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Modi’s Appropriation Of Bose- The Man Who founded The ‘Arzi Hukumat-e-Azad-Hind’ Is Rather Amusing

Commemorating one person on a special day does not have to mean belittling another.

“In the name of God, in the name of bygone generations who have welded the Indian people into one nation and in the name of the dead heroes who have bequeathed to us a tradition of heroism and self sacrifice, we call upon the Indian people to rally round our banner and to strike for India’s freedom.” —the conclusion of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s historic proclamation of the establishment of the provisional government of Free India. October 21, 1943, Cathay Cinema Hall, Singapore.

Woe betide the historical figure who is commemorated. No, seriously. A careful study of what any historical figure did, said and wrote juxtaposed against what their memory is exploited for after they are dead may lead one to not want to do anything remarkable at all. “Far better is it to dare mighty things,” said Theodore Roosevelt. “To win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” He said this when he was alive. Today, I’m sure Teddy Roosevelt’s skeleton is kicking itself in its grave.

Every time a commemoration takes place I want to find a bunker to disappear into. “I will emerge after the war is over,” I think. For this is election year. Everything historical becomes a campaign. Historical personages – complex, multi-dimensional creations of immense talent, effort and fate (not always in that order) – are rendered into cardboard caricatures of themselves and positioned to suit whoever can employ them best.

Indian nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose (1891-1945) with people around him. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

So too with the case of the commemoration of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army, on the 75th Anniversary of the establishment of the Azad Hind Government. Or rather, how it played out.

For the commemoration itself was a much needed gesture. The contribution of Netaji and the INA to the national narrative is, without question, invaluable. “It’s open to debate but, from a nationalist perspective, it could definitely be argued that the ‘Government in Exile’ by Subhas Chandra Bose was legitimate. Many Asian countries recognized it too. So we may well look upon the 21st of October as our day of independence, and Subhas Chandra Bose as the first Prime Minister of India,” says Dr. Lipi Ghosh, a historian who has done substantial work on Bose’s time in South East Asia. Ghosh welcomes the commemoration and is unhappy about the fact that the formation of this Government wasn’t a more significant part of widely taught and known history before.

Subhas Chandra Bose in Germany (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The devil then, lies in the detail. In the way in which the commemoration was carried out. In what was glossed over. And in what came after.

Let’s turn that on its head and take what came after first. Congress Spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi reacted to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on the day by saying, “The Prime Minister is desperately trying to appropriate a national legacy: the legacy of the freedom movement, where he knows that all elements of the BJP and its so called parivar were denuded of their locus and had absolutely no role to play.”

To be honest this argument, often touted, doesn’t really make any sense. Whether or not you or your predecessors or forefathers had a role to play in the freedom movement, the national legacy of a free India – that arose out of the freedom movement – is yours if you are an Indian citizen. No one group of people can lay exclusive claim to it, even if they happen to be connected to those who fought for India’s freedom in some way.

But it’s what Singhvi said after this that sticks in the mind: “The ideology of the BJP and that of Netaji is like chalk and cheese.”

This is what gets glossed over.

Bose, who implemented reservations for Muslims in jobs as Chief Executive Officer of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation; who, as Congress President, banned dual membership- i.e. membership of the Hindu Mahasabha or Muslim League alongside membership of the Congress; who refused to switch Hindustani (an amalgam of Hindi and Urdu) for the more sanskritized Hindi as the official language of the Azad Hind Government, which he called the Arzi Hukumat-e-Azad-Hind… what would Netaji have made of the lynchings in the country over cow slaughter today? How would he have dealt with them? Minister of Culture Mahesh Sharma stood tall on the podium commemorating him. How would he have reacted to Sharma’s statement about the Dadri lynching being an “accident” that arose out of “some misunderstanding”? What about the Gujarat riots? Oh and those speeches regarding kabristans and shamshaans? The Prime Minister, wearing an INA cap, cited General Shah Nawaz Khan and mentioned Colonel Shaukat Ali Malik but chose to remain silent over questions such as these. But naturally.

January 1938, Bow, London, England, UK — George Lansbury (1859-1940) the Labour politician greets the Indian nationalist leader and President of the All-India Congress Subhas Chandra. — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

In a similar vein, the Prime Minister listed various defence initiatives this Government has undertaken by way of saying the government was bent on carrying Netaji’s vision forward. Yet he remained silent on various questions being raised on account of what in common parlance is referred to now as the Rafale Deal Controversy. Nothing to say there.

Let’s now move on from things Prime Minister Modi did not address when he spoke of Netaji to the things he did address.

“It is a sad fact, that for the sake of the aggrandisement of one family, attempts have been made to obliterate the contributions of a hundred sons of this country – be it the contribution of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel or Babasaheb Ambedkar or, indeed, Netaji – from the nation’s memory.”

Truth is, there was no need for this statement about the family and ancestors of Modi’s political opposition. Commemorating one person on a special day does not have to mean belittling another. But then, elections are around the corner. So our heroes continue to fight our battles. The question is, do they want to?

The Prime Minister then goes on to commend Netaji’s purposefully ‘Indian’ perspective and says, “It has been our misfortune, that since independence, the builders of the new establishment of India saw India through the lens of England… I can say with confidence that if, in the decades after independence, the country had benefited from the guiding light of personalities like Subhas Babu and Sardar Patel, if those foreign glasses to view India through hadn’t existed, then circumstances would have been very different.”

Okay. This requires a serious intervention. Clearly this is a dig at former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. How exciting. Another one. Okay, but listen. First Prime Minister Modi spoke of giving credit where it’s due: to Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar and Vallabhbhai Patel. Then he said that the establishment set up after independence was actually conceived through the lens of England. I’m sorry but I’m not getting this. Patel was Home Minister after Indian Independence. He was the establishment after independence, as much as Jawaharlal Nehru was. Ambedkar took charge of drafting the Constitution on which the new establishment was built. So what exactly is the Prime Minister trying to say here?

If you’re looking for a metaphor for the posturing around Netaji, there is no better one than an awfully parochial Bengali movie, released in 2011, called Aami Shubhash Bolchi (This is Subhas Speaking). It was directed by Mahesh Manjrekar, as a Bengali remake of his Marathi film Mee Shivajiraje Bhonsale Boltoy (This is Shivajiraje Bhonsale Speaking). Mithun Chakraborty plays the lead role of a Bengali man who is prodded by visions of Netaji into thumping his chest twice with his fist and saying loudly, “Aami Bangaali. Aami Gorbito Aami Bangaali (I am a Bengali. I am proud I am a Bengali).” Because apparently this is exactly the kind of thing the spirit of Netaji would go around inspiring people to do. Netaji is played by Anindya Banerjee and for most of the film you have to keep reminding yourself he is Netaji. You do this because every actor around him keeps exclaiming, “Netaji!” like he too will forget otherwise. He is awkward and wears forever a confused frown and an angry pout (maybe he was mimicking Manjrekar when they shot him).

I know you think I am digressing but if there is one basic lesson this very insightful film teaches you it is that you should leave history you cannot present in all its complexity alone. This is my earnest request to the Prime Minister too. Imagine, one hundred years from now, if someone wore a ‘Modi kurta’ and sang ‘The Internationale’. And spoke tearfully of how you loved it. How would you feel?

Gandhi at the Indian National Congress annual meeting in Haripura in 1938 with Congress President Subhas Chandra Bose (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

To end, let’s examine another binary that is casually plumbed for all its worth, besides the Netaji-Nehru binary. This is the Netaji-Gandhi binary. The man who raised an army vs. the man who advocated non-violent resistance. For a change, let’s hear what Netaji had to say. S. A. Ayer, Minister of Publicity and Propaganda in the provisional government of Azad Hind recounts it in his book Story of I.N.A. Here is Netaji on Gandhi’s Quit India movement, in a speech to the I.N.A. and Indian civilians in East Asia:

“Remember that we have opened only a second front to supplement the main fight of the unarmed men, women and children inside India who face British bayonets. You are out of the reach of those bayonets and you are lucky. You have bayonets of your own with which to fight the enemy on the battlefield.”

He goes on to say, “Let not posterity say that you failed your motherland at the most critical hour of her history.”

If only he knew of all the things posterity would actually say. And do.

Rishi Majumder is a freelance writer.

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