Netaji Bhawan

Netaji Bawan | Renko-ji Temple | Travel Back through Time

 

 Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose | Travel Back Through Time
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose | Travel Back Through Time

As the Second World War entered its decisive phase in 1943, the Unterseeboot 180, or U-180, lurked low in the icy waters off Kiel in northern Germany on February 9. The long-range submarine prepared to embark on a delicate mission: a rendezvous with a Japanese submarine off the coast of Madagascar. It was carrying diplomatic documents for the German embassy in Tokyo, blueprints and designs of jet engines and other technical material for its Axis partner. U-180’s forward torpedo tubes had been removed to create space for a couple of passengers. When they clambered atop the broad, wet deck from their motorboat, they were greeted by the boat’s commander, Werner Musenberg.

The submarine headed west; it would pass beneath the heavily mined British waters of the North Sea before being refueled by a submarine tanker in the mid-Atlantic, before heading south. The passengers would spend more than two months in the dark submarine, which reeked of diesel. “The fumes permeate everything”, one of the passengers noted in disappointment and added, “The bread we ate looked as if it was soaked in diesel oil; the blankets seemed drenched with it. Their ‘quarters’ were a recess in a passageway that also served as the officers’ mess. The diarist further recorded, “…that if you stood erect, you got in the way of somebody or the other.” However, they could be relocated to the medic’s surgery area when required.

After the U-180 rounded the Cape of Good Hope, Captain Musenberg detected the presence of enemy ships. Allowing himself a small diversion, he torpedoed a British tanker; MV Corbis sank with its crew (there were only 10 survivors). His appetite boosted, the captain ordered pursuit of a merchant ship. Just as Musenberg was about to issue firing orders, he encountered engine trouble and the U-180 was forced to surface. When the British freighter saw them it, “bore down on us with full speed to ram us”.

“Dive”, the captain shouted. Fear was tangible on the faces of the officers and crew members. At that moment, the diarist’s partner remonstrated, “I have repeated a point twice and you are not noting it down.” As the U-180 keeled and dropped down into the ocean, the writer went back to his dictation. After the close shave, Musenberg quietly resumed the main mission.

At sunset on April 20, the submarine’s hydrophone operator picked up the sound of a diesel engine. The cautious captain ordered the U-180 to surface in the shadowy twilight. However, the Japanese vessel could not be seen until dawn, when flag signals were exchanged. The Indian Ocean was rough and stormy; unsuitable conditions for a transfer. Despite low-fuel levels, both vessels cruised northwards for three days waiting for the sea to calm, while scanning the skies for enemy aircraft.

Finally at sundown of the third day, a German officer and a crew member dropped into the ocean and swam out to the Japanese submarine. They dragged with them a thick rope of hemp. They returned in a rubber dinghy attached to the rope. Off went the diplomatic mails and technical papers, to be swapped with more documents, a small cargo of quinine and gold ingots. The gold was payment for the study of U-boat and weapons technology by the two Japanese Navy officers who would accompany the precious metal. The two passengers wrote a farewell note in the submarine diary, thanking the crew members for “spoiling” them. On April 27, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and his aide, Abid Hasan (he would go on to be Indian Ambassador to several countries) donned life jackets and pitched out over the Indian Ocean.

Uneventful in itself, the crossing was laden with enormous historical significance, least of which was the distinction of being the only submarine transfer of civilians in World War II.

 

Crew Members of Submarine I-29 of the Imperial Japanese Navy  with Netaji in the first row | Travel Back Through Time
Crew Members of Submarine I-29 of the Imperial Japanese Navy with Netaji in the first row | Travel Back Through Time

During his extensive travels in Europe in the mid-1930s, Netaji had met prominent political thinkers and British Party leaders. He was of the opinion that India could achieve freedom only with outside support; he also wanted to establish a national army, which would fight for Indian independence. After the outbreak of World War II, inspired by the likes of Giuseppe Garibaldi, he thought that India should take advantage of the political turmoil in war-torn Britain.

For Netaji, 1941 began under house arrest. Disguised as a Pathan, he escaped with his nephew Sisir Bose and drove to Peshawar. Helped by Forward Bloc associates, a German intelligence agency, supporters of the Aga Khan and Soviet agents, he traveled through Afghanistan by growing a full-length beard and landed in the U.S.S.R. on an Italian passport. Netaji hoped that the Russians, who had traditionally been opposed to the British Raj, would support a revolution in India. However the Soviet leadership was too engrossed in the war to pay much attention to India’s troubles. They referred Netaji to the German ambassador in Moscow, who put him on a plane to Nazi Germany where Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbenstrop gave him a more encouraging response.

It might seem anomalous that an egalitarian leader would ally himself with, and seek the help of, a racist, fascist and murderous regime. But a desperate Netaji’s sole desire was to liberate his motherland and he was guided by the axiom that an enemy’s enemy is a friend. Netaji expressed his wish to form an Indian Government-in-Exile and expected its immediate recognition by the Axis Powers. This proposal was not deemed feasible by the Foreign Department who were more interested in Netaji’s second idea: Formation of an Indian army comprising of prisoners-of-war taken in the North African theatre. Germany’s advance on the European continent had been halted, and it had set its eye east on Soviet Russia, much to the dismay of Netaji.

Germany was superficial at best, duplicitous at worst, in its attitude towards the future of India, which ranged along the spectrum with the fluctuating fortunes of war. Hitler had written in Mein Kampf, “…Quite aside from the fact that I as a man of Germanic blood, would in spite of everything, rather see India under English rule than any other.’ Despite repeated demands, Netaji could not persuade Hitler to amend the statement. To the Germans, Netaji was only a refugee leader who did not represent the aspirations of the Indian people, but he could be very useful for German propaganda. The leader-in-exile was given a generous grant to establish the Azad Hind Radio and the Free India Centre.

The formation of the India army corps was slow: The Indian soldiers had taken oaths of loyalty to the British crown; they also questioned the leader’s motives. It began as a trickle, but slowly the ranks of the Free India Legion swelled to around 3,500. Netaji ensured that the Wehrmacht trained the soldiers in all aspects of modern warfare and would be on the same footing as European soldiers. Also, the legionaries would not be segregated by their faith, a first for Indian soldiers.

The Free India Legion could not be deployed to any European warfront and would only march on India. The soldiers took an oath of allegiance to both Hitler and Netaji. He had already adopted Jai Hind as a national greeting, but it was around this time that a soldier first referred to their leader as hamara neta (our leader). In 1942, he conceived Operation Bajadere, prompted by the demands of the Abwehr to paradrop Hindus and Muslims into the Caucasus, from where they could infiltrate Iran, Afghanistan and India to conduct sabotage operations. Whether the mission actually took place is uncertain; in any case, its success depended on a German victory at Stalingrad.

In his two years in Germany, Netaji met the Fuhrer only once; Hitler held forth on the world situation and said that they could only march on India over the “dead body of Russia”. He also suggested that Netaji may have more success by shifting base to Japan, a move the Indian leader was contemplating himself.

As Germany faltered in Russia, Japan was winning spectacular victories in the Pacific. The Japanese prime minister proposed a tripartite declaration (by Germany, Japan and Italy) for a free India. The Indian National Army (INA) had been founded by Rash Behari Bose (the revolutionary had escaped to Japan in 1915; when he died in 1945, his body was carried in the Imperial Coach. The Japanese Government conferred upon him the Second Order of the Rising Sun) in 1942 in Singapore. This army also consisted of Indian POWs but was soon disbanded when it appeared that the Japanese were using them as pawns. With reports of Netaji’s impending arrival, the army was resuscitated and the independence movement assumed greater importance for all.

Though his military ambitions were unfulfilled in Germany, Netaji had achieved tremendous organizational success. Azad Hind Radio was broadcasting regular bilingual bulletins, which were being avidly heard by the target audience. The Free India Centre had attained the status of a foreign mission, with special privileges for its members. Netaji himself had been lavishly hosted by the Germans, with a liberal monthly allowance, which the former considered a loan to be paid back by independent India. Netaji not only left behind his troops, who were told he was going on tour, but also his Austrian wife (or partner) Emily Schenkl and their daughter.

In Japan, Netaji basically duplicated what he had set out to do in Germany, but with more success. He rallied the Indian diaspora of the Southeast Asian countries; people flocked to enlist in the army; others provided financial support. His provisional Azad Hind Government was finally established and was officially recognized by the three Axis Powers, along with countries and governments under their influence, and probably the U.S.S.R. INA and Japanese forces met with initial successes; they captured the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and entered the states of Manipur and Nagaland before Commonwealth forces got the upper hand; a large proportion of INA troops surrendered. The remaining soldiers retreated towards Malaya; the journey through jungles and mountains became one of the biggest tragedies of the war, a saga of hunger, misery and death.

Netaji died from injuries suffered in a plane crash on 18th August 1945 in Taipei, Taiwan. His ashes are believed to be preserved at the Renko-ji temple in Tokyo, a belief strong enough to attract several of India’s Prime Ministers to pay tributes to him on official visits.

 

Renko-ji Temple |Travel Back Through Time
Renko-ji Temple |Travel Back Through Time

Two months after Netaji’s departure from Germany, the Free India Legion was sent to Holland and France for training in coastal defense. When the Allies landed in Normandy, the Legion was forced to retreat. Back in Germany, the legionaries were caught between the Allies in the west and Russian forces in the east. While attempting to cross the Alps into Switzerland, they were intercepted by American and French forces. Those captured by the French suffered especially cruel treatment. Those who survived were handed over to the British. Japan’s eventual surrender led to the repatriation of former combatants of the British Indian Army.

The story of Netaji’s army, born on foreign soil, electrified the nation. His Chalo Dilli (March on Delhi) slogan manifested in ways he could never have imagined. The public trials of INA and Indian Legion soldiers at the Red Fort resulted in widespread support for the prisoners from all quarters, including Congress, the Muslim League, the media and social organizations, all of which clamoured for clemency for “the misguided men”, who were soon hailed as national heroes. The trials energised nationalist sentiments and more significantly, elicited sympathy from an unexpected quarter: the Indian armed forces.

Demands for the release of the soldiers turned into violent clashes with British officers. The revolts spread nationwide and included police forces. Then the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) went on strike; the initial cause of the Bombay Mutiny was racial discrimination, but soon turned into an agitation around Netaji and the INA trials. Protests also broke out in the Royal Air Force. The subject of the trials became so inflammatory in Southeast Asia, that authorities forbade BBC from broadcasting their story, lest mutinies break out in the other colonies. But break out they did in British-controlled Singapore and Malaya, populated by former INA recruits.

Colonialism had become a tenuous idea in a world adjudicated by the newly-established United Nations Organization. Britain, weakened by war, came to the painful realisation that it could no longer rely on Indian forces, its main instrument of defense, to protect British interests.

Two months after Netaji’s departure from Germany, the Free India Legion was sent to Holland and France for training in coastal defense. When the Allies landed in Normandy, the Legion was forced to retreat. Back in Germany, the legionaries were caught between the Allies in the west and Russian forces in the east. While attempting to cross the Alps into Switzerland, they were intercepted by American and French forces. Those captured by the French suffered especially cruel treatment. Those who survived were handed over to the British. Japan’s eventual surrender led to the repatriation of former combatants of the British Indian Army.

The story of Netaji’s army, born on foreign soil, electrified the nation. His Chalo Dilli (March on Delhi) slogan manifested in ways he could never have imagined. The public trials of INA and Indian Legion soldiers at the Red Fort resulted in widespread support for the prisoners from all quarters, including Congress, the Muslim League, the media and social organizations, all of which clamored for clemency for “the misguided men”, who were soon hailed as national heroes. The trials energized nationalist sentiments and more significantly, elicited sympathy from an unexpected quarter: the Indian armed forces.

Demands for the release of the soldiers turned into violent clashes with British officers. The revolts spread nationwide and included police forces. Then the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) went on strike; the initial cause of the Bombay Mutiny was racial discrimination, but soon turned into an agitation around Netaji and the INA trials. Protests also broke out in the Royal Air Force. The subject of the trials became so inflammatory in Southeast Asia, that authorities forbade BBC from broadcasting their story, lest mutinies break out in the other colonies. But break out they did in British-controlled Singapore and Malaya, populated by former INA recruits.

Colonialism had become a tenuous idea in a world adjudicated by the newly-established United Nations Organization. Britain, weakened by war, came to the painful realization that it could no longer rely on Indian forces, its main instrument of defense, to protect British interests.

Netaji Bawan | Travel Back through Time
Netaji Bawan | Travel Back through Time

Netaji Bhawan is the ancestral home, where the revolutionary grew up and lived. This is the house he was confined in and from where he escaped. It is the headquarters of the Netaji Research Bureau and contains a museum, which exhibits Netaji’s personal effects and the car in which they fled from house arrest. The house was donated to the city by Sarat Chandra Bose in 1947.

 

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