An extraordinary story

Published : Sep 29, 2001 00:00 IST

The Sign of the Tiger: Subhas Chandra Bose And His Indian Legion in Germany, 1941-45 by Rudolf Hartog; Rupa, New Delhi; Pages 206, Rs.395.

SUBHAS CHANDRA BOSE died on August 18, 1945 in a plane crash in Taiwan. Yet there is a body of his admirers who tenaciously believe that their beloved Netaji is alive. Today he would have been 104 years old. Regrettably, dead he is. He was 48 years old at the time of the fatal air crash at Taipei airport.

In his short, revolutionary, flawed and mismanaged political life, he inspired a mass loyalty and devotion that at its peak in early 1945 equalled that of Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhiji. I remember vividly how I followed with teenage passion the trail of the Indian National Army (INA) heroes, Shah Nawaz, Sehgal and Dhillon at the Red Fort during 1945-46. The literature on Subhas Bose is not extensive but it is considerable. Books on him keep appearing with remarkable regularity. Hugh Toye's The Springing Tiger: A Study of a Revolutionary, appeared in early 1970. This was followed in 1982 by Mihir Bose's The Lost Hero. Both were published in London. Brothers Against the Raj: A Biography of Sarat and Subhas Chandra Bose by Leonard A. Gordon came out in 1990 (805 pages). In 1997, Sisir Bose and Sugata Bose edited An Indian Pilgrim: An Unfinished Autobiography, which was published to mark Subhas Babu's birth centenary. A few days ago we had yet another book on Bose - Sitansu Das' Subhas: A Political Biography (634 pages).

All these books fade away when compared to what Nirad C. Chaudhuri wrote about Bose in his monumental volume Thy Hand, Great Anarch. His delineation of Subash Babu's character is both brilliant and detached: "No other figure in the Indian nationalist movement presents the stark contrast he does between promise and legend on the one hand and performance and historic career on the other."

Rudolf Hartog's book first appeared in German in 1991. The author as a youngster of 18 was attached to the Indian Legion as an interpreter between 1941 and 1945. The Legion was Subhas Babu's brainchild. Hartog writes:

The story of the Indian Legion in Germany in which former Indian soldiers of the British Indian Army volunteered to fight for the freedom of their country on the side of the Axis powers, in one of the strangest episodes of the Second World War... It was inspired by Subhas Chandra Bose, pre-independent India's third outstanding politician besides Gandhi and Nehru, whose aim, after an adventurous escape from India (1941) to Berlin... was to declare an exile government and set up an army, which would advance into India from the west with the help of the Axis powers and to free India from British rule.

Subhas Chandra Bose's two-year stay in Berlin was frustrating and at times vexatious. Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), the German Chancellor, did not receive him for a whole year after his arrival in Germany. They met on May 27, 1942 in Berlin. Hitler refused to make a statement in favour of India's independence. Hitler still hoped to sign a separate peace treaty with England. The minutes of the meeting survived the War. These make astonishing reading. Bose was willing to go to any lengths to free India - collaborate with Germany, Italy and Japan. Hitler mentioned Nehru's friendly opinion of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which Hitler thought, was "extremely questionable". He advised Orlando Mazzotta (Bose's allies in Berlin) to go to Japan and carry on his fight from nearer India. The mode of travel was discussed. Hitler discouraged an air journey, as "Bose was too important a person to risk his life with such experiments". Hitler also told Bose that in his judgment Nehru's anti-Fascist, anti-Nazi approach or the passive resistance of Gandhi would achieve nothing.

The author states that the Bose-Hitler meeting was a fiasco. Hitler gave no assurance about backing Indian independence. Near the close of the meeting Bose said to Adam Von Trot, who was the interpreter, to "Tell His Excellency that I have been in politics all my life and that I do not need advice from any side."

The rest of the book deals with the formation of the Legion, its personnel, its secular foundations, the use of a common language - Hindustani - and the prolonged planning of Operation Tiger, which was to reach the borders of India, through Russia, Persia and Afghanistan. The German defeat at Stalingrad in 1942 put an end to that.

After Bose's departure for Japan in a German submarine, morale in the region flagged, and the 'Free India Centre' did not prosper. Nevertheless, the author's conclusion is that the Indian Legion was something unique: "There were many Foreign Legions in Hitler's army, e.g. Cossacks, Turkmens, Georgians, etc., made up from defectors who wanted to rid themselves of the Soviet yoke. The uniqueness of the Indian Legion was that although it was no different on the surface, its structure and the terms on which it was set up were exceptional, for Bose was able to get extraordinary concessions from the German Government."

Within a few days of German defeat in 1945, the Indian Legionnaires were taken prisoner and held under "harsh conditions". They were repatriated to India at the end of 1945, and kept in prison in the Bahadurgarh camp. They were finally released in 1946. Their fate was so markedly different from that of the INA. The Legion threw up no Shah Nawaz or Sehgal or Dhillon. The Legion and its history remained in oblivion until the appearance of Hartog's sympathetic and engrossing book.

It is indeed an extraordinary story. The credit goes to Subhas Chandra Bose for creating and sustaining the Legion. However, he is not remembered for this particular creation but for his heroic role after he reached Japan and built up the INA and gave us our national salutation, Jai Hind.

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