August 14, 2011

JAPAN: Japan's unsung role in India's struggle for independence

TOKYO, Japan / The Japan Times / Life in Japan / August 14, 2011
Unlike minds: Mahatma Gandhi (left), the leading pacifist campaigner for Indian independence, speaks to the decidedly non-pacifist Subhas Chandra Bose in Haripura during the annual meeting of the Indian National Congress held there in 1938, when Bose was the organization's president.


Jon Mitchell explores the remarkable life and mysterious fate of Subhas Chandra Bose — the Indian revolutionary leader whose ashes may, or may not, now be interred in Tokyo


Nestled in the upmarket Wada district of Tokyo's Suginami Ward, Renkoji Temple is a model of gentility. On weekday mornings, pensioners sit and sketch its prayer hall while housewives chat quietly in the shade of its well-tended trees. Given this setting, it would be easy to mistake the bust of a bespectacled man on a plinth in the courtyard for that of a revered former priest or the founder of the local rotary club.

The reality couldn't be further from the truth, as the statue is of Subhas Chandra Bose — modern India's most infamous revolutionary hero.

During his lifelong struggle against the British Empire, Bose rubbed shoulders with Mahatma Gandhi, Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tojo — and his disappearance 66 years ago, on Aug. 18, 1945, stunned the world. Moreover, it is still causing controversy to this day.

Bose was born into a prosperous family in Orissa, eastern India, in 1897. Coming from an educated background, he had the opportunity to pursue a comfortable career in the ranks of the Indian civil service working for the British Raj. Instead, he dedicated himself to the seemingly impossible task of expelling the colonial occupiers from his homeland.

The decades in which Bose grew up were arguably the height of British misrule in India — three centuries of exorbitant taxation, unfair trade practices and rampant free-marketeering had led to the deaths of millions of Indians in preventable famines. Of those who survived, claims American historian Mike Davis in his 2002 book "Late Victorian Holocausts," their incomes in the late 19th century plummeted by more than half and "the life expectancy of ordinary Indians fell by a staggering 20 percent" — to something around 24 years by 1890.

In order to maintain its lucrative sovereignty over India, Britain refused to give ordinary citizens any voice in the governing of their own country. Starting in 1885, though, an organization named the Indian National Congress began to push for more power for Indian people.

As a young man with political aspirations, it was inevitable that, in the early 1920s, Bose would become active in that movement. Through his 20s, he established a reputation as a passionate orator, and found himself working alongside two of the National Congress's most influential — and pacifistic — leaders: Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Initially it seems that Bose tolerated the nonviolent approach both men espoused as the way to liberate India. But after Bose experienced British beatings, and a two-year prison term from 1925 which almost killed him, he became convinced that the only way to overthrow rulers prepared to resort to such brutality was for Indians to take up arms themselves.

Bose was not alone in his beliefs — his militancy won him so much support that, in both 1938 and 1939, he was elected president of the National Congress. Gandhi, however, disagreed with Bose, and by wielding his influence over the organization he managed to have Bose dismissed from the presidency.

After the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the British authorities were keen to stamp out any further threats to the Raj. In January 1941, they detained Bose and confined him to house arrest in Calcutta (present-day Kolkata).

Bose's subsequent escape has achieved mythic proportions in his home country. Absconding from beneath the eyes of his guards, he embarked on an epic journey to Afghanistan. Along the way, he disguised himself as an insurance agent, a deaf-mute and an Italian count to avoid capture and — according to intelligence files declassified in 2005 — assassination by British agents.

In April 1941, Bose arrived at his chosen destination — Berlin. Fascist, white-supremacist Germany might appear an unusual magnet for the left-leaning Indian leader, but for Bose, the struggle for an independent India outweighed all other ideological considerations. Indeed, he believed that Nazi Germany's war with Britain made the Reich a natural ally of India's.

Tokyo bound: The Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose sits second from left in the front row of this photograph taken in 1943 with crewmen of the Japanese submarine I-29 after he was transferred on board from the German submarine U-180 when the two vessels made a rendezvous 300 km southeast of Madagascar for that purpose.

In Berlin, Bose found a measure of sympathy from the Nazi regime. During its military campaigns in North Africa in the spring of 1941, Germany had seized 10,000 Indian soldiers serving with the British Army. Now it consigned these men to Bose to enable him, for the first time, to organize an all-Indian force of liberation.

Also factoring into Bose's decision to seek support from the Reich was a motive frequently downplayed by his modern admirers — the Indian's attraction to Hitler's brand of dictatorship.

Admiring the Fuhrer's cult of personality and the fanatical discipline he imposed on his subjects, Bose envisaged a similar role for himself in a postcolonial India. How happy he must have been then, when — during a meeting with Hitler in May 1942 — he was presented with a jewel-encrusted cigarette case which, some claim, he carried with him for the rest of his life. Equally revealing was the title that Bose bestowed on himself during his time in Germany: Netaji — a Hindi word meaning "Leader" or "Fuhrer."

In spite of Bose's respect for Hitler, the longer he remained in Germany the more frustrated he became. His plans to liberate his homeland depended on German forces defeating the Red Army and so opening a land route from Germany via Afghanistan to India. However, despite rapid advances following their invasion of Russia in the summer of 1941, the Nazi blitzkrieg ground to a halt in 1942 within sight of Stalingrad (present-day Volgograd) and Moscow. It was time for Bose to seek support closer to home.

Throughout the early 20th century, Imperial Japan had built up a strong legacy of patronage for Indian nationalist campaigns. In particular, viewing the British as an impediment to Japan's aspirations to dominate Asia, Tokyo had fostered revolutionary ties between South-East Asia's massive expatriate Indian communities.

During the period of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance (1902-23), this support remained largely covert, but with the end of the pact when Britain refused to extend it, Japan opened its doors to Indian revolutionaries seeking an end to British rule. Among these were A.M. Nair, who fled arrest by the British in India at age 18, and spent the rest of his life in Japan — and Rash Behari Bose, who likewise escaped to Tokyo after participating in a failed 1912 attempt to assassinate Britain's Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge.

In December 1941, Japan's designs on the British Empire in Asia became incontrovertible when its forces attacked and took Hong Kong — followed the next month by a rapid Japanese victory in Burma which put its troops on the very border of India. Then, with its stunning takeover of Singapore in February 1942 — a British defeat unparalled in numbers of prisoners taken — 45,000 Indian soldiers serving with the British military fell into Japanese hands.

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