On 21 October 1943, in a dramatic moment in India’s freedom struggle, Congressman-turned anti-British warrior, Subhas Chandra Bose—‘Netaji’ to his followers—announced the establishment of the Provisional Government of Free India.
Bose, who was convinced that an armed struggle against the mighty British was the only way to throw them out, was born on 23 January 1897 in Cuttack, then a part of Bengal Province’s Orissa Division. He was the ninth child of Prabhavati Devi and Janakinath Bose.
After finishing his school education, he briefly studied at Presidency College. Later he did his BA in philosophy from Scottish Church College at the University of Calcutta. He then went to study in Britain. Though he cleared the Indian Civil Services Examination (ICS), he didn’t want to work under the British government. So he quit the prestigious civil service job in April 1921.
Back in India, he launched the newspaper Swaraj and became associated with the Bengal chapter of the Congress. In 1923 Bose became president of the All India Youth Congress. He was imprisoned in 1925 along with others for espousing the nationalist cause. He became general secretary of the Congress in 1927. He soon got to know well the leading lights of the independence movement, like Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. Bose was an advocate of complete and unconditional independence for India, unlike many Congress leaders who had a more cautious approach.
With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Bose saw an opening to put pressure on the British. But since the Congress foreign policy was clearly in sync with Nehru’s and Gandhi’s belief that opposition to British rule in no way meant supporting Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan, Bose found himself alone. Forced to resign, he remarked that he was “opposed to Hitlerism whether in India, within the Congress or any other country”. In fact, Bose had few illusions about Nazi Germany, but he believed in the pragmatic political theory that an ‘enemy’s enemy is my friend’. Similarly, he had nothing against the British people; his opposition was limited to British imperialism.
Though Bose parted ways with the Congress leadership because of ideological difference with Gandhi, he had a lot of respect for the Mahatma. But according to Bose, using non-violence as a tool was not enough to make India free. He therefore launched his own outfit, the All India Forward Bloc, on 3 May 1939. His demand: total and immediate independence from British rule.
S. A. Ayer, an aide of Bose, in his book Unto Him A Witness: The Story of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in East Asia, wrote that Bose “was convinced of the perfect morality of exploiting any and every opportunity of fighting Britain for the sacred cause of the freedom of one-fifth of the human race”. In fact, Ayer wrote, Bose was emphatic that it would be a crime against God and man to let go a golden opportunity and allow Britain’s domination of India to continue. “There was no question of betrayal or of breach of faith; because, Netaji had proclaimed from the house-tops, long before World War 2 broke out, that he would take full advantage of it.”
Bose advocated mass civil disobedience to protest against the British decision to declare war on India’s behalf without consulting the Indian nationalist leadership. He led protests in Calcutta against this. As always, he was jailed. On his release his house was put under surveillance. He dressed as a Pathan to avoid identification and escaped to Peshawar, helped by friends and well-wishers. On 26 January 1941, he started his journey through the North-West frontier with Afghanistan, also under British rule, to the Soviet Union.
He finally reached Moscow on an Italian passport. But unable to gather support for his cause there, he went to Italy and Germany. In Germany, he instituted the Special Bureau for India and the Free India Centre. In 1943, he left for Japan.
The Azad Hind Fauj or the Indian National Army (INA), first established by Captain General Mohan Singh in Singapore in 1942, had been disbanded. Bose revived it and assumed charge of it. The INA got support from Indians living in Southeast Asia, and even had a women’s wing. It was at an INA rally in Burma in July 1944 that Bose famously said, “Give me blood, and I shall give you freedom!"
Using India’s northeast as an entry point, the Japanese, Burmese and INA troops tried to occupy Kohima and Imphal, but they were forced to retreat. Bose’s dream of ousting the British from India was dashed. With the tide of the war turning against the Japanese, the INA too found it tough to be a credible force. However, it fought on.
There have been innumerable conspiracy theories about Bose’s death and ‘disappearance’. Though his death in a plane crash in Taiwan has been contested, alternative explanations have also hit a wall.
The legend of Subhas Chandra Bose has only grown bigger over the years. By taking a dramatically divergent view of India’s freedom struggle and then literally fighting to achieve it, he carved a special place in the imagination of his countrymen. That Bose and his army continued to fight for their country’s freedom against impossible odds, has made him a uniquely heroic figure of modern India.
Also on this day:
1930 — Shammi Kapoor, Hindi film actor, was born
1981 — Dattatreya Bendre, Kannada poet, passed away
1990 — Prabhat Sarkar, philosopher and writer, passed away
2012 — Yash Chopra, Bollywood director and producer, passed away