What history & common sense say

Nehru-era snooping on Netaji family

  • Published 11.04.15

There are suspicions that refuse to die. One of these is that Jawaharlal Nehru nursed a deep-seated hostility towards Subhas Chandra Bose.

The dying embers of this suspicion have been stoked by the recent "revelations" from some declassified files that the Government of India, between 1948 and 1968, kept two members of the Bose family under surveillance through the Intelligence Bureau. 

Jawaharlal Nehru declares Subhas Chandra Bose president of the Congress at the Haripura session in 1938

It is assumed on the basis of this evidence that Nehru had ordered this surveillance and that he was apprehensive of Bose's return.

The reports of the surveillance are shocking and surprising as they were directed at Bose's two nephews, Amiya and Sisir, who were minor political figures. If Nehru had been genuinely suspicious of a possible return of Bose, he should have placed Sarat Bose, the person who was closest to Subhas and was his elder brother, under surveillance (Sarat Bose died in 1950). These files do not suggest that.

The critical question: did Nehru have reason to worry if Bose were to return? Was his political position within the Congress and in India that fragile in the years of his prime ministership? The answer is that he had no apparent reason to feel threatened.

To this must be added that by 1946, the ideological differences that Nehru had had with Bose when the latter had joined the Axis Powers had disappeared. He had been deeply upset by the report of the air crash that was presumed to have taken Bose's life (according to reports); he had spoken to the INA undertrials and had been profoundly impressed by Bose's bravery, his secularism and his ability to stand up to Japanese bullying. He described him as a great soldier and patriot who was personally like a younger brother to him, with whom he had had a passing but serious ideological disagreement.

This response of Nehru in the aftermath of the Second World War must be seen in the context of the comradeship that he and Bose had shared through the 1930s. The two of them together were the leaders of the radical wing of the Congress.

They read the same books; they missed each other's company and support when one of them was away in Europe. Bose, it is not often noted, had been present at the death and funeral of Kamala Nehru. There were personal and political bonds between the two.

Given this history, and also given that in 1946, Nehru had overcome the reservations he had had in the early 1940s regarding Bose's activities, it is difficult to accept the argument that Nehru had reason to feel threatened at the prospect of Bose's return.

In fact, he probably would have welcomed Bose back since the latter would have provided him vital support against the Right-wingers within the Congress, including Vallabhbhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad. But this is a piece of speculation as much as the argument that he felt threatened is speculation.

What is a fact, as far as one can make out from the reports on the declassified files, is that Amiya and Sisir Bose were under surveillance. The reasons for this are not known.

To know the reasons, historians will have to dig deep into the evidence, certainly deeper than a report in a newspaper. Serious research, rather than sensational mudslinging, is the need.

There are two more points that need to be made. Some of reports in the files refer to the post-Nehru years. Around 1967-68, Amiya Bose was a political figure of the Left in Bengal. Is this why Indira Gandhi put him under surveillance?

Surveillance is a characteristic of all modern regimes of power. In fact, it is one of its indelible birthmarks. Dominant powers use it routinely against the opposition, potential opponents and even sometimes friends. In this process, spooks are also known to have spied on the wrong persons.

By spying on the two Bose cousins, the Government of India was bestowing more importance on them than they politically deserved. Their close relationship with their uncle may not have been relevant at all.

This is what common sense and a sense of history would suggest but neither of these has been a good antidote to either suspicion or sensationalism.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee is the author of Nehru & Bose: Parallel Lives, published by Penguin