KOLKATA: Shakti Narayan, 77, sitting in the bedroom of his house in the city’s Kushtia suburb, listened intently to an old gramophone record playing Shubh Sukh Chaina ki Barkha Barse’, the Hindustani language translation of Jana Gana Mana’, which was the national anthem of the Arzee Hukumat-I-Azad-Hind’ set up by legendary freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose on this date in war-torn Singapore, some 78 years ago.
Narayan was barely a year-old when his father and many other Indians secretly tuned into radio broadcasts by the Provisional Government of Free India’ as its small army progressed through the swampy forests of Myanmar towards Kohima and Imphal.
It was eventually overwhelmed by larger allied forces after a series of valiant battles, putting an end to the Azad Hind government, which though not the only provisional government set up by an Indian freedom fighter, was the first which had an army and all the trappings of a state.
However, the romance of a government formed abroad with its own army, currency, postal stamps, radio station, flag and anthem caught the imagination of generations hence, and its popular leader was catapulted to the role of a soldier-statesman in popular perception.
Said Sumantra Bose, professor of international and comparative politics and Director of Netaji Bhavan, India’s freedom movement threw up a galaxy of leaders, foremost of them being Gandhi, whom Bose himself named the Father of the Nation’. But only one of them, Subhas Bose, emerged as a soldier-statesman in the eyes of people.
The iconic statue of Bose that Kolkata Municipal Corporation commissioned sculptor Nagesh Yoglekar to make in the 1960s, and which stands at the five- point crossing in Kolkata’s busy Shyambazar area, has the popular freedom fighter dressed in the uniform of the Indian National Army, seated on a prancing horse.
Bose, who had learnt horse riding as a young man, mostly drove cars during World War 2 when the Azad Hind government, which was modelled on the Irish and Czech provisional governments, was formed.
However, this new narrative stuck and Indians discarded his earlier image of a firebrand politician dressed in dhoti-kurta with a shawl stylishly swung across his shoulder. Garishly produced calendars with Bose dressed in military uniform hang from walls of roadside cafes and in many Kolkata homes side-by-side, with fading photographs of poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore and Goddess Kali.
His sobriquet Netaji’ given by INA soldiers also overtook the Subhas Babu’ commonly used to address him during his days as a Congress leader in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Netaji Stadium, Netaji Sporting, Netaji Youth Club, Netaji Mess, Netaji Book Depot, colleges, roads and quarters named after Netaji’ and not Subhas, dot the city, and make him a powerful larger-than-life icon, which most political parties vie to appropriate.
Forward Bloc, the party which he founded even though it is fading in an afterlife, exists in pockets of Bengal for the most part by clinging on to his legacy.
The Congress of which Bose was twice president and the party he was forced to quit, uses his name on its websites and podiums.
The BJP, whose predecessor Hindu Mahasabha’s ideology was often attacked by Bose as communal , too, has tried to claim his legacy as has its arch-rival in Bengal the Trinamool Congress.
Even India’s Communists, who at one time famously called him a Quisling for having accepted the help of fascist governments in Germany and Japan, have not shied away from using his name or addressing him as Netaji’.
Well-known political commentator Sumit Mitra Each political party uses one aspect of his or his Government’s ideology to suit their political need more often than not other aspects of what he stood for are glossed over.
However, the legacy of his provisional government, which was mostly recognised by Axis powers and the President of the Irish Republic, really lies in thinking way ahead of its time, stressing the principle of secularism, women’s rights, and in helping break down caste and religious barriers at a time when society was stratified and conservative.
If you look back from today’s perspective, how he (Bose) and his provisional government united all religious and linguistic groups by assuring equal rights, destroyed the British-created myth of martial races by recruiting from all classes of Indians, set up a women’s regiment, stopped caste-based kitchens.
These were powerful, important legacies that were created, said Sugata Bose, grandnephew of Subhas Bose and former MP, in an interview to PTI earlier this year.
Agreed Ambassador TCA Raghavan, former High Commissioner to Singapore and Pakistan and author of several acclaimed popular contemporary history books, Netaji and his provisional government set high standards of secular amity, which left a lasting impact.
Among true stories which have become part of Singapore’s folklore is that of Bose visiting the island’s famous Chettiar Temple set up by the rich mercantile community of emigres from Tamil Nadu, only after the orthodox community agreed to open up the temple to people of all religions and caste.
The Chettiars wanted to donate to the INA war effort, but also desired that Subhas Bose visit the temple. He refused, complaining that the temple practiced orthodoxy and did not allow people of all castes and religion to enter.
Ultimately, the temple authorities bowed down and urged him to visit with officers drawn intentionally from among Hindus, Muslims and Christians, setting an example of inclusiveness, explained Raghavan.
While these legacies may have been blurred with time, the statue at Kolkata’s Shyambazar, which is perpetually surrounded by a whirl of traffic and the strains of Shubh Sukh , remain as symbols of the icon and the provisional government he set up, in the minds of most of his countrymen.