A Warrior of Freedom
R. Nithya
-- by Sugata Bose Penguin Books, Delhi, 2014, 388 pp., 499
April 2014, volume 38, No 4

His Majesty’s Opponent tells the story of Subhas Chandra Bose whose life was as mysterious as his death was believed to be. While history text-books have limited his description to that of a warrior and a revolutionary in the Indian struggle for freedom, this bespectacled man with an innocent face has more to him than meets the eye, and much more to offer to the intellectual discourse on Indian politics.

Fondly called Netaji (reverend leader), Subhas’s tales of heroism takes so much space in the minds of his admirers that his sympathetic heart is shadowed by his fiery spirit. Historian Sugata Bose, the author of the book and the grand-nephew of Subhas Chandra Bose, perfectly balances the heart and the spirit of this revolutionary leader, revealing to the readers a picture of the legend in his entirety.

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The year 1897 was a tragic year in Indian history as it saw the country afflicted by an intense and widespread famine; the official death toll for which reached 4.5 million people. This began a debate between the colonial British and the Indian nationalists who saw the famine as a fatal consequence of poor economic policies implemented by the British. It was during this time in British India that Subhas Chandra Bose was born on the 23rd of January, into an upper-caste Hindu Bengali family in Cuttack, Orissa Division of the Bengal Province.

Bose has neatly divided Subhas’s biography into nine chapters—each about a major phase in Subhas’s life—with the inclusion of invaluable photographs and letters. The readings of Vivekananda charmed young Subhas and drove him to devotion towards goddess Kali and towards his country and its people. Sugata traces this devotion from the letters Subhas wrote to his mother during his teenage years.

Bose’s storytelling effortlessly takes the readers from one phase in Subhas’s life to another, and captures his journey from Cuttack to Calcutta and then to Cambridge. Going to Cambridge for a degree course in philosophy and to prepare for the Indian Civil Service (ICS) examination, which he later cleared with good scores, brought a change in the course of his life. Not only could he feel freedom in the air at Cambridge, but he now felt strongly about the lack of free expression back home in Calcutta. He was more politically aware now, and this awareness led him to make one of the many life-altering decisions in his life.

Upon resigning from the ICS, when Subhas came back to India in 1921, he met Gandhi in Bombay. Sugata notes that the Mahatma failed to impress Subhas. He was more impressed by Rabindranath Tagore and his positive thoughts on modern science. However, the person who had moved Subhas the most, so much so that he became his follower, was C. R. Das. About Das Subhas felt, ‘here was a man who knew what he was about’.

The book provides the readers a flavour of British India through Bose’s fine narration of the events preceding Independence by interspersing the text with lines from Subhas’s letters and journal entries. Bose also observes that Subhas’s essays about Das following his death reflected Subhas’s own politics and views on religion and secularism that became more apparent later in his political as well as personal life. He writes that Subhas’s idea of secularism was, unlike that of his great contemporary Nehru not about separation of religion from politics, but a sense of rapprochement, acceptance and respect for religious differences.

Subhas’s time in Mandalay prison had given him a new status in the minds of the Indian public who now slowly started to see him as a national leader. In his public speeches upon his release from jail, Subhas spoke at length about the condition of women, lower castes and labour classes, about democracy and ‘cultural intimacy’.

Bose points out that the first of many to come differences between the rebellious Subhas and the Mahatama emerged when Subhas demanded ‘complete independence’ as against Gandhi’s demand for ‘dominion status’. Subhas was in a way always a step ahead of his contemporaries. Bose has handled Subhas’s relationship with Gandhi very sensitively. Although Subhas had immense respect for the Mahatma, it was out of character for him to unquestioningly obey any form of authority. However, after Independence was achieved and the horrors of Partition were witnessed, Gandhi was sidelined and helpless. Sugata’s lines here are extremely poignant: As the partitioner’s axe was about to fall, the Mahatma may have missed the rebellious son whom he had cast aside in 1939 in favour of more obedient followers. Gandhi stood as a tragic lonely figure during the communal holocaust that accompanied partition. The saint and the warrior acting in concert may have had a better chance of averting the catastrophe that engulfed the subcontinent in 1947. But this was not to be.

After another arrest and another incident of deteriorating health, Subhas was released only to be sent to Europe for treatment. His three years exile in Europe brought into his life Emilie Schenkl, the woman he fell in love with and secretly married. Bose’s brief yet beautiful account of Subhas’s love story with Emilie is a pleasurable break from reading about Subhas’s busy public life. Subhas was not only a great orator, but a man who could make great contacts. His exile in Europe gave him time to make new friends and gather international support for India’s independence. By the time, he came back to India, Subhas was already a popular leader.

Bose gives a thrilling account of Subhas’s escape from India during his house arrest in 1940. In his quest for freedom for his country, Subhas joined hands with the Führer himself, believing that a defeat of Britain in the Second World War would automatically lead to independence. This decision would cost him his reputation even after his death. As Bose writes, ‘By going to Germany because it happened to be at war with Britain, he ensured that his reputation would long be tarred by the opprobrium that was due to the Nazis. A pact with the devil: such was the terrible price of freedom.’ Bose also believes that if independence was achieved through such means, Subhas, as opposed to what is contended by his critics, would not have become a dictator as he had renounced such worldly enticements. His only mission in life was to free India from the shackles of western imperialism.

Although sometimes Bose seems to go out of his way to justify Subhas’s decision to seek help from Hitler, his chapter on ‘The Terrible Price of Freedom’ is an extremely well-researched and detailed account of a series of events in Subhas’s fight for Independence. The narration about the formation of the Indian Legion, Subhas’s persuasive eloquence to win over Indian prisoners of war in Italy, his journey from Germany to Japan in a German submarine, his leadership and strategies in the Indian National Army (INA), his setting up of a provisional government in Singapore, runs smooth, unlike the life-story of this hero.

The INA faced defeat in Imphal, and soon after Subhas died a tragic death, as narrated by his companion on the plane, Habibur Rahman, when the Japanese bomber they were travelling in crashed. Subhas’s companions in the INA believed Habibur Rahman’s account of the death of their leader as all evidence pointed to it. It was the admirers of Subhas back home in India who went into denial. Long after his death and after Independence, subsequent governments had re-investigated the case of his death.

Bose’s biography of Subhas Chandra Bose is both exciting and poignant. His Majesty’s Opponent is a complete life story of a man in history, who was convinced of what he believed his life’s mission was, and fought for it until death. Despite his critics charging him for siding with the Axis powers, his fans continue to admire him. As Bose writes, ‘Whenever justice is threatened, wherever freedom is menaced, he continues to be invoked.’

R. Nithya is a New Delhi-based journalist.


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