If Gandhi was the “Father” of the Indian mass-scale freedom movement , Subhas was the “Leader”.
Born and brought up in Cuttack, Orissa on January 23, 1897, Netaji Subhas became the international symbol of national liberation, of anti-imperialism, of global socialism. His was a legacy that spoke to generations of freedom fighters of the world how Che Guevera had elsewhere pronounced: “If you tremble with indignation at every injustice, then you are a comrade of mine.”
This indignation of the Leader led him to take steps, hardly anyone in the mainstream politics had ever thought of. At a time when the right-wingers in the traditional Indian National Congress were content with an offer of conditional independence (Swaraj) for the country, Bose was the first leader of worth to resolve for complete independence (Purna Swaraj). He was also the foremost fighter to truly internationalize the liberation movement, the pioneering leader to secularize the Indian armed forces, and to declare that bloody struggle was necessary for freedom from imperialism.
During the second world war, Netaji Subhas was a prime agitator for the armed forces. He trained and sent commandos for conspiratorial activities that resulted in the death sentence of nine combatants in the Madras Coastal Battery conspiracy case. The turning point in the ‘transfer of power’ actually came with what we know as the Royal Indian Navy mutiny brought about by historic actions by Indian National Army founded by Netaji Bose.
Indian independence movement was never a narrow nationalist struggle as often interpreted by some right-wingers. It’s true that Indian National Congress often represented the will of the conservative nationalists, but that was obvious because of its long history of formation as a compromise committee of educated intelligentsia. But what is equally important to remember is that the INC grew in any significance only after Gandhi returned from South Africa and took the lead towards the 1920’s. The effective INC could be credited for resistance movement only for two decades. And most of these years again were times of great political debates, deliberations, differences. On the one hand were the dominant right-wing reactionaries and on the other hand, the leftist aspirators. Gandhi, not to lose focus was a chief moderator, but to underrate the influence of the victory of the Left over the Right faction of INC in order to raise flags of hope, would be to misconstrue the path of freedom movement in India.
The unwritten division among the Right and the Left, just like the official differences between the Moderates and the Extremists, brought alive few major facets of the greatest peoples’ movement in world history. The nature of the Right faction was to administratively move the wheel, to plead with the English, to demand for recognition, to hold talks and supervise national meetings. The nature of the Left faction was to work towards replacing the wheel through peoples’ movements, to reject the British, to chart out independent constitutions, to burn down police stations nationally and to organize international agitations.
Naturally enough, the British always perceived the right wing faction, be it the Patels within the INC or the Hindu Mahasava outside, as their friends in need. The Empire in order to effectively rule a politically conscious mass needed a sense of normalization to penetrate among the masses. They needed to convey to the people that they could take rest and be peaceful since their national heroes were discussing politics with the rulers. They needed to convey to the people that the country was anyway helpless since it was in abysmal darkness of superstitions, religious strife and backwardness (even as the British continued to intensify the blind-beliefs to divide and rule peoples). At their worst, the rulers needed to convince people that those other than the recognized/authorized representatives, who were putting up demonstrations and agitating the workers were the Soviet agents, who had no interests in India’s welfare and so they could be easily branded as terrorists and could be marginalized.
In the meantime, on the other hand, these marginalized revolutionaries were taking up arms against the soothing falsifying words. They were voracious readers of progressive literatures, they were politically sensitized to sense that what was in the interest of the humankind was in the interest of the country. They could distinguish that the British could not fight Fascism and maintain Imperialism at the same time. They could visualize that not just the people in India, but Indian people abroad too needed to get together in their combined struggles. London and Paris (radicals like Krishnavarma, Madam Cama, S.R. Rana and Vinayak Savarkar); Berlin and Stockholm (Virendrananth Chattopadhyay, and Dr Bhupendranath Dutt through Indian Independence Committee); the USA and Canada (Sohan Singh Bhakhna, and Hardayal through Ghadar Party); Iran (Sufi Ambaprasad and Ajit Singh); Kabul (Mahendra Pratap, Barkatullah, and Obeidullah through Indian Provisional Government); Moscow and Tashkent (M.N. Roy, Abani Mukherjee, Tirumal Acharya); Japan and the Far East (Rashbehari Bose); Germany, Japan and the Far East (Subhas Chandra Bose through Azad Hind Government and Indian National Army) rose heads among the global centers of Indian violent resistance movements. These were intensifying at a time when the Indian nationalist movement was deep searching for heroes and figures.
What was unique about Netaji Subhas was that he not only recognized and organized military efforts abroad, he was also deeply rooted to the Indian realities at home. Far from abandoning the Indian National Congress as an opportunistic middle-class forum practicing centrist politics, he in fact got very actively involved with the grassroots of the party so that he could oppose and eradicate the right-wing parasites. The constructive support to the INC was needed so as to reform the party of the old guards and recognize its central role in uniting the peoples from across the country.
Of course, the great hope for India’s freedom movement drew heavily from the Bolshevik October Revolution. The nationalist leader Bipin Chandra Pal vocalized: “There has grown up all over the world a new power—the power of the people, determined to rescue their legitimate rights, the rights of the people to live freely and happily without being exploited and victimized by the wealthier and so-called higher classes. This is Bolshevism.” And Lenin while drafting visions for national struggles in colonial period recognized that, “All communist Parties must assist the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement in these countries”
Against this backdrop of highly charged times, Netaji Subhas Chandra thought of jumping into the river of mainstream freedom movement and reform it from within. He hardly was aware of the great challenges that lay ahead. The initial solace came in form of a fellow socialist thinker Nehru who treaded cautiously most of the times, but came out clear on few occasions to call a dagger a dagger. Nehru, clearly taking a side, mused that the national freedom movement should not be directed against the British nation, but against British imperialism. This found him a friend in Netaji Subhas who together then formed a pressure group within the Congress called “Independence of India League”. Now, this formation was in response to old-guard reactionaries like Rajendra Prasad who opposed the Subhas-Jawaharlal proposal for “Complete Independence”. Prasad (who went on to become the first President of Republic of India, rendering the post of Presidency to a rubber-stamp) in fact mocked at the demand of the duo for complete independence at Madras Congress (1927) saying that Congress will be made a laughing stock of people all over the world! Against such opposition and rebukes, Netaji and Nehru went on to use their pressure group to finally pass the resolution for Purna Swaraj, originally moved by Hasrat Mohani, a leftist (of course it was no easy road, as the right-wingers just would not let “complete independence” be the aim of the Congress, as they narrowly defeated the move in the Calcutta Congress 1928 too). It was in this time of left euphoria, that a decision was also taken to boycott Simon commission, a never-before strike movement was organized, militant youths became active on the national politics. And they elected Nehru and Subhas as general secretaries of the Congress (It would take few more years till Lahore session that the Complete Independence would finally be passed as the aim of the Congress!).
Subsequently, even as Nehru remained content with the flow of the mainstream freedom struggle, Netaji went on to ally with all possible alternative leftist struggles and peoples’ movements. When Bhagat Singh co-founded the Naujawan Bharat Sabha in 1923 and became its general-secretary, he declared that its aim was to achieve “Complete Independence of India by All Possible Means”. Bhagat Singh, a committed leftist freedom fighter, influenced by Bolshevism, recognized that the struggle needed to be internationalized. And he named it in English: “Young India Association” and true to his principles, barred any religious practices within the association. As a result, Hindu Mahasabha, Sikh League and Muslim League members were barred from membership. Candidates were screened for their progressive ideologies. When the Young India Association held its first conference in 1928, it was attended by Netaji and his associates. In fact it was presided by Netaji’s comrade Kedarnath Saigal. When the all India conference took place in Karachi, Netaji Subhas became the president of Young India Association, which was by now also comprised of several Ghadar Party associates.
Not only did Netaji Subhas extend himself to the alternative organized movements, he actively aided in organizing strikes of workers throughout the country. The railway strike at Kharagpur led by the communists had thousands and thousands of workers boycotting the British and Netaji Subhas as then president of Bombay Provincial Congress Committee issued joint statements of support with trade unionists to collect more than Rs 50,000 as strike aid funds.
The conflicts within the nationalist freedom struggles was at the peak even as young revolutionaries and committed leftists were organizing large scale combats against the Raj. The mainstream Congress party led by right-wingers like Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad, C. Rajgopalachari, J.B. Kripalani etc, were firmly defeating the socialist visions of cautious progressives like Nehru on the margin. Nehru struggling to maintain his base had been radicalized in the meantime after his meeting with RPD (Comrade Rajani Palme Dutt) in London and as the then president of Congress at Lucknow, he finally announced: “Where do we stand then, we who labor for a free India? Inevitably, we take out stand with the progressive forces of the world which are ranged against fascism and imperialism. Between Indian nationalism and British Imperialism, there can be no common ground…I am convinced that the only key to the solution of India’s problems lies in socialism”. He was hugely supported by all leftists in the country. This naturally led to the biggest crisis in the Congress, with the right-wing working committee members resigning from the party (Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad etc) denouncing speeches of Nehru’s and “other socialist colleagues”. Indian capitalist class, represented by Birla etc of course got united to fight the leftist bias by defeating them on policy grounds through votes. And temporarily again, Patel’s missives led to defeat of Nehru’s radicalism.
During this time, to rescue the largest political base of the country from the opportunists, Netaji Subhas, solidly grounded with alternative movements everywhere in the country entered into political scene again in 1938 (also upon his return from abroad), and became the president of the Indian National Congress. So huge was his reputation by now as the de facto leader of the oppressed people, (and not as any representative of domestic business class), that he was unanimously elected to the post! Not only that, the Communist Party of India (of course considered ‘illegal’) took the lead to suggest that Subhas Chandra be re-elected for president’s post with support of the entire Left and every CPI publication screamed “Vote for Subhas”. This second time, Netaji Subhas had to contest with the right-wing Congress candidate Pattabhi Sitaramayya and with support from the Left, he convincingly defeated Pattabhi. Subhas Chandra then suggested that a left consolidation committee be formed and the communists readily agreed and it was successfully formed. Subhas was thus going to be the future leader of the country uniting the progressives to awaken political consciousness among the oppressed peoples, if not for extreme right-wing reactionaries who made his office a suffocating experience, forcing him to resign from presidentship in the middle of 1939.
Subhas quit the electoral politics, but gained grounds in military onslaughts and guerilla warfare against the imperialists, fighting them tooth and nail from within India and abroad. Hardly anyone has organized so much efforts for one’s national liberation from the claws of professional imperialists. Through Azad Hind Fauz he organized armed struggles, included women and members of the minority communities in his force and marched from every angle in the Far-East to Germany. Subhas Chandra’s personal commitment to be politically active remains unique in the history of humankind. In retrospect, it surely sounds like a romantic journey of the true revolutionary, with his goal for complete independence, his beloved.
Unfortunately, even as we observe his birth anniversary, more concentration is given to his mysterious “death” circumstances, to deny his death, and to make him a heroic immortal nationalist figure. The administration is not prepared to admit that Netaji is dead. A legend is made out of a leader who fought against legends and myths.
Instead, a serious study of India’s colonial past would reveal all the factors for which Netaji Subhas must be celebrated for humankind, for his indomitable opposition to blatant injustice everywhere. What we need to focus instead are Subhas Chandra’s need and own historical involvement with radical left-wing politics, his numerous attempts to revamp the biggest political organization (Congress), his vast irreconcilable differences with right-wingers like Patel and Prasad, and his visions for a new modern international India based on optimism of social progress. From this, the least we can derive are few priceless lessons: India, or any other land on this planet needs to be socially progressive, secularly oriented, courageous in face of crises, brave against the petty opportunists and opportunistic imperialists. That was what he lived for. And gave up his life for.
It’s not important to imagine that he is still alive, its rather crucial to know that he is no more amidst us, now that our larger society is devoid of all the values he fought for. If the human society of the day does not recognize his contributions to progress of the world by adjusting the worldviews to match his visions, it has anyway killed his entity.