20 Oct 1952
“Anita is doing quite well in health and school. She is growing in length and also quite well built, though by far not a fatty. They are having English lessons now at school which interest her quite a lot.”
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s wife Emilie Schenkl wrote this letter from post-war Austria, when one of the few bright spots in her lonely life was their daughter. Netaji’s nephew Sisir Kumar Bose, the letter’s addressee in distant Kolkata, was not the first one to read it. Before he did, several Intelligence Bureau (IB) officials had quietly copied the letters and put them away into secret files on the Bose family. For over a half century, copies of this letter and several others like them sat in an unusual location: in the locked cupboards of the state IB office in Kolkata. Recently declassified by the Union Home Ministry and placed in the National Archives, these files now reveal independent India’s dirty state secret. For two decades, between 1948 and 1968, the government placed the Bose family members under intensive surveillance. Sleuths intercepted, read and recorded letters of the family of a freedom fighter who was Nehru’s political co-worker for 25 years. IB sleuths discreetly tailed family members as they travelled around India and abroad, recording in minute detail who they met and what they discussed. The surveillance was exactly as it would be today on a wanted terrorist’s family-rigorous, methodical yet unobtrusive. The revelations have shocked the Bose family. “Surveillance is conducted on those who have committed a crime or have terrorist links. Netaji and his family fought for the freedom of the country, why should they be placed under surveillance?” asks his grandnephew Chandra Kumar Bose.
Subhas Bose’s only child Anita Bose-Pfaff, a Germany-based economist, says she is startled by the revelations. “My uncle (Sarat Chandra) was politically active until the 1950s and disagreed with the Congress leadership. But what surprises me is that my cousins could have been under surveillance, they had no security implications at all,” she says.
Subhas Chandra Bose: A misguided patriot
Bose’s Indian National Army (INA), raised from captured Indian prisoners of war in Japanese camps, was the fighting force of his Provisional Government of Free India. The INA clawed at the borders of the British-ruled subcontinent in 1943 and its troops were the first to raise the tricolour on Indian soil. Shortly thereafter, in 1944, the collapse of the Japanese army led to the retreat and eventual capitulation of the INA. Bose, 48, was thought to have died in an air crash in Taiwan on August 18, 1945, three days after Japan’s surrender to the Allied forces.
The incensed Bose family now wants speedy declassification of a clutch of top secret ‘Netaji Files’ which the government has held for nearly 60 years. These documentary revelations, they believe, could well be the tip of the iceberg. For close to a decade, RTI activists and researchers have believed the trove of still-classified files could shed light on the disappearance of the charismatic revolutionary. They have been stonewalled by the government.
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“The entire country is impatient to know how Netaji died and under what circumstances,” Rajnath Singh said in Cuttack last year when he was BJP president. Speaking on the eve of his birth anniversary last year, Singh promised to declassify the Netaji files if his government came to power. His government’s response however has been same as UPA’s. On February 2, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) told RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal that disclosure of the Netaji files held by the PMO would “prejudicially affect relations with foreign countries”. The PMO gave an identical response to ‘Mission Netaji’, a pressure group of activists who have fought for declassification of the files since 2006.
KEEPING UP WITH THE BOSES
The British CID had the two Bose family homes in Kolkata-1, Woodburn Park and the 38/2, Elgin Road-placed under surveillance at least since the 1930s. This was when the two Bose brothers, Sarat Chandra and his younger brother, Subhas Chandra, emerged at the forefront of the freedom movement in Bengal. The family had learned to live with the police glare. A CID officer once intercepted and duplicated a letter meant for Sarat Chandra but accidentally re-posted a copy. When he arrived at the Bose family doorstep to confess his mistake, the senior Bose told him to come back in a few days and recover it. Placed under house arrest in 1941, Netaji hoodwinked policemen and escaped the Elgin Road residence to land up in Nazi Germany. He was dubbed a fascist collaborator by the British who stepped up surveillance on his family mem-bers. As the declassified intercepts show, independent India’s government was just as keen to spy on the family.
The IB has been routinely used by ruling parties to snoop on political opponents and even on their own family members. Former IB chief M.K. Dhar revealed in his 2005 book Open Secrets that PM Indira Gandhi ordered the IB to spy onManeka Gandhi and her family because she suspected their political ambitions. But Netaji’s two nephews, Sisir Kumar Bose and his brother Amiya Nath Bose, were political lightweights in the years they were snooped upon. They contested elections long after the papers show the IB had wound down its surveillance. Amiya Nath was elected as an MP from the Arambagh constituency on an All India Forward Bloc ticket only in 1968. Sisir Bose was elected to the West Bengal Legislative Assembly on a Congress ticket in 1987.
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The IB seemed obsessed in knowing what the family was doing and who they were meeting. A series of handwritten messages show IB agents phoned in ‘Security Control’, as IB headquarters was called, to report on the family’s movements. But it was in the intercepted family mail that the IB relied on to know what the family was thinking. Netaji figured heavily in their correspondence. What else would the family discuss? The letters were mostly about mundane family matters. Netaji’s wife discusses their economic hardships, bringing up her daughter Anita and repairs at their flat in Vienna. The Boses in Kolkata sent them money to meet their expenses. The IB annotated and underlined parts of the letters that had names of people meeting Emilie Schenkl to show what they were interested in. An IB comment on a 1953 letter describes her as “the alleged wife of Sri Subhas Chandra Bose”.
“Most mysterious and shocking,” says Krishna Bose, 85, wife of the late Sisir Kumar Bose. “Why on earth would they want to tail us?” the former three-term Trinamool Congress Lok Sabha MP wonders as she slowly leafs through the declassified IB documents in 38/2, Elgin Road, now the Netaji Bhawan museum. She laughs at how particularly effective the surveillance was because the family never had a clue. “My husband told me he felt like he was being followed to the hospital and when he was boarding a tramâ€¦ but that was during the British era.”
The surveillance offers a rare insight into the workings of one of the world’s oldest intelligence agencies. The letter intercepts almost exclusively focused on the Elgin Road post office from where the unsuspecting Bose family posted their missives to the out- side world. Family members recorded their scepticism over the Shah Nawaz inquiry committee appointed by the Nehru government in 1956 and their disappointment over the lack of recognition for their uncle.
“If you were in India today,” Sisir Bose wrote to Netaji’s wife in 1955, “you would get the feeling that in India’s struggle two men mattered- (Mahatma) Gandhi and (Jawaharlal) Nehru. The rest were just extras.”
All family letters were copied and some shared with two bright stars of the IB in the headquarters in Delhi in the 1950s-M.L. Hooja, who later headed the IB in 1968, and Rameshwar Nath Kao, who founded the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) in 1968. The man behind them all was Bhola Nath Mullick, Nehru’s internal security czar who headed the IB for an unprecedented 16 years between 1948 and 1964.
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That this surveillance was politically sensitive was a no-brainer. The ‘Top Secret’ and ‘Very Secret’ stamps on the files would restrict access to a very limited circle of officials. The files were stored in the steel cupboards of the IB’s state headquarters in Kolkata’s Pretoria Street, just a stone’s throw away from the Bose residences.
“When Bengal’s bhadraloks were regaled by a fictitious petty crime-solving Byomkesh Bakshi, real-life IB sleuths were performing feats that would give the CIA and KGB a run for its money,” says Anuj Dhar, activist and author of India’s Biggest Cover-Up that gives an investigative insight into the Netaji mystery.
The IB’s surveillance was not restricted to Kolkata. A 1958 report from the Special Branch of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in Madras reports the movements of Sisir Bose as he sets up the Netaji Research Bureau. A 1963 intercept has Amiya Nath’s correspondence with ACN Nambiar, Netaji’s former aide, then an Indian diplomat in Switzerland. The prying was not without irony. One of the senior IB officials reading the intercepts in Delhi was Nambiar’s own nephew, A.C. Madhavan Nambiar.
WHY SNOOP ON THE FAMILY?
“Nobody has done more harm to me, than Jawaharlal Nehru,” wrote Netaji in 1939, in a letter to his nephew Amiya Nath Bose. The two claimants to Mahatma Gandhi’s political legacy split when he chose Nehru over Subhas Bose as his political successor because he was uncomfortable with the latter’s push for complete independence. Meanwhile, Nehru was uncomfortable with Bose’s admiration for Nazi Germany and Facist Italy. Finally, Netaji resigned as Congress president in 1939. Historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s 2014 book Nehru & Bose: Parallel Lives states that “Bose believed he and Jawaharlal could make history. But Jawaharlal could not see his destiny without Gandhi, and the latter had no room for Subhas”.
Netaji however bore Nehru, eight years his senior, no ill will. He considered him an older brother and even named one of the INA regiments after him. Nehru publicly wept when he learned of Subhas Bose’s death in 1945.
Why then would the Nehru government place the Bose family under such rigorous surveillance? Especially given Nehru’s dislike of the cloak-and-dagger work. Former IB chief B.N. Mullick says in his 1971 book My Years With Nehru that the PM “had such a moral aversion to this work (espionage) that he would not allow us to operate even against the offending country’s intelligence groups operating from the shelter of their diplomatic offices in India”.
Nehru was the PM for 16 of the 20 years of the snooping. “There is only one reasonable explanation for this long surveillance on the Bose family by IB, which reported directly to Nehru,” says BJP national spokesperson and author M.J. Akbar. “The government was not sure that Bose was dead, and thought that if he was alive, he would be in some form of communication with his family in Kolkata. Why would Congress be apprehensive about this? Bose was the only charismatic leader who could have mobilised opposition unity against the Congress, and offer a serious challenge in the 1957 elections. It is safe to say that if Bose were alive, the coalition that defeated the Congress in 1977 would have trounced Congress in the 1962 General Election, or 15 years earlier,” he says.
The only documentary evidence that Nehru wanted to know what the Bose family was up to comes in a confidential November 26, 1957, letter the PM wrote to then foreign secretary Subimal Dutt. “Just before I left Japan, I heard that Shri Amiya Bose, son of Shri Sarat Chandra Bose, had reached Tokyo. He had, previously, when I was in India, informed me that he was going there. I should (sic) like you to write to our ambassador at Tokyo to find out from him what Shri Amiya Bose did in Tokyo. Did he go to our Embassy? Did he visit this Renkoji Temple?” The ambassador replied in the negative.
The Bose family’s international itineraries, correspondence with German and Japanese officials and their travels through India meeting Netaji’s former associates, led the IB to fear a resurrection of the INA. In one 1949 letter, Amiya Bose asks Sisir Bose, then a medical student in London, to find out whether any of the German generals were once again active in West Germany, particularly Hitler’s former chief of staff General Franz Halder.
“There is clearly an element of government paranoia here,” says Krishna Bose. “My husband was only trying to gather material to set up the Netaji Research Foundation. This foundation was set up only through correspondence.” The IB however believed otherwise. A ‘Top Secret’ note from 1968 flags Amiya Bose. “The subject is now reportedly taking keen initiative in the formation of the Azad Hind Dal with ex-INA men. It is reported that he has succeeded in influencing some prominent persons both in the state and the Centre.”
V. Balachandran, former RAW speci al secretary, believes the Bose fa mi ly was kept under surveillance because of their communist leanings. He points to the diaries of Guy Liddell, who headed MI5’s counter-espionage wing during World War II. Published in 2012, they mention the British internal security service’s umbilical ties with the IB. Monitoring communists was a priority for MI5, a legacy it passed on to the IB. During a visit to India in March 1947, Liddell claimed to have obtained the Nehru government’s clearance for an MI5 security liaison officer to be stationed in New Delhi after the end of British rule. “The IB’s obsession with tailing communists continued until Mrs Gandhi ended it in 1975,” Balachandran says.
TREASURE TROVE OF SECRETS
Netaji was a somewhat late entrant into India’s pantheon of freedom fighters. His portrait was unveiled in Parliament in 1978, possibly be – cause it marred the Gandhian narrative of a non-violent freedom struggle. Over 2,000 INA soldiers who died fighting the British in Burma and the North-east were also sidestepped by history books. Over the years, the Bose legend has not only attracted admirers such as the LTTE’s late chief Velupillai Prabhakaran but also a deluge of conspiracy theories. Bose was believed to have escaped to China and the Soviet Union, later returning to India where he lived as a ‘baba’ in Faizabad, UP, until his death in 1985. These theories were founded in his real-life escapades: Bose disguised as a Pathan to escape into Afghanistan, an Italian businessman to travel through Russia and finally hopped from a German submarine to a Japanese submarine in the Indian Ocean. The theories would have fizzled out but for the government’s refusal to declassify the Netaji files.
“The fact that the files have not been declassified, when they should have been in the 1960s and 1970s, has only added to the Bose mystery,” says Wajahat Habibullah. During his five-year stint as India’s first chief information commissioner, Habibullah handled multiple requests for declassification of the Netaji files, all of which were turned down by the government.
Every government since Nehru’s has told politicians, researchers and journalists that the contents of over 150 secret ‘Netaji Files’ are so sen- sitive that their revelations would create law and order problems, especially in West Bengal. Worse, they would “spoil India’s relations with friendly foreign nations”. The Modi government in 2014 deleted the law and order fallout of the revelations but maintained the official line. Responding to a query from Trinamool Congress MP Sukhendu Sekhar Roy, Minister of State for Home Affairs Haribhai Parthibhai Chaudhary said, in a written reply in the Rajya Sabha on December 17, 2014, declassification was “not desirable from the point of view of India’s relations with other countries”. Five Netaji files locked in the PMO are so secret that even their names have not been disclosed under the Right to Information Act.
What terrible state secrets sit in those files locked in the PMO? Secrets, which in the words of Roy, made Rajnath Singh go from an espouser of the truth to someone who “sat in the Lok Sabha, silently nodding his head while I asked for declassification”.
“How can Netaji’s death in an air crash be blamed on foreign countries?” Roy asks. “There are clearly some other reasons which both the BJP and Congress want to cover up.”
Three Prime Ministers, Nehru in 1956, Indira Gandhi in 1970 and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999, appointed inquiry committees to uncover the truth. Two of them, the Shah Nawaz Committee in 1956 and the Khosla Commission in 1974 said Netaji died in a plane crash. Their findings were rejected by then Prime Minister Morarji Desai in 1978. The Justice (M.K.) Mukherjee Commission’s suggestion that Netaji had faked his death and had escaped to the Soviet Union was rejected by the UPA gov-ernment in 2006.
Often, the inquiries have fuelled speculation. BJP leader Subramanian Swamy picks out the testimony of Shyam Lal Jain, Nehru’s stenographer who deposed before the Khosla Commission in 1970. Jain swore he had typed out a letter which Nehru then sent to Stalin in 1945 in which he admitted knowing of Bose’s captivity.
“The plane crash was a ruse. Netaji sought asylum in the Soviet Union where he was imprisoned and later killed by Stalin,” Swamy claims. Bose family members, including Anita Bose-Pfaff, want reports lying with the Centre and state governments to be declassified. “A special investigative team with representatives from the PMO, foreign ministry, IB, CBI and historians need to research those papers and reveal to the public the story of Subhas Bose,” says Chandra Kumar Bose. If the current revelations are anything to go by, the Netaji files could bring the curtains down on India’s longest running political mystery.