Much has been written over the years about Subhas Chandra Bose, rather less about his elder brother and comrade-in-arms Sarat Chandra Bose. As often noted by nephew and son Amiya Nath Bose, it is more illuminating to consider them in tandem and not one in isolation from the other. The brothers shared the same vision and ideological convictions and worked closely together from the 1920s, until Subhas’ departure from India in January 1941, towards their common goal of a free, united and socialist India.
For their part, the British not only feared the leadership, courage and energy of Subhas, they were equally wary of Sarat. As a man of the law and formidable intellect, Sarat commanded profound respect among his peers. The power of his pen was recognised early on. British intelligence reports of the early 1930s paint him as a man who “assisted the revolutionary movement for years by means of his Purse, his Press and his Prestige”, and who was “unquestionably a most dangerous opponent of government”.
In the current national debate centred on the declassification of Netaji files and the Nehru government’s long-time surveillance of the Bose family, the relationship between Sarat and Jawaharlal Nehru merits as much attention as that between Subhas and Nehru.
To highlight the more obvious points of similarity, Sarat and Nehru were age contemporaries, both born in 1889, Sarat on September 6 and Nehru on November 14. Both studied in England, albeit Nehru for a much longer time. Both inherited from their fathers a calling to the law, and as young men were called to the Bar in England – Nehru from Inner Temple in 1912 and Sarat from Lincoln’s Inn in 1914.
Both went on to practise law, Sarat to become a successful and eminent barrister, Nehru eschewing the law for full-time politics after a few years. Much later in 1946, in a show of solidarity with the immensely-popular returned officers and soldiers of the Subhas-led Indian National Army (INA), Nehru ostentatiously donned his barrister’s robes and joined the defence team for the trial of INA officers at the Red Fort in Delhi.
Again, both Sarat and Nehru had espoused leftist principles as young men, and within a few years of Mahatma Gandhi’s return to India in 1915 had become active members of a resurgent Congress movement. Together with Subhas, they thus became intimately involved in the burgeoning Non-Cooperation Movement led by Gandhi, and were to feature prominently in the freedom movement of India for the rest of their lives.
As was the case with Subhas, Nehru enjoyed a cordial personal relationship with Sarat, and many times over the years Nehru was an honoured guest of Sarat at the latter’s 1 Woodburn Park home in Calcutta. During what was probably Nehru’s final stay at Woodburn Park in March 1946, when fundamental differences between them on the way ahead for the independence struggle, particularly on the Partition were very much in the open, Sarat saw fit to instruct some of his indignant family members to treat the guest with the same hospitality and courtesy as before!
By all accounts the political relationship between Sarat and Subhas on the one hand and Nehru on the other, during the decade of the 1920s, was harmonious enough. The Congress as a movement was able to host a range of political and ideological views and standpoints from Left to Right, and both Sarat and Subhas, as well as Nehru, were firmly in the leftist camp. All three featured in moves by the left wing at the Annual Sessions of the Congress in Calcutta in 1928 and Lahore in 1929, to press for early and complete independence.
As the 1930s unfolded, a gradual political estrangement between Nehru and the Bose brothers clearly began to take shape, and the relationship was to become increasingly difficult with the passage of time. Tensions between them had already surfaced in 1936. Sarat, as acting president of the Bengal Provincial Congress Committee (BPCC), decried the refusal of Nehru as the Congress president and spokesman of the Congress high command, to sanction “direct agitation” challenges by the BPCC to British constitutional reforms under the Government of India Act of 1935. The BPCC was particularly incensed by the so-called communal award of separate electorates, which they correctly saw as prejudicial to Indian unity and independence itself.
Despite official Congress policy which rejected the Act in its entirety, including its communal provisions, Nehru in a letter to Sarat wrote: “… Any big scale organised agitation against the communal decision at this stage will inevitably divert attention from the vast political and economic questions that face India and the world today.” Nehru concluded the letter thus: “I must confess to you that my mind is full of the vast upheavals that are taking place in the world today, of the tragic conflict in Spain and the inevitable effect of all of this on India.”
We do not know of any specific response from Sarat to this letter from Nehru, but he was to refer to Nehru later, in jail jottings from his time in Coonoor in south India, as a “muddle-headed theorist”, and “if independence could be won through words, Jawahar would have won it long ago!”
The Government of India Act of 1935 was to be the catalyst for further strains in the political relationship between Nehru and the brothers, again with Sarat in the spotlight, following provincial elections which took place under the Act in January 1937. In Bengal, the Congress with 52 seats was the largest single party, but closely followed by the Krishak Praja Party (KPP) and Muslim League with 50 seats each.
Well short of an absolute majority, Sarat as leader of the Congress in Bengal pressed the Congress high command under Nehru as Congress president, for acceptance of the principle of coalition government, and in particular, the go-ahead to form such a coalition with the KPP in Bengal. In what would prove to be a landmark decision, the Congress at the Centre denied both the principles and the Bengal Congress was consigned to the Opposition benches, with a coalition of the Muslim League and KPP holding the reins of the provincial government in Bengal.
Barely two years later, in April, 1939, in the melee which surrounded Subhas’ contested election at Tripuri for a second term as the Congress president, and in the course of which he was effectively forced from office by the Congress right wing, Subhas was to write to his nephew Amiya: “… Nobody has done more harm to me personally and to our cause in this crisis than Pandit Nehru… His open propaganda against me has done me more harm than the activities of the 12 stalwarts (of the Congress Working Committee). What a pity!”
Both Sarat and Subhas wrote to Gandhi to voice their disillusionment and disgust at what had happened, and Sarat and Nehru exchanged harsh words in the aftermath. Sarat and Subhas may have forgiven Nehru for what they saw as a fundamental political betrayal, but they certainly would never have forgotten.
With the onset of the Second World War later that year in September, 1939, the main characters were, within a few years, scattered in the winds. Subhas engineered a daring escape from Calcutta to re-surface in Germany in April, 1941, and then on to his destiny in south east Asia; on the cusp of finally gaining control of the provincial government in Bengal, Sarat was arrested in December of that same year and whisked off by the British to nearly four years of detention in the far south of India at Coonoor; Nehru and Gandhi were both arrested and detained on August 9, 1942 as the Quit India movement was being launched. Gandhi was eventually freed on May 6, 1944 from his detention near Poona (now Pune) at the Aga Khan Palace, requisitioned by the British for wartime use, and Nehru from Ahmadnagar Fort Prison Camp, also near Poona, on March 28, 1945.
With the end of the Asia/Pacific chapter of the war in August, 1945, and the disappearance of Subhas the same month, Gandhi, Nehru and Sarat were soon back on the national political scene, with Sarat, at Gandhi’s request, returning to the Congress fold from which he had been suspended in 1939 in the wake of the events at Tripuri.
Sarat was soon to make his mark, and after being elected in late-1945 to the central legislative assembly in Delhi from a Calcutta constituency, early-1946 found him as leader of the Congress parliamentary party in the central legislative assembly. In September that year, over the reservations of viceroy Wavell, Sarat was appointed to the interim government as the minister of works, mines and power; but after some weeks he resigned to make way for nominees to the cabinet from the Muslim League of Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
From this point onwards, Sarat was to become a formidable and principled opponent of the looming Partition, not just of colonial India but of his beloved Bengal. As the new year of 1947 was ushered in, and with the partition of India now virtually a fait accompli despite the wishes of Gandhi, Sarat, on January 6, 1947 resigned from the Congress Working Committee under the leadership of Nehru which was overseeing the process.
A concerted, last-ditch attempt led by Sarat a few months later in May-June, 1947 to save the territorial integrity of Bengal, was firmly opposed by Nehru and also failed. On August 1, 1947, Sarat resigned for good from the Congress movement that he had served for 40 years.
On August 15, 1947, the first day of a new India as a dominion of the British empire, Sarat sat quietly on the first-floor southern verandah of his Woodburn Park home in Calcutta. Outside he could hear the celebratory commotion from thousands of his fellow citizens, some of them no doubt relieved that their iconic city had not been hived off to East Pakistan, others simply thankful that the communal horrors of the previous year had not recurred.
In Delhi, the new prime minister Nehru spoke of a “Tryst with Destiny”, and the former viceroy and new governor-general Lord Mountbatten welcomed the new India as an independent country with dominion status within the British empire. The invention of the British Commonwealth of Nations with India as an equal partner, was still several years away.
Sarat characteristically refused to retire from the scene of struggle. He had fought like a lion to prevent the Partition with all of its tragic consequences; the India of his and Subhas’ dreams had not materialised and Bengal was cleaved down the middle; and India as a dominion within the British empire accepted by Nehru, had still to achieve the complete independence on which the brothers had never compromised.
Putting aside his immense disappointment, Sarat was soon back into the fray. On August 1, 1947, the day of his resignation from the Congress, he launched his Socialist Republican Party, railing against a critical failure of the Congress leadership and noting that: “We have today a dismembered India and, instead of independence, dominion status under British influence and patronage.”
What he saw as a failure of leadership on the part of the Nehru government, was to be a persistent and recurring theme for Sarat, as he strived to promote an Indian form of socialism and to bring unity to the leftist forces in the country. In an address to a students’ conference in late-1949, he asked rhetorically: “Do you realise what havoc two years of Congress rule have caused to our country?… Corruption, favouritism and nepotism are running rampant, and black-marketeers, profiteers and corrupters of public morals are at large with the government looking on helplessly, almost pathetically.”
As part of his political strategy, on September 1, 1948 Sarat launched a daily newspaper The Nation to give voice to the Left. In June, the following year, he won a resounding victory over a prominent Congress candidate in a Calcutta bye-election. On October 28, 1949 he was instrumental in the formation of the United Socialist Organisation of India.
By the time of his untimely death only a few months later on February 20, 1950, Sarat was beginning to emerge as a formidable opponent of the Congress government under Nehru. The news media certainly thought so, judging from a United Press headline on the day of his death: “Sarat Chandra Bose, No 1 political opponent of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, died today in Calcutta”. This wire service report was carried the next day in The New York Times under the banner headline “SARAT BOSE DEAD; Ranking Political Opponent of Nehru Was Head of United Socialist Organization Won By-Election (sic) by 4 to 1”.
There is nothing to suggest that Nehru had anything but the highest regard and respect for Sarat. At the same time it is clear that this personal regard did not deter Nehru and his Congress henchmen from widespread attempts to “black” Sarat out of the picture. There is little doubt that by the late-1940s Sarat was beginning to emerge as a possible alternative, a more leftist political focus for the Indian electorate.
Nor was Sarat exactly unknown abroad. He had many contacts in the British establishment, and president de Valera of Ireland was a personal friend. Mao Tse Tung had cordially acknowledged a message of congratulations upon his assumption of the government in China on October 1, 1949. Sarat had been warmly welcomed to Aung San’s Burma earlier in 1946. Sarat’s clarion call in 1948 for a United Nations of South Asia introduced a vision for a stable and prosperous post-colonial region.
The sudden and unanticipated death of Sarat on February 20, 1950 thus removed a possible, looming threat to the political future of Nehru, and perhaps also to his embryonic dynastic ambitions in relation to his daughter Indira Gandhi. Where Subhas was concerned, no matter what Nehru might have said publicly, it appears that in his own mind there must have been uncertainties about the reported death of Subhas in an air crash in Taiwan on August 18, 1945.
It would not have helped that the British and American intelligence agencies were themselves unsure about the air crash story. Speculation was rife that Subhas was still out there somewhere, biding his time for a triumphant return to India.
Sarat for his part never subscribed to the air crash story, and there is firm evidence that Gandhi harboured his own doubts that Subhas had perished in 1945 in the manner described.
It is well within reason therefore to suggest that Nehru feared a possible return to India of Subhas, and even the probable revival of the INA as a political force in support of Subhas. This helps to explain – but still by no means condone – the spying by the Nehru-led Congress government on members of the Bose family for over two decades after independence. The declassification of official files long held from public view by successive governments of India may be able to tell us more not only about the circumstances surrounding Subhas’ disappearance, but also help us to have a better understanding of the forces which shaped our post-independence politics.
Author : MADHURI BOSE