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Netaji: Enemy of empire
If we leave aside Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's busts and statues are probably the most popular in Indian cities and towns. Netaji has a habit of popping up in the unlikeliest of places, his military regalia sitting somewhat uneasily alongside his very Bengali features and round, scholarly glasses. But more than any other Indian nationalist leader, Netaji's life is shrouded in myths and half-truths. Sugata Bose's biography of Netaji, drawing on a wide range of materials, clears many of the misconceptions about the man and sheds light on little known aspects of his life. (Bose is a grandnephew of Netaji, though he says right at the beginning that this didn't colour his interpretation, and just like countless other Indians he thought of Netaji as a historical public figure and not as a relative. )
For instance, one of the incidents from Netaji's student days that has passed into folklore was him slapping E F Oaten, a history professor in Presidency College. But as Sugata Bose points out it is unclear whether Netaji actually assaulted the professor. He only admitted to being an eyewitness to the incident, preferring not to elaborate any further.
Sugata Bose gives a detailed account of Netaji's involvement, while in exile in Europe in the 1930s, with a German woman, Emilie Schenkl, whom he later secretly married and with whom he also had a daughter. This was for a long time denied by many of Netaji's followers who refused to believe that their beloved leader could be passionate about anything other than his country's freedom.
No other leader of India's freedom struggle could possibly match Netaji's highly unusual and colourful life. Elected president of the Indian National Congress in 1938, his re-election the next year did not go down well with Gandhi. Outmaneuvered by Gandhi, Netaji eventually resigned as Congress president and was subsequently imprisoned for the umpteenth time by the British. His escape from house arrest in his nephew's Wanderer car and his journey to Europe via Afghanistan is the stuff of legend. So also was his trip from Germany to Japan during the height of World War II, much of it in a German U-boat.
Netaji's legacy has been inexorably tainted by his alliance with the Axis powers during World War II. Sugata Bose, however, writes, "That he (Netaji) had no affinity with the pernicious philosophies of the Axis powers whose help he sought during World War II is beyond a shadow of doubt. He stood up to them courageously to maintain India's honor, but regrettably not for the victims of their brutality. " Indeed after his only meeting with Hitler in 1942, Bose described the Fuhrer as "baddha pagal" (" raving mad" ). The last phase of Netaji's life was devoted to setting up of the Indian National Army (INA) composed of Indian prisoners of war in Southeast Asia and his aim - which now seems improbable - to march into Assam and Bengal in 1944. The campaign turned out to be a debacle, but the bravery of the INA and the Red Fort trial of the INA trio - Sahgal, Shah Nawaz and Dhillon - in 1945-46 made an indelible impact on Indians.
As with many aspects of his life, Netaji's death too has been the subject of considerable debate. Netaji was last seen taking off from Taipei on August 18, 1945. Sugata Bose is certain that Netaji died the same day when his plane crashed. However, till date three commissions in independent India have enquired into Netaji's death with the last one, a one-man commission consisting of a retired Bengali judge, concluding in 2006 that the crash did not occur at all.
It is a testimony to Netaji's popularity that many of his admirers refused to believe that he died in 1945, and periodic sightings of Bose and conspiracy theories continued to flourish long after.
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