There is nothing new with the discipline of history turning a plaything in the hands of our political masters. History, indeed, is a weapon, to borrow the title of a stellar lecture by Amilcar Cabral at the University of Syracuse in February 1970. Cabral’s focus was on how colonialism destroyed all that belonged to Africa’s past and the importance to recall and restore them.
Such understanding of history in India among a generation of our leaders, long before the colonial masters were driven out, helped us as a nation to build on its past as much as the thrust on modernity. In other words, we as a nation did not lose our history. Nor did we lose our sense of history.
Hence, Subhash Chandra Bose’s thesis on our freedom struggle, wherein he sought to chart a non-Gandhian course to the fight, was published as a book by the Ministry of Information and Public Relations, Government of India in 1948! Bose had handed over the manuscript of this thesis to Jawaharlal Nehru for comments; Nehru had his observations that were critical of some parts. And between the time Bose wrote his thesis and its publication in 1948, he even carried another copy of the text while in a tour to Europe and understood to have passed it on to Benitto Mussolini. It is not known if the Il Duce made any sense of it; it is not even known as to what the Italian fascist dictator did with the manuscript. There is very little possibility of Mussolini reading the text and Bose’s lament that Gandhi was not taking the Indian national cause as intensely as he must have.
However, it is a fact that Nehru read through the text, an extremely intense comment on the struggle for independence until 1932 and a radical critique of the Gandhi and his ism. Bose sought a far more militant reaction against the British and attacked Gandhi for not having done enough to save Bhagat Singh. The fact is Gandhi was greeted with black flags at Karachi, where the Indian National Congress met, for this very reason.
Nehru had agreed and disagreed with Gandhi then, earlier on, in the aftermath of the Mahatma suspending the non-cooperation movement, and on later occasions too. Nehru’s presidential address at the Faizpur session of the Indian National Congress in 1936 contained some parts that were scathing on Gandhi. And yet, Nehru had his own differences with Bose on the thesis and the two leaders did exchange those between them.
These and the fact that Bose and Nehru parted ways after the Netaji went about striking alliances with the Nazi-Fascist forces to fight against the British and its allies in the War did not, however, prevent Nehru from turning the manuscript, updated by Bose himself to scan the years after 1932 and until 1942, into a book. It may be recalled that Nehru also donned the black robes, he had discarded in more than a quarter century ago – in 1920 responding to Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation and boycott of the courts – to join the battery of lawyers in defence of the INA soldiers. Nehru was not the lead lawyer (Bhulabhai Desai played the role) but his presence in the court did convey a message. And he was head of the interim council of ministers when the Government of India published Bose’s manuscript in book form.
What History Tells Us
Well. The discipline of history does not encourage presenting personalities from the past as binary opposites and building such narratives where one is a great and the other otherwise. History teaches us to seek facts from the past and put them on one large canvas without hiding one and magnifying another of the personalities. And this, when followed, while studying the struggle for freedom, will lead us to see the galaxy of its leaders as contributing to the movement, across time and space, that ensured the end of colonial rule.
As much as Nehru steered the Congress away from Gandhi, he also acknowledged the importance of Gandhi. Bose, indeed, was no different and as much as he disagreed with Nehru on seeking to fight alongside the Nazi-Fascist forces, he saw Nehru as much his ally in the battle of ideas against Gandhi, particularly in the 1930s. Gandhi too had his agreements and disagreements with Nehru, Bose and several others and this indeed laid the foundations of what we may describe as the Idea of India. In other words, the idea indeed, was an amalgam of many ideas and not just one; it certainly had a heavy dose of Bose’s idea and the man who carried it into the Constitution of India was Jawaharlal Nehru.
The Indian National Army that Bose gave shape to while Nehru was in the Ahmednagar Fort jail (the ninth time he was put in prison between 1920 and 1945) was owned up by Nehru after his release; this, perhaps, was the only brief that Nehru took up as a lawyer and he did not charge any fee for doing that! Nehru did not disown Netaji Bose any time in his life and after Bose’s death. Nor is there any evidence of Bose having seen himself as Nehru’s adversary. They fought together, agreed and disagreed with one another and yet agreed to disagree with each other.
History As a Weapon Is Often Misused
All these should help us comprehend that attempts to put one as the other’s adversary and render them as binary opposites is not just being unkind to the two leaders but inimical to the fundamental principles and the foundational rigours of the discipline called history. History is not just a subject for pedantic lectures and thus made boring as it has happened in our schools and elsewhere. History is a weapon and it is imperative for anyone who seeks to wield it to also follow the grammar of that discipline. There are no binaries as is necessary in the plot for a regular commercial cinema – the hero and the villain – or for the good and the bad – as is necessary in myths.
History is a more serious business than scripting the story for commercial cinema. So, let us stop celebrating Bose to berate Nehru in the guise of engaging with history.
V. Krishna Ananth is a Professor of History at SRM University, AP.
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