The 23rd of January marks the birthday of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose – one of the greatest (if these days, sadly unremembered by some) leaders of the Indian Independence movement. A Bengali by birth, Bose rose to prominence as a firebrand young leader of the Indian National Congress’s more radical factions (and, earlier, served as the head of its youth wing). A talented writer, he established the Swaraj [“Self-Determination”] newspaper; and used a variety of communicative means – including his considerable oratical prowess – to push the Nationalist message.
A rather serious brush with the law didn’t stop him; and it was only the heavy-handed intervention of seriously senior figures within the Congress movement (including Gandhi himself) which eventually forced Bose out of official office, and onto his own path.
This would prove to be a rather adventurous one (to say the least), which lead him to Nazi Germany – where he found a perhaps surprising degree of support and sympathy for the Indian Independence cause. The formation of the “Free Indian Legion” [and its later incorporation as a Waffen SS Division] soon followed, with a view to delivering by force what decades of attempted peaceful political engagement with the British had failed to achieve.
These Wartime activities have lead to something of a controversial reputation for Bose amidst those who know of him in the modern world. It is generally agreed even by his opponents and post-mortem detractors that he was an ardent patriot [Gandhi even declared “His patriotism is second to none”, despite their earlier serious differences of opinion]; although those less inclined to support him have attempted to assert off the back of both his dalliances with the AXIS Powers [having famously met everyone from Mussolini to Hitler], and the content of some of his speeches that Bose represented some sort of objectionable fascist.
Certainly, Bose’s political beliefs maintained an ardent emphasis upon both Nationalism and Socialism, and by necessity were sought to be implemented via a cavalier ‘charismatic authoritarianism’ which had quite the emphasis upon militaristic uniforms and the like.
But if we are to affix a label to what Bose believed, it is perhaps unhelpful to think purely in European terms [even if Bose himself was both conscious of, and open to adopting elements of European political thought where necessary]. “Samyavada” is one of the words most commonly affixed to Bose’s ideology – and is variously translated as either “socialism”, or [to use his own words] “synthesis” [here referring to the aformentioned “Nationalism”/”Socialism” synthesis – perhaps in a manner not entirely unlike the “National Bolshevik” thinkers of both the early 20th Century, and post-Soviet Russia today].
Decolonization struggles and post-colonial politics rarely align themselves neatly nor evenly to the prejudices and preferences of the colonizing context.
In any case, to regard Bose as ‘merely’ a useful collaborator for the Axis Powers (as many Western treatments of him seem to do), is both to neglect a fascinating and important figure, as well as to forcibly decontextualize him from his vital role in India’s Decolonization struggle.
That is to say – many of the actions which some 21st and 20th century observers find fault were, at the time, entirely understandable and explicable (indeed – empathizable) elements in the ongoing struggle against a foreign, implacable, and often quite brutally occupying power.
It is hard to blame him, in that light – and instead, quite easy to lionize.
In any case, Bose’s early life certainly proved him well-deserving of adjectives such as “principled”, “brilliant”, and “firebrand”.
But the epithet which has proven itself somewhat immortal – living on long after his (alleged) fiery death at the age of 48 – is the sobriquet which he was bestowed with by the troops of the Free India Legion:
It means “Great Leader” [“Ji” being an honorific for those of great stature within the community].
He certainly was.