I received the invitation to write this piece on the birth anniversary of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who in many ways aided the efforts to keep Subhas Chandra Bose’s memories alive. When Netaji’s portrait was unveiled in Parliament on January 23, 1978, Vajpayee, then foreign minister, commented: "Historians and scholars should find out why the Congress government did injustice to Netaji by ignoring him all these years."
This poser returns to prick our conscious as Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Port Blair to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Netaji’s hoisting the national flag there. This is yet another step to rectify historical wrongs done to Subhas Bose and those who fought alongside him for the freedom of India. To many of his ardent admirers, it is akin to applying balm on wounds that refuse to heal.
It is an open secret that Netaji was ignored because a particular narrative of how we became free had to be foisted on the people. According to this construct, the Congress leadership employing the stratagem of ahimsa led India to freedom in 1947. Others were just peripheral figures.
For a rejoinder, I cannot think of anything more apt than recalling what Dr BR Ambedkar stated in the course of an interview in February 1955 with BBC’s Francis Watson. A clear audio recording of the interview is available. There is no scope for any confusion or apprehension that Babasaheb’s words are being taken out of context.
Dr Ambedkar wondered why Clement Attlee, the British PM in 1947,"suddenly agreed to give India independence". He then added that from what he could make out, the reason was the INA and Subhas Bose. In his words:
"The British had been ruling the country in the firm belief that whatever may happen in the country or whatever the politicians do, they will never be able to change the loyalty of soldiers. That was one prop on which they were carrying on the administration. And that was completely dashed to pieces."
Ever since Ambedkar said this, a large number of records and testimonials of those who had a ringside view of the events have become available. They prove the veracity of this observation.
Clement Attlee himself was quite frank about it in his later years in the course of his private talks. In 1956, he told Justice Phani Bhushan Chakravartti, the acting Governor of Bengal, that in taking that momentous decision he was weighed down by growing dissent in the Indian armed forces caused by the actions of Bose. Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful persuasions and failed Quit India movement had minimal impact on those who took the decision to free India. Evidently, that period was not tolerant enough for Justice Chakravartti to make this revelation public. He would take a few years to summon courage and then start talking about it. All the same, the word of the first Indian Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court carry far more weight than tomes written by court historians and eulogies from servile politicians.
Attlee went on to display similar candour in 1960 when Barun De, a renowned historian who was much respected in Congress and Left circles, questioned him and received the same reply as Chakravartti had. Attlee’s statement is in turn substantiated by contemporary records, especially military intelligence reports, capturing the mood in the country in the years leading to Independence. As early as November 1945, when the INA trials at the Red Fort in New Delhi were about to start, Intelligence Bureau director Norman Smith stated that “there has seldom been a matter which has attracted so much Indian public interest” and “the threat to the security of the Indian Army is one which it would be unwise to ignore".
[National Archives, New Delhi]
By 12 February 1946, Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, Sir Claude Auchinleck, was forced to explain to his top military commanders the reasons the INA men, regarded by the colonial rulers as "war criminals" and "traitors", had to be set free was because sentencing them “would have probably precipitated a violent outbreak throughout the country, and have created active and widespread disaffection in the Army”.
SK Sinha, the would be Lt General and Governor, was one of the only three natives posted in Directorate of Military Operations in those days. He came across a Top Secret record, not meant for Indian eyes. Prepared by the Director of Military Intelligence, it said that in view of INA trials and the mutinies in Mumbai and other places (which were a direct fallout of the Red Fort trials) the "Indian Army could no longer be relied upon to remain a loyal instrument for maintaining British rule over India".
In the late 1945 and early 1946, the INA trials were used to the hilt by the Congress leaders who were otherwise hostile towards Subhas Bose. There are numerous British Raj era reports in support of this contention. For instance, on October 23, 1945 the Secretary of State for India in London was told that Congress’s backing of the INA men put on trial at the Red Fort was “one of political expediency”. A famous cry that used to raised everywhere was Lal Quile se aye awaz, Sehgal, Dhillon, Shah Nawaz. Inqlab zindabad. “The war cry comes from the Red Fort. Sehgal, Dhillon, Shah Nawaz. Long live revolution.”
And, on the day the power was transferred to Indian hands, slogans were raised in the praise of Lord Mountbatten, Subhas Bose’s military adversary during the war and free India’s first Governor-General. Mountbatten ki jai ho. “Long live Mountbatten.” There are scandalous claims about what transpired between Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru during the first meeting in Singapore in 1946. Nehru’s stirring “Tryst with destiny” speech had not a word about either INA or Bose, but for whom the day would not have come in 1947.
On August 28, 1947, the demand was made to have Netaji’s portrait in the Constituent Assembly (now Parliament). It would take 30 years before it would happen, when Congress had been ousted for power. This brings us back to what Vajpayee did, and what Narendra Modi is doing. To those mindful of forgotten chapters of history, these gestures are truly historical.
Anuj Dhar is the author of the bestseller “India’s biggest cover-up”