Forsaken By His Own Government?

‘‘Netaji Living Dangerously’’

Kingshuk Nag

As soon as it became clear that the air crash in which Netaji was believed to have died could have been faked, the Government of India started making frenetic efforts to figure out where he was and what he was up to. Simultaneously, senior government officials launched a strenuous campaign to convince the public-at-large that Bose had perished in the air crash at Taihoku on 18 August 1945.

Common people and even many at high places were taken in by this steady massaging, but the Government of India—by this time India had won freedom—knew that the information that they were putting out for public consumption was incorrect. Thus it is clear that the government initiative to look for Netaji had not been planned with any altruistic motives: it was designed to checkmate the patriot.

At the beginning even the government was not sure of the leader’s whereabouts. Therefore, it began spying on Bose's close relatives in the hope that crucial information about the activities of the leader would come out of this snooping. It was believed that Netaji would get in touch with his relatives either directly or indirectly. In fact the snooping continued till 1968—some twenty-one years after Independence- demonstrating the high degree of interest shown by the government to ferret out the truth about Bose.

That the government was trying to mislead the public had always been suspected but now, with the benefit of hindsight, we also know that the central government's Intelligence Bureau (IB) worked hand in glove with the M15, the national security intelligence wing of the British government, in this activity. This knowledge has become public with the declassification of official records in the United Kingdom. The intelligence cooperation began as India became independent, a time when the new regime in India was expected to strike an independent line. A story published in the 12 April 2015 edition of The Times of India with the revealing title—‘Documents Reveal Nehru Government Shared Information on Netaji with M15’ reported that not only did the Nehru government snoop on Bose through the IB but also shared confidential information with the M15. On 6 October 1947, IB official S Balakrishna Shetty sought the comments of the M15 on a letter that it had intercepted. The letter was written to Amiya Nath Bose, a nephew of Netaji’s by A C N Nambiar who had been the leader’s deputy in Germany. Nambiar stayed in Zurich. Shetty said in his request letter to the M15's representative in Delhi, K M Bourne that the Nambiar letter 'had been seen during secret censorship and passed on. We shall be grateful for your comments'. In turn Bourne forwarded the letter to his director-general in London with the comments: 'Any comments that you make in this letter will be appreciated. The letter could be about Bose's wife and daughter though the context is unclear’.

In the same edition of The Times of India, a former RAW special secretary V Balachandran was quoted as saying, 'IB had played a junior partner to M15 even after 1947 and this was similar to what it was before Independence.' He went on to point out that this collaboration continued all the way till 1975. After the transfer of power, the M15 positioned a Security Liaison Officer (SLO) in New Delhi as its representative. According to the declassified archives the deal was done by Guy Liddel, deputy director of M15.

Over a period of time, the dependence of the IB on M15 increased and strangely enough the IB started following Britain's intelligence priorities. Bhola Nath Mullick, who served as the organisation's chief from 1948-68, is known as India's intelligence czar. But now it seems that he was a czar only in name. The declassified British archives suggest that he 'encouraged' Walter Bill, then SLO, to visit the IB's headquarters to see its work on 'preventing communist subversion'. In 1957 he wrote to Roger Holly, M15 chief, 'I never felt that I was dealing with an organisation which was not my own.'

When moves to rescind links with the M15 first cropped up in 1971, IB director S P Verma was devastated. He wrote to the M15 chief, 'how would he manage without a British SLO.'

Balachandran pointed out in The Times of India story that Christopher Andrew, the official M15 historian concludes, 'Nehru either did not discover how close the relationship was, or less probably did discover and took no action.' Balachandran warns that 'this needs to be kept in mind before concluding that Nehru ordered IB snooping on Netaji's family'.

This is letting Nehru off the hook. To all probability, the Nehru government was trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hound. On one hand it wanted to use the IB to keep a watch on the Communists—in effect, on the Soviet Union where Netaji was supposedly located—while on the other hand, the regime was trying to foster a closer relationship with that country. Christopher Andrew, in an interview to DNA newspaper on 2 May 2010 revealed that the IB had contacted M15 for a specialist to analyse data that it had collected on subsidies given by Moscow to the Communist Party in India. Incidentally Anuj Dhar, who is engaged in unravelling the Netaji mystery, says that B N Mullick, as IB chief had lied to the Khosla Commission and misrepresented to the Shah Nawaz Committee. Dhar said in an interview to the Zee News television channel on 10 August 2012 that Mullick had doctored the Japanese version of a British-era report on Netaji's purported death by removing the final passages before presenting it to the Shah Nawaz Committee. He also alleged that if statements under oath made by Mullick to the Khosla Commission is compared to facts now emanating as a result of a Right to Information (RTI) query filed by him, then the former IB boss would be found to have committed perjury. Mullick died in 1984.

The IB collaboration with British intelligence ceased only after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told the IB czars to discontinue it. Balachandran, in The Times of India story says that he was present at the meeting where Indira Gandhi spoke to IB bosses. After 1970 and more specifically after the Indo-Pakistan war in 1971, India became closer to the Soviet Union, with whom the country had signed a friendship treaty. Since the IB-M15 deal was basically to keep tabs on Communist countries, the closer ties with the Soviet Union led to excising of ties with British intelligence agencies.

Not only was the IB snooping on Netaji's relatives but Nehru personally also sought to find out about their activities. As a result of another RTI query, we now know that Nehru wrote a letter on 25 November 1957 to the then Foreign Secretary Subimal Dutt about Amiya Nath Base's visit to Japan. Nehru wrote, 'I would like to find out what he (Amiya Rose) did in Tokyo? Did he go to our embassy? Did he visit the Renkoji temple?' Amiya Nath Bose, the eldest son of Sarat Chandra Bose, became a Lok Sabha MP in 1967; but in 1957 he had been a mere barrister. So there was no reason for Nehru to enquire after Amiya Nath's activities in Japan unless of course he was paranoid that Netaji was alive and would surface some time.

Chitra Bose, daughter of Sarat Bose, told The Times of India in April 2015 that she recollected a visit by Nehru to their residence in Calcutta shortly after the air-crash. 'Panditji showed father a rectangular wrist watch with a charred band and said with teary eyes—this was the watch Subhas was wearing when the crash took place.' In response Sarat Bose replied, 'Jawahar, I don't believe the crash story. Subhas never wore such a watch. He wore one with a round dial that mother had given him.'

Writing in the 20 April 2015 issue of India Today magazine, journalist Sandeep Unnithan says, 'For two decades between 1948 and 1968. Government of India placed Bose family members under intensive surveillance. Sleuths intercepted, read and recorded letters of Bose families exactly in the same way that they would of relatives and contacts of terrorists.' The same report pointed out that the man behind all this was IB director Bhola Nath Mullick. He shared the letters with M L Hooja who became the IB chief in 1968 and Rameshwar Nath Kao who went on to be the first Secretary of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) when it was formed. All the files containing the details of the snooping were marked 'top secret' and 'very secret'.

A good example of putting the lid on any information going out to the public on Netaji's whereabouts is provided by the case of Ardhendu Sarkar, a mechanical engineer with the Ranchi-based public sector Heavy Engineering Corporation (HEC). In 1962 Sarkar was sent on deputation to the Gorlovka Machine Building plant in Ukraine (which is now an independent country but was then part of the Soviet Union). Here he met a German called Zerovin employed there. Zerovin told Sarkar that he had met Netaji in a gulag in 1947-48 and they had even exchanged a few words in German. Zerovin had been sent to the gulag for indoctrination. An excited Sarkar, on the first available opportunity, rushed to Moscow and the Indian Embassy. If Sarkar had thought that the officials there would be equally excited he was mistaken. He was reprimanded and asked to shut up. 'Why have you come to this country? Does your assignment involve poking your nose into politics? Don't share this information with anyone. Just do what you are sent for,' Ardhendu Sarkar was told. A few days later Sarkar was repatriated back home. A shaken Sarkar narrated these facts only in 2000 in his deposition before the Mukherjee Commission.

The government continued to insist that Netaji had in fact died in the air crash and went to ridiculous lengths to prove this. Not only were two pre-biased commissions of inquiry (Shah Nawaz and Khosla) set up to prove his death, the government was going ballistic even in the early 1990s. In the 1980s the government's intelligence wing trained their sights on Gumnami Baba's visitors and even trying to dissuade curious analysts from calling on him. V N Arora of Faizabad who has been quoted in an earlier chapter reveals that one day, out of curiosity—this was sometime in the year 1980—he had decided to call on Gumnami Baba. He was told to come the following day at 4 pm. The next day, an intelligence official dropped into his house in the afternoon, enquiring why he wanted to meet Baba. Not only this, he insisted on sitting with Arora till late in the evening so that Arora could not step out of the house. 'How did they know that I was to meet Baba? Obviously they were keeping tabs on who ever visited his house,' Arora says, pointing out that Gumnami Baba, in those days was living in a dilapidated building that had no electricity.

The P V Narasimha Rao government which came to power in 1991 tried hard to convince Emilie Schenkl, Subhas Chandra Bose's wife and other family members that he had in fact died in an air crash and therefore sought their consent to bring home the ashes of Netaji kept in the Renkoji Temple in Tokyo. The desperation is obvious going by the notes written on file by K Padmanabhaiah, Home Secretary to the Government of India. He noted, 'It would therefore be necessary to take the members of Netaji's family into confidence in the first place by convincing them as to the genuineness of the ashes. It should be then easier to handle opposition from other quarters like the Forward Bloc.' The note went on to add, 'Netaji's wife and daughter are at present in Augsburg, Germany. It is felt that they can be approached through another nephew of Netaji, Dr Sisir Bose. Shri Amiya Nath Bose, the most vociferous sceptic of the air crash theory, needs to be brought around by approaching at an appropriately high level. There is a good chance, that if reasonably approached, the family members may drop their opposition. The question of an appropriate memorial involving the mortal remains shall also have to be addressed in due course.'

When this writer asked K Padmanabhaiah the basis on which he was so sanguine that the ashes were that of Netaji, he pleaded that the event was two decades old and he did not remember the exact sequence of events. 'Some materials were brought before me on which I based my note. What the contents were, I do not remember now,' the retired Home Secretary said.

The zealousness of the government to prove that Netaji had died in an air crash was presumably because of the fear that declassification of records in Russia might lead to the truth tumbling out. As is known, the Soviet Union broke up after 1991 in the wake of glasnost or openness. In this scenario many secret archives were expected to be thrown open. The panic in the Indian establishment is clear after Asia and Africa Today, a journal brought out by the Oriental Institute in Moscow announced in 1993 that it would publish some material relating to Subhas Chandra Bose which was culled from the archives of the KGB. Probably at the behest of none other than Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, the Indian Ambassador to Russia Ronen Sen tried to use diplomatic pressure on the Institute to stop the article from being published. A counsellor of the embassy, Ajay Malhotra went to meet the deputy chief editor of the magazine V K Tourdjev to prevail upon him to refrain from publishing any such article.

Taking advantage of the more open (or probably less closed) regime in Russia a team of scholars from the Asiatic Society of Kolkata (that had an agreement with the Oriental Institute in Moscow) went down to access possible files relating to Indo-Soviet relations and about Netaji. In the course of the visit the team realized that only after examining the KGB archives could they conclusively say anything. They also realized that the KGB archives could possibly be opened up only on the request of the Government of India. Thus on their return they moved the Ministry of External Affairs. Joint Secretary (East Europe) R L Narayan then wrote a note to the Foreign Secretary on 12 January 1996 that the Indian Ambassador in Russia could issue a demarche to the Russian government to organize a search of the KGB archives. This was because an earlier request from the Government of India had elicited a negative response that there was nothing in Russian records on that matter. A demarche in diplomatic terms is a strong request and the word is used to convey the importance of the request. The earlier request had been place in January 1992 when Russia was beginning to open up. In fact in his note, Narayan wrote, 'In January 1992 we had received a disclaimer from the Russian foreign ministry that said that according to the Republican archives no information whatsoever was available on the stay of Subhas Chandra Bose in Soviet Union in 1945 and thereafter.' In the same note Narayan had suggested that the Russian disclaimer was possibly based on the archives of the post-Stalin period (post-1953). Narayan had said that since it would be unrealistic to expect that Russian authorities would allow Indian scholars access to KGB archives, the Indian government could request Russian authorities to conduct a search themselves into the archives and let us know if there is any evidence of Netaji's stay in the Soviet Union.'

When the file went up to Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee he called for an urgent meeting on 14 January. The move for the demarche was dropped. On 7 March, the same joint secretary wrote to the foreign secretary once again. This time he wrote that a formal request to the Russian government may be misunderstood by the latter and therefore he recommended that the Asiatic Society itself should be allowed to pursue the matter independently with the Oriental Institute.

Close to the elections, politicians become very agreeable. Thus the same Narasimha Rao whose government had actively thwarted any attempt to get information out of Russia on 25 March 1996 advised his joint secretary to pursue the matter. The joint secretary wrote to the foreign secretary, 'PM would like our ambassador in Moscow to make discreet enquiries at a high level to ascertain, if possible, the existence of such information in Russia and the possible reaction of the Russian side. Foreign secretary may see.' What happened to this discreet enquiry is not known.

The paranoia about Netaji continued even after the Congress government bowed out of office. In 1999, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee set up the Mukherjee Commission to inquire about the disappearance of Netaji. This was after a judgment by the Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court, Prabha Shankar Mishra. But the NDA government showed little keenness to cooperate with the Mukherjee Commission. When the Commission asked the government to share files relating to Netaji in its possession, the reply was tantamount to a flat no. Home Secretary Kamal Pande filed an affidavit and wrote back, 'I have carefully examined the documents and I am bonafide satisfied that the disclosure of these documents would also hurt the sentiments of the public at large and may evoke wide spread reactions as these documents if disclosed may lower the image of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Diplomatic relations with friendly countries may also be adversely affected if the said documents are disclosed. In these circumstances I withhold permission to produce the said records or to release their contents or give any evidence derived therefrom and claim privileges under section 123 and 124 of Evidence Act'. Pande also said, 'The disclosure of the records would also be violating the mandatory provisions of Article 74(2) of the Constitution in as much as the records ordered to be produced also belong to the class of documents which it is the practice to keep secret and ensuring the proper functioning of public service. The records include notes and minutes by officers and ministers on file'.

The government's reluctance to open the Netaji files continued even after the installation of Narendra Modi as prime minister in 2014. When Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha MP Sukhendu Shekhar Roy asked Home Minister Rajnath Singh when the files that the government had on Netaji would be opened, the Minister of State for Home, Haribhai Chaudhary replied—on 17 December 2014—that there were fifty-eight files with the Prime Minister's Office and twenty-nine files with the ministry of external affairs. The minister said that the government had no plans to declassify any of these files because their contents were of a 'sensitive nature' and could lead to problems in 'India's relations with other countries.' In an RTI reply, the Prime Minister's Office also refused to declassify the files arguing that 'the disclosures would prejudicially affect relations with foreign countries.' A recent RTI query by a freelance journalist Choodamani Nagendra seeking to know whether the GOI had any records relating to Subhas Bose being declared as a war criminal and what steps the government had taken to get his name removed from this list. The Ministry of Home Affairs to whom this query was directed ducked citing some obsolete governmental provisions not to make public this information. This was before Modi met Netaji's family members and announced his decision to open the files.

However many people, including Netaji's family members feel that there is no harm in declassifying the files now, after so many years. This is true. Even if the files were to indicate that Stalin killed Netaji or the British got hold of Netaji and liquidated him or even if it was found that the Japanese had secretly surrendered Netaji to the Allied powers, this would hardly spoil relations with the present leaders of these countries. For any misdemeanour of Stalin, Indians are not likely to have an adverse opinion of the Vladimir Putin regime in Russia or for that matter of the present heads of state in the UK and Germany.

In fact the people of India and Netaji lovers aver that the files relating to Netaji are not being opened because they contain information that would portray leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi in poor light. In a way Kamal Pande's affidavit brought the cat out of the bag by pointing out that the files could not be declassified because it had annotations by ministers and officials. In other words the then home secretary was scared of what opinions Nehru and his mandarins had of Netaji. The revelations would adversely affect the image of Nehru and his close circle, and not of Netaji as Kamal Pande made out. It is also possible that the declassification of the files would bring out more instances of the government's eavesdropping on Netaji's relatives. Official sources also aver that intelligence officials in their various reports in the past have demonised Netaji and this would also become public. For instance intelligence reports claim that Bose never married Emilie Schenkl and she was just his live-in partner. More-over Netaji had a passionate affair with a lady politician from Bengal and later with someone in Burma. Most of them are based on hearsay and have no bearing with reality. These reports were just to character assassinate Subhas Bose and to portray him poorly vis-a-vis Congress politicians like Nehru who came to rule the country after Independence.

That is why Netaji's family members and other Netaji lovers (and there are innumerable such people) feel that Narendra Modi has no vested interest and will not go back on his promise to declassify the relevant files. A small step was taken by the government in this matter in mid-April after a ruckus was created when the contents of two declassified files revealed that Netaji's kin had been being tailed for twenty long years. An inter-ministerial committee headed by the Cabinet Secretary was set up to review the Netaji files and their contents in the light of the Official Secrets Act. The Committee will decide whether these files can be opened up and will start the process on 23 January 2016. Incidentally the rules specify that files can be declassified after thirty years. This means that files earlier than 1985 can be declassified.

The million dollar question : will the committee recommend declassi-fication? But a word of caution : declassification of the files may illustrate in detail the attitude of successive Indian regimes towards Netaji but may not throw light on his whereabouts. A former top official of the intelligence department who served for four decades in both the IB and RAW says that all that may be found in the files would be cross-references to what is contained in files in other countries like Japan, United Kingdom and perhaps the Soviet Union.

[Excerpted from ‘‘Netaji Living Dangerously’’ by Kingshuk Nag. Published by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta,, Price : Rs 295.00]

Vol. 48, No. 28, Jan 17 - 23, 2016