Friday, April 19, 2024

What’s the “Secret” in the Papers?

The declassification of some files on Netaji is an attempt by the strident Bengali bhadralok to lionize this leader and by the present central govt to use its contents to turn the screws on political rivals

By Sujit Bhar 



Sixty-four files pertaining to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose were declassified in Kolkata by Trina-mool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee recently. The files, comprising 12,000 pages, immediately became the talking point for Netaji conspiracy theorists. However, the only “shocking” information that the files have revealed is that the Bose family had been tailed by Intelligence Bureau sleuths—and, hence, by the ruling Congress party at the center—long after Independence.

Family members of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose presenting a portrait of Netaji to the Prime Minister
Family members of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose presenting a portrait of Netaji to the Prime Minister

That is intriguing because had Bose died in a Taiwan plane crash as has been explained for long, then, there was actually no need to put his family—political lightweights post-Independence—under constant surveillance even after the British left.

One can, of course, understand the hullabaloo over this declassification and the non-declassification of several other Top Secret and Very Secret files held in New Delhi archives, all on Bose. To put it bluntly, it is Bose, and not Jawaharlal Nehru or even Mahatma Gandhi, who is the lionized leader in West Bengal.

“The blunt truth is that even if all files are declassified, revealing ghastly secrets, none of its findings would be legally enforceable today.”
—Arunava Ghosh, former politician

To describe the mood, one just has to refer to a letter written by Netaji’s nephew Sishir Kumar Bose to Netaji’s wife, Emilie Schenkl, in 1955. He wrote: “If you were in India today, you would get the feeling that in India’s struggle two men mattered—(Mahatma) Gandhi and (Jawaharlal) Nehru. The rest were just extras.”

The reverence with which Netaji was held in West Bengal then is no different from what it is today. Mamata’s action in declassifying his files wasn’t just a political affront, it stemmed from a deep-rooted sense of alienation that Bengalis felt at being sidelined from mainline politics, post-Independence. Till the advent of CPM leader Jyoti Basu—and that too for a brief while in the latter stages of his political career when he called his not being promoted as prime minister a “historic blunder”—Bengal lacked a leader who was prime leadership material, and that rankled.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee

That is what keeps Netaji alive in the hearts of the strident Bengali bhadralok, who spew arguments and theories to no specific end. That is the mindset that keeps Netaji conspiracy theorists alive. Maybe there is fire somewhere if the smoke is so thick. That is what pushed members of the Bose family—relative nobodies—right into the mainstream of state politics.

“I am sure the current dispensation wishes to use its contents to turn the screws on its political rivals.”

—A retired political observer

But what do the declassified files actually tell? They are full of the inane to the mundane. Petty matters of the Bose family—the birth of a child, the growing up of Netaji’s daughter Anita Bose (Pfaff) and such—noted with care as if that was what state secrets look like.

Jyoti Basu
Jyoti Basu

Meanwhile, debate rages on about whether the Union government has any moral right now to hold on to the rest of the files. This, when it had promised before the elections in 2014 that it would declassify the files if it came to power.

As emotions run high, it is time to look at what possible positions one can take if very specific bits of information—and ghastly ones at that—are indeed contained in the yet-to-be declassified files. To objective eyes and ears, a total declassification would be welcome because that very act would add value to our democracy and to the history of the Freedom Movement.

Followers of Netaji organize a padyatra in Kolkata in April 2015, demandingrevelation of the truth regarding his death
Followers of Netaji organize a padyatra in Kolkata in April 2015, demanding revelation of the truth regarding his death

According to former politician and ace lawyer Arunava Ghosh, the declassification would “enrich history for sure, but the bogey of ‘relationships with foreign powers being spoiled’ is bunkum.” That is what the Union government has claimed in not agreeing to declassify the rest of the documents. He points to the acceptance of war crimes by Japanese soldiers in Korea. The result was a decorative “sorry”.

What does it all lead to?

The Netaji files bogey has been scripted by different “authorities” and “experts”. The Japanese turned against him, say some, especially since the timing was suspicious. Bose, then 48, allegedly died in a plane crash in Taiwan on August 18, 1945, three days after Japan’s surrender to the Allied Forces. Others are sure it was the Soviet Union—“Netaji went to Stalin for refuge, but the dictator sent Bose to Siberia instead and had him executed.” All, however, accept that the British would not be liable to say sorry, because “they were the original crime bosses anyway”.
“If it were the Russians,” says Ghosh, “it would be stupid for anybody to expect the dispensation of Vladimir Putin today to take any blame for that act. It would be stupid for any Indian agency, leave alone the government, to try and apportion such blame.” This, then, leads to a position where the government should not be worried about the fallout of the declassification anyway. While the declassification could lead to fingers being pointed at the Congress, the fact remains that Mamata has openly courted this party, specifically on the Bihar elections platform.

If Japan were responsible for Netaji’s death, then it would only have to repeat the Korea act and say “sorry”. That is because there is no legal option open today. According to Ghosh: “The blunt truth is that even if all files are declassified, revealing, in turn, ghastly secrets, none of its findings would be legally enforceable today. It is too late. According to Indian laws, a private claim is not tenable after 12 years, and a government claim, after 20 years.”

He brings up the Winston Churchill case. The-then British premier had routed all food grain from Bengal to war-torn UK in the early 1940s, leaving hundreds of thousands dead in villages and the streets of Calcutta. “Have we been able to do anything about this proven fact?” he asks. “What makes you think anything can be done about Bose’s death?”

“However, I salute the true patriotic spirit of Bose,” says Ghosh. “It has often been said by Gandhians from upcountry that our Independence came primarily through peaceful means, through satyagraha. They conveniently forget the huge amount of bloodshed that preceded Independence. Yes, these files must be declassified for the sake of history, because history deserves the truth,” he says.

“To objective eyes and ears, a total declassification would be welcome because that very act would add value to our democracy and to the history of the Freedom Movement.”

A retired political observer (formerly of the CPM) has a different angle. “I don’t believe the government’s theory that declassification would ‘prejudicially affect relations with foreign countries’,” he says. “I believe there would be stories of Indian political wrangles being revealed instead.”

Bose wrote a letter in 1939 to his nephew Amiya Nath Bose, where he said: “Nobody has done more harm to me than Jawaharlal Nehru.” But Bose was in politics, and he had to keep good relations with Nehru and he tried. Says the observer: “If you have to live in the water, you cannot afford to quarrel with the crocodile.”

So why would the Union government not declassify the rest of the files, held secret for over 60 years? “I am sure the current dispensation wishes to use its contents to turn the screws on its political rivals,” says the observer with a smile. “The same way that earlier dispensations had kept the lid tight on them.”

Ghosh says that in the end, the historical significance of the contents of the file could well justify opening them up for the public. “Where Netaji went, and how and where he died may still remain shrouded in mystery, but what we would come to know was where he stood vis-à-vis the political scenario of the country at that time. Historians would be able to draw a clearer picture of the Freedom Movement, and our leaders would show up to be more human, down from the pedestals we have put them on. That would be the gain.”


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