For a long time, both students and an unsuspecting public in India have been barraged by a tern favoured by the so-called 'enlightened': scientific history. It has always been difficult to fathom the real meaning of this verbose expression since human behaviour isn't either uniform or verifiable. However, 'scientific temper' in understanding history matters little in the Indian context where, thanks to the profound influence of the Ramayan and Mahabharat, a rich and complex tradition of narrative story- telling has shaped the popular imagination. And this narrative, needless to add, isn't always shaped by what really happened but what was perceived to have happened. The imagined reality was in turn shaped and re-shaped over the generations.
The recent controversy over the surveillance mounted by the Intelligence Bureau on the family members of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose between 1948 and 1968 has seen an explosion of imagined history. There have been many indignant responses to the revelation, few of which have brought credit to the way we as a nation are inclined to view our complex past.
For a start, the intrusive snooping operation has been seen as evidence that Jawaharlal Nehru--and, indeed, his ministerial colleagues over the years--were petty, vindictive and harboured a grudge against a leader who had an alternative vision of how to win freedom. These allegations in turn have prompted the admirers of India's first Prime Minister to respond with a sense of outrage. Some Congress leaders have questioned the gumption of those who dared question the democratic credentials of Nehru and the post-1947 Congress leadership. Others have conveniently brushed aside the evidence to argue that it was not the lofty and idealistic Nehru but the more hard-nosed politicians such as Sardar Patel and Dr B.C. Roy who had scant respect for democratic niceties.
What has made the controversy even more compelling and contemporary is that the de-classified files suggest that the India's political rulers had a nagging doubt of the veracity of reports of Netaji's death in a air crash in Taipei just days after the Japanese surrender in August 1945. If Nehru was anxious to know from the Indian Embassy in Japan if Netaji's nephew visited the Renkoji Temple ( where Netaji's ashes are said to be stored), it would seen that he too wanted to know the family's real feelings on the question of Bose's death.
Nehru's curiosity may well have been genuine and not governed by anything sinister. However, this letter has reopened speculation over Netaji's movements after the Japanese surrender. The theory that Netaji did indeed make his way to the Soviet Union and was held captive by Stalin has refused to die. After this recent disclosure, the theory that Netaji had a post-INA life has acquired fresh currency, particularly now that there is evidence that the IB was coordinating its efforts with British intelligence after 1947. Surely, or so the argument goes, Nehru's government and the British authorities must have had a common political purpose in ensuring that Netaji never came back to India, alive.
The story, as it has unfolded over the years, is undeniably gripping and it is understandable that many Indians are convinced that there was an international plot--one linking India, Britain, Soviet Union and the US--to prevent the real truth about Netaji's disappearance from ever emerging. Certainly, the Government's silly suggestion that the de-classification of the remaining files would affect friendly ties with foreign powers has bolstered conspiracy theories.
It is unlikely that India will ever get definitive answers even if all the remaining files are opened to public scrutiny. What may emerge at best are opinions and stray intelligence reports of reported sightings of Netaji in different parts of the globe. Intelligence reports are of uneven veracity and range from real insights to plain bazar gossip. Releasing these to a curious nation won't necessarily stop people believing the worst but without their availability, a speculative view of recent history is certain to run riot.
Prime Minister Modi has a choice: to be transparent and allow the controversy to play out or needlessly inherit the political disrepute that comes with mindless secrecy. The Netaji controversy can either become history or remain mythological.
Sunday Times of India, April 18, 2015