Can this Government think and act beyond statues and honour the values icons stood for?

While Government seems fixated on putting up statues to honour the memory of icons it wants to appropriate, its reluctance to embrace the ideals they held dear is striking

Can this Government think and act beyond statues and honour the values icons stood for?

Nilova Roychaudhury

Two days before the 125th birth anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose on January 23, 2022, it was announced that a statue of his would be installed in the canopy where a statue once stood of the British monarch George V.

While the decision to install Netaji’s statue where the statue of the British monarch once stood was hailed as apt and as poetic justice, there is also little doubt that it was an after thought or else the statue at least would have been ready. The embarrassment of projecting a hologram, which too ‘failed’ after two days, could have been avoided.

Bose’s relatives, including his daughter Anita Bose-Pfaff and grand-nephew Sugato Bose have gone on record to say that had he been alive, Bose would have been distressed and dismayed at Modi Government’s treatment of minorities. Netaji believed in democracy and in a secular India and would have condemned deviation from both. Netaji, they pointed out, needs to be honoured by emulating his all-encompassing humanist ideals and pluralism embodied in the Indian National Army (INA), founded on principles of human equity, cutting across religion, gender and caste.

The announcement however served the purpose of triggering old conspiracy theories of Netaji having been imprisoned and killed in Russia and Jawaharlal Nehru’s alleged animosity for the iconic commander of the Indian National Army (INA) and former Congress President. These allegations have been made consistently since 2015 without the Government looking willing or even able to resolve the mystery.

In 2015 Prime Minister Narendra Modi had dramatically declassified official files related to Netaji, all barring 87! He had also announced that he would be requesting foreign governments, Russia, Ukraine and Britain in particular, to similarly release any record they might have on Netaji. But despite the personal chemistry he is said to share with world leaders, the foreign governments do not appear to have obliged him till now. Neither Ukraine nor Russia, about which Winston Churchill had famously said that it was a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” have thrown any light on the alleged incarceration of Netaji in Siberia.

When Britain declared war against Nazi Germany and Axis powers in 1939, Bose, a former president of the Congress party, left India in 1940 to seek assistance from his “enemy’s enemy”. He called on Hitler, undertook a daring submarine ride and arrived at Singapore with Japanese forces.

He formed the Indian National Army to militarily liberate India with the help of Japan. When Japan lost the war, Bose tried to leave Formosa (Taiwan) to go to Manchuria and on to Russia to seek its assistance. Intelligence reports and records suggest he died in a plane crash on August 18, 1945. Ashes, supposedly belonging to Bose, are still preserved in a shrine at the Renkoji Temple in Tokyo.

Two Indian government-appointed Commissions of Inquiry accepted that Bose died in 1945. However, the one appointed in 1998 claimed that Bose did not die in the crash and had escaped to the Soviet Union. The Bose family largely believes that he died in August 1945 and that his ashes are indeed preserved in the Renkoji shrine.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has always sought to portray Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi as having been antagonistic to Bose and somehow responsible for his disappearance. This effort peaked soon after the Narendra Modiled government first assumed office in 2014, petered off by 2021 and revived in 2022.

Claiming that Bose did not die in a plane crash in 1945 but was killed at the instance of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy said he had papers to back his claims. Swamy also said Nehru was aware that Bose was held captive in Yakutsk Prison in Siberia.

Soon after he met Bose’s relatives in 2015, Modi said his government would open to the public all secret files on the matter in the government’s possession. The process of declassifying the files would begin from January 23, 2016, Bose’s birth anniversary. Much fanfare surrounded de-classification of files related reportedly to circumstances surrounding the disappearance and death of Netaji. The media speculated that declassified files would implicate Nehru and show up his role in the mystery surrounding Bose’s death. That did not happen.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee also declassified 64 files on Bose which were with the state’s home department and displayed them at the Kolkata police museum from September, 2015.

But the Prime Minister’s Office told Central Information Commission in October 2015 that it could not declassify all files related to Bose as it would “adversely affect relations” with foreign countries. The government informed Parliament that there were 87 files (60 with the PMO and 27 with the MEA) which could not be brought to public domain owing to their sensitive nature and that it was “not desirable from the point of view of India’s relations with other countries”. The countries in question are Russia and Britain. The files remain hidden. Would the Government have been as squeamish if the files corroborated the conspiracy theories?

While the Indian government spoke of declassifying the Bose files, Ukraine also said it would declassify over 800, 000 ‘top secret’ files of Russian spy agencies of the Soviet era and make them available to the public. Among the files, dated between 1917 and 1991, were said to be intelligence dispatches of Siberian gulags (Russian camps for political prisoners), where Bose was suspected to have been imprisoned along with prisoners of war and political dissidents.

The decision to declassify the top-secret files of State Security (KGB), Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), CHEKA, Prosecution of USSR, NKVD, SMERSH and Ministry of State Security (MGB) was taken by the Ukraine Parliament in April 2015. However, these, too, have not been made public and are likely to remain buried.

In the Modi government’s selective recollection of historical events as a ‘zero sum game’, there have been suggestions that Nehru was responsible for what happened to Bose in 1945, although India was still not free and Nehru not yet the Prime Minister. Neither Britain nor Russia or Japan had any reason or incentive to do Nehru’s bidding.

What is more, Bose and Nehru shared a very special, close personal bond. Bose, younger to Nehru by a few years, was the only Congress leader in Switzerland with Nehru when Kamala Nehru died. After Bose’s death, Nehru arranged a special trust from the Congress Party’s own funds to ensure that a monthly stipend was given to Bose’s wife and infant daughter. Nehru also personally participated in the 1946 trials to free the INA prisoners of war. In fact, Nehru and Bose were allies and socialists within the Congress.

According to records, it was then Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel--whom the current government claims was also denied his due by Nehru--who disliked what he thought was Bose’s defiance of Mahatma Gandhi and therefore appeared antagonistic to Bose.

The twists and turns over Netaji in the last seven years suggest he is being used as a pawn by the Government to serve its political agenda. If they are serious about honouring the memory and sacrifice of Netaji, can they at least think beyond his statue?

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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