Spying, the very idea, has a bad aura about it. To that extent the declassified information that Jawaharlal Nehru spied on Subhas Chandra Bose and his family makes Nehru look bad. Unexpectedly Bhagat Singh's family has pitched in with the allegation that Nehru's government was spying on them too, planting intelligence agents inside the family in the guise of domestic servants and research scholars. All of this may be true because it's a familiar game governments play. Some day secret files may reveal how the BJP Government kept track of Rahul Gandhi's secret meditations.
The Bose files, however, raise issues that are more important than the petty games of politicians. Seventy years and many inquiry commissions later, the disappearance of India's celebrated Netaji remains a mystery. A mystery, that is, to the public. To the government of India, and perhaps of the UK, US and Russia as well, information necessary to close the case must be available. No purpose is served by keeping such information secret any longer. Therefore the demand that all the old files must now be declassified has the backing not only of sentiment but also of logic.
Nehru had his reasons to be less than friendly towards Subhas Bose. Throughout the saga of the freedom movement and in the entire pantheon of the Indian National Congress, no one came near Nehru in mass popularity -- no one except Subhas Bose. Such was Bose's appeal to the hearts and minds of people that he was elected Congress President over the objection of Mahatma Gandhi himself. After Bose's dramatic escape from India, his popularity reached dizzying heights. If the heroic Netaji were to return to India after the war, Nehru would not have been the unrivalled prime minister of India. (With a revived INA and Subhas Bose in military uniform, the might-have-beens of history defy imagination).
For Nehru, therefore, it was natural and necessary to believe that Bose died in an air crash in June 1945 as the Japanese authorities announced. It is interesting that India's Viceroy Archibald Wavell dismissed the Japanese radio report. "I suspect it very much", he noted in his diary and asked his principal aide to start preparing for the trial of Subhas Bose and his associates as war criminals. Four months later, in October 1945, the colonial Government's Intelligence Bureau submitted a report which said: "The general opinion among Indians here (in Bangkok) is that Bose is not dead but.... has made his way to some place occupied by the Russians". Following such reports, two theories were accepted as facts: That the Japanese conspired with Bose to fake the aircrash-death so that the British would not capture him and put him on trial, and that Bose worked in the prison camps of Stalin's Siberia.
Was he executed on Stalin's orders as various reports suggested? The promised release of Soviet-era secret files by Ukraine may finally settle that question. Till then we cannot ignore an avalanche of circumstantial evidence pointing to the mysterious Gumnami Baba who lived in Lucknow and Faizabad for some 30 years being in fact Netaji. An impressive collection of reports holding up this theory was assembled in the 2010 book mentioned in this column a couple of years ago -- Judgment: No Aircrash, No Dealth by Lt. Manwati Arya, an officer in Netaji's famous Rani Jhansi Regiment. According to these reports, Gumnami Baba entered India through China in 1953, lived in secluded houses, never appeared before anyone and handled things with gloves on so as not to leave fingerprints behind.
The belongings of the Baba, kept in 28 boxes, were unlocked in 2001, 15 years after his death. They included newspapers in English, Hindi and Bengali and an eclectic book collection -- complete works of Tagore, Sarat Chandra, Shakespeare and Dickens; Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver's Travels, Tropic of Cancer, Rubaiyat, Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. And latterday political books including Maxwell's India's China War and Dalvi's Himalayan Blunder -- not exactly the usual reading material of sadhus.
According to newspaper reports the governments of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi knew about the Baba, ensured that his privacy was guarded and even bore some of his expenses. Keeping his secret was a wise decision, on the part of Netaji as well as the Government; we can well imagine the mayhem if he had publicly surfaced. Now that it is all part of history, why can't the records be fully declassified and the mystery ended once and for all?