While following the BBC’s India-Pakistan season, I’ve noticed a programme on Radio 3 tomorrow night, Waiting for Netaji?, on Subhas Chandra Bose. It promises to be a treat, as the story of Netaji is an intriguing one, and it’s well worth revisiting a figure who is still revered by millions of Indians, much as that might embarrass the former colonial power.
If Netaji is remembered at all in the West, it’s as the wartime “collaborator” who stabbed Britain in the back. In fact, his actions in WWII, misguided as they may have been, had a basic consistency with his previous 20 years of political activism, and it was that extraordinary pre-war record that accounts for the high regard he is still held in by Indian nationalists. This was, after all, the most outstanding young leader of the Congress, a man with a record of both electoral success, having won the mayoralty of Kolkata, and of direct action. He was also the main representative of the Congress’s most radical wing, whose advocacy of physical force had brought him into frequent conflict with Gandhi and Nehru, and led to him being imprisoned by the British eleven times in 20 years, with a spell of forced exile in Europe into the bargain.
Throughout this period there was a consistent thread – India must demand independence, without footering around with halfway houses like Dominion status, and the British must be pushed into leaving, because moral persuasion wasn’t going to work. To that end, all means would have to be considered. It was that uncompromising line that led to his final break with the Congress, and informed the militarily unsuccessful and politically disastrous Indian National Army episode.
It wasn’t just inspired opportunism that led Netaji to reckon in 1939 that England’s difficulty was India’s opportunity. The example of Irish revolutionaries loomed large. Connolly, despite persistent attempts to claim for him a neutralist or pacifist position in the First World War, had actually taken a pro-German position, and correctly so. Before the full horrors of fascism became apparent, it seemed arguable that this strategy could work again. Hence Seán Russell’s German adventure, or the Bretons who tried to take advantage of the collapse of the French state. While there were some national-separatist movements that actually were fascist (the Croat Ustaše are as clear an example as any) others were simply motivated by geopolitics. You find this in Hitler’s Priestess, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s fascinating biography of the appalling Savitri Devi, which goes into a lot of detail on the Hindu-Aryan hypothesis and the Nazis’ interest in India. Naturally there is an account of Netaji, the only major Indian figure to actually collaborate with the Axis, but it doesn’t really fit. When you look at supremacist Hindutva outfits like the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha, which were to some extent influenced by European fascism, it only throws Netaji’s geopolitical motivation into sharper relief.
So you have the raw material of a really extraordinary character. Then you have the mysterious disappearance in 1945, allegedly in a plane crash over Taiwan, although many in India didn’t believe that, and you still hear stories of an imposing Bengali man having been sighted in Moscow in the 1960s. When you add into that the fact that Bose had, and still has, a substantial following – the Forward Bloc activists in West Bengal are a truly fascinating bunch – and the spiritual aspect of his rather nebulous “Indian socialism”, then things begin to take on a whole other dimension. Some of the more mystically inclined Subhasists now believe him to be an immortal avatar who will return and save India, a sort of Hindu-socialist analogue of the Hidden Imam.
Listen if you get the chance. It should be quite the tale.