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Netaji Wasn't a Friend of Hindutva, But its Adversary

Shubham Sharma |
The appropriation of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose by BJP-RSS erases the historical reality that Netaji, throughout his life, stood against the values that Hindutva propagates.
Netaji Subhash

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been infatuated with India's anti-colonial nationalist leadership; not necessarily out of love and respect for the values that they stood for, such as anti-imperialism, a commitment to democracy and secularism. Their infatuation stems from a thirst for co-option as they barely have icons within Hindutva's ideological past who participated in the national freedom struggle. Their icons do not match the contributions of the Indian National Congress (INC) leadership, including M.K. Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Maulana Azad, Badshah Khan, etc. Then, the selective co-option is designed to drum up their empty credentials by putting leaders who stood together against the colonial powers against one another in the most insulting manner.

After Patel, Hindutva’s latest catch is Netaji Bose. Recently Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared that Netaji’s birthday would be celebrated as Parakram Diwas. An act that appears harmless on the surface becomes problematic when one looks at how it gets organised and bandied about in public by the government, wider Hindutva apparatus and worst of all, the PM himself.

During the West Bengal elections, the RSS-BJP tried its best to milk Netaji’s legacy by including one of his many surviving kins into the BJP and displaying some obscure and unsubstantial documents in public. However, none of this helped, and BJP comprehensively lost the Assembly elections in the state.

We are sure that the same theatrics will start once Netaji’s birth anniversary celebrations commence. But we should keep some crucial aspects in mind before we fall into the BJP’s trap and start counterposing and vilifying other leaders vis-à-vis Netaji. For example, even though Netaji left the Congress in disagreement with Gandhi, he never vilified Gandhi, Nehru, and the Congress. This could be best gauged from how he named the regiments of the Indian National Army (INA). He named them Gandhi Brigade, Nehru Brigade, Azad Brigade and Rani Lakshmi Bai Brigade. Barring the great Rani, all the regiments were named after the stalwarts of the Congress.

Netaji did so out of sheer deference and respect for the Congress leadership even though he had parted ways with them. No regiments were named after VD Savarkar, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, or any other RSS ideologues who were active at the time. For him, the true leaders of the national movement were Nehru, Gandhi and Azad. This is proved by a 1943 speech that Netaji made from exile from Bangkok on Gandhi’s 74th birthday, wherein he described Gandhi’s contribution as ‘unique and unparalleled.’ Netaji went on to say that ‘‘no single man could have achieved more in one single lifetime under similar circumstances.’’

Netaji identified openly with the Left-wing of Congress. He counted Nehru among his comrades on the Left and described him in his book The Indian Struggle as ‘‘while his brain is with the Left-wingers, his heart is with Mahatma Gandhi.’’ Netaji spoke highly of the Bolshevik Revolution and connected India’s destiny to it in the same book. He wrote,

‘‘During the twentieth century, Russia has enriched the culture and civilisation through her achievement in the proletarian revolution, proletarian government and proletarian culture. The next remarkable contribution to the culture and civilisation of the world, India will be called upon to make.’’ (p. 372)

He further elaborated,

‘‘I am quite satisfied that Communism, as it had been expressed in the writings of Marx and Lenin and the official statements of policy of the Communist International, gives full support to the struggle for national independence and recognises it as an integral part of its world outlook. My personal view today is that the Indian National Congress should be organised on the broadest anti-imperialist front and should have the two-fold objective of winning political freedom and the establishment of a socialist regime.’’ (p. 394)

Since the RSS-BJP has always lampooned socialism in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution and hailed communists of all shades as "anti-nationals", they should also label Netaji the same because he openly harboured pro-socialist and pro-communist sympathies. But they will never dare to do so. Instead, they will present a picture of Netaji in opposition to Nehru and Gandhi to gain false political brownie points among the people of India.

Since Netaji learnt his lessons of politics from Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, who readily allocated 60% of seats for the Muslims in Bengal for their socio-political upliftment, he was a secular nationalist at heart. Netaji declared, "If we want to make India really great, we must build up a political democracy on the pedestal of a democratic society. Privileges based on birth, caste or creed should go, and equal opportunities should be thrown open to all irrespective of caste, creed or religion." He also warned Indians that "religious fanaticism is the greatest thorn in the path of cultural intimacy…and there is no better remedy for fanaticism than secular and scientific education."

Commenting on Netaji's version of secularism, Harvard University historian Sugata Bose (who also happens to be Netaji's grandnephew), in his book His Majesty's Opposition, has written that "Netaji was staking out a middle ground between Nehru's secularism, with its distaste for expressions of religious difference, and Gandhi's harnessing of various religious faiths in energising mass politics." ([p. 59)

Today when politicians are busy temple-hopping to prove their Hindu credentials, Netaji observed a strict divide between politics and religion.

Abid Hasan, a long-time compatriot of Netaji, recalls an incident in Singapore when Netaji was reluctantly made to enter a Chettiar temple. Tilaks made of sandalwood paste were put on the heads of Netaji, Hasan and Mohammad Zaman Kiani. Netaji wiped it off after leaving the temple, and so did his followers. Interestingly, Netaji decided to enter the temple only because the temple authorities agreed to host a national meeting open to all castes and communities. (Ibid, 256)

Netaji was also careful to use eclectic Hindustani instead of Sanskritised Hindi. As a result, a simple Hindustani translation of Tagore’s Jan Gan Man was adopted as the national anthem. Along with this, three Urdu words, Itmad (Faith), Ittefaq (Unity), and Kurbani (Sacrifice)—encapsulated the INA's motto.

Netaji also adopted the springing tiger from Tipu Sultan for the shoulder badges of the INA soldiers.

Just like socialism, secularism is also the big fly in the ointment for the RSS-BJP, whereas Netaji was its hardcore and uncompromising votary. Would the RSS-BJP dare to lampoon Netaji for his secular credentials? Of course not. They will recourse to lies and speak of his military heroism without emphasising the crucial predicate of Hindu-Muslim unity.

Of Hindutva and its inglorious progenitor Savarkar, Netaji spoke in distasteful terms. In his book The Indian Struggle, Netaji recounts a meeting with Savarkar and Jinnah. He concluded that the politics of Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League greatly converged, and he placed them on the same political pedestal. Netaji wrote,

‘‘Mr Jinnah was then thinking of only of how to realise his idea of Pakistan (division of India) with the help of the British. The idea of putting up a joint fight with the Congress for Indian independence did not appeal to him…Mr. Savarkar seemed to be oblivious of the international situation and was only thinking how Hindus could secure military training by entering Britain’s army in India. From these interviews, I was forced to the conclusion that nothing could be expected from either the Muslim League or the Hindu Mahasabha.’’ (p. 344)

In Bengal, Netaji’s radicalism also invited the ire of the upper-caste/class Brahmanical elements which today have a solid footing within the RSS-BJP. The Bangiya Brahman Sabha criticised Netaji and his brother Sarat Bose and said,

‘‘The Congress has been swept off its old moorings and changed its character. Its politicians and their followers are now largely ill-educated and ill-informed men, fed on the imported literature of modern Irish history, Italian and Austrian revolutions, French republicanism and Soviet rule. They are anxious to try on India the experiments of Western Civilisation ... and to do away with established institutions like Brahmanical hierarchy and zamindari landlordism as one allied system ... which, in the name of social reform, strikes at the very roots of Hinduism.’’ (Chatterjee, J. Bengal Divided, p. 134)

In this context, the Hindu Mahasabha grew in Bengal and got strong support from the big businesses in Calcutta. They were dissatisfied with the radicalism of the Bose brothers. Hindu Mahasabha also gained the support of the wealthy Bengalis, who raised a handsome purse of Rs 10,000 for its inaugural conference.

And when the spectre of Muslim tyranny was raised to drum up Hindu support, Netaji came out scathingly against it. In his autobiographical sketch An Indian Pilgrim, Netaji pounded the ‘Muslim period’ logic in Indian history and represented the Battle of Plassey as an instance of Hindu-Muslim cooperation against a common enemy. It is pertinent to quote him at length. He wrote,

‘‘History will bear me out when I say that it is a misnomer to talk of Muslim rule when describing the political order in India prior to the advent of the British. Whether we talk of the Moghul Emperors at Delhi, or of the Muslim Kings of Bengal, we shall find that in either case the administration was run by Hindus and Muslims together, many of the prominent Cabinet Ministers and Generals being Hindus. Further, the consolidation of the Moghul Empire in India was affected with the help of Hindu commanders-in-chief. The Commander-in-chief of Nawab Sirajudowla, whom the British fought at Plassey in 1757 and defeated, was a Hindu.’’ (Bose. S (ed). Netaji Collected Works Vol-1. p. 15)

To conclude, on January 23, when the Prime Minister will set up a jamboree, we must recall the real Netaji. And as secular, democratic Indians longing for socialism we must distance ourselves from the BJP’s (mis)appropriation of the great leader.

The author is an independent research scholar. The views are personal.

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