Monday, April 2, 2012

Of Netaji, Azad Hind, three-finger eating; the Bose Persona had many sides to it

The thrill effect of the Subhas Chandra Bose saga never fades. His fairy-tale escape from India, his two-month submarine voyage from Germany to Sumatra, the magic of the Indian National Army and its near-capture of Imphal – the Netaji story can be re-read again and again with undiminished interest.

Most accounts of this extraordinary life tend to be sentimental because of its heroic nature and the devotion it inspires; many believe that he is still alive. M. Sivaram's The Road to Delhi (1966) is outstanding for two reasons. His eye for details brings out revealing titbits, and his admiration for Bose is tempered by his willingness to criticise policies with which he disagreed.

Sivaram was Associated Press correspondent and the highly connected editor of the Bangkok Chronicle when Japan's military putsch enveloped Southeast Asia. He ended up as Chief of Propaganda while his friend S.A. Ayer, Reuters correspondent in Bangkok, became Minister for Publicity in Subhas Bose' s Provisional Government of Free India.

Sivaram provides a thumbnail sketch of Rash Behari Bose, the old revolutionary who had exiled himself to Tokyo and become “a thorough-going Japanese, spoke Japanese with an ease and dignity that amazed most Japanese”. He also introduces Rash Behari's Man Friday, Nair-san, a Trivandrum boy who went to Japan, graduated in electrical engineering and then stayed on as a participant in local politics, doing “undefined political work in China, Manchuria, Mongolia and Tibet, playing many parts, from camel dealer to Living Buddha”. (Sivaram does not include Nair-san's evolution in postwar Japan as the owner of Tokyo's legendary Indian restaurant, Nair Hotel. Newcomers from India were entitled to a free meal there. He married a Japanese lady but changed her name to Janaki Amma).

Subhas Bose of course is the dominant figure in Sivaram's book. (Long out of print, a reprint has just been brought out by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. An invaluable contribution to the history of India's freedom movement, the book deserves an Indian edition). Sivaram quotes Abid Hassan, who accompanied Bose in the submarine as his secretary, to reveal that many details about free India were worked out during that long voyage. New names were coined, for example: “Azad Hind as the name of liberated India, Jai Hind as the mode of salutation and Netaji as his own designation in free India”.

Sivaram had long conversations not only with Hassan. Almost every day he and S. A. Ayer would have extended chats with Netaji in his seaside bungalow in Singapore. Consultations usually scheduled “after seven o'clock” actually began sometime after 1 a. m. Netaji needed only three or four hours of sleep in a day.

Netaji's outstanding leadership quality made him fearless. Even in the worst of circumstances, he was full of confidence in himself and the victory of his cause. Also, he insisted on maintaining the style and pageantry of a head of state. Sivaram says that the average Indian's heart swelled with pride when “Subhas travelled in state and insisted on putting on the biggest show possible....Two Japanese military trucks, with mounted machine guns, and a fleet of cars carrying his personal staff, all flying the Indian tricolour, escorted Subhas Bose on his tours. He travelled by the fastest Japanese bomber”.

But there was another side to the Bose persona. A small-time magistrate from Bengal named Sarcar was appointed Legal Advisor and asked to draw up a plan for the reconstruction and unification of liberated India. A comprehensive plan emerged. “Politically India would be welded into one grand dictatorship. There would be dress regulations, food regulations. Khaki shirt and pants for work, white shirt and pants for leisure, spoon and fork to eat with and, if hand was used, no more than three fingers to touch the food”

The Japanese, says Sivaram, took a dim view of this post-war plan, but Netaji was adamant and the plan was broadcast. Fortuitously, it remained a plan, leaving India free to develop into a functioning anarchy. Jai Hind for that.