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Indian Culture

Now that the controversy over Subhas Chandra Bose’s death has finally been laid to rest, after his daughter Anita Bose Pfaff, in her foreword to Ashis Ray’s recent book on the subject, stated that there is no doubt that he was killed in a plane crash in 1945, it is worth asking what might have happened in politics had he survived.

Over time the rift between Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Bose would have certainly led to a split in the Congress. The old guard, including economic rightists and concealed Hindu nationalists, may have aligned with Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru as they did in 1939. The younger and more radical elements and most the ordinary members would have most probably supported Bose. Had this split occurred not in 1969 but two decades prior, it is more than likely that Partition could have been avoided. The main reason is that Bose’s popularity among the Muslim elites surpassed that of Gandhi and Nehru.

Gandhi’s Hindu attire and vocabulary had turned off most of the Muslim elite as had Nehru’s attitude towards them, demonstrated above all by his refusal to accommodate the Muslim League in the Uttar Pradesh government in 1937. Contrarily, Bose could have competed with Muhammad Ali Jinnah for the loyalty of the Muslim elite, thus making a fundamental difference to the outcome of the 1946 provincial elections in which the League bagged most of the Muslim seats. By 1937, the Congress membership was 97% Hindu. By contrast, the Indian National Army (INA), led by Bose, was composed of officers and men of the British Indian Army, which was 35-40% Muslim. One can, therefore, assume that at least one-third of the INA was composed of Indian Muslims loyal to Bose.

Bose’s sensitivity to Muslim concerns came from his birth and childhood in a predominantly Muslim locality in Cuttack, Odisha, and his later move to Bengal where more than half the population was Muslim. His elder brother Sarat Chandra Bose had worked closely with the Muslim leaders of Bengal and was trusted by them. Congress under Bose would have been able to steal much of Jinnah’s thunder and made compromises, for example based on the Cabinet Mission Plan, which could have kept India united.

Even assuming India was divided, Bose as the nationalist par excellence but secular to the core would have been able to outflank Hindu nationalists, including fellow Bengali Syama Prasad Mukherjee, the founder of the Jan Sangh. Nehru’s commitment to a secular India was second to none but his secularism was both liberal and effete. Bose’s secularism tinged with hypernationalism based on the INA’s motto Ittehad, Itemad, Qurbani (Unity, Confidence, and Sacrifice) would have been far more muscular and could have prevented Hindu chauvinism from gaining traction. Today’s India may have looked very different in that case.

Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University, and Senior Fellow, Center for Global Policy, Washington, DC

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