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Did Bose flirt with fascism? Both Modi govt and West are reading him wrong

Once overlooked by the secular establishment, Subhas Chandra Bose was eventually sought to be appropriated by communists, embraced by socialists, reclaimed by Congress, and adopted as a hero by Hindu supremacists.

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Latest exhibit of Modi’s fascist ideology,” Edward Luce of the Financial Times declared on Twitter. It was late January, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had just announced his government’s decision to install a statue of Subhas Chandra Bose in the administrative heart of New Delhi. Luce found that unconscionable because Bose was apparently “an admirer of Hitler”. When Indians told him he was wrong, he retreated to his newspaper column, made a customary factual error, and proceeded predictably to compare Bose unfavourably to Nehru.

Luce did not so much make a coherent argument as reveal the vast gaps in his knowledge of India. Reading him, I imagined a serious Indian writer making similarly sweeping assertions about England without possessing the barest grasp of its history. Such a figure would be laughed out of court. Luce, however, is an acknowledged authority on India, even if he appears not to know that his hero Jawaharlal Nehru, in his inaugural prime ministerial address from the ramparts of the Red Fort, paid a more lyrical tribute to Bose—who “fought bravely for the freedom of the country”—than anything Modi managed seven decades later.

If I appear to be picking on Luce, it is because I grew up admiring his work. And this is perhaps why, while I continue to read him with affection and attention, I find his mutation in middle-age into a self-cherishing cheerleader for the “West” and a self-unaware scolder of the rest—a moralist who measures others’ “decency and grasp of reality” by whether or not they echo the West’s condemnation of Russia, while himself radiating nostalgia for Tony Blair, that notorious respecter of sovereignty—so abject. But it would be unfair not to concede that Luce’s understanding of Bose is completely unoriginal: the view of Bose as a Hitlerian is perfectly run-of-the-mill in the West.

Bose remains a source of mystery, fascination, adoration, and (for some Western experts of India) contempt, because embedded in his struggle was the negation of the dominant motif of the freedom movement: nonviolence. In his rejection of Mahatma Gandhi’s pacifism and willingness to pick up arms for India, Bose supplies the possibility of self-redemption through violence for a people who, over centuries of subjugation, had come to accept their own inferiority so completely that they had squandered their capacity for self-assertion.

Bose’s association with Nazi Germany, tainting him during his lifetime,  has haunted his legacy ever since. In the early decades after India’s independence, Bose—one of the most storied freedom fighters, the most formidable rival of Jawaharlal Nehru within Congress, and an implacable bete noire of Gandhi—more or less faded away from the busy young republic’s official memory of its own freedom struggle.

His resurrection, initiated by ideologically kaleidoscopic fantasists in Bengal, culminated over time in his posthumous transformation into a champion of mutually exclusive causes. Once overlooked by the secular establishment, Bose was eventually sought to be appropriated by the communists, embraced by the socialists, reclaimed by Congress, and adopted as a hero by Hindu supremacists.


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Bose vs Gandhi

In 1920, there were six highly coveted places in the Indian Civil Service. Bose, who distinguished himself at Cambridge, placed fourth in the open exam. The ICS promised a prestigious and lucrative career for an Indian entering the salariat at the time. Bose was guaranteed a life of luxury, respect, and status for as long as he worked—and, at the end of it all, a fat pension and comfortable retirement. He turned it down. Bose’s family was devastated and his English tutors urged him to rethink. He would not. He had decided to join the Congress party, the engine of India’s freedom movement, and consecrate his career to freeing India.

In the summer of 1921, as soon as he landed in Bombay after finishing at Cambridge, Bose met Gandhi. This meeting has retrospectively been recast as the moment that shaped Bose. But Bose in fact emerged from that interview demoralised and discombobulated. Gandhi’s ambition to secure freedom for India within a year impressed him—but he quickly noticed “a deplorable lack of clarity” in Gandhi’s plan and felt that the Mahatma “did not have a clear idea of the successive stages of the campaign which would bring India to her cherished goal of freedom.”

While Bose always publicly expressed reverence for Gandhi, an intellectual rupture had occurred between the two at their very first meeting. Despite their mutual misgivings, however, Bose rose through the ranks of the Congress party rapidly. His competence, organisational brilliance, and oratory were matched only by his intensifying frustration with Gandhi’s gradualist approach.

To Gandhi, “passive resistance” was not simply a tool with which to obtain political concessions. Its purpose was to transform, by inviting the infliction of violence upon oneself, one’s opponents’ outlook. The British were thus not merely to be repelled: they had to be reformed. Bose had no interest in saving the British soul. He wished only to regenerate the Indian spirit and emancipate Indian bodies. What tormented Bose was the knowledge that Britain maintained its rule over India with the aid of Indian muscle. He wanted to end India’s acquiescence in its own oppression by mobilising its people into a war of independence. To him, victory was the means of restoring India’s lost dignity.

It was during Bose’s first European exile, which lasted from 1933 to 1936, that he alighted upon the view that one route to India’s salvation lay in a partnership of expediency with Britain’s adversaries. Bose was a man of the left. Like most of his peers in the Congress party, he regarded Moscow as the laboratory for the ideas that could rehabilitate India after two centuries of plunder by Britain. What differentiated Bose was his simultaneous fascination with fascism; he was drawn to it and sought to synthesise it with communism. This was a time when fascism appeared to be effective and novel, not evil—Churchill was one of its most spirited early admirers—and tyrants such as Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were not yet regarded with the kind of revulsion that overtook India later. In fact, at the 1939 convention of the Congress party, Gandhi’s supporters, braying for Bose’s head, praised the Mahatma as India’s Hitler.


Also read: Azad Hind Radio, from where Subhas Chandra Bose spoke his mann ki baat


Bose’s flirtations with fascism

Bose’s early interest in fascism eventually went much deeper than fascination. He deliberated on the practicalities of adapting its virtues, as he saw them—one-party rule, national pride, rapid industrialisation—to Indian conditions. Received warmly by Mussolini, he began imagining the outlines of an alliance predicated on common interests and shaped by shared hostilities. Bose at this stage would have been in total agreement with George Orwell’s contention that the “British and French empires, with their six hundred million disenfranchised human beings,” were epitomes of a “far vaster injustice” than any fascist regime.

Bose’s impatience with Gandhi, the tightening grip of the British noose around the Indian neck, and the glacial pace of India’s march towards freedom combined to convince him that all means were valid in pursuit of the lofty end to which he had dedicated himself: pushing the British out and freeing India. But during his first European sojourn, even as he made numerous attempts to ingratiate himself with the Nazi regime, Bose recoiled privately with horror at its racism and uttered public condemnations of Hitler. What he never did is appreciate fully the implications of his flirtations.

In 1937, to temper and to tame him, Gandhi endorsed Bose for the presidency of the Congress party. The responsibility and prestige of the position—Time splashed his face on its cover—prompted Bose to recant his early interests. He expressed contrition to British communists for having mistaken fascism for “merely an aggressive form of nationalism”. But as peace broke down in Europe during his year in office, Bose, for all his public proclamations against continental demagogues, raced to open clandestine channels of communication with Berlin. His action, motivated by amoral opportunism, produced no worthwhile result because it was accompanied by the demand that Hitler excise all racist allusions to Indians from Mein Kampf. In 1940, a year after being thwarted by Gandhi from a second term as president of Congress, Bose was detained under the Defence of India Act.

Two months later, disguised as a Muslim, he slipped into Kabul. From there, he reached out to Moscow and Berlin. The Soviets rebuffed him; the Nazis welcomed him. He obtained an Italian passport, assumed the identity of a made-up Italian diplomat by the name of Orlando Mazzotta, and made a weeks-long journey to Berlin via Moscow.


Also read: Tagore wrote a letter of introduction for Bose before he left India. Half-hearted at best


Bose in Nazi Germany

Romain Hayes, the pre-eminent scholar of Bose in Germany, suggests in his brilliant book that Bose got more out of Germany than Germany got out of Bose. For a regime so murderously fixated on race, the Third Reich treated Bose as an equal. Its ministers granted respectful audience to Bose and took great care not to offend him. At Bose’s behest, they even channelled resources into training a force composed of soldiers captured from the British Indian Army. And in deference to Bose, that force was never deployed in the European theatre—it was saved to fight the British in India. Bose was also allowed to maintain an open relationship with (and later to marry) his Austrian secretary, Emilie Schenkl, and was given a mansion, a chauffeur, and a butler. Despite appearances, however, the two years in Germany that besmirched Bose beyond repair in the eyes of some of his compatriots were the most frustrating years of his life. Germany trapped him, immobilised him.

Bose lost touch with India and, later, with reality. He fell under the spell of a fantasy, whose hold grew stronger in isolation, of storming India with battalions of deserters from the British Indian Army in the belief that Indians would rise en masse against their tormentors upon his arrival. The brilliantly creative Congressman was replaced by a dour martinet who, reduced to transmitting seditious broadcasts to India, spent his days manically mapping the foundations of something he called the “New State”. It was a terrifying vision: a rigidly central state held together by a national language written in the Roman script, it would practise a suffocating form of discipline at home and be closely aligned with the Axis powers abroad.

Hitler never yielded to Bose’s demand for a government-in-exile. At their sole meeting, in May 1942, he told Bose that they were “fighting the same battle against the same enemies” but held out on blessing a government-in-exile. As he told Bose, not being an Englishman, he could not make “false prophecies”. He advised Bose to work with the Japanese, who had by then expelled the British from Singapore, and offered a submarine to transport him to Asia because he considered Bose “too important” to let him take a chance in hostile airspace.

The most heroic phase of Bose’s life unfolded after he made a perilous dash to Japan with his closest aide-de-camp, Abid Hasan, on a U-180 submarine in February 1943. After two months under water, they were transferred to a Japanese submarine in the Indian Ocean and taken to Sumatra. From there, they were flown to Tokyo, where Bose was received as a hero by the Japanese prime minister and his military commanders. While Bose was in Berlin, a network of radical Indian freedom fighters stretching from California to Tokyo had toiled to raise a force of deserters from the British Indian Army, and Japanese officials sympathetic to India had obtained Tokyo’s patronage for them.

India, as Lee Kuan Yew once averred, was to Asia what Greece had been to ancient Europe. And the Japanese, whose culture was constituted from so much that had originated in India, had a special reverence for it. The Japanese may well have sidelined and trampled Bose had they succeeded in overrunning India—but, at least at the higher levels, the sincerity of their attachment to his cause as he reinvigorated the Indian National Army (INA) was undeniable. At the lower levels—the level at which soldiers interacted with commanders—there was circumspection, hostility, and resentment.


Also read: Remembering the Red Fort trials that tipped India towards complete freedom 


Bose’s bad decision

Six months after landing in Tokyo, Bose established a Provisional Government of Free India in Singapore. It was immediately recognised by Japan, Germany, Thailand, Burma, Croatia, and the Philippines. To legitimise it, Japan even ceded to Bose’s government territory in Andaman and Nicobar. Where the British custom had been to segregate and silo Indian soldiers by faith, Bose created a unified army—and it worked. He energetically recruited women from India’s large expatriate communities in East Asia into the war effort, and hundreds joined up to train and fight. (His decision to name regiments after Gandhi and Nehru—the two men most bitterly disappointed by his embrace of violence—has always struck me as an insult rather than a compliment.) But the tide of the war had turned by the time Bose consolidated himself. The INA’s forces—along with Japan’s—were routed in 1944 after giving a gallant battle from Burma.

Bose, plotting counteraction when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, persuaded his defeated hosts to help him establish contact with the Soviets. “They are the only ones who will resist the British,” he said. “My fate is with them.” It was another bad idea in a late career overcrowded with bad ideas. On 18 August 1945, accompanied by Colonel Habibur Rahman of the INA, Bose boarded a plane bound for Manchuria, where he was to meet the advancing Soviet army. The plane crashed minutes after taking off. A Japanese major who saw Bose being consumed by flames memorialised him as a “living Fuduyomo”—a sacred guardian in the Japanese Buddhist pantheon.

Bose’s demise briefly united India’s political factions. Jinnah and Nehru joined hands to defend Bose’s comrades. But had Bose survived, he would have challenged both of them—and India’s political history today would be very different.

Modi’s attempt to attach himself to Bose by inaugurating his statute cannot obscure the fact that Bose was a secularist to his marrow, an unbending believer in the oneness of Indians. His collaboration with the Nazis was impelled by circumstance, not conviction. Even then, Muslims were among his closest aides and the top officials in his government-in-exile. If “fascist” is a term invoked in today’s India to refer to persecutors of defenceless Muslims, Bose qualifies as an anti-fascist. Had Bose been present in India from the 1940s on, Jinnah and the Hindu Mahasabha would have found it very difficult to corner Congress. We might—just might—even have been spared the carnage of the Partition.

And yet—and yet. Indians will have to reckon with Bose in Germany. For all his private abhorrence of the Nazi regime, for the duration of his stay in Berlin as a guest of the Nazi government, Bose did not once complain about the treatment of the Jews in Germany and beyond. He could scarcely have been unaware of what was happening around him—nor could he have been oblivious of the Nazi race laws, having himself received exemptions from them.

Before fleeing to Europe, he had petulantly faulted Nehru for urging Britain to send Jewish refugees to India. Once in Europe, he closed himself off completely to their suffering. In contrast, Nehru, when he toured Europe in 1935, had made it a point to patronise Jewish businesses. Being victimised by Britain had done nothing to dismantle Nehru’s humanity or dimish his capacity for empathy with the victims of those who happened to be Britain’s enemies.

Bose, despite his dalliance with fascists, was no fascist. And he may not have been animated by prejudice against the Jews. But no statute can wash away the hideous stain of his wilful blindness to their calvary. 

Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India. He tweets @kapskom. Views are personal. 

(Edited by Prashant)

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