Why it’s difficult to believe Netaji died in August 1945

Why it’s difficult to believe Netaji died in August 1945

A narrative of the veritable rabbit hole of the modern India’s longest-running mystery.

The controversy surrounding Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s disappearance is free India’s longest-running with new dimensions added to it in every few years. The sheer timeframe across which the Bose mystery has spread out, the subplots it has spawned and the number of high-profile personalities it has dragged into its net will bewilder anyone trying to make a sense of this absorbing issue.

The situation has been compounded to unimaginable proportions by the inexplicable state secrecy. Security classification has over the years resulted in the stockpiling of secret files. The Prime Minister’s Office alone has 33 of them as per its own admission under the Right to Information Act.

In such a befuddling scenario, the people of India have reacted to the controversy in two broad ways. They have either shut their minds to it, or embraced conspiracy theories. Both ways, it does not lead to anything worthwhile. The lack of a proper public discourse on the Netaji disappearance controversy is due to the absence of freely available literature breaking down its complexities into an easy to understand account.

The starting point of the mystery is an announcement made by the Japanese, Netaji’s benefactors during the Second World War, on 23 August 1945 when the Japanese forces were surrendering to the Red Army in Manchuria. According to the announcement, Bose was killed following a plane crash in Taihoku, the present-day Taipei city of Taiwan. The Japanese said that Bose was coming to Tokyo for talks with the Japanese government about the INA’s surrender but the crash ended his story. Badly burnt as a result of the crash, they claimed, he was given treatment in Taipei but died midnight on August 18.

Bose meeting Japanese prime minister Hideki Tōjō in 1943
Bose meeting Japanese prime minister Hideki Tōjō in 1943

Contrary to popular perception, doubts about this announcement did not sprout from of some fertile Bengali mind. “I wonder if the Japanese announcement of Subhas Chandra Bose’s death in an air-crash is true. I suspect it very much; it is just what should be given out if he meant to go underground,” observed Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, the Viceroy of India, when he heard about it. The nomenclature “Bose mystery” itself was coined by a British military officer later on when inquiries into the matter were launched.

The first person claiming to have seen Bose after his reported death was an American journalist embedded with the US army. Alfred Wagg, then associated with the Chicago Tribune, dramatically interrupted a press meet of Jawaharlal Nehru on 29 August 1945 to claim that he had seen Bose near Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) a few days after the reported death.

From late 1945 to early 1946 Mahatma Gandhi was the chief promoter of the theory that many today would associate with freaks and conspiracy theorists. His January 1946 statement made headlines the world over. The New York Times on 6 January reported “… Gandhi as declaring in a speech that he believed Subhas Chandra Bose was still alive and awaiting a propitious time to reappear”. On 30 March 1946, Harijan announced that “there was ‘strong evidence to counteract the feeling’ that Subhas Bose was dead.”

Bose and Gandhi,1938
Bose and Gandhi,1938

The inquiries launched by the authorities were headed by an IB deputy director who was assisted by many of his juniors and army personnel. It did not take them long to discover many loopholes in the Japanese version. For one, the Japanese had lied about Bose’s coming over to Tokyo because he was bound for Soviet Russia, the only country that could have given him refuge. The general in whose plane he was travelling was a Russia expert heading for Manchuria.
In the absence of Bose’s body or a picture of it, the entire story of the death was reconstructed by a few Japs and Bose’s loyal ADC Habibur Rahman, who claimed to have been with Bose when he died.

Rahman’s repeated interrogations did not convince the authorities about the veracity of his claims. There were many who believed that Rahman was just carrying out an order from Bose. The intelligence community was also confused by reports — including from the Russians sources — that Bose was possibly in Soviet Russia after August 1945.

As a result, in the 1940s, the Governments of India and the United Kingdom never officially announced the death of Bose. On 3 October 1946 in the Council of State, Member Ahmed Jaffer asked the Home Member (Minister) Vallabhbhai Patel if the Government of India had any evidence whether Netaji was dead or alive. Sardar Patel’s response was: “Government are not in a position to make any authoritative statement on the subject.”

However, the situation changed with Nehru making a statement that very year that he was inclined to believe in the death of Bose. Post-1947 that effectively became the government stand as the authorities parried all requests to have the matter examined afresh.

Around 1955, after trying in vain for years, a civil society group decided to form a non-official body under eminent judge Justice Radha Binode Pal to probe Netaji’s ‘death’. Justice Pal was one of the judges at the Tokyo trials. He had seen relevant papers of the Allied Power and heard from the Japanese, American and British sources that Taipei crash was a smokescreen to let Bose escape to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

This development became the main trigger for the Pandit Nehru government to promptly form a committee in April 1956. It was headed by Congress MP Shah Nawaz Khan, formerly of the INA, and an aide to the Railway Minister. Despite passionate appeals, Justice Pal was kept out of the committee. There were two other members on this panel: the Bengal government nominee SN Maitra and Suresh Chandra Bose, one of Netaji’s non-politician elder brothers.

The committee’s report — that Netaji had indeed died in Taipei — became disputed due to several reasons. The government was criticised for not letting the committee visit Taipei to carry out an on-the-spot investigation. Suresh Bose left the committee, accusing the Nehru government of trying to force him to sign on the dotted lines. He went on to publish on his own his Dissentient Report, stating that the evidence he had come across as member the committee proved that Netaji had escaped to the USSR.

The controversy returned to haunt the nation in the late 1960s, mainly due to the activism of Professor Samar Guha, a Lok Sabha MP with a revolutionary background. The Indira Gandhi government too was most unwilling to look into the matter, but had to relent when the demand was backed by over 350 MPs, especially by Amiya Nath Bose (son of Sarat Bose), Mulka Govinda Reddy, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and others.

In June 1970, the government appointed a one-man commission headed by Justice GD Khosla, a retired Chief Justice of the Punjab High Court, who had been making news for his prolific writings and a scandalous act that began when he was not accorded a ceremonial send-off by the Punjab Bar Association on his retirement. Khosla also happened to be a junior to Netaji at Cambridge University and, going by his own account, the former did not like the latter much.

The Khosla Commission upheld the Taipei crash theory, too, and faced charges of wrongly assessing the evidence. The government, this time again, did not want the commission to visit Taiwan but was prevailed upon by Guha, Vajpayee and others. GD Khosla, Guha later alleged, “sabotaged” his own inquiry in Taiwan. Following a “secret diktat” of the Ministry of External Affairs, he refused to contact the Taiwanese authorities to find out if there had actually been a crash in August 1945.

Khosla gave his report-cum-political testament against Subhas Bose in June 1974. Almost simultaneously he released a hagiographical biography of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The report as well as a book Khosla churned out from it contained several derogatory statements against Netaji and Japan, which had helped India attain freedom.

Guha moved a motion in Parliament in 1977. In its course, he adduced new evidence against the crash theory and the dubious ways of Justice Khosla. On 28 August 1978, Prime Minister Morarji Desai, never an admirer of Subhas, was constrained to admit that there were “various important contradictions in the testimony of the (mostly Japanese) witnesses” to Bose’s death. And that “some further contemporary official documentary records have also become available”, making the Government of India think that the conclusions reached by GD Khosla and Shah Nawaz Khan were not “decisive”.

At that stage, Guha became overtly emotional and announced in the Lok Sabha “in the name of God” that “Netaji is alive”. Obviously, Guha was laughed off. The next year he repeated the same claim, producing a picture which, according to him, showed Netaji in a temple in India. The picture was out and out fake and Guha lost all credibility. Towards the end of his life, Guha wrote that he had fallen victim to a ploy devised by his opponents who knew of his belief that a certain holy man in north India was actually Netaji.

The Mukherjee Commission (1999-2005) was the third official probe into Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s disappearance in 1945. What clearly set the new commission apart from the earlier probes was its coming into being following a court order whereas the decisions to institute the earlier probes were taken by the government under public pressure.

By the 1990s, the Netaji mystery had almost died down. But then, after the fall of the USSR, some sensational stories came to light, mostly due to the efforts of Dr Purabi Roy, then a professor with the International Relations Department of Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Subsequently a PIL was filed by lawyer Rudrajyoti Bhattacharjee in the Calcutta High Court at the behest of Sunil Krishna Gupta, brother of martyr Dinesh Gupta and friend of Samar Guha. Acting on the PIL, then Chief Justice Prabha Shankar Mishra ordered on 30 April 1998 that the Union Government should “launch a vigorous inquiry… as a special case for the purpose of giving an end to the controversy” surrounding Netaji’s disappearance.

The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government of that time consequently notified on 14 April 1999 that “the Central Government is of the opinion that it is necessary to appoint a Commission of Inquiry for the purpose of making an in-depth inquiry into a definitive matter of a public importance”. The name of Manoj Kumar Mukherjee, a former judge of the Supreme Court of India, was suggested by the Chief Justice of India.

The Mukherjee Commission did not just nix the air-crash story; it paved the way for further inquiry, maintaining that Subhas had disappeared while heading towards the Soviet Union. Its main conclusion was:

“It stands established that emplaning at Saigon on August 17, 1945 Netaji succeeded in evading the Allied Forces and escaping out of their reach and as a camouflage thereof the entire make-believe story of the air crash, Netaji’s death therein and his cremation was engineered by the Japanese army authorities including the two doctors and Habibur Rahman and then aired on August 23, 1945… Whether Netaji thereafter landed in Russia or elsewhere cannot be answered for dearth of evidence.”

In reaching this conclusion, the commission also received information and records from the Government of Taiwan that showed that there was no air-crash in Taiwan at that time, nor did he die, nor was cremated there. It is to be noted that the Vajpayee government did not allow Justice Mukherjee to visit Taiwan.

It became possible after this writer obtained information from the Government of Taiwan and informed the commission of inquiry. Using the same, the commission was able to establish direct contact with the Taiwanse and eventually visit their country.

News paper clipping from Japanese newspaper, published on 23 August 1945.
News paper clipping from Japanese newspaper, published on 23 August 1945.

The commission also investigated some holy men angles and rejected outright all except one — the strange case of Bhagwanji (Gumnami baba) who lived in several places in Uttar Pradesh, lastly in Faizabad from 1983 to 1985. If he were alive in 1984, Bose would have been 87. The commission’s conclusion on this angle was that in “absence of any clinching evidence” it could not be said whether or not Bhagwanji was Bose.

The Mukherjee Commission report was arbitrarily dismissed by the Manmohan Singh government in May 2006. The Memorandum of Action Taken Report tabled in Parliament assigned no reasons for this decision of the government and in the ensuing discussions several members made castigating observations and comments against the government.

There was an interesting development in 2010 when Justice Mukherjee’s off-the-record comments about the unseen holy man of Faizabad were surreptitiously recorded by independent filmmaker Amlan Ghosh for his documentary “Black box of history”.

The former Supreme Court judge said that he was “100 per cent” sure that Bhagwanji was Netaji and rued that he could not prove that in his report due to non-cooperative attitude of the Government.

On 31 January 2013, a new chapter was opened with the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court directing the Uttar Pradesh government to consider constituting an inquiry headed by a retired judge into the Bhagwanji episode. The court ruling stated that “considerable documentary and eyewitness evidence” existed warranting this inquiry. With the state government not willing to carry out this inquiry, a fresh PIL was filed by this writer and others including members of the Bose family seeking a probe under the court’s supervision. The case is on.

The truth about Netaji is out there. We can get to it by taking the issue head on, not by turning our backs on it. As I see it, the starting point is Russia. The endgame could be in Russia or Faizabad. This is the point we have reached in the veritable rabbit hole of the modern India’s longest-running mystery.

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