The Toxic Cult of Bose

by Jeremy Becker

“It is well that Indians are unable to look at their country directly, for the distress they would see would drive them mad. And it is well that they have no sense of history, for how then would they be able to continue to squat amid their ruins, and which Indian would be able to read the history of his country for the last thousand years without anger and pain?”.

These words written by the Nobel prize-winning novelist V.S. Naipaul in his 1964 book An Area of Darkness succinctly captures India’s troubled relationship with its past.  Naipaul’s notion of India as a “Wounded Civilisation” articulated in a trilogy of books in the 1960s and 1970s, of a creative and majestic Classical Indic Antiquity laid low by a millennia of plunder by foreign invaders, a once proud people trampled on into pliant submission and grovelling obsequiousness, violently severed from their ancient vitality and self-confidence, continues to prominently feature in the rhetoric of the nations’ governing party, the Hindu-sectarian Bhartiya Janata Party. 

Last month Prime minister Narendra Modi unveiled a colossal statue of independence fighter Subhash Chandra Bose under the grand canopy beside India Gate in the nation’s capital. Inaugurating the Subcontinental Ozymandias, a towering and unapologetically militarist sculpture frozen in a martial salute he declared:

“It was unfortunate that after independence, efforts were made to erase the contribution of several great personalities, along with the culture and heritage of the country. […] Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose gave India the confidence to achieve an independent and prosperous country. With great pride, self-confidence and courage, he told the British that I will not take independence as alms, I will achieve it. He was the person who established the first independent government on Indian soil.”.

The statue fills a spot in the middle of Lutyen’s grandiloquent administrative metropolis opened in 1931 in the twilight of the British Raj where once stood a statue of George V, the only British monarch to have visited India during British rule. From independence in 1947 until 1968 the statue had been left untouched, India’s first prime minister the heavily anglicised Harrovian Jawaharlal Nehru, despite his dogged opposition to colonial rule, unable to bring himself to removing a monument he saw as inseparably bound up with the nation’s long and infinitely rich and cosmopolitan history. From 1968 the statue was removed by the government of his more audacious daughter Indira and in its place left an empty spot, the nation unable yet to discard its colonial heritage or rally around a single unifying figure beyond the over-sanctified Gandhi whose memorials litter the width and breadth of the subcontinent. The decision to install the colossus of Bose reflects a new regime intent on reclaiming India’s past and reshaping the narrative not just of its ancient glory, medieval and colonial victimhood but also of its independence struggle. The redecoration then marks a decisive move in the nation’s broader conflict over its history and identity. 

The installation of the statue is itself part of a wider plan to redesign New Delhi’s administrative centre. The original city, the brainchild of Edwin Lutyens who drew on India’s classical heritage to produce a monument to imperial grandeur as well as India’s civilisational richness is a sublime amalgamation of Buddhist, Indic, Mughal and Neoclassical design. On the orders of Hardinge the commissioning Viceroy, it was to be built “in accordance with Indian sentiments” and in the words of Lutyens intended for India to “represent her amazing sense of the supernatural, with its complement to profound fatalism and enduring patience”. His assistant Herbert Baker likewise boasted the new capital united “for the first time through the centuries all races and religions of India”. In his attempt to divorce his “New India” from the Raj-descended Congress establishment, Modi has announced the parliament will become a museum to democracy and a new presidential mansion shall be erected, a triangular building that disfigures the city’s original layout.  This reconfiguring of the capital’s iconography and architecture is a deliberate act, a symbolic severance from the past and a conceited declaration of a New India, one that will reject the identity India has held since independence.  

Bose, largely forgotten in western history books because of his premature end in a plane crash in 1945, was a politician turned soldier who in an uncompromising effort to oust the British from India sought an alliance first with Hitler travelling to Germany via Russia and then with Imperial Japan, recruiting an “Indian National Army” to fight alongside the infamous Imperial Japanese Army as it rampaged through Asia terrorising civilians from the Philippines to Burma before being repelled by a gallant effort of the British Indian Army at Imphal in 1944. Bose then, though his plot to free India from British rule failed, stands in contrast to its other leaders in the independence movement, the pacifist Gandhi and his passive resistance and non-violent civil disobedience and the liberal Nehru who, albeit reluctantly, supported the British war effort against the Axis powers out of his belief in democracy and repulsion at fascism. In the decades after independence, when an Anglophone upper-caste elite attached to ideas of Westminster parliamentary democracy, secularism and Fabian socialism they had absorbed in the Oxbridge of the interwar years ran India with much the same viceregal pomposity and elitist detachment as their British predecessors, the attitude towards Bose was one of at best, ambivalence. Over half a century later in the India of Modi, a low-caste self-made man rose to the highest office, where populist sectarianism and unrepentant ultranationalism pervade the political landscape, the reaction to the statue has been one of almost unanimous enthusiasm. Besides the facile protests of the nation’s liberal intelligentsia now marginalised in the popular discourse, the cult of Bose is almost universal, built on a febrile mix of amnesia and myth-making. In putting up this statue India has become not only the only nation to honour an Axis collaborator in the middle of its capital but also physically rewritten its national identity, substituting the westernised democratic play by the rules of Nehru and the pacifist Gandhi for the fascist collaborator Bose as its national hero.

Central to the new narrative surrounding the nation’s independence struggle is the notion that the Indian contribution to the Second World War, where 2.7 million Indians volunteered as professional soldiers to fight for the Allied cause proved decisive in overcoming a murderous Japanese military machine that had swallowed up swathes of China, Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indochina, Burma and now threatened to enter India itself was nothing more than an act of colonial servitude, puppets and mercenaries fighting in a quarrel between European empires. Remarkable for its blinkered eurocentrism in viewing the Second World War both as a European conflict and as merely a battle between empires rather than competing visions of society and geopolitics, it manages to both deny millions of heroic Indians their agency but also excise from the popular memory a central role that India played in creating and enabling the realisation of a new World Order built on the ideas of liberal democracy. Not only did Indian soldiers win 22 of the 34 Victoria and George crosses in the Burma campaign but the Japanese in Assam and Manipur in 1944 and in Burma in 1945 were defeated by an Army that was 87% Indian. The attempt to substitute in the popular memory and official history the contributions of the British Indian army with the failed and morally compromised actions of Bose and the INA then is designed to discredit India’s Congress-led establishment and India’s Nehruvian and Gandhian origins as extensions of a colonial and alien ruling class.  By attacking India’s founding history, Modi is recasting the identity of the republic.

Secondly, it postulates that Bose was somehow responsible for frightening the British over the possibility of a naval and army mutiny and therefore for expediting independence. In reality, Bose’s revolt failed miserably and his INA attracted only a meagre 62,000 troops many of them captured prisoners of war from the British-run army. Likewise, it was if anything the Indian war effort which liberated much of Asia from Japanese terror that completed the independence campaign not its attempted subversion. 

Lastly, ahistorical comparisons are made between the Axis powers and the British Empire. In a world where British rule was equivalent to Nazi Germany and Fascist Japan, Bose’s actions were both understandable and morally justified. Central to this particular narrative is a dishonest account of the Bengal famine of 1943 and Britain and Churchill’s culpability in it, a myth that has been indulged not just by jingoistic Hindutvavadis but also cynical Congress Party politicians. The famine of 1943, caused by the combination of a cyclone, war-time shortages, Marwari merchants hoarding grain to embarrass the Muslim-led government of Bengal and the Japanese invasion of Burma which dislocated the supply chain of rice into the region, is now presented as a genocidal policy of Churchill rather than in actuality brought about ironically by the actions of Bose’s allies the Japanese. Churchill, although heavily prejudicial in his attitude towards Indians and a long-time opponent of Indian independence, was not to blame for the famine, a view shared by Indian Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen. In this mythology, Bose was India’s pragmatic hero, using the Japanese to drive the British, led by a Hitlerite Churchill out of India, undermined by unpatriotic sepoys and comprador Nehruvians. In truth, Bose was a fascist fellow-traveller and Axis pawn who while complicit in Japanese war crimes did little for India’s independence. Writing on India’s political future in 1944 he declared “Our philosophy should be a synthesis between National Socialism and communism”. This indifference to and deliberate obscuring of Bose’s fascist sympathies and his authoritarian ideology reveal much about the governing party’s narrative war.

Such revisionism is central to the BJP’s project of reshaping India into a confident and unapologetic Hindu Rashtra (Nation). In order to do this, the party has seized opportunistically upon the global decolonial zeitgeist, extending this project of ‘decolonisation’ not just to British rule from which India has its traditions of liberalism and secularism among other things, but also its long 700 period of Islamic rule, attempting to recapture a lost and pure Hindu Golden Age unspoilt by foreign invasions and migrations. The logical conclusion of this is a dismantling of the nation’s endlessly rich culture of syncretism and pluralism, and an intensification of the sectarianism and inter-communal violence that has waxed and waned in the subcontinent since the first 10th century invasions of Muslim Turks from Central Asia. Now endorsed tacitly by the state, it threatens to take even more sinister forms. While much has been written about the plight of the nation’s Muslim minorities faced with such a government, little thought has been to its consequences for the nation’s body politic as a whole. Such rhetoric, which is characteristic of all such movements, veers incoherently between triumphalist chauvinism and incontinent self-pity will do lasting damage to India’s civil society. In imbuing Hinduism with the same frothing intemperate jingoism that has ruinously bedevilled the politics of the Islamic World in the last half-century, it risks jeopardising India’s rise in the 21st century. The BJP’s glorification of Bose and their plans to remodel Delhi both speak of a project that will discard many facets of India’s identity, both as a key member of the Liberal International Order and as a pluralistic civilisation. The widespread acceptance and even jubilation at the Bose statue suggests that this transformation may already have been completed.    

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.


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