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“The Netaji mystery”

What and why are Indian and Russian archives hiding? Is it right to consider India “the nation of Gandhi” and how the refusal to carry out de-Communization in the post-Soviet space is echoing in the seemingly faraway India? All this is in the story of the life and disappearance of Subhas Chandra Bose
26 February, 10:29

An Indian daily, The Times of India,  has recently published the article “Netaji Papers Stolen from Russia.” The article quotes a monk from the Ramakrishna Mission’s Moscow chapter as saying that the Indian government’s Mukherjee Commission, which sought in Russian archives traces of the presence in the USSR of Subhas Chandra Bose, a leader of India’s national liberation movement, disregarded the evidence that Bose had found himself in the country of Soviets, while the documents themselves have mysteriously vanished… This rather ambiguous story with a touch of clock and dagger, quite in the spirit of the 20th century, links the Indian government’s classified files with KGB-FSB archives in Russia. Now, 68 years after the Indian hero’s death was announced, there are more questions than answers to this affair. Moreover, a puzzle from the WW II ashes has suddenly become a raw geopolitical nerve, as did, for example, the Wallenberg case or the Katyn tragedy. The Indian government refuses to declassify certain documents on the grounds that they may have an adverse effect on relations with foreign states. Meanwhile, the “Netaji mystery” is still hitting the headlines in India.

The official version says there was an air crash in Taipei, Taiwan, on August 18, 1945, which claimed the life of Subhas Chandra Bose, one of the anti-colonial movement leaders in India. Since then, for almost seven decades, under the pressure of various political forces and the public the Indian government has been forming commissions to inquire into the details. Yet, as time went by, no conclusions of the governmental commissions proved to be convincing enough. In today’s India, many are inclined to believe that the air crash story was only a cover-up for Bose’s escape on that August night. And, although no convincing proof of this theory has been found, it causes quite a stir in the hearts and minds of quite a few Indians. And this is only natural because it is about one of the most radiant figures in that country’s liberation movement, the organizer of the Indian National Army (INA) and president of the Indian National Congress, whose portrait adorns today the Indian Parliament. He was a Cambridge-educated person who, judging by the Calcutta Bose Museum exposition, had an exceptionally good taste and even discreet estheticism. At the same time, he was a politician who shook hands with Hitler and Stalin in an attempt to enlist their support. So he was a hero, albeit a controversial one, as were, after all, many of those who tried, in the World War II inferno, to gain, win, or buy independence for their nations.


A great many books have dealt with a mysterious disappearance of Netaji (in Bengali, “respected leader,” the word that Indians often add to the name Subhas Chandra Bose). One of the latest of them is India’s Biggest Cover-Up (New Delhi, 2012) by Anuj Dhar, an Indian journalist, who has been researching this subject for about a decade. Anuj and I met in the very center of New Delhi near a posh colonial neighborhood. According to the researcher, “the story begins right here.” “There is a secret governmental archive room, called T-Branch, somewhere in the northern block’s basements,” the journalist says. He is convinced that these archives have some documents that can shed light on the “Netaji mystery.”

To tell the truth, not all Indians believe in the “Netaji mystery.” For example, asked if he believes in the alternative versions of Bose’s destiny, the Indian ex-ambassador to Ukraine, Mr. Vidya Bhushan Soni, says with a tinge of condescension that when he was young, Netaji was his idol and, after the announcement about the Taipei air crash, the future diplomat believed for a long time that the leader would come back to India. But the governmental commissions’ conclusions, which confirmed the air crash theory, soon persuaded Mr. Soni that the Bose escape version did not have sufficient grounds and to believe in it was the prerogative of romantics.

“If Bose had really died in 1945 in the Taipei air crash, this question would have also ‘died’ in the next few years. There is no smoke without fire. There’s something odd here,” Anuj says contrary to the prevailing skepticism in society. In fact, his book is about this “something odd.” It is based on documents, photos, anecdotal evidence, and a thorough analysis of the governmental commissions’ efforts. As a result of 10-year-long work, this book looks rather convincing, although it does not give ultimate answers.

“Today, the ‘Netaji mystery’ is mostly a question of transparency and declassification of secret files,” Anuj says.

Do you think these records are likely to be declassified?

“Times have changed. If we had met in the era of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, I could not have spoken with you like this. Democracy is not a natural thing in India. It is the British who brought it here. Of course, India is not a flawless democracy, but it is still a democracy. There is an essential likelihood that the Indian government will have to declassify these files. We need for this the support of the media and political parties. On my part, I am trying to explain to people that these files belong to society, not the government. And the day will come, when the government will be no longer able to resist public pressure.”

Maybe, Rahul Gandhi [the son of Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, the current president of the ruling Congress party, the grandson of Indira Gandhi. – Ed.], who is tipped as next prime minister, will do this?

“If your forecast comes true, the thing will be doomed to failure. I am afraid the ‘Netaji mystery’ has a political aspect. From the very beginning, Congress-led governments have been taking a hostile attitude to Subhas Chandra Bose. Even children know this.”

The country is now witnessing a new wave of interest in the “Netaji mystery.” On January 23, Bose’s birth anniversary, there was a Candle March in Calcutta to honor the memory of Bose, whose participants, as well as the Bose family, insisted again that the archival materials be made public.


The “Netaji mystery” really has a political touch to it, for it mixes the history of the Indian liberation movement, the Asian policy of the Soviet Union, and the history of the Nehru-Gandhi family, the real creator of India’s modern image.

What may have played a decisive role in Bose’s life story is the fact that he was an overt ideological opponent of Mahatma Gandhi. It is perhaps the reason why the book his grandnephew Sugata Bose recently published is titled His Majesty’s Opponent. Bose rejected Gandhi’s “pacifist” methods of struggle. He favored the use of military force and believed that making the British Empire weaker by means of war was a not-to-be-missed chance for India to break free of colonial domination. In 1939 this caused a split in the Congress which Bose had led since 1937. Then Bose was put under house arrest for his activities. Still later, in early 1941, after drawing up an elaborate plan, he escaped and went westwards. First he went to the Stalinist USSR, where he was denied military aid, then to Nazi Germany whose leadership proved to be more compliant. In the next two years of staying in Japan, another Axis country, he formed the Indian National Army which engaged in military operations but finally suffered a defeat. Bose had to flee to save his life. Thus began the last of his well-known and documented travels.

In the foreword to the book India’s Biggest Cover-Up, Anuj Dhar presents three photos from the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv) that show Bose shaking hands with Hitler and speaking smilingly to Himmler. These photos and the very fact of this contact allow one to call him “opportunist.” At the same time, by all accounts, critics do not consider provocative the fact that Bose also tried to make an assistance deal with Stalin. Even though Nazism and communism have been branded as twins at the OSCE level (not to mention the publicized and self-explanatory facts of the Soviet system’s crimes), the propaganda of a no longer existing country still remains stronger than the language of facts.


But what is the use of hiding today the documents linked to this personality?

It follows from Anuj Dhar’s book that the “Netaji mystery” is, among other things, directly connected with the Mahatma Gandhi cult. This guarantees the aureole of absolute historical truth for the current Indian establishment which positions itself as “direct descendent” of the universally known political and moral leader. Is this right? Opinions differ. For example, when asked at a public lecture in New Delhi last fall what, in her opinion, Gandhi would have said about the present-day India, Oxford Professor Judith M. Brown, one of the best known in the world Mahatma Gandhi researchers, said: it is not the India Gandhi dreamed of. The professor thinks he would have been terrified by, above all, the level of corruption.

“If you take a close look at declassified British archival materials, it will perhaps seem to you that the role of Bose in the liberation of India was even greater than that of Gandhi,” Dhar says, and his words sound sensational to me. “As World War II was drawing to a close, Winston Churchill had no intention to grant India independence, although a lot of Britons favored the end of colonization. So why did the British suddenly leave in 1947? For the Quit India movement, which Gandhi had launched in 1942, died out before the end of 1943. The official viewpoint is that India gained independence thanks to Mahatma Gandhi alone. Schoolchildren are taught that Gandhi came and wrought a miracle – India became independent. I am sorry, but this is rather a fantastic interpretation of history. Naturally, the role and significance of Gandhi must not be called into question, but we must also say that there were a lot of other unfairly forgotten people. Subhas Chandra Bose is one of them. From 1943 until 1947, there was not a single national liberation movement in India that deserves to be mentioned. Only Bose continued the struggle from outside the country. It is his struggle that paved the way to the transfer of power in 1947. So for the incalculable number of Indians, including me, he is also the father of the nation,” the journalist emphasizes. Incidentally, Bose was the first to apply the phrase “Father of the Nation” to Gandhi. This title remained affixed to him forever.

“If Bose had come back, he, rather than Jawaharlal Nehru, would have become the leader of India. This is why those who benefited from the transfer of power in 1947 were hostile to Bose for political reasons. Please don’t get me wrong. I am not taking an antiestablishment attitude. I support my government. But I do not trust the latter as far as Bose is concerned,” Dhar explains.


Netaji’s life story projects the image of a totally different India – a state that is guided by geopolitical pragmatism and Realpolitik rather than by ahimsa (principle of non-violence) which Gandhi preached.

“In spite of impression made on the entire world, India is not a nation of Mahatma Gandhi. India has never adhered to Gandhi’s principles. The Indian reference frame has never held a place for ahimsa. If you come into the defense minister’s office room, you will see the photo of Mahatma Gandhi over his head. Sitting under this portrait, the minister is at the same time dealing with the import of the world’s largest number of weapons! I can see Bose in the government’s actions. What did he do? He first went to Stalin, then to Nazi Germany, and then to Japan – all for the sake of India. What did the government of India do during all these years? Fidel Castro visited our country. Saddam Hussein was our government’s ally, as was Robert Mugabe. This is what serves national interests. They call Bose’s actions ‘opportunism’ but, at the same time, define India’s deal with the Burmese junta as ‘pragmatism,’” the journalist says indignantly.

Were Bose’s proposals an optimal way? By all accounts, this remains a moot point in India. The Times of India, an Indian daily, quotes Prof. B. B. Dutta, former Indian National Congress MP, as saying: “Let us not assume that our leaders were responsible for Netaji’s disappearance. There are enough records in the archives of the USA, the UK and India to solve the mystery. The problem is different. Netaji had pitted himself against Gandhian principles and built the Indian National Army. He ran the Azad Hind government while in exile [the Free India provisional government established in 1943 in Singapore. – Author]. It was felt by a certain influential section that if Netaji had his way, independent India would be far worse off than it had been under British rule, that if Netaji was correct, then Gandhiji was wrong. It’s time to put behind these notions and reveal the truth.”

Anuj Dhar tries to avoid historical associations and does not want to comment on the presumption of what would have happened if Bose had managed to make the USSR an ally and on whether he was aware of whom he was dealing with. Instead, what sounds quite eloquent in this context is a letter to Prof. Louis Fischer written at the request of Gandhi in the summer of 1946. Dhar quotes a fragment from this message in his book: “The Indian Army [the colonial army under British command. – Author] is no longer of the same temper as it was in the First World War. Besides the disaffection among the Indian officers and the rank and file, a revolutionary group has been working among them, and they are pro-Russian… If Bose comes with the help of Russia, neither Gandhiji nor the Congress will be able to reason with the country.” Maybe, these fears were not groundless and India might have been occupied by the Soviets instead of the British…


But let us come back to the intriguing “Netaji mystery.” Many Indians are inclined to believe that the USSR had something to do with it. One version says that, after his disappearance, Bose was deported to Siberia, where he met his death in the Stalinist GULAG. Although Dhar does not accept this version, he is sure that there is a “Russian connection” to this story and that the Indian government means Russia when it hints that it does not want to spoil relations with ‘a foreign state.’

“Many people in this country believe that, after the alleged air crash, Bose was in the USSR, where he was killed on Stalin’s orders at the request of Nehru. I personally categorically reject this theory. I must be guided by hard evidence. I can see some indirect evidence that Bose was in the USSR, but I see no proof at all that Stalin had him killed. Moreover, there was no point in this because Stalin disliked Nehru,” the journalist insists. “Yet if it turns out that he was really killed in the USSR, this will have an extremely negative effect on India-Russia relations.”

What concrete consequences can declassification of the “Bose archive” have for India and Russia?

“India continues to maintain, as it did in the Soviet period, close ties with Russia in the military and other fields. Oddly enough, while we could have spoken with the Russians on any topics for decades on end, the Bose problem has never been adequately addressed. I think the Indian government knows that Bose was in the USSR, but the powers that be do not admit this in public. For the Russians, a confession could be fraught with consequences in other spheres. For example, they may face pressure to finally clarify the destiny of Wallenberg after his alleged death at the Lubyanka jail in 1947 [Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews during World War Two and presumably died in the Lubyanka jail, although this remains a disputable fact. – Author]. I contacted a lot of influential people, and they all think that Bose might have been in Russia. In India, it is something like a widely-open secret. But those who wield power do not want to kick up a fuss about such an ‘overdue’ matter.”

There was still an attempt to gain access to secret Russian archives. Dhar’s book devotes a chapter to this. But the journalist does not consider these attempts adequate and admits that, before making more insistent requests to Russia, the Indian government should declassify its own archives.

“Both the president and the prime minister claim that they revere Bose. Then why don’t they ask the Russians about his destiny in an effective way? In this matter, India should be as active as Sweden was in the Raoul Wallenberg case and Poland in the Katyn massacre case,” Dhar says.

But, to tell the truth, if the statements of a Moscow Ramakrishna Mission monk, mentioned at the beginning of this article, are not baseless, there is perhaps nothing to search for in the Moscow archives.

The author of India’s Biggest Cover-Up has its own version of Bose’s destiny. This theory looks rather fantastic at first glance, but in his book (which, incidentally, is accessible in the online shop in the English language) the author presents some quite convincing arguments to confirm it. Dhar admits he has no irrefutable evidence but announces that may soon receive ample proof that his conjectures are right. Then one more mystery of the last century will perhaps be solved.

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