The enigma of Bose and the ‘mystery’ of his ‘disappearance’

Subhash Chandra Bose was persona of great mystification. As much as his life held the unwavering zeal and gusto to see a sovereign India, despite being at stark variance with the stalwarts who went on to be the founding fathers of this nation, his death, too, has been a subject of as much perplexity.

Subhash Chandra Bose was persona of great mystification. As much as his life held the unwavering zeal and gusto to see a sovereign India, despite being at stark variance with the stalwarts who went on to be the founding fathers of this nation, his death, too, has been a subject of as much perplexity.

On August 18, 1945, Netaji is said to have succumbed to third-degree burns when his plane crashed upon take off in Tiwan’s Taipei, which was then under Japanese occupation. Bose had gone into a coma before he died between 9 p.m. to 10 p.m.

The crash instantly claimed the pilot, co-pilot, and Lieutenant General Tsunamasa Shidei of the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II. Their aircraft crashed shortly after the official surrender of Japan. Shidei and Bose were on their way to Dairen, where Bose was to speak with negotiators from the USSR about political asylum and turning over control of the Indian National Army (INA) to the Soviets to continue the struggle for Indian Independence. Shidei was to serve as the main negotiator for Bose.

There were no photographs taken of the injured or deceased Bose, nor was a death certificate issued. For these reasons, INA refused to believe that he passed away.

While many of Bose’s supporters refused to believe both the news and the circumstances of his demise, conspiracy theories emerged that the plane crash was no accident within hours of the deaths. These theories persist, keeping alive certain martial myths about Netaji.

Col. Habib ur Rahman, Bose’s chief-of-staff who was with him on that fateful flight, survived. He testified a decade later at an inquiry commission on Bose’s death. Bose’s ashes are said to be kept at the Renkoji Temple in Tokyo.

Genesis of Netaji ‘mystery’

Since 1940, when he escaped house arrest in Calcutta, rumours abounded regarding his whereabouts, whether he was even alive or not. When he appeared in Germany in 1941, there pervaded a sense of mystery about him and his engagements.

In the 1950s, stories began surfacing that Bose had turned into an ascetic. As per what historian Leonard A. Gordon called a “myth”, in the 1960s, some associates of Bose formed ‘Subhasbadi Janata’, an organisation to promote the narrative that Bose was heading a sanctuary in north Bengal’s Shaulmari.

However, certain reports categorically establish the death of Netaji when the Mitsubishi Ki-21 bomber that he was aboard crashed shortly after it took off in Taipei.

The Government of India, so far, commissioned three inquiries into Netaji’s death/disappearance. Only the first two concluded that he died in a military hospital in Taihoku on August 18, 1945, after his plane crashed, and also that the mortal remains at Renkoji Temple in Tokyo are his. They are as follows:

Figgess Report: 1946

In the light of the rumours that went rife following the plane crash, the Supreme Allied Command of South-East Asia, under Lord Mountbatten, tasked Colonel John Figgess, an intelligence officer, with investigating Bose’s death.

Submitted on July 5, 1946, Figgess’s report was but confidential. In the 1980s, Figgess was interviewed by Leonard A. Gordon, where he confirmed writing the report.

In 1997, the British Government made most of the IPI (Indian Political Intelligence) files available for public viewing in the British Library. However, the Figgess report was not among them.

The Figgess report and Gordon’s investigations confirm the following four things: a plane crashed near Taihoku airport on August 18, 1945, aboard which was Subhas Chandra Bose; Bose died in the nearby military hospital on the same day; he was cremated in Taihoku; and his ashes were sent to Tokyo.

Shah Nawaz Committee: 1956

For the purpose of clamping down rumours about Bose and the incident of the plane crash, the sovereign Government of India in 1956 appointed a three-member committee headed by Shah Nawaz Khan, who was then a Member of Parliament. He was a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Indian National Army.

The other notable members of this committee were S. N. Maitra, a Civil Servant nominated by the Government of West Bengal, and Suresh Chandra Bose, Netaji’s elder brother. This committee is also called the ‘Netaji Inquiry Committee’.

Between April to July 1956, this committee interviewed 67 witnesses in India, Japan, Thailand, and Vietnam, particularly those who survived that plane crash and bore scars of their injuries from the accident. The interviewees included Dr. Yoshimi, the surgeon at the Taihoku Military Hospital who treated Bose in his final hours, and Habibur Rahman who left India after the Partition.

Two-third of the committee, ie, Khan and Maitra, notwithstanding a few minor discrepancies, concluded that Bose died in the plane crash in Taihoku on August 18, 1945.

Suresh Chandra Bose declined signing on the final report, and wrote a note of dissent claiming that the other members and staff of the Shah Nawaz Committee had deliberately withheld some crucial evidence, and that the committee had been directed by Nehru to infer death by plane crash.

According to Gordon, out of the 181-page report, one main principle for dealing with the evidence was that if two or more stories by witnesses have any discrepancies between them, then the whole testimony of the witnesses involved is discredited and assumed to be false.

Based on this, Bose concluded that there was no crash, and that his brother was still alive.

During the early 1960s, rumours about Netaji being alive only increased.

Khosla Commission: 1970

In 1970, the Government of India appointed a “one-man commission” to enquire into the “disappearance” of Bose. The single investigator was G.D. Khosla, a retired Chief Justice of Punjab High Court. His report was submitted in 1974.

Justice Khosla concurred with the earlier reports of Figess and the Shah Nawaz Committee on the main facts of Bose’s death. He also evaluated the alternative explanations of Bose’s disappearance and the motives of those promoting stories of sighting Netaji.

Gordon notes: “Justice Khosla suggests the motives of many of the story-purveyors are less than altruistic. Some, he says, have clearly been driven by political goals or simply wanted to call attention to themselves. His patience in listening to some tales is surely remarkable.

“What could he, or anyone, have thought as he listened to the testimony of P.M. Karapurkar, agent of the Central Bank of India at Sholapur, who claimed that he receives direct messages from Bose by tuning his body like a radio receiving apparatus.”

Mukherjee Commission: 2005

In 1999, following a court order, the Government of India appointed retired Supreme Court judge Manoj Kumar Mukherjee to once again probe the death of Bose.

The commission perused hundreds of files on Bose’s death drawn from several countries and visited Japan, Russia and Taiwan.

Although oral accounts were in favour of the plane crash, it was concluded that those accounts could not be relied upon and that there was a secret plan to ensure Bose’s safe passage to the USSR with the knowledge of Japanese authorities and Habibur Rahman.

Citing Netaji aide and co-passenger on the flight Habibur Rahman as a direct witness, Justice Mukherjee’s report holds that the Japanese military aircraft carrying Netaji had nose-dived from 12,000 to 14,000 feet. Justice Mukherjee then argued that nobody could possibly survive such a catastrophic crash, and so concluded that there could not have been any such crash at all.

The fact is that neither Habibur Rahman nor any other survivor ever said so. What they did maintain was that the aircraft had barely taken off from Matsuyama Airport at Taihoku in Taiwan before suffering fatal engine failure.

The commission failed to make any headway about Bose’s activities following the plane crash.

Another questionable aspect of the report is that it concluded that the ashes at the Renkoji temple reported to be Bose’s, were actually not his but of a Japanese soldier who died of cardiac arrest.

Justice Mukherjee decided not to proceed with the DNA testing on account of the alleged “reticence” of the temple authorities.

However, the commission also established ‘Gumnami Baba’ to be different from Subhas Bose based on a DNA profiling test.

The Mukherjee Commission turned in its report on November 8, 2005 after 3 extensions and it was tabled in the Indian Parliament on May 17, 2006. The Central government did not accept the findings of this commission.

The key findings of the report, especially pertaining to the rejection of the plane crash narrative, have been criticised for its glaring inaccuracies.

Historian and grandnephew of Netaji, Sugata Bose, notes that Mukherjee admitted to harbouring a preconceived notion about Netaji being alive and living as an ascetic.

Gordon notes that the report had failed to list all of the people who were interviewed by the committee (including him) and that it mis-listed and mis-titled many of the books, used as sources.

Japanese government’s 1956 report, declassified in September 2016

A report by the Japanese government titled “Investigation on the cause of death and other matters of the late Subhas Chandra Bose” was declassified on September 1, 2016. It concluded that Bose died in a plane crash in Taiwan on August 18, 1945.

The report was completed in January 1956 and was handed over to the Indian embassy in Tokyo, but was kept out of public domain for 60 years until it was declassified.

As per the report, just after take-off, a propeller blade on the plane which carried Bose broke off and the engine fell off the plane, which then crashed and burst into flames. When Bose exited he crashed plane, his clothes had caught fire and he was severely burned. He was admitted to hospital and was conscious enough to carry on a conversation for some time. He died several hours later.

Conclusion: Most have settled with the conclusion that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose died in a military hospital in Taiwan on August 18, 1945, after the Japanese military aircraft he was travelling in crashed. But a persistence for a different conclusion indicates that evidence to conclude the afore stated was not sufficient.

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