Two heroes

Print edition : January 09, 2015

May 13,1938: Subhas Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru at a public meeting in Bombay. For Nehru, non-violence was a conviction; for Bose, a convenience. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

February 1938: Gandhi and Bose at the Haripura Congress. Bose often thought Gandhi to be out of touch with political reality and political necessity. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Rudrangshu Mukherjee emerges as the A.J.P. Taylor of modern Indian history with Nehru & Bose, his masterpiece on the lives of freedom’s co- workers that “could have no tryst”.

A BIG hand, ladies and gentlemen, for just about the best book ever related to our freedom movement (excluding those written by the principals themselves): eminent historian and Ashoka University Vice-Chancellor Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s Nehru & Bose: Parallel Lives, a beautifully wrought masterpiece that classes him as the A.J.P. Taylor of modern Indian history in precisely the dimension that best described Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War—“perfectly proportioned”. Mukherjee mines a rich vein of sources, primary and secondary, to string together a set of magnificently cut historical diamonds.

In under 300 pages, succinctly yet comprehensively, with a keen eye for winnowing the relevant fact or interpretation— analytical, perceptive, penetrating—without losing the detail, with a talent for the telling phrase and the reverberating aphorism, and with a wry humour —all characteristic of Taylor—Mukherjee smoothly and swiftly surfs the crucial decades of the struggle for independence, from the 1920s through the 1930s and 1940s. The story is told through the political and personal lives of the two protagonists who shared much in common and yet were fundamentally different—which is why their individual contributions, decisive in themselves, remained on such different trajectories, while, every now and then, almost touching tangentially before going off at a tangent. My choice, without hesitation, for Book of the Year. Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose had a similar family background of privilege and opportunity, Nehru’s considerably more opulent. Born seven years apart, Bose being the younger, both were driven by doting but ambitious fathers who eventually found their sons taking paths quite different from those envisaged for them—and ending with far greater service to the nation, fame, distinction and popularity in public life than either parent dreamt of.

While both went to Cambridge, Bose was easily the better student of the two. Whereas Bose made his mark as a brilliant scholar at both school and college in Cuttack and Calcutta, Nehru, indifferent at studies, returned to India after seven long, relaxed, dilettante years in England, “a bit of a prig”, as he so endearingly described himself in his Autobiography. Bose, on the other hand, soared early in life into an anti-imperialist student activist, born to lead and fight the establishment. He was rusticated from Presidency College, Calcutta, for being allegedly or actually involved in manhandling an unjust lecturer but rescued later for the completion of his education by the Scottish Church College (Kolkata).

Bose’s fascination

Yet, anti-imperialist or not, the young Bose was quite fascinated by military uniforms and brass bands. He enrolled in the Territorial Army and took to arms training with enthusiasm and ability, even seeking to join the 49th Bengalees Regiment “but failed because of his defective eyesight”. This fascination with weapons and uniforms was to inform crucial turning points in his life as a freedom fighter and in distancing him from both Gandhi and Nehru. Mukherjee recounts Gandhi likening Bose’s organisation of the 1928 Congress session “to a Bertram Mills’ circus”, with the Congress president, Motilal Nehru, being welcomed by Bose (who had styled himself “General Officer Commanding” and dressed up for the occasion in a military uniform designed by the British firm of Harman’s) “with a 101-gun salute and was taken away from the station in a carriage pulled by twenty-eight white horses”.

More disturbing was Bose’s admiration for Mussolini, comparing Gandhi’s Dandi March to Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome (when, in fact, the dictator had taken the train from Milan!). He met the fascist dictator several times and poured encomiums on him, commending in particular the fascist emphasis on discipline and training, and hailing Mussolini, says Mukherjee, “as a great man who represented the aspirations of the age”. Disillusion eventually caught up with him when he found Mussolini behaving in Abyssinia in the same manner as the British imperialists whom Bose fondly believed Mussolini to be opposing. But by then Bose had so soiled his name in Nehru’s book that Nehru wrote in March 1935 in his diary: “Subhas seems to be writing a great deal of nonsense. He can only think in terms of being himself a Mussolini.” As far as Nehru was concerned, he had written two years earlier, “I dislike fascism intensely and indeed I do not think it is anything more than a crude and brutal effort of the present capitalist order to preserve itself at any cost.”

Mukherjee also points out that despite living in Vienna when the city was the European centre of anti-Semitism, Bose never overtly condemned its viciousness on a hapless people. Subsequently, in Hitler’s Berlin, Bose fruitlessly sought an interview with Hitler but is not on record as having condemned the virulent racism for which Nazism had grown notorious. In sharp contrast, Nazism was for Nehru quite as hateful as fascism. He even tried to get the Congress Working Committee to pass a resolution welcoming Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution to seek succour and shelter in India.

Close comrades

Yet these differences affected neither their intensely affectionate personal relationship nor their profoundly held belief that each was the closest comrade of the other in the Congress. Mukherjee tells the touching story of Bose rushing to Nehru’s side in Kamala’s last illness and making the arrangements for her funeral when she died. Nehru was moved sufficiently to append the word “love” to the end of his many letters to Bose, at least between 1936 and their final break in 1939. That final break was all the more bitter because Bose had pitted all his hopes of prevailing against Gandhi and the conservative wing on Nehru’s support, but although Nehru saw the justice of Bose’s claims, he could not bring himself to oppose Gandhi on what was for him this petty issue and, in any case, felt there was something distasteful about a leader of Bose’s stature so desperately seeking a party post. While Nehru, after a brief youthful flirtation with theosophy, remained alienated from religion and religious ritual, Bose retained a lifelong fascination for the spiritual, Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Swami Vivekananda having been his early mentors and Sri Aurobindo his idol. Both, however, were deeply committed to communal harmony and dedicated to secularism, respectful of beliefs they might personally not have held and opposed in principle and practice to peddling religious prejudice for political ends. Both counted Muslims among their closest associates, Maulana Azad in Nehru’s case, and in the case of Subhas Bose, Habib-ur-Rahman, who was his key aide from his Berlin days to the Indian National Army (INA).

Another bond—but one that burst—was socialism. Nehru saw in socialism the key to societal reform—but within an uncompromising democratic framework and wedded to non-violence; Bose, at least until 1938, saw socialism and fascism as intellectual twins and envisaged the future of the world order as a “synthesis” of the two. For Nehru, non-violence was a conviction; for Bose, a convenience. Eventually, Bose believed that Gandhian non-violence, however useful tactically at the commencement of the freedom movement, would have to translate into armed action to snatch freedom from the British: “active resistance”, he wrote in his impassioned tract, The Indian Struggle, “will develop into armed revolution”. Moreover, revolution, not reform, would be essential to overturn the social order. Therefore, while the two charismatic young men, Bose and Nehru, caught the imagination of the youth and the masses as no leader other than Gandhi (much to the annoyance, even chagrin, of conservatives such as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, C. Rajagopalachari, and Rajendra Prasad), they could not sustain a united front for socialism, partly because of the distance in their respective value systems but mainly because of the yawning gap in the nature of their personal and political relationship with Gandhi.

Mukherjee perceptively remarks that while for Nehru Gandhi was “Bapu”, the father figure and emotional anchor from whom there was no drifting, for Bose, whose heroes were C.R. Das and Motilal Nehru, Gandhi, although always respectfully addressed as Mahatmaji and acknowledged as the greatest mass leader (he had even his portrait hanging in INA messes), was never more than a political field marshal, one who could be wrong and often was wrong, and far too allied to the conservative wing—the “Old Guard” as Bose contemptuously dismissed them—for Bose’s comfort.

Bose often thought Gandhi to be out of touch with political reality and political necessity; Nehru, however, was in awe of Gandhi’s instinctive understanding of the ordinary Indian’s psyche and his sense of political timing. Nehru knew that Gandhi was always, if weirdly and annoyingly, right; Bose’s scepticism about Gandhi and Gandhi’s “ism” never left him.

Bose felt deeply betrayed by Nehru abandoning socialist solidarity for the comfort of Gandhi’s shelter. Infuriated, he wrote in 1939 that “no one has done more harm to me” than Nehru. He could not understand Gandhi granting Nehru two terms as Congress president (1936 and 1937) on the grounds that one year was too short a time for Nehru to undertake the required rejuvenation of the party, while opposing to the bitter end Bose’s own bid at a second term, which he had decisively won in a hard-fought contest at the annual Congress session. It mattered enormously to Bose, for whom party office was a measure of prestige and pride and was critical to his accomplishing his purpose. With Nehru, his approach to the Congress presidency was quite the reverse: he was hugely reluctant to wear the “crown of thorns”, knowing full well that the Working Committee, dominated by the Old Guard, shared neither his principles nor his philosophy and was utterly opposed to his goals. Gandhi assured Nehru that “you will be elected for the policy and principles you stand for” but consistently stood by the Old Guard when it came to agonised decision-making in the Working Committee, thus undermining Nehru almost all through his two years as president. But Nehru never flinched in his loyalty to Gandhi—and Gandhi rewarded him in like measure.

In 1936, the differences between Nehru and the Old Guard were centred on his socialism; in 1937, on Nehru agreeing that the Congress might contest the general elections but not to accept office, only to repudiate the constitutional order envisaged in the 1935 Government of India Act so that Indians might have their own constituent assembly. The Working Committee, and the bulk of the party leadership in the provinces, desperately wanted to win and exercise the power that comes with office.

Ironically, although it was Nehru far more than any other Congress leader (bar Gandhi) who captured the imagination and vote of the people, it was not Nehru as Congress president but the majority in the Working Committee that prevailed—and the Congress eagerly, even greedily, embraced office. The corruption and maladministration that followed, particularly the inability to control communal riots, paved the way for the tragedy of Partition.

The War years

The Second World War found Nehru and Bose on the same side of rejecting the offer of the Cripps Mission, but from the start of the Quit India Movement until the virtual end of the War, Nehru was incarcerated in prison while Bose daringly escaped his captors, fetched up in Berlin, then worked his way by submarine to Japan, and raised the INA in Malaya and Singapore (where, writes Mukherjee, “Denied the role of a leader within the Congress, he demonstrated in 1943-44 what he was capable of”), before planting the Azad Hind flag at Port Blair and moving just beyond the Manipur frontier until the INA was driven back and the terrible air accident at Taipei took Bose from freedom and his beloved country.

It was a loss that “moved” Nehru “to tears” and took him to Singapore to integrate the INA with the mainstream of the freedom movement and later to his donning his lawyer’s robes as part of the defence team in the INA Red Fort trials.

Mukherjee ends his book with the conclusion that for Bose and Nehru, “their lives could have no tryst”. But parallel lives, like parallel lines, do meet at infinity. The last words might, therefore, be Nehru’s who, speaking at Bose’s birthday celebrations in 1946, months after he died, said: “Subhas Bose and I were co-workers…. It is an open secret that at times there were differences between us on political questions. But I never for a moment doubted that he was a brave soldier in the struggle for freedom.”

Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Rajya Sabha member of the Congress.

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