A largely overlooked subtext in the larger narrative of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Japan journey was his inability, rather decision, to not to pay a customary visit to the temple where the assumed ashes of Subhas Chandra Bose have been enshrined. So why did Modi not follow the suit of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and, above all, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who in December 2001 paid tributes to Netaji at the Renkoji temple accompanied by then Minister for State for External Affairs Omar Abdullah?
But then, Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh too visited Tokyo in May 2013 and did not visit this temple. So what is the big deal that Modi did not either?
Unknown to most Indians, a momentum has picked up to settle what is India’s longest running political controversy — the fate of Subhas Bose. In a sense it all started in the days of Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh whose government’s one forgotten act of omission was to reject, without giving any reason in the Action Taken Report tabled in Parliament, the ‘heretical’ findings of a commission of inquiry set up during the Atal era.
Justice MK Mukherjee, a retired Supreme Court judge, evidenced in his 2005 report that the Government of India-backed story — of Subhas Bose’s death in Taipei, his cremation there and transportation of his ashes to Tokyo — was actually planted by the Japanese military so as to provide their ally Bose a cover for his escape towards Soviet Russia. The USSR was the only place the Indian leader could find shelter at the close of WWII. The scenario outlined by the commission report fitted with the contours of one of India’s most infamous conspiracy theories. Consider yourself a political novice if you are not aware of it.
The dismissal of the commission’s report was met with protests in some quarters. Several MPs from various parties, excluding the Congress, slammed the government’s move. The ire of some die-hard Netaji followers was directed at two ministers and the then Lok Sabha Speaker who allowed the discussion, so goes the charge, to die out with a view to help the Congress-led government.
At that very moment, a couple of regular people, including this writer, got their acts together on an internet forum and got going with what we called “Mission Netaji”. Over the years we amassed relevant information by way of personal interviews, archives search and freedom of information approaches in India, the US and the UK. There were shocking twists and turns. In 2007, for instance, the Home Ministry told the Central Information Commission over an RTI case filed by us that it possessed material running into some 70,000 pages about Bose’s fate and that some of it was classified as “top secret”. And it was the ministry’s “considered view” that disclosure of these top secret documents “may lead to serious law and order problem in the country, especially in West Bengal”. In other words, the Bose mystery, even in our times, is considered to be the political variant of a time bomb.
Cut to last year, our attempts, backed by several Bose admirers and the majority of his family members, with notable exclusion of one section of the family with links to the Congress, had succeeded in delivering the message to then Gujarat Chief Minister Modi and BJP President Rajnath Singh. Not that attempts were not made on our part to reach out to others. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee did not pay any attention to similar approaches.
A letter signed by two dozen members of the family seeking declassification of all secret files about Bose was handed over to Modi, who gave the matter a patient hearing and promised to look into it. I cannot confirm it, but there is a report that he wrote to the then prime minister about the need to settle the issue in national interest.
Thereafter, Rajnath Singh visited Bose’s birthplace Cuttack to announce that “once his party comes to power at the Centre, a fresh probe would be ordered to ascertain the causes and nature of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s death”. His tweet on 23 January, Bose’s birth anniversary this year, read: “Netaji is one of the greatest heroes in the history of India’s freedom struggle, but his death is still shrouded in mystery.”
A few months later, even as we watched the new government dodging the matter, we looked forward to Modi’s visit to Japan as a kind of test of his approach towards the Bose mystery. Here was a man who had in August 2003 personally brought back from Switzerland the ashes of freedom fighter Shyamji Krishna Varma. Would he or would he not do an encore with the so-called Bose’s ashes?
That Modi did no such thing may well reflect his thinking at the moment. Official secret files available with the Government of India are littered with evidence that the ashes assumed to be of Bose’s are not his, no matter what some people have been saying or have come to believe. From what I have gathered, the PM clearly avoided both visiting the Renkoji temple in suburban Tokyo and also a meeting with its priest. The PM was requested to meet the priest and also a 99-year-old Japanese associate of Bose. He chose to ignore the first request, but met the old man. His poignant picture with the old man went viral on social media.
So here you have it, a Prime Minister and Home Minister who have, either privately or publicly, spoken of their resolve to settle the Bose mystery. We are told by some insiders that Modi has had a look into the vexed issue and will act at the “right time”. Only time will tell what he will actually do. All I can assure you is that Mission Netaji is on. We continue to lobby for the case and will not give up any time soon. We owe it to all those who want to know the truth.
The writer is the author of several books on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Back from Dead: Inside the Subhas Bose Mystery (2005), CIA’s Eye on South Asia (2008), India’s Biggest Cover-up (2012) and No Secrets (2013) and a senior journalist.