Keeping the Faith

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MEENAKSHI GANGULY CalcuttaBoth stealthy and statesmanlike, Subhas Chandra Bose was India's Scarlet Pimpernel. The multilingual revolutionary leader dodged British soldiers on guard outside his grand Calcutta home in the early 1940s and, posing as a deaf-and-dumb Pathan tribesman, sneaked across the border into Afghanistan. From there he made his way through war-torn Europe to shake hands with Hitler and Mussolini and solicit the aid of the Axis powers, his enemy's enemy, in ridding India of British rule. He built his own army of 45,000 men and women and, with Japan's help, marched from Singapore through Burma and into eastern India. Unlike that other freedom fighter, Mohandas Gandhi, who believed in moral victory through non-violence, Bose was willing to kill and be killed for the liberation of the motherland.

Then, on Aug. 18, 1945, Bose disappeared. Colleagues--including his main rival, India's future Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru--accepted with some relief the reports that he had died in a plane crash. Bose, or Netaji (leader) as he is called, receded into the history books as a brave, if misguided, national leader.

To this day, many Indians are convinced that Bose did not perish--that he chose to live quietly in some safe corner of the world, waiting for the right moment to return. Now, more than 50 years later, they may discover the truth. Armed with documents released by several foreign intelligence agencies, Bose's followers have won a court verdict ordering a fresh inquiry into the circumstances of death, whether Netaji has died and if he is alive where is he. Home Minister L.K. Advani late last month promised to set up a committee to look into the disappearance of Bose. This matter should be settled once and for all. People have a right to know the truth, says Uttara Basu, a leader of Forward Bloc, the leftist party that Bose established. We don't say that he is still alive. After all, he is over 100 now. Specifically, Bose would be 102 years old.

That does not deter his followers. In a narrow Calcutta street, up a flight of broken stairs, a 73-year-old man has for more than 50 years patiently gathered documents, books and letters to prove that Bose did not die in the crash. A devoted believer, he demands no recognition and even refuses to be named, but his evidence helped determine the high court verdict. If that writer Nirad Chaudhuri can be alive at 100, Subhas Bose, a yogi, must be alive, the man says. His collection is impressive. He pulls out a copy of a 1964 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency report stating that an intelligent and well dressed subject had claimed that there now exists a strong possibility that Bose is leading the religious group undermining the current Nehru government. There are references from British documents as well, suggesting that Bose be disposed of without being sent to India.

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Two earlier inquiries, in 1956 and 1970, found no evidence that Bose had survived. But critics say inconsistencies in a doctor's statements were not taken seriously and witnesses were not examined properly. Nehru's Congress party, they point out, had no interest in bringing Bose back from exile. Some historians suspect that Bose, an admirer of Stalin, might have escaped to the Soviet Union once he realized the Allies would win World War II. It seems highly unlikely, however, that he could remain there unnoticed. The fresh inquiry, one historian says, is a waste of time.

Try telling that to 73-year-old Gunni Devi Naidu, who joined Bose's Indian National Army as a teenager. She believes her leader is still alive, though she accepts the possibility that he might have died trying to return to India. Some soldiers saw him crossing the border, she theorizes. They recognized him. But then he was put in prison here and he was killed. If all this is true, she concludes: It was a conspiracy, and we have to punish his murderers. Surat Singh, a retired army man, says he has been wandering through hills and forests looking for Netaji. I know people who have met him, he says with stubborn conviction. He is waiting for the right time to come out.

Bose's Forward Bloc party thinks the right time is now. We want to put forward Netaji as a perfect ideal for the youth of today, says general secretary Debabrata Biswas. Late last month, followers congregated near Red Fort, the 17th-century bastion in New Delhi where Indian prime ministers deliver their Independence Day addresses each year. The message they proclaimed was one of destiny made manifest: when Bose set out with his men from Singapore in 1943, he had promised he would lead them to Delhi. Now, five decades and 12 democratically chosen prime ministers later, the Indian National Army he headed has finally arrived. You have to start another war, Biswas told 100 mostly frail men and women in uniform standing in the midday heat. We want to win real independence. We are going to put Netaji's red flag on the Red Fort. Now that India has enjoyed a half-century of independence, Bose's followers may have trouble persuading their countrymen to renew the struggle. But after waiting nearly 54 years for a definitive verdict on his disappearance, they have more than demonstrated their patience.

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