The day after Narendra Modi swept into power there was a seminar at London’s Harrow Town Hall. It was not about the elections but the legacy of Subhas Bose. The setting was, unintentionally, ironical. Down the road is Harrow School where Jawaharlal Nehru had been educated and Nehru, of course, was Bose’s great rival during India’s freedom struggle.
However, what made the evening revealing was that instead of discussing what Bose stood for, there was heated discussion about whether Bose, following an air crash, had died in August 1945, just days after Japan’s surrender, in a Japanese military hospital in Taiwan.
If alive Bose would now be 117 but many in India still refuse to believe he has died and those who do argue there has been a massive cover-up about his death not just by the Indian authorities but even the Russians. Best sellers have been written about this alleged conspiracy and one Indian novelist has even pictured Bose as an inmate of the Gulag. This is the Indian version of who killed Kennedy, or what happened to the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. In Wallenberg’s case it was eventually established that he was arrested by the Russians in the last days of the war and died in a prison there. For Bose there is no such closure.
The result is there have been three government of India inquiries and at the seminar several speakers were sure that all the papers relating to what they called his “disappearance” have not been released. As I have shown in The Lost Hero, my biography of Bose, there is no doubt he died in the air crash and all the relevant papers have long been in the public domain.
So why this obsession about Bose’s death? The reason is there is a deep, unfulfilled, wish that had Bose returned the partition of India could have been avoided. And this, in turn, is fuelled by the fact that deep down Indians cannot work out how they got their independence. There is no Indian equivalent of Yorktown where George Washington defeated Cornwallis. Indian schoolboys may be taught Gandhi brought independence but that does not hold up under historical analysis.
For a start Gandhi did not think so. He found partition such a betrayal that he refused to celebrate Indian independence, preferring to remain in Kolkata to keep peace between Hindus and Muslims. Gandhi’s last great movement to free India had been in 1942, five years earlier, and even then he was imprisoned within hours of calling the British to ‘Quit India’ and played no part in it. The truth is Gandhi’s last successful campaign was in 1930 when he made his famous walk to the sea to make salt, brilliantly illustrating the iniquity of British rule. This is not to deny Gandhi’s pioneering role in convincing a long supressed people that they could take on their colonial masters and conquer them and that not with the sword but superior moral skills.
But India got her freedom in 1947 because the war had made it impossible for the Europeans to continue to rule Asia. Japan’s victories, in particular the defeat of the British in Singapore, destroyed the mystique of white supremacy. After that a handful of whites could not hold sway over millions of browns. This triggered a chain of events which made Indian independence inevitable. There was, of course, the complication of partition. But this, as modern historians recognise, was due to wrong-headed Congress policies during the war, providing Mohammed Ali Jinnah a wonderful platform to secure Pakistan.
I appreciate that to accept all this is difficult. But it is vital if we want to develop a proper narrative of how modern India emerged. It would be nice if the new Modi government would attempt to do so, but I fear it will feel this is too dangerous a path to tread. A great pity as all countries need a narrative and seventy years after independence India should be mature enough to develop one based on historical facts, not myths. Otherwise Indians will continue to debate nonissues like Bose’s death and ignore the more importance issue of the relevance of his ideas.