Japan searched for a new way out in Southeast Asia owing to the need to recover from the adverse situation in the Pacific war, especially the need to secure resources. At that time, Vietnam, the Malay Peninsula, and Indonesia were under the French, British, and Dutch control respectively.
Japan destroyed these suzerain powers one by one after fierce battles. In February 1942, British Lieutenant General Arthur Ernest Percival surrendered to General Tomoyuki Yamashita of the Imperial Japanese Army in Singapore and “the empire on which the sun never sets” had been defeated.
Prior to this, in 1941, as a preparation for future war with Great Britain, Japan had begun approaching the Indian troops in the British army in the Malay Peninsula. When the battle in the Malay Peninsula got intense and the British army began to lose, Indian troops were distressed. The Japanese army incepted the Indian National Army (INA) in the Malay Peninsula with the help of General Mohan Singh.
In Tokyo, freedom fighters such as Rash Behari Bose and AM Nair, who had taken asylum in Japan and had established the Indian Independence League, tried to regain control of the INA from Mohan Singh. Owing to violent behaviour and lower rank in the army, Mohan Singh failed to keep a hold on the INA.
On the other hand, Rash Behari Bose had low popularity among the Indian soldiers and was prone to sickness. Therefore, the Japanese army, on the advice of AM Nair, decided to invite another Bose, that is, Subhas Chandra Bose, who had taken refuge in Germany.
Subhas Chandra Bose was a part of the independence movement as a heavyweight of the Indian National Congress, but he was of the opinion that taking up arms was unavoidable for the freedom of India and therefore parted ways with the non-violence group, which was the group following Gandhi.
In 1924, the British colonial government arrested and imprisoned Subhas Chandra Bose. He was elected the mayor of Calcutta in 1930 when he was released from jail, but the colonial government dismissed him. In 1938, Bose was elected president of the Indian National Congress but he had to resign due to difference of opinion on strategy with Gandhi. Bose founded the group called the Forward Bloc.
World War II broke out in 1939 and when the Soviet Union and Germany and subsequently Germany and Great Britain went to war, Bose thought that the time for India’s independence was opportune. Bose escaped from Calcutta to seek help from the Soviet Union for India’s freedom.
He first reached Germany via Kabul and Moscow and requested Nazi Germany for help. Germany was indifferent to him. Hitler called Bose “a big braggart of Asia who loiters around Europe” and in his book, My Struggle, he wrote that “it will be better that India is ruled by Britain than any other country”.
Besides racial prejudice, Hitler believed that Bose could be a hurdle in the path of reconciliation between Britain and Germany. Bose cooperated with Germany in its anti-British propaganda but could not deny a sense of humiliation.
Amidst such circumstances, Bose received an invitation from Japan, thanks to Rash Behari Bose’s lobbying with the Japanese government. Bose left Germany, travelling by German and Japanese submarines, and by plane, and arrived in May 1943. In July, the General Assembly of the Indian Independence League was held and Rash Behari Bose not only gave up his position of head of the League in favour of Subhas Chandra Bose, but made him the commander of the INA.
Subhas Chandra Bose made a speech in front of excited Indian soldiers and announced, “Dilli chalo”. (Let us march to Delhi.) On 21 October 1943, he proclaimed the establishment of a provisional independent Indian government and declared war against Britain and America.
In 1944, Japan planned an invasion of Northeast India to snap the supply route of the Allied powers (Chiang support route) to China. The INA that had expanded to 6,000 soldiers participated in the Battle of Imphal. It was an attempt to destroy the British forces in collaboration with Indian soldiers and liberate India.
The Japanese army and INA soldiers entered Northeast India from Burma crossing the Arakan Mountains and advanced to Imphal (present-day capital of Manipur) and further to Kohima (present-day capital of Nagaland). The people of Northeast India resemble Japanese people in physique and features and they were very kind to the Japanese army.
However, the Battle of Imphal was a reckless one carried out under severe weather conditions, without any support of the air force and proper supply of ammunition and food. Ultimately, the Japanese army lost and retreated to Burma, and while withdrawing, it also had many casualties due to lack of food supplies and malaria. The INA lost about 4,500 soldiers.
Around Imphal and Kohima one can still find a strong imprint of the Battle of Imphal. There are tombs and monuments in the memory of soldiers of the Japanese army. The present-day residents are still highly pro-Japanese. The collection of ashes of Japanese soldiers continues even today.
On 15 August 1945, when Japan surrendered, Subhas Chandra Bose planned to check whether he could expect support from the Soviet Union. In any case, he decided to head to Japan but on his way his aircraft supposedly met with an accident resulting in his death.
Japanese officials who were posted in Taiwan cremated him locally and his ashes were brought to Renkoji Temple, Higashi Koenji, in Suginami-Ku, Tokyo. His ashes are enshrined here and on 18 August every year a memorial service is held and Japanese people, who were involved in the Battle of Imphal, their descendants, and enthusiasts of Japan-India friendship, including members of the Japan-India Association, gather here.
However, the reaction of successive governments in India has been vague about Subhas Chandra Bose. In India, many people believe that Bose did not die in Taipei but successfully moved to the Soviet Union. It is similar to the legend of Minamoto no Yoshitsune, hero of the Kamakura period, which makes one believe that he did not die in the Battle of Koromogawa in northern Japan in 1188 but survived and went to Mongolia and resurfaced as Genghis Khan.
So far Indian governments have carried out investigations on three occasions of the ashes to find out whether they are authentic, but there was no clear conclusion. In Japan, there are many people who want the ashes to be handed over to India at the earliest, and yet there are no takers. Among the direct descendants of Bose is his daughter, Anita, who is married to a German, and lives in Germany. It is said that only recently she has agreed to a DNA test.
Post-Independence, there were opinions for and against Subhas Chandra Bose within the Indian National Congress, but today he is regarded as a hero. The airport in Kolkata is named after him and there is a portrait of him in the Indian Parliament House. “Netaji” is the title of Bose which means ‘respected leader’.
The author visited Kolkata when he was writing the manuscript of this book in March 2017 and visited both the Tagore House and Subhas Chandra Bose Memorial (Netaji Bhawan, original house of the Bose family) after a long gap. He met two members of the Bose family with whom he had close interactions during his posting in India.
One is Krishna Bose, head of the Memorial, and former chairperson of the Lok Sabha Foreign Relations Committee, who is the widow of Sisir Kumar Bose, son of Sarat Chandra Bose, elder brother of Subhas Chandra Bose. The other was her second son, Sugata Bose, former Member of Parliament and professor of history and diplomacy at Harvard University. Besides examining personal items and photographs of Bose yet again, he had emotional discussions with them.
Indecision about bringing back Netaji’s ashes to India leaves a bad aftertaste in the mouth. As a personal opinion, the author discussed with both of them about dividing the remains into two portions and bringing one portion to India and retaining the other portion in the Renkoji Temple. It was because the part brought to India will not be buried but as per the Hindu practice is most likely to be immersed in a holy river (the Ganges flows near Kolkata) or in the sea.
The two members of the Bose family, while wondering why recent Indian prime ministers and Indian ambassadors posted in Japan had not visited the Renkoji Temple, expressed their expectation about a quick decision by the Indian government in this regard. They showed interest in dividing the ashes into two parts and also mentioned that if the ashes are to be brought back, they may be scattered but there is also a possibility of the ashes being buried in a special place.
The author sincerely hopes that the soul of this hero of India rests in peace at the earliest.
Excerpted with permission from India: The Last Superpower, Hiroshi Hirabayashi, translated from the Japanese by Prem Motwani, Aleph Book Company.