Remembering Sarat, Subhas Chandra Bose’s mentor and brother, on his birth anniversary

He was a member of Congress Working Committee, leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party in the Central Assembly and a senior cabinet minister in the interim government in India prior to independence

Sir Vince Cable, then UK’s Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, at an event held to commemorate Sarat Chandra Bose’s 125th birth anniversary in 2014
Sir Vince Cable, then UK’s Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, at an event held to commemorate Sarat Chandra Bose’s 125th birth anniversary in 2014

Ashis Ray

Less is known about Sarat Bose compared to his brother Subhas

In his own right, Sarat was an extraordinary barrister, who was also a member of the Congress Working Committee, leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party in the Central Assembly and a senior cabinet minister in the interim government in India prior to independence. He was also Subhas' mentor and bankrolled his politics. He resigned from the Congress after it rejected his plea to keep Bengal united at the time of Partition.

6 September was Sarat's birthday. In 2014, his 125th birth anniversary was celebrated at Lincoln's Inn, London, from where he was called to the bar. This was attended by his daughter Roma Ray, now 91, who lives in Kolkata. The chief guest and keynote speaker was Sir Vince Cable, then Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills in the British government.

On the occasion, I published a profile of Sarat Bose, which was distributed in London.

Here is the full text of the same:

Sarat Chandra Bose was born on 6 September 1889 in the town of Cuttack, now a city in the state of Odisha on the east coast of India. He was the fourth child and second son of Janaki Nath, a successful lawyer, and Prabhabati Bose, a traditional Indian housewife, both Bengalis.

In keeping with Janaki Nath’s desire to have his children learn English well, Sarat was sent to the local Protestant European School and later to Ravenshaw Collegiate School. The son is reported to have later conceded that his English – spoken and written – was better than his Bengali.

In 1905, he entered the premier institution of Presidency College in Calcutta (now Kolkata in the state of West Bengal), then the capital of British India and the second city of the Empire. This move also signalled a steady shift in the Bose family’s base from Cuttack to Kolkata.

1905 was when Bengal was controversially partitioned by the British only to be re-united after passionate protests against the decision erupted in the province. Sarat’s biographer Leonard Gordon in Brothers Against The Raj records, “Sarat Bose later mentioned singing Swadeshi (patriotic) songs in the street and said he was connected to the (Indian National) Congress (which spearheaded India’s freedom movement) from that time.” With thousands of other young Bengalis, he marched through the streets of Kolkata – sometimes led by the poet Rabindranath Tagore (awarded the Nobel Prize in 1913).

Sarat devoured literature, history, religion and politics. Reading gave him a sense of understanding of the traditions and achievements of the British rulers of India. He loved English poetry. Familiarity with the English language helped him perfect his linguistic and oratorical acumen. He pored over Chauser, Milton, Shakespeare, the romantic poets, the Victorians, Tennyson, Arnold, Hardy and Dickens. He became a dexterous debater. In due course, he obtained degrees in English and Law from Calcutta University.

In 1908, Sarat’s parents arranged his marriage to Bivabati Dey of a well known north Kolkata family. He and his prospective bride had accidentally seen each other at the sea resort of Puri in Odisha. It was unusual in the India of that mileau for a couple to catch a glimpse of the other before their wedding ceremony. They were duly betrothed the following year.

Sarat chose to return to Cuttack, where his father was a leading advocate, to practice law. The story goes, an English judge hearing his argument in a case was so impressed that he suggested to Janaki Nath that he should send his son to London to be called to the bar. So, in 1912, a year after the birth of his first son, Asoke, Sarat became the first in his family to journey to England. He enrolled at Lincoln’s Inn and spent two years in the British capital.

It was uncommon in his family to go to the theatre – it was even slightly frowned upon. So he explained to his wife in a letter on 29 May 1913, “Maybe you think I am just after merriment. I went because the others went, but I am glad I went. What scenes! What acting! In our country, no one will dream that such things can take place. I think that people who come here should go to the theatre. One can learn many things. But don’t think I will go too much. If you go too much, then it gets to be a habit and I won’t do that. I have been only 4 times, while others have gone 40 times.”

He met European women upon occasion and in the context of that period reflected on love in western society and Bengal in another letter to Biva, this time on 15 August 1913, “For a Bengali woman, she must love her husband. It is her duty. So the value of that love is less. But here, if a woman loves a man and marries a man that love is more valuable. Love of a woman of good character is more praiseworthy than love of a woman of good character in our country because she has liberty here and must have strength of character. The men here live correct lives, but when our boys come here they become libertines, so don’t you think they are more praiseworthy?”

He diligently attended lectures, worked in barristers’ chambers and partook of the required dinners at the Inn. Sarat was a gourmet who came to appreciate the European style of serving and eating food. Indeed, he became a sound judge of western food, especially of soups and puddings. He had, however, promised his mother he would not consume alcohol nor eat beef or pork. He did not deviate from this pledge.

He, though, took to smoking. On 12 February 1914, he wrote to his wife, Biva, in Bengali, “I know smoking is not good. Why should I say it is good? Many pressed me to smoke. But I at first did not. Now when offered, I take it ... I should like to ask you, if I take cheroot (cigars), will you mind?”

His first home in London was in Bayswater, north of Hyde Park. Later, he moved to South Hill Park, near Hampstead Heath. He shaved his moustache in keeping with the English fashion in those days and seamlessly adjusted to western attire of that generation, wearing suits and when required, morning coats. Indeed, where he adopted western customs, he opted for the best, including being partial to Saville Row outfits.

He visited the Palace of Westminster to listen to parliamentary debates. “The houses of Parliament,” he observed, “makes the English people hear, what otherwise they would not.” His interest in legislative bodies enlarged after such encounters.

But he left England with a slight regret. After his final examination, he visited Oxford. On doing so, he wrote to his wife, “Maybe instead of being a barrister, I should have stayed 3 or 4 years – that would have been better. Instead of studying properly, I have just memorised a few law books and am going home. It is a waste of time. I did not realise this when I came ... In this life I could not really go in for learning. Let us see if I can do it in the next life.”

On his way home, he stopped in Paris, Lucerne, Milan and Trieste. In the French capital, he met Maud Gonne MacBride, an English-born Irish revolutionary, feminist and actress who was known to have had a turbulent relationship with the poet William Yeats. He was sympathetic to and inspired by the Irish struggle for independence from Britain, which mirrored Indian nationalists’ aspiration.

At the same time, he continued to admire British ideals of basic rights and civil liberties, retained his love of English literature, but became an opponent of the Raj in India. To start with, though, as a barrister at the Calcutta High Court, he swiftly rose in his profession without the struggle often experienced by young lawyers.

Gordon writes, “Sarat Bose worked very hard at perfecting his legal skills and followed his father in renown for his mastery of cross-examination ... He was ambitious, a perfectionist and combative.” At the same time, “he was never a slave to financial success and did not turn away poor litigants.”

In 1930, a band of revolutionaries attacked the armoury at Chittagong, now in Bangladesh. Their objective was to seize control of that part of Bengal and India from the British and declare independence. Initially, they caused havoc; but were ultimately overpowered. Sarat defended the accused in the case.

Publicly, he decried violence, but he appeared in court in favour of freedom fighters not averse to use of force. In principle, he opposed their execution and maintained that no one should be detained without charges, a trial or conviction. He succeeded in reducing death sentences against the armoury raiders to life imprisonment.

By the early 1920s, Sarat was already deriving a handsome income from his practice as a barrister. In 1922, he bought a holiday home in Kurseong, a hill station in the Himalayas. Later in the decade he built and moved into a magnificent residence in Kolkata. His lifestyle remained a blend of Bengali and western.

Nirad Chaudhuri, the celebrated Indian writer who was his secretary from the middle of 1937 to the end of 1941, in his book Thy Hand, Great Anarch! notes, “He lived as a Bengali gentleman of his position and income was expected to, or rather, even above it. Being in politics, he had to sacrifice a part of his possible professional income. Still, he lived as if he had the full income, and it was not his habit to save money.”

Sarat had sent his younger brother Subhas to study at Cambridge and take the prestigious Indian Civil Service (ICS) examination, knowing full well he had no intention of serving the British administration, as he had a single-minded ambition to fight for his country’s emancipation. Subhas, predictably, declined to join the ICS even after posting brilliant results. Subhas’s return to India and his immediate involvement in the independence movement motivated Sarat to intensify his own participation in the struggle.

In effect, not only was he Subhas’ financial backer and sounding board, but he himself began partaking more actively in Congress affairs in Bengal and, in due course, nationally. He became managing director of Forward, a leading nationalist daily. As an alderman in the Calcutta Corporation’s Council, he started participating more frequently in its debates.

In 1926, when tension between Hindus and Muslims took a serious turn in Kolkata and Bengal he toured several districts in the state to help combat the disharmony. The same year, he was elected a Congress member of the Bengal Legislative Council.

However, with the Congress resuming civil disobedience in January 1932, he was arrested the following month and imprisoned for allegedly being a supporter of terrorists (as British authorities labelled freedom fighters who were utilising force), though he was never precisely informed as to why he was being incarcerated.

Imprisonment for three and a half years marked a watershed in Sarat’s life. He would, subsequently, never return to simply being a barrister. His legal career enabled him to sustain his and Subhas’ engagement in politics; and the pursuit of truth, justice and accomplishment in his practice still attracted him. As Gordon puts it, “the law and nationalism became the twin goddesses of his life”.

In 1934, he was while still in detention elected unopposed to the Central Legislative Assembly (CLA). Of course, he had to vacate his seat as he was prevented from attending proceedings in the house. He demanded of the British authorities his trial or discharge.

A year later, he was unconditionally released; and was soon concurrently appointed the administrative and legislative head of the Congress in Bengal.

On the issue of co-operating with Britain in its efforts during World War II, he stated in the Bengal Legislative Assembly, “I do not understand co-operation between a master and his bond-slaves.” He explained, “Imperialism even more than totalitarianism has darkened the prospects of human freedom in all parts of this world of ours ... Both have wrought havoc so far as India and Indians are concerned, there is for us no choice between the two. If we hate totalitarianism, we hate imperialism more”.

In December 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and Malaya, then a part of the British Empire, Britain also declared war on Japan. Sarat was soon arrested for his contacts with the Japanese consul in Kolkata. Viceroy Linlithgow described him as “dangerous” and he was transported far away from his home city of Kolkata to southern India. “This second term of imprisonment was much harder than the first,” says Gordon.

His wife Biva was not in good health. Given his princely income, his inability to practice as a barrister put a severe financial strain on his family. Moreover, the stress of four years of confinement caused diabetes to take hold of him and turned him into a heart patient.

But he spent time reading extensively, including apprising himself on China. In 1942, Chiang Kai-shek visited India and offered support to the Congress’ cause. Some Congress leaders foresaw him as coming up trumps in his country’s civil war. Not Sarat, though. His recent study made him conscious of the rising force in Chinese politics: the communists led by Mao Tse-tung.

After Mao established his party’s rule, Sarat on 1 October 1949 cabled his “sincerest felicitations” to him, adding: “Feel gratified today that I predicted in September 1945 Chiang Kai-shek’s early overthrow and your coming to power as Chinese leader. Hope you will cement good relations, diplomatic and otherwise between China and India ...”

In his reply, Mao thanked him and said, “The Chinese people welcome the establishment of a broad friendship with the Indian people ... ”

In 1946, in his quest for solidarity between independence struggles in Asia, Sarat visited Burma (now Myanmar), where he was welcomed by General Aung San, then spearheading the Burmese freedom movement and father of winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace Aung San Suu Kyi.

“We stand for an Asiatic Federation,” Aung San remarked in his address to publicly welcome Sarat. The latter responded, “When we are free, our endeavour should be to build up socialist states in India and Burma. We must also have an Asiatic Federation.”

A high point in his career came when the Congress elected him leader of their parliamentary party in the CLA, which rendered him the mantle of “leader of opposition” to His Majesty’s Government in India. He was ripe for the cut and thrust of parliamentary affairs and in his element. Refuting the British charge that soldiers of the (British) Indian army who had deserted to his brother Subhas’ Indian National Army (INA) were traitors, he roared, “time has had its revenge and those who came to curse the INA and its officers and men in 1942, 1943 and 1944, have remained to bless them”.

In September 1946, the Congress was invited to form an interim government as a prelude to independence. Sarat’s name was nominated for a cabinet post. Viceroy Wavell objected to his name being included in the list, but the Congress insisted on it and he was sworn in as minister of works, mines and power under prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehru.

Wavell’s plan, though, was to include the Muslim League – whose demand was partition of India and the carving out of an independent Islamic state of Pakistan – in the government. To facilitate this, some of the Congress ministers had to make way. So, Sarat resigned, despite some of his Congress colleagues remonstrating he should not have so readily done so. He, however, remained a member of the Congress working committee, their highest decision-making body, and was elected to the Constituent Assembly, which succeeded the CLA.

Chaudhuri assesses, “His strong point was his capacity for mastering any case, however complicated, thoroughly and yet quickly ... Such a mental constitution would have made him a good and even great administrator (which he only briefly was).”

Sarat was most disturbed by the flames of communal violence engulfing Bengal and spreading to Bihar, United Provinces and Punjab. He was a long-standing and uncompromising opponent of partition, especially the vivisection of his home state of Bengal, which now increasingly looked a fait accompli.

In his unhappiness he resigned from the Congress working committee. “He felt the need to break with the Congress and explain why it was not helping to bring freedom with unity for India and Bengal,” outlines Gordon. His sanity was isolated in the insanity of sectarian frenzy and separatism, to which even Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the supreme leader of the Congress, succumbed.

In 1948, Sarat embarked on a visit to Europe – 34 years after leaving its shores upon completing his studies at Lincoln’s Inn. With Biva, son Sisir and daughters Roma and Chitra, he toured Italy, Czechoslovakia, Austria, France, the United Kingdom and Ireland. In London, he addressed a public meeting at Conway Hall, which was presided over by Fenner Brockway, veteran pro-India Labour party MP. In Dublin, he met President Sean O’Kelly, Eamon de Valera and after 1914, Maud Gonne McBride to reinforce the Boses’ ties with Ireland.

Earlier in 1948, he had launched an English daily The Nation to better disseminate his ideology and perspective. The paper was immediately in demand. Its first London correspondent was Shirley Williams, whose father George Catlin was a friend of Sarat.

“Till I met Sarat Chandra Bose,” penned Homi Taleyarkhan in September 1945 in Blitz, a widely circulated Indian weekly, “I had no idea India also had a Churchill of its own – to match the Churchill of Britain. The same set expression, the same grim purpose, the same unquenchable spirit never to submit or yield; even the same cigar. But above all, that same bulldog determination.....”

It is not known what Sarat thought of the comparison, for he once described Churchill as “the hard-boiled Tory imperialist and feudal lord, who spent £100,000,000 of British money to crush the Russian revolution and restore the Tsardom.”

Chaudhuri, however, refers to his “innate magnanimity” by saying, “At that time (of his employment with Sarat) I was broadcasting regularly for All India Radio from its Calcutta station on international questions.

“If my talks had had any bias, that would have been in favour of Britain, although never for the Chamberlain ministry. I asked Sarat Babu [a term of respect in some parts of India] if I could continue my broadcasts. He said: ‘Certainly’. After the outbreak of the war in 1939, my pro-British attitude gave offence to the Bengali nationalists, but he would never ask me to give up my talks.”

On 20 February 1950, Sarat wrote an editorial in The Nation suggesting “that East Bengal (which had become East Pakistan and which, in 1971, liberated itself into Bangladesh) as a distinct and separate state should join the Indian union”. Half an hour later he passed away, suffering yet another heart attack. He was 60 and at the prime of his prowess. He had been warned about overworking himself, but would reply, “I have always been a racing horse; I will die galloping.”

(This profile of Sarat Bose was published to coincide with the celebration of his 125th birth anniversary at Lincoln’s Inn, London, on 6 September 2014. It is based on the writer’s study of him, stories narrated to him by his mother Roma Ray and reading of books by Leonard Gordon and Nirad Chaudhuri, for which he is grateful.)

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines

Published: 07 Sep 2020, 9:00 PM