On Netaji's 125th Birthday, Let's Revisit The Murky Mysteries Surrounding His Death
As one of India’s most remarkable freedom fighters, Bose left behind not only an extraordinary legacy but also a trail of unresolved controversies around his death.
On August 18, 1945, a two-engine bomber aircraft reportedly nosedived and crashed in Formosa in current day Taiwan. On August 23, the Japanese radio announced that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose succumbed to injuries from the aforementioned plane accident. Although it is widely believed that Netaji did pass away in the Formosa plane accident in August 1945, this theory also has a significant number of counter-arguments. Many believe that the plane crash was staged to distract the Allied Forces from a planned escapade, or that Netaji had indeed returned to India, living the rest of his life as an ascetic by the name of 'Gumnami Baba'. Some others are also of the staunch conviction that Bose was exiled in Russia till as long as 1968, dying in captivity in Siberia.
The mystery surrounding the death of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose warranted multiple investigations carried out by India as well as by foreign powers. The Shah Nawaz Committee (1956) was the first formal inquiry by the Indian government, followed by the Khosla Commission (1970), and the Mukherjee Commission (1999). The classified files related to Subhas Chandra Bose and his family were finally released in 2015 by the West Bengal government and by March 2016, all the 'Netaji files' had been declassified and made available to the public by the Central government as well.
Why was the plane crash theory considered so dubious?
The Justice Mukherjee Commission of Inquiry, which was one of three committees set up to investigate Netaji's death, had concluded in 2005 that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose is dead, but that he did not die in the plane crash and the ashes in Japan's Renkō-ji Temple did not belong to Netaji. They pointed at a few key discrepancies in the evidence. First, they could not find any reportage of the August 18 plane crash in the local news, or any documentation of it in Taiwan's historical records.
Second, they inferred that Netaji's aide and his alleged co-passenger, Habibur Rahman, was suspiciously silent about Netaji's death post the plane accident, chalking it up to him "playing a very vital role along with the Japanese army authorities in formulation and execution of Netaji’s escape plan".
The death reports of Ichiro Okura further bolstered the Commission's conclusions. Ichiro Okura, a member of the Taiwan Government Army, had reportedly passed away due to heart failure, the day after the plane crash, on August 19, 1945. The Mukherjee Commission report claimed that the death and cremation of Ichiro Okura was "passed off as those of Netaji". This also paved the way for the Commission to claim that the ashes in Japan's Renkō-ji Temple belonged to Okura and not Netaji.
The Mukherjee Commission also found it unlikely that a plane that had reportedly plunged from a height of 12,000 to 14,000 feet would have rendered as many survivors as Habibur Rahman claimed it had.
So, what the Justice Mukherjee Commission of Inquiry essentially did was not just decry the report of Netaji's death post the plane crash in Formosa, but also put forward its own theories— "...Netaji's death therein and his cremation was engineered by the Japanese army authorities including the two doctors and Habibur Rahman and then aired on August 23, 1945 through a statement prepared by Sri S.A. Ayer ..."
The findings of the Mukherjee Commission report was rejected by the Parliament in 2006 and has also been widely criticised by academics for fanning undue conspiracies about Subhas Chandra Bose’s death.
So if not the plane crash, then what?
Interestingly enough, four other hypotheses surrounding the place and time, if not also the cause of Netaji's death can be found in the Mukherjee Commission's report itself. The Commission debunked most of them for lack of substantial evidence, but theories sprouted outside their report as well.
Netaji lived in Uttar Pradesh as ‘Gumnami Baba’
Bhagwanji or Gumnami Baba was an ascetic who was believed to have lived in multiple places in Uttar Pradesh (most notably in Ram Bhawan in Faizabad) and to have breathed his last in Faizabad on September 16, 1985. According to as many as 31 witnesses who deposed before the Mukherjee Commission, Gumnami Baba was Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose himself. The Uttar Pradesh government, under the instruction of the Allahabad High Court, set up a commission in 2016 under Justice Vishnu Sahai to investigate these claims. Although the report was inconclusive, researchers Anuj Dhar and Chandrachur Ghose reinforced this theory through their book Conundrum, where they argued that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose did take up the guise of Gumnaami Baba. The Bose family, however, was quite vocal in publicly refuting their theory. In fact, there is a film on this theory as well- Gumnaami, by Bengali filmmaker Srijit Mukherjee, depicts Dhar and Ghose's experience researching this theory and creates a cinematic representation of Netaji disguised as Gumnaami Baba.
Netaji escaped to Russia and was tortured to death by the British
Major General Gagandeep Bakshi, in his book Bose: The Indian Samurai - Netaji and 7the INA Military Assessment, propounded another theory to explain Netaji's disappearance. He believed Netaji had successfully escaped to the Soviet Union where he established an embassy for the Azad Hind Government. According to him, Subhas Chandra Bose was hunted down by the British after making three radio broadcasts from Siberia, and in the course of an interrogation, the British tortured and murdered him.
Other reported spottings
No matter what the evidence suggests, many people have claimed at various points in time to have seen Subhas Chandra Bose, way beyond August 1945 when he had reportedly died in the plane accident. Moscow-based journalist Narendranath Sindkar filed an affidavit in July 2016 where he claimed that the son of prominent freedom fighter Virendranath Chattopadhyay had crossed paths with Bose in Omsk, Russia. Similarly, an individual bearing close resemblance to Netaji was reportedly spotted at the funeral of Jawaharlal Nehru on May 28, 1964. Similar claims were made about sightings across various countries till at least the late 1960s.