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Home > 2021 > Did Netaji Live, Die in India Post 1947? | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 39, New Delhi, Sept 11, 2021

Did Netaji Live, Die in India Post 1947? | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 11 September 2021, by M R Narayan Swamy


Conundrum: Subhas Bose’s Life After Death

by Chandrachur Ghose & Anuj Dhar


Pages: 834

Price: 995

Incredible, shocking, stunning! There is no other way to describe this monumental work of history which goes to extreme depths to tell the world what happened to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, whose 1945 death in a plane crash remains wrapped in mystery. Casting their net of research all across India and even parts of the globe, writer Chandrachur Ghose and author-journalist Anuj Dhar tell us that Bose did not die in Formosa (Taiwan) as is widely believed but entered India after independence as a mendicant, lived in various places in north India in secrecy and breathed his last in September 1985 in Faizabad town in Uttar Pradesh.

You don’t believe it? Most people too would dismiss this as a figment of fertile imagination by two Netaji fans. But a reading of this 834-page book is sure to make one either believe what the authors say or at least doubt all that you have known thus far about the Bose saga. Such is the meticulous research in unraveling the persona called Gumnami Baba or Bhagwanji who lived constantly behind the curtains, unseen by most people wherever he took up residence over three long decades, revealing his past and sharing his innermost secrets with a select few, one being an “intelligence officer” from the Indian National Army (INA).

It was modern India’s longest running mystery.

According to the book, Bhagwanji was first seen in Uttar Pradesh in 1953 living in the house of a police officer in Mainpuri town. He moved to Rijor in Etah district, then to Umarpur and returned to Sakit village in Etah. After two years, he shifted to Shikohabad, then to Lucknow (where he spent some time on the banks of the Gomti river), further on to Neemsar (an important symbol of India’s mythological past), then to Ayodhya, then Basti, and finally to Faizabad where he passed away.

For someone who had the guts to rebel against Mahatma Gandhi, who slipped away from India despite being watched and eventually used his magnetic charm to raise the INA, Bhagwanji led a harsh life in Uttar Pradesh as he struggled for basic necessities. There were days when he had nothing to eat. Or there would be just boiled potatoes. With mo money to buy tea, Bose satisfied himself with leaves of a local plant called ‘latora’ boiled in water. Poor health was a recurring issue. One place he stayed was dark, damp and had a foul smell. To overcome the extreme money shortage, he tried his luck with lottery tickets.

The situation improved once he got connected to his earlier supporters from Calcutta, many of them from erstwhile revolutionary groups who knew how to keep secrets. Several Netaji admirers had never believed that he died in the plane crash; they were convinced the accident was faked so that he could move on. The first to make contact in Neemsar was Prabitra Mohan Roy, a former INA secret service operative; Roy immediately recognized the stentorian voice. Bose’s family mostly doubted claims about Bhagwanji, the exception being his brother Suresh Bose. Over time, Bhagwanji told everyone to keep their lips sealed; if asked about his identity, they were to plead ignorance.

With the help of select loyalists, Bhagwanji erected a system of double filtering to keep away unwanted visitors. This was not foolproof and it prevented many from meeting him despite their eagerness. There were tense moments when crowds flocked to his place after hearing that he was the ‘dead’ Netaji. On more than one occasion, the police checked his identity. The secretive monk barred people from photographing him or recording his voice.

What was the need for all this secrecy? Was he really Subhas Bose in disguise? Bhagwanji was convinced there was a secret pact to hand him over to the Allied forces (read Britain) as a “war criminal” if he was ever traced. A MI5 Security Liaison Officer stationed in New Delhi after independence was kept informed about Bose by the Intelligence Bureau. Bhagwanji told Leela Roy, a former associate, that it would not be in his or the country’s interest to emerge publicly. He never recovered from a deep sense of hurt from the lack of response from Bengal when the INA entered India. He hated Nehru besides the Congress and the Communists. He did admire Indira Gandhi’s vision of national security. Bhagwanji was clear that no political party would support him if he came out.

Many had no doubts as to who Bhagwanji was. Pushpa Banerjee, who saw Bose in 1933 and 1939, was not mistaken about the man in mendicant’s robes. Brother Suresh Bose told the Khosla Commission in 1971 that his brother was alive. Santosh Bhattacharya, who served Bose in the 1930s, identified Bhagwanji as Bose. In 2002, B. Lal, a former Additional Director of the National Institute of Criminology and Forensic Sciences in the Home Ministry, gave two definitive reports after studying the handwriting of Bose and Bhagwanji that both were one person. Prabitra Roy, formerly of INA, in his final years addressed Bhagwanji as ‘Netaji’. Vikram Singh, a former Director General of Police of Uttar Pradesh, said at IIT Kanpur on January 23, 2014: Gumnami Baba was Netaji, let me tell you as a police officer!”

Was the Indian government in the dark about Bhagwanji? Although successive regimes maintained that Bose died in 1945, a Joint Secretary in the External Affairs Ministry, R.L. Narayan, suggested on January 12, 1996 that India’s Ambassador in Moscow must be asked to issue a demarche to the Russians to search the KGB archives for any evidence of Bose’s stay in the Soviet Union. Foreign Secretary Salman Haider had a quick meeting with Narayan, who, within a month, changed his tune: “It would not be appropriate for Government of India to make a formal request to the Russian Government to open their KGB archives (as it) would amount to our disbelieving (Moscow’s) categorical and official statement on the subject.”

Contrary to its public stance that Netaji was dead, the government kept a close watch on Bhagwanji and those in touch with him. Declassified documents show that Subhas’ nephew was snooped on for over two decades. So were a barrister and a doctor. Also intercepted were letters written to Sisir Bose, a nephew, by Emilie Schenkl, Netaji’s wife. INA veterans and journalists were not spared. The results of the snooping were shared with the British intelligence. The authors argue the ruling establishment wanted to prevent Bose from showing up or at least be prepared for it. “There is much more information in the custody of our intelligence agencies than is given out either by them or by the government… The most secret records of them all are held directly by the Prime Minister of India who is not answerable to any court of law.”

According to Bhagwanji, he (Bose) never went to Taiwan where the plane reportedly crashed. He escaped from Saigon. He claimed to have spent time in the Soviet Union and China before sneaking into India via Nepal. He claimed his identity was known to many top-level personalities who used to meet him secretly. Indeed, for someone living in seclusion, the monk was unusually well informed about the goings on in the Indian government and also in Bangladesh.

Only one person stayed with Bhagwanji till the end. It was Saraswati Devi Shukla, who protected him from unwanted interference of outsiders besides taking care of his stay and the disciples who visited. Over the decades, the authors kept up a determined search to know the truth about Netaji. Their actions led to the release of over 1,000 previously secret files, amounting to around 10,000 pages. Mamata Banerjee released 64 intelligence files in the West Bengal government custody.

Bhagwanji was indeed an enigma. He was into astrology, numerology and tantra. His favorite deity was Goddess Kali. There were things he said which sounded gibberish. It was also impossible to establish the veracity of some of the claims he made vis-à-vis the global situation.

“Bhagwanji was none other than Subhas Chandra Bose. The imposter angle is neither impossible nor unthinkable,” the authors insist in finality. They admit there are several questions to which they do not have answers. They are honest enough to admit that certain claims by Bhagwanji did not ring true. Was the monk at times intoxicated? The authors add there is much to be uncovered. When his belongings were collected after his death, there was a photograph of Netaji’s brother Suresh Bose, carefully wrapped in Bengali silk, a sign of reverence. “Other than his identity, Bhagwanji’s life remains a conundrum.”

All students of Indian history must go through this remarkable book. I wish it had a bibliography and an index.

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