Ash-and-cash saga in Netaji files

Japan and priests of the Renkoji Temple repeatedly prodded India to take back the purported ashes of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose but successive governments in Delhi used diplomacy and token donations to persuade Tokyo to keep the remains, files declassified today have revealed.

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 24.01.16
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Netaji’s bust at the Renkoji Temple in Tokyo, where the ashes purported to be those of the Indian freedom fighter are kept

New Delhi, Jan. 23: Japan and priests of the Renkoji Temple repeatedly prodded India to take back the purported ashes of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose but successive governments in Delhi used diplomacy and token donations to persuade Tokyo to keep the remains, files declassified today have revealed.

The files, chronicling the debates within the government and the diplomacy with Japan over Bose's ashes, were among 100 documents on the freedom fighter that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made public.

According to the files, every government, at least from Indira Gandhi's pre-Emergency administration to Manmohan Singh's team, had mulled bringing the ashes back amid frequent reminders from the ministry of external affairs, under pressure from the Japanese government and the temple's authorities.

Government notes and cabinet documents show that each of these governments was officially convinced that Bose died in a plane crash in Taiwan in August 1945, as was corroborated by two probes - one by the Shah Nawaz Khan Committee in 1956 and the other by the Justice G.D. Khosla Commission in 1974.

The Singh government had rejected the conclusions of the Justice M.K. Mukherjee Commission in 2005, which concluded that it could not be said for sure that the ashes were of Bose.

But each Indian administration eventually concluded that bringing the ashes back when some members of the Bose family weren't convinced that they belonged to him could trigger a political storm best avoided, the documents show.

The UPA government had quietly persuaded Bose's daughter in Germany, Anita Pfaff, to drop a plan she had to privately test the DNA of the ashes and, if verified as Bose's, bring them with her to India for a formal cremation.

Instead, Indian governments showered praise and donations on the temple, and used deft diplomacy with Japanese governments and leaders to keep the debate under wraps, files kept by the Prime Minister's Office, the home ministry and the foreign office show.

Till 2008, the donations had totalled more than Rs 53 lakh. (A list maintained by the PMO shows a gift of Rs 28,000 - 50,000 yen - in 2006 by Singh's wife Gursharan Kaur when the then Prime Minister visited Japan.)

"So long as the ashes are kept in Japan, there is room for a misgiving that the Government of India has not fully accepted the findings of the Shah Nawaz Khan Committee and the Khosla Commission," then home secretary T.C.A. Srinivasavaradan wrote in a note on November 20, 1977. "Bringing the ashes when some members of Shri Bose's family and followers of the Forward Bloc are not reconciled to the generally accepted facts, will create some measure of unpleasantness."

Multiple governments, including the current one, had earlier contended that the files could hurt diplomatic relations. But The Telegraph could not spot in the files it scanned through the day information likely to dramatically upset any Indian ally - beyond the fact of the disclosure of details shared in diplomatic confidence by Japan and the former Soviet Union. However, more files remain to be declassified.

The pressure to bring back the ashes came from three sources.

By the early 1970s, the priest at the Renkoji Temple, Kyoei Mochizuki, who had initially accepted the ashes, had already aged beyond 90. His son, Nichiko Mochizuki, told the Indian mission in Tokyo that he wanted to send the ashes back to New Delhi.

Eric Gonsalves, then Indian ambassador to Japan, discussed the request with the Japanese foreign ministry, which indicated that the shrine may be willing to retain the ashes - in exchange for some financial compensation and recognition.

India's former permanent representative to the UN, Hardeep Puri, was then a young officer at the Tokyo embassy, and was assigned by Gonsalves to talk to the priest's son.

Puri reported - according to a September 7, 1977, letter by Gonsalves to the joint secretary (East Asia) in the foreign ministry, C.V. Ranganathan - that the son, who was set to take over as priest from his father, was willing to keep the ashes, but at a cost.

"I believe the son of the chief priest, who is most likely to succeed him, is likely to drive a hard bargain," Gonsalves wrote to "Rangi", as he referred to Ranganathan. "And we have little room for manoeuvre."

That bargain included a demand for a certificate of recognition and an increase in the government's donations to the temple - at the time a modest Rs 5,000 a year.

For over a month, the government deliberated how to compensate the Renkoji priest and his family. A medal or a certificate was out of the question, the foreign office and the home ministry concurred. Instead, they agreed on a letter of appreciation from either the foreign minister or the foreign secretary - the files are unclear about who actually sent the letter.

India also decided to significantly raise its publicly undisclosed annual donation to the temple - from Rs 5,672 in 1976 to Rs 18,264 in 1977, then to Rs 25,231 in 1979, Rs 112,359 in 1991 and, from 2002, Rs 4.3 lakh a year.

But the Japanese government was pressuring, too.

On July 16, 1976, the foreign ministry wrote to the home ministry citing repeated nudges from the Japanese government to take back the ashes. In 2006, former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori wrote to Singh asking India to claim the ashes.

Ahead of Singh's December 2006 Japan visit, the Japanese ambassador to India formally enquired if the "matter" could be raised by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a protégé of Mori's.

"In response, Joint Secretary (EA) discouraged the idea and suggested that if necessary, the matter could be discussed at the official level during the preparations for PM's visit," Ashok Kantha, then joint secretary in charge of East Asia - and now India's ambassador to China - wrote to B. Banmati in the home ministry on August 3, 2006. "The Japanese ambassador took note of the suggestion but remarked that the ashes could not remain in Japan indefinitely."

Sections of the Bose family, like daughter Pfaff and his nephew's wife Krishna Bose, were convinced he died in the 1945 plane crash. In 2006, Pfaff and Krishna Bose wrote to Singh informing him that they planned to bring the ashes back on their own.

Their letters coincided with the sharpest rethink within the government on the future of Bose's ashes in over 30 years.

In June 2007, Prime Minister Singh and his national security adviser M.K. Narayanan held a meeting and decided that the ashes should be moved out of Renkoji to a new chancery building India was constructing. Singh decided to inform Pfaff.

"PM has approved that the decision that Netaji's ashes would be moved from Renkoji temple in Tokyo to the new premises of the Indian Embassy in Tokyo may be conveyed to Ms Bose Pfaff," Sujata Mehta, then a joint secretary in the PMO and now a secretary in the foreign office, wrote.

But Mehta also offered words of caution against the decision to shift the ashes.

"If the government accepts the physical custody of the ashes then the issue of appropriateness of housing them in Japan - in the Indian chancery - would arise," she wrote in a note to Narayanan on July 3, 2007. "Shifting the ashes to the chancery without a plan to bring them back to India could create difficulties."

Ultimately, Narayanan agreed that the ashes should remain at the temple and asked the Indian ambassador in Tokyo to plead with the priests and the Japanese government for more time. The government also decided to ask Pfaff to avoid a DNA test on the ashes and not bring them back to India.

A bureaucratic reflex to avoid any risky decision appears to have played a key role in the repeated deferrals by governments of any decision to bring the ashes back.

In 1995, the ministry of external affairs proposed that "in view of widespread sentiments that Netaji's birth centenary in 1997 should be befittingly commemorated, the ashes should be brought back to India with respect and honour".

But a committee of secretaries decided there was no need to take a decision till closer to 1997, when it was deferred.

Political fears too were key.

On August 19, 1976, then joint director of the Intelligence Bureau, T.V. Rajeswar - who would become the agency's chief and later governor of Bengal, among other states - cautioned against bringing the ashes back during the Emergency.

"The ashes have to remain in Japan till a more favourable opportunity comes up," Rajeswar wrote to R.L. Mishra, a joint secretary in the home ministry. "Government of India would be accused of foisting a false story on the people of West Bengal and India, taking advantage of the Emergency."

The ashes, he warned, could become a rallying point for "propaganda, if and when the elections are announced".