Can we reverse history? Obviously not; what’s happened has happened. But can we reverse the general perception of specific events or episodes in history? The jury is out while the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tries its best to do so.
Some veteran journalists in India—astute observers of politics and experts in the psychology of political organizations—insist that the BJP’s deepest, never-stated desire is to be just like the Congress party and that its hero of independent India is Indira Gandhi. The party has smashed the Congress in an election now, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is travelling to foreign shores with the internationalist fervour of an Indira or Rajiv Gandhi.
Still, there’s one thing that has rankled this party, they say—its lack of “history”. The Congress has tonnes of it, by contrast: it is India’s oldest political party, it is credited with seeing off the biggest empire the world has seen and it has been an inspiration to freedom movements in the 20th century—100 years that will be known most of all as a century of flowering national freedom struggles.
Until recently, it was also among the world’s largest parties. Now, the BJP, determinedly ticking the boxes, wears that crown, too, claiming 100 million members, more than even the Chinese Communist Party. The BJP may not have much history, but it’s certainly making some.
Over the past few months, the BJP, led by Modi himself, has also made strenuous and highly publicized efforts to woo the family of one of the most revered icons of India’s freedom struggle—Subhas Chandra Bose. Well-known in South-East Asia and admired in India, Bose mounted the only organized armed opposition to the British Raj by leading a force called the Indian National Army.
Mixed up in the Second World War after he sought the assistance of Germany and Japan in an opportunistic, heroic and, ultimately, failed attempt to manoeuvre the cause of India’s freedom through armed opposition, Bose is spoken of in the same breath in India as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.
A mystery surrounding his reported death in an air crash shortly after take-off from Taihoku (the name for Japanese-controlled modern-day Taipei in Taiwan) on 18 August 1945 resonates to this day. Theories are conspiracy-driven, including: 1. Bose survived the crash, but was taken to Russia as a prisoner, and 2. He was murdered and the crash faked. Many blamed Nehru and Gandhi, saying their opposition to Bose’s leadership of the Congress during the freedom struggle forced him to take the path of armed struggle.
The years leading up to India’s independence on 15 August 1947—and even later—were thick with rumours that Bose was alive and in India, waiting for a suitable moment to emerge and deliver the nation from the yoke of the British and then Nehru-led Congress. It is in this historical drama and myth-making that Modi bravely waded into soon after becoming prime minister in May 2014. This month, he released around 100 secret government documents relating to Bose, which didn’t reveal much other than the fact that successive Congress governments have scuttled proposals to bring back an urn said to contain Bose’s ashes from a temple in Japan. Days later, a grand nephew of Bose, Chandra Kumar Bose, who is among the most vocal campaigners for the release of all classified Bose files, joined the BJP, saying the ruling party would fulfil Bose’s vision.
The BJP may have been guided by several motives in addressing the legacy of Bose: 1. The party could do with an association with an unblemished freedom fighter—the one most closely associated with the Hindu right wing, V.D. Savarkar, is derided by the Congress for writing a letter from prison to the British seeking “mercy”, vowing “loyalty to the English government” and describing himself as a “prodigal son.” 2. Assembly elections are due in West Bengal this year and the ruling Trinamool Congress party already has a Bose—member of parliament and Harvard historian Sugata Bose. In West Bengal, it’s a no-brainer. 3. By being seen to be working on the unresolved issue of Bose’s death, it can perhaps hope to erode the appeal of the Gandhi family (Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi) in the Congress.
But Bose’s legacy is not only one of militancy—as opposed to Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence—but also of communal unity and harmony. He was a fierce opponent of the Hindu Mahasabha, set up in the early 20th century and ideologically similar to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu right-wing group from which the BJP emerged.
Bose was sharply critical of the Hindu Mahasabha’s “communalism”—a word used by the Congress today to refer to the BJP. At the same time, he engaged with Muslims. “I have nothing in common with the mental attitude of the Hindu Mahasabha,” he wrote in a letter in 1940. “People like myself are prepared to concede to the Muslims, gladly and voluntarily, their legitimate share in everything which interests them.”
Sugata Bose, the author of a widely cited biography titled His Majesty’s Opponent, told me from Kolkata, “Subhas Chandra was the one freedom fighter who was most successful in uniting all the religious communities of India in the cause of India’s freedom. He won the trust of all the minorities with his philosophy of ‘cultural intimacy’ (a phrase Bose used in a 1928 speech). Anyone claiming to honour that kind of a person ought to honour those ideals.”
Bose ensured that Muslims and women were given equal status to that of Hindus and Sikhs in the Indian National Army that he formed with 20,000 Indian prisoners of war in Singapore in 1943. Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims ate together and there was a women’s regiment.
Siding with the Japanese and defeated by the British, soldiers of Bose’s Indian National Army or Azad Hind Fauj were tried for sedition in Mumbai in 1946. The trial caused a national furore, led to disaffection in the British Indian army and sparked the first rebellion in the colonizing armed forces—a strike by the Indian Navy in 1946, which, according to historian Sumit Sarkar, “was quite possibly the single most decisive reason behind the British decision to make a quick withdrawal”.
Bose’s is an incredibly powerful and complex legacy that will resist any attempts to “usurp” it—to use Sugata Bose’s word—by any political party.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1