I am highly grateful to my dear friend S.Tewari to contribute this article to PTH. One of the most unique aspects about PTH is the fact that it has tried to introspect in depth about the Partition. Some say , it is irrelevant. However, nothing is further from the truth than this assertion. The answer to what could avoid partition, perhaps also holds the answer to what can keep communal harmony intact in the complicated landscape of the Sub-Continent. This article is a brilliant effort examining the life and times of an extraordinary political leader, Subhas Chandra Bose. But more importantly it also tries to throw light on the question of communal harmony within modern day political India and good relations between India and Pakistan.
On February 9, 1943, two Indians boarded a U-180 German submarine, commonly known as the U-Boat, off the coast in the north German city of Kiel. The submarine, under the command of Captain Werner Musenberg, crossed the North Sea and north Atlantic maintaining strict radio silence. Near South Africa the sub was confronted by a British Tanker, Corbiss, and sank it. The greasy food, claustrophobic interior of the U-Boat, and the rough sea made both Indian passengers repeatedly fall ill and physically emaciated. After 77 days and fifteen thousand miles under the sea, the U-Boat entered the coast of Madagascar for a secret rendezvous with a Japanese I-29 submarine. On April 28, 1943, after a rubber dinghy ride through especially rough seas, the Indians transferred themselves to the waiting I-29. The Japanese sub then headed for Tokyo through the Strait of Malacca and the East China Sea. Thus began, with the arrival of Subhas Chandra Bose and his personal assistant Dr. Abid Hassan on the Asian coast, the most extraordinary Hindu-Muslim-Sikh collaboration in the annals of British Indian history.
Before the arrival of Bose in Malaya, the Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army (INA in short)) had already begun under General Mohan Singh. However, beneath the common flag, the communal identities of the POW’s were beginning to threaten trouble. In India proper, the politics of Hindu Muslim Sikh identities had already reached its peak challenging the possibility of one nation indivisible. The Muslim League under Jinnah and the Congress Party under Gandhi and Nehru (with titular Presidency to Azad) saw absolutely nothing in common. The Muslim officers in the Malaya camps were aware of the politics being played out in India. Most of them devoted Muslims, they were hostile to INA under the leadership of Shah Nawaz Khan (Muslim Rajput, 1/14th Punjab). The persistent fear, as in India proper, was that the liberated India would be Hindu India, with prohibition on cow slaughter and wedding bands blaring music outside the mosques. According to Shah Nawaz Khan, even if they joined the INA, the Muslims would be well advised to keep up their guard. Under Mohan Singh, the Pathans, Punjabi Muslims, Gurkhas, and the Sikhs each stuck to their own groups and the INA was fracturing.
The arrival of Subhas Chandra Bose in Malaya saved INA from this fate. Professor Peter Ward Fay, Caltech historian and one of the latest to write on Bose and INA writes, “Bose compelled Shah Nawaz and the others – to submerge their differences, of community, and religion, and political affiliation, in the common pursuit of independence. And perhaps only he could have done it. Without Subhas Chandra, Prem (Officer Prem Seghal) once said to me, we would have been nothing”. Shah Nawaz Khan (whose nephew General Zahir-ul-Islam is the current head of Pakistan’s formidable spy agency ISI) told the court during the post-war INA Trials, “It will not be wrong to say that I was hypnotized by his personality and his speeches. He placed the true picture of India before us and for the first time in my life, I saw India through the eyes of an Indian.”
Powers of persuasion was not the only tool used by Bose to unify the fracturing INA. He also made a deliberate effort to give importance to the Muslim officers, not undeserved, and placed them well. The commander of his first division was General Zaman Kiani. The best men of the army were assembled in a special advance force and were given to Shah Nawaz Khan. Lakshmi Swaminathan, the young gynecologist from Madras and leader of the women’s section, remembers that some Hindus were perturbed by this apparent partiality. In her words, Bose explained to them, “We are in the majority. We can afford to be magnanimous. The day will come when they will think of themselves as Indians, not just as Muslims, but at this stage we should try to avoid any little thing that might hurt their feelings”. Bose was clearly following the spirit of the Bengal Pact of C. R. Das, his mentor of many years before. In similar vein the song Vande Mataram was replaced by Jana Gana Mana, but only after Bose had it translated from Bengali to Hindustani. He was determined to have a truly national language and the choice he made was Hindustani, the mother of Urdu and Hindi. In the Azad Hind Fauj, Bose allowed no separation in the dining hall (in contrast to the British Indian Army) and the men took their water and tea from common containers. The standard menu had rice, dal, and vegetables, and for those wishing for meat, mutton (but no beef and pork), served only after the vegetarians were finished and left.
According to Lakshmi Swaminathan, what Bose hoped to do was lift the nation’s business above religion and in this he was quite unlike the Mahatma. Gandhi brought religion into things. He used religious sanctions to compel political action, a habit that continues to this day. In the INA, she said, they never observed any sort of religious rites as such. “But in India, now, every time they launch a steamer, they have a puja”…Habib-ur-Rahman (Muslim Rajput, 1/14th Punjab) once suggested a common terminology for God to initiate prayers in the mess. Bose vetoed it, saying, if religion could be used to unite, it could also be turned on its head and misused to divide. In Lakshmi’s regiment, religious holidays were celebrated with mutual exchange of hospitality. It was the same in the regular INA.
The most dramatic exchange involved the famous Chettiar temple and Bose himself. It happened that the trustees of the temple, asked to contribute money to the freedom struggle, had told the Indian Independence League (which did the asking) that they would give handsomely if Bose himself came to the temple and gave a talk. Bose had declined. The temple was notorious for excluding not only persons who were not Hindus, but persons from certain castes who were Hindus themselves. The trustees, however, had persisted, and at last Bose agreed. But he would bring with him, he insisted, officers and men of his own choosing. Bose’s choice was deliberately provocative. Hindus of all sorts went with him. Muslims of course, Sikhs – there were even a few Christians. Dr. Abid Hassan, arriving late, found the temple “filled to capacity with the uniforms of the INA officers and men, the black caps of the south Indian Muslims glaringly evident”. Hassan had never performed a puja, “but I did what Netaji did, submitting the offerings prepared for us, and being blessed in turn by a tilak on the forehead….by the high priest himself”. Hassan added that as they left, “Netaji wiped the tilak from my forehead”.
In his recently released book “The Indian Ideology” Perry Anderson, Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles, writes, “Subhas Chandra Bose, the only leader Congress ever produced who united Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in a common secular struggle,…, lay buried in Taiwan: the political landscape of postwar India would not have been the same had he survived.” One might ask, how did Bose succeed in INA achieving something in such a scale that was a catastrophic failure in India? The reason for Bose’s success, shared by all historians of repute, was his deft handling of the communal question.
Essentially he had a two-pronged strategy, a slight preferential treatment to the Muslims, and, apart from this, assigning religion no other importance at all. Under Gandhi the Indian National Congress’s (INC) approach to the communal question was in stark contrast on precisely these two issues. As Kathryn Tidrick has shown, Gandhi entered politics, not to liberate his country in the sense understood by other Indian leaders, but to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. She writes, “The principle article of his belief system was that he, Gandhi, was the pre-ordained potentially divine savior … to which so many of his English acquaintances had turned in their search for a new revelation of God’s purpose in the world”. Congress’s belief system, after C. R. Das’s untimely death which became a reflection of Gandhi’s own, was thus never away from making religion the predominant force in political life. If religion was thus given the center stage, the other component of Bose’s communal policy – a slight preferential treatment to the Muslims – was also lacking in INC.
In 1927, Jinnah, in a last attempt to restore communal harmony, proposed a pact that would result in one third of the seats in the central legislature (slightly above the Muslim component of total population at that time) reserved for the Muslims, in exchange for single, rather than separate, electorates. At a subsequent all party conference in Calcutta, his attempts at such amendments to the constitutional report prepared by Motilal Nehru were shouted down and rejected. In 1937, INC, under the Presidency of J. L. Nehru, not only declined the offer of a coalition government with Muslim League in UP, Gandhi, on the insistence of G. D. Birla, a major financier and someone who was “dazzled” by his “superhuman qualities”, also scuppered an initiative taken by Bose to form a coalition government in Bengal with the Muslim Peasant Party.
In stark contrast, Bose justified his 1940 Calcutta Corporation alliance with the Muslim League by these lines in an Editorial for Forward Block, “one cannot ignore the fact that a certain number of communally-minded Hindus are furious about the above understanding (his alliance with the Muslim League). We, on our part, do not regard the communal organizations as untouchables. On the contrary, we hold that the Congress should try continuously to woo them to its side. During the last three years, repeated attempts have been made, to bring about a rapprochement between Congress and Muslim League. At a certain stage, the writer, then President of Congress, met Mr. Jinnah, President of the Muslim league… the attempts failed… We regard the present agreement with Muslim League as a great achievement not in its actuality, but in its potentiality… There is now some hope that we may ultimately succeed in solving a problem which has proved well nigh insoluble to many.” .
Why did Bose strike an alliance with the Muslim League in 1940 even if “some communally minded Hindus were furious about it”? The reason lay in his conviction that for a unified national demand from the British at least one of two conditions had to be met: a settlement with the Muslim League at the all India level, or coalition governments with Congress participation in most, if not all, Muslim majority provinces. After Nehru’s disastrous refusal to induct only two members from the Muslim League in the government of UP in 1937, Bose, as President of Congress in 1938, began a fresh attempt to negotiate with Jinnah for a settlement of the Hindu-Muslim question. But he soon discovered that Nehru had already complicated the negotiations by contemptuously proclaiming in 1937, that there were only two parties in India: the British and the Congress, and he had “looked through the telescope”, for a Hindu-Muslim problem, but “if there was nothing, what can you see?”. As Congress President, Bose’s other attempts to bring about a Hindu-Muslim coalition government in the largest province, Bengal, were also derailed by Gandhi in 1938 (as in 1937). It is for these reasons M. J. Akbar writes that the main ideological difference, if not the crucial difference, between Bose on one side and Gandhi and Nehru on the other was in how to deal with the Hindu-Muslim problem.
In India and now increasingly abroad Subhas Chandra Bose is the most written about Indian independence leader after Gandhi. However, there has always been an uneasy silence on him in the Indian and British official circles. Professor Fay of Caltech, in his essay “The British Perception of Netaji and INA”, calls the official British view as “inverted, ..incomplete, an incompleteness that comes from just refusing to look…like Trotsky, he has been painted out of the picture”. Not only did Bose completely disappear from every kind of British publications beginning with his 1940 escape (BBC was explicitly forbidden from mentioning him), this attitude, through Mountbatten, completely brainwashed Nehru and the Indian establishment as well.
The Congress apathy to Bose is illustrated by the following narration of Lakshmi Swaminathan in 2005, “He (Nehru) was extremely nervous of anything to do with the INA. Let me narrate just a minor incident. Many years later, Captain Ram Singh who had headed the INA band told my husband (INA veteran Prem Sehgal) that he wished to play for Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. My husband conveyed this to Nehru who graciously organised a grand function. Many important guests had been invited for the programme that turned out to be a grand success. Many suggested to Nehru that Ram Singh’s performance was very inspiring and should be taken around the country to every village. He immediately retorted “Arre phir hame kaun puchega”….. Mountbatten had completely brainwashed Nehru about the INA. That is why Nehru was not ready to take them back in the Army. The civilians especially those from South East Asia had a hard time rehabilitating themselves. There was no support whatsoever from the government. Despite the rousing welcome that the INA received from the people of the country, the government’s response to them remained lukewarm. This has remained the trend with successive Congress governments.”
Nonetheless, despite official apathy, to most historians the legacy of Bose and INA lies in providing the decisive final push for independence in the short but crucial period 1945-46 (“the Autumn Revolution”). Michael Edwardes, who fought under Mountbatten and had first-hand knowledge of many of the official deliberations, in his book “The Last Years of British India”, credits the “menacing shadows of open revolts in the army” in the aftermath of the INA trials as the chief driver of this push. He writes, “Would Labour fulfill its pledge to give India her freedom? On 15 August, 1945, as the war with Japan ended, the speech from the throne at the opening of the Parliament at Westminster contained these words: ‘In accordance with the promises made to my Indian peoples, my Government will do the utmost to promote…early realization of self-government in India” The words themselves were not very inspiring to the Indians, “self-government” did not sound like independence.
Three days later, in a hospital on the island of Formosa, terribly burned after the crash of an aircraft …S. C.. Bose lay dying. “Tell my countrymen”, he said, “India will be free before long”. Soon his name and the tales of his exploits were to help convert the emptiness of “self-government” into the reality of independence.” To paraphrase the subsequent events, the return of the INA men (“Jiffs”) as POWs presented a unique problem to the administration in New Delhi. The “Loyals” and the “Jiffs”, after all, were cut from the same cloth. There had been a time when they served together, and many loyals had relatives in the traitor army. If now the Jiffs were allowed to return to their villages, with tales of a freedom army that had fought for what even villagers were starting to believe India must have, could anyone be sure the loyals would remain loyal for much longer?
In Burma, British officers were already begging New Delhi to ship the Jiffs home before the “blacks” (traitors) finished infecting the “whites” (loyals). Translating this into Punjab, the traditional recruiting ground of the Army, one has thousands of committed INA veterans settling down in precisely the places to which the jawans regularly went on furlough, and from which the recruits were regularly sought. In the words of Peter Ward Fay, “to call this realization a bombshell does not overstate the case”. How, then, the Punjab viewed the Red Fort Trials was of the greatest importance. And what it thought, conveyed on November 17 by Sir Bertrand Glancey the Governor of Punjab, and supported by what Punjab Government representatives said at a New Delhi conference several days later, was startling. In three slim chapters titled “Auchinleck’s Dilemma”, “The Trial at Red Fort”, and “The Triumph of the INA”, Fay concludes, “It happened then”.
In the autumn of 1945 India was swept by a storm of excitement and indignation, a storm that Bose and his INA ignited. It was a storm that the Indian officer, and the jawan too, could not ignore. They did not ignore it. We have it on the authority of the Commander-in-Chief that they did not ignore it. In 1942, at the time of Quit India, there had been no question of their reliability. Now their own Commander doubted it…. But many of Auchinleck’s listeners knew without being privy to his thoughts or memoranda that even as Philip Mason spoke, Britain’s hand was slipping. Already the Indian Army was ceasing to be Britain’s to dispose of. The autumn storm provoked by Subhas Chandra dead and INA men living had made the Indian Army aware that it was no longer obedient….. Shall we continue to believe then that in India, power was not seized; that power, instead, was transferred?….Or shall we consign this interpretation to some lower level, to the status of a thing comparatively true and useful in some respects and circumstances, but otherwise in the nature of a fancy – a fiction even.”
The other legacy of Subhas Bose, the one that has been almost forgotten today, is inter-confessional unity. There is hardly a city in India today that does not have its Subhas Chandra Bose Avenue, its Netaji Marg (the famous Marine Drive in Mumbai, for instance, on which several violent demonstrations took place during the INA trials and after, is officially known as Subhas Chandra Bose Road). Hardly anyone knows, however, that Bose also stood for inter-confessional unity like none other in the Congress Party, almost as much as his readiness to sacrifice for nationhood. And, once free of the arbitrary leadership of Gandhi, in 1940 forged an alliance with the Muslim League in the Calcutta Corporation. Hardly anyone knows that, long before this, as a faithful disciple of C. R. Das he implemented the Bengal Pact in Calcutta Corporation in the face of stiff opposition from the Congress Party.
There are several speeches of him (starting with his Presidential Address at the Maharashtra Political Conference in 1928, at the age of 31) where he stressed the importance of separating nationalistic politics from the dogma of religion. In this he was poles apart from Gandhi who first came to be looked upon by the mass of the people as Mahatma (and thus a Hindu religious leader) before he became the political leader of India. To make matters worse, political issues were not discussed in the light of reason, but were mixed up with ethical and religious beliefs, often following from Gandhi’s frequent “conversations with God”. In contrast, Bose’s approach to communal amity lay in cultural and economic rapprochement, but never religious.
His helping hand to India’s Muslims on economic matters was unquestioned. On cultural matters, along with his attempt to have friendly relations with the Muslim League and the Peasant Party, he chose issues such as removal of the Holwell Monument (Black Hole Monument) and deletion from the school textbooks matters derogatory to Siraj ud Doula, Bengal’s last independent Nawab. The selection of these issues, and careful avoidance of the religious ones, reflected Bose’s strategic sense. Importantly, even Hindu opinion was in favor of removal of the Holwell Monument and restoring the name of Siraj-ud-Doula, whom the Hindus saw as an essentially secular ruler. In the same spirit, Bose arranged a ceremonial parade at the tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar on July 11, 1944, and recited himself his famous couplet “Ghazion mein bu rahegi jab talak iman ki/ Takht-e-London tak chalegi tegh Hindostan ki! (As long as there is faith in the heart of our freedom fighters/ The sword in India will pierce through the London rioters)”.
UCLA’s Perry Anderson writes, “What distinguished Bose from the other Congress leaders of the period—Gandhi, Patel, Nehru, Pant and the rest—was that he really did fight for inter-confessional unity, against them, and actually achieved it in the INA, which they catastrophically failed to do after the War. The British knew perfectly who was more dangerous to them: not Gandhi or Nehru, who were treated comparatively with kid gloves when they were detained by the British, but Bose, deported to far harsher conditions of imprisonment in Burma, and targeted for assassination when he escaped from Calcutta in 1940”.
Placed in today’s context, “inter-confessional unity” in south Asia more or less means peace between India and Pakistan. Contrary to the hopes of the pre-independence leaders, especially Jinnah, the partition of British India has failed to solve the Hindu-Muslim problem. Rather, it has institutionalized the old antagonisms between the two communities, represented by Congress and the Muslim League.
Contrary to liberal rhetoric, British rule did not create these enmities, but used them opportunistically as political weapons. The newly independent governments of India and Pakistan reinforced the old hostilities between Congress and Muslim League and the conflict between the two political groups has since been perpetuated. Partition, however, might not have been disastrous if the two countries could have remained on friendly terms. This was, indeed, what Jinnah envisioned, but the political process of hostilities adopted by the Muslim League that had made partition inevitable also made future co-operation impossible.
The partition of Bengal and Punjab, the states that sacrificed most for independence, rioting and large scale loss of life, and anger over the disruption of economic life, reinforced the bitterness that had built up between Congress and Muslim League in pre-partition India. It is here where the inter-confessional legacy of Bose and INA are important today. The armies of India and Pakistan, though successor armies to the British Indian Army, have had numerous members closely related to the men who once fought side by side in INA. In India, with the Congress Party likely to be out of power, the country is poised to get a new Prime Minister who professes to be an admirer of Bose. Like him, he also claims to be inspired by the essentially secular but nationalistic message of Vivekananda and left home in his youth seeking association in the monastic order of Ramakrishna Mission. His Hindutva credentials notwithstanding, will Narendra Modi take up the challenge and fulfill the unfinished alliance with Muslim League initiated by Bose in Calcutta Corporation?
In a recent visit to Kolkata, Leonard A. Gordon, author of “Brothers against the Raj”, a joint biography of Sarat and Subhas Bose, said while delivering the Sarat Bose Memorial Lecture, “I think its time India revisits his ideologies of separation of religion from politics, respect for other communities and religion as well as equality among the people of the country,” This same spirit of adjustment, separation of religion from politics, and inter-confessional unity among various religious and ethnic communities are lost legacies of Subhas Bose this article has tried to revive.
- “The Last Years of British India”, Michael Edwardes, The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and NewYork
- “The Indian Ideology”, Perry Anderson, Verso, London, New York
- “India: The Siege Within”, M. J. Akbar, Penguin Books, New York
- “The Forgotten Army: India’s Armed Struggle for Independence”, Peter Ward Fay, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI
- “Gandhi: A Political and Spiritual Life”, Kathryn Tidrick, Verson, London, New York
- “The British Perception of Netaji and INA”, Peter Ward Fay, Californian Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA archives.