On the 125th birth anniversary of Netaji Subhas Bose, it would be appropriate to take stock of this larger than life leader of India’s struggle for independence and his undying legacy. Born on this day 125 years ago, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’ life was almost co-terminus with the rise and climax of the successful anti-colonial movement in India. And he played, perhaps, the most catalytic part in it. When his successful lawyer father, Janakinath Bose, named his sixth son Subhas, meaning one of good speech, he perhaps never suspected this boy’s speech would reverberate across India and beyond for generations to come.
Intellectually gifted, Subhas passed all examinations at a trot, ranking second in Matriculation in Calcutta University, securing a First Division in Graduation and standing fourth in the Indian Civil Service (ICS) exams; but he was not one to rest on his academic laurels. Resigning from the ICS, he returned to India and threw himself into the nationalist agitation. It was the beginning of a tumultuous political career that oscillated between imprisonment, office, agitation and exile.
At age 25, Bose was appointed the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, the largest city in the British Empire after London. His impact on the city was immediate. Under the new administration several new initiatives were taken like giving milk to the poorest, setting up education facilities, especially primary schools, setting up dispensaries, maintaining civic facilities, ensuring cleanliness of streets, etc. All the parks and the streets were named after national leaders. Subhas soon earned a reputation as an able administrator.
In just six months, Bose had given the lie to the British myth that Indians were unfit to administer themselves. Not surprisingly, the British arrested him under the notorious Regulation III of 1818, which allowed the Empire to arrest its enemies, without pressing charges, let alone a trial. It was the second sentencing in a career pockmarked with repeated arrests and forced exile.
None of the front-ranking leaders were persecuted so frequently and so harshly as Bose. He started his political career in 1921, and was in India till 1941. During these two decades he was arrested 11 times and spent six years in prison. He was exiled from India for another three years. Therefore, his active political life in India was only 10 years. Twice he was beaten unconscious by the British police. Why was the British Government’s treatment of Bose so severe? They recognized his sterling qualities and more importantly they realized that he could not be manipulated or managed by them to serve their own purposes. In him, they found the most implacable enemy of their Empire. Bose has often been seen as a man of action. But his perspicuity in understanding India’s challenges and laying down solutions was remarkable.
Accepting the Presidentship of the Indian National Congress in 1938 at Haripura, Gujarat, he laid down a powerful vision for free India – as no President of the Indian Congress had ever done before or after. In a marathon speech that lasted hours, he shared a clear-eyed developmental blueprint for free India.
He pointed out, “where poverty, starvation and disease are stalking the land, we cannot have our population mounting by 30 million during a single decade. The very first thing which our future national government will have to do would be to set up a Commission for drawing up a comprehensive plan for reconstruction.” He then set up the National Planning Committee, which continues to this day in a new avatar, the Niti Ayog.
As the war clouds gathered over Europe, he saw this as India’s opportunity to throw off the colonial yoke. He had no love lost for the Axis powers and had confided his personal dislike for them to his friend Kitty Kurti in Germany. But going by the Kautilyan adage, ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, Bose escaped from his house in the dead of night on 17 January 1941 in one of the greatest political escapes in history. This was followed by an epic 90-day journey underwater in a German U 180 submarine, from the port of Kiel in Germany to Sabang (in current day Indonesia). It was one of the most dangerous journeys ever undertaken.
The lone struggle he conducted from 1941 to August 1945, has been described as ‘an era of miracles’ by Pattabhi Sitaramayya in his book, History of the Indian National Congress. The miracles continued. From 6 May 1943, the day Bose landed in SE Asia, he worked as a man possessed. He restructured the Indian National Army and within a few months of his arrival set up the Provisional Government of Azad Hind on 21 October 1943.
Bose toured across South East Asia like a whirlwind, rousing the 3.5 million, relatively diffident, Indians to a new birth of freedom. The INA soldiers literally saw India come up. All soldiers, irrespective of caste, community and region, dined together in common canteens for the first time. Jana Gana Mana, was sung for the first time as India’s National Song and they greeted each other with the salutation, Jai Hind. Hugh Toye, a British Intelligence officer, wrote about Subhas after the reverses in Imphal and Kohima, “He visited the INA camps and hospitals where four-fifths of the survivors were treated. Everywhere he saw suffering and heard pitiful tales of the retreat; everywhere too, his presence was welcomed, for there was about this dedicated man an awe and a passionate sincerity which could inspire devotion and love.”
When the War broke out, Bose sensed Independence would come eventually. But his struggle was to win Independence on India’s terms, not as alms for a mendicant. How India won freedom, he felt, would be decisive in how India would evolve as a nation. With emerging evidence, it is clear that the INA was instrumental in hastening the British departure.
Explaining the putting down of the 1857 revolt, John Seeley had written, “The Mutiny was in great measure put down by turning the races of India against each other.” Bose had astutely understood that the centre of gravity of the Raj was the loyalty of the soldiers of the British Indian Army to the colonial regime. When this loyalty unravelled the British had no option but to leave. It was Bose who catalysed an early exit of the Raj and dealt it an effective body blow that precipitated its hasty withdrawal with the instrument of the INA and the militant agitation which followed the trial of the INA soldiers.
As historian Sumit Sarkar says, agitation to free the INA soldiers was a ‘near revolution’. In Calcutta alone almost 150 died in firing by the police on demonstrators. This tumult followed by the RIN revolt sent the message that the strongest pillar of the British Imperium was collapsing – it was time to leave India for good. Bose, for many, was not just a great statesman India missed, but a trope for all the good that could have been India’s, but alas, was not to be. Many leaders are celebrated today, often out of electoral compulsions. But on the 75th year of India’s Independence, it is time to pay homage to the idea of India, which undergirds everything else and there lies the relevance of Netaji, the man who was India incarnate.
(The writer is a freelance contributor)