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Modi’s Aim Isn’t to Pay Tribute to Netaji and the INA But to Put Mahatma Gandhi in His Place

Modi’s Aim Isn’t to Pay Tribute to Netaji and the INA But to Put Mahatma Gandhi in His Place

The central figure of the national movement was the man assassinated on January 30, 1948 precisely because he was the central figure. It was the first act in a brazen conspiracy to appropriate the freedom movement by forces who played no part in it. We are seeing the second and third acts now.

There is a species of middle class Indian who has never quite gotten over the feeling that we got our independence too cheaply. Ahimsa does not quite make the grade with them – they would rather that Indians had fought it out with guns and bombs to overthrow the British.

This is the mind-set which is now seeking to elevate the role of the Indian National Army in India’s freedom struggle. The man who led the struggle, Subhas Chandra Bose, is one of the towering leaders of our independence movement, who along with equally tall figures helped shaped the circumstances in which the British finally departed, albeit peacefully. But in the end, Bose’s effort to liberate India through the instrument of war failed.

There are  nations which got their independence through  armed struggle, but they have also paid a terrible price. According to Rana Mitter, some 14 million Chinese died in the 1937-1945 war against Japan.  A million plus people died in Vietnam from 1955 to 1975. The Algerian freedom movement (1954-62) saw  some 0.5 to 1.5  million people killed in a population of 8 million. The estimates for Bangladesh’s struggle in 1975  go anywhere from 300,000-500,00, though what the figure would have been, if a neighbouring army had not intervened, is difficult to say.

These deaths were violent, sometimes accompanied by starvation,  torture and rape and the deep scars of that experience have not gone away. To escape such a fate – on top of all the suffering the people had endured because of colonialism – was a special blessing for India. And this was as much due to the Mahatma’s ahimsa strategy, as the British realisation after the war that they were not in a position to either control the country or indefinitely repress its people.

Those who saw death and destruction in their freedom struggle would envy India. But the problem is with many who have some kind of a perverted nostalgia for a violent nationalism. The reality is that India has not known a real war for a long time. Parts of UP, Bihar and MP did go through the 1857 experience where entire regions were laid to waste, but otherwise, Indians suffered from famine and disease in the British rule, not war. Post independence, north-western India saw large-scale violence and displacement.

The wars that India fought after independence have been short border skirmishes with limited military casualties and virtually no civilian casualties. “Real” war is the one Iraq and Iran fought in 1980-88, or the Vietnamese fought with the US, or what the Iraqis and Afghans experienced at the hands of the US. Only an insane person would wish the country to go through their experience.

Our independence movement was multi-faceted. In it were constitutionalists like the early founders of the Congress Party, the so-called early “terrorists” like Khudiram Bose, revolutionary socialists like Bhagat Singh and others, the militant Ghadar rebels and the Indian Independence League,  the advocates of civil disobedience like Nehru and Patel, and those who took to arms –  like Bose and his associates. All of them made enormous personal sacrifices, some were executed, others exiled or spent long years in jail. The one group that stayed away from all this is the Hindutvavadis, who are now trying to appropriate credit.

From the 1930s onwards all these forces jointly contributed to shape  an environment that eventually persuaded the British to go. As is infamously known, 150,000 British had ruled 300 million Indians and so the British knew that there were limits to ruling by repression. This became increasingly evident with the Quit India movement of 1942 which the British easily suppressed, but which was an alarm bell warning the British of a social and political breakdown that could, in the ultimate analysis, endanger them.

Bose’s bold move to ally with Germany and Japan would have been a masterstroke if he had had a better understanding of Nazism and Japanese imperialism. Both were predatory movements which carried out some of the worst war crimes of the century and the world is better off with their defeat. To think some good would have come out from an association with them strains credibility. Japanese pan-Asianism was skin-deep as not only the people in Korea and China learnt, but the people of our own Andaman & Nicobar Islands. As for the Nazis, their Aryan notions most certainly did not include any truck with India or support for Indian independence.  The minuscule INA could not operate independent of the Japanese forces, and eventually surrendered, along with the Japanese.

The British would have been quite  comfortable in 1945 having defeated the Japanese and the INA and, for that matter the Quit India movement, but they had already felt the earth shaking from beneath their feet in India.

The historian Patrick French has written, based on his study of the British Indian Political Intelligence (IIPI) papers, that  by the early 1940s, “the British realized rule in the subcontinent had been destabilized to a fatal degree”.  This was not a sudden development, but something that developed through the previous decade beginning with Gandhi’s  famous second Disobedience Movement in 1930, and something that the IPI was tracking closely.

The fact that Bose had been able to gather a large number of Indians ready to make war on the British came with a rush of mutinies after the war such as the RIN Mutiny of 1946. Though many of these related, at least initially, to the service conditions of the personnel, they only seemed to confirm that the Indian Army could not be trusted to support the British beyond a point of time.

So Bose’s movement, layered upon the existing template of the ongoing freedom struggle, played an invaluable role in its outcome by adding to British insecurities. But from here to give the INA some kind of  centrality in the freedom movement,  as the installation of Bose’s statute in India Gate in New Delhi seems to suggest, is simply inaccurate.

Not surprisingly, even before the war ended, Lord Wavell, the British Viceroy formulated his “Breakdown Plan”. Afraid of  a general uprising across the country, in 1946 he suggested virtual abandonment of the country after dividing it into India and Pakistan by a certain date. Instead of a controlled British departure suggested by Wavell, what we got was a precipitate one, which was accompanied by the horrors of communal violence beginning with  the Calcutta killings of 1946 and their culmination in Punjab after Partition.

The central figure of the national movement was the man who was assassinated on January 30, 1948 precisely because he was the central figure. After all, Nehru or Patel could easily have been targets as well. And we would do well to remember that the Mahatma was done in by forces that had not lifted a finger for the independence of India, and had in some instances aided the British in repressing the Indian national movement. It was probably the first act in the brazen conspiracy to appropriate the freedom movement. We are seeing the second and third acts now.


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