As the nation, or what passes for it in this wondrous land with an abysmally poor sense of history, observes the 116th birth anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, perhaps the time has come for one of India’s great leaders to be freed from the confines of political myth-making that has reduced him to calendar lithographs which adorn living rooms in provincial Bengal and the dimly lit offices of the Forward Bloc in Kolkata.
In a sense, that would mark the posthumous homecoming for a nationalist who believed that rashtrabhakti is a synthesis of religion and nationalism, of the spiritual and the political. In the early decades of this century, when others were looking up to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi for inspiration, Bose was looking elsewhere for guidance: His search for a religious philosophy that would spur political activism led him to explore the teachings of Swami Vivekananda and the writings of Aurobindo Ghosh. The latter made a lasting impression on his mind, providing his political activism with a religious side.
The profound Impact that Aurobindo Ghosh had on Subhas Chandra Bose is reflected in his autobiography: “In my undergraduate days, Aurobindo Ghosh was easily the most popular leader in Bengal… a mixture of spirituality and politics had given him a halo of mysticism and made his personality more fascinating to those who were religiously inclined… We felt convinced that spiritual enlightenment was necessary for effective national service…”
It is, therefore, not surprising that he should have also been influenced by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s construction of nationalism. And like Aurobindo Ghosh, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the Indian nation for him extended beyond the geographical to the devotional plane. During his college days he discovered the wretchedness of not India but “impoverished Mother India.”
Curiously, his view of the other India, the one which appears so distant from the fashionable drawing rooms and glittering malls of our cities, is not different from those who believe that a divide separates ‘us’ and ‘them’. For, “the picture of real India”, which Subhas Chandra Bose described as “the India of the villages where poverty stalks the land, men die like flies, and illiteracy is the prevailing order”, is also the India which many believe should receive priority over that India which revels in rejecting anything that carries the label ‘Made in India’, including Hindu spirituality and religious philosophy.
In his book, Brothers Against The Raj, Leonard A Gordon writes about Bose’s quest for a religious philosophy to serve as the core of nationalism and sustain his political activism: “Inner religious explorations continued to be a part of his adult life. This set him apart from the slowly growing number of atheistic socialists and communists who dotted the Indian landscape.” And it was this “religious exploration” that set apart Subhas Chandra Bose from Jawaharlal Nehru for whom “this was a vain quest”. Although Bose scrupulously avoided publishing his faith or his quest, he remained firm in his belief that “Hinduism was an essential part of his Indianness”, his Bharatiyata. In other words, he subscribed to cultural nationalism or, call it If you must by its other name, Hindutva.
This did not, however, make him a bigoted Hindu, nor did it propel him towards Hindu orthodoxy. Commenting on the “definite Hindu streak in Bose’s dislike for Gandhi”, Nirad C Chaudhuri records in his memoirs, Thy Hand! Great Anarch, “He was in no sense a bigoted or even orthodox Hindu. But he had grown up in the first two decades of the twentieth century in Bengal, where, owing to the influence of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Swami Vivekananda, there was a fusion of religion and nationalism, so that the nationalist feeling had a pronounced Hindu complexion and Hinduism a pronounced political character.”
This “fusion of religion and nationalism” and Hinduism with a “pronounced political character” came into play in 1925 when during his incarceration at Mandalay prison, Subhas Chandra Bose, along with the other Bengali prisoners, organised Durga Puja on the jail premises and demanded that the expenses be borne by the authorities. When the latter refused, Bose converted his spiritual quest into a political campaign by launching a hunger strike. This practice of political Hinduism had an electrifying impact on public opinion and soon the Swarajists lent their voice to the popular demand for the release of all political prisoners who had not been charged with specific crimes.
Those who deride nationalism, more so cultural nationalism, as narrow, selfish and aggressive, a hindrance to the promotion of internationalism, would do well to go through Bose’s speech at Poona after being elected president of the Maharashtra Provincial Conference. “Indian nationalism,” Subhas Chandra Bose asserted, “is inspired by the highest ideals of the human race, Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram. Nationalism in India has… roused the creative faculties which for centuries had been lying dormant in our people…”
Sadly, nationalism has now been rendered politically incorrect by our deracinated intelligentsia and abandoned by our corrupt political elite.