Among the crowd filing past Jawaharlal Nehru's body as it lay in state in May 1964 was a middle-aged man, in spectacles and in the robes of a priest. He stood for a while observing the dead Nehru, even as others observed him with something of disbelief and a little of shock, for he bore an uncanny resemblance to the long-missing Subhas Chandra Bose. A day later, some newspapers carried that image, along with the question: was that Bose beside Nehru's remains? Of course, no one could answer the question. And whoever that individual was, he was never seen or heard of again.
All these years after his death or disappearance from public view, Subhas Chandra Bose, Netaji to millions of people in his time as also in the period after 1945, remains an enigma. There are yet people, and among them are scholars, who have never accepted the theory that Netaji died in a plane crash on August 18, 1945 in Taipei. As evidence for this version of the Netaji story, mention is made of a reported government statement from Taiwan that is dismissive of any plane crash having taken place on the day.
So what happened immediately after Netaji boarded the aircraft which took off with him for that one last time in August 1945? Some of his ardent followers would have you know that he moved to the Soviet Union and lived out the rest of his life there. Some others have spread the story of Subhas Bose's having taken to the path of faith, to wait for the moment when India would call him to leadership. And there have been those who have pointed to Stalin's Kremlin keeping Bose in prison once he made it to Soviet soil and perhaps perishing there.
In free India, none of the several commissions of inquiry constituted to investigate the disappearance of Subhas Bose have satisfied public curiosity about the end of the man who once played a pivotal role in the struggle against British colonialism in India. He suffered terribly under the Raj, spending long periods in prison, to the point of seeing his health deteriorate to inconceivable lengths. He would brook no compromise with the foreign ruler; and he was uncomfortable with the methods which Gandhi employed in his dealings with the British.
But his differences with the Mahatma notwithstanding, Bose remained respectful of the famous voice of non-violence.
The tragedy is that Gandhi did not quite reciprocate Bose's feelings. He was happy when Bose was elected president of the Indian National Congress in 1938, but when, despite his wishes to the contrary, Bose sought and won re-election to the presidency of the party in 1939, Gandhi was unable to accept the younger man's triumph in good grace. The defeat of Pattabhi Sitaramayya, the candidate Gandhi would have liked to win, was for Gandhi his own defeat. None of the other senior leaders of the party would, in 1939, agree to work under Bose.
In a way, Netaji was hounded out of office by men from whom he had expected better. He wrote to Nehru in March 1939: "Since the presidential election, you have done more to lower me in the estimation of the public than all the twelve ex-members of the Working Committee put together. Of course if I am such a villain, it is not only your right but also your duty to expose me before the public."
There is a whiff of petulance, of sentimentality here. Bose was a man driven by passion, as his relentless struggle against the British would demonstrate over and over again. You could spend hours debating his decision to travel to Berlin, in the expectation that the Nazis would help him run the British out of India. He met Ribbentrop, more than once. And his meeting with Adolf Hitler did not quite leave him with any favourable impression of the Fuhrer.
Netaji certainly had greater success with Japan's Hideki Tojo, whose tangible assistance to Bose and his Azad Hind Fouj, or Indian National Army, convinced Netaji that the British could indeed be driven from India. But then comes the question: had imperial Japan overrun Burma and then India, would its militaristic rulers permit Bose to provide unfettered leadership to Indians? Knowing of Japanese atrocities in China and Korea, would Tojo and his men behave any differently with Netaji?
Nevertheless Bose, towards the end, hitched his wagon to the Japanese star. When Japan collapsed, Bose simply had no way of leading a victorious INA into India. The dream had gone sour.
Netaji, like many heroic men in our times, was weighed down by contradictions. His belief in secular democratic politics was never in question. While the Congress and the Muslim League argued over the nature of a post-British India, one that would likely be undermined by rising Muslim separatist politics, Bose consistently upheld his vision of a united, free India resting on the principles of nationalism and democracy.
But then comes the question of why, in his revolutionary quest for a democratic India, he thought it prudent to solicit political and military assistance from such repulsive regimes as Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. The answer to that question may never be arrived at. But what does come back to observers of Indian history is what Bose stated in Kabul, once he had arrived there after escaping internment in Calcutta in 1941. India, once the British were gone, would need to be ruled by an iron-handed dictator for twenty years. That was Bose. Did he foresee that role for himself, one of a benevolent dictator?
At this safe distance of so many decades, it is the inspirational Subhas Chandra Bose who remains an integral part of the popular imagination in the subcontinent. Not even Tagore failed to note the grandeur in the man. "As Bengal's poet, wrote the Bard to Netaji in 1939, "I acknowledge you today as the honoured leader of the people of Bengal." Bose worshipped Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das.
When he met Ireland's Eamon de Valera, the two men shared sweeping views of the dangerous and challenging world they were part of. Netaji's passionate faith in freedom was reinforced through the formation of the Free India Government on October 21, 1943 in Singapore. His single-minded adherence to the cause of freedom did not allow for any complacence or half measures. "I am an extremist and my principle is -- all or none," said he.
It was this patriotic extremism, in that broad inspirational form, which led him into decreeing the nature of the flag that would after him become the symbol of independent India. It would have him inform Indians that "Jana gana mana" and "Saare jahan se achha" would be theirs to sing. It was principles steeped in conviction that sustained him, even as his campaign for liberty faced setbacks. "The roads to Delhi," said Netaji, "are many, like the roads to Rome. And along one of these many roads we shall travel and ultimately reach our destination, the metropolis of India."
(Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was born on 23 January 1897 and went missing on 18 August 1945).