On September 16th, 1985, in a dilapidated house in Faizabad, formerly the capital of Oudh province in India, a reclusive holy man known as Bhagwanji or Gumnami Baba (‘the saint with no name’) breathed his last. Locals had long suspected that he was none other than Subhas Chandra Bose (1897-1945), the Indian quasi-Fascist leader who in the 1930s had advocated a violent revolution against the British Empire to gain total independence for India.The Second World War had enabled him to practise what he preached and his Indian National Army had fought with the Japanese in Burma attempting to drive the British out of the subcontinent.
Although Netaji (Great Leader) Bose was reported killed in an air crash in August 1945, while trying to escape to the Soviet Union, many believed then and continue to believe now that, helped by his Japanese allies, he faked his death, reached Russia and returned to India many years later to lead the secret life of a hermit. Surprisingly for a poor sadhu (mystic) the ‘saint with no name’ left behind many trunks of possessions and in 1986, realising that these might solve the mystery once and for all, Bose’s niece Lalita obtained a high court order for an inventory to be made of their contents. Among the 2,673 items indexed, Lalita claimed she saw letters in her uncle’s handwriting and family photographs. Gumnami Baba’s belongings were re-packed in 23 boxes and sent to the District Treasury.
This was the latest but by no means the last of the dramas attending the fate of Bose. During the previous 40 years the Indian government had been forced to set up two inquiries into his death (the Nawaz Khan Committee in 1956 and the G.D. Khosla Commission 1970-74) and, although both confirmed the reported story that he died in an air crash, the rumours persisted. In 1999, reluctantly, but under pressure from Bose’s home state of Bengal in particular, the Indian government appointed Justice M.K. Mukherjee to ‘launch a vigorous inquiry … to end the controversy … over the reported death of [Bose] in 1945’.
On November 26th, 2001, Mukherjee drove up to the District Treasury in his official white Ambassador car. A large crowd had gathered to watch the boxes being opened. They included the Hindustan Times journalist Anuj Dhar who described to me what happened: out came a pair of German binoculars, a Corona typewriter, a pipe (taken away for DNA but without result), a Rolex watch – ‘Netaji’s watch,’ gasped a spectator in awe – a box of five teeth (also taken away but found not to belong to Bose) and a pair of silver, round-rimmed spectacles. Clearly, Gumnami Baba had been an extraordinary man. It was his collection of books that was most thought-provoking. Bear in mind that Bose had received an English education (finishing at Cambridge University) and, in the eyes of the British, had committed war crimes against them possibly escaping to the Soviet Union; then appreciate, for example, Gulliver’s Travels, P.G. Wodehouse’s The Inimitable Jeeves, the scarcely available International Military Tribunal for the Far East, The History of the Freedom Movement in India, The Last Days of the Raj, Moscow’s Shadow Over West Bengal and Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. This could not be the bedtime reading of a typical sadhu. Either he had been an obsessive collector of Bose memorabilia, or someone had added to his possessions posthumously as a hoax, or he really was Bose. Some of the books had writing in the margins that Anuj Dhar submitted to an expert. He issued a certificate that the handwriting belonged to Bose, but the Indian government promptly appointed an expert of its own who disagreed.
In his inquiry report, completed in 2006, Justice Mukherjee was categoric. He concluded: ‘Netaji Bose is dead [a safe bet as he would have been 109]. He did not die in the plane crash as alleged and the ashes in the Japanese temple in Tokyo [maintained by the Indian government since 1945] are not of Netaji.’