Subhas Chandra Bose on Radio 3

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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.

13 Comments

  1. Idris of Dungiven said,

    August 8, 2007 at 11:52 am

    What’s this about Connolly being correct to take a pro-german line before and after 1914?

    I’ve got the old bugger’s portrait over my desk as I type, but that doesn’t stop me thinking he was capable of making some serious mistakes (I don’t think he ever realised the consequences of land reform in the Irish countryside).

    Britain, Germany, and even gallant little Belgium were all rotten imperialist states ( look at the butchery in Congo, Namibia, and in what is now Zimbabwe in the run-up to 1914)and the only proper attitude to all of them should have been a ‘plague on both your houses’.

    As for these sightings of ‘an imposing Bengali man’ in 1960s Moscow, even if Bose did disappear Elvis-style, why would he stay incognito especially after India was independent (genuine question, btw).

  2. August 8, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    […] the Webmaster Link to Article west 8 Subhas Chandra Bose on Radio 3 » Posted at Splintered Sunrise on Wednesday, […]

  3. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 8, 2007 at 2:08 pm

    Well, it’s a good analogy about Bose sightings being like Elvis sightings, but it’s a bit more like Kennedy. He disappeared in murky circumstances and there were a lot of people who it would have suited to have him disappear. The Elvis thing comes in with the cultishness you get in certain elements of the Forward Bloc constituency. Which is weird because it’s a serious party and not a tiny sect.

    As for Connolly, I think the answer depends on your situation. In the imperialist countries I wouldn’t have been in favour of taking sides, but from the standpoint of Ireland a pro-German position was perfectly justifiable. As long as it didn’t mean some kind of political endorsement of the Kaiserreich, and I don’t think Connolly was guilty of that. His position in 1914 derives really from his stance on the Boer War.

  4. Idris of Dungiven said,

    August 8, 2007 at 2:23 pm

    Enlighten me then. Did Connolly take a simple ‘england’s difficulty’ line, or did he make the mistake of thinking the Wilhelmine regime wasn’t that bad really? Because IMO the latter position would have been untenable.

    Even if some pro-German positions might be justifiable from an Irish perspective, I don’t think all pro-German positions would be the same.

  5. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 8, 2007 at 3:27 pm

    IIRC the “England’s difficulty” line, which I think is the tenable one. It’s a bit like the Bretons in 1940 – those who took a “France’s difficulty” line can’t really be lumped in with those who were straightforwardly pro-fascist. Much as one might be tempted.

    For what it’s worth, Brendan Clifford is the authority on this and wrote extensively on the question. Not that I wouldn’t take Brendan’s judgements with a large pinch of salt.

  6. Jim Denham said,

    August 9, 2007 at 9:32 pm

    It was the case, was it not, that Bose favoured a Nazi victory? certainly, that was Orwell’s understanding of Boses’s position. If that’s true, then however much we might sympathise with his hatred of colonialism, his “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” position with regard to Nazism was not just mistaken: it was politically criminal.

  7. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 10, 2007 at 8:00 am

    No, at least my reading of Bose is that he was in favour of getting aid from whoever was in a position to give it. He’d been quite strongly pro-Soviet in the 30s, but if he couldn’t get help from Stalin, he wasn’t above an alliance with the Japanese. Which I don’t argue for, I just think it was understandable given his starting position.

  8. August 13, 2007 at 3:14 am

    I have done what I can to keep the ‘Bose immortal’ myth going in Kolkata. I told this old Bengali, when he saw me looking at a poster of Bose of Lower Circular Road, that I was sure he was the newsagent I used to do a paper round for in London and who was always cursing the ‘Britishers’. He did get quite excited by a possible ‘sighting’.

    I also have a good collection of books with titles like ‘Netaji was murdered murdered murdered in the Red Fort’ (by the Britishers, of course) and knew some directly linked to the INA.

  9. Idris of Dungiven said,

    August 13, 2007 at 10:25 am

    Is there any similar personality cult around Gandhi, then?

  10. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 13, 2007 at 2:15 pm

    Well, there’s a personality cult all right, especially in Gujarat. But AFAIK no Elvis-type sightings.

  11. johng said,

    December 15, 2007 at 4:11 pm

    I have a glimmer of a hunch that Bose came as near as dammit to winning an election to the Congress high command in the late 1930’s largely on the back of radicalisation of peasent struggles and the activities of the Peasent Sabha’s in which there was heavy CP involvement. Gandhi went on hunger strike unless Nehru was put in charge, whilst true to form the CP folded. Bose was left high and dry. Unsure of the dynamics of the story but it casts an interesting light. Orwell’s writings on India are an embarressment incidently.

  12. satyam said,

    July 3, 2008 at 6:00 pm

    bfore commenting on Bose read books like ‘Subhash chandra Bose :the springing tiger’ by Hugh Toye, The Forgotten army by Peter Fay. Its easier for u to criticise him after 60 yrs of independence. Bose was not pro Nazi. His approach to Hitler was to get recognition of an Free India Govt. in exile. How many of u know he was against Hitler. do read proper history and the comment on such a great personality like Bose. He met Hitler after 1.5 yrs of his stay in Germany. His meeting didnt heed any result. but he was able to form the Free India Legion with indian POWs in Germany. He had no intention to approach Germany.Like Bhagat Singh he too was socialist and approached Russia,but failed to do so owing to war situations. Germany helped him to go to SOuth east Asia by U-180 in exchange of some Japanese engineers coming by IC-91. It was in SOuth east Asia where he rejuvinated the Indian National Army.

  13. aditya said,

    July 28, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    The whole potrait of subhas Chandra Bose drawn above is inaccurate and misleading . You start with calling him a bright young congressman and than move on to call him “oppportunist”, “pro-Hitler”,and even “a mystic” .infact bose was one of the most charismatic and effective leader of his time. He never supported the fascist , what he was against was an illegitimate and oppressive british regime in India which was no better than the german Nazi rule for an Indian.


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