Nestled in the upmarket Wada district of Tokyo’s Suginami Ward, Renkoji Temple is a model of gentility. On weekday mornings, pensioners sit and sketch its prayer hall while housewives chat quietly in the shade of its well-tended trees. Given this setting, it would be easy to mistake the bust of a bespectacled man on a plinth in the courtyard for that of a revered former priest or the founder of the local rotary club.
The reality couldn’t be further from the truth, as the statue is of Subhas Chandra Bose — modern India’s most infamous revolutionary hero.
During his lifelong struggle against the British Empire, Bose rubbed shoulders with Mahatma Gandhi, Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tojo — and his disappearance 66 years ago, on Aug. 18, 1945, stunned the world. Moreover, it is still causing controversy to this day.
Bose was born into a prosperous family in Orissa, eastern India, in 1897. Coming from an educated background, he had the opportunity to pursue a comfortable career in the ranks of the Indian civil service working for the British Raj. Instead, he dedicated himself to the seemingly impossible task of expelling the colonial occupiers from his homeland.
The decades in which Bose grew up were arguably the height of British misrule in India — three centuries of exorbitant taxation, unfair trade practices and rampant free-marketeering had led to the deaths of millions of Indians in preventable famines. Of those who survived, claims American historian Mike Davis in his 2002 book “Late Victorian Holocausts,” their incomes in the late 19th century plummeted by more than half and “the life expectancy of ordinary Indians fell by a staggering 20 percent” — to something around 24 years by 1890.
In order to maintain its lucrative sovereignty over India, Britain refused to give ordinary citizens any voice in the governing of their own country. Starting in 1885, though, an organization named the Indian National Congress began to push for more power for Indian people.
As a young man with political aspirations, it was inevitable that, in the early 1920s, Bose would become active in that movement. Through his 20s, he established a reputation as a passionate orator, and found himself working alongside two of the National Congress’s most influential — and pacifistic — leaders: Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.
Initially it seems that Bose tolerated the nonviolent approach both men espoused as the way to liberate India. But after Bose experienced British beatings, and a two-year prison term from 1925 which almost killed him, he became convinced that the only way to overthrow rulers prepared to resort to such brutality was for Indians to take up arms themselves.
Bose was not alone in his beliefs — his militancy won him so much support that, in both 1938 and 1939, he was elected president of the National Congress. Gandhi, however, disagreed with Bose, and by wielding his influence over the organization he managed to have Bose dismissed from the presidency.
After the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the British authorities were keen to stamp out any further threats to the Raj. In January 1941, they detained Bose and confined him to house arrest in Calcutta (present-day Kolkata).
Bose’s subsequent escape has achieved mythic proportions in his home country. Absconding from beneath the eyes of his guards, he embarked on an epic journey to Afghanistan. Along the way, he disguised himself as an insurance agent, a deaf-mute and an Italian count to avoid capture and — according to intelligence files declassified in 2005 — assassination by British agents.
In April 1941, Bose arrived at his chosen destination — Berlin. Fascist, white-supremacist Germany might appear an unusual magnet for the left-leaning Indian leader, but for Bose, the struggle for an independent India outweighed all other ideological considerations. Indeed, he believed that Nazi Germany’s war with Britain made the Reich a natural ally of India’s.
In Berlin, Bose found a measure of sympathy from the Nazi regime. During its military campaigns in North Africa in the spring of 1941, Germany had seized 10,000 Indian soldiers serving with the British Army. Now it consigned these men to Bose to enable him, for the first time, to organize an all-Indian force of liberation.
Also factoring into Bose’s decision to seek support from the Reich was a motive frequently downplayed by his modern admirers — the Indian’s attraction to Hitler’s brand of dictatorship.
Admiring the Fuhrer’s cult of personality and the fanatical discipline he imposed on his subjects, Bose envisaged a similar role for himself in a postcolonial India. How happy he must have been then, when — during a meeting with Hitler in May 1942 — he was presented with a jewel-encrusted cigarette case which, some claim, he carried with him for the rest of his life. Equally revealing was the title that Bose bestowed on himself during his time in Germany: Netaji — a Hindi word meaning “Leader” or “Fuhrer.”
In spite of Bose’s respect for Hitler, the longer he remained in Germany the more frustrated he became. His plans to liberate his homeland depended on German forces defeating the Red Army and so opening a land route from Germany via Afghanistan to India. However, despite rapid advances following their invasion of Russia in the summer of 1941, the Nazi blitzkrieg ground to a halt in 1942 within sight of Stalingrad (present-day Volgograd) and Moscow. It was time for Bose to seek support closer to home.
Throughout the early 20th century, Imperial Japan had built up a strong legacy of patronage for Indian nationalist campaigns. In particular, viewing the British as an impediment to Japan’s aspirations to dominate Asia, Tokyo had fostered revolutionary ties between South-East Asia’s massive expatriate Indian communities.
During the period of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance (1902-23), this support remained largely covert, but with the end of the pact when Britain refused to extend it, Japan opened its doors to Indian revolutionaries seeking an end to British rule. Among these were A.M. Nair, who fled arrest by the British in India at age 18, and spent the rest of his life in Japan — and Rash Behari Bose, who likewise escaped to Tokyo after participating in a failed 1912 attempt to assassinate Britain’s Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge.
In December 1941, Japan’s designs on the British Empire in Asia became incontrovertible when its forces attacked and took Hong Kong — followed the next month by a rapid Japanese victory in Burma which put its troops on the very border of India. Then, with its stunning takeover of Singapore in February 1942 — a British defeat unparalled in numbers of prisoners taken — 45,000 Indian soldiers serving with the British military fell into Japanese hands.
These developments convinced Germany-based Bose that he was on the wrong side of the world. In February 1943, he boarded a German U-boat and embarked on a journey whose dangers rivaled his previous escape from Calcutta. Avoiding Allied patrols off the African coast, the submarine rounded the Cape of Good Hope and then headed north to a point off Madagascar. There, German sailors paddled Bose through shark-infested waters in a rubber dinghy to a waiting Japanese submarine that took him to Tokyo, where he finally arrived in June 1943.
Almost immediately, Bose was granted a meeting with Prime Minister Tojo — who promised Japan’s full support for his campaign to liberate India.
In October 1943, Bose declared the formation of the Provisional Government of Free India — whose first proclamation was to declare war on the British.
To wage this conflict, Bose needed to look no further than the Azad Hind Fauj — the Indian National Army (INA).
Originally formed as an anti-British force in 1942 from among Indian soldiers captured in Singapore, by the time of Bose’s arrival in Tokyo a year later it was in disarray due to internal squabbles and tensions with its Japanese sponsors.
Now, under the rallying cry of “March to Delhi,” Bose devoted himself to its resurrection. Over the following months, he established a solid fighting force that afforded equal status to Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims — while also creating the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, one of the world’s first female guerrilla corps.
The passion that Bose poured into the INA won him the respect of Indian expatriates, who donated hundreds of millions of rupees in cash, gold bars and jewelry to his government in exile. In addition, 18,000 civilians volunteered to fight alongside the 35,000 former prisoners of war then serving with the INA.
In the spring of 1944 it was finally time for Bose to send the INA into battle against the British. Together with Japanese soldiers, his forces gathered on the mountainous Indo-Burmese border and from there launched a series of attacks against Allied bases. Initially, Bose’s troops made swift advances. INA propaganda teams convinced some Indians serving with the British Army to desert — after which they were indoctrinated with anticolonial rhetoric and sent back as saboteurs behind Allied lines.
Then on April 14, 1944, INA troops set foot on Indian territory at Mowdok in present-day Bangladesh. Maj. Gen. Shah Nawaz Khan described the resulting scenes of jubilation in his 1946 book, “My Memories of INA and its Netaji.”
He wrote: “Soldiers laid themselves flat on the ground and passionately kissed the sacred soil of their motherland. … A regular flag-hoisting ceremony was held amidst great rejoicing and singing of the Azad Hind Fauj national anthem.”
Bose had hoped that the seizure of this small corner of British India would spark uprisings throughout the nation. To the dismay of him and the INA troops, however, no such chain reaction occurred.
Well aware of the threat the INA posed, the British authorities had imposed a news blackout on Bose and the INA — thus leaving Indians in the dark about their would-be liberators. They had also ratcheted up their brutal oppression with the killing of an estimated 1,000 activists and the internment of more than 20,000 political agitators — including the pacifist moderates Gandhi and Nehru.
Without the spontaneous uprising anticipated by Bose, the INA’s campaign in India was doomed. Monsoon rains then marooned much of the force behind British lines, and attacks from the air forced the INA and their Japanese comrades to retreat in July 1944.
That Allied counterattack soon surged into a full-blown offensive to retake Burma — resulting in the capture or killing of hundreds of INA soldiers. Bose fled with the Japanese military to the relative safety of Bangkok where, in a defiant propaganda broadcast, he declared: “The Roads to Delhi are many and Delhi remains our goal. The Azad Hind Fauj will fight to the last man — to the last round.”
By the spring of 1945, however, Bose had realized that a Japanese defeat was increasingly likely. Ever the realist, he began to consider alternative allies for his struggle. After deciding that the Soviet Union would likely become Britain’s enemy in the postwar world, he made arrangements to travel to China and from there to Moscow to court Stalin’s favor.
On Aug. 18, 1945 — three days after Emperor Hirohito’s announcement of Japan’s unconditional surrender — Bose boarded an airplane in Saigon (present-day Ho Chi Minh City) and flew to Taihoku (now Taipei) in Japanese-controlled Taiwan. Up to this point, the timeline of Bose’s movements is undisputed. But what happened next is the subject of fierce controversy.
The official version released by the Japanese authorities — and still endorsed by the Indian government — details Bose boarding a Japanese bomber at Taihoku Airport along with several trunks of gold to finance his next government in exile. Shortly after take-off, it states, the aircraft developed engine problems and crashed. Bose suffered serious burns and died that evening. After a cremation in Taiwan, his ashes were flown to Tokyo where they have remained since being interred on Sept. 18, 1945, at Renkoji Temple.
Considering Bose’s prior history of miraculous escapes, it is unsurprising that the announcement of his death was met with skepticism among the Indian public. What is more surprising is the vast array of conspiracy theories that have blossomed since 1945.
Some posit Bose’s successful arrival in Russia — where instead of being welcomed by Stalin, he was incarcerated in a Siberian labor camp for the remainder of his life. Other versions have Bose infiltrating himself back to India and living as a monk in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh until his death in 1985.
This deep-rooted distrust of the official version of events has been a constant source of discomfort to successive Indian governments. Hence, in 1999, the Indian authorities launched the Mukherjee Commission to reinvestigate Bose’s death in the hope of finally putting the rumors to rest.
But when the commission released its 600-page findings seven years later, the results were a surprise: It concluded that Bose had not in fact died in the plane crash in Taiwan. However, the report failed to suggest when, where or how he might otherwise have lived on and died.
Sugata Bose, a grand-nephew of the Netaji and the author of a new book about his life, “His Majesty’s Opponent,” disagrees with the findings. He told The Japan Times, “All the historical evidence, including the testimony of six of the seven survivors of the air crash, of medical personnel and the interpreter brought to the hospital, suggest that (Subhas Chandra Bose) died tragically as a result of the air crash on Aug. 18, 1945.”
Kyozen Mochizuki, the current head monk of Renkoji Temple, agrees with Sugata Bose. “Bose died over 60 years ago and people are still saying his ashes here are fake. It’s unbelievable,” Mochizuki said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “Bose was a great man — a very human leader — and I feel a great deal of responsibility to be looking after his ashes.”
Regardless of the competing theories, it seems almost everyone agrees with Mochizuki’s assessment of Bose’s character. Many people even argue that without Bose’s INA, India might never have achieved independence.
That’s because, although the INA failed militarily in Burma, its troops were given another opportunity to take on their colonialists in a Delhi courtroom in 1945. From among the hundreds of captured INA soldiers, the British put three of them on trial for treason in an attempt to reassert their power in the region.
The move backfired in a spectacular manner. On the stand, the Muslim, Sikh and Hindu defendants passionately justified their roles as liberators of a colonized nation — giving the INA the oxygen of publicity the British had always tried to deny them.
Support for the defendants spread throughout the country — including among Indians serving in the British military. Throughout 1946, these newly radicalized troops staged strikes and mutinies across the subcontinent. With its once-solid military bedrock shaken to the core — and facing widespread, huge nonviolent demonstrations — the British authorities were forced to concede that their rule over India was untenable. On Aug. 15, 1947, they granted India its independence.
Whether Bose lived to see the culmination of his lifetime struggle remains an open question. Intense controversy also surrounds what ought to be done with the ashes at Renkoji Temple — which leading Indian politicians including Nehru, President Rajendra Prasad, Indira Gandhi and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee have all visited during trips to Japan.
Countless Indian politicians have campaigned for the return of the ashes, and his grand-nephew Sugata Bose is confident that “Netaji’s mortal remains … will one day be brought back to India with the highest honors and due respect.” However, skeptics of the official version of Bose’s death argue that taking the ashes to India would lend credence to the fiction of his final hours.
Stranded by this political rivalry, it seems certain that the ashes will remain at Renkoji Temple for the foreseeable future — and head monk Mochizuki says he is happy to care for them for as long as necessary.
As limbos go, it might be a comfortable resting place for most people. But for someone as defiant and outspoken as Bose, a quiet corner of Tokyo must be one of the last places he would have chosen in which to spend eternity.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5