Saturday, June 25, 2011

Netaji: The Legend vs The Man

Book Review

His Majesty's Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose And India's Struggle Against Empire
by Sugata Bose (Allen Lane/Penguin, 388 pages, Rs 699)

Of all the icons of the national movement, the life of Subhas Chandra Bose is by far the most romantic, controversial and tragic. A man who gave up the Indian Civil Service to join the freedom struggle, emerged as an "alternative beacon of hope" to the Gandhian stream in the Congress, successfully defied the Mahatma but was yet outmanoeuvred, and ended up at the head of a rebel army promoted by the losing side in World War, the real Bose has often been subsumed by the Netaji legend.

His daring escape from Calcutta in 1940, his remarkable escape to Germany via Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, his re-emergence in South-east Asia at the head of the Indian National Army, his radio broadcasts to India and his mysterious death in Taipei have contributed to an enduring legend. To a Bengal which never produced a national leader after him, Netaji has conferred with the same romantic halo that once surrounded Bonnie Prince Charlie in Scotland—even the old Jacobite song 'Will ye no come back again?' may sound eerily familiar to wistful Bengalis.

A well-researched and thoughtful biography of this remarkable man has long been overdue. As a history professor in Harvard, editor of the Selected Works and a grand-nephew of the great man, Sugata Bose was well suited to undertake the project. The result has been a book that should be obligatory reading.

This biography isn't another hagiography: Bose is too much of a historian to debase his own reputation. At the same time, the author's deep emotional link with his subject has prevented total detachment. The result is a curious mix. To those unfamiliar with the life and times of someone the post-Independence Congress dispensation relegated to the margins, the biography is a riveting read, not least because Bose has wisely stuck to lucid narrative history. However, those familiar with the subject may be a little disappointed by the author's implicit belief that Netaji's whole life was consistent with his enlightened, secular nationalism.

There is an occupational hazard in writing a biography. The biographer has to balance how much to include with what to exclude. This is a subjective process but the task becomes troublesome if loose ends and awkward details of a life are omitted simply because they don't fit a larger conclusion.

Sugata Bose has been refreshingly candid and forthright about the complex, personal life of Netaji. His account, gleamed through letters, of Subhas' relationship with Austrian Emilie Schenkl, who he subsequently married in secret is one of the most enthralling aspects of the biography. Indian biographers often tend to ignore the personal lives of iconic political figures—witness how S.Gopal, for example, skirted Jawaharlal Nehru's relationship with Edwina Mountbatten. Bose has desisted from applying the brakes in his descriptions of the Subhas-Emilie relationship.

At the same time, he has refrained from asking some very legitimate questions. Why did Subhas keep his marriage a secret? Was it due to a fear that marriage to a foreigner would somehow dilute his reputation as an ascetic nationalist committed to India and nothing else? Was his curious decision to seek asylum in Germany in 1940 prompted by an overwhelming desire to be with Emilie in a Greater Germany that now included Austria? This is not a wild suggestion. Subhas' imprudent decision to risk seeking asylum in the Soviet Union after Japan's surrender in August 1945 was possibly dictated by the hope that he could be near Emilie (then living in the Soviet zone of Vienna) again. None of these questions belittle Subhas: they make him very human.

Likewise, while Bose has spelt out in detail the role of Subhas as a radical counter-point to Gandhi in the national context, he has been perfunctory in his treatment of the cross-currents of Bengal politics. Subhas' encounters with the turbulent public life of Bengal wasn't limited to merely drawing inspiration from Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das and Rabindranath Tagore. Subhas combined his pan-Indian radicalism with deep involvement in the fractious Congress politics of the province. As the poster boy of the Big Five—a group that included his elder brother Sarat Chandra Bose, Dr B.C. Roy, Tulsi Charan Goswami and Nalini Ranjan Sarkar (who is described as a "political fixer" by the author—Subhas was constantly at loggerheads with the J.M. Sengupta faction. The fights were bitter and the language of battle visceral. A taste of this battle, with possible translations from the satirical weekly Shanibarer Chithi, would have added to the richness of the biography.

Finally, the complexities of Subhas' relationship with the Axis powers and their perverse ideologies have been addressed, but not without a measure of understandable squeamishness. The question of whether or not Subhas was inclined towards fascism has agitated the minds of many, including those who were sympathetically disposed towards him.

The author admits that Subhas' suggestion that a "synthesis between communism and fascism" was possible and would happen in India was an unduly "mechanistic application of Hegelian dialectics". Yet, he attaches little extra significance to Subhas' partiality for uniforms—including the slightly ridiculous spectacle of him in jackboots at a Congress session in Calcutta—and militarism. Nor does he locate Subhas within the larger context of liberation movements in Burma, Indonesia and even Egypt that were willing to take the help of Japan and Germany to attain their country's freedom. Bose highlights Subhas' constant pressure on both Germany and Japan to recognise the autonomy of India's freedom struggle. At the same time he saw nothing odd in his endorsement of the Greater East Asia Conference in Tokyo, 1943, as a step towards true "internationalism". Nor does he highlight the disingenuity of Subhas broadcasting from Japanese-occupied Nanjing in China, being hosted by the puppet government and yet showering praise on the legacy of Sun Yat Sen. Indeed, the biography would have been considerably enriched by documents from the German and Japanese archives indicating how the Axis powers viewed their curious guest.

None of these posers can, however, distract from the unflinching courage and patriotism of the man. Netaji died in 1945 at the age of 48. He had been in public life just 24 years and most of that time was spent either in prison or in exile. Subhas Bose was in active politics inside India as a free man for not more than seven years. Few could have achieved so much in so short a time. No wonder the legend has proved to be bigger than the man.


Deccan Chronicle, June 26, 2011

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