NETAJI: THE SHROUD OF MYSTERY

This is the first Part of a two part serial article on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Editor

Among the pantheon of leaders that we have seen over a century of India’s struggle for independence, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose stands like a colossus. Over the years, the charisma and the magnetism of Netaji have not eroded, but is growing and spreading especially among the younger generations. Netaji has found a permanent place in the imagination of the people despite active efforts of various democratic regimes to erase the man and his role from the the annals of our history record. School textbooks include at best a passing mention of the role Netaji played in the struggle for liberation from the British yoke.

It is time for us to amend such distortions of history. We need to acknowledge the impact of the Indian National Army, the first and only revolutionary army of India which led the only organised armed assault on the British Empire. The profound impact that the trial of the INA officers had on the British Indian armed forces and the revolutionary fervour that it unleashed is hardly known. Our historians have long neglected these historical truths. In fact, foreign scholars have done more service in this regard. For example, Joyce Lebra, an American scholar, in her book The Indian National Army and Japan writes, “Despite the military defeat of Japan and with it the INA, popular support for the INA ultimately helped precipitate British withdrawal from India.”

During the last week of April 1945, Subhas Chandra Bose along with his senior Indian National Army(I NA) officers, several hundred enlisted INA men, and nearly hundred women from the INA’sRani of Jhansi Regiment left Rangoonby road for Moulmein in Burma. Accompanied by Lieutenant General Saburo Isoda, the head of the Japanese INA liaison organisation, Hikari Kikan, their Japanese military convoy was able to reach, albeit slowly, the right bank of the Sittang River. However, very few vehicles were able to cross the river because of American strafing runs. Bose and his party walked the remaining 130 km to Moulmein over the next week. Moulmein then was the terminus of the Death Railway, constructed earlier by British, Australian, and Dutch prisoners of war, linking Burma to Siam(now Thailand).At Moulmein, Bose’s group was also joined by 500 men from the X-regiment, INA’s first guerrilla regiment, who arrived from a different location in Lower Burma.

A year and a half earlier, 16,000 INA men and 100 women had entered Burma from Malaya. Now, less than one-tenth that number left the country, arriving in Bangkok during the first week of May. The remaining nine-tenths were either killed in action or died from malnutrition or injuries after the battles of Imphal and Kohima. Others were captured by the British, turned themselves in, or simply disappeared. Bose stayed in Bangkok for a month, where soon after his arrival he heard the news on 8 May1945, of Germany’s surrender. Bose spent the next two months, between June and July 1945 in Singapore, and in both places attempted to raise funds for billeting his soldiers or rehabilitating them if they chose to return to civilian life.

During the first two weeks of August 1945, events began to unfold rapidly. With the British threatening to invade Malaya and with daily American aerial bombings, Bose’s presence in Singapore became riskier by the day. His chief of staff, J R Bhonsle suggested that he prepare to leave Singapore. On 3August 1945, Bose received a cable from General Isoda advising him to urgently evacuate to Saigonin Japanese controlled French Indochina(now Vietnam).On 10 August, Bose learnt that the Soviet Union had invaded Manchuria. At the same time he heard about the atomic bombings o fHiroshima and Nagasaki. Finally, on 16August, after being informed of the unconditional surrender of Japan, Bose decided to leave for Saigon along with a handful of his aides.

As per the official version, at 2 pm on August 17, 1945, a Mitsubishi Ki 21 heavy bomber took off from Saigon airport. Inside the aircraft were 13 people, including Lt Gen. Tsunamasa Shidei of the Imperial Japanese Army, Col Habibur Rahman of the Indian National Army and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. After an overnight halt in Vietnam, on 18 August, the plane arrived to refuel in Taihoku, Formosa (now Taiwan). Moments after the flight took off again, passengers heard a loud ‘bang’. Ground crew saw the portside engine fall off, and the plane crashed. The pilots and Lt Gen Shidei were killed instantly, Col Rahman fell unconscious. Bose survived, but his gasoline soaked clothes ignited, turning him into a human torch. A few hours later, in coma in a hospital, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose passed away. This is the official account of Netaji’s demise.

Facts and Fiction

“There were no official reports released by the Governments of India or Britain,” historian Leonard Gordon says. Even members of India’s Interim Government in 1946 hedged on the matter. Bose had disappeared several times earlier in his life; so rumours began again in 1945 and a powerful myth grew. Bose lived a life filled with mystery and his final moments also remain a mystery. This is modern India’s first and the biggest conspiracy theory which is still as fresh as it was on the day of crash(whether Netaji was killed in plane crash on 18 August 1945 or did he survive). In the consensus of scholarly opinion, Subhas Chandra Bose’s death occurred in a plane crashed in Japanese ruled Formosa. However, it has been more circumstantial rather than fact driven. As news eached India, Mahatma Gandhi said, “Subhas is not dead. He is still alive and biding his time somewhere.”

Soon, rumours began doing the rounds that Bose was either in Soviet occupied Manchuria, a prisoner of the Soviet Army, or had gone into hiding in Russia. Lakshmi Swaminathan, of the INA’s Jhansi Regiment, said in 1946 that Bose was in China. In the 1950s, there emerged stories that Netaji had become a sadhu. And, the most elaborate of these took shape a decade later. Some of Netaji’s old associates formed the ‘Subhasbadi Janata’, and claimed Bose was now the chief sadhu in an ashram in Shoulmari in North Bengal. Through well crafted newspapers and magazines, the organisation was able to, quite convincingly, recreate Bose’s post war activities.

According to the ‘Subhasbadis’, Bose returned to India after the war, became a sadhu, attended Gandhi’s funeral unseen in 1948, lived in a temple in Bareilly in the late 1950s, before finally settling in Shoulmari as Srimat Saradanandaji in 1959. The Gumnami baba version, was of a sanysai in Faizabad who was rumoured to be Netaji in disguise. 24 boxes full of Gumnami Baba’s belongings have been kept at the Faizabad Treasury. They contain“round frame spectacles, Belgian typewriters, many newspapers of pre-independence and post-independence time with Baba’s comments scribbled on them, boxes full of books of international relevance, several books gifted by ‘sister,’ cigars from Germany and Italy, and some huge-size family photographs”… Other versions, too, began gathering credence. That he attended Jawaharlal Nehru’s cremation in 1964, of which there appeared to even be photographic evidence. On 23 April 2005, claiming that Netaji was alive till 1985 and did not die in an air crash at Taipei, the RSS chief KS Sudarshan demanded extension of the term of the one man commission probing the mysterious disappearance of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.Netaji in disguise. 24 boxes full of Gumnami Baba’s belongings have been kept at the Faizabad Treasury. They contain“round frame spectacles, Belgian typewriters, many newspapers of pre-independence and post-independence time with Baba’s comments scribbled on them, boxes full of books of international relevance, several books gifted by ‘sister,’ cigars from Germany and Italy, and some huge-size family photographs”… Other versions, too, began gathering credence. That he attended Jawaharlal Nehru’s cremation in 1964, of which there appeared to even be photographic evidence. On 23 April 2005, claiming that Netaji was alive till 1985 and did not die in an air crash at Taipei, the RSS chief KS Sudarshan demanded extension of the term of the one man commission probing the mysterious disappearance of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.

In 1977, summing up the extant of Bose legends, historian Joyce Chapman Lebra had written, “Stories persist that Netaji has become a sanyasi and has been seen in the Naga hillcountry of Assam; that he was a member of a Mongolian trade delegation inPeking; that he lives in Russia; that he is in the Chinese Army…Pictures have been produced to prove that Netaji is still alive. Bose’s family have announced at times that he is in hiding and will return to India when the time is right. In February 1966, Suresh Chandra Bose announced in the press that his brother would return in March. To date, however, Bose has not reappeared to contradict the evidence that he died in the crash on Taiwan. But the myth lives on.”

However, there were a couple of things that happened during and post the crash that instigated the suspicion and hence the conspiracy theories arose.

Japan’s surrender: Japan announced the surrender on 15 August 1945 just 3 days before the plane crash. Knowing how good Bose was as a strategist and military commander why would he travel to Japan, which has just surrendered in the war to the Allies. This plane crash could be a perfect coverup for Bose to go in hiding or escape to come back later on when the situation was much more conducive for him. Bose had done such a daring escape before also, from his Kolkatta house to Berlin under a perfect cover up.

No visual evidence: After Bose’s death, Bose’s other Lieutenants, who were to have accompanied him to Manchuria, but were left behind on the tarmac in Saigon, never saw a body after the plane crash. There were no photographs taken of the injured or deceased Bose, neither was a death certificate issued. According to Mukherjee Commission report, the ashes in the Renkoji temple are not Netaji’s. A report from the Taipei government says that no such plane crash happened on the 18 August 1945.

Habibur Rahman, Netaji’s aide was allegedly an eyewitness to the plane crash but he never got severe injuries. Bose dies of “severe burns” on his face and Habibur himself helped Bose during his last moments. If that is to be believed, how come Habibur Rahman didn’t suffer any burn injuries. The doctor, the nurse, the hospital staff have been interviewed time and time again and their statements did not intersect at several points.

Figgess Report 1946

Confronted with rumours about Bose, which had begun to spread within days of his death, the Supreme Allied Command, South East Asia, under Mountbatten, tasked Colonel (later Sir) John Figgess, an intelligence officer, with investigating Bose’s death. Figgess’s report, submitted on 25 July 1946, however, was confidential, being work done in Indian Political Intelligence (IPI), a partially secret branch of the Government of India. Figgess was interviewed in the 1980s by historian Leonard AGordon and confirmed writing the report.In 1997, the British Government made most of the IPI files available for public viewing in the India Office Records of the British Library. However, the Figgess report was not among them. A photocopy of the Figgess report was soon anonymously donated for public viewing to the British Library in the European manuscripts collection. The crucial paragraph in the Figgess report is, “it is confirmed as certain that SC Bose died in a Taihoku Military Hospital (Nammon Ward) sometime between 1700 hours and 2000 hours local time on the August 18, 1945. The cause of death was heart failure resulting from multiple burns and shock”. Figgess would also figure as one of the main characters in the mystery of the missing  INA treasure.

Shah Nawaz Committee 1956

With the goal of quelling the rumours about what happened to Subhas Chandra Bose after mid August 1945, the Government of India in 1956 appointed a three man committee headed by Shah Nawaz Khan. Khan was at the time a Member of Parliament as well as a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Indian National Army and the best known defendant in the INA Trials of a decade before. The other members of the committee were S N Maitra, ICS, who was nominated by the Government of West Bengal, and Suresh Chandra Bose, an elder brother of Bose. The Committee is referred to as the “Shah Nawaz Committee” or the “Netaji Inquiry Committee”. From April to July 1956, the committee interviewed 67 witnesses in India, Japan, Thailand, and Vietnam. In particular, the committee interviewed all the survivors of the plane crash, some of whom had scars on their bodies from burns. The members interviewed Dr Yoshimi, the surgeon at the Taihoku Military Hospital who treated Bose in his last hours. It also interviewed Bose’s aide on the flight, Col Habibur Rahman, who, after the partition, had moved to Pakistan. Although there were minor discrepancies here and there in the evidence, the first two members of the committee, Khan and Maitra, concluded that Bose had died in the plane crash in Taihokuon 18 August 1945. Bose’s brother, Suresh Chandra Bose, however, after having signed off on the initial conclusions, declined to sign the final report. He, moreover, wrote a dissenting note in which he claimed that the other members and staff of the Shah Nawaz Committee had deliberately withheld some crucial evidence from him, that the Committee had been directed by Jawaharlal Nehru to infer death by plane crash, and that the other Committee members, along with Bengal’s Chief Minister B C Roy, had pressured him bluntly to sign the conclusions of their final report. According to historian Leonard A. Gordon, “Out of the 181 page repetitious document that constitutes Suresh Bose’s report, one main principle for dealing with the evidence emerge ie; if two or more stories by witnesses have any discrepancies between them, then the whole testimony of the witnesses involved is thereby discredited and assumed to be false. Using this principle, Bose is able to…find that there was no crash and that his brother lives.”

The Shah Nawaz Committee refused to consider the document “Allied secret report No. 10/Misc/INA” which stated that, “Gandhi stated publicly at the beginning of January that he believed that Bose was alive and in hiding, ascribing it to an inner voice. Congressmen believe that Gandhi’s inner voice is secret information, which he had received. This is however a secret report, which says Nehru received a letter from Bose saying he was in Russia and that he wanted to escape to India. The information alleges that Gandhi and Sarat Bose are among those who are aware of this.”Interestingly, the contents of the letter were omitted from Shah Nawaz Committee report. The Committee did not find it necessary either to visit the alleged crash site in Taihoku or to make further probes that suggested that Netaji was alive.

Japanese Government report of 1956

An investigative report by Japanese government titled “Investigation on the cause of death and other matters of the late Subhas Chandra Bose” was declassified on 1 September 2016. It concluded that Bose died in a plane crash in Taiwan on 18 August 1945. The report was completed in January 1956 and was handed over to the Indian embassy inTokyo, but was not made public for more than 60 years as it was classified. According to the report, just after takeoff, a propeller blade on the airplane in which Bose was traveling broke off and the engine fell off the plane, which then crashed and burst into flames. When Bose exited it, his clothes caught fire and he was severely burned. He was admitted to hospital, and although he was conscious and able to carry on a conversation for some time he died several hours later.

Khosla Commission 1970

In 1970, the Government of India appointed a new Commission to enquire into the “disappearance” of Bose. With a view to heading off more minority reports, this time it was a “one man commission.” The single investigator was G. D. Khosla, a retired chief justice of the Punjab High Court. As Justice Khosla had other duties, he submitted his report only in 1974. Justice Khosla, who brought his legal background to bear on the issue in a methodical fashion, not only concurred with the earlier reports of Figgess and the Shah Nawaz Committee on the main facts of Bose’s death, but also evaluated the alternative explanations of Bose’s disappearance and the motives of those promoting stories of Netaji sightings.

Mukherjee Commission 2005

In 1999, following a court order, the Indian government appointed retired Supreme Court Judge Manoj Kumar Mukherjee to probe the death of Bose. The Commission perused hundreds of files on Bose’s death drawn from several countries and visited Japan, Russia and Taiwan. Although oral accounts were in favour of the plane crash, the Commission concluded that those accounts could not be relied upon and that there was a secret plan to ensure Bose’s safe passage to the USSR with the knowledge of Japanese authorities and Habibur Rahman. The Commission observed that the ashes kept at the Renkoji temple, reported to be Bose’s, were of Ichiro Okura, a Japanese soldier who died of cardiac arrest. The Mukherjee Commission constituted in 2001 submitted its report on 8 November 2005. The Commission was dismayed by the sheer negligence of the Khosla Commission which omitted several crucial leads that Dr SN Sinha had provided to unravel the Netaji mystery. The report was tabled in the Indian Parliament on 17 May 2006. The Indian Government rejected the findings of the Commission! (To be concluded)

Colonel Joe Purakel is a veteran of the Regiment of Artillery. An alumnus of OTA and DSSC he is leading a retired life devoted to writing and gardening.

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