It was a cloudy and somewhat chilly morning on the 6th March in the year 1993 in Venice when I went to the docks to receive my uncle,’ Asoke Nath Bose, Sarat’s eldest son, who was then studying at the Technical University of Munich. Meeting Subhas after a year and a half, Asoke saw the ‘physical wreck of a man of thirty-six years’, who was otherwise ‘of robust health and iron constitution’. Subhas had already received a welcoming telegram from the Hindusthan Association of Italy, an organization of Indians in Italy, the previous day, when his steamer had touched upon the Brindisi port.
Under instructions from the Italian Government, the Llyod Triestino officials made special arrangements for Subhas’s disembarkation in Venice. On being informed by his parents about Subhas’s trip, Asoke had already arranged for Subhas’s overnight stay in Venice at the Royale Danielli hotel and also in Vienna, where they proceeded the next day. Journalists from major Italian newspapers and journals arrived at the Royal Danielli to meet Subhas. Although the team of physicians who had examined Subhas in India had recommended going to France or Switzerland, Subhas had chosen Vienna based on the recommendation of his own medical advisers. Subhas told the journalists that the primary objective of his journey to Europe was to get medical treatment, but he would continue to work for India’s independence. This being his first proper visit to continental Europe, he was yet to develop direct access to or acquaintance with any influential figures. Before leaving India Subhas had requested Gandhi and Tagore for letters of introduction. While Gandhi refused, Tagore wrote in a half-hearted manner that was of no use.
Asoke had made arrangements for Subhas’s stay at the Hotel Meissl und Schaden for the first few days in Vienna. He received a warm welcome from the Indian community there, especially the Indian students, and as the news of his arrival became known, journalists thronged the hotel. Soon after his arrival, Subhas got himself examined by leading specialists, and on their recommendation, was admitted in the Sanatorium Fuerth, where he received an X-ray and clinical examination. The problem appeared to be restricted to the abdomen, as the specialists informed him that they had not found any symptoms in his respiratory system. While undergoing treatment, Subhas was visited by the well-known Austrian cultural historian and writer, René Fülöp-Miller, and his wife. Among the books for which René Fülöp-Miller was known was Lenin and Gandhi, first published in 1927. The couple visited Subhas regularly, inquiring about his health, and they helped him find ground in Austria through their vast network in literary and political circles. Another influential couple with whom his friendship grew at this time was the Vetters. Naomi C. Vetter and her husband (who was a high state official and president of two theatres) also helped Subhas connect with leading figures in Austria’s social and political circles.
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Asoke left Vienna for Munich after staying with Subhas for two weeks. He continued to visit his uncle on holidays and even otherwise when necessary, apart from staying in touch regularly through letters. With Asoke gone, Subhas focused on developing contacts, finding channels to publicize his views and learning the German language. Gradually he started interacting with the political parties and administrative institutions. The parade of the Heimwehr (home guard), the Austrian nationalist paramilitary group, which he was invited to watch, impressed him.
Just over a month before Subhas arrived in Europe, Hitler had climbed to power as the new chancellor of Germany, and fresh elections after the Reichstag fire of February 1933, in which the Nazi party emerged as the single largest party in Germany, had taken place the day before Subhas set his foot on European soil. As the criticism against Nazi oppression started gaining more intensity, Subhas saw in it an opportunity to pitch the story of British atrocities in India to the European audience. He asked Asoke to inquire in Munich if he could use his contacts to have his letter to the editor published in the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter. Subhas sent the letter written in Germany, arguing that although the British press and politicians were vocal about Nazi oppression, they remain silent about repression in India. The letter, however, was not published, which Asoke guessed was due to the pro-British attitude of the Nazi party.
On 4 April, the Manchester Guardian published Subhas’s letter to the editor which highlighted how the Government of India had imprisoned a large number of citizens without trial, and out of which only a minority were paid any family allowance. Even those who were provided with a family allowance got an abysmally small amount. As a result, a large number of families were thrown into destitution when their breadwinners were kept in jails for an indefinite period of time. He detailed out his argument with the example of Sarat and himself. He suggested some questions which interested Members of Parliament could put to the Government to verify the genuineness of his information.
‘Widespread interest has been taken in Mr Subhas Chandra Bose’s letter,’ the newspaper commented. The Calcutta correspondent reported a response from Bengal that was casual and Subhas had no difficulty in trouncing it. His letters appeared to have had the desired impact, as the newspaper reported that one Labour Party MP was planning to put Subhas’s questions to the Secretary of State in the Parliament. Municipal administration being a subject that he was deeply interested in, Subhas was happy to receive an invitation from the mayor of Vienna. Meeting him on 10 May, Subhas presented him with some copies of the Calcutta Municipal Gazette. He was keen to study the municipal administration of Vienna, for which the mayor assured to provide all help. Under socialist administration for the past twelve years, Vienna had made considerable progress in education, medical relief and social welfare work, but the aspect that impressed him the most was that 2,00,000 persons were provided with housing, and the administration managed to do this only through tax revenues, without incurring any loan. With some local friends, Subhas went around to see for himself the work done by the municipality. He wrote in detail about what he saw to Santosh Kumar Basu, now the mayor of Calcutta, and held the opinion that their city would greatly benefit if the Viennese experience could be utilized by the Calcutta Corporation. He was even willing to write a book if the Corporation was interested.
This excerpt from ‘Bose’ by Chandrachur Ghose has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.