Recollections and reflections

Reminiscences, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai

I first came in contact with Subhas Bose in 1923 at Delhi when the Congress was divided into two groups over the question of what was known as 'Council Entry.'...Subhas Babu, as the favourite lieutenant of Deshabandhu, was playing a prominent part in the controversy. more>>

After the JMCI: What now?

Chandrachur Ghose

The three inquiries into the disappearance of Subhas Chandra Bose have been discussed threadbare in the public domain. While the Shah Nawaz Committee of 1956 and the G D Khosla Commission (1970-74) arrived at the conclusion that Bose had indeed died in a plane crash in 1945, the Justice Mukherjee Commission of Inquiry (JMCI) which investigated the issue from 1999 to 2005, arrived at a diametrically opposite view.

What then does one conclude from these investigations? Is Justice Mukherjee’s report more credible because it is the latest investigation, or should one lend credence to the official line, as explained by the then Home Minister in Lok Sabha, that the earlier commissions were more believable because they were closer to the time of the alleged mishap?

A concerned citizen will have to be satisfied by whatever conclusions can be drawn only by reading these inquiry reports, because the documents on the basis of which the findings were arrived at, and other related documents, are still considered top secret. Official inquiries have also had to do without many of relevant documents. One such document was the report of an inquiry conducted by the Taiwan Government in 1956. While this document was not part of evidence considered by the Shah Nawaz Committee, it was provided to Justice Khosla, who did not mention the existence of this record even once in his report. The importance of the Taiwan inquiry lies not only in the fact that it could not find any evidence of a plane crash, but also in the fact that for the first time, a witness claimed that there were two aides with Bose, not one. This confuses the traditional story of only Habibur Rahman accompanying Bose.

Very strangely, this crucial document was reported lost when JMCI was conducting its investigation. Justice Mukherjee happened to find a copy in the British Library. This was not the only case of missing information. Justice Mukherjee has dedicated an entire chapter in his report recounting how his efforts to procure relevant documents were consistently frustrated. The most striking case perhaps was the destruction of a relevant file while the GD Khosla Commission was functioning. Such important files are never destroyed unless there is a copy of it somewhere. However, the Government could not produce any copy, nor any justification of the destruction of the file.

If Bose’s disappearance mystery is ever to be solved, it is vitally important that each piece of relevant document, not only in India, but in all other countries, is considered carefully. But what does one do if instead of depending on the findings of the three inquiries, one wants to figure out for himself where the truth lies? Well, under the current circumstances, he can’t do much. Of the tens of thousands of pages seen by the three inquiries, only 91 have been declassified till now.

This declassification, however, has not happened due to any initiative of the Government, but due to concerned citizens who wanted to utilise the Right to Information (RTI) Act to get access to those documents. The Delhi-based trust Mission Netaji has been trying to bring out all relevant documents through RTI Act since 2006. The response of the various Ministries to their efforts is illuminating.

Utilising the RTI Act, the organisation approached the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of External Affairs, the Prime Minister’s Office, and the Cabinet Secretariat (including the Research and Analysis Wing). In addition to seeking the documents seen by the three inquiries, the organisation also asked explanations for a few vexing issues unexplained by any of the inquiries. When it came to parting with documents, or divulging the list of classified files held by them, the first reaction of all the concerned Ministries was denial. These documents were labelled as “information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or lead to incitement of an offence.” In certain instances, they attempted to deflect the efforts by providing wrong information to the Central Information Commission. In one instance, the Ministry of Home Affairs went to the extent of saying that “The … documents are sensitive in nature, the public disclosure of which may lead to a serious law and order problem in the country, especially in West Bengal.”

Even when the Central Information Commission (CIC) directed the Ministry of Home Affairs to provide 202 documents sought by Mission Netaji, the Ministry provided only 91. As late as in October 2009, the CIC directed the same Ministry to provide the exhibits of the JMCI within 20 working days. The documents have not yet been provided to the organisation.

Similarly, the Ministry of External Affairs would not tell what exactly it wrote to the Russian Government when, and if, it asked for assistance in solving the mystery. Was this strange in view of the fact that despite the Indian Government claiming that it had sought the Russian Government’s assistance regarding JMCI, Justice Mukherjee had to return almost empty handed? There is a lesson to be learnt from the way Sweden persuaded Russia for information on Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who was captured by the Russian forces and later was claimed to have been executed. As late as in 1991, the two countries formed a joint working group to investigate his fate in Russia.

It stands beyond any reason as to why the Government would be so apprehensive of declassifying documents on a historical figure whom it claims to respect a great deal, and whose death, it claims, happened 64 years ago.

When the same organisation approached the Central Intelligence Agency of the US for any document they might hold on Bose, they declassified the two documents in their custody and sent them across. These documents, produced in 1949 and 1950, report the strong expectations of Bose’s return from USSR in contemporary India. Mark the contrast: in the world's leading democracy that is India, declassification remains an anathema -- specially for the intelligence agencies, which are untouchables in the quest for transparency.

It is of utmost importance that all documents having a bearing on this case is released in the public domain, so that they can be assessed by independent experts, or by any individual willing to take the trouble. That, however, is not likely to happen unless the declassification process is governed by a comprehensive law, and overseen by experts, instead of being guided by a departmental manual issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which ultimately depends on the discretion of a middle-level bureaucrat.

Yet, another crucial aspect is the nature of this kind of inquiry, which is not a criminal investigation. The people who assess evidence and explore possibilities in such a complex need to have expertise in different disciplines. Therefore, it makes more sense in appointing a commission that has historians, archivists, diplomats, lawyers and representatives of civil society, rather than a judge, retired or serving.