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Rashtranayak Netaji: Dharmic moorings of Subhash Chandra Bose and the death-blow to the British Raj in India

His was the truly Dharmic way of inherent cosmopolitanism, universal brotherhood, emancipation and dignity of the individual, as well as the importance of sacrifice. Even though it is unfortunate that he had to ally with certain problematic elements, his mission and personal bearings always reflected his Dharmic roots.

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose must be conferred the title of Rashtranayak (national hero) lickety-split. Unfortunately, Article 18 (1) of the Indian Constitution does not permit any titles to individuals, except when in an academic or military context. That is why MK Gandhi has never been officially the ‘Father of the Nation’ and lamentably, Netaji cannot be conferred the title of Rashtranayak. If there was ever an Indian hero in modern times, it has to unequivocally be Netaji. After facing sustained opposition from the pro-Gandhi factions of the Congress within the party and severe restrictions from the British Raj that culminated in his house arrest in Kolkata, Netaji took a flight of imagination and vision and escaped in a most idiosyncratic manner to mobilise Indians abroad towards an armed struggle against the Britishers, to unshackle India from their hold.

On 21 October 1943, he established the Azad Hind Government with Japanese support in Singapore, with its jurisdiction being primarily over the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, even as it later struggled to make inroads into the North-East of India. The provisional government commanded a sizeable army comprising of Indian POWs (Prisoners of War) captured by the Japanese during the Malayan campaign in Singapore and had diplomatic relations with various countries, including Germany, Italy, Croatia, Thailand, Japan, Burma, Second Philippine Republic and Manchukuo. If significant expanse and populace under jurisdiction coupled with international recognition were to be the barometer for the legitimacy of a government, Netaji was indeed the first Prime Minister of free (and, might I add, undivided) India. Technically, however, it took another couple of years for the official Indian Independence Act [1947 c. 30 (10 & 11. Geo. 6.)] to be signed and for India to have its much-cited ‘tryst with destiny’.

One often wonders how the country may have evolved, particularly in its infancy, had Netaji been at the helm of matters. Some say that he would have established a socialist authoritarian state, as he said he sought to do for about two decades to even out India’s social and political problems before democracy could be installed, while others feel that Partition would never have taken place with Netaji as the national leader. Given that it was interestingly Bose who had placed Nehru as the chairman of the National Planning Committee (NPC) after Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore had intervened to convince a reluctant Nehru with the words

“there were only two modernists in the High Command—you and Subhas Babu”

Ref: Letter from Anil Kumar Chanda to Jawaharlal Nehru (1938).

it seems likely that his would have been the planned economy that Nehru established post-independence. Whether India would have lost the War of 1962 with China is anyone’s guess. I, for one, do believe that Netaji would have prioritised realpolitik and pragmatism over the utopian positivism that the Panchsheel framework seems to present to a belligerent China, which had just annexed Tibet. 

What people, however, seldom know and realise is that MK Gandhi was hardly the only prominent leader of the later stages of the Independence movement to have a strong Dharmic mooring and alignment.

While Netaji was fairly against the activities of Veer Savarkar and the Hindu Mahasabha, given the famous criticism by the All India Forward Bloc of Veer Savarkar’s speech in December 1939 against the A. K. Fazlul Haq government of Bengal (back in the day, rather pretentiously, the British Raj had instituted the office of `Prime Minister of Bengal’, an office that Haq first occupied on 1 April 1937), he was a devout Hindu and believed in Dharmic ideas and principles. Not many know that Netaji always carried a copy of the Srimad Bhagavad Gita with him. From a young age, Netaji was quite influenced by the teachings and lives of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Swami Vivekananda. This is evident in his words

How shall I express in words my indebtedness to Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda? It is under their sacred influence that my life got first awakened. Like Nivedita, I also regard Ramakrishna and Vivekananda as two aspects of one indivisible personality. If Swamiji had been alive today, he would have been my, My guru, that is to say, I would have accepted him as my Master.

Ref: A Patriot Monk Swami Vivekananda by Santa Kumara

Netaji was spiritual and ever-committed to Dharmic ideals throughout his life. He found in Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa’s teaching on the oneness and unity of all religions an inspiration for the diversity he later encouraged in his Azad Hind Fauj. Just like Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Netaji was an ardent follower of Ma Kali and kept a pictorial representation of the deity in his pocket. He believed that Swami Vivekananda preached the purest form of Hinduism, in which caste and creed had no relevance and bearing at all. Netaji highlighted the role Swamiji played in inspiring nationalism and encapsulating the very spirit of India in his writings, saying:

The foundation of the present freedom movement owes its origin to Swamiji’s message. If India is to be free, it cannot be a land especially of Hinduism or of Islam—it must be one united land of different religious communities inspired by the ideal of nationalism. (And for that) Indians must accept whole-heartedly the gospel of harmony of religions, which is the gospel of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda

While Netaji was a student in Presidency College in 1913, he even considered joining the Ramakrishna Mission as a sanyasi. To that end, he met Swami Brahmananda, a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa and the then-president of the Order. It is said that the apparently prescient Swamiji told Netaji that he was not meant to be a sanyasi. If the theories of Netaji having survived the plane crash in 1945 and returning to India as a seer named Gumnami Baba are to be taken seriously, his childhood ambition may have had an avenue of expression.

This close association with the Ramakrishna Mission continued for years after. As per the reminiscences of Swami Shankarananda of the Ramakrishna Math, Swami Abhedananda, a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, wanted to meet Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in 1939. Upon meeting the dynamic leader, Swamiji embraced Netaji with great affection and blessed him, saying, “Be thou victorious.” During his time in Singapore, Netaji had a special relationship with the Ramakrishna Mission there, often meditating in the shrine late into the night and sharing a good rapport with Swami Bhaswarananda with whom he had many spiritual discussions.

Swami Bhaswarananda was impressed with Netaji, saying that he had the grace of God and could move people with the force of his personality as well as the strength of his character. Netaji also donated to an orphanage run by the Ramakrishna Mission there and contributed towards the Tithi Puja celebrations of Ma Sarada Devi. Back in the day, Netaji would accompany his father Janiki Nath Bose to Hindu mutts in Cuttack in present-day Odisha, particularly one set up by Jagatguru Srimad Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Goswami, the famous Gaudiya Vaishnava Hindu guru whose student Sri Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami (Srila Prabhupada) established the world-famous ISKCON, in Cuttack. His respect and recognition of Dharma being the cement that held the nation together is seen in the words

“Though geographically, ethnologically and historically India represents an endless diversity to any observer-there is nonetheless a fundamental unity underlying this diversity […] The most important cementing factor has been the Hindu religion. North or South, East or West, wherever you may travel, you will find the same religious ideas, the same culture and the same tradition. All Hindus look upon India as the Holy Land.” 

The Indian Struggle by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose

Netaji speaks of the spiritual dimension and the essence of his spirituality, evidently influenced by Vedanta and its conception of reality at its most fundamental, in the following words in his unfinished autobiography, ‘An Indian Pilgrim’.

“Reality, therefore, is Spirit, the essence of which is Love, gradually unfolding itself in an eternal play of conflicting forces and their solution” 

An Indian Pilgrim by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose

When Rabindranath Tagore welcome him to Santiniketan in January 1939, Netaji responded to him in a memorable extempore response, wherein he expressed his gratitude to the litterateur and luminary for speaking on the inner poverty of individuals, which must be addressed and resolved for true emancipation of Indians. Speaking on this, Netaji emphasised how it was indispensable that we must spiritually actualise to be able to accomplish our goals as individuals, saying:

“We are today no doubt working tirelessly to attain national freedom, but our ideal is greater. We want complete fulfilment in personal and national life. We desire that every man and woman of the country and the entire nation may in every respect realize Truth. In this quest, in this Sadhana, political freedom is only a means.”

One of the greatest attainments of Netaji on the spiritual and philosophical plane was his aversion to accepting anything without reasoning and evidence, which is the quintessential experiential and truth-oriented approach of Vedanta and the Dharmic way of life. At the practical level, just like Sri Aurobindo, Netaji believed that political freedom is not possible until one has social and economic freedom.

This comprehensive emancipation was something that made him realise that simply unshackling the colonial yoke would truly bring India to the point of realising its potential and promise. While Netaji was broadly spiritual in a Vedantic mould, he did not shy away from acknowledging and referring to a Saguna God, as is seen in his speech to establish the Azad Hind government:

“In the name of God, I take this sacred oath to liberate India and the thirty-eight crores of my countrymen. I, Subhas Chandra Bose, will continue the sacred war of freedom till the last breath of my life.” 

For Netaji, the battle was as sacred and spiritual as it was political, and the emphasis always was to create a fundamental premise and foundation that comprised of key spiritual, social, philosophical, political and economic dimensions. In doing this, Netaji placed emphasis on the Upanishadic concept of Tyaga (त्याग) – sacrifice, and imbibed the ideal of renunciation for self-realisation and actualisation. At a very young age, he became determined to leave all else to work for his country, as seen in his words, that he spoke in his youth.

“I had a new ideal before me now which had influenced my soul to effect my own salvation and to serve humanity by abandoning all worldly desires and breaking away from all undue restraints.”

And when the time came for mass mobilisation, his call for sacrifice by all patriotic Indians was resonant with the ancient call of Dharmic seers and luminaries to use the power of sacrifice for the betterment of mankind. What was even more commendable and reflective of Dharma at its most fundamental was the focus on pluralism and cosmopolitanism. Netaji always saw economic issues as cutting across communal divisions and barriers, and the movement towards political emancipation as being for all the children of the land of Bharatvarsh, cutting across schools of thought and theism. That had always been the Indic way. Netaji also extended the Dharmic idea of emancipation cutting across constructs of identities and ideologies. One of the main areas where he was vocal on this front was that of breaking asunder one societal encumbrance that had arisen from the corruption of previously spiritual categorisation – casteism.

Caste had divided Indian society in ways that had institutionalised discrimination and exploitation, and that the colonial powers had used for their selfish interests at the expense of the Indian cause. He also spoke for gender equality and parity, and this was best seen in the much-celebrated Rani Jhansi regiment, one of the first all-female regiments in a modern army, in the Azad Hind Fauj. After all, the fundamental spiritual way of looking at freedom and emancipation summarily is at variance with any form of physicalist or societal segregation and discrimination. The elephant in the room, when it comes to delineating how Dharmic Netaji’s vision was, is his association with the Nazis in Germany and the Axis powers, more generally.

For starters, Netaji and Hitler were on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. Netaji was a socialist through and through, while Hitler made a name for himself by culling the socialists in Germany. People often wonder how Hitler, with his much-highlighted `National Socialism’, was not a socialist! The term `National Socialism’ was a misnomer arising out of an attempt to redefine socialism, and not going by the Marxist socialist ideas. Nazis rejected the idea that class conflict was an important aspect of society to be addressed.

They opposed any semblance of international cosmopolitanism or cosmopolitan internationalism. The only `common good’ that they stood for was that of the nation, in their nationalistic fervour, in a rather collectivist or communitarian way, rather than a truly socialist one! Bose, on the other hand, was the one who brought the concept of a planned economy to the Indian masses in a definite way. Hitler was very derogatory about Indians throughout, while Netaji lived, breathed and worked for India and Indians. Netaji’s contempt for the Nazi cause was evident in his letter to Dr Thierfelder, President of the Deutsche Akademie, a German cultural institution that had sponsored a scheme for giving scholarships to Indian students studying in Germany on Indo-German ties, way back in March 1936:

“When I first visited Germany in 1933, I had hopes that the new German nation which had risen to a consciousness of its national strength and self-respect would instinctively feel deep sympathy for other nations struggling in the same direction. Today, I regret that I have to return to India with the conviction that the new nationalism of Germany is not only narrow and selfish but arrogant.[…] Herr Hitler has talked of the destiny of the white races to rule over the rest of the world. But the historical fact is, that up till now the Asiatics have dominated Europe more than have the Europeans dominated Asia … We who are struggling for our own freedom desire that all nations should be free and that Europe and Asia should be at peace with one another. It, therefore, pains us that the new nationalism in Germany is inspired by selfishness and racial arrogance.”

Bose was not sparing in his criticism of the racial policy of the Nazis. For instance, when Hitler referred to white superiority in a speech in 1936, Bose denounced him in a press conference in Geneva and advocated a trade boycott of Germany. In a similar manner, Bose strongly rebutted Hermann Göring’s disparaging remarks on Mahatma Gandhi. By the end of the 1930s, Netaji was quite disillusioned with the Nazis. He once told a journalist.

“Fascism had not started on its imperialist expedition, and it appeared to me merely an aggressive form of nationalism”

Some may ask why then did he hobnob with Nazi Germany subsequently. In his dalliance with Berlin, his sole purpose was the liberation of his motherland from British rule. He may have been naive in his political operations, but Netaji was never a Nazi supporter per se. Bose was deeply disturbed by the treatment of Jews by the Nazis. Yet he was seeking to look away and maintain a relationship with Hitler and Germany only for anti-British realpolitik and to assist Indian independence. Insight is obtained from his communication with a Jewish friend Mrs Kurti, as mentioned in her book `Subhas Chandra Bose as I knew him’:

“It is dreadful, but it must be done. It is our only way out. India must gain her independence, cost what it may. Have you any idea, Mr and Mrs Kurti, of the despair, the misery, the humiliation of India? Can you imagine her suffering and indignation? British imperialism there can be just as intolerable as your Nazism here.”

Netaji used to say that an enslaved nation cannot have the convenience and comfort of ideological filtering and political correctness and sought the freedom and emancipation of a people who had had to face the worst ordeals and persecution one could imagine, from the Jallianwala Bagh massacre to the man-made Bengal famine. The magnitude of how effective Netaji was can be fathomed from a conversation between former British Prime Minister Clement Attlee and the acting Governor of West Bengal Justice P. B. Chakroborty, who was also the Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court, in 1956. Justice Chakroborty famously said:

“When I was acting governor, Lord Attlee, who had given us independence by withdrawing British rule from India, spent two days in the governor’s palace at Calcutta during his tour of India. At that time I had a prolonged discussion with him regarding the real factors that had led the British to quit India. My direct question to Attlee was that since Gandhi’s Quit India Movement had tapered off quite some time ago and in 1947 no such new compelling situation had arisen that would necessitate a hasty British departure, why did they have to leave? In his reply, Attlee cited several reasons, the main among them being the erosion of loyalty to the British crown among the Indian Army and Navy personnel as a result of the military activities of Netaji. Toward the end of our discussion, I asked Attlee what was the extent of Gandhi’s influence upon the British decision to leave India. Hearing this question, Attlee’s lips became twisted in a sarcastic smile as he slowly chewed out the word, ‘m-i-n-i-m-a-l’”

This conversation was first published by Ranjan Borra and the Institute of Historical Review in 1982. When the Second World War had ended, the officers of the INA troops who were captured by the British Raj had to go through the infamous Red Fort trials. The Britishers had downplayed the role of the INA during the War, saying they were a bunch of Japanese-inspire forces.

The trials, however, brought to the fore the magnitude of the efforts by Netaji and his troops. This had an electrifying effect across the country. After all, to the millions and millions of Indians, here was a leader and here was an army that was poorly supplied and ill-equipped but who had not flinched even once to lay down their lives for India’s independence. On 20 November 1945, a secret note from the head of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Sir Norman Smith, stated that:

“There has seldom been a matter which has attracted so much Indian public interest and, it is safe to say, sympathy.”

There were massive demonstrations and a Hartal (strike) in Lahore, Rawalpindi and Lyallpur in the first two days of the trial, while  `INA days’ were held in Vellore, Salem, Karachi, Madras and various other cities and towns in India. Posters had started to appear in Calcutta and Delhi that threatened to kill 20 Britishers for the execution of every INA hero. The governor of the Central Provinces even voiced doubts about how willing the Indian troops would be to reign in the mobs, comparing the situation to 1857, when the Sepoy mutiny took place.

Ironically, even the Muslim League under Jinnah, with whom Bose had shared a rivalry and significant hostility, sided with the INA heroes. Netaji’s Dharmic cosmopolitanism in embracing Muslims, even at the very top of his army and government, had made it impossible for the League to stay aloof. Even Nehru, who had retired from the bar a quarter of a century earlier, joined the legal defence team of the INA officers. This also was ironic since Nehru had publicly condemned the INA when they were waging pitched battles in the North-East of India, while Netaji was gracious in naming an entire brigade of the INA after Nehru.

Immense public pressure, due to demonstrations and riots, forced the General of the British Indian army, Claude Auchinleck, to release all three defendants of the trials. Within 3 months, 11,000 soldiers of the INA were released after being cashiered and with their pay and allowances being forfeited. So paranoid were the Britishers that as per a recommendation of Lord Mountbatten and with Nehru agreeing, no soldier of the INA was to be allowed to join the armed forces of independent India, as a condition for independence! Upon the officers’ commutation of sentences, there was a massive celebratory rally of around 1,00,000 people in Delhi. Similar numbers were seen coming out in support of the heroes in Punjab.

The magnitude of how loved and respected these officers were comes from communication by Sir Bertrand Glancy on 17 November 1945, when he said executing these war heroes would result in a situation worse than in 1919 (preceding the Jallianwala Bagh massacre) or in 1942, and would make a peaceful, constitutional settlement very difficult. Given that Punjab was an important centre of recruitment for the British Indian army, the ripple effect that the trials and subsequent electrifying effect that the release of the officers had could seriously jeopardize the possibility of the army being able to stand its ground, imminently. By December of 1945, Auchinleck reported to the British government in London that native forces could not be relied upon to suppress any insurrection, saying:

“To regain control of the situation, nothing short of an organised campaign for the reconquest of India is likely to suffice.”

His request for three additional British battalions was denied by the British cabinet, saying that there was a large-scale demobilisation of forces and the soldiers did not seek to return to battle duties after the prolonged Second World War. Moreover, Indian officers hinted that their men or they themselves may not remain loyal if an insurrection happened. Historian Peter Fay once said:

“In the autumn of 1945, India was swept by a storm of excitement and indignation, a storm that Bose and his renegades ignited. It was a storm the Indian officer, and the jawan too, could not ignore. They did not ignore it. In 1942, at the time of Quit India, there had been no question of their reliability. Now their own commander doubted it. Three years of campaigning, three years climaxed by battlefield victories in Europe and the Irrawaddy, do not explain the change. Only that autumn storm can. It was the Indian National Army that forced Britain’s hand.”

The British Raj in India was premised on the strength of the British Indian army, for theirs had been the mercantile and subsequently the militaristic approach to acquiring clout and power. While Netaji may not have succeeded in driving through to his ultimate goal with the Azad Hind Fauj, his efforts ultimately incited a nationalistic fervour that threatened to bring the Raj down in India. Indian soldiers had started speaking of their loyalty to the Congress and the Indian forces and not their British overseers. The Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) saw a crippling strike by 5,200 pilots and officers in January 1946.

The HMIS Talwar, a signal training ship in Bombay, saw a full-scale mutiny, with the mutineers demanding that all INA prisoners be released, the pay of British and Indian soldiers be equalised and that the Indian soldiers fighting in Indonesia against the nationalist army of Sukarno be withdrawn. Since the HMIS Talwar was a signalling ship, the mutineers quickly communicated with other ships, resulting in 78 of the 88 ships of the Royal Indian Navy joining the mutiny! This spread to all the important ports along the east and west coast of India. Just a day after, Clement Attlee, the then-Prime Minister of the UK, announced that a Cabinet Mission will be sent to India to begin negotiations for India’s independence. While in mid-January 1946, the British cabinet still believed in self-righteous, presumptuous and, might I add, delusional humbug such as:

“If no solution is reached (for problems faced by Indians on various fronts)… we should continue governing India even if it involved rebellion which would have to be suppressed by British troops.”

With the various mutinies, soldiers in the army being hair-length away from revolting as well (although there was a mutiny by the Jabbalpore regiment, and various engineering units of the Madras Regiment had also joined in), and clear expression of no-confidence by Auchinleck on his Indian staff, the Cabinet changed their mind by the end of February 1946! Almost like a prophecy, Netaji’s words from back in 1943 rang true:

“When the British government is thus attacked… from inside India and from outside — it will collapse, and the Indian people will then regain their freedom”

The repeated failure of Mahatma Gandhi, be it in 1920, 1939 or 1942, and the derision of Attlee regarding the pacifist approach, it can be safely said that the Azad Hind Fauj gave the proverbial death-blow to the British Raj, albeit not exactly in the way they may have wanted to. In conclusion, I would like to highlight and celebrate a seldom-seen aspect of Netaji: his Dharmic moorings and spirituality, which defined and guided his actions in service for the nation, all the while highlighting what an important role he and his Azad Hind Fauj played in securing India’s independence.

His was the truly Dharmic way of inherent cosmopolitanism, universal brotherhood, emancipation and dignity of the individual, as well as the importance of sacrifice. Even though it is unfortunate that he had to ally with certain problematic elements, his mission and personal bearings always reflected his Dharmic roots. If there was a Mahatma who synthesised a novel conception of politics and society from ancient Indic and Dharmic ideas coupled with modern frameworks in a seamless way, it has to be the brave son of Bengal who is undoubtedly our Rashtranayak: Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.

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Dr. Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar
Dr. Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar
Mrittunjoy is a physicist, activist, writer, social worker and philosopher.

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