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    South Asia
     Jul 14, 2007
India's holy grail
Back from Dead
by Anuj Dhar

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Second to none in the annals of India's freedom struggle, Subhas Chandra Bose (aka Netaji, or "respected leader") has a special place in the nation's history for intrepidly challenging British colonialism.

His very name triggers visceral emotions of inspiration, admiration and reverence among the people of India. It also wells up uncertainty and agony in most Indians because of the abnormal manner in which he permanently disappeared in 1945 and the subsequent guessing game about his fate.

Journalist Anuj Dhar's riveting investigation into Bose's vanishing act is a landmark publication for objectively exposing successive Indian governments' cover-ups of the mystery.

In Back from Dead, Dhar presents compelling evidence against the official version that Bose was killed in a plane crash in Taipei on August 18, 1945. Using information foraged from the Taiwanese government, Dhar disproves it. He also provides proof that Bose's alleged "ashes", currently enshrined in Tokyo, were actually received by the late Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru from the Japanese government in 1954. Despite public demands, New Delhi has never permitted scientific tests of Bose's "remains" in Tokyo.

Doubts surfaced in India and Britain as soon as Bose was declared dead by his Japanese allies in 1945. Mahatma Gandhi told Congress workers, "I believe Subhas is still alive and biding his time somewhere." Initially, Nehru shared this feeling. The hush-hush and evasive "funeral" of Bose conducted by the Japanese at Renkoji Temple added fuel to the controversy. When Bose's Indian National Army (INA) officers held a memorial service after news of his death was circulated, puzzlingly, not a single Japanese officer turned up or offered wreaths to a man they held in utmost honor.

The British viceroy of India, Archibald Wavell, suspected that Bose, a renowned master of deception, had faked the air crash to "go underground". Before British intelligence agents could reach Southeast Asia for verification, the Germans and the Japanese burned all their archives on Bose. Only one file was recovered in Bangkok, but it was suspected to have been deliberately left there as part of Bose's trickery, with Japanese cooperation. Habibur Rahman, the sole credible witness of the alleged plane crash, often admitted in private that he was bound by Bose's gag order from revealing the truth.

After thorough probes, Allied intelligence services deduced that the Japanese had misled them about Bose and that there was no plane crash in Taipei on the day of his "death". Interrogations of INA officers led them to understand that, in August 1945, Bose was headed for Manchuria, not Tokyo, to find his way into Russia. Five days before his "death", Bose informed confidants that "contact had already been established with Russia and we shall try to move towards that direction". The plan was to persuade the Soviets "to accept us [Indians] as their friends and not enemies" (p 68).

Since 1938, Bose had approached the USSR to boost India's independence movement. In July 1945, with the Axis defeat written on the wall, he asked the Japanese foreign minister to arrange passage for him to Russia via Manchuria. In 1946, the British director of India's Intelligence Bureau mentioned "information to the effect that Subhas Bose was alive in Russia" (p 58). Russian diplomats of that time in Kabul and Tehran corroborated this assessment.

In August 1946, the Soviet Politburo discussed "whether Bose should be allowed to stay" (p 212). Babajan Gouffrav, Josef Stalin's influential aide, was heard mentioning that Bose was dispatched to a Siberian gulag as a "bargaining chip in future dealings with India" (p 218). After 1991, the Russian government was generously willing to share old records on Bose, but New Delhi refused to make any formal requests and adopted its usual obstructionist tactics.

In the 1950s, correspondence at the highest level in the Indian government contradicted its public conviction about the the crash theory. A top-secret report commissioned by prime minister Nehru revealed that Japanese Field Marshal Hisaichi Terauchi decided on the eve of the "crash" to help Bose reach Russian-held territory. The INA secret service's S C Sengupta divulged that "the plan had been approved by Stalin and his foreign minister [Vyacheslav] Molotov through Jacob Malik, the Soviet ambassador in Tokyo" (p 197).

In 1955, Nehru set up the Netaji Inquiry Committee in response to public angst. It was ironically chaired by Shah Nawaz Khan, an INA officer who was accused of betraying Bose by spying for the British. Even though Taipei was gladly willing to assist the inquest, the Indian government cited diplomatic difficulties and prevented the committee from visiting Taiwan. The committee began with the presumption that Bose died in the crash and submitted a whitewashed report that played down credible contrary evidence.

Bowing to nationwide demands, the Indian government set up a one-man commission in 1970 to survey the Bose riddle again. The chairman, justice G D Khosla, was a close family friend of the Nehrus with a personal grudge against Bose from his college days. Khosla judged reliable witnesses and deponents disputing the crash theory as "liars" and sidestepped classified government data asserting that Bose was in the USSR after August 1945 and that both Gandhi and Nehru were aware of it. B N Mullick, the doyen of Nehru-era Indian intelligence, lied to the commission that his detectives never worked on the Bose mystery.

Khosla did not take the Indira Gandhi government to task for reporting 30 classified papers on Bose as missing or destroyed. One of these explicitly averred that Bose "is alive and is hiding
somewhere" (p 135). Khosla was permitted to visit the site of the alleged plane crash, but New Delhi barred him from contacting the Taiwanese government for archival leads. In 1978, India's first non-Congress government repudiated the conventional findings of both the Shah Nawaz Committee and the Khosla Commission.

Well into the 1990s, the Indian government was leery of declaring the particulars of even a single classified record on the Bose puzzle. In 1999, judicial and public pressure forced the formation of yet another commission of inquiry under justice M K Mukherjee. He learned at the outset that the government was dragging its feet in publicizing the commission's work or parting with documents. The commission found that several secret files on Bose were destroyed in gross violation of government rules. Even among the extant records, full disclosure was denied on grounds that it "would cause injury to the public interest" and could adversely affect "diplomatic relations with friendly countries" (p 266).

Folklore that Bose was living in the garb of a holy man in India was long prevalent, and the commission was plied with such fables. It investigated one promising case of an enigmatic saint from the northern Indian town of Faizabad who had died in 1985. A remarkable likeness of Bose in age, physical appearance and mannerisms, his sermons were mostly about national and international politics ranging from Indian independence to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. He spoke as if he knew Gandhi and Nehru intimately and had first-hand memories of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Winston Churchill.

In the ascetic's belongings were found rare photographs of Bose's parents with the annotation, "revered father and mother". They also contained media clippings, correspondence and papers about Bose's disappearance. The saint's letters to followers used diction regarding Bose's family members that was identical to the freedom fighter's. He also published brilliant articles with the pseudonym Mahakal, recounting details of Bose's early life that were not public knowledge. He talked of Stalin allowing him to enter the "country of bears" and of being subjected to "torture in Siberia". Dhar infers from hints of Russian scholars that it was somewhere near the city of Irkutsk.

India's topmost handwriting expert matched several samples of Bose and those of the Faizabad hermit and confirmed that they were from the same hand. Most intriguing, the latter's disciples recalled nightly visits of VIPs to his shanty and took pride that local government authorities never dared to act against him since "they knew he was Netaji" (p 289).

The big puzzle from the Faizabad angle is why Bose lived incognito in destitute conditions for so long among his own people. Just after World War II, he was certain to be branded an international war criminal by the Allies for collaborating with the Axis powers. British pronouncements of that time indicated that, if nabbed, he would be tried "as [a] war criminal outside India" (p 363). The government of independent India expressed ignorance of any Anglo-American list of war criminals containing Bose's name, but it never categorically defined what its position would be if Bose reappeared in person. In 1971, New Delhi signed a United Nations convention obliging it to prosecute war criminals still at large in India, decades after 1945.

For the Faizabad saint, it was not fear for his life that prevented him from unveiling himself. Rather, he told an old Bose accomplice in 1963, "India is at a stage of infancy. She would not be able to stand the pressure of the world powers. Do not disclose my whereabouts to anyone, or else the nation will suffer" (p 374).

Dhar does not throw comparative light on the successful non-compliance of weak or even "failed" states such as Cambodia, Sudan and Serbia with demands of world powers and international tribunals to hand over individuals accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The prosecution angle seems to be a red herring for Bose to have remained under wraps. In light of the posthumous nature of the inquiry into the Faizabad mystic, there are gaps that may unfortunately never be filled. Dhar maintains that more needs to be learned to establish the holy man's genuine identity.

Through ingenious research and cross-checking, Dhar reconstructs the trajectory of Bose's life from his sojourn to Russia onward. In 1949, he may have entered the newly formed People's Republic of China to join an "Asiatic Liberation Force". Around 1953, he slipped back into India but often ventured abroad furtively. The Faizabad muse recollected "being welcomed by Ho Chi Minh" in Vietnam during its anti-colonial war. He also stated that US defense secretary Clark Clifford announced in 1970 that the Vietcong had an "Asian Liberation Army" division headed by missing World War II generals. Vietnamese sources in the 1990s admitted that "materials on Netaji have been accessed by the government here" (p 356).

Last year, the Mukherjee Commission concluded after comprehensive hearings that Bose did not die in the plane crash and called for further investigations into the matter of his post-1945 Russian foray. The non-cooperative government of India summarily rejected the commission's significant verdict without any justification, and ensured that the never-ending search for the Holy Grail of Bose's disappearance continues.

Dhar is now crusading for full disclosure from the government through a popular campaign (www.missionnetaji.org). The track record of previous inquiries shows that unless citizens are mobilized to action on this issue of national importance, New Delhi remains smugly opaque.

Subhas Chandra Bose is a priceless jewel of modern India's heritage. Sadly, media and governmental apathy is consigning his legacy to a painful incompleteness. Dhar's wake-up call is a praiseworthy contribution toward pushing the dark truth into daylight.

Back from Dead: Inside the Subhas Bose Mystery. Manas Publications, New Delhi, 2007. ISBN: 81-7049-314-5. Price: US$20, 400 pages.

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