How can one imagine an over-heated West Bengal election campaign without invoking the patron-saint of generations of Bengali angst — Subhash Chandra Bose?
After Tagore’s legacy, another fight to claim Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose is underway between the Narendra Modi government and the West Bengal government under Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. As India celebrates the 124th anniversary of the freedom fighter, the cries for identifying Gumnami Baba and claiming Netaji is echoing again.
While the Modi government wants to celebrate 23 January as ‘Parakram Diwas’ every year, Mamata Banerjee wants it named ‘Desh Prem Diwas’ and declared a national holiday. Prime Minister Modi will be in Kolkata to take part in a seminar on Bose — to which Mamata and Bose’s family members haven’t been invited.
But that’s not all. The Trinamool Congress (TMC) wants the Centre to declassify a book composed decades ago by the Union defence ministry on Netaji’s Azad Hind Fauj. It apparently suggests that Bose escaped alive from the 1945 plane crash. A probe in Uttar Pradesh to find out if Gumnami Baba — an ascetic widely believed to be Netaji — was indeed Subhas Chandra Bose could give no linkage in 2019.
Stories of conspiracy have a high selling price and if it pivots around the mysterious death of a charismatic leader, the price goes higher. The return of the Gumnami conundrum proves it.
It’s a sensitive topic. How a genuine patriot of India was supposedly forced to live his last days in disguise as a monk and that too in his independent motherland when ‘less patriotic’ and ‘opportunist’ political rivals were controlling the Raj is the basic argument that generally rouses anti-Nehru sentiments among commoners — especially the Right-wing and the anti-Congress lobby today. It is a pity that this conspiracy theory, the unsolved Gumnami mystery and garlanding of Netaji’s statue do not inspire Indians to even browse the essential writings and lectures of Bose. If they care to read, they will find that his perceptions of Indian history and his idea of a future independent State do not resemble the fundamental insularity of the Hindutva brigade.
On Aryans and Muslims
It was 1934. Bose was drafting his book The Indian Struggle in exile in Europe. Emilie Schenkl, his to-be wife, was assisting him. Netaji begins his book with the chapter ‘The Background of Indian Polity’ to comment on the conditions of Indians during colonial rule. Unlike the racist Germans, he had no Aryan prejudice. As a liberal follower of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda movement, he believed in religious harmony and considered Indian Muslims as an integral part of this land.
He writes, “The latest archeological excavations … prove unmistakably that India had reached a high level of civilization as early as 3000 B.C. … before the Aryan conquest of India.” His praise for Mohenjo-daro and Harappa is certainly a rational counter-argument based on ‘scientific findings’ against the imagination of a Hindu-Aryan origin of Indian culture. He rightly condemns that, “…it was customary for British historians to ignore the pre-British era of Indian history”. British officials described India as a savage land where “independent ruling chiefs had been fighting perpetually among themselves until the British arrived” [Bose quotes them]. Bose negates this narrative and locates two golden moments in pre-British India.
The first golden moment, according to him, was in the Gupta era and the second was created by the Indian Mughals. Bose comments, “With the advent of the Mohammedans, a new synthesis was gradually worked out. Though they did not accept the religion of the Hindus, they made India their home and shared in the common social life of the people – their joys and their sorrows. Through mutual co-operation, a new art and a new culture was (sic) evolved ….” Netaji rightly uses the framework of synthesis to describe Hindu-Muslim relations in the pre-British era. In his book, Bose also depicts the just policies of the Muslim rulers by mentioning that the daily life of the people was left untouched and the rulers did not interfere with local self-government based on the old system of village communities.
Bose’s administrative policy and plan for India
His diverse reading of Indian history made Subhas Chandra Bose a benevolent administrator. After refusing his bright prospect in the Indian Civil Service, he joined politics under the guidance of Chittaranjan Das who believed in constructive Swadeshi movement. Chittaranjan Das, in his political handbook Desher Katha (On Motherland), chalked out a plan for ‘Indian home rule’ by assessing the age-old indigenous programmes of community governance. Bose was greatly influenced by his political guru, and later as a mayor of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, he tried to fulfil the demands of different communities according to their social conditions.
He thought that as the Bengali Muslims languished at the bottom of socio-economic ladder for many reasons, they badly needed jobs for upward social mobility. In his speech from the mayoral chair in 1925, Bose affirmed that he would bring up Kolkata’s Ahiritola quarter to the level of the business-oriented and affluent Chowringhee quarter by offering suitable appointments to Muslims. Of course, it was not a political hyperbole, like we see now. Bose kept his word, but colonial rulers resisted/scuttled his administrative ventures by imprisoning him time and again. Netaji felt that the shrewd colonial government would not allow him to bridge the gap between Hindus and Muslims.
But the British administration was not able to prevent him from expressing his definite statement on its ‘divide and rule’ policy. His article titled ‘Free India and her Problems’ was first published in the German periodical Wille und Macht in August 1942 and reprinted in Azad Hind, the official publication of the Free India Centre in Berlin. From his self-exile, Bose argues that the Muslim ‘problem’ in India was an artificial creation of the British and will disappear with the departure of the British.
It is our ill-fortune that we are not interested in executing his ideas. We hardly read him and go after Gumnami Baba more than the real man. Baba did not give any sermon or produce a single writing that would be helpful for Indian democracy. Bose did. Muslims for him were never ‘anti-nationals’ and neither did Hindus get priority in his dream India.
Netaji proudly said that “Indian Mohammedans” have continued to work for national freedom. To protect the right of minorities, he dreamt of a new State where “religious and cultural freedom for individuals and group” should be guaranteed and no “state-religion” would be adopted [‘Free India and her Problems’].
We can only hope the Gumnami frenzy will disappear soon and the secular voice of Subhas Chandra Bose will be heard through his writings.
The author is an associate professor of Bangla at Visva Bharati University in Shantiniketan. Views are personal.