On the run from the biggest power on earth, Subhas Chandra Bose mixed fearlessly with the deadliest men of his times. India’s star freedom fighter was born in Nazi Germany. In a remarkable image makeover for Bose, from the politician Subhas babu, he became the military leader Netaji. As Netaji, Bose’s two initial contributions to the idea of modern India were a national slogan and a national anthem. His political opponents at home were compelled to accept them years later. They couldn’t think of anything comparable. The admiring look in Adolf Hitler’s devilish eyes as Bose gives him a firm handshake is an iconic freeze-frame for many, continuing embarrassment for others and a stick to beat Bose with for those who abhorred him for entirely domestic reasons.
Bose’s violent push for India’s freedom during the Second World War with his quickly assembled, Japan-backed Indian National Army (INA) had a great start, or so it seemed. Bose’s deep baritone on the radio sent Indian hopes soaring unbelievably high. And yet the dreams of a blitzkrieg by Bose’s non-existent airplanes never materialised. His exhortation “George Washington had an army when he won freedom. Garibaldi had an army when he liberated Italy” came to nothing when the action began. It was “still an embryo organisation” when it went to war; a “purely guerrilla force…with no aircraft, no artillery, no heavy mortars, no tanks or AFVs”. “It was never a cause of real trouble or annoyance to the Allies,” a National Archives report concluded.
The trouble was just starting. An Indian Army officer intermingled with the imprisoned INA men “awaiting repatriation to India” to get a sense of their outlook. He reported back that it was no use trying to belittle Bose: “He is regarded by them as a ‘Leader’ who is honest, utterly sincere and who has raised the status of the Indian community in the Far East far above that of the other minorities under Japanese occupation.” These people were then brought to India and put on trial at the very place they had vowed to march into. But the idea to make the Red Fort trials the Indian version of Nuremberg and Tokyo trials backfired. This was when Bose’s war was justified.