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A tragic destiny: Subhas Chandra Bose

Published on 28 June 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

I’m not sure how many people outside India know of Subhas Chandra Bose[1] – a major leader of this country’s independence movement who, after escaping from The British Raj at the onset of WWII, set up the Provisional Government of Free India as well as the India National Army (INA) in the shadow of Japan. He died in an airplane accident on 17 August 1945.

His international standing suffered terminally from the charge of being a Quisling. In India, he was perceived as a socialist radical, and an unwelcome challenge to Gandhi. The accomodationists who struck a quick and dirty deal with Lord Mountbatten for independence (at the price of partition),[2] never really forgave Bose his pro-active and principles stance. He has remained the great “what if” question of India’s counter-history.

The Irish context

One cannot understand, I think, Bose’s choices in his struggle for independence without reference to the earlier Irish experience. It had taken the Irish people 100 years to achieve Home Rule (in 1912 and 1914, but it had been postponed until the end of the war). The 1916 Easter Revolt, though a failure, was politically successful: it swung the sentiment of the Irish in favor of independence and helped make independence (and partition) inevitable.

As a subject country, India was in a far worse negotiating position than the Irish people. It had no representation at Westminster. Split between “British India” and 565 Princely States,[3] it encompassed communities with different languages, cultures, and a caste system that hampered joint action. The Gandhian approach of “shaming the British into quitting” reflected a minimum common denominator on which everyone could agree. It did, however, reduce the Indian Congress to the role of “loyal opposition” – and this in a situation where constitutional process for change was unavailable.[4]

A pro-active stance including a revolutionary option – becoming His Majesty’s opponent – was understandable. In addition, necessity made for strange bedfellows duringWWII.[5] It is in this light that Bose’s alliance of convenience with Japan may best be viewed. He sought and received public assurances, furthermore, of Japan supporting Indian independence. As for Hitler, Bose did criticize Hitler’s racist remarks in 1936, and had no love for fascism, so the invective that he was a crypto-fascist is unfounded.


Bose’s most radical aspect, in my view, was his quest for inclusiveness: this in a society were exclusion had, over time, become an organizing principle. In Bengal, which the British had cleaved along rough religious lines, early on he strove to overcome religious sectarianism. In 1939, he broke with Gandhi over the issue of “homogeneity” of the leadership, proposing a “composite” cabinet drawn from the various strands of nationalist politics.[6] His government in exile, the INA, but also his personal entourage reflected his view that the experience of nationalism could transcend the many cleavages. His personal magnetism and example were the basis of his success.

Particularly interesting was his attention to the empowerment of women as a driver of change. Though personally shy with them (he married late and secretly), he organized and personally monitored the Rani of Jhansi Regiment – Indian women from the South Asian diaspora in arms.

Bose warned his fellow Indians against becoming “a queer mixture of political democrats and social conservative,” and called for the elimination of privileges based on birth, caste, or creed.[7] Did Bose fully realize the extent of the subtle and pervasive character of caste divisions?[8]


Nehru too was against caste, which he viewed as irrelevant in the modern world. But his communist leanings at the time[9] led him to view statism, and ‘enlightened’ leadership along Leninist lines as the best way forward, thus allowing him implicitly to conflate the brahmanic core of Hinduism and the need for paternalistic enlightened leadership.[10]

Addressing economic and social divisions

Transcending cultural and social divisiveness has its flip side: it challenges institutionalized economic divisions as well; in particular it protected property rights.[11] Bose had called for land reform to empower the peasants and destroy the money lenders; equally he saw education and public health as the basis of inclusive empowerment of the poor. Industrialization would absorb the growing population. Would he have been able to move forth on this front?

This social view contrasted, of course, with Gandhi’s strange mix of atavism (the village as the social unit) and benevolent paternalism of the ruling classes (bordering on feudalism). Nehru’s centrally planned socialism was a costly and inefficient adjunct to the existing social structures, and therefore doomed to failure.

I am more confident that Bose would have made health, education, and empowerment of women core objectives of his policies.

An inheritance of exclusion

The dream of inclusiveness died with him. The hurried departure of the British left an inheritance of divisions: independence was an unseemly scramble for the spoils. Fatefully, it also left most legal and administrative structures of the Raj in place. The mental habits of divisiveness and exclusion were safely transshipped to the new republic.[12] Corruption thrives on “states of exception” and discretionary powers. That the country did not break up is a dark and numinous mystery.[13]

Bose’s deepest tragedy may have been that he chose to become an “opponent” at a moment when this move was necessary. By doing so he negated whatever chance he may have had to transform his country as it moved to independence and modernity.

[1] See Sugata BOSE (2011): His Majesty’s opponent. Subhas Chandra Bose and India’s struggle against empire. Penguin, New Delhi.

[2] See e.g. Perry ANDERSON (2013): An Indian ideology. Verso, London.

[3] The British Crown’s suzerainty over 175 princely states, generally the largest and most important, was exercised in the name of the British Crown by the central government of British India under the Viceroy; the remaining approximately 400 states were influenced by Agents answerable to the provincial governments of British India under a Governor, Lieutenant-Governor, or Chief Commissioner. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Princely_state

[4] Gandhi was well aware of this difficulty, but counted on his personal religiosity to overcome all difficulties: “When I am a perfect being, I have simply to say the word and the nation will listen.” See Kathryn Tidrick Gandhi: A Political and Spiritual Life. In his view, personal “self-rule” would inevitabl lead to political “self-rule.”

[5] Winston Churchill famously opined: “If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”

[6] Sugata BOSE op. cit. pg. 160.

[7] Sugata BOSE op. cit. pg.73.

[8] See e.g. Christophe JAFFRELOT (2011): Religion, caste and politics in India. Hurst, London.

[9] “There is no middle road between Fascism and Communism. One has to choose between the two and I chose the Communist ideal.” Quoted in Sugata BOSE op. cit. pg. 98.

[10] Gail OMVEDT (2011): Understanding caste. From Buddha to Ambedkar and beyond. Orient Black Swan, Hyderabad; pg. 8.

[11] “The rule of law does not do away with unequal distribution of wealth and power, but reinforces that inequality with the authority of law.” Howard ZINN, A people’s history of the United States. Quoted in Arundhati ROY (2009): Listening to grasshoppers. Field notes on democracy. Penguin, New Delhi.

There is a glaring exception to this principle. “The Constitution ratified colonial policy and made the state custodian of tribal homelands. Overnight, it turned the entire tribal population into squatters on their own land.” Arundhati ROY (2013): Walking with comrades. In her: Broken republic. Penguin, New Delhi, pg. 30.

[12] “Almost from the moment India became a sovereign nation it turned into a colonial power, annexing territory, waging war. It has never used military interventions to address political problems.” Arundhati ROY (2013): Walking with comrades. In her: Broken republic. Penguin, New Delhi, pg. 78. At the moment, between ¼ and 1/3 of the country is run on the basis of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and a host of other repressive legislation; see e.g. Perry ANDERSON (2013): An Indian ideology. Verso, London.

The strict “first past the post” electoral rule (plus the habit of buying blocks of caste vote) has effectively disenfranchised the Muslim minority of close to 200 million.

[13] See e.g. Ramachandra GUHA (2007): India after Gandhi. The history of the world’s largest democracy. Picador, Pan Books, London. Also: Edward LUCE (2011): In spite of the gods. The strange rise of modern India. Abacus, London.

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