On August 23, 1945, just days after the end of World War II, the Japanese Domei news agency, citing official Japanese military sources, announced that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose had died a few days earlier, on August 18, 1945, in a plane crash at the Japanese-controlled Matsuyama military airport in Taihoku (now Taiwan). More than seven decades after this dramatic and distressing announcement, the official account of Netaji’s death continues to be heavily challenged in India, and his alleged remains continue to be held in an urn at Renkoji Temple in Tokyo.

In all these years, a cross-section of the people of India through generations have refused to accept the official Japanese account and maintain that Netaji disappeared at the close of the war.

There have been no less than three official Indian enquiries into the matter. The first two enquiries – Shah Nawaz Committee (1956) and Khosla Commission (1970-1974) – confirmed that Netaji died in Taiwan following a plane crash as reported by the Japanese authorities.

The third and most recent enquiry – between 1999 and 2005 – by retired judge Manoj Kumar Mukherjee concluded that Netaji did not die in, or as a result of, any plane crash, and that the cremated remains in the Renkoji Temple are not his. Justice Mukherjee’s Report provides no explanation as to what actually happened to Netaji if he did not die in the plane crash. The Government of India did not accept Mukherjee’s findings and gave its reasons. Today, both the Indian and Japanese governments continue to hold the position that Netaji died as a result of injuries received in a plane crash soon after take-off, as described by sworn witnesses to the Shah Nawaz and Khosla enquiries.

Meanwhile, the debate on Netaji’s fate rages on, with many insisting to this day that the official reports of his death are false, and that with the connivance of his Japanese hosts, he had slipped away. As to where he might have resurfaced is a matter of continuing conjecture and speculation, ranging from the faintly plausible to the patently absurd. What is certain is that there have been no independently-confirmed sightings of Netaji since he stepped off a Japanese military aircraft that had arrived in Saigon from Bangkok on August 17, 1945.

Especially damaging for the image, reputation and legacy of Netaji since then is the continuing circulation of fabricated stories that this fearless hero and icon of freedom had returned to India as a baba or sadhu. From the 1950s, it was Shaulmari Baba in West Bengal, followed by Mouni Baba of Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh, Jyotirdev Baba of Seopur Kalan in Madhya Pradesh, Hanuman Giri Baba of Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh and many others masquerading as Netaji.

Of all the Netaji-turned sadhu stories and alleged sightings of him over the decades, the most persistent one, which is also among the most fanciful, is that concerning the so-called Gumnami Baba of Faizabad. Gumnami Baba reportedly lived in various places in Uttar Pradesh for 40-odd years until his death in 1985. His samadhi in a place called Guptarghat in Faizabad is marked with a date of birth (January 23, 1897) but no date of death. No death certificate has been produced, nor photos of any cremation. In fact no photo of this Gumnami or nameless sadhu is known to exist. A widely-circulated photo on social media is a doctored photo of Netaji himself where he is made to look older, and with a long white beard.

A series of excellent investigative articles relating to this Gumnami Baba, by Dhirendra Jha in Scroll.in, brought into sharp relief the absurdity of the “Netaji as Gumnami Baba” story. A virulent campaign to propagate the story is being conducted on social media, supported by die-hard believers and others with more sinister motives in mind. Any critique of or opposition to this story is met by trolls spewing venom and menace, and no one is spared, particularly members of the Bose family.

The visual on the right, which is being circulated as that of Gumnami Baba, is a computer-generated extrapolation by an illustrator working with a newspaper of what Bose would have looked like had he grown old and sported a beard. He used the photo of Netaji on the left as the base.

The family connection

The contention that the man who was dubbed the “Enemy of Empire” by the British, actually returned to India in the disguise of a sadhu, lived for 40 years in isolation from his dear family and his beloved Bengal, hiding behind a curtain and dying anonymously, should be treated with contempt.

During his lifetime, Netaji was very close to his immediate and extended family. He doted on his parents, bonded closely with his siblings, particularly his older brother Sarat Chandra Bose, was extremely fond of his much younger nephews and nieces, and wrote voluminously and lovingly to several of them, even in the most trying of circumstances for himself. That he would not have been in contact with any of them, not even his wife Emilie Schenkl and infant daughter Anita, after somehow surviving beyond 1945, is simply not credible.

The immediate reactions of the Bose family to the news of Subhas’ death were those of great sorrow and a huge sense of loss. For Emilie, who was living with her young daughter amidst the hardships of Soviet-occupied post-war Vienna, the news came as a brutal shock via the radio.

For brother Sarat, incarcerated by the British far away from home and family in Coonoor in southern India, the news came just as impersonally through the newspapers delivered to him by his British jailers. Curiously, shortly before this heart-breaking news reached him, he recorded in his personal diary that his younger brother Subhas had visited him in a dream.

Sarat Chandra Bose was released from detention in September 1945, and returned home to his family in Calcutta. As the Bose family, in a state of deep shock and distress, sought to digest the news of the death of Subhas, reports and speculation that he had made another spectacular escape soon began to emerge, and be drawn to the attention of his family. A number of other factors combined to nurture uncertainty about Netaji’s death, and in doing so gave rise to some hope that he might still be alive.

Sarat Chandra Bose.

Cause for hope

In the first place, this was not the first time that Netaji had been reported killed in a plane crash during the war. Second, there were no definitive photographs available of the alleged crash in Taiwan, nor of the victims. Third, it was not until more than 10 years later, in 1956, and after the setting up of the Shah Nawaz Committee, before a full picture of the circumstances of the crash emerged. This was well after Sarat Chandra Bose’s untimely death in February 1950.

Right up until his death, Sarat Chandra Bose clearly harboured what he referred to as “just a feeling” that his brother was still alive, a sentiment which he shared with Emilie. It was in this frame of mind that he thought he saw the hand of Subhas in a message of 1949 from the new Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung. In an open challenge to the Government of India under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarat demanded that the government reveal what they knew of Netaji’s fate.

From a reading of private correspondence, it is clear that neither Sarat Chandra Bose nor Emilie Schenkl had anything more than hope to cling to. Bivabati, Sarat’s widow, lamented on her deathbed in 1955 that she had waited in vain for her much-loved and much-missed brother-in-law Subhas to return.

As early as the closing months of 1945, word was coming to the Bose family that Subhas Chandra Bose had not died in the alleged plane crash and had been sighted here and there. Even men of such eminence as the Indian judge on the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, Dr Radha Binod Pal, had expressed doubts about the air crash account and communicated these to Sarat Chandra Bose.

Ten days after the announcement of the air crash in Taiwan, US General Douglas MacArthur sent out an Allied intelligence team from his headquarters in Manila to investigate the alleged crash. American journalist Alfred Wagg, a war correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, joined this team. In late December 1945, he came to Calcutta to meet Sarat Chandra Bose, and reportedly suggested that there had been no plane crash.

Outside India, when Sarat Chandra Bose was travelling in Europe in 1949, Dr Lily Abegg, a Swiss author, journalist and war correspondent, reportedly informed him that she had heard in 1946 from Japanese sources that Subhas Chandra Bose was still alive.

Then there was Raimund Schnabel, a German journalist who told Emilie Schenkl sometime in the early 1950s that according to his KGB contacts, Bose was in Russian captivity.

Such stories persist till today, but with no real evidence. It is little wonder then that the Bose family remained unsure: such reports planted a ray of hope in the family that somehow Netaji had escaped and survived the war and beyond.

Sarat Chandra Bose died six years before the advent of the Shah Nawaz Committee of enquiry, which extensively interviewed survivors and witnesses of the alleged air crash in Taiwan, including Netaji aide Habib ur Rahman. Most of them had been interviewed about the crash for the first time.

Subhas Chandra Bose and wife Emilie Shenkl in 1937.

Stories of Netaji’s escape and survival continue unabated, especially following Justice Mukherjee’s pronouncement that he did not die in the alleged plane crash.

As late as the 1990s, contacts in Europe gave hope to my father Amiya Nath Bose, nephew of Netaji, that his beloved uncle had indeed lived beyond August 1945 and had ended up in Russia.

Earlier in 1978, when my father was the Indian ambassador to Burma, his Pakistani counterpart Ambassador Irtiza Hussein had informed him that Habib ur Rahman was alive in Pakistan and would be ready to meet him. My father had mentioned this to Burmese President General Ne Win who encouraged him to invite Habib ur Rahman to Burma. Father did so, and Habib ur Rahman accepted, but alas he died before he could make the trip.

Even earlier, in 1958, Amiya Nath Bose had met Pietro Quoroni, Italy’s ambassador to Germany, in Bonn, who told him that he did not believe that Subhas Chandra Bose had died in the alleged plane crash. Quoroni had been the head of the Italian Mission in Kabul in 1941 and had provided Subhas Chandra Bose with a fake passport to facilitate his onward travels from Afghanistan to Russia and onwards to Germany. Sadly, my father died in 1996 not knowing for sure what had really happened to his uncle Subhas.

Madhuri Bose, daughter of Amiya Nath Bose, is a human rights advocate and author of The Bose Brothers and Indian Independence: An Insider’s Account. She gratefully acknowledges the contributions of her brother Surya Kumar Bose to this article.

This is the first part of a two-part series. Next part:

To solve mystery of Netaji’s death, India, Japan must conduct overdue DNA test on Renkoji remains