From 1948 to 1968, the government of India meticulously spied on Sugata Bose’s father, Sisir Bose, along with the rest of Subhash Chandra Bose’s immediate family in Kolkata, as has been recently revealed.

Sugata Bose is the grandson of Subhash Chandra Bose’s brother, Sarat Chandra Bose. He teaches history at Harvard University, is a Trinamool Congress member of parliament and has authored a book on Netaji, His Majesty’s Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose and India’s Struggle against Empire.

In this interview with Scroll,  he places the recent revelations in their historical context and questions the government’s secrecy about the classified files related to Netaji.

Is this something that your family had any inkling of?
We heard about the strict intelligence surveillance during British rule of both 38/2 Elgin Road and 1 Woodburn Park from my father Sisir Kumar Bose. In fact, British intelligence had to be fooled in January 1941 for Subhas Chandra Bose’s escape from Calcutta when my father secretly drove his uncle from Calcutta to Gomoh. My father also knew that the police constantly shadowed him before his imprisonment in the Red Fort, Lahore Fort and Lyallpur Jail.

However, we could not imagine that after independence he could be subjected to the kind of intrusive surveillance that has now come to light. It was unthinkable that his correspondence with his aunt Emilie, Netaji’s wife, would be opened, copied and read. There was one occasion in 1958 when there was an inordinate delay in the renewal of his passport prior to a journey to the United States. He was told that his name had been on a black list since the British days and inadvertently not removed. Now it is clear that his travel plans to the US and Europe and later to Japan in 1965 were being closely monitored.

As a historian, what do you think the reason was for this snooping? Both Sisir Kumar Bose (your father) and Amiya Nath Bose, nephews of Subhas Bose, were apolitical individuals.
My father was not in party politics between 1947 and 1982 and my uncle not until 1967. Sisir Kumar Bose was one of India’s pioneering pediatricians. The intelligence files record that as General Secretary of the Indian Academy of Pediatrics he organized a major international conference on pediatrics in 1960. We can speculate on three possible reasons for the snooping.

First, the habits of a post-colonial bureaucracy and police die hard and some of the their pre-1947 activities may have continued for a while after independence.

Second, once my father established the Netaji Research Bureau in 1957, the surveillance seems to have increased. As a freedom fighter, my father was doing this work to record a proper history of the independence movement and Netaji’s role in it. He was writing to people who knew Netaji in different parts of the world for materials relating to the leader and also inviting INA [Indian National Army] veterans to speak and record their memoirs in Calcutta. The government may have had a misapprehension that he was doing all this to create the basis for a political challenge to the establishment of the day.

Third, even though there was powerful evidence, certainly by 1956, that Netaji had indeed lost his life as a result of the crash of the Japanese bomber on August 18, 1945, the government may have had a nagging doubt in the context of a widespread yearning among the people for Netaji to return and solve the country’s problems. In any event, sections of the government seem to have feared a potential political threat based on Netaji’s ideology and political legacy.

Fingers have been pointed at Jawaharlal Nehru for this. Can we assess his role in this affair?
So far there is one document to suggest that Nehru enquired of our Ambassador in Japan through his Foreign Secretary about the activities of my uncle on a visit to Japan in 1957. This may have been related to Nehru’s own visit to Japan around that time when he visited the Renkoji Temple in Tokyo. The files released so far have no indication that Nehru himself ordered the intrusive surveillance in Calcutta.

His government certainly did it and top intelligence agents were reading the material. Patel was the home minister when the surveillance began. His successor was Chakravarti Rajagopalachari. The surveillance continued during the prime ministership of Lal Bahadur Shastri.

I find it hard to square Nehru’s personal attitude and what the intelligence agencies were doing. At a time when his government was snooping on my father’s activities and opening his letters, Nehru himself visited the Netaji Research Bureau in 1961 and was shown around the museum and archives by my father. I was present as a child and we have photographs of the visit. Whenever my father visited Delhi, Nehru invariably invited him for breakfast at home or to see him in Parliament. After all, he used to be a guest at my grandfather Sarat Chandra Bose’s home at 1 Woodburn Park before independence. The room where I lived until 1974 was referred to as Nehru’s room.

The controversy has centred on national politics. But what about the situation in Bengal? Dr BC Roy and the Bose brothers had been political rivals in the state. Do you think this was a factor too?
The Bose brothers had towered above Dr BC Roy in Bengal politics before independence. Dr Roy sided with the small minority that obeyed the Congress High Command in 1939. The actual surveillance was conducted by the Intelligence Branch of the Government of West Bengal from 13, Lord Sinha Road. So the state government of that time headed by Bidhan Roy cannot be absolved of responsibility.

This incident has generated a lot of interest in the papers related to Subhash Chandra Bose which are still classified by the government. Why do you think no government is willing to touch them?
The files declassified so far after such a long delay contain no explosive material. The intercepted letters reveal exactly what my father was doing at that time and what he was doing was noble and honourable. I think successive governments have wanted to conceal the dishonourable acts of governments, politicians and bureaucrats, such as, the unwarranted invasion of privacy of citizens, including prominent freedom fighters. If the government of India shared the intelligence with our former colonial masters, that too is something the governments may not have wanted to reveal.

The excuse the governments have given that the opening of some files may prejudicially affect relations with friendly foreign countries is a lame one. I wrote in my book His Majesty’s Opponent on the basis of British documents in British archives how Churchill’s government ordered the assassination of Subhas Chandra Bose in 1941. We are mature enough not to blame David Cameron for the sins of Winston Churchill.

In 2006, the government refused to release the Bose papers citing law and order problems this would spark off in Bengal. Do you think, like Patel and Nehru, the memory of Bose can impact politics, especially that of Bengal?
The memory of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose has a pan-Indian appeal. He was the one leader of the freedom struggle who won the trust of all religious communities and linguistic groups. He was a leader of India, not of Bengal. The pretext that there would be law and order problems in Bengal is a bogus one. The issue that has come to the fore should not degenerate into an unseemly party political controversy. The memory of Bose is indeed a national and historical one, not a family or a party political matter.

Why are conspiracy theories around the death of Bose so widespread?
I have addressed this question in the last chapter of my book His Majesty’s Opponent titled “The Mortal End of a Deathless Hero” Even though there is very strong evidence including numerous eye-witness testimonies that Bose sacrificed his life for his country’s freedom on August 18, 1945, the yearning for his return was a mass psychological phenomenon all across India in the 1950s and 1960s. That the government of the day did not give him the highest respect and recognition he deserved angered people even further.

My father Sisir Kumar Bose told Netaji’s followers not to carp and complain, but to actually do something to preserve the best traditions of our freedom movement. He kept the focus on Bose’s life and work since he believed future generations will have a lot to learn from Netaji’s book of life. As he says in one of the intercepted letters: “The truth will ultimately prevail.” The fruitless controversy over his death distracts attention from Netaji’s immense contributions. I wrote my book because I felt his life was more important and fascinating than the legend. The government’s secrecy about some files fuels unnecessary speculation and gives conspiracy theorists a field day.

Most Western countries have an orderly system of declassifying historical records. After this incident as well as the refusal of both the BJP and the Congress to declassify the Henderson-Brooks report, do you think India needs a similar system?
We do have archive laws and rules, which are honored in the breach. We should have a clear policy as in other countries that most files would be opened after a lapse of 30 years and all files after 50 years, however sensitive they may have been at the time they were created. This includes but should not be limited to files related to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.