|Professor Sugata Bose at the Launch of Special Re-Markings Number|
Bose: Immortal Legend of India's Freedom - Contemporary Critical Orientations at
Agra Club, Agra on 18 March 2017
Friday, 8 September 2017
Conversation with Sugata Bose for Bose: Immortal Legend of India's Freedom - Re-Markings Special Number
“A Brighter Future is India’s Destiny”:
A Conversation with Sugata Bose
Nibir K. Ghosh*
Professor Sugata Bose, the grand-nephew of Subhas Chandra Bose, is Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs at Harvard University, U.S.A., and Member of Parliament in the current Lok Sabha. A Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge (1983), his field of specialization is Modern South Asian and Indian Ocean history. A recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, his publications include Peasant Labour and Colonial Capital; A Hundred Horizons: the Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire; Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy; Nationalism, Democracy and Development; Credit, Markets and the Agrarian Economy of Colonial India; and South Asia and World Capitalism. His most recent book is His Majesty's Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose and India's Struggle against Empire (2011). An eloquent orator, he has been invited for lectures and talks in various countries: Austria, Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Canada, China, Germany, France, Italy, Kuwait, Japan, Malaysia, Netherland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Portugal, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Switzerland, Thailand, UAE, U.K. and U.S.A. In this conversation with Nibir K. Ghosh, Professor Sugata Bose offers useful insights into the many dimensions of the life and work of the legendary hero, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
Nibir: As an eminent international historian of Harvard fame, how does it feel to be so closely connected to the hallowed personality of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose who is undoubtedly one of the greatest revolutionaries of the Indian Freedom struggle?
Sugata: Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose used to say that his family and country were coterminous. My parents taught me since childhood not to claim any special relationship with the great revolutionary based on an accident of birth. I am proud, of course, to belong to the country that produced Subhas Chandra Bose. When my father Sisir Kumar Bose received popular adulation and heard the slogan “Bose khandan zindabad” on his release from prison in September 1945, his father Sarat Chandra Bose told him to remember that this was nothing but Subhas’s “reflected glory.” For Sisir, Netaji was his leader rather than his uncle.
Nibir: You, along with your revered father, Dr. Sisir Kumar Bose, have contributed immensely in bringing into limelight the life, work, speeches, letters and writings of Netaji through the Netaji Research Bureau. What motivated you into undertaking such a challenging enterprise?
Sugata: The credit for preserving and presenting Netaji’s book of life to the world belongs entirely to my father Dr. Sisir Kumar Bose who was ably helped by my mother Krishna Bose and a small band of dedicated workers. My father was convinced that the best traditions of the freedom struggle had to be bequeathed to future generations. He collected letters, documents, speeches, photographs, audio recordings and film footage connected with Netaji from all over the world and disseminated them to the wider public. Since I grew up in tandem with the Netaji Research Bureau he founded in 1957 (I was born in 1956), I helped out in this ambitious project in small ways. I had the good fortune of meeting the noble men and women who had fought for India’s independence under Netaji’s leadership and was inspired by the saga of their suffering and sacrifice. Their story had to be recorded and told. I began to take a more active role once my father’s health began to fail since Netaji’s work had to go on.
Nibir: In a talk delivered at the 5th International Netaji Seminar at Calcutta in January 1985, Peter Fay wondered: “What is the British perception of Netaji and the I.N.A.?” Fay answered the question himself: “Cloudy, I would suggest. Inverted which is a variety of being wrong. Finally, and most obviously, incomplete. It is an incompleteness that comes in part from just refusing to look. Do you know what happened to Netaji in British publications during the war? He disappeared.” In the light of this statement, how would you evaluate Hugh Toye’s The Springing Tiger, the first known assessment of Netaji by a Britisher?
Sugata: I hold a high opinion of Hugh Toye’s biography The Springing Tiger. Considering that it was written by a British intelligence officer who had fought against Netaji and interrogated INA prisoners, the book was remarkable for its broad-minded and balanced approach. Toye made some errors of fact and judgment. For example, he did not have access to records that would later show Netaji had sharply criticized Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. My father helped him with source materials in the early days of the Netaji Research Bureau and was even criticized in certain Indian circles for helping a British author. After my father’s death Hugh Toye wrote to my mother from Oxford on January 27, 2001, “I no longer take a daily paper, so that it was only the other day that I heard of the departure of your husband, a brave boy who became a great man. He was always very kind – unexpectedly kind – to me.” My father was always willing to help and make the NRB archives available to bonafide researchers. As Leonard Gordon mentions in the preface to his Brothers against the Raj, he never told historians what to write and respected their freedom of expression even if they were critical of the leader he himself adored. I fondly remember Peter Fay whom you quote. His book The Forgotten Army is elegantly written and is one of the finest contributions to scholarship on the Second World War. He was an eloquent speaker and gave a terrific interview for my film Rebels against the Raj, which was telecast on PBS in the late 1980s.
Nibir: In his Foreword to Toye’s The Springing Tiger, Philip Mason writes: “There are elements repellant in Bose’s character—his arrogance and refusal to compromise….Power corrupted him; he grew more intolerant, more certain. But no one can doubt the stature of the man, his intellectual scope and the passion with which he held his convictions.” From the dual perspective of a historian as well as a kin of Netaji, what are your views on the picture of Netaji as portrayed by Mason?
Sugata: From the singular perspective of a historian (I take no view of Netaji as a family member) I am somewhat amused by Mason’s portrayal, which is quite typical of the old hands of the British raj whose condemnation was often leavened by a grudging admiration for a formidable opponent. The refusal to compromise with injustice and wrong was one of the most appealing features in Bose’s character. I am puzzled by Mason’s conception of power. No one spoke truth to power as Bose did. Bose’s life was an example of tyag or renunciation of power and privilege.
Nibir: How would you react to the opinion of Nirad C. Chaudhari on Subhas Chandra Bose that it was not his love of India but only intense hatred of the British that drove him through most of his life?
Sugata: Nirad C. Chaudhuri was a highly opinionated man who was mistaken in this opinion. It was not just Subhas’s love of India, but love as an essential element, that defined him. As he wrote in his unfinished autobiography, “I see all around me the play of love; I perceive within me the same instinct; I feel that I must love in order to fulfill myself and I need love as the basic principle on which to reconstruct life.” His hatred was reserved for oppressive British rule, not the British, and he advocated the friendliest relations with the British people once freedom was won.
Nibir: If there was an attempt by British historians and scholars to relegate Netaji to the margins of the then contemporary history, does it not seem strange that outside Bengal, the portrayal of Netaji’s role in the Freedom Struggle by Indian historians has not been much different? What causes would you attribute to such neglect of Netaji?
Sugata: Netaji has been neglected only in official histories and textbooks and by court historians in post-independence India. There is a certain price to be paid for being the alter-ego to those wielding state power. He looms large in popular memory, not just in Bengal, but throughout the subcontinent. In fact, I think he is more revered in Punjab and Tamil Nadu and by freedom-loving peoples in many peripheral regions of India than in Bengal. He need not be part of the official canon. I would much rather see him as a subject of independent scholarship in the future.
Nibir: The confrontation that Subhas Bose had with Professor E.F. Oaten at Presidency college, Calcutta led to his expulsion. In An Indian Pilgrim you have included the Poem “Subhas Chandra Bose” penned by Oaten in 1947, decades after the episode. What is your take on the poem especially with regard to Subhas?
Sugata: Oaten's poem is a very interesting one on the audacity and courage of Subhas Chandra Bose's challenge to the British Empire and strikes a note of mourning for the untimely stilling of his patriot heart. It is not by any means a eulogy, but conveys a sense of understanding, reconciliation and respect. My parents had a pleasant meeting with Professor and Mrs Oaten at their country home in 1971 and my father invited him to the First International Netaji Seminar held in January 1973. Professor Oaten could not travel because of poor health but sent a paper titled "The Bengal Student as I knew Him," which was read in absentia and then published in the proceedings Netaji and India's Freedom. My father believed Oaten's perspective should be recorded in the interest of history.
Nibir: In what way did the role and function of Netaji Research Bureau, established in 1957 in Calcutta, contribute to the correction of distorted or incomplete perspectives about the legendary leader?
Sugata: Netaji Research Bureau played a signal role in lighting a flame in 1957 that illuminated the multiple facets of Netaji’s life and work in the decades to come in the midst of complete official apathy. Instead of carping and complaining about governmental neglect, Sisir Kumar Bose set out to do the work that needed to be accomplished against stiff odds. In the process, Netaji Research Bureau was also able to show that the life was more fascinating and salient than the legend. Fringe groups styling themselves as devotees contributed to distorted perspectives on Netaji, just as officialdom could be blamed for incomplete ones. Sisir Kumar Bose lamented the emergence of “a strange and spurious Bose cult.” “Persistent rumors about Bose being alive and flights of fantasy in regard to his whereabouts,” he wrote in the introduction to the proceedings of an outstanding International Netaji Seminar in 1973 (published as Netaji and India’s Freedom in 1975), “prevented the development of a sober, scientific, historical appraisal of India’s only soldier-statesman of modern times.” The “spurious Bose cult” that he deplored is still doing the rounds. If Netaji gets once more shrouded in meaningless mystery, India will be in danger of losing sight of the life and work of a man who was much more than a mythical hero. There is much to learn from Netaji’s book of life in the present and the future.
Nibir: You have mentioned in your Preface to His Majesty’s Opponent that you were initially hesitant in writing a definitive biography of Subhas Chandra Bose. What was the cause of your hesitation? Also, as the grand-nephew of the gigantic historical figure, did you at any time, during the writing of the book, feel the tension of balancing personal relationship and history?
Sugata: I was hesitant because of the family relationship and I was clear that I wanted to write as a historian. Ultimately, I could see that if I had a bias it was likely to be shared by countless people in the subcontinent. Also, I felt the knowledge I had garnered by being associated with NRB and as joint editor of Netaji’s Collected Works had to be put to good use. It takes almost a lifetime of research to write a good book about Netaji. I wrote mine at a time when I felt I had the requisite critical distance and could place Netaji’s life in the context of modern global history.
Nibir: You have quoted a statement by Mahatma Gandhi in His Majesty’s Opponent wherein the Mahatma shows his admiration for Netaji in the context of the INA: “The lesson that Netaji and his army brings to us is one of self-sacrifice, unity—irrespective of class and community—and discipline.” Notwithstanding Netaji’s profound personal admiration and respect for Gandhi, he is candid enough to confess in The Indian Struggle 1920-34: “The leader of the Congress is Mahatma Gandhi–who is the virtual dictator. The Working Committee since 1929 has been elected according to his dictation and no one can find place on that committee who is not thoroughly submissive to him and his policy.” Do you think such an impression could have been instrumental in the ultimate parting of ways between Netaji and the Mahatma?
Sugata: I think Subhas was occasionally too blunt and tactlessly candid in his criticisms of Mahatma Gandhi in the 1920s and 1930s. He was honest in expressing his views to a fault, but he also genuinely admired Gandhi. There was no “ultimate” parting of the ways between Netaji and the Mahatma. They fell out in 1939 over the correct strategy to follow in winning freedom, but came closer in the aims and ideology from 1942 onwards. Gandhi recognized and respected Netaji’s greatest achievement in uniting all the religious communities of India.
Nibir: Netaji had inspired millions of Indians based in different parts of the world with his slogan, “Dilli Chalo!” Had he been present when the national flag was unfurled from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi on 15th August 1947, do you think India’s “tryst with destiny” may have been different?
Sugata: This question is about a big “if” of history. I think Netaji and the Mahatma working together may have been able to avert the tragedy of partition. Subhas Chandra Bose would certainly have worked towards an equitable sharing of power among India’s diverse religious and linguistic groups in a federal India. He would also have been more energetic in removing the scourge of poverty, illiteracy and disease in our country.
Nibir: As a historian, what are your perceptions of Netaji’s “discovery of India” with Jawahar Lal Nehru’s Discovery of India?
Sugata: Netaji’s discovery of India took place as a teenager doing social work among the poor and destitute well before his first trip to Europe. Jawaharlal Nehru found himself among the kisans of UP in his early thirties during the non-cooperation movement, having already spent his formative years in Harrow and Cambridge. Both were cosmopolitan figures, but Bose’s cosmopolitanism was more rooted than Nehru’s.
Nibir: From the exalted academic position of Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs at Harvard University, what inspired you to take the plunge into active Indian politics? How do you come to terms with factors like the criminalization of politics which is so common in the Indian context?
Sugata: My primary identity is that of an historian, scholar and teacher. I am simply helping out in the political sphere at a critical historical moment in Indian politics. I felt there needed to be an alternative to the forces of religious majoritarianism and unbridled capitalism that seem poised to overwhelm Indian democracy. I was very reluctant to take the plunge into politics precisely because of the criminalization you refer to. But then, if there is any hope of cleansing Indian politics, we need good people from different walks of life to take active part in democratic political processes.
Nibir: As a Member of Parliament of the world’s largest democracy, what is your vision of India? How do you manage to cope with the challenges of caste, marginalization, communalism and rampant corruption so common to Indian polity?
Sugata: My vision is that of an egalitarian and federal India where historically marginalized people are fully empowered as equal citizens. I cope with the challenges by keep warning my countrymen not to confuse religious majoritarianism with democracy, and uniformity with unity. We need to reclaim patriotism from the chauvinists, religion from the religious bigots, and politics from the corrupt.
Nibir: In one of your recent eloquent speeches in the Lok Sabha, you remarked “I am a nationalist. I believe in a kind of nationalism that instills a feeling of selfless service in our people and inspires their creative efforts.” What is your own agenda for instilling in citizens the idea and practice of selfless service?
Sugata: Even when I speak in Parliament, I see myself as a teacher lecturing in a massive online course on political ethics. Having been a teacher in universities for three and a half decades, I think I communicate quite well with the 18 to 25-year old age group. I hope to persuade this younger generation of the virtue of seva and that they can achieve a sense of deep fulfillment in living for others less fortunate than themselves.
Nibir: “How many selfless sons of the Mother are prepared, in this selfish age, to completely give up their personal interests and take the plunge for the Mother?” This is a question which Subhas asked his mother when he was barely fifteen. Musing over this question a little over a century later, is it possible to respond with any kind of optimism? What, according to you, can be done to attract contemporary Indian youth to the legacy of love and passion for the motherland left behind by the Netaji?
Sugata: Optimism is a pragmatic necessity. In the letters that Subhas wrote as a fifteen-year old to his mother and brother Sarat he described darkness, despair and decline engulfing India. Yet he found refuge in Tennyson-like optimism. “A brighter future is India’s destiny,” he wrote to Sarat. “The day may be far off – but it must come.” I would urge contemporary youth never to lose faith in India’s destiny. However, they should avoid the snare of narrow nationalism. True love for the motherland can only bloom in the garden of a larger humanity.
*Nibir K. Ghosh is Chief Editor, Re-Markings