January is truly a special month. It is dotted with anniversaries that have the power to make every Indian alternatively feel proud, tearful, sad, and honoured. A quick look reveals:
– 11th January as the death anniversary of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in Tashkent, the night after he signed a historic pact with Pakistan in 1966;
– 12th January is a high point being the birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, celebrated as National Youth Day;
– 17th January is the death anniversary of Jyoti Basu, the longest-serving chief minister of West Bengal and independent India;
– 26th January fills us with pride as the Republic Day of the nation and
– 28th January belongs to Lala Lajpat Rai of Punjab. It is the birth anniversary of the man hailed as the ‘Lion of Punjab’.
– 30th January is filled with sorrow, grief as the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi is observed with fasting and prayers across the world.
January 23 occupies its own special niche. The Ministry of Culture and Government of India in 2021 unfolded the anniversary celebrations of Subhas Chandra Bose, leading up to the commemoration of 125 years of his birth in 2022. It is easy to label Bose as a charismatic freedom-fighter, an integral part of the pantheon of great Indian leaders.
Every textbook, every historian and chronicler has found unique terms to describe him. In a letter of May 1939, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore hailed him as the ‘Deshanayak’, the leader of the country. He recognized Bose as the leader who was capable of delivering Bengal and India from the ignominy of slavery and raise India in stature in front of the world by addressing all her problems. He quoted the Gita, writing “the Gita says that the protector of good appears time and again. When the nation suffers from tyranny and oppression, the suffering and the consequent inner pain inspires the leader to arrive on stage.”
He is beyond clichés: Bose is a public intellectual, a revolutionary, a man of letters, a global citizen, a highly evolved spiritual soul, a loyal party worker, a dedicated family man. He belonged to the highly educated privileged Indian class which had developed a definite vision for India and had the yearning to create an inclusive society where the poorest of the poor would have the liberty and opportunities to better their lives in an independent, united country.
It is very interesting to note that the heroic life and times of Bose are intricately linked with Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda, both of whom inspired him to become a ‘patriot of patriots’. Readers and history-lovers are aware of differences Bose had with the Mahatma, at political and deeper intellectual levels. Yet he remained a true nationalist born of the Indian National Congress, committed to a united India. His undying love for the Motherland was unconditional.
One hundred and twenty-six years may seem an enormously long time ago, especially for the millennial generations who live in the ‘here and now’, for whom an iPhone 6 may seem pre-historic today! Yet when we step into historical timelines to go back merely five or six generations, we come face to face with iconic personalities like Subhas Chandra Bose or his equally illustrious brother Sarat Chandra Bose. Their travels across India and the world, meetings with legendary personalities of their times, intense association with social and political movements draw us, magnetically pull us into their lives. To say it is an awe-inspiring exercise is to state the obvious.
In June 1942 in a broadcast to the Indian National Army from Europe, Subhas Chandra Bose’s words have been immortalized as the ‘pledge of the INA’. The words flow out, almost in a single breath as he exhorted: “Brave soldiers! Today you have taken an oath that you will give fight to the enemy till the last breath of your life, under the national tri-colour. From today you are the soldiers of the Indian National Army of Free India. You have volunteered to shoulder the responsibility of forty crores of Indians. From today your mind, might and money belong to the Indian Nation.
“Friends, you have the honour to be the pioneer soldiers of Azad Hind Fauj. Your names will be written in golden letters in the history of Free India. Every soldier who is martyred in this holy war will have a monument in Free India. The coming generations will shower flowers on those monuments. You are very fortunate that you have got this valuable opportunity to serve your motherland. Although we are performing this ceremony in a foreign land, our heads and hearts are in our country. You should remember that your military and political responsibilities are increasing day by day and you must be ready to shoulder them competently. The drum of Indian Independence has been sounded. We have to prepare for the battle ahead. We should prepare ourselves as early as possible so that we can perform the duties we have shouldered. I assure you that the time is not far off when you will have to put to use the military skill which you possess.
“Today we are taking the vow of independence under the National Flag. A time will come when you will salute this flag in the Red Fort. But remember that you· will have to pay the price of freedom. Freedom can never be had by begging. It has to be got by force. Its price is blood. We will not beg freedom from any foreign country. We shall achieve freedom by paying its price. It does not matter how much price we have to pay for it. I assure you that I shall lead the army when we march to India together. The news of the ceremony that we are performing here has reached India. It will encourage the patriots at home, who are fighting empty-handed against the British,” he said.
“Throughout my life it was my ambition to equip an army that will capture freedom from the enemy. Today I congratulate you because the honour of such an army belongs to you. With this I close my speech. May God be with you and give you strength to fulfil the pledge which you have taken voluntarily today. Inquilab Zindabad!” He concluded with a flourish and the revolutionary slogan.
The INA pledge is short and powerful, loaded with promise and high expectations. It has been recalled and documented how the INA soldiers in Burma (now Myanmar), Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and India have not been recognized as freedom-fighters nor given the pensions due to them. Sagari Chhabra’s painstaking efforts were published as ‘In Search of Freedom ~ Journeys through India and South-East Asia’, and the ‘Hamaara Itihaas’ archives. Stories of INA patriots and supporters have been preserved for posterity, even though the promises remain unfulfilled. Members of the Rani Jhansi Regiment, known as the Ranis, have recounted their selfless contributions to the cause of INA and its leader, their military training and then the real battles they fought with and without the Japanese Army.
The January commemorations give us the opportunity to recall the contributions of the Bengal Volunteers, or the BV revolutionaries. The BV were instrumental in keeping alive the convoluted chain of communication from Subhas Chandra Bose in Europe with family and friends in Bengal. Bose wanted the BV team to serve on the frontline when there was an armed entry from across the border. BV were gathering information about the strength and resources of the enemy; several operatives were also sent to Burma in those tumultuous years. When equipment from the Japanese was to be ferried into India, the BV swung into action. Several of its members were caught, imprisoned and few were also executed. They lived, battled and died living up to the INA pledge that for freedom no price was too high to pay; our homage to the Bengal Volunteers and the martyrs with bowed heads and folded hands.
(The writer is a researcher – writer on history and heritage issue, and a former deputy curator of Pradhanmantri Sangrahalaya)