Although little known in the West, Subhas Chandra Bose has entered Indian history as “the most determined enemy of the British”. As such, he remains incredibly popular among the population despite his connections with the Nazis.
By refusing to fight alongside the UK in WWII, he made a choice radically opposed to those of Gandhi and Nehru. Going to the end of his logic, he set up an Indian National Army (INA) with which he attacked the British Indies on March 18, 1944, in support of the Japanese troops.
A romantic escape
He became mayor of Calcutta in 1930 and then took over the presidency of the Congress party in 1938-1939. He represented the most left wing of the party and opposed Gandhi over the methods to be used to pressure the British, disdaining his nonviolent philosophy.
Born in 1897, Bose is originally from Orissa, in eastern India, and grew up in Bengal. His political commitment and his rejection of British colonization led him to join the Indian National Congress in 1920.
In 1939, he formed his own party, the Forward Bloc, which stood out for its violently anti-British positions when war broke out. Positions that earned him to be thrown – for the 11th time! – into British jails in 1940.
Bose obtained his release after a hunger strike. The British intended to arrest him again as soon as he regained his strength but the nationalist leader managed to leave his house in Calcutta at night in disguise.
He traveled by train to Peshawar, then crossed the tribal territories of present-day northwest Pakistan on foot, posing as a deaf-mute. He thus managed to leave the British Raj (British India) and reach Kabul. From there, he joined Nazi Germany, via the USSR, still linked to Berlin by the non-aggression pact.
Any support is good to take
This man of socialist ideas saw the Axis powers as valuable allies for the conquest of Indian independence. German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop gave him assurance that he can count on his country’s help. However, Hitler gave him only very lukewarm support.
Bose’s first plan was to attack the Raj from the northwest. But the breaking of the German-Soviet pact made this option impossible. From the beginning of 1942, the Japanese advance in Southeast Asia allowed him to build a new strategy. About three million Indian civilians and many Indian soldiers, captured in Singapore and Malaysia, fell under Japanese control. Bose imagined enlisting these Indians in a “liberation army” which would enter India from the east.
In February 1943, he took the boat from Kiel to reach Asia. In the middle of the Indian Ocean, he was transferred from a German ship to a Japanese submarine. In May 1943, he was in Tokyo. He then put himself at the service of the Japanese, in exchange for their support for Indian independence. The Japanese welcomed this Indian with open arms, whose vision was compatible with the Japanese project of creating a “large area of Asian co-prosperity”.
A few months later, in October 1943, Bose proclaimed a Provisional Indian Government and created the Indian National Army (INA). He convinced a third of the men of the Indian Army prisoners of the Japanese to join this “liberation army”, as well as Indians working in the plantations of Southeast Asia.
From March 1944, at the head of his army, he fought the British alongside the Japanese in the Indian province of Assam. In fact, of the British, it is above all other Indian soldiers, loyal to the Indian Army, that the INA had to face. This military operation turned into a complete fiasco in a few weeks. However, his popularity was high in PAN India meaning across India, and a large part of the public was enthusiastic about the heroism of the Indian army fighting the British.
At the same time, the situation turns sour for the Japanese, pushed back into the Pacific by the Americans and into Burma by the British.
An ambiguous memory
In August 1945, a few days before the surrender of Japan, Bose fled Southeast Asia. He died in a mysterious plane crash over Taiwan. After the failure of the INA, the British wanted to try and convict some of its officers. Demonstrations that turned into a riot, especially in Calcutta, prevented them from doing so.
While some historians suspect him of fascist sympathies, Subhas Chandra Bose remains extremely popular today in India, and especially in Bengal. His name has even been given to Calcutta International Airport.
In a poll of the “60 Greatest Indians” in history, organized by the weekly India Today in 2008, Bose came in second, far ahead of Mahatma Gandhi. The Indians moreover remember him under the nickname of “Netaji”, the “respected chief”.