While Indians reacted with shock, grief, and disbelief, the British authorities in India had received the news of Bose’s death with a sense of relief. Now that their most uncompromising opponent was probably out of the way, they approved in mid-September 1945 the release of Sarat Chandra Bose and other members of the Bose family, who were being held long after most political prisoners had been released. Soon after the end of the war, New Delhi had sent two groups of intelligence officers, led by Finney and Davies, to Southeast Asia to conduct inquiries and to arrest Bose, if he was alive. Ironically, these groups included two Bengali police officers named H. K. Roy and K. P. De. Mr. Davies’ team, which included H. K. Roy, went first to Saigon and then to Taipei in September 1945.

They interviewed the Japanese military officer in charge of the Saigon airport, military officers at the Taipei airport, and the chief medical officer at the Taipei hospital. The team that went to Bangkok seized a telegram dated August 20 from the chief of staff of the Japanese Southern Army in Saigon to the officer-in-charge of the Hikari Kikan in Bangkok; it contained the news of the crash on the afternoon of August 18 and of Bose’s death that night. The cable reported that Bose’s body had been flown to Tokyo, and Colonel Tada was summoned from Tokyo to Saigon to address this discrepancy. It was due to the fact that the original intention had been to take Bose’s body to Tokyo, but this plan could not be implemented. Finney’s report reached the definite conclusion that Bose had indeed died as a result of the plane crash on August 18, 1945.

The tumultuous reception given by the Indian public to the INA heroes from November 1945 to February 1946 unnerved the British and made them wonder whether Bose had once again deceived them and escaped.

Prem Kumar Sahgal, Shah Nawaz Khan, and Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon had become the symbols of the INA’s political triumph inside India, once the British commander-in-chief felt compelled to release them after their trial at the Red Fort. Indian soldiers in Britain’s Indian Army, as well as in the Royal Indian Air Force and the Royal Indian Navy, had grown increasingly restive. The letter from the intelligence operative in New Delhi to his counterpart in Singapore dated February 19, 1946, revealing British anxiety as to whether Bose was “actually and permanently dead,” was written at the height of the mutiny in the Royal Indian Navy. The British had been worried by Gandhi’s assertion in early January 1946 of his belief that Netaji was alive and would appear at the right moment.

A week before the naval mutiny, Gandhi insisted on speaking about Bose in the present tense. Congressmen interpreted Gandhi’s inner voice to be secret information received from Netaji. There were other rumors making the rounds. According to one, Nehru was said to have received a letter from Bose saying that he was in Russia and wanted to escape to India. He would arrive via Chitral, where one of Sarat Bose’s sons would receive him. Gandhi and Sarat Bose were alleged to be aware of these plans. The intelligence assessment deemed this story “unlikely,” but “a growing belief in India that Bose is alive” was a cause for concern.

On March 30, 1946, Gandhi clarified his views on the matter in his journal Harijan. He referred to the 1942 report on Bose’s death, which he had believed but which later turned out to be incorrect. Since then, he had had “a feeling that Netaji could not leave us until his dreams of swaraj had been fulfilled.” “To lend strength to this feeling,” he added, “was the knowledge of Netaji’s great ability to hoodwink his enemies and even the world for the sake of his cherished goal.” He explained that he had nothing but his “instinct” to tell him “Netaji was alive.” He now conceded that no reliance could be placed on “such unsupported feeling” and that there was “strong evidence to counteract the feeling.” The British government had access to that evidence. He had also heard the testimony of Habibur Rahman and S. A. Ayer. “In the face of these proofs,” the Mahatma wrote, “I appeal to everyone to forget what I have said and, believing in the evidence before them, to reconcile themselves to the fact that Netaji has left us. All man’s ingenuity is as nothing before the might of the one God.”

Far away in Vienna, Emilie appeared to have accepted her tragic loss.

Her home had fallen within the Russian zone of occupation. Bose would have been aware of this development, so his inclination to go to Russia from May 1945 onward may have had a personal as well as a political dimension. Emilie wrote to their Irish friend Mrs. Woods on January 18, 1946, that the Russians had visited their house the previous summer. When the Russians came, the family “had been actually starving.” “No milk for the child for many weeks,” she wrote. “That was the worst.” Mrs. Woods had apparently expressed the view that the news of Bose’s death might not be true.

Emilie thought otherwise: “Re: what you mention about our mutual friend, I am sorry to say I cannot share your hopes. I have somehow the feeling that he has died. If it were not true, nobody should be more glad than myself. I got such a shock when I heard about this incident that for weeks I was only mechanically doing my duties in household and office. The only consolation being little Anita.” Anita was a “real darling” and everyone liked her. “I am still bearing my old name out of certain reasons which I cannot explain here,” she told Mrs. Woods. “But perhaps later on I shall have opportunity to write at greater length to you about all this in detail.” For now, the body had no strength to resist illness, since they were all “completely undernourished” and had lost a great deal of weight. The warrior’s widow provided some poignant reflections on the pity of war: “Would such a war have been necessary at all? What amount of suffering and grieve [sic] it has brought to humanity-and almost every country has had its losses. Everywhere weep mothers, wifes [sic], children and others for the dead ones who fell on the battlefield. And still new means of destructions are sought. The whole world seems to have been plunged into madness.”

In 1946, Mountbatten’s headquarters at Kandy conducted another inquiry into the fate of Subhas Chandra Bose. The relations of Bose’s INA with Mountbatten’s forces had been fraught with tension. Cyril John Stracey had kept his promise to his leader and had erected the memorial to the INA martyrs in record time. Mohammad Zaman Kiani, whom Netaji had left in charge at Singapore, performed the inaugural ceremony of this monument with the INA motto “Faith, Unity, Sacrifice” emblazoned on it. It turned out to be a mournful memorial service for Netaji, the first soldier of India’s army of liberation, and all others who had perished. When the British landed in Singapore on September 5, 1945, the proud INA memorial on the harbour greeted them.

On September 8, Mountbatten’s soldiers-Indians under his command-laid dynamite charges and blew the monument to smithereens as INA soldiers watched with helpless rage. This act of vandalism toward the war dead was not forgotten or forgiven by Indians. The spectre of Subhas Chandra Bose continued to haunt the British during the winter of 1945-1946. Mountbatten’s probe into whether Bose had in fact died was conducted through Colonel J. G. Figgess, who was attached to General MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo and overseen by an American intelligence officer working under the general headquarters of the Supreme Command Allied Powers (SCAP). On July 25, 1946, Figgess reported that their mortal enemy had indeed met his corporeal death on August 18, 1945.

Yet the matter did not end there. The tension between the feeling that he must be alive and the evidence of his death played itself out for decades to come. One night in 1939, Subhas had been walking along Marine Drive in Bombay with his friend Nathalal Parikh, when he had looked up at the moonlit sky and expressed a wish about how he wanted to die: he wanted to fly as high as the stars and then suddenly come crashing down to earth. But that was not the way his people wanted him to go, and certainly not before India was free. The popular yearning for Netaji to return became even stronger in the immediate aftermath of independence and partition.

At the same time, from 1946 to 1956, evidence for the air crash accumulated and became weightier, since there had been six Japanese survivors in addition to Habibur Rahman, and several other direct witnesses at the hospital. In August 1946 an Indian journalist, Harin Shah, visited Taiwan and gathered information on what he described as the gallant end of Netaji. He met among others a Chinese nurse named Tsan Pi Sha, who said she had cared for Netaji at the Nanmon (Southgate) Military Hospital during his final hours on August 18, 1945, and gave correct descriptions of both Netaji and Habibur Rahman. The on-the-spot journalistic inquiries convinced Harin Shah that the news of Netaji’s death as a result of the air crash was true.

On October 19, 1946, a British captain named Alfred Raymond Turner recorded a statement by Captain Yoshimi Taneyoshi, the surgeon in charge at the Taipei hospital, inside the Stanley Gaol in Hong Kong. When the injured were brought from the airport to the hospital, a Japanese military officer had pointed out “Chandra Bose” to him. He was urged to make every possible effort and to give Bose “the very best of treatment.” His patient had suffered extensive burns. “During the first four hours,” according to Dr. Yoshimi, “he was semi-conscious, and practically normal, speaking quite a good deal.”

The doctor believed that the first words he spoke were in Japanese, asking for water, which he was fed through a hospital cup with a spout. It has been speculated that Bose was unlikely to have used the Japanese word meju for water and may have said something about “Mejda,” his elder brother Sarat. “As most of his speaking was in English,” Yoshimi continued in his statement, “a request for an interpreter was made, and one was sent from the Civil Government Offices named Nakamura. He informed me that he had very often interpreted for Chandra Bose and had had many conversations with him. He appeared to have no doubt that the man he was speaking with was Chandra Bose.”

His patient began to sink into unconsciousness after four hours, and died later that night. His adjutant, an Indian colonel, who was also under Yoshimi’s care, wanted Bose’s body to be taken to Tokyo. The doctor therefore injected Formalin into the body and had the coffin partly filled with lime, which was taken to the airport on August 20 by warrant officer Nishi. The officer returned saying that the body, “for some unknown reason,” could not be transported to Japan and had to be cremated in Taipei. Apparently, the coffin was too large for the aircraft. The doctor wrote out a death certificate for the crematorium. Bose’s ashes were handed over to the Indian colonel.

When the Union Jack was lowered and the Indian tricolor hoisted at the Red Fort on August 15, 1947, the physically absent Subhas Chandra Bose had an uncanny presence in the popular imagination.

Calendar art from that period depicted him high in the heavens above the Red Fort observing the independence ceremonies and offering his benediction and protection. The gorier images showed him offering his severed head to Mother India-the ultimate sacrifice to win her freedom. As the euphoria of independence was swept away by the horror of partition violence, a traumatized people lamented the void left by the loss of a unifying leader. Political freedom did not immediately remove deep-seated economic and social injustices. The newly independent nation found it hard to come to terms with Netaji’s mortal end.

On a visit to Japan in 1951, S. A. Ayer met two of the six Japanese survivors from the crash – Colonel Nonogaki and Captain Arai – both of whom corroborated what Habibur Rahman had related. He submitted a report dated September 26, 1951, on his investigations in Tokyo, to the prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, verifying the circumstances of Netaji’s mortal end. In 1952, this report was presented to Parliament.

Yet in the India of the 1950s, there was a widespread refusal to accept Netaji’s death. Many people longed for him to return and solve the country’s myriad problems. In response to insistent public demand, Nehru’s government instituted a formal inquiry committee in 1956, to take a comprehensive look at all the evidence. The three members of the committee were Shah Nawaz Khan of Red Fort trial fame, Suresh Chandra Bose, the eldest surviving brother of Netaji, and S. N. Maitra, an experienced civil servant deputed by the government of West Bengal. This committee took depositions in Delhi and Tokyo from a wide range of direct witnesses and also visited Saigon and Touraine (Da Nang). The committee members were unable to visit Taipei, since India had recognized the People’s Republic of China and did not have diplomatic relations with Chiang Kai-shek’s government in Taiwan.

General Isoda told the Shah Nawaz committee that the plan settled on in Bangkok on August 16 had been for Netaji to go to Tokyo via Saigon and then proceed to Russia via Manchuria. If a move to Russian-held Manchuria proved impossible, there was a general sense that being taken into custody by the Americans in Japan was a better option than falling into the hands of the British. In Saigon, it had been discovered that General Shidei was departing that afternoon for Manchuria to take charge as chief of staff of Japan’s Kwangtung Army.

Mr. Negishi, the Japanese interpreter attached to Netaji from Singapore, described Shidei as an expert in Russian affairs and “a key man for negotiations with Russia.” He also knew German and conversed with Netaji in that language. “Although there was an element of chance in Netaji’s travelling by the same plane as General Shidei,” the committee found, “it appears that Netaji fell in with the idea that he should go up to Dairen [Manchuria] with General Shidei.” The plane in which they traveled was a twin-engine heavy bomber of 97/2 (Sally) type belonging to Japan’s Third Air Force Army, based in Singapore.

Habibur Rahman came to Delhi from Pakistan to tell the Shah Nawaz committee about his experiences on the fateful flight. Dr. Yoshimi repeated in 1956 what he had stated to the British in 1946. In addition, the committee heard the testimony of other medical personnel, including Dr. Yoshimi’s assistant Dr. Tsuruta, who had treated Bose at Nanmon Hospital. Four of the six Japanese survivors of the plane crash – Lieutenant Colonel Shiro Nonogaki, Major Taro Kono, Major Ihaho Takahashi, and Captain Keikichi Arai – appeared in person before the committee in Tokyo. A fifth-Lieutenant Colonel Tadeo Sakai, who was away from Tokyo in 1956 on a special mission to Taiwan-submitted a written statement. The sixth Japanese survivor, Sergeant Okishta, could not be traced in 1956. The ground engineers who had serviced the plane and saw it come down described what had happened, as did other ground staff.

The most compelling evidence came from the interpreter, Juichi Nakamura, who knew Bose well and had interpreted for him on four previous occasions as he passed through Taipei on his journeys to Tokyo in 1943 and 1944.

Bose had stayed at the railway hotel in Taipei during those transits, and Nakamura had dined with him. Upon arrival at Nanmon Hospital on the afternoon of August 18, 1945, Nakamura found a heavily bandaged Netaji lying on a bed and Habibur Rahman on another bed about three feet away. Nakamura asked Habib to come closer to help him decipher what Netaji was saying. Netaji’s first words after Nakamura’s arrival were: “A few more of my men are coming after me. Please take care of them when they come to Formosa.” About half an hour later he inquired, “Where is General Shidei?” Later, he said that he felt blood rushing toward his head. At about nine in the evening, he said, “I want to sleep.” “During all this time,” Nakamura testified, “not a word of complaint either of pain or suffering came from his lips. The Japanese officers at the other end of the room were groaning with pain and crying out that they may be killed rather than continue to endure their suffering. This composure of Netaji surprised all of us.” After Netaji had breathed his last, Nakamura said, the Japanese stood in one line and saluted Netaji’s body. Habibur Rahman came and knelt by Netaji’s bed and prayed for five or six minutes. He then opened the window and prayed again for about ten minutes, looking toward the sky. He then went back to his own bed and lay down.

Nakamura was present at the cremation, along with Habibur Rahman and one Major Nagatomo, and provided a detailed description of the ceremony. The injured Habib held the incense sticks between the edges of his palms, since he could not hold them in his fingers. When they returned the next day to collect the ashes, Habib, with his bandaged hands, had difficulty holding the ten-inch-long chopsticks used to pick up charred bone fragments. Nakamura helped him to put them in an urn. Major Nagatomo, who also testified, described a similar process of picking up the bone fragments, according to Buddhist custom. The urn was then taken to the Nishi Honganji temple, near the hospital.

Another urn containing the ashes of General Shidei was already there. Nakamura explained to the priest that the ashes he had brought belonged to a person of higher status than Shidei. The priest was instructed to place the urn at a higher level and offer fresh flowers every morning. The Shah Nawaz committee also heard from Tatsuo Hayashida, who had carried the urn on the plane journey with Habibur Rahman from Taipei to Japan on September 5, 1945. S. A. Ayer, Habibur Rahman, Rama Murti, Jaya Murti, and Reverend Mochizuki testified on what happened to the urn after it was handed over by the Japanese imperial army, and how it found its final resting place in the Renko-ji temple.

Following the hearings conducted from April to June 1956, the three members of the committee signed a draft of principal findings on July 2. According to this draft, all three members agreed that “the plane carrying Netaji did crash.” There was no reason to doubt the witnesses, belonging to various nationalities and walks of life, who all testified that Netaji had met his death as a result of this crash. After putting his signature to this draft, one of the members, Suresh Chandra Bose, changed his mind and wrote a rambling dissent claiming that the crash had not occurred and that his brother was alive.

To be sure, there were several minor discrepancies in the versions given by various witnesses eleven years after the event. The time of death, for example, ranged between eight in the evening and midnight of August 18, 1945. Dr. Yoshimi and Dr. Tsuruta did not agree on whether or not a blood transfusion had been given. The original death certificate signed by Dr. Yoshimi could not be found. Nevertheless, the direct witnesses provided evidence that was broadly consistent; Shah Nawaz Khan and S. N. Maitra marshalled it with great skill, and placed it in a cogently argued majority report that was subsequently issued by the government of India.

The report stated categorically that Netaji’s mortal end came as the result of the plane crash in Taipei on August 18, 1945. “There is no reason to disbelieve the large number of witnesses, both Japanese and non-Japanese,” it said. “There is no evidence before us to show that the plane in question did not crash at Taihoku.” The report also noted that there was “no break in the chain” in the depositions regarding the movement of Netaji’s ashes from the crematorium to Nishi Honganji temple in Taipei to Minami aerodrome to Tokyo Imperial Headquarters to Mr. Rama Murti’s house to Mrs. Sahay’s house and finally to the Renko-ji temple. It conceded that “such precautions as were necessary to prove indisputable identity,” such as, seals, receipts, and continuous watch, were not taken. Nevertheless, the committee was of the considered view that “in all probability the ashes kept in Renko-ji temple, Tokyo, are the ashes of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.”

The final recommendation of the Shah Nawaz committee had three unambiguous sentences: “The Committee has come to the conclusion that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose met his death in an air crash and the ashes now at Renko-ji temple, Tokyo, are his ashes…. It is time that his ashes were brought to India with due honor, and a memorial erected over them at a suitable place…. If Netaji’s mortal remains are honored, and his ideals kept alive, then one could truly ask, `Where is death’s sting, where, grave, thy victory?’”

Nehru’s government failed to implement this clear recommendation, even though it agreed with the majority view rather than the dissent. With the matter unsettled, rumors that Netaji was still alive increased in the 1960s. Reports of the unlikeliest sightings were disseminated: people claimed to have spotted him as an ascetic in India, a prisoner in Russia. Some rumormongers hinted darkly at foul play by Nehru himself.

In 1970, Indira Gandhi decided to appoint an eminent jurist, G. D. Khosla, as a one-man commission of inquiry to investigate the matter all over again. With the passage of time, fewer direct witnesses were available, and the commission heard testimony from almost anyone with theories to propound. Nevertheless, four of the Japanese survivors of the air crash – Sakai, Nonogaki, Kono, and Takahashi – repeated their testimony before the Khosla commission. Justice Khosla’s essential findings, presented in 1974, were the same as that of Shah Nawaz Khan and S. N. Maitra. He concluded that Netaji had been gravely wounded in the air crash and had “succumbed to his injuries” on the night of August 18, 1945.

Khosla engaged in a bit of special pleading for Nehru, emphasising the friendly personal relations between Nehru and Bose, Bose’s respect for Nehru, and Nehru’s affection for Bose. He was scathing about those who had come to his commission’s hearings with improbable tales to tell. “The numerous stories about encounters with Bose at various times and various places after 1945,” Khosla wrote, “are completely false and unacceptable. They are the result either of hallucination helped by wishful thinking or have been invented by persons who wanted to draw attention to themselves and advertise themselves as public-spirited men”.

The Khosla report, issued in 1974, fell victim to political partisanship in India. Indira Gandhi’s government, which had instituted the inquiry, lost the general election of 1977. The Janata Party, after assuming power in New Delhi, set aside Khosla’s findings. More than two decades later, in 1999, yet another one-man commission was appointed by the government to conduct a fresh inquiry. A retired Bengali judge named Manoj Mukherjee held court for nearly six years, providing a venue for increasingly fanciful stories about Netaji’s whereabouts since August 1945.

The judge himself harboured a preconceived notion, as he confessed in 2010, that Bose was living as an ascetic in the north Indian town of Faizabad decades after 1945. In October 2002, he sent letters to members of the Bose family asking them to donate one milliliter of blood for a DNA match with “one Gumnami Baba,” who “some persons” had claimed was “none other than Netaji Subhas Chandra The evidence naturally did not support this bizarre theory. Yet by entertaining the most preposterous claims, the judge managed to add to the confusion in the public mind about the life and death of a great leader of the independence movement.

The Mukherjee Commission made no distinction between the highly probable and the utterly impossible. In May 2006, after six long years, it submitted a report stating that the air crash on August 18, 1945, had not occurred at all. The basis for this finding was a message from the government of Taiwan saying that it did not possess any records of that crash. It could not be expected to do so, since in August 1945 Taiwan had been under Japanese military occupation. The Japanese had not relinquished control over Taiwan until the spring of 1946, and the Chiang Kai-shek government had consolidated itself on the island only after the communist victory on the mainland of China in 1949. The Manmohan Singh government, quite sensibly, rejected outright the Mukherjee commission’s report, while submitting it to Parliament. Yet the government of India has so far neglected to take steps to honour Netaji’s mortal remains and to keep his ideals alive, as the Shah Nawaz Khan committee had advocated in 1956.

Excerpted with permission from His Majesty’s Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose and India’s Struggle Against Empire, Penguin India.