Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose can be considered a tragic hero, a most unfortunate man since he did not live to see his beloved country – India – free of foreign occupation, oppression and colonial exploitation. But he can also be considered a fortunate man, because seventy-two years after his death many of his compatriots – who may not have even seen him personally – remember, love and respect him as their hero and idol.
For some he was and remains a person “larger than life”, a legend who could have achieved anything – even living beyond the normal maximum life expectancy or growing further inches as an adult person. This is not entirely surprising. Because looking back at what he did, many of his actions certainly were heroic, highly risky and inconceivable for most “ordinary” people.
Going out to look after people sick with cholera as a mere teenager, being “rusticated” as a student leader for confronting his arrogant British professor rather aggressively, resigning from the Indian Civil Service (ICS) after being appointed for a highly coveted post, escaping from home arrest by the British to embark on an adventurous and dangerous journey via Afghanistan and the Soviet Union to Germany during World War II, were some of his actions.
The most dangerous and adventurous step was, maybe, a journey from Germany to the Far East in German and Japanese submarines during the ongoing World War II. It is not quite surprising that during that period reports of his death were received which were later proven wrong.
If we consider that this romantic hero lived during a period of time which now is history, we have to take into account that his life unfolded without modern means of transportation and communication. Those were the years when flying from Europe to India took several days. Short-wave radio transmissions, telegraph and telephone without direct dialling between countries and continents were in use then. Moreover, the later part of his life fell into a period of a savage, almost world-wide war when even the normal means of communication and transportation were not available.
Netaji’s death was, once again, reported in the late summer of 1945, at the cataclysmic end of World War II. Those were certainly times when gaining proof of what had happened was not easy. On top of these difficulties, there existed vested interests by various countries to keep certain facts secret. Information was partly classified for many years and the fact that a number of documents were kept classified far beyond the usual period of thirty years, gave rise to added speculation: “Who is hiding something? Why?”
Apart from the historical background we have to consider the personal and emotional side as well. A number of persons close to Netaji, first and foremost his brother Sarat and his wife Emilie, my mother, felt an unusually deep personal love and commitment to him. His death was unbearable and almost inconceivable for them. Not surprisingly, following the first shock on receiving the news of his death in a plane crash in what is now called Taipei they started hoping and speculating, “What if he has managed to escape once again? Is it possible?”
At the end of World War II, Netaji was certainly one of the most hated persons for the British rulers. It has since then become known that plans for his assassination had existed much earlier – during the time after his escape from India to Germany in 1941. Had he fallen into the hands of the Allied forces after the end of the war, it needs no flight of imagination to envisage his being put on trial at the Red Fort or elsewhere, ending with his death sentence.
Thus it is also understandable that some consider his quiet assassination a definite alternative. After all, the Red Fort Trial of the three Indian National Army (INA) officers – Colonel Prem Kumar Sahgal, Major General Shah Nawaz Khan and Colonel Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon – showed, once again, that such trials can create martyrs and heroes, not traitors.
What was the status of India in 1945 and thereafter? India was still part of the British Empire till August 1947. A “transfer of power” and the partition of India into the two sovereign states of India and Pakistan were prepared for by Britain with the Congress and the Muslim League leadership. Is it all that surprising that some people in India speculated whether the new leadership of India had to agree not to offer a safe haven and a prominent place in forming the new country to Britain’s most hated enemy?
Admittedly, these are all reasons for being uncertain about what happened to Netaji at the end of World War II. Three inquiry commissions were installed by the Indian government to investigate the circumstances of Netaji’s death, headed by Shah Nawaz Khan (1956), Judge GD Khosla (1970–74) and Judge Manoj Kumar Mukherjee (1999–2005). The first two came to the conclusion that Netaji died in a plane crash on 18 August 1945. Suresh Chandra Bose, an elder brother of Netaji, was a member of the Shah Nawaz Khan Committee. He wrote a dissenting report claiming that his brother had not died.
The Mukherjee Report, after concluding that all the alternative theories about Netaji’s death were false, concluded that Netaji was in Taihoku (Taipei) on 18 August 1945, but that it is uncertain what happened thereafter. He claims that no plane crash took place on that day. The written evidence available constitutes the exclusive basis for his conclusions. A former Indian diplomat to Taiwan informed me, however, that he had been told that a plane crash had taken place there at the time.
The present publication of documents contains excerpts of various different reports and eyewitness statements, which agree on the major facts regarding the plane crash and the consequent death of Netaji. Certain divergences in minor facts, such as the exact time or minor details, do not seem sufficient reason to dismiss them as false. The fact that the cremation document gave another name is puzzling, but has to be viewed also in the context of the time of cremation. There existed, no doubt, a great concern that Netaji’s remains might fall into the hands of the Allied powers.
On the other hand, a variety of alternative speculations about the sighting of Netaji after 18 August 1945 seem highly speculative and unrealistic, as exemplified by the findings of Judge Mukherjee in his report pertaining to the alternative theories he investigated.
An anecdote was recounted about a sighting of Netaji (not discussed in the Mukherjee Report), conjecturing that Netaji returned to India as Swami Agehananda Bharati, a Hindu monk of Austrian parentage and later professor at Cornell University, Syracuse, USA. He was more than two metres tall. When it was pointed out that he could definitely not be Netaji because he was so much taller, people insisted that it certainly would be no problem for Netaji to grow some further inches. While not all legends pertaining to Netaji are quite as absurd, this story illustrates the nature of these often fantastic claims.
If we consider the state of general information available in the later 1940s, it is totally understandable that at the time an uncertainty prevailed regarding what had happened to Netaji. After all, some documents had not been made public at that time. When Sarat Chandra Bose died in 1950 he could still cling to the hope that his beloved brother had not died. And his belief also upheld Emilie’s hope that her husband had survived. However, as evidence became available from the mid-1950s, the only consistent story about Netaji’s demise remains his death in a plane crash on 18 August 1945. For me personally, this fact was brought home most strikingly when I had the opportunity to be present during the interview of one of the survivors of the plane crash by Professor Leonard Gordon in Tokyo in 1979.
Further support for this was gained when both the declassification of documents regarding Netaji by the Bengal and the Indian governments, which was certainly overdue, revealed no evidence of any mysterious conspiracies. And Russia continued to state that Netaji had not been to the Soviet Union after he had passed through the country on his way to Germany in 1941.
For most of those people who continue to doubt Netaji’s death in Taihoku in August 1945, one possible option for proof would be a DNA test of the remains of Netaji – provided DNA can be extracted from the bones remaining after his cremation. However, the governments of India and Japan would have to agree to such an attempt. Pending such a decision, the reader should fnd interesting evidence in the compilation of documents published by Ashis Ray on www.bosefiles.info and in this book.
Excerpted with permission from Laid To Rest: The Controversy Over Subhas Chandra Bose’s Death, foreward by Anita Pfaff, Ashis Ray, Roli Books.
A behind-the-scenes actor in former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao’s abortive attempt to bring Subhas Chandra Bose’s remains to India in the mid-1990s, London-based author Ashis Ray is the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent, having uninterruptedly worked in this capacity for over 40 years, mainly for BBC and CNN, but also for India’s Ananda Bazar Group and the Times of India. The book is a culmination of 30 years of extensive research in Taiwan, Japan, Pakistan, Russia, Britain and the United States.