The hottest historical controversy in Bengal has largely remained the same for the last 70 years. The question – how did Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose die – has pricked every Bengali’s psyche at some point in their lives. Recent developments have again shed light on this freedom fighter’s legacy and passing.
And this awakened in me some questions – What difference does it make? Why does it matter how he died? To answer this, I have to answer even broader questions: What does it mean to be Bengali? What is our identity, our sense of loving, humble pride? This requires a quick trip down memory lane.
The geographical location known as Bengal – and as West Bengal and Bangladesh for the last few decades – lies atop one of the most fertile agrarian deltas in the world. Here sediment deposits from the Gangetic river-system – fed by Himalayan glaciers – form the world’s largest silt delta.
In laymen’s terms, anything will grow in this soil with very little work.
Its sister river-system – the Indus – being geographically closer to more arid areas of present-day Middle East, East Europe and North Africa became site of the world’s first migrant nations: The Indus Valley civilization produced Mohenjo Daro and Harrappa, the latter inhabited by over 20,000 in 3300 B.C.
As migrations continued the population drifted further away from the Indus valley, hugging the Hindu Kush mountain range, towards the Himalayan mountain system. Then, following the river systems down from Himalayan glaciers a group of clans from the Caucus Mountains settled in the Indo-Gangetic plain.
They called themselves Arya – noble. These tribes then moved from the tradition oral history to written history and created the body of work known as the Vedas, the Hindu books of life. For the next few millennia the Aryans urbanized the Indo-Gangetic plain, pushing further towards fertile Bengal.
This urbanization included everything from re-education and inequitable reconditioning of the human population indigenous to the Indian sub-continent; implementing Vedic principles as the backbone of civilizations rooted in the Indian sub-continent; starting the caste-system; and advancing mathematics, arts and sciences by leaps and bounds. Major metropolises sprung up on the banks of the Ganges – Varanasi, Patliputra (Patna), and Kotalipara, seat of the Gônggarriddhi kingdom.
Gônggarriddhi – wealth of the Ganges – occupied a significant majority of the Gangetic delta around 300 B.C.; naturally bordered by the Ganges on the west, the Bay of Bengal in the south and the Himalayas in the north, this kingdom expanded to the doorsteps of present-day Myanmar.
Western anthologies first reported this kingdom after Alexander the Great’s excursion into India. After trekking through the plains, upon making it to the west bank of the Ganges – with the Gônggarriddhis defending their keep in the east, with war elephants – Alexander turned back, forsaking from his dream of Asian expansion.
For the next 1400 years Bengal led the Indian sub-continent in agrarian productivity and social progress. Multitudes of small principalities sprung up on the various tributaries of the river-system. Lavish palaces and gardens adorned thriving port cities and inland villages.
In that time Muslim migrants from Persia began moving into the Indo-Gangetic plain. Before Babar sowed the Mughal Dynasty into the fabric of Indian terrain in the 1200s, small Persian tribes had already settled throughout the subcontinent. Being latter immigrants, they gravitated towards the obvious hot-beds: the Indus river system, but more desirably, the up-and-coming Gangetic river system.
By 1600 A.D. Bengal became one of the world’s first peaceful religiously heterogeneous societies. Muslims and Hindus lived as neighbors and friends. Each community maintained a certain distance from the other because of obvious deviations in their respective faiths – Hindus don’t eat cows, for example.
Around that time European explorers landed on the shores of India. The British chose the less busy Bay of Bengal and its port-city of Chittagong. The British crown chartered a joint trade venture with British business guilds known as The British East India Company on the last day of 1600.
In the 17th century the Indian subcontinent was ruled by a collective of princely states that paid tribute to the Mughal Empire – the dynasty that preceded the British. The Mughal Empire had weakened from its height two hundred years earlier, when its borders extended from modern-day Pakistan in the west to modern-day Bangladesh in the east, and a large majority of the subcontinent’s peninsula. As a result, the princely states had reignited political rivalries with neighboring kingdoms.
The power vacuum created by a weakened centralized government allowed the British to exert more influence over business dealings with individual princes and nobles. After all, Britain was at the peak of its power in the 17th century. By hook or by crook, through contracts and loans, by bribes and playing sides, the British government granted favors to some princely states – by incentivizing their business relationships and supplying them with arms and ammunition for their ‘welfare and security’ – while silencing their rivals by spreading religious propaganda amongst their subjects, undercutting social development by destroying and/or ‘exporting’ all of Bengal’s natural and trade commodities to Britain, and finally aiding their ‘allies’ in defeating their neighbors.
This operandi repeated itself many times, beginning with Bengal. It helped the British gain control over all of present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. At some point, when most princely states had either been dissolved or made vassals, the Empire resorted to outright war to overthrow remaining opposition. To do this, the Empire went further into 17th century India’s structure of governance.
Just as princely states paid tribute to the Mughal Empire, smaller noble families that controlled the various agrarian and trade districts – zamindari families – paid tribute to the princely states in exchange for their protection and patronage. From the time of the third Mughal Emperor – Akbar the Great – this de-facto representative form of secular government kept relative peace and stability in the region.
In their final leg of asserting control over Bengal, and thereby the rest of the territory, the British undercut remaining princely states by playing the same game of divide-and-conquer between princes and zamindars. These families, encouraged by bribes, self-preservation and no other alternative, sided with the stronger British. This gave the British near-absolute control over every commodity, since the zamindaris largely controlled the substantive portion of the gross domestic product. After securing its conquest, over the next couple of centuries the British government and business guilds did something unprecedented in world history.
Before British Imperialism many wars were fought, many dynasties and kingdoms rose and fell, many races of immigrants settled, and many indigenous people were displaced as a result. But never before – except for a story in the Book of Genesis – in human history had a friendly visitor come bearing gifts and the intent of depriving its hosts of their livelihoods for the sole purpose of enriching their own coffers. Unlike every other immigrant and invading force, the British siphoned every natural resource out of Bengal – and the rest of the Indian subcontinent – and returned few favors.
Cotton and silk produced in Bengal were shipped to England to be fashioned into clothing; the finer products remained in England while the more common were resold to Indians at inflated prices. Simultaneously age-old cottage industries that wove these fabrics using unique techniques were destroyed – my 85-year old aunt tells me stories of a guild that made cloth that could be folded down to 1/100th its unfolded size; the British chopped off the weavers’ thumbs.
The best rice and tea were shipped to England while Bengalis were left with, at best, second-best. To add insult to injury, the British Empire – after complete annexation – began imposing sales taxes on the products it made from Bengali raw materials and sold in ‘British Bengal,’ unfairly enriching British society at the expense of Bengali lives and livelihoods.
As a result of this gross injustice on the masses over 10 million Bengalis died in the Great Bengal Famine of 1770; a little over 150 years later another 3 million died in the Bengal Famine of 1943. The greatest irony that natives of a fertile crescent starved to death under its rule speaks volumes of the aptitude of the British Empire. After all, they too were British subjects – or at least that was the impression Britain gave the world. In time the British Empire expanded throughout the Indian sub-continent, with its eastern capital in Calcutta (now Kolkata), a major Asian metropolis at the turn of the 20th century.
It enlisted Indians in its every affair, but never as equals.
More than all the material deprivation, more than the torture and violence, Bengal refused to accept this disparity. As the British Empire gained its foothold over Bengal an intellectual movement sparked amongst Bengal’s intelligentsia – The Bengal Renaissance.
This movement produced a vast majority of all liberation propaganda through Bengali art, writing, history and philosophy. It integrated ancient wisdoms from the Vedas and various other schools of thought to build a body of work that strengthened Bengali – and Indian – identity, while subtly sowing the seeds of rebellion and liberation. Netaji was born at the tail-end of this movement and at the height of British governance turned oppression. He went on to becoming the leading gardener of Rennaisance philosophies – strengthening Bengali identity and repelling British oppression with the same hand.
In 1911, faced with an informed and inflamed Bengali populous ready to fight for freedom and equality, the Empire moved its Indian capital to New Delhi, citing its central location and historical significance as the subcontinent’s center of power (various dynasties have governed India from Delhi over the last 2500 years). In the short-term, it made matters worse for the masses. The Empire implemented new taxes; increased arbitrary, cruel and unusual punishments; enlisted Indians in its armed forces during both World Wars; and refused to grant Indians equal status as subjects of the British Empire.
This further incited Bengal’s intelligentsia, by now led by Netaji popularly and Rabindranath Tagore intellectually. Around the same time when Hitler rose to power, Bengal’s intelligentsia was ripe for revolt. To some extent it agreed with Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent approach, but as British oppression intensified, Netaji revived the Azad Hind Fauj – Hind Liberation Army. This army enlisted Indian dissidents of the British Empire and anyone interested in fighting for freedom from the British.
Because this guerilla army could not be established within Empire borders without being condemned as terrorists, nor get any material assistance from India, Netaji reached out to Hitler in Germany and the Empire of Japan while installing training camps in various parts of Asia. Both countries had joined forces and declared war against Britain. From Netaji’s – and very Bengali’s – perspective, the British had systematically exploited, tortured and starved millions of Bengalis over generations solely for the purpose of power and wealth, not unlike Hitler. Except, Hitler did what he did over a decade while the British did their deed for three centuries. So it mattered little to him what Hitler or Japan’s main objectives were so long as they weakened the British. As Britain was being destroyed by Hitler’s forces in the west, Netaji and his guerilla army nibbled away at Britain’s power over India.
Then suddenly, the British changed their diplomatic policy. Historians have attributed this change largely to Gandhi’s non-violent movement. History has forgotten the Bengali Renaissance, Bengali sacrifices, and Netaji – who instilled the very idea of freedom from oppression into the heart of a hemorrhaging nation.
The British Empire agreed to a slow and collaborative transition from British India to independence. The executive team included the British Empire, Gandhi and his followers, Jawaharlal Nehru, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, various other political leaders, and some freedom fighters who were not affiliated with Bengal or Netaji. No Bengali played any role in this diplomatic process.
Netaji had been labelled a terrorist and enemy of the Crown; because of his bold militancy the non-Bengali freedom movement had withdrawn their support of him and the Bengali freedom movement. Bengal was effectively removed from the geopolitical process of carving up the Indian subcontinent.
Against the wishes of Gandhi and Jinnah, the British and Nehru accepted no other alternative but to divide India along sectarian lines. The religious propaganda machine the British employed when they first started their campaign again helped in inciting communal violence throughout Bengal and Punjab. This weakened the age-old solidarity between Hindus and Muslims of India. These provinces at the hearts of the Indus and Ganges river-systems erupted in religious violence as a consequence, giving proponents of a divided India cause to fracture India by deceit and sheer force of ambitious will.
Millions of people were displaced, thousands slaughtered; Hindu businesses and temples burned in the newly formed Islamic State of Pakistan while Muslim businesses and mosques were destroyed in India. My family was among the Hindu refugees ousted from present-day Bangladesh during this time. Over the last few decades religious violence has ripped through these areas of western-structured eastern governance. Terrorism rooted in religious misinformation has cost India and Pakistan billions of dollars – and 70 years after liberation the innate peace of the Indo-Gangetic plain has not returned.
The people of Bengal, left with scraps after centuries of exploitation, scattered throughout the world, continue to struggle under the enormous weight of a fast-paced 21st century; the internet, globalization; and a shattered Bengali identity has weakened a proud People who continue to endure the test of time.
The mystery of Netaji’s demise sits at the center of that shattered Bengali identity. Bengal has not been able to understand how a liberation movement it led popularly and intellectually essentially deserted it and opted for elusive geo-political games with the oppressor. It doesn’t understand how nations that today reap the harvest of Bengali sacrifices could forget about it and the man who led that just cause.
Bengal doesn’t want an apology from anyone, nor reparations. It understands that the British Empire of the 21st century and the India of today would go bankrupt if it paid equitable reparations to the people of Bengal. But it deserves an explanation for the sake of closure; so Bengal can finally close the most painful chapter of its history, regain faith in its own identity, and move forward with a clear conscience.
The British had a reason other than the over-crowdedness of the Arabian Sea for establishing its roots in Bengal. In the 2000 years between Gônggarriddhi and the British, the heterogeneous people of Bengal, through struggles and paradigm shifts, had mastered agriculture, weaving, education, trade, tenacity, and tolerance. Though the British government will never accept it, they had landed on the shores of a civilization far more advanced than themselves; they just didn’t know it. In her well-rounded hubris Empress Victoria failed to look at the history of a People who deterred Alexander. Fifteen years into the 21st century Bengal is still one of the most densely populated areas in the world; Bengalis carry their traditions and stories wherever they go, sharing the essence of Tagore and their motherland – a place English words can never do justice.