On a moonlit January night in 1941, Subhas Chandra Bose, a leader of India’s independence movement—as influential in his time as Gandhi and nearly as mythologized in his homeland today—embarked on a perilous, clandestine journey. Frail from a hunger strike begun during his eleventh stint in British prisons, Bose was sent home to recuperate—to get just well enough, that is, to be arrested once again. Seeking to take advantage of Britain’s involvement in World War II, he knew he could not languish any longer in prison. So he worked out a bold escape. Disguised as a North Indian Muslim, he left his family’s home on Calcutta’s Elgin Road and sneaked out of the city in the direction of Delhi, where he caught a train to Peshawar—journeying on, under the name Orlando Mazzotta, to Samarkand, Moscow, and Berlin. It was April 1941, and Bose arrived in Nazi Germany, ready to launch a revolution.
Bose had traveled extensively in Europe in the 1930s as a spokesman-diplomat advocating for India’s emancipation. This second European exile, however, was born out of greater urgency, even desperation. He went to Germany believing that Britain would lose the war and that an alliance with the Axis powers would give India a seat opposite Britain at the postwar negotiating table. But he intended to take a more active stance as well, hoping to persuade the thousands of soldiers of Britain’s Indian Army, captured in Germany and Italian prisoner-of-war camps, to form a legion, turn against their colonial masters, and liberate the subcontinent from without.
That Bose managed to set up residence in Berlin during the most heinous period of German history seems nothing short of astonishing. He lived in a luxurious villa with his wife, Emilie, an Austrian Catholic woman, in defiance of the Nazis’ racial laws. He established a Free India Center and worked with the German Foreign Office. He organized the military training of an elite force of Indian commandos. He began broadcasting to India on his Azad Hind (Free India) Radio, waging a propaganda battle against the British. He met with Mussolini and many senior German officials, including Heinrich Himmler, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Hitler, as he pursued official recognition of India’s independence.
The Nazis did more than tolerate him. They treated him like an ally. We might wonder how the Germans could overlook their racial policies when it came to Bose, while sending millions of Jews off to die in concentration camps. But the more interesting question is how Bose, a virulent anti-imperialist who worked his whole life to improve the lot of women, the poor, and religious and ethnic minorities, could so conveniently ignore, for the sake of political expediency, the atrocities his hosts were committing. As Romain Hayes argues in a new study of Bose’s exile, Subhas Chandra Bose in Nazi Germany, the bargain that Bose struck with the Nazis didn’t even work on its own terms: The Germans did not provide an official declaration of independence, and Bose emerged from this surreal episode a yet more radicalized figure in the fight against British imperialism.
Not surprisingly, critical opinion on Bose has been strongly divided. In the West, some historians have contended that he was little more than a Nazi puppet, a propaganda tool, a stooge. In India, where children have grown up hearing of the freedom-fighting exploits of their Netaji, or “Revered Leader,” many nationalists routinely write off Bose’s activities in Nazi Germany as an aberration, a footnote in a nascent nation’s mythology. Some of this division has to do with Bose’s refusal to renounce violence. If the Mahatma was the saint, sitting patiently at his loom, toppling an empire one homespun garment at a time, Bose more readily embodied the role of the warrior. Even though Bose did accept nonviolence as a mode of protest, his reasons for doing so were practical rather than moral: He knew full well that a population forbidden from bearing weapons could not possibly launch an armed resistance against the mighty British Empire.
His differences with Gandhi notwithstanding, Bose inspired an almost religious devotion among Indians, as great-nephew Sugata Bose, a professor of history at Harvard, shows in his lucid and meticulous new biography, His Majesty’s Opponent. Born in 1897, Subhas Bose grew up in a Muslim neighborhood in the state of Orissa, bearing witness to a kind of Hindu-Muslim harmoniousness that would be all too rare in post-1947 India. Influenced by the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, who prescribed service and sacrifice as a means to salvation, Bose built his reputation on humanitarian work—nursing smallpox and cholera patients, organizing relief operations after a devastating flood. But he was defiant, too, a member of a rebellious generation of Bengalis that did not easily suffer any slight, racial or otherwise, from an Englishman. When, on completion of his philosophy studies at Cambridge, Bose passed the Indian Civil Service exams (a rarity for an Indian at the time), he declined a posting, unable to reconcile the subservience implicit in the work with his own spiritual and nationalist ambitions.
This renunciation—of the promise of a comfortable, healthy life—was the first of many, not least of which was his frequent abandonment of the wife he secretly wed in Europe and the daughter she later bore him. It was India that mattered most to him, or at least the India he was struggling to create: a free country where the peasant and working classes might enjoy a nobler life, and where Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs would have an equal voice in governance. “He emerged along with Jawaharlal Nehru, eight years his elder,” writes Sugata Bose, “as the leader of the radical, left-leaning younger generation of anticolonial nationalists. His spell in Burmese prisons had created an aura around him, and he was already being seen as the rising star in all-India anticolonial politics.”
Bose was twice elected president of the Indian National Congress, but his uncompromising views increasingly placed him at odds with his party: He wanted complete independence for his country, not partial autonomy or dominion status. He had more or less split with Gandhi from the start of the nonviolent noncooperation movement of the early 1920s, having little patience for the Mahatma’s aversion to science and medicine or his boycott of government schools and colleges. For Bose, an independent India would be modern, intellectually curious, industrial, socialist, and urban—a contrasting vision to Gandhi’s rural, village-centric model. As Bose rose through his party’s ranks, Gandhi refused to relinquish political control. In a bit of cunning, Gandhi maneuvered an influential bloc of the Indian National Congress to turn against Bose during his second term as Congress president, leading to his resignation.
It was a somewhat marginalized Bose, then, who made his way to Germany during World War II, viewing the twentieth century’s greatest conflict merely as a way to secure Indian independence. “Great Britain and her apologists are now talking of self-determination for the Poles and if she goes to war, she will do so with the word ‘Self-determination’ on her lips,” Bose argued. “Is not this the time to remind our British rulers that east of the Suez Canal there is a land inhabited by an ancient and cultured people who have been deprived of their birthright of liberty and have been groaning under the British yoke? And is not this the time to tell the British people and their Government that those who are slaves at home cannot fight for the freedom of others?”
Subhas Bose “was keen to distance himself from the ideologies of . . . totalitarian regimes,” Sugata Bose writes, and privately expressed contempt for the Nazis. But the great stain on his legacy remains, by virtue of his tacit acceptance of Nazi atrocities. “The most disturbing issue, all too often ignored,” writes Hayes, “is that in the many articles, minutes, memorandums, telegrams, letters, plans and broadcasts Bose left behind in Germany, he did not express the slightest concern or sympathy for the millions who died in the concentration camps. . . . Not even when the horrors of Auschwitz and its satellite camps were exposed to the world . . . did Bose react.” Was it enough that, in the words of Sugata Bose, Subhas Bose “had no affinity with the pernicious philosophies of the Axis powers whose help he sought during World War II”? That the “suffering human beings about whose fate he was concerned were the colonially oppressed people for whom World War II presented an opportunity to break the shackles of Western imperialism”?
I suppose the answers to those questions depend largely on how scholars assess Bose’s role in helping expel the British from India. For Sugata Bose, Subhas Bose inspired and emboldened a nation—not only in building up and commanding the Indian National Army (INA), stirring thousands of soldiers with his bold rhetoric (“I can offer you nothing except hunger, thirst, privation, forced marches and death. But if you follow me in life and in death—as I am confident you will—I shall lead you to victory and freedom”), but also in leading a failed incursion, along with Japanese troops, through Burma into northeastern India. Even in defeat, Bose grew in mythic stature, as Sugata Bose explains: “It was Netaji’s historic retreat with the soldiers of the INA and the women of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment from Burma to Thailand—a hazardous journey chased by the enemy in late April and early May 1945—that left an indelible imprint on popular memory: these warriors made heroic sacrifices to pay the price of freedom.”
Hayes, however, takes a much less charitable view of Bose’s impact on the independence fight. Although noting that Bose’s “desire to leave for Berlin was . . . not the result of latent ideological fascination with fascism but purely a strategic and political decision,” Hayes portrays Bose as a figure lured to totalitarianism, in whom the war brought out “latent dictatorial tendencies.” Perhaps more damning is Hayes’s characterization of Bose as out of touch and naive, an expat unable to decode the subtleties of European politics while running counter to the prevailing sentiments of political leaders back home. The point is, if Bose’s historical impact is diminished, his association with the Nazis becomes all the less forgivable.
We can only imagine the kind of a leader Bose would have been in postpartition India—he died in a plane crash en route to Japan, following the military defeat in Burma. Some scholars, citing Bose’s earlier writings that praised elements of fascism, have argued that Bose would have aspired to be an Indian Mussolini, though, as Sugata Bose explains, “it is doubtful that he would have been personally enamored of the trappings of state power. . . . The streak of self-abnegation was stronger in his character than that of self-assertion.” What is beyond doubt is that Subhas Bose cannot be reduced to either sinner or saint. But then, why must he be? Some Indians venerate their national heroes—whether Gandhi the pacifist, Nehru the statesman, or Bose the warrior—while forgetting that those heroes were also men, susceptible to human impulses. (Why else would the suggestion of bisexuality in Joseph Lelyveld’s controversial biography of Gandhi have elicited so violent a public response?) This is not to forgive or forget Bose’s association with one of the most reviled governments in human history. But as Sugata Bose and Romain Hayes show in otherwise quite divergent appraisals of Subhas Chandra Bose and his legacy, to take full measure of their subject requires a little more nuance and a lot less blind adulation.
Sudip Bose is the fiction editor of the American Scholar.