly moved when he visited the site of the INA memorial on a trip to Singapore in 1946." On this point, Mountbatten's take is a little different. While delivering the second Nehru Memorial Lecture in November 1968, Mountbatten said that when Nehru went to Singapore in March 1946 "I told him he could go where he liked and could do what he liked but asked him to refuse the invitation of local Indians to lay a wreath on the memorial of the Indian National Army. The Indian National Army had broken their oath of loyalty and had taken part in savage acts against their fellow prisoners of war who refused to fight for the Japanese. I pointed out that when India became independent she would need to rely on men who did not break their oath and that soldiers should be loyal to the Government they had undertaken to serve. He saw the point and agreed not to lay their wreath." So much for being "truly moved".

Thus, by the end of the chapter on Subhas and INA, the omissions and misrepresentations become too glaring make the claim of "the definitive" biography look pretty sorry. However, it is in the last chapter of the book, that author decides to throw away the mantle of a historian and takes recourse to intellectual dishonestly unabashedly.

Subhas could not have not died in 1945

It is really in the last chapter that the author loses all sense of proportion and fairness that a historian should possess. He chooses information selectively to prove his point and ignores all that is inconvenient to such a stand.

The author breaks into the story of Subhas's alleged death with great drama, trying to emphasise the human and emotional factor. Ironically, of the four characters whose reactions to the news of Subhas's death he describes with great emotion, two (Sarat Chandra Bose, and Emilie) refused to buy the story as long as they lived. The third - Sisir - became a votary of the 'death by plane crash' theory, without ever being able to provide a shred of evidence. But more of that later.

The author says "the British authorities in India had received the news of Bose's death with a sense of relief." This is a clear misrepresentation of facts. A letter from the Bengal Government to Delhi on 25 August 1945 said, "...we are not as yet prepared to accept newspaper reports of the death of Subhas Bose in Japan." In response to a letter of 31 August from Calcutta's Commissioner of Police opining that security prisoners should "be held up till it is known whether Subhas Bose is really dead or not", the Deputy Inspector General of Police of Bengal's Intelligence Branch noted on 3 September, "I have already pointed out the danger of trying Subhas Bose in India", and "we should watch the developments in the next six months." Had there been a "sense of relief", teams to investigate the story of the plane crash would not have been sent.

Regarding one of these teams - that of PES Finney - the author says that "Finney's report reached the definite conclusion that Bose had indeed died as a result of the plane crash." That is yet another attempt at bending the truth. What Finney actually said was "Although at this stage one cannot rule out the possibility of Bose being still alive ...the general impression gained...is that Bose did actually die as stated." In his eagerness to establish his pre-conceived notion, the author interprets "general impression" as "definite conclusion".

Available evidence, ignored by the author, shows that all investigation until June 1946 had failed to reach any conclusion. A note from the military intelligence division of the US in June 1946 (that is, after the investigations by the allied forces were completed) pointed out that "there is no direct evidence that SUBHAS CHANDRA BOSE was killed in an airplane crash at Taihoko, Formosa, despite the public statement of the Japanese to that effect. Nor is there any evidence available to Intelligence Division which would indicate that the subject is still alive."

On yet another investigation conducted by Figges, the author says that in July 1946, "Figges reported that their mortal enemy had indeed met his corporeal death." That this inquiry should have been undertaken in itself prove that Finney could not reach a definite conclusion. In any case, Figgess' report cannot be taken as final because it merely states what a few Japanese told him in Tokyo and if his report is taken as final, one will need to explain its contradictions with other "evidence" on record. For instance, in this report Dr Tsuruta has made a claim that he issued a death certificate for Bose; but elsewhere in the book the author claims that it was issued by Dr Yoshimi.

The author obviously confuses between 'rumour' and 'intelligence' while discussing an intelligence input of 1946. "There were other rumours making the rounds. According to one, Nehru was said to have received a letter from Bose saying that he was in Russia and wanted to escape to India...The intelligence assessment deemed this story "unlikely," but a growing belief in India that Bose is alive" was a cause for concern," writes the author. What he does not say is that this 'story' was not marked as a 'rumour' by the intelligence assessment - it was identified as a 'secret report.' The author stops quoting the intelligence assessment at the point where it says that this 'story' is 'unlikely.' But that's not where the actual report of April 1946 ended; "but the point has to be noted," it continues, "that if the story has any foundation in fact, it is probable that the letter from Bose arrived about the time Gandhi made his public statement [regarding his belief that Subhas is alive]. What is more important is what the author has not quoted from this report. "In December a report said that the Governor of the Afghan Province of Khost had been informed by the Russian Ambassador in Kabul that there were many congress refugees in Moscow and Bose was included in their number. There is little reason for such persons to bring Bose into fabricated stories...Voradoff, the Russian Vice Consul General [in Teheran] disclosed in March that Bose was in Russia where he was secretly organising a group of Russians and Indians to work on the same lines as the INA for the freedom of India."