By Swapan Dasgupta
There are two reasons why the revelation of the Intelligence Bureau’s monitoring and mail surveillance of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s family members for 20 years may escalate into a political slugfest.
First, the disclosure in India Today of the contents of a few archival files has the potential of tarnishing the credentials of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as a pristine-pure democrat committed to the most enlightened governance conceived of by both man and God. This perception is plain ridiculous but, as was evident from the reactions of some Congress stalwarts to the disclosures, is a facet of contemporary political posturing.
To honour Nehru or any of the other stalwarts of the freedom movement and post-Independence India does not mean they were gods. Like many politicians they too had their bouts of scheming, chicanery and worse. This includes Mahatma Gandhi whose conduct after Subhas Bose defeated his preferred candidate Pattabhi Sitaramayya for the Congress President’s post in 1939 was, to say the least, dishonourable and very un-saintly. It includes Sardar Vallabbhai Patel, a hard-nosed administrator who believed that effective decision-making also involved knowing exactly what was happening in the country. Naturally, that also meant putting the elaborate intelligence apparatus created by the Raj to full use in serving a post-colonial dispensation.
It is entirely possible that it was Sardar Patel, as India’s first Home Minister, who gave the green signal to the IB to continue tracking the activities of the Bose family—a practice initiated by the British and which probably dates back to Netaji’s election as Mayor of Calcutta in 1923. However, it seems implausible that Nehru, as Prime Minister, wasn’t a party to this decision. Like many others, including West Bengal’s redoubtable Chief Minister Dr B.C. Roy, Nehru was concerned over how the Netaji legacy would play out politically. Whether this political wariness should have extended to intrusive surveillance is, of course, another matter altogether. Yet, in arriving at a moral judgment, it is important to not be guided entirely by the standards of ethical behaviour that govern public life in the more self-assured India of the 21st century. The threats and challenges facing the Republic at birth were very dissimilar and far more daunting than anything that prevails today.
The second possible conclusion from our belated knowledge of the surveillance is a little more serious. Although Netaji’s elder brother Sarat Chandra Bose had emerged as a potential rallying point of anti-Congress forces in West Bengal after 1948 and till his death in February 1950, his sons were politically of little consequence. The surveillance, therefore, makes sense if there were indeed doubts in the highest levels of government over the authenticity of Netaji’s death in an air crash in Taipei shortly after the Japanese surrender in August 1945. To have had such doubts weren’t entirely misplaced since the evidence of his death isn’t entirely conclusive. The suggestion that Netaji faked his own death—using the services of trusted accomplices—and managed to somehow make his way to either the Soviet Union (as he intended) or elsewhere may sound fanciful. However, given Netaji’s inclination to take audacious gambles—like the escape from Calcutta in 1940 and the submarine journey from Europe to Japan in 1942—this possibility will always remain alive.
To my mind, the mystery surrounding Netaji’s ‘death’ in Taipei is unlikely to be resolved satisfactorily in the light of presently available evidence. The intrepid Anuj Dhar in his book India’s Biggest Cover-up has quite diligently collated all the available evidence and pointed to the absence of any conclusive evidence. He has also suggested possible alternatives, such as Netaji disappearing inside Stalin’s Soviet Union and emerging as a sadhu in Faizabad in the 1960s. But these theories too suffer from the lack of clinching corroborative evidence and leave the Netaji mystery tantalisingly alive.
It is not unlikely that the Nehru government was equally befuddled and wanted to be doubly sure that Netaji’s extended family didn’t know something that the government should also be aware of. That, in fact, could well be the most innocent explanation for the IB surveillance and its extraordinary interest in all letters to Netaji’s paternal house on Elgin Road and Sarat Bose’s residence in neighbouring Woodburn Park. One of central purposes of intelligence gathering is to ensure that a government is not caught entirely by surprise. To that extent, the snooping was understandable.
However, while a lot of political dust can be raised over the public disclosure of an undercover operation that finally ended in 1968, it has no larger value unless the exercise prompts additional insights into either Netaji’s apparent ‘death’ or the official thinking on the subject. India Today’s disclosures have acquired contemporary relevance and bred renewed interest in the subject because it coincided with the government’s refusal to transfer a few remaining files on Netaji to the National Archives for public scrutiny. The reason for this refusal—that it would affect India’s relations with a foreign power—has served to energise theories of Netaji’s post-August 1945 life, either in Stalin’s Gulag or inside India.
The questions may never be satisfactorily answered. But the element of conjecture is enhanced by the fact that people genuinely believe that the remaining classified files contain explosive information that doesn’t suit government to percolate into the public domain. The speculation is certain to persist and, indeed, acquire bizarre dimensions, if the remaining classified files aren’t de-classified. The Modi government can’t be held responsible for whatever was done by predecessor regimes. Neither for that matter does the present British government carry the can for things that may or may not have happened seven decades ago. And the Soviet Union no longer exists. The theory of foreign relations being adversely affected seems a meaningless fig-leaf for bureaucratic obfuscation.
There are different ways of honouring national heroes and pictures on banknotes or statues are by no means the only expressions. The Netaji mystery may or may not come closer to a satisfactory resolution with the release of the files. But without their disclosure Indian will be right to feel cheated of their own history.
Sunday Pioneer, April 12, 2015