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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 8, New Delhi, February 6, 2021

Remembering Netaji Subhas Bose | Mridula Mukherjee

Saturday 6 February 2021

by Mridula Mukherjee *

On 23rd January 2021, we began the 125th year of the birth of Subhas Bose or Netaji as he was affectionately called by his countrymen. Subhas stood tall among the galaxy of leaders of our freedom struggle, his popularity matched only by Gandhiji and Jawaharlal Nehru. His tragic death in 1945 robbed India of his presence at a time when his counsels were most needed, and deprived the newly born nation of his firm steering hand in the course being charted. His loss was felt keenly by his comrades in arms. Witness the words of Jawaharlal Nehru on the first birth anniversary after his death:

“Netaji Subhas has set an example of courage and passionate devotion to the cause of Indian freedom, which will live long in India’s history. Equally important is the way in which he has demonstrated how to weld the different communities in a common unity.”

Speaking at a public meeting in Delhi to observe Netaji’s birthday on 23rd January 1946, Nehru said: “Some people ask me why I am now praising Subhas Bose when I had opposed him while he was in India. I want to give a frank reply to this question. Subhas Bose and I were co-workers in the struggle for freedom for 25 years. He was younger to me by two or four or perhaps more years. Our relations with each other were marked by great affection. I used to treat him as my younger brother. It is an open secret that at times there were differences between us on political questions. But I never for a moment doubted that he was a brave soldier in the struggle for freedom. “

Two years later, seven days before being assassinated on January 30, 1948, Gandhiji, on Subhas Bose’s birthday, observed that he “knew no provincialism nor communal differences” and “had in his brave army men and women drawn from all over India without distinction and evoked affection and loyalty, which very few have been able to evoke.”

Subhas was not only popular in India, but was very well known in other countries as well. As Nelson Mandela reminded us on his first visit to India after his release from prison in 1990, “Your heroes of those days became our heroes. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was amongst the great persons of the world whom we black students regarded as being as much our leader as yours. Indeed, Netaji united all militant youth of all the colonially oppressed world. We followed with pride his great contributions, as we did that of the Mahatma and Pandit Nehru.”

Subhas Bose remains as relevant 125 years after his birth as he was at the heyday of his career. He is of course the most powerful symbol of courage and sacrifice for a cause. His dramatic escape from India in 1941, his travel by submarine from Europe to East Asia, his leadership of the Indian National Army and its military campaigns on the Indo-Burmese border, have all been emblazoned in public memory. But equally important was his world view, which made him identify with the poor and underpriveleged, and made him weld members of different religions into a unified whole. He had aways been a firm believer in unity of all Indians, irrespective of religion, caste, language, or gender, but it was the INA that gave him the opportunity to put his ideas into action.

The proclamation of the Provisional Government set up by him in Singapore in 1943 stated clearly: “It guarantees religious liberty, as well as equal rights and equal opportunities to its citizens. It declares its firm resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation equally and transcending all the differences cunningly fostered by an alien government in the past.” He formed a Cabinet which had representatives of different religious communities and linguistic groups. In the INA, soldiers belonging to different religions dined together—in sharp contrast to the British practice of having separate mess halls. “Jai Hind!” was the salute he popularised, not Jai Bharat. The language used in the INA was Hindustani but given the large number of people from south India, translation into Tamil was provided at all public events.

A springing tiger, depicting Tipu Sultan’s resistance against the British, and Gandhiji’s charkha were used as icons on uniforms and flags. In platoon lectures which were part of the training of soldiers, Indian history was taught. One such lecture titled “Unity of India, Past and Present,” was on the history of Hindu-Muslim relations on the subcontinent, and soldiers were told that “Once the Moghul rule was established,” “Hindus and Muslims lived as brothers.”

Subhas bose’s largeness of heart is shown by the fact that he often praised Gandhiji, choosing to forget their differences of 1939. For example, on the occasion of the Mahatma’s seventy-fourth birthday, on October 2, 1943, he made a broadcast from Bangkok describing Gandhi’s contributions to the Indian struggle as “unique and unparalleled.” “No single man could have achieved more in one single lifetime under similar circumstances.” It was he who for the first time addressed Mahatma Gandhi as the Father of the Nation. INA brigades were named Gandhi brigade, Nehru brigade and Maulana Azad brigade, and the soldiers were told that once they enter the territory of India, Mahatma Gandhi will be their Commander-in-Chief.

Perhaps today, we need more than anything else to learn from and emulate his tremendous capacity to bring about unity among people belonging to different religions. To quote his biographer and grand-nephew, Sugata Bose: “His strategy entailed combating religious prejudice without stumbling into the secularists’ pitfall of making religion the enemy of the nation.” A believer himself, like Gandhiji, he understood the difference between religion and communalism, and fought against the political abuse of religion which colonialism had promoted. It is not surprising therefore that the movement for the release of INA prisoners which swept India in late 1945 and early 1946, brought members of all communities and parties together on the streets, even though it turned out to be the last flicker of the flame before Partition snuffed it out.

* (Author: Mridula Mukherjee is former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Her writings include the best-selling India’s Struggle for Independence and India Since Independence.)

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