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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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