Part II

In May 1999, the government of India appointed the Justice Mukherjee Commission to investigate the alleged disappearance of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in 1945. This followed the two previous official inquiries of 1956 and 1974 that confirmed Netaji had died in Taiwan following a plane crash as reported by the Japanese authorities.

The majority of the Bose family welcomed this decision. They trusted that Mukherjee, a former Supreme Court judge, would finally get to the truth of the matter. Some senior members of the family actively supported the Mukherjee Inquiry in its efforts, including with the provision of blood samples for possible DNA testing, joining missions to Japan, Russia and Taiwan, and appearing as witnesses to the enquiry. Some stood aloof.

At that time, reported advances in DNA testing raised hopes for a possible test of the remains at the Renkoji Temple in Tokyo that are believed to be those of Netaji (the body seems to have been lightly cremated according to Buddhist rites and practice and thus the remains include bones). Mukherjee did in fact pursue this line of investigation to the point where both the Indian and Japanese governments as well as the chief priest of the Renkoji Temple, as custodian of the urn containing the remains, agreed in principle to a DNA testing process.

Mukherjee’s contention in his report that they had not done so is directly contradicted by written correspondence included as attachments to his report. His reluctance to proceed was more likely to be related to the fact that by the time of serious discussions and inter-actions on the prospect of DNA testing, the Mukherjee Inquiry had endured for more than five years, including missions to Japan, Russia, Taiwan (Republic of China), the United Kingdom and the United States. Time and patience on all sides seemed to be running out, and it is clear that the efforts to achieve DNA testing came to an abrupt end and remained unfulfilled.

Doubts expressed at the time by both Japanese and Indian scientists as to the feasibility of DNA testing of cremated remains probably did not help. This is notwithstanding a willingness on their part to proceed regardless, including with a preliminary anthropological survey of a sample of the remains. It also emerges from some correspondence on the matter that at least some parties were proceeding on the assumption that the remains were merely ashes and that DNA testing would simply not therefore be feasible. But this was not the case, and as evident from photographs taken for Mukherjee by Indian Embassy officials in Tokyo and included in his report, the remains are skeletal, thus leaving open at least the possibility of DNA testing. This is where the matter stands to this day.

In 2001, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visited the Renkoji Temple in Tokyo where he burned incense for Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose whose remains are believed to lie there. (Photo credit: Reuters/Kimimasa Mayama).

The Mukherjee report

Meanwhile Mukherjee had requested blood samples from key Bose family members (five) for a possible DNA testing process, which were used not for the Renkoji remains but in relation to personal items (teeth) alleged to belong to the afore-mentioned Gumnami Baba of Faizabad. As reflected in his report, DNA evidence and examination were unable to establish any link between Gumnami Baba and Netaji, let alone that Gumnami Baba was Netaji.

Sadly, in relation to his inquiry mandate to “remove the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose”, Mukherjee was unable to unearth any further significant information and failed to throw any further light on the matter of Netaji’s death. In his report he reasoned that there could not have been any such fatal plane crash as described in the two previous inquiries, and concluded therefore that Netaji could not have died as described by alleged witnesses. Unfortunately fundamental errors arising from a misreading and misquoting of available evidence, render this segment of the report glaringly false.

First, in the most obvious of these errors, Mukherjee cites Netaji aide and travelling companion Habib ur Rahman as testifying (to the earlier Shah Nawaz Committee of inquiry in 1956) that the aircraft in which they were travelling had nose-dived out of control from a “fairly high altitude, possibly over 12-14,000 feet”. Mukherjee concludes that nobody could survive such a catastrophic event – that is, a plane crash from that height – and that therefore the official account of the plane crash, with some killed (including Netaji) and some survivors (including Habib ur Rahman) was a fabrication by the Japanese.

The problem with this particular argument in the Mukherjee report and its critical conclusion that there was no plane crash is that nobody, including Habib ur Rahman, ever said that the aircraft nose-dived from a high altitude. Rather, all direct witnesses both from inside the stricken aircraft and on the ground said that the aircraft had reached a few hundred feet at most upon take-off, when there was an explosion and loss of the port-side engine, after which it crashed nose-first into the ground. To survive such a crash, as described by the official reports, would not be at all unusual.

A second fundamental flaw in the argument that there was not, and could not have been, any such plane crash leading to the death of Netaji, arises from a misinterpretation of correspondence elicited from the Government of the Republic of China (Taiwan) by Mr Anuj Dhar, a self-styled Netaji researcher closely associated with the Mukherjee inquiry over most of its six-year tenure. A letter of August 5, 2003, emailed to Dhar from the Republic of China Minister of Transport and Communications in response to an enquiry from Dhar, is cited by Mukherjee as firm evidence that there was no plane crash on Taiwan on August 18, 1945.

A close reading of the letter says otherwise. The Republic of China minister does not say that there was no plane crash at all at the site concerned, and leaves the reader to take account of:

  1. The Japanese military and civilian authorities as a colonial power remained in control of Taiwan at least until October 25, 1945.
  2. All handover notes from the departing Japanese to the Taiwanese authorities were reviewed.
  3. There was no evidence nor mention of a plane crash on August 18, 1945, in those particular notes.
  4. The handover notes did hold information of air crashes where they, that is the Taiwanese, had been directly involved in follow-up operations.

This response needs to be read in the light of the fact that the Taiwanese authorities of that time had no control over the Matsuyama military airport where the crash was said to have taken place. It was in effect a Japanese military facility and installation, fully controlled and operated by them.

Crucially, the Republic of China correspondence does not say that all records held by the Japanese authorities were handed over to the Taiwanese as the 50-year long Japanese colonial occupation was coming to an end.

The key questions that might have been put to the Government of Japan by the Mukherjee Inquiry, and which for that matter could and should be asked now, are:

  1. What relevant records were taken to Japan by the Japanese colonial authorities both military and civilian?
  2. Are these records available and accessible now?
Anita Bose Pfaff and her husband Martin. (Photo credit: HT file photo).

A way forward

Today Subhas Chandra Bose’s daughter Anita Bose Pfaff, her husband Martin and their children, Sarat Chandra Bose’s surviving daughters, nephews and nieces, and the Bose family at large, still look for closure, along with a legion of followers and supporters. The continuing failure to achieve this is deeply distressing to all. As it did for the recent, successful campaign for the declassification and release of all Netaji-related files by the governments of West Bengal and India (which have revealed little of consequence in relation to the plane crash and alleged disappearance of Netaji), the family will continue to take the lead in seeking closure on the matter of the fate of Netaji.

In doing so we proceed from the basis of the essential fact that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was in the full care and responsibility of the Japanese military in August 1945. So it is the Japanese authorities who have the answers and it is to them that we must look for resolution of any mystery. Crucially, a good thing Mukherjee had done was to secure the agreement of both the Japanese and Indian governments as well as that of the chief priest of Renkoji Temple to a DNA testing process on the remains at Renkoji. We need now to resurrect those agreements and pursue DNA testing of those remains.

In tandem, the Government of Japan should be strongly encouraged to facilitate full, unrestricted access to all records and files in their possession pertaining in any way to Netaji, and to enable professional examination of those files. The Government of Japan should find a way to enable the immediate release of three such classified files, which they acknowledge are currently withheld by them.

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 concluding part of a two-part series. Read the first part here:

Stories about Netaji Bose returning to India as a sadhu damage his legacy, says his grand-niece