Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Subhash Chandra Bose

I was in third or forth standard (I no longer remember the year) when I first came across the name of a man called Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in a lesson in our History textbook dedicated to the man. It spoke about his escape from house arrest and his creation of the Indian National Army. How he did it was not mentioned therein. Still more remarkable was the fact that it was absolutely silent on what he did before that escape. In the years that followed, there was the odd mention of Bose in history textbooks, but little that gave us any idea who the man was or what he had achieved (I grew up in Maharashtra).

It was only when I studied history several years later that I discovered what a collosal national figure he was and how profound his contribution to India's struggle for independence was. Suffice it to say that his contribution was second only to Mahatma Gandhi's (and a pretty close second at that). Sadly, Bose has been almost completely airbrushed from official history. School textbooks, which pretty much constitute the only history most Indians ever get to know, generally contain (or at least contained in my time) little more than a passing reference to the man. Remarkably, Richard Attenborough's Academy Award winning "Gandhi" does not even mention him.

As of today, Bose is almost completely forgotten by foreign (read western ) historians. The few who even bother to acknowledge that he ever existed are scathing of the man who aligned himself with Hitler. Back home in India, it has become fashionable to elevate the man to near God like status. A lot of Bose admirers consider him the solution to every problem India has. Ask them and they are likely to tell you that India would have been a developed and prosperous country had Netaji become India's first prime minister rather than Jawaharlal Nehru. I daresay the truth lies far, far away from both views. The purpose of this article is to try and unravel the real Subhash Chandra Bose.

First, the Indian view. Over the 65 years since his disappearance, the legend of Subhas Chandra Bose has grown bigger and bigger to the point where it has completely overshadowed the man. It is not just inaccurate, but downright unfair to burden someone with extraordinary powers that he never possessed. Bose was a brilliant leader of men and perhaps the one man who read the political situation in India far more accurately than anyone else did. But to conclude that he alone would have changed the course of India's history on the basis of that one fact alone is plain naïve.

Truth be told, its quite likely that in terms of economic policy he would have walked down the same path as Nehru had he come to power. His admiration of the Soviet model is well known and he would most likely have emphasised a strong public sector and heavy industry had he been India's first Prime Minister- not an awful lot different from the Mahalanobis model that Nehru adopted with disastrous consequences.

Politically too, Bose is likely to have left behind a mixed legacy. He was a man who believed in a more centralised approach to decision making that would have done wonders as long as long as a man with good intentions was at the helm but would have been a disaster in the hands of the wrong person. In other words, its likely that the political situation in India would have been somewhat similat to what it was in Indira Gandhi's time in the late 70s.

There's also the fact that Bose had a tendency to divide: he either attracted undying loyalty or outright hatred. The acrimonious Tripuri session testifies to the extent to which he polarised opinion in a party that had long had traditions of accomodating every shade of political view. It's worth remembering here that Bose, then the President, had for over a decade been one of the leaders of the more radical left wing of the party. Another fact completely forgotten is the considerable acrimony between him and Vallabhai Patel and, for that matter, many other right wing leaders. Would such a polarising leader have been able to hold the Indian union together in the turbulent 50s? Given his sheer popularity, strength of character, political nous and that iron will, Bose might very possibly have managed it but he might just as well have failed. Such talk is, of course, mere speculation but it just goes to show that there is indeed no reason to unquestioningly presume that he would have changed the course of Indian history single-handedly.

Coming to the western view of the man: to me its wholly unfair and prejudiced. Bose is vilified for aligning with Hitler against the western allies. But why should he not have done so? True, Hitler was a monster and Nazism an unmixed evil, but if ethics is the sole consideration then what were the great European powers doing when Hitler reoccupied the Rhine, or for that matter swallowed up Austria without firing a shot? And can one forget the fact that the very powers opposing Hitler in the war collaborated with him in his bloodless annexation of Czechoslovakia? If they did so to prevent a second war after the debilitating war a generation earlier, then it was clearly a case of compromising another people's freedom for self-interest. Such being the case, why should someone else not be entitled to do so?

If the western allies were waging a war for freedom against a brutal regime, why did that right to self-determination not extend to others? The British prime minister stated that the Atlantic Charter, which spoke about the right to self-determination, did not apply to India. Why, the British viceroy in India did not even have the decency to consult India opinion before declaring India was at was against Germany. What did 400 million Indians have to fight for? The possibility of freedom at some distant date after the war. But given how many times they had reneged on their promises in the past, not least after the first war, how could Indian leaders ever trust their British rulers to keep their word? And in any case, what did the Cripps proposal contain? The right for any state in India to secede from the union, in other words the likelihood of a Balkanised India. Why should any political leader in the right mind have accepted those proposals?

So why should 400 million Indians have fought on the side of western allies? For the protection of the freedom of European nations at a time when they were themselves unwilling to grant freedom to their colonies? Bose aligned himself with Japan and raised his army from Indian soldiers who were Japanese prisoners of war abandoned by their colonial masters to their own devices during the evacuation of Singapore. If that is how much others cared for Indian soldiers, why should Indians not have acted in self interest? Whichever way you look at it, much western criticism of Bose is plain unfair.

And so where does Subhash Chandra Bose stand then? The answer is admittedly not an easy one. There is not the slightest doubt that he is one of the greatest leaders India has ever had, a man whose contribution to India's independence is unparalleled. He built an army that failed in its mission, but ended up undermining the loyalty of the British army that was the backbone of the British empire in India. That he actually managed to revive the failed Indian National Army is in itself a mircale, given the impossible odds he battled against, that would have broken any ordinary man's will. In short, what we have in Bose is a man with an extraordinary love for his country, whose determination to win his beloved motherland her freedom saw him defy impossible odds and make incredible personal sacrifices.

But it is equally true that Bose was a man who divided opinion, who aroused either undying hatred or unflinching loyalty and little else in between. He firmly believed in an economic model that history has proven to be a flawed one. He won India her freedom, but might well have left behind the mere farce of a democracy had he become India's first Prime Minister. In short, it is very possible that he might have left behind him a legacy every bit as flawed as Nehru's, had been around to see his beloved India an independent land.

Unlike Nehru, Judgement on Bose cannot be made on the strength of posterity. For the better or the worse, Bose is a classic instance of what might have been.

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