Sometime in late June 1993, Ronen Sen, then India’s ambassador to Russia, was startled to hear from the Indologist Albert Belsky that the forthcoming issues of Asia and Africa Today, a bi-monthly journal devoted to social and political affairs, based in Moscow, would publish a series of articles portraying Subhas Chandra Bose as an agent of MI6 (the secret intelligence service of the British government responsible for gathering foreign intelligence, while the security service or MI5 is responsible for internal security).

Sen was informed that the articles would be based on classified archival material belonging to the KGB (the intelligence arm of the government of the Soviet Union). Wary of the damaging consequences of the revelations, Sen wrote to the foreign secretary, Jyotindra Nath Dixit on 24 June 1993, informing him that a few Indian journalists in Moscow had got wind of the forthcoming stories. Sen also despatched Ajai Malhotra, then Information Counsellor at India’s embassy in Moscow, to meet the deputy chief editor of the magazine VK Tourdjev, unearth the information he had about Bose and try to dissuade him from publishing scurrilous stories about the Indian patriot.

Malhotra met Tourdjev on 29 June 1993. The editor confirmed that his magazine would publish the articles, the first of which was to be titled The Secret Behind the Death of SC Bose. He showed Malhotra – though displayed at a distance – a letter dated 11 December 1943, marked “Top Secret” and addressed to Colonel AP Osipov, a Soviet intelligence offcer.

Written by Colonel GA Hill of British intelligence, it said that Bose had “cooperated” with MI6 and that one of his close associates was a KGB agent. Tourdjev told Malhotra that his contacts in the KGB had provided him with all the inputs for the planned articles and that he was exhibiting the communication as proof that the articles would be based on evidence.

Malhotra was also told that the articles would argue that Bose had escaped from house arrest in Calcutta in January 1941 and made his way to Kabul with the full knowledge of the British and that is why he could survive in the distant capital of Afghanistan for a whole month without being arrested by the security forces.

None of Netaji’s India-specific orders given out from Germany – like subversion activities on India’s western frontier – were ever meant to be carried out. After all, it was all part of a British plan, with Bose acting on their orders.

Malhotra was rather alarmed and without delay, passed on a comprehensive note to Ambassador Sen who, in turn forwarded it to New Delhi for further action. The establishment in the Indian capital failed to gauge the importance of the information emanating from Moscow. They did not understand that Netaji had become the “fall guy” in a “great game” between intelligence departments which have a penchant for planting misleading information in their quest to “destroy” enemies.

The Indian establishment of the time seems to have been under the grip of the overarching thought – how would Indians react upon learning that Netaji was a British agent? It is ironic that the Indian government entertained the preposterous suggestion that Bose was an agent of the British Empire – throughout his life he had been its sworn enemy.

Thus, instead of taking up cudgels for one of India’s greatest freedom fighters and asserting that the purported evidence against him had been circulated by the MI6 with an ulterior motive, the mandarins of South Block and North Block of the Government of India’s secretariat on New Delhi’s Raisina Hill fell back on an old stratagem.

They decided the best way to bring about a resolution to the disquieting information would be to prove that Netaji had, in fact, died in the air crash in Taiwan and that the ashes stored in an urn at Tokyo’s Renkoji Temple was that of the patriot. This, it was hoped, would put a lid on the various theories around his disappearance at the end of World War II, once and for all.

It would be like the Hindi epithet mouthed by Pran, who is famous for essaying the role of the quintessential villain in Bollywood movies: “Naa rahe baans, na baje bansuri” (which, loosely translated, means, “If there is no bamboo, how can a  flute be fashioned?”). In effect, this meant that if the cause of action was taken away, would there be any action?

Towards this end, in October 1993 orders went out from Amar Nath Verma, principal secretary to Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao to settle the controversy about Netaji’s ashes before his birth centenary in January 1997. Home secretary K Padmanabhaiah tried hard to persuade members of the Bose family to accept that it was indeed Netaji’s ashes that were stored at Renkoji Temple. A high-profile minister of the government also called on Emilie Schenkl, Netaji’s widow who was then living in Germany, to accept once and for all that her illustrious husband had died in Taihoku (Taipei) airport.

Nothing came of the effort.

A few years later, when retired Supreme Court judge, Manoj Kumar Mukherjee – of the single-member Commission instituted in 1999 after a Calcutta High Court order to inquire into the disappearance of Netaji – demanded to see the related files, incumbent home secretary Kamal Pande refused to part with them.

Pande filed an affidavit with the Commission stating that the revelations in the files would lower the image of Netaji in the public eye and lead to public disorder, besides affecting relations with friendly foreign countries.

Till this date – in 2015 – the Government of India has been chary about declassifying the files on the same plea. In reality Bose had shaken the confidence of the British establishment when he escaped from house arrest in Calcutta late on the night of 16 or 17 January 1941, hoodwinking the intelligence agents stationed in large numbers outside the Bose home in Calcutta’s tony Elgin Road. The sleuths had their informers within the house, the servants, but Bose had so meticulously planned his escape that very few knew of his audacious plan.

After his fallout with the Congress bosses in 1939, Bose – who had been elected president of the party, defeating the official candidate (who had the blessings of Mahatma Gandhi) – had to resign his position and leave the party. Even though the British sensed that Bose was on a weak wicket, they felt that he could not be trusted to lie low with World War II raging, unlike the other Congress worthies who seemed willing to support the War e ort. Bose was arrested and packed off to Calcutta’s Alipore Presidency Jail, the British hoping to keep him imprisoned till the end of the War.

Subhas Bose had a robust personality and was not one who would have passively accepted a situation of enforced inaction. He would soon devise a way out of jail. As part of his plan, he went on an indefinite hunger strike and allowed his health to deteriorate. The British administration went into one big scare. Afraid of antagonising Indians if something were to happen to Bose while in jail, the administration released him and put him under house arrest in his family home in the city. From here, he gave his jailers the slip.

The sleuths posted outside the house had no clue that Bose had manoeuvred his way out and escaped. They were under the impression that he was at home but had withdrawn into the recesses of his room for spiritual exercises. That Subhas was spiritually inclined was known to all. When, ten days after his escape, family members declared Subhas missing, he was crossing over the frontier between India and Afghanistan, having travelled incognito on a long train journey that took him from Calcutta to Peshawar. From Afghanistan he intended to cross the border into the Soviet Union.

The British still had no clue about Bose’s whereabouts and their first instinct was that he had boarded a ship out of Calcutta and was headed to Japan. Later they figured out that he could be on his way to Germany.

Immediately instructions were issued to the Special Operations Executive – a war-time irregular force created on the orders of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill for various subversive activities – to execute Bose on sight. The British expected Bose to cross over to Germany via Istanbul and planned to target him there. As it turned out, Bose’s first choice was not Germany, but the Soviet Union.

Excerpted with permission from Netaji: Living Dangerously, Kingshuk Nag, Paranjoy.