Subhas Chandra Bose: An Indian Freedom Fighter Surrounded in Myth


Sometimes myth is more powerful than reality. Myths are often extremely enduring, and sometimes no amount of reality can change a preconceived notion. The mythos of Subhas Chandra Bose’s contribution to India’s freedom struggle is far stronger than his actual contribution.

Bose was a senior Indian National Congress leader who became the head of the party in 1938, but later fell out with the party leadership over the issue of ideology. He left the organization at a crucial stage of the freedom struggle in 1939.

Having left the party, he charted a new strategy to take on the British colonial power: force. He escaped British custody in Calcutta in 1940 and traveled to Germany, Italy, and Japan to explore the possibility of Axis military support for India’s liberation. He was one of the founders of the Indian National Army (INA) in Singapore, comprising mostly Indian expatriates who were Japanese prisoners of war in British Malaya in Southeast Asia. Despite his meeting with the Nazi German leader, Adolf Hitler, Italian ruler Benito Mussolini, and Imperial Japan’s military leadership, he was unable to mobilize much support and the INA ultimately played a marginal role during World War II. Bose is widely believed to have died in a plane crash in Taiwan in 1945.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

These exploits gave birth to a bevy of myths and folktales about Bose. In the eyes of fellow ethnic Bengalis and those opposed to the Congress’ role in the freedom struggle, Bose became a preeminent hero. Any questioning of his political methods and achievements are frowned upon. What added a cult image to his name was his mysterious death in a plane crash. Since no one supposedly saw his corpse, his death became an unending mystery and the subject of much speculation and conspiracy theorizing. There are stories that he survived his accident and lived as an ascetic until the mid-60s, a fact which the government supposedly suppressed.

Conspiracy theories about his death abound. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who happened to be Bose’s rival in the Congress party in the 1930s, had been held responsible for Bose’s mysterious disappearance. Over the years Nehru’s political opponents kept on fanning the flames of the conspiracy theories surrounding his involvement in Bose’s death. The Nehru government only made things worse by ordering surveillance of Bose’s family. The Indian government’s refusal to declassify government files related to Bose’s death also added weight to the conspiracy angle and made the INA leader a cult figure in India.

Last week, the West Bengal government decided to declassify the 40-plus files related to the INA leader, thereby bringing all information related to Bose into the public domain. So far, not even a single sensational story has emerged from these declassified documents. The Hindu writes that the files have “little in terms of definitive evidence on Bose’s death or disappearance post-1945, but have documented unconfirmed reports that he may have survived the plane crash of 1945 in Taiwan in which he was supposed to have been killed.”

The state government’s decision to declassify files has put pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to act on his pre-election promise of making all documents related to Bose public. But the government in Delhi is dithering and feels that the content of the files might jeopardize India’s relationship with neighboring countries. Some critics believe that by keeping the files secret, the government wants to keep the conspiracy theories alive, and damage the reputation of the Congress and Nehru-Gandhi family for not accepting Bose.

Historian Chandra S. Sundaram writes in Economic and Political Weekly that “generally in India there is mindless and hagiographical glorification of the INA. Mythic accounts of its exploits—often bearing no relation to historical reality—abound. This can be seen as an attempt by the Hindu right to assert its masculinity, to oppose ‘feminine’ Gandhian values.” But there are others who question the cult status given to Bose. They question his actual contributions and political methods in India’s freedom struggle. He sought out the support of fascist leaders like Hitler and Mussolini to achieve his political objectives. Had he succeeded in his mission, India would have been ruled by fascist forces in place of the British, an alternative which could have been fraught with danger.

“So what vision did Netaji (Bose) have for India when he envisaged an Azad Hind (independent India)?” asks Vijay Shekhar in the Business Standard. He asks if Bose wanted “to follow the examples of Hitler or Mussolini or did he just want to throw out the British and invite the Japanese in their place… it was clear this was a man who would shake hands with the devil to get him what he wants.”

India’s polarized politics do not allow any critical appraisal of a man who could have played a pivotal role in directing India’s future had he not left the country at the crucial stage when India was negotiating its independence from the British. The sad part is that a secular firebrand leader has been appropriated by the Hindu right and been made a mascot of Hindu sectarian interests. Summarizing his personality, Sundaram says that “in the end, he comes across as a misguided, tragic figure, diplomatically and militarily out of his depth … both the Germans and the Japanese regarded Bose as a puppet, a characterization he was never able to overcome. Had he never left India, he might have played a pivotal role in the endgame of empire there.”

Many Indians would not be happy with this realistic assessment of Bose, but myths die hard in India.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief