On Friday, the West Bengal government released 64 files on the death of Subhas Chandra Bose. But the public will have to wait till Monday to learn of the contents of the files. For now, they lie behind glass cabinets at Police Museum in Kolkata, 12,744 pages heavy with secrets.
Scraps of information have already escaped. Reports of documents revealing that British and American intelligence agencies believed him to be alive in 1949, inciting communist uprisings in Southeast Asia. Letters from a Swiss journalist, Lilly Abegg, to Bose’s brother, written in 1949, reporting that he had been sighted in the city then known as Peking, and that the Japanese knew he was alive in 1946. These letters had been intercepted at the Elgin Road Post Office.
The files, held by the Kolkata police and the West Bengal police for decades, are said to confirm what Intelligence Bureau files declassified in April have already revealed – the government snooped on Bose’s family for 20 years after his death. Letters flowing in and out of the Bose family home and Netaji Bhawan in Kolkata were regularly intercepted at the Elgin Road Post Office.
Now it’s all eyes on Delhi, which still refuses to declassify most of the files in the possession of the Central government. The family want a new committee to investigate why they were spied on for decades and to establish whether documents containing information on the leader’s death were destroyed.
But governments have been forming committees since the time Bose reportedly died in that plane crash in Taipei in 1945. Instead of answering questions for the public, these committee reports have only set off new ripples of mystery.
The Figges Report, 1946
The British government in India, naturally, took a lively interest in Bose’s whereabouts and activities. Prime Minister Winston Churchill is even said to have hatched a plot to assassinate him back in 1941. Bose was the master of disguise and subterfuge, escaping under the nose of British authorities in Kolkata. So when the first reports of his death started emerging, the British were having none of it.
Samar Guha, a close associate of Bose and later a member of Parliament, describes the Biritsh probe in his book, Netaji – Dead or Alive? (1978). Three separate intelligence teams were dispatched to find out where he really was. These teams spread out to Saigon, Bangkok, Tokyo and Taipei, raided war offices, arrested Japanese officials and officers of Bose’s Indian National Army. Officers of both nationalities were interrogated, in Tokyo and at the Red Fort.
Colonel Figges submitted his report in July 1946 and in October, a military intelligence report was submitted. Kanailal Basu, author of Netaji: Rediscovered (2009), records the various discrepancies between the two reports. They produced separate medical certificates, signed by two different doctors, giving different accounts of the patient’s condition, time of death and of the process of identification.
The Figges report stated that Bose had indeed perished in a hospital in Taipei. But like every other report, it was sucked into the mystery around Bose’s death. Kanailal Basu asks why it took so long for the report to be submitted: “Was a conspiracy being hatched?”
The Figges report was part of work done under Indian Political Intelligence, a partly secret branch of the colonial government. In 1997, the British released most of the IPI files, but not the Figges report. It was anonymously made public later. Why did the British government find it necessary to keep the document classified after all those years?
Shah Nawaz Commission, 1956
After Independence, the Indian government seemed unusually reticent about Bose’s death, even reluctant to set up a committee of inquiry. But when some eminent citizens decided to start an unofficial probe headed by Radha Benode Pal, Nehru suddenly announced the formation of an official committee, headed by Shah Nawaz Khan. Bose’s elder brother, Suresh Bose, was also part of this committee.
Members of the committee listened to the testimonies of witnesses at military hospital and survivors of the plane crash. The Indian government apparently produced some of its secret documents to the committee, including sections of the Figges report, Mountbatten’s diaries and interrogations of Habibur Rahman, Bose’s aide and a traveller on that plane, conducted by British counter-intellligence in the 1940s.
The Shah Nawaz report confirmed the official version: Bose died in Taipei. But Suresh Bose filed a dissenting report, alleging that Khan had been influenced by Nehru to stick to the official line. Khan had also said he, Suresh Bose, could become West Bengal governor if only he would agree to the findings. In 1970, Khan refuted these allegations before the Khosla Commission, set up in 1970.
Khosla Commission, 1970
The Indian government later set up a one-man inquiry commission, consisting of Justice GD Khosla, a retired judge of the Punjab High Court. He only submitted his report in 1974. Once again, Khosla concurred with the earlier reports. According to Bose’s biographer, Leonard B. Gordon, he also questioned the motives of those who held up alternative theories: “Justice Khosla suggests the motives of many of the story-purveyors are less than altruistic. Some, he says, have clearly been driven by political goals or simply wanted to call attention to themselves.”
Khosla reportedly showed remarkable patience in listening to a range of stories, some of which verged on the fantastic. But he seems to have been curiously lacking in curiosity about other aspects of the investigation.
Once again, the government had made secret documents available for the probe. But tacked to one of the dossiers was a note listing 30 secret files that were either missing or destroyed, Guha says. These were part of Nehru’s own collection of confidential papers. The missing files had all been handled by Mohammed Yunus, who was later appointed Indira Gandhi’s special envoy. They had contained British and American reports produced in Tokyo and outposts in Southeast Asia. One of the destroyed files was entitled, “Investigation into the Circumstances leading to the Death of Subhas Chandra Bose”. A large part of the Habibur Rahman interrogations were reportedly not submitted either.
Why did Khosla never pursue the case of the missing files? They would surely have yielded a more complete picture?
Mukherjee Commission, 1999-2005
For decades after that, the government seems to have lost interest in Bose. Until, that is, the Justice Mukherjee commission was formed in 1999. The commission produced a report that ran into three volumes and thousands of pages, and was made public in 2006. The commission raised the matter of the missing documents and interviewed 131 witnesses. Its probe took its members to archives in London, to Russia, where it went through more papers and interviewed witnesses, and to Taiwan. It also visited the Renokji Temple in Japan, where Bose’s ashes are apparently kept, and recommended a DNA test of the remains. This was no longer possible, it was told.
The Mukherjee Commission report concluded that Bose did not die in the place crash of 1945. His death and cremation were engineered with the cooperation of the Japanese military authorities and of Habibur Rahman himself.
The government rejected the report.
Cabinet Secretary's Committee, 2015
Too much time has perhaps gone by to hold a direct investigation into Bose’s death. The documents which contain the facts of his death have become a mystery in their own right and the focus has shifted to the question of declassification.
In April 2015, after it became evident that the government had snooped on the Boses for decades, the Centre set up a committee to explore whether the files could be declassified, and to review the archaic Official Secrets Act, which is impenetrable by the Right to Information in many cases. It would be headed by the cabinet secretary, Ajit Seth, and include officials from intelligence agencies.
What this committee found is not known. But the Centre has found its reason not to declassify the documents and is sticking to it: revealing them will affect national security.
The plot thickens.