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Netaji's grandnephew: 'Hard to reconcile Nehru with spying against our family'

By Indrani Roy
Last updated on: April 20, 2015 16:14 IST
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Nehru at the Netaji museum


'The evidence about a plane crash that killed Netaji is quite strong.'

'None of the files that I read bear any evidence that it was Nehru who ordered this kind of intrusive surveillance.'

Harvard historian Sugata Bose, Subhas Chandra Bose's grandnephew, discusses the reports that his family was under surveillance for 20 years.

Two declassified Intelligence Bureau files recently revealed that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's nephews Sisir Kumar Bose and Amiya Nath Bose, his brother Sarat Chandra Bose's sons, were spied upon for 20 years between 1948 and 1968.

The files, now with the National Archives, stated that IB sleuths intercepted and copied letters written by the Bose family and even trailed them on foreign tours.

According to a report in India Today magazine, all family letters were copied and some were shared with M L Hooja and Rameshwar Nath Kao.

Hooja headed the IB in 1968. R N Kao founded the Research and Analysis Wing (India's external intelligence agency) in 1968.

Jawaharlal Nehru was prime minister for 16 of these 20 years.

Indrani Roy/ caught up with Harvard Professor Sugata Bose, below, left, at his south Kolkata home.

During the interview, Professor Bose -- Subhas Chandra Bose's grand-nephew and now a Trinamool Congress MP, spoke not only about the "disgraceful surveillance," but also about the "baseless rumours" about Netaji's death.

Professor Bose, who teaches history at Harvard, has authored a book on Netaji, His Majesty's Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose and India's Struggle against Empire.

You have read the files, right?

Yes, I have. I went to the National Archives and read them.

Do these revelations shock you?

We knew two of the houses where Netaji lived -- 38/2 Elgin Road and 1, Woodburn Park -- were under strictest surveillance by the British in pre-Independence times.

My father (Sisir Kumar Bose) told me that he was closely shadowed in the 1940s before his imprisonment in the Red Fort, Lahore Fort and Lyallpur Jail.

We knew perfectly well that both the Elgin Road and Woodburn Park houses were blanketed by British Intelligence and security cover in December 1940 and January 1941 when Netaji's great escape was being planned.

I have seen records in the British archives that at least 14 intelligence agents were keeping an eye and reporting on the Elgin Road house.

Therefore, my father and Netaji had to fool British Intelligence to orchestrate the leader's escape from Calcutta.

It was my father who secretly drove his uncle to Gomoh on the night of January 16-17, 1941.

However, we did not know that intrusive surveillance continued in free India as well for as long as 20 years.

We knew that some shadowing continued till the late 1940s and till the time my grandfather Sarat Chandra Bose was alive. (He passed away on February 20, 1950.)

My mother told me that in 1958, when my father wanted to renew his passport prior to his travel to the United States, there was an inordinate delay.

After getting it at the last moment, he came to know that his name was blacklisted by the British rulers and the government of Independent India had inadvertently forgotten to remove it from the list post Independence.

Now, after all these years, we come to know that my father's movements in the US, Europe and later to Japan were being monitored for long after 1947.

It is also revealed to us that the letters that he wrote to his aunt Emilie Schenkl (Netaji's wife) where he mentioned that he would visit Vienna, were opened and read before the recipient.

Sugata BoseHow has your family taken it?

It is most disgraceful that letters written by a freedom fighter of my father's stature, who happened to be Netaji's nephew, was being opened, read and copied.

Such intrusive surveillance definitely puts a blot on the quality of India's democracy.

We are saddened. We are somewhat amused too.

We often talk among ourselves that had our father known he was considered such a big 'threat' as he appeared to be, he should have joined politics then instead of looking after the children of this country.

Why do you think such surveillance was necessary?

The reasons are not clear from the declassified files. The home ministry must come out with a statement on this. The ministry must be knowing who ordered this surveillance. As for us, we can only speculate on the causes.

First, I think as some habits of the post-colonial bureaucracy and the police die hard, some pre-Independence activities might have continued for a while after Independence.

But that factor alone does not explain 20 years of espionage.

Second, my father set up the Netaji Research Bureau in 1957. The files show that the letters that he wrote to Netaji's associates in different parts of the world asking for letters, documents, photographs, relics, relating to him were opened and read.

My father had even invited veterans of the Indian National Army founded by Netaji to speak and record their memoirs in this city.

The government might have apprehended that he was doing all these to throw up a political challenge of some sort.

But the intercepted letters clearly indicate that my father was only interested in preserving the best traditions of the freedom movement, recording its history and Netaji's great contribution to it.

Third, even though by 1956, the government had had strong evidence of Netaji's death in a plane crash in August 18, 1945 submitted by the Shahnawaz Committee, there could have been some amount of doubt in some minds.

We have to understand the psychological atmosphere of the 1950s and '60s.

Some people of India, especially Netaji's followers, hoped against hope that their favourite leader might have carried out a great escape once again.

A few sections of the government harboured a doubt that he might return.

Was your family happy with the findings of the Shahnawaz Committee formed to probe Netaji's death?

The evidence about a plane crash that killed Netaji -- as stated in the Shahnawaz Committee report -- is quite strong.

Testimony by six or seven crash survivors, doctors who attended to Netaji and statement by Netaji's Japanese interpreter Juchi Nakamura are vivid and convincing.

Habibur Rahman, Netaji's only Indian companion on that flight, came all the way from Pakistan to give evidence a few times.

The Khosla Commission, that worked from 1970 to 1974, had access to fewer witnesses as by that time some of them had either passed away or were untraceable.

Conclusions of both these bodies were broadly correct.

But many Indians in the 1950s and 1960s yearned for Netaji to return and solve the political problems that the country suffered from.

Therefore, one needs to make a distinction between what actually happened in August 1945 and the emotions of the people of India.

When the news of the plane crash came, my father was in Lyallpur Jail and my grandfather in a prison in south India.

As it transpires from their letters and diaries, they initially accepted the tragedy with grief on my grandfather's part and fortitude on my father's.

It is possible, however, that they nurtured a tiny hope that Netaji might have survived the crash.

After reading the Shahnawaz Committee's 'persuasive' report thoroughly, my father went to Japan and Taiwan in 1965 (the IB was following his movements even then as the files say so now).

After making enquiries himself in those countries, his doubts were allayed.

My father believed that Netaji was the only front rank leader of the Indian Independence movement who laid down his life at the battlefield.

What about 'reports' of Netaji being alive surfacing at regular intervals? What about conspiracy theories about that plane crash?

These completely basless reports about Netaji being alive always upset my father a lot.

Rumour mills had it that he was leading the life of a sadhu in Uttar Pradesh. My father felt all these were a gross insult to the great leader.

According to him, some opportunists were taking advantage of a popular sentiment only to draw attention.

Media reports said Justice M K Mukherjee of the Mukherjee Commission (the third committee that probed Netaji's death from 1999 to 2005) had confirmed that the Taiwan government denied any such crash on August 18, 1945.

Regarding these reports about Netaji's death, my father would always say that these were the issues that helped opportunists have a field day.

In fact, once the Mukherjee Commission asked for 1 ml of my blood to run a DNA test with one sadhu in Faizabad which it believed to be none other than Netaji. I refused to do so as I felt it would be a gross insult to Netaji's contributions.

Justice Mukherjee later went public stating that he believed this hermit was Netaji. These are fanciful stories.

My father would always say, 'Let us focus on his life and work. The future generation has a lot to learn from Netaji's book of life.'

He did not want young Indians to only ask whether Netaji died in that plane crash. He ensured that everything about Netaji was preserved. Files that are open now show what honourable work my father was doing.

What is dishonourable, however, is that the government was keeping a close watch on it.

Fingers are being pointed at Jawaharlal Nehru for this surveillance.

We are puzzled. The intelligence of Nehru's era was spying on my father and was keeping a watch on his work surrounding the Netaji Research Bureau.

Nehru himself visited the Netaji Research Bureau in 1961 and was shown around the museum and archives by my father.

I, a child then, was present there. We have beautiful photographs of that visit.

Nehru praised my father's work and since the foreign ministry was under him, he offered to help my father in culling materials from abroad. Nehru and my father shared warm and cordial ties.

Whenever my father visited New Delhi, Nehru would invite him for breakfast or ask him to attend Parliament sessions. I have heard stories of the two sharing a smoke or two.

When Nehru visited my grandfather's Woodburn Park home as a guest before Independence, my father was asked to get Markovich black and white cigarettes for him.

As Nehru was very particular about what he ate, he would ask my father to have half of a sandesh offered to him.

Once during a visit to Parliament, Nehru asked my father if he smoked.

'Occasionally,' came my father's reply. It was a lie. For he was quite a heavy smoker then.

'Is this an occasion?' Nehru asked.

'Could be,' my father had said. And the two started smoking.

'I am under so much strain these days that I am smoking a lot,' Nehru told my father and casually mentioned that 'Subhas did not smoke when he was in India.'

'But I saw him smoking heavily while he was in south-east Asia, especially amid the war.'

It is so hard for us to reconcile Nehru's warm and friendly attitude with the espionage carried out by the intelligence agencies of that time.

Isn't it possible that political equations might have changed Nehru's attitude towards Netaji? Some analysts think that there has been too much of media hype...

I don't actually disagree with the analysts. The media is typically presenting allegations and rumours as news.

But since I have read the files, I know that espionage was being conducted from 13, Lord Sinha Road in Kolkata and the reports were being sent to highly placed Intelligence Bureau officials in New Delhi.

The name of Mr Kao crops up in the files over and over again.

However, none of the files that I read bear any evidence that it was Nehru who ordered this kind of intrusive surveillance.

I came across only one document where Nehru asked our ambassador in Japan through his then foreign secretary what our uncle was doing in Japan in 1957.

But that is understandable as Nehru visited Japan around the same time and went to the Renkoji Temple in Tokyo, where the ashes of Netaji are kept.

As prime minister, Nehru had every right to seek that information and it was far different from shadowing someone.

There are a lot of papers on Netaji which are still classified by the government...

My view is that the government now must take swift action and open up all the files that are more than 50 years old to put an end to unnecessary speculation and conspiracy theories.

If the setting up of a committee is the beginning of a very swift process, it is okay.

But I also wish to point out that it was the predecessors of the officials of the home department and the Intelligence Bureau that carried out the surveillance on our family.

Who constitutes the government committees -- the officials of the home department, Intelligence Bureau, Prime Minister's Office and R&AW. R&AW did not exist in the 1950s.

But people who carried out the surveillance on our family, the files reveal, later on became the head honchos of India's foreign intelligence agency.

One must remember that these babus that had so long opposed the opening of these files.

The government's excuse that declassifying some files may affect India's relations with friendly foreign countries is not a credible one.

I wrote in my book on the basis of British documents in British archives how Winston Churchill's government ordered the assassination of Subhas Chandra Bose in 1941. But that hasn't affected our ties with the United Kingdom.

We are mature enough not to blame the present generation for the mistakes of the British colonial masters.

Hence, the government has to declassify these files irrespective of how sensitive they might have been years ago.

It is possible as a result of the opening of these files, some political leaders, bureaucrats, senior police officers may not come out in very good light in terms of what they were doing.

We must understand that there is nothing sensitive in the content of the files that have already been opened.

What if the government refuses?

To borrow Prime Minister Narendra Modi's words, I am not begging. I have made a public demand, a legitimate one.

It is the responsibility of the government and the prime minister to heed and take necessary steps at the earliest.

Image: Then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru at the Netaji Research Bureau with Sisir Bose. Courtesy: Sugata Bose


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Indrani Roy / in Kolkata
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