Back from the dead

At the beginning of 1921, a few months before Subhas Chandra Bose returned to Kolkata ffrom England after resigning from the Indian Civil Service, a sannyasi in loin cloth – with matted hair and body covered with ash – had walked into Dhaka. A controversy soon erupted over the identity of the sannyasi. While some (including the sannyasi himself) claimed that he was the second kumar (prince) of the Bhawal zamindari near Dhaka, who had come back from the dead, the wife of the kumar and some others claimed that he had died and cremated in Darjeeling twelve years ago, and hence an impostor. A legal battle ensued and kept the people and the press enraptured for the next two and a half decades until the then Privy Council issued the final verdict in favour of the sannyasi in 1946. Whether Bose was familiar with or interested in the controversy which became famous as the ‘Bhawal Sannyasi Case’ cannot be said with certainty, although in view of the wide press coverage it won’t be surprising if he was. What can be said with certainty is that he couldn’t have imagined that someday he would disappear from the public eye under mysterious circumstances leading to controversies about him being ‘back from the dead’ lingering on well into the next century.

That Subhas Bose did not die in the manner as the story was given out - in a plane crash at Taiwan in August 1945 - has now been conclusively proven by the inquiry commission headed by retired Justice Manoj Kukar Mukherjee, who investigated Bose’s disappearance for six long years from 1999-2005. The question that has remained unanswered is that of what happened to him after August 1945?

Periodically, people at various parts of the country have claimed that Subhas Bose returned to India and continued to live a secretive life as a sannyasi. The similarity with the Bhawal case however has remained restricted to the ‘back from the dead’ aspect of the controversies. The major and the critical difference has been that the man in question never stepped out to reclaim his rights. Among all these claims only two instances stand out, for their impact and the government’s reactions. Yet, as we shall see, they had between them more differences than similarities.

The sensational sixties

About five years after the Nehru Government accepted the findings of the first official inquiry by the Shah Nawaz Committee, which claimed that Bose had indeed died in the so-called plane crash, the government’s intelligence machinery swung into action around a remote place in North Bengal called Shoulmari. Frequently reporting to the Writer’s Building – then the headquarters of the Bengal Government – from the ground were the senior officers of the intelligence branch, police and civil administration. The centre of attraction was an ashram which had been set up by a sannyasi with the help of some local notables in about 1957. No one seemed to know the identity of the sannyasi and rumours soon started doing rounds that the man was Subhas Bose in disguise. Strangely for a Government which was so sure of Bose’s death in 1945, a posse of sleuths and informers were secretly deployed to find out the identity of the man.

The whispers quickly turned into loud clamours drawing visitors among whom were former associates of Bose such as Niharendu Dutta Majumdar, Satya Gupta, and Uttamchand Malhotra, spiritual leader Balak Brahmachari, children of Beni Madhab Das – Bose’s school teacher, nephew Dwijendra Nath Bose, niece Lalita Bose etc. Local informers reported to the intelligence branch that Shah Nawaz Khan and PK Sehgal of the Indian National Army and Ashrafuddin Ahmad (former secretary of Bengal Congress) too had visited Shoulmari. Satya Gupta, who was a member of the former group of revolutionaries known as Bengal Volunteers and Uttam Chand Malhotra, who had given shelter to Bose in Kabul during his escape from India, were convinced that the sadhu was Bose in disguise. A group formed under the leadership of Malhotra called Subhasvadi Janata started organising public meetings and printing posters claiming that the holy man in the ashram was none other than Subhas Chandra Bose. The holy man, whose name was given out as Swami Saradananda, issued a statement that he had nothing to do with Bose or his family, but that wouldn’t deter the enthusiasts. In April 1962, the Government of West Bengal issued a press note that it had been informed by the secretary of the Ashram that Saradananda was not Bose. The note stated that the Government was not in a position to ascertain the truth, but asserted that this statement by the ashram put at rest the speculation that Saradananda might have been Bose. At the same time, it declared that although it would not be able to solve the controversy, it would not allow anyone to create a law and order situation on this issue, particularly in any part of North Bengal. To the Union Home Ministry, the state government told that it did not consider it desirable or practicable to hold an inquiry on the issue since Saradananda had chosen to live a life of seclusion in a private ashram.

Despite the tone of finality, neither the meetings stopped, nor the intelligence activity of the government. In fact, after consultations with Nehru, Morarji Desai, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the man who went to ascertain whether Saradananda was Bose was Surendra Mohan Ghose, then a member of parliament, but a revolutionary of the Anushilan group who was associated with Subhas since 1921. Ghose met Saradananda twice, for over five hours in September 1962 and on his return sent a detailed nine page note to Nehru and a telegram to Desai, who was in London, informing them that Saradananda was not Bose, but he was not able to know his true identity. Also keeping a tab on the developments was India’s intelligence czar BN Mullik, then the director of the Intelligence Bureau.

Not to be left out, Forward Bloc – Netaji’s party – formed a ten member committee to investigate the Shoulmari sadhu in October 1962. Headed by the party’s general secretary RK Haldulkar, the committee had senior leaders of the party in Bengal Hemanta Basu and Kanai Lal Bhattarcharjee as members. Saradananda refused to grant audience to them together. The ashram soon got into a number of difficulties – mainly financial – and was drawn into litigations. There were other problems too – the intelligence reports talk about a scandalous rumour that one of the unmarried girls gave birth to a baby girl. By early 1966, Saradananda left the Ashram and travelled to various other states. With his exit from Shoulmari, the controversy about his identity died a gradual death, although a few remained to establish him as Subhas Bose. The Intelligence Bureau, however, never stopped following him. His movements were tracked and reports were generated probably until his death in 1977.

Along with other documents, what has been kept secret till now, is that the intelligence officers had established the real identity of Saradananda by the early 1960s. The question remains, then, why were resources allocated to track the sadhu, who made no bones about not being Subhas Bose, for the next decade and a half and why keep the reports secret?

The silent observer

While the Shoulmari controversy raged on, another story was unfolding far away from the public gaze at a place in Uttar Pradesh which holds an important place in India’s epics – Naimisharanya, or Neemsar in modern parlance. Just over a month earlier than Surendra Mohan Ghose’s visit to Shoulmari, or probably around the time when he was discussing the Shoulmari issue with Nehru, a former Swaraj Party member and an ex-member of the legislative assembly, Atul Sen wrote a surprising letter to the Prime Minister. Travelling in Naimisharanya, Sen had by chance stumbled upon a sannyasi who lived in a dilapidated temple, but never met anyone. The sannyasi, whose identity was unknown to the locals spoke to people occasionally from behind a curtain. Convinced by the conversations with the sannyasi Sen wrote to Nehru, “Mine is not mere belief but actual knowledge that that Netaji is alive and is engaged in spiritual practice somewhere in India.” Without giving away any more detail, Sen asked Nehru to clarify if there is any secret protocol which binds India to handover Bose to the former allied powers.

Nehru replied within three days. There is no secret protocol, and even if some country asks India is not going to hand over Bose. He asked no more question. Sen acknowledged Nehru’s letter and the matter rested there as far as Nehru was concerned.

However, the story kept developing under strict secrecy in Calcutta, a city whose attention was on the Shoulmari affair and the Chinese aggression. As the news reached Suresh Bose, Subhas’s elder brother and the dissenting member of the Shah Nawaz Committee, he asked his right hand man Sunil Krishna Gupta to reach Naimisharanya (Suresh and Dwijen Bose – son of Subhas’s eldest brother Satish – would tell the GD Khosla Commission (1970-74) that they knew that Subhas was alive). Pabitra Mohan Roy, the former intelligence officer of the Indian National Army, was the other person who visited the place. The word soon reached Leela Roy, the firebrand revolutionary leader and one of the closest associates of Bose. Gradually a very small group of people from Calcutta started meeting and exchanging letters with the sannyasi for the next more than two decades. However, nothing ever came out in the public domain till the early years of the present century, except for a brief period of a few years after 1985.

On the night of September 16, 1985, a sannyasi who had been living in two small rooms of an outhouse of ‘Ram Bhawan’ in Faizabad of Uttar Pradesh, very carefully hiding himself away from public gaze, passed away. His body was cremated after his followers waited for two days for some visitors from Calcutta to arrive, in the presence of 13 of his followers at the Guptar Ghat – an extraordinary choice of location. Considered a holy site where Shri Ramchandra is believed to have ended his life by walking down into the flowing Sarayu, cremation of dead body is unheard of.

Murmurs that had started in the town that the dead man was none other than Subhas Chandra Bose soon turned into demonstrations and public rallies demanding a probe into his identity. Ironically, although the man was known to his followers as ‘Bhagwanji’, he was referred to by people as Gumnami Baba – the man without an identity. In response to public clamour, the police soon locked up the rooms where he lived, and an inventory was prepared of his belongings. In October, the local daily Naye Log, edited by journalist Ashok Tandon raised the same question with a front page story (Tandon would write a lengthy series on the issue from April 1987 to October 1988 in Ganga magazine). Sensing trouble, the state government asked the district magistrate of Faizabad to prepare a detailed report for forwarding to the central government. From December 20, the Northern India Patrika started a series called The Man of Mystery investigating the antecedents of Gumnami baba which opened with the words “The track is cold, but the leads are hot – the hottest ever in the history of post-independence India.” The very first instalment stated the conclusion of the team of journalists – Kauser Hussain, Nirmal Nibedon and Vishwambhar Nath Arora- “The investigations and piecing together of the exciting material painstakingly collected…led us to the inescapable belief that the man…was one of the greatest personalities this country ever had, who had left the world unknown and unsung.” The last instalment, published on January 23, 1986, was as categorical as possible – "The man was Subhas Bose."

The state government had already secretly ordered a police probe, which could not establish the identity of Gumnami Baba, but when in February 1986, the members as well as the speaker of the legislative assembly put pressure on the state government, the government twisted the conclusion of the probe to state that the man was not Bose. The police report traced Bhagwanji’s movements back to 1974, but probably its most interesting finding was that the central intelligence agencies had started tracking the man more than a decade ago.

Early in 1986, Lalita Bose, daughter of Suresh Bose landed in Uttar Pradesh and met the Chief Minister seeking an inquiry. Her reaction to the Faizabad story was very different than to the Shoulmari, where she had gone to meet Saradananda. Failing to draw any hopeful response, she approach the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court, along with two other local activists, seeking an inquiry and custody of the material left behind by the dead hermit. The case dragged on, but the Court immediately issued an interim order to the District Magistrate to methodically prepare an inventory and preserve all the material. The final order in the case was passed as recently as in 2013, but much had happened since then.

The efforts to solve the mystery of Gumnami baba received a boost after a decade when the Justice Mukherjee Commission began its investigation. In fact, the Commission investigated both the Shoulmari case and the Gumnami Baba mystery. While it summarily dismissed the possibility of the Saradananda being Bose, it stopped short of endorsing the Gumnami Baba hypothesis for the lack of 'clinching evidence.'

Within a few years, however, Justice Mukherjee was accidentally captured by a camera during the shooting of a documentary to say that he had no doubt in his mind that Bhagwanji and Bose were the same person. This supposedly off-the-record admission created a furore. At the same time, it raised the question as to what stopped him from saying this in his report. If the reason for his rejecting the possibility of Gumnami Baba being Bose was “absence of any clinching evidence,” how does one reconcile his public announcement and private belief?

Understanding this dichotomy requires a careful perusal of his report and line of inquiry. Playing on the side of extra caution, Justice Mukherjee rejected the evidences of most deponents who argued for the Faizabad angle. Thus, the journalists who meticulously followed the leads to conduct their investigation immediately after the death of Gumnami Baba and published their detailed accounts, as well as those who had interacted with him but had not seen his face were ruled out. Out of a total of thirty one deponents who argued in favour of Gumnami Baba, the judge rejected twenty two. These deponents presented astounding accounts of senior politicians, bureaucrats and officers of the armed forces visiting Gumnami Baba clandestinely even as he moved from one city to another at regular intervals, and about his possible involvement in the various wars in South and Southeast Asia. The other factors which he considered most important were accounts of visits by Leela Roy, Pabitra Mohan Roy, Amal Roy (former revolutionary) and Samar Guha (former revolutionary and later member of Lok Sabha) and their letters found at Ram Bhawan.

"Apparently, there is no reason for not acting or relying upon the evidence of the... witnesses particularly of the category who had seen Netaji before 1945 and also met Bhagwanji/Gumnami Baba face to face on a number of occasions, more so when their evidence regarding the frequent visits of some freedom fighters, eminent politicians and former members of INA on January 23 and during the Durga Puja festival is supported by the fact that letters written by some of them..." wrote Justice Mukherjee.

The stumbling block, however, were the results of forensic tests, which stood “in the way of this Commission in arriving at a conclusive finding that Bhagwanji/Gumnami Baba was none other than Netaji.” As the letters purportedly written by Bhagwanji were sent for handwriting analysis, a few teeth kept in a match box among his belongings sent for DNA analysis. This line of investigation – that is, to see whether forensic evidence corroborates witness accounts – can hardly be flawed. While the report from B Lal, former examiner of questioned documents of the government, and one of the foremost experts in this field, showed clearly in his analysis that the handwritings matched, the Office of the Government Examiner of Questioned Documents and Forensic Science Laboratory, Government of West Bengal, Kolkata gave the opposite opinion, but without providing any reasoned analysis. The result of the DNA analysis was also negative.

In other words, while the single non-governmental report supported the case for Gumnami Baba, the government laboratories presented reports to the contrary. It can be argued that this was hardly surprising in view of the government’s attitude towards Subhas Bose. But apart from questioning the motives, it could also be a question of competence and credibility. The quality of forensic tests conducted in government laboratories have been repeatedly questioned. Whatever the case may be, while Justice Mukherjee’s admission pointed out to his negation of the forensic test results, the findings in the report had to be what they were because whatever the extent of suspicion he was bound to act by the results from the laboratory.

With the rejection of the Mukherjee Commission’s report by the UPA government, without assigning any reason the lid on the case could have been final. However, a declassification campaign conducted by using the Right to Information Act by Mission Netaji, a pressure group working to unravel the Netaji mystery, from 2006 onwards has compelled the public release of thousands of new documents which were earlier classified as secret or top secret. These have brought to fore how the central government had been spying on the family of Subhas Bose for decades, apart from throwing new light on the case.

The January 2013 order of the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court which finally issued the order on the case initiated by Lalita Bose has also come as a shot in the arm. The Court asked the Uttar Pradesh government to institute an inquiry headed by a retired High Court Judge into the identity of Bhagwanji and to set up a museum for the scientific preservation of his belongings. The UP government has announced the establishment of a museum and has allotted funds for it, but is yet to act on the other direction.

As the declassification campaign gains momentum and the NDA government prepares to commit to declassification of the Bose files, the above cases point out to the need for declassification of not only those documents lying with the PMO or with other ministries, but also with all the intelligence offices across the country. Many of these, undoubtedly, would be about Gumnami Baba and his meetings with political leaders and senior constitutional position-holders. Otherwise, we might just end up fooling ourselves with half-baked information.

** This article was published in Swarajya magazine's October 2015 issue