Thursday, September 28, 2006

Subhas Bose revisited

The Battle of Plassey took place in 1757. The Great Mutiny took place in 1857. What was going to be the big event of 1957? Many among the Calcutta gentry, obviously the biggest losers from the second partition of Bengal (even though many of them were its biggest proponents), expected the big event of that year to be the reunification of Bengal. And who was to lead this auspicious event? Who else but Subhas Chandra Bose?

Fast forward to 2004, when the BBC ran a survey on the greatest Bengalis of all time. What else is a Bengali good at but politics and poetry? So there were three politicians and two poets in the top five: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Fazlul Huq and Subhas Chandra Bose. Politics trumps arts and the sciences in our part of the world, so I wasn’t surprised to see Mujib garnering more votes than Tagore, or that Satyajit Ray or Amartya Sen being mere also rans. But I sure was surprised to see Subhas Bose in the list (as opposed to say Jyoti Basu). Imagine my surprise then with the uproar from some netizens, mostly from the Calcutta gentry, about why Subhas Bose wasn’t the greatest Bengali — obviously it was a biased survey, they said. To be sure, the top choice was questioned in Bangladesh too, Mujib became a controversial figure in his lifetime — but this is for some other time. Then when Amar asked why Subhas Bose is considered a hero, he was accused of being anti‑Bengali.

This is a puzzle. Why is Subhas Bose a (Bengali or Indian) hero? What did he do?

Let’s start with the facts.

Subhas Bose was a nationalist who abandoned a comfortable ICS career to join the freedom movement. He became a stalwart in the Indian National Congress, winning the party presidency twice in the late 1930s. His re-election was despite Mahatma Gandhi’s opposition, and Bose had to quit Congress without finishing his second term. Then World War II started. Most nationalist leaders were interned in one form or other. Bose escaped, surfacing in Berlin. He joined the Axis powers to fight the British. He raised an army to liberate India. This army fought alongside the Japanese in Burma and Kohima.

These are the undisputed facts. He fought alongside fascists. But was he a fascist himself?

The title he assumed, Netaji, is commonly translated as ‘the leader’. But neta literally means one who shows, that is, a guide. What was Mussolini’s title? Il Duce, in English ‘the guide’, in German, Fuhrer. So he adopted a fascist title. He wasn’t a military man, but he liked to flutter around in uniform issuing commands, much like many dictators of various ideologies, periods and countries.

So he definitely adopted fascist postures. But was he a fascist himself? He certainly admired fascism. A cursory look at his The Indian Struggle (Hitler’s book was titled Mein Kempf, My Struggle in English) should leave you with no doubt whatsoever that he admired fascism, immensely.

Was he a fascist? As the saying goes: if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

We think that he fought alongside the fascists because he envisioned a fascist India. He says as much in his book. Not everyone agrees. We now turn to their arguments (none of which are, by the way, based on Bose’s actual writings).

The first line of argument relies on the realpolitik dictum of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. The British were at war with the fascists. This made the fascists allies of Indian nationalists. But this didn’t make Indian nationalists any more fascist than the alliance with Stalin turned FDR into a Bolshevik.

This argument appears logical on the surface, but does it make sense? The British Raj in India was on the wane from 1935 on. The constitution adopted that year called for representative government at the provincial level, eventually leading to independence at the centre. The issue of whether India should be free was effectively settled. What would Free India look like, that was the question.

When the war broke out in Europe, the inexorable march to freedom was postponed, but not abandoned. Congress wanted immediate freedom, British wanted to hold on until the war was over. If the British had lost the war, India would have been free anyway. If the British had won, the process begun in the 1930s would have resumed. Why then join the fascists, whose record was obviously far more odious than anything the British had done in India?

At this point, the defence of ignorance is raised — Netaji couldn’t have known the full range of Nazi or Japanese atrocities. Hogwash. It’s not at all likely that Subhas Bose didn’t know about the concentration camps and the rape of Nanking. Jawaharlal Nehru knew about them. Nehru wrote his autobiography around the same time as Bose wrote his book. And The Discovery of India was written in prison, around the same time when Bose was being hosted by the fascists. While Bose adopted Mussolini’s title, Nehru refused to meet Il Duce because he didn’t want India’s freedom movement contaminated by fascism.

Nehru was in prison because of the Quit India movement. Why did he support the uprising that resulted in the incarceration of the entire Congress apparatus? One effect of this incarceration was that the Muslim League and its allies had the political field all to themselves in the Muslim provinces, helping the League win convincingly in Punjab and Bengal in the 1946 elections and making partition inevitable. So perhaps the movement did more harm then good? Perhaps. But Congress leaders couldn’t have predicted this in 1942 — after all, the League did little better than Congress among Muslims in 1937. But still, why did Nehru support a push against the British when the latter were, in Gandhi’s words, a failing concern?

Nehru’s reasons are given in The Discovery. He supported the Quit India movement because he wanted Free India to contribute to mankind’s freedom. Bose represented ‘Free India’ at the Greater East Asia Co‑prosperity Sphere (fancy title for the Japanese-occupied Asia). Nehru wanted to represent Free India at the Atlantic Conference (that gave rise to the United Nations). Nehru agonized about making things difficult for the British when freedom everywhere was at risk. Bose wanted to free India with the help of people who were trying to end freedom everywhere.

Bose and Nehru were rivals for Congress leadership. It is quite obvious that they had very different visions for India. Bose won the ballot for Congress presidency, twice. Nehru had the confidence of Gandhi and the control over the party machine. Some of Bose’s supporters argue that Bose was evicted from Congress by the perfidious Nehru-Gandhi alliance. More parochial of Bose’s supporters see an evil North Indian design against the Bengalis. Others note that the Nehru clan, with Gandhi's aid, forced many good men out of Congress — Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Chittaranjan Das in the 1920s, Morarji Desai in the 1960s, Vishwanath Pratap Singh in the 1980s.

Did Nehru benefit from Bose’s resignation from Congress in the late 1930s? The answer is yes, and all the other cases mentioned above are also true, and Desh is worse off for the departure of many from Congress — had Jinnah not left, partition could have been avoided, and Desai probably would have made a better Prime Minister in 1966 than Indira Gandhi. But note the difference between all these people and Bose — everyone else relied on the ballot box to get their point across. What stopped Bose from setting up his own party and challenging Nehru in elections after independence?

In fact, not only did Bose not believe in democracy, even if he did, it’s unlikely that he could have had much success in his native Bengal (outside the Calcutta gentry that is). For all his commitment to the Indian nation and talks about attaining freedom through a river of blood, he was completely oblivious to the political realities of Bengal in the 1930s. He was opposed to the abolition of zamindari and silent on the Hindu-Muslim relations, two issues that most energized the Muslim majority of Bengal in the 1930s and the 1940s.

There is, however, another SC Bose who was very much aware of these issues. It is Sarat Chandra Bose, Subhas’s elder brother. Sarat Bose is nowhere near as popular as his younger brother. A pity, because it was the older Bose that Bengalis should remember — in 1947, when partition was imminent, Sarat Bose worked with Hussein Shaheed Suhrawardy and Fazlul Huq to avoid dividing Bengal. Their plan of a united Bengal, free of both India and Pakistan, was scuttled by Congress high command. And perhaps after the killings of Calcutta and Noakhali, partition was inevitable. But still, Sarat Bose tried to achieve something that was better than the fascist India Subhas Bose dreamt of.

Modern India has its share of fascists. Maybe those who glorify Subhas Bose are among these fascists. But those readers who do not endorse fascism, to you I pose the questions Amar raised earlier this year: [W]hy do you praise and salute this man? What did you want India to be? And now, what do you want India to become?