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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 39, September 12, 2009

Remembering Sarat Chandra Bose

Saturday 12 September 2009, by Nikhil Chakravartty

Sometimes, in moments of introspection, one is tempted to ask what could have happened if people in authority had behaved differently, had different views about each other. Even orthodox Marxists have not been able to deny the role of the individual in history, but the reality perhaps is more explicit on this score than they would concede.

Recently I had a strange feeling about how the destiny of our country could have turned out to be very different had those at the helm in the past behaved differently not only collectively but individually towards each other. The occasion for such introspection was provided by an invitation from Dr Sisir Bose, the Executive Director of the Netaji Research Bureau in Calcutta, to participate in a symposium organised in connection with the centenary of the birth of Sarat Chandra Bose, his father and Netaji’s elder brother.

Sarat Babu, as we used to know him in our youth, was a great leader by his own standing, counted in the thirties as one of the big five of the Bengal Congress—a leading member of what was known those days as the nation’s undisputed High Command.

The Netaji Research Bureau is housed in the very building where Subhas Chandra Bose lived throughout his tempestuous career. It was from this house that he had disappeared in 1941 eluding the dragnet of the British sarkar’s police. He escaped to a remote station in Bihar to catch the train to Delhi from where he was picked up by his Communist courier, Bhagat Ram Talwar, to trudge incognito through the difficult terrain around the Khyber Pass to reach Kabul from where he cut through Russia with Soviet clearance en route to Germany for his Azad Hind mission. The car in which he escaped is still preserved and the young man who had driven him to the secret point in Bihar was his nephew, Dr Sisir Bose himself.

Those dramatic scenes of 1940-41 came back to mind as I entered the house after nearly 50 years. I used to visit the place as a young journalist and, more often, the nearby house of Sarat Babu at Woodburn Park.

This time I saw a television documentary produced by Dr Sisir Bose’s son, Sugata, who is working in an American university. The programme, captioned Rebels against the Raj, depicts the story of Subhas Babu’s struggle abroad, first in Germany and then in Japan and the birth of the Indian National Army and its career.

Watching this TV programme—which, incidentally, Doordarshan did not care to pick up—I wondered how history would have been different if the INA had pushed just a little further from the mountains to the plains of Assam and Manipur. The Japanese Army command seemed to have looked upon the operation in purely military terms and did not seem to realise the tremendous political potential in allowing the INA to infiltrate the mountain jungles down to the plains. In a positional war, the British could not perhaps have been vanquished, though it was a touch-and-go situation. The relics of the battle for the Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow at Kohima still bear testimony to this. But the appearance of Netaji and the INA in the plains—even a handful of them—would have led to the collapse of the Raj.

In Sarat Bose’s eventful career there were moments of great significance. He was not just the elder brother of Subhas Bose. He was a leader of great eminence in his own right. True to the tradition set by Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das of fighting the Raj through constitutional means, Sarat Babu emerged as a great parliamentarian, leading the Congress in the Bengal Assembly in the mid-thirties and forties. At the same time he never spared his resources to help Subhas or for that matter many revolutionaries who were branded by the British as terrorists.

As the Muslim alienation from the Congress became increasingly evident, Sarat Babu tried his best to reverse the trend. In 1941, as the Muslim League Ministry collapsed as a result of internal dissent, he formed a progressive coalition which comprised Fazlul Haq’s Krishak Praja Party, the progressive elements from the Muslim League, Hindu Mahasabha (then coming up under Shyamaprasad Mukherjee), the Scheduled Caste, Anglo-Indian and Indian-Christian groups together with his own following from the Congress which had broken away with Subhas’ exit from the Congress. They commanded a comfortable majority in the Assembly and demanded to be called by the Governor to form the Ministry. This effort at unity was scotched by the British authorities when Sarat Bose was suddenly arrested on December 11, 1941 and detained till the end of the year.

But Sarat Babu’s tireless endeavour for Hindu-Muslim unity could not be suppressed. As he found the national leaders more and more ensnared in Mountbatten’s partition plan, Sarat Babu took the bold initiative of retaining the unity of Bengal even if the country was to be divided into India and Pakistan.

The idea of a united Bengal was not a far-fetched fantasy. The British were watching it. As the British Government’s recently published Transfer of Power volumes disclose, Mountbatten had kept ready two drafts for his famous June 3, 1947 broad-cast.

But that was not to be as the big bosses of the Congress rejected the idea of a united Bengal despite Gandhiji’s disapproval, while Jinnah and Liaqat turned it down.

The ifs and buts of history are no doubt important in assessing our past.

(Mainstream, October 14, 1989)

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