I had a distant uncle, my mother’s cousin, who would visit us from Kolkata every couple of years. One day, in the winter of 1981, wrapped up in a couple of shawls, sipping tea in our living room, he made a significant pronouncement. “He is returning,” my uncle said, “and that is why Indira hasn’t allowed Attenborough to put him in his film.”
“Who is returning?” I asked. “Neta-ji,” he answered semi-conspiratorially. “Hmmpff,” snorted my mother. “You don’t believe me?” asked Uncle Distant. “He has been in hiding for more than 30 years. He has just been waiting for the right occasion. Indira knows. That is why Netaji isn’t going to be even mentioned in that film on Gandhi they are making.”
My mother gave me a ‘don’t believe this rubbish’ look. But that episode prompted my father to come up with a family joke – who is the oldest living Bengali? The answer was obviously Netaji, because he will never die.
Forty years later, the myths surrounding Subhas Chandra Bose have only multiplied. Part of the reason for this is the way official histories have treated him. The post-independence Indian state has been deeply embarrassed about Netaji. He disturbs the cosy story that we have told ourselves about the British being defeated by a frail old man in a loincloth who taught Indians to turn the other cheek. It also reminds us that Gandhi was not above political machinations when it came to getting rid of those who opposed his approach to the anti-colonial struggle.
Above all, Netaji has become a sign for a particular type of politics, a national attitude and leadership, which appeals to people with very different political ideologies. He represents the idea that real change can only come through force, and a masculine, militaristic organisation of citizens as a unified, disciplined body which is ready to sacrifice personal comfort for the greater national good.
In the present context, the figure of Netaji is of tremendous importance to the project of ‘political Hindutva’. Unlike Gandhi, whose non-violence is perceived as a form of effete and ineffectual politics by those on the right, Subhas Bose is seen as a man of action who was able to inspire Indians to take up arms against the British. The episodes from his life – how he beat up the racist Professor Oaten as a 19-year-old student in Calcutta’s Presidency College, or his daring escape to Kabul, dressed as an insurance agent called Ziauddin – have only helped build his mystique. His story has all the elements of intrigue, adventure and bravery that appeal to the overt machismo of right-wing ideologies.
If Netaji’s alliance with Hitler and fascist Japan is a source of embarrassment for liberals, it adds to his appeal in right-wing circles. After all, Hitler has always been a secret hero of the right and there are many admirers in the extreme-right of the Nazi idea of racial purity as the foundation of a unified nation. Supporters of political Hindutva’ justify Bose’s decision to fight alongside Germany and Japan as a tactical anti-colonial move to defeat the British Raj. But underlying their support is a covert sympathy for fascism as an ideology.
The iconography of Netaji in post-independence India is overwhelmingly military. He is presented not as a bespectacled Bengali in a dhoti-kurta and shawl, but in the combat uniform of the Indian National Army. He is often depicted on a horse, as if perpetually charging towards the enemy. Or else, he stands at attention, saluting a parade of absent soldiers. His most popular slogan, “Tum mujhe khoon do, main tumhein azaadi doonga (You give me blood, I will give you freedom)”, dovetails beautifully with a muscular, extremist and authoritarian politics. It is a leader asking for violent sacrifice; in return, he will deliver us from unfreedom. The ‘I’ in “I will give you freedom” highlights the supreme role of the leader who demands unquestioning submission and loyalty. This is exactly what right-wing politics espouses today.
Equally importantly, Netaji is a symbolic victim of the ‘dirty’ politics of the Congress party. Even though official history textbooks in schools and colleges gloss over his relationship with Gandhi and Nehru, some snapshots of what transpired has entered and been amplified in popular historiography. We know that Subhas Bose defeated Gandhi’s candidate, Pattabhi Sitaramyya, and became President of the Indian National Congress for the second time in 1939. As historian Rudhrangshu Mukherjee writes, “Gandhi’s reaction to Subhas’s win was uncharacteristically devoid of grace. In a public statement he said that since he had prevailed upon Sitaramayya not to withdraw from the contest, the latter’s defeat ‘was more mine than his’.”
It is now well-documented how Gandhi engineered things to make it very difficult for Subhas to function as party president. Ultimately, Subhas realised that he had been out-manoeuvred and resigned. He appealed to Gandhi to restart the political mobilisation against the British, but the party prohibited any Congress worker from launching ‘satyagraha’ without express permission from the Working Committee. Subhas publicly opposed this move and was expelled from the Congress party for three years. Gandhi had prevailed.
Subhas’s planned ouster from the Congress has acquired a life of its own in public imagination. It is used as an example to counter the official narrative of Gandhi’s moral politics. After independence, it was used by both the right and the left to point to the undemocratic nature of Gandhian politics. It has been revived now, when right-wing ideologies dominate public discourse, and Gandhi is being increasingly projected by ‘political Hindutva’ as a villain.
What the right would not want to highlight is that Subhas Bose was sidelined in the Congress for being a leftist and a socialist. He was perceived to be an uncompromising modernist and secularist who was strongly opposed to religion in politics. He was a fierce critic of the Hindu Mahasabha. He was an opponent of capitalism, believed in socialist planning, and was disliked by prominent businessmen in India, especially GD Birla. None of these would fit with what the adherents of contemporary ‘political Hindutva’ would like.
But none of these matter. That is because Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose has become what the anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss would have called a ‘floating signifier’ – a sign or an idea whose original content has disappeared, and it can now receive any significance. That is why he can be placed as a hologram, where the statue of George V once stood. Standing in for an ideology that he personally abhorred.
(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV’s Hindi and Business news channels.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.