Chronicle of a death untold

September 12, 1997

Conspiracy theories about the death in a plane crash of a leading Indian nationalist at the end of the second world war will persist until the British Foreign Office releases papers on the incident. Leonard Gordon explains

For decades after his disappearance on August 18, 1945, Subhas Chandra Bose, a famous Indian patriot and enemy of the British Raj, was thought by many Indians to be alive. His imminent appearance was often announced, or a picture of a mysterious holy man would appear in a paper and be identified as Bose. When I lived in Calcutta in the 1960s people would say, "He is to speak tomorrow at the market in I" (some nearby town). I would go and the appearance had always been put off. In 1979 a photograph was given to the press purporting to be Bose and since it was given out by an Indian MP, appeared on the front page of every Indian paper. Why did Bengalis want him alive?

West Bengal, the section of undivided Bengal left to the Republic of India by the partition of 1947, was in decline. Millions of refugees arrived from the agriculturally richer Eastern Bengal and settled mainly in the Calcutta area. The Hooghly River, a part of the Ganges, was silting up, and the great port of Calcutta was dying. Some thought West Bengal needed a great man to save it and her last and favourite hero had disappeared mysteriously in the week the war ended. They came to believe that perhaps Bose was alive, just waiting for the right moment to return and take charge.

The theory was fuelled by the fact there was no body, no photographs, no official report of Bose's death by either the government of India or Britain. To the British, Bose was an unpalatable character - a troublesome younger leader of the Indian National Congress under Mahatma Gandhi, who was twice chosen president of the national Congress organisation, in 1938, and then again in 1939 against Gandhi's wishes. Because of his ties to underground revolutionaries Bose was jailed repeatedly and exiled to Europe in the 1930s. He made it clear that if Gandhi's methods did not work, well, there were other possibilities for a subject people. He had insider knowledge of assassination attempts on officials, but what he really wanted - if Gandhi, indeed, failed - was an army of Indians to drive the British from India.

The war gave Bose his opportunity. In January 1941, he went in disguise to the northwest of India, crossing the frontier into Afghanistan on foot. Reaching Kabul, he contacted the Italian, German, and Soviet governments. The Germans agreed to accept him and he was given an Italian passport. As Orlando Mazzotta, he travelled through the Soviet Union to Berlin in the spring of 1941. There he organised the Free India Centre and the Indian Legion, a military force composed mostly of Indian prisoners of war captured in North Africa. For the centre, a propaganda enterprise, broadcasting back to Indian and turning out anti-British materials, he recruited Indians marooned in Europe by the war's outbreak. He hoped for tripartite recognition of a provisional government of free India. But Hitler would not give this.

Bose was finally allowed to leave in 1943 for Southeast Asia where he set up the Provisional government of free India, supported by a civilian organisation, the Indian Independence League. The INA participated in the Japanese invasion of India of 1944, a disaster for the attackers. As he fled back through Burma and Thailand, Bose decided to make his way to Manchuria, hoping to contact the Soviet government. He believed the Soviets might prove to be the next enemies of the British Empire.

The plane, with a top Japanese general and Bose aboard, crashed on take off from Taipei airport in Taiwan. Bose was taken to a local military hospital, treated for terrible burns, and died that evening. His body was cremated and the ashes taken to Tokyo, and eventually deposited in a Buddhist temple, where they sit today. But the lack of a body, or photographs, or a death certificate swiftly led to controversy.

Recently, however, the British government has opened long-sealed files from a semi-secret branch of the government of India called IPI, Indian Political Intelligence. These files, somewhat censored, have been released in the India Office Library, in London. One of the files contains papers about the last hours of Bose, including an interview conducted in Hong Kong in 1946 with the doctor who treated Bose in the Taiwan hospital. However, for reasons known only to the British Foreign Office, several papers following the doctor's statement have been removed. While these are kept secret, rumours of British assassination plots and skulduggery will persist. There is one document which I learned of years ago, and which Bose's family, officials of the government of free India, and I have been searching for. This is a report on Bose's death written by Colonel, later Sir, John Figgess of British military intelligence in Tokyo.

Was the Figgess report the document removed from the IPI file? Were there other documents? I do not know. But I do know that by some strange coincidence a Xerox copy of the Figgess report was given recently by an anonymous donor to the India Office Library, where it is kept in the European manuscripts collection. Since Figgess died in March this year he has to be one candidate for the mystery donor, even though he wrote to me that he did not have a copy.

This copy of Figgess's report, dated July 25 1946, details the outcome of an investigation conducted in Tokyo to establish the precise details of the circumstances surrounding the reported death of Bose. The heart of the report is the sentence: "As a result of a series of interrogations of individuals named in the following paragraphs it is confirmed as certain that S. C. Bose died in a Taihoku Military Hospital (Nammon Ward) between 17.00 hours and 20.00 hours local time on August 18, 1945."

The rest of the four pages contain details of interviews with Japanese officers which have been conducted at least three times since Figgess applied himself to the task. Two parliamentary commissions were set up in India, in 1956 and 1970 and I investigated in 1979.

So we have yet further corroboration of Bose's death in a military hospital following a plane crash. This should help to end the alternative versions. However, the British Foreign Office should return the removed documents to the IPIfile, it should officially release the report of Colonel Figgess, and it should give some explanation of why it has taken so long for these documents to be opened to the public. Or does the British government have something to hide?

Leonard A. Gordon is professor of history at the City University of New York.

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