As Modi, Mamata Battle Over Netaji’s Legacy, a Look at His Thoughts on India and Communalism
“To destroy communalism is, therefore, the task of all those Indians – Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Christians etc. who have transcended all the communal outlook and have developed a genuine nationalist mentality.”
By Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee began their battle over the legacy of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose on his 124th birth anniversary, both kicking off a year-long celebration on the occasion of the coming 125th birth anniversary on behalf of their governments, though separately. With the state elections barely three months away, both of them are trying to highlight their sentiments for the national hero who has been one of Bengal’s fondest children – Modi had two indoor events in Kolkata on Netaji, while Mamata led a massive rally.
On social media, Mamata highlighted Netaji’s unifying ability, describing him as a true leader who “strongly believed in the unity of all people”, while Modi highlighted Bose’s parakram (courage/valour).
As the political battle over the leader who disappeared under mysterious circumstances 75 years ago looks set to intensify, we take a look back at his time to see what his legacies really are.
His vision of India
Bose’s ideas of nationalism was a sharp departure from the school of Hindu nationalists, of which novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay was the fountainhead. Bankim, the composer of Bande Mataram and the author of the iconic and controversial novel Ananda Math, had become one of the biggest inspirations of Bengal’s late-19th-century and early-20th-century revolutionaries, including those belonging to the revolutionary secret societies Anushilan Samiti and Jugantar Dal. Even Bipin Chandra Pal of the famous Lal-Bal-Pal trio had Hindu nationalist traits.
In Bankim’s vision of India, Muslims were as much invaders and colonisers as the British. He even thanked the British for introducing the Hindus to the ideas of nationalism and self-determination, which he said helped the Hindus realise they had been under colonial rule since the first Muslim invasion of India.
The Hindu trait in the nationalist movement remained dominant even during the Swadeshi movement against the first Partition of Bengal (1905), which has been cited as one of the reasons the movement failed to get support from the Muslims. Perhaps, Rabindranath Tagore was the first to realise that the Hindus were not doing enough to earn the trust of the Muslims and he had made his opinion clear in this regard in 1908.
Even the Indo-German conspiracy of 1914-15, an insurrection attempt during WWI that was coordinated by revolutionaries based in Bengal, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, New York, Berlin and Kabul, was largely a Hindu-Sikh movement with Maulana Barkatullah an exception. This, therefore, is also called the Hindu-German conspiracy.
According to historian Tanika Sarkar, the idea of India as a multicultural nation among India’s nationalists first developed among the moderates of the Congress of its early years.
“Gandhi’s 1909 book Hind Swaraj certainly saw Muslims as an integral part of India – as much a part Hindus are. Also, the extremists who came after the moderate dominance in Congress talked more in terms of Hindu glories. They made no attempt to draw the large majority of poor Muslim peasants into their boycott agitation. As Tagore pointed out, the boycott of cheap foreign cloth was a heavy burden imposed on low caste and Muslim peasants who therefore opposed the movement,” she said, talking of the pre-Gandhi era in Indian politics.
It was chiefly after Mahatma Gandhi launched Khilafat and non-cooperation movements at the national scale in 1919-20 that Hindus and Muslims started working together against the British Raj.
Subhas Chandra Bose arrived at the political scene in 1921 and carried the legacy of ‘Deshbandu’ Chitta Ranjan Das, of whom Gandhi said after his death, “The Hindus and Mussalmans of India should know that his heart knew no difference between the Hindus and the Mussalmans… It is not for me to say how much he had done to bring the Hindus and Mussalmans together.” A staunch advocate of Hindu-Muslim unity against the British colonial rule, Das had served as the Congress president in 1922 and died untimely in 1925, following which his earnest disciple Subhas emerged as Bengal’s premiere political face.
Bose’s idea of India was a contrast to that of Bankim. Just like Das, Bose too had managed to bring in members of the revolutionary secret societies to the Congress’s fold. But he saw India as a land of Hindus and Muslims.
He recognised Hinduism as ‘the most important cementing factor’ among India’s ethnic diversities. “North or South, East or West, wherever you may travel, you will find the same religious ideas, the same culture and the same tradition. All Hindus look upon India as the Holy Land… Everywhere the same scriptures are read and followed and the epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, are equally popular wherever you may travel,” Bose wrote, and then added that the advent of the Muslims led to “a new synthesis”.
“Though they did not accept the religion of the Hindus, they made India their home and shared in the common social life of the people—their joys and their sorrows. Through mutual co-operation, a new art and a new culture was evolved which was different from the old but which nevertheless was distinctly Indian. In architecture, painting, music— new creations were made which represented the happy blending of the two streams of culture. Moreover, the ad¬ ministration of the Mohammedan rulers left untouched the daily life of the people and did not interfere with local self-government based on the old system of village communities,” he wrote.
Bose makes another significant departure from Bankim’s views. While Bankim thanked Europeans for making the Hindus aware of their colonised state (under Muslim rule) and ancient glory (through the research of the Indologists), Bose blamed the British for spoiling India’s nature of absorbing different cultures.
“Throughout Indian history, all foreign elements have always been slowly absorbed by Indian society. The British are the first and the only exception to this,” he wrote.
“With British rule, however, there came a new religion, a new culture and a new civilisation which did not want to blend with the old but desired to dominate the country completely. The British people, unlike the invaders of old, did not make India their home. They regarded themselves as birds of passage and looked upon India as the source of raw materials and as the market for finished goods,” Bose wrote.
According to him, the British “endeavoured to imitate the autocracy of the Mohammedan rulers without following their wise policy of complete non-interference in local affairs.”
“The result of this was that the Indian people began to feel for the first time in their history that they were being dominated culturally, politically and economically by a people who were quite alien to them and with whom they had nothing whatsoever in common.”
He remarked that the Moghul kings unified the country and ushered in a new era of all-round progress.
“During the sixteenth and seventeenth century under the rule of the Moghul emperors, India once again reached the pinnacle of progress and prosperity. The greatest of them was Akbar, who ruled in the latter half of the sixteenth century. The great merit of Akbar was not only the political unification of the country, but what was perhaps more important, the working out of a new cultural synthesis—in order to reconcile the new stream of culture with the old—and evolve a new culture. The state machinery which he built up was also based on the whole-hearted co-operation of the Hindu and Mohammedan communities.”
On religion and communal organisations
Writing about the role of religion, or Hinduism, in the formation of Indian nationalism, Bose conspicuously makes no mention of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, who provided Bose’s earlier-generation revolutionaries with great inspiration. Bose mentions the role of the Brahmo Samaj movement in Bengal and the Arya Samaj movement in north India, alongside Swami Vivekananda and the Ramakrishna Mission and wrote, “None of the three societies had any political mission; nevertheless whoever came under their influence rapidly developed a sense of self-respect and a spirit of patriotism.”
And while referring to the Hindu revivalism in 19th-century Bengal that played a role behind the formation of anti-British sentiments, he wrote them off by simply saying the “reactionary movement could not make any appeal to the new generation of youths”.
He had, beyond doubt, inherited the Renaissance-inspired liberal stream of socio-cultural thoughts.
Bose emerged as a strong critic of communal and sectarian politics and, in the late 1930s, banned for Congress members to simultaneously be members of communal organisations such as the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League, which was a practice among some leaders during the 1910s and the 1920s.
In a signed editorial in the Forward Bloc weekly, titled ‘Towards Communal Unity’, published on February 24, 1940, Bose wrote, “Communalism will go only when the communal mentality goes. To destroy communalism is, therefore, the task of all those Indians – Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Christians etc. who have transcended all the communal outlook and have developed a genuine nationalist mentality.”
About two months later, in another signed editorial, titled Congress and Communal Organisations, published in the May 4, 1940 issue of the same weekly, he wrote, “Thanks to Hindu Mahasabha and to papers like The Amritabazar Patrika that have suddenly developed a rabid communalism, communal venom is being emitted from day to day with a view to poisoning the minds of the Hindus in Bengal and elsewhere. But all attempts to mislead the Hindus have so far failed.”
About a week later, while delivering a speech in Jhargram of southwestern Bengal on May 12, Netaji upped his ante on the Mahasabha. He said, “The Hindu Mahasabha has deployed sannyasis and sannyasins with tridents in their hands to beg for votes. Hindus bow in reverence at the very sight of tridents and the saffron robes. The Hindu Mahasabha has entered the political arena by taking advantage of religion and has desecrated it. It is the duty every Hindu to condemn it. Banish these traitors from national life. Don’t listen to them.”
On Jinnah, Savarkar and S.P. Mookerjee
Despite his aversion for the communal organisations, Bose was of the view that the Congress should not treat them as untouchables and should try to bring them closer in common interest against the British. After the beginning of the WWII, Bose reached out to various sorts of leaders, from Gandhi to Mohammad Ali Jinnah of the Muslim League and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar of the Hindu Mahasabha. Jinnah and Savarkar upset him equally.
He described his experiences with the following words, “Mr. Jinnah was then thinking only of how to realise his plan of Pakistan (division of India) with the help of the British. The idea of putting up a joint fight with the Congress, for Indian independence, did not appeal to him at all though the writer suggested that in the event of such a united struggle taking place, Mr. Jinnah would be the first Prime Minister of Free India.”
Savarkar, Bose wrote, “seemed to be oblivious of the international situation and was only thinking how Hindus could secure military training by entering Britain’s army in India.”
“From these interviews, the writer was forced to the conclusion that nothing could be expected from either the Muslim League or the Hindu Mahasabha,” Bose wrote.
Bose’s relations with another Hindutva ideologue, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, can hardly be said to be cordial. Mookerjee, after playing a leading role in the Hindu Mahasabha from 1939 to 1949, launched the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s political arm, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, in 1951. The Jana Sangh is the ideological and organisational predecessor of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the BJP considers Mookerjee as one of the founders of the party.
In Bengal, Mookerjee is the BJP’s biggest icon for “having saved the Hindus of West Bengal by ensuring a partition of the province in 1947.”
Mookerjee has recollected in his diary that when he met Bose after joining the Hindu Mahasabha and informed the latter of his plan of expanding the organisation’s footprints in Bengal, Bose “…warned me in a friendly spirit, adding significantly, that if we proceeded to create a rival political body in Bengal he would see to it (by force if need be) that it was broken before it was really born. This I found to be a most unfair and unreasonable attitude to take on.”
Mookerjee’s ardent follower Balraj Madhok has later described how the Bose-Mookerjee rivalry reached such a level that clashes took place between their supporters.
After his disappearance – the great escape from the country in January 1941 – his elder brother and comrade-in-arms Sarat Chandra Bose carried forward the legacy of preaching communal amity. In his Azad Hindu Fauj, Netaji adopted Jai Hind as the greeting words instead of the traditional Bande Mataram and, in 1943, his Provisional Government of Free India adopted Subh Sukh Chain, a Hindi transliteration of Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana, was adopted as the national anthem, instead of the Congress anthem of Bande Mataram.
It should be noted that when in 1937 the Congress under Jawaharlal Nehru’s leadership decided to adopt a truncated version of Bande Mataram as its anthem – omitting the paragraphs containing worship of Durga – the decision had the backing of both Tagore and Bose.
However, in 2018, Amit Shah, then the president of the BJP, had said in Kolkata that the Congress paved the path to India’s Partition by adopting only the first two paragraphs of Bande Mataram as its anthem.
Courtesy : The Wire