A favourite grand-uncle of mine, Major Abid Hasan, was one of Netaji Bose’s closest aides. He was the one who accompanied Netaji on his historic submarine voyage from Germany to Japan in 1943, and also the one who coined the phrase “Jai Hind”. So it was not surprising that I grew up on legends of Netaji, and his vision for India.

Going through my grand-uncle’s personal papers recently, the family discovered a cache of old photographs taken in Germany in 1941, when Netaji was working on setting up the Azad Hind Fauj, a unit of Indian troops who would fight alongside the German army. These old black-and-white photographs, taken on my grand-uncle’s Rolleiflex camera have never been seen before – and looking at them today raises the uncomfortable question: Was Netaji a fascist?

The answer is “No."

But then it could also perhaps be “Yes”.

It all depends on how you choose to look at the question.

‘The systems of the future’

What we must realise is that the 1930s was a time when political ideologies and systems the world over were in a state of flux, and the future looked unclear. It was an era when many people had become disillusioned with the liberal democracies of the West, especially as a result of the Great Depression. On the other hand, there were new political and economic systems that seemed to be bringing about historic transformations in different parts of the world.

One was Stalinism, which appeared to be dramatically transforming Russia with its Five-year Plans, from a backward, agriculture-based society to a progressive, modern, industrialised, egalitarian nation. (Obviously there was a lot about Stalin and Russia that the world didn’t know about at the time, thanks to superb propaganda.)

The other system that was on the ascendant was Fascism which, first introduced in Italy, and now under the leadership of the charismatic Benito Mussolini, appeared to be transforming another backward country into a dynamic new force that many in Europe looked upon with admiration and envy. Indeed, fascism was spoken of by many political thinkers as being “the system of the future”. People with world-views as diverse as Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi had expressed admiration for Mussolini and what he was doing.

Mussolini was, in fact, the role model for Adolf Hitler, who had recently come to power in Germany, and was working to pull that country out of the turmoil it had descended into after World War I – although the equation between the two of them would soon change. (As Mussolini himself once put it, “The difference between me and Hitler is that I am the first-rate leader of a second-rate country, and he is the second-rate leader of a first-rate country.”)

But perhaps, even more relevant to the Indian context, there was Kemal Ataturk, the great Turkish leader of the time, who, though not actually a Fascist, had created his own unique form of autocracy, named “Kemal-ism”, which was rapidly transforming Turkey from the backward, decadent state it was under the Ottomans, into a progressive, secular, forward-looking 20th century nation.

‘A synthesis of Socialism and Fascism’

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose had been appointed the head of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation at the remarkably young age of 27 – a mark of his brilliance, eclecticism and forceful leadership. Later, while in prison for his supposed contacts with terrorist revolutionaries, he read widely about political theory, including seminal works like Francesco Nitti’s Bolshevism, Fascism and Democracy and Ivanoe Bonomi’s From Socialism to Fascism. And based on this he formed an important part of his political philosophy. (In fact, when he wrote his own book The Indian Struggle in 1935, he would go to Rome to personally present a copy of it to Mussolini, with whom he shared a relationship of mutual respect.)

When Netaji was elected Mayor of Calcutta at age 33, he made a speech, in which he outlined his idea of his philosophy:

 “a synthesis of what modern Europe calls Socialism and Fascism. We have here the justice, the equality, the love, which is the basis of Socialism, and combined with that we have the efficiency and discipline of Fascism as it stands in Europe today.”

On another occasion he added:

“The next phase in world history will produce a synthesis between Communism and Fascism. And will it be a surprise if that synthesis is produced in India?”

As Netaji rose rapidly through the Congress hierarchy through the 1930s, becoming one of the triumvirate of "Gandhi-Nehru-Bose", differences of opinion began to emerge with Gandhiji. One important difference was that Netaji believed that Gandhiji’s approach of non-violence was ineffectual, while Gandhiji and Nehru, both viscerally anti-fascist, were worried about Netaji’s apparent fascination for fascism. As Nehru once said about fascism,

“Hitler and Japan must go to hell. (They) represent brutish reactionary forces and their victory would mean the victory of the reactionary forces in the world.” 

And if Netaji chose their side, Nehru added, he was sadly misguided.

However, Netaji would continue to work all through his life towards his idealistic vision of "Samyavada", which sought to fuse the positive elements of socialism and fascism. As he said in a speech shortly before he died (or disappeared), after India won independence, she would need 20 years of dictatorship, to ultimately “put her on her feet”.

My enemy’s enemy

To the question, "Was Netaji a fascist?” there are, perhaps, two parts: one concerns his own personal convictions, and the other concerns the support he took from Germany and Japan with a view to furthering his political aims, in the spirit of “My enemy’s enemy is my friend." It was not very different from Churchill allying with his arch-enemy Stalin to defeat Germany. As Churchill put it at the time, “If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” Netaji could probably say the same thing.

In 1941, Netaji, having escaped from house arrest, made his way, first, to Moscow, where he believed that Stalin – whom he admired greatly – would help him set up his Indian government-in-exile. But Stalin, for whatever reason, gave him no encouragement. As a result, Netaji turned to the Germans, who were more forthcoming, and arranged for him to fly to Berlin.

Once in Germany, Netaji had two objectives: one, to set up an Indian government-in-exile, and the other to create the Azad Hind Fauj, or "Legion Freies Indien", a force of 50,000 Indian troops, raised mainly from the Indian prisoners-of-war captured by Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Netaji wanted them to be trained to the highest standards of the German army, so that they would form an elite fighting force which would – after the imminent German conquest of the Middle East – enter India from Afghanistan at the head of a combined German-Russian-Italian-Indian army of liberation.

But unfortunately for Netaji, things in Germany didn’t work out the way he intended them to, despite his best efforts. First, the German government didn’t take him as seriously as he had expected (and in any case, it turned out that the Germans probably had rather different objectives for India’s future).

Second, when Hitler finally agreed to meet him, after nearly a year of waiting, that crucial meeting didn’t go well, with Netaji asking Hitler to reconsider his racial views, including those that pertained to Indians – something that was not very realistic.

And third, just two months after Netaji arrived in Berlin, the Germans inconveniently attacked Russia, a regime that Netaji had great admiration and sympathy for. Hearing about the impending attack, Netaji urgently advised the German government that it would be a serious political mistake for them to do so – again, something that was not very realistic, given Hitler’s world-view and strategy. As the saying goes, “If you sup with the devil, you should have a long spoon”.

Perhaps Netaji’s spoon was too short – as well as too long.

Fascist? Or Kemalist?

So, to come back to the question, “Was Netaji a Fascist?” the short answer is, “Maybe”.

But not in the brutish, discredited sense of "fascism" as we understand the term today. And there are various reasons for that. Three of the main reasons are:

First, Netaji was too much of a humanist to be an archetypal fascist, and people who worked closely with him said that while he believed in "military discipline", he was, in fact, very democratic in the public roles he played over the years. During his tenure as Congress Party president, for example, he never acted in an un-democratic manner, or sought to use un-constitutional methods or powers.

Second, unlike the archetypal fascist, he was extremely inclusive in his approach, towards all groups and peoples (including women). The fact that the three top leaders of the INA who were tried for treason in 1946 were General Shahnawaz Khan, Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon and Colonel Prem Sahgal eloquently says it all – as does the fact that the Rani of Jhansi Regiment took part in Netaji’s Burma campaign, shoulder to shoulder with the men of the INA regiments.

And third, any authoritarian impulse came, not from a pathological obsession for adulation or power (as is the case with the archetypal fascist leader), but simply from his frustration with the perceived ineffectiveness of other alternative systems.

It is fair to conclude, therefore, that perhaps Netaji was not a fascist at all. He was, rather, a rugged autocrat in the style of Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, who re-created his nation based on his “Six Arrows", or fundamental principles, of Republicanism, Populism, Nationalism, Secularism, Statism and Reformism, which he personally supervised and implemented over a period of 15 years. It was just the kind of thing that Netaji might have done.

So Netaji’s Kemal-istic autocracy, or Nehru’s enlightened liberal democracy? Take your pick.

Netaji died (or disappeared, depending on your point of view) on August 18, 1945, when he appears to have been on his way to Manchuria, en route to Russia, to meet with Stalin and seek his help in continuing the fight for India’s freedom. One theory, of course, is that Stalin had him despatched to a concentration camp in Siberia, where he ultimately died. Which would have been such an ironic thing, considering the fact that of all the world leaders of the time, Stalin was one of the people whom Netaji held in the greatest esteem.

But if the idealistic Netaji had worked all his life to find a synthesis of the positive elements of socialism and fascism, the brutal Stalin had already perfected the synthesis of the darkest elements of the two. No wonder they called him the ‘Red Fascist’.

Other photographs taken on the author's grand-uncle’s Rolleiflex camera in Germany, 1941.