When a great man passes from current events to history and legend, people do not come to know of the private person, his habits, his temperament and his minor shortcomings. We only remember his ordeals, his failures and his great achievements.
I would like to share those details through anecdotes narrated by my father, Dr Moni Moulik, a journalist-scholar-diplomat, who first met Subhash Chandra Bose when he was a second year student at Scottish Church College in Calcutta.
Subhash Bose had organized a protest at Beadon Square against the Simon Commission. He said “The Simon Commission, headed by Sir John Simon had come to India without any desire to understand India’s problems. Not one Indian was part of the Commission. Instead British intentions have been amply demonstrated by the brutal police action in Punjab resulting in the death of Lala Lajpat Rai.” While he spoke a group of mounted police advanced towards him and the crowd. The crowd moved in closer and surrounded Subhash Bose against the mounted police. Unfazed by their menacing looks, Subhash Bose said, “The history of mankind has proved the power of the spirit. Hungry and ill clad people have overthrown the Tsarist regime and established a new state. It shall also happen here.”
The cheers that greeted Bose’s speech soon exploded into agonised cries as the police charged on the crowd. The thud of canes on human flesh and bones stunned the young Moni. His college friends were bleeding. He grabbed a few and said they must return to Dundas Hostel. One hefty white sergeant grabbed Moni and said, “You asked for trouble Bose, when you stirred up trouble. A week in jail will make you sensible.”
Moni shouted, “Are you crazy? I am not Bose! I am a student at Scottish Church! Ask Dr Erqhurt!” The sergeant frowned and released Moni.
Though Subhash Bose was now thirty and Moni only nineteen, there was an uncanny resemblance between the two in the intense eyes, high forehead and fine features. The students went to their college where Subhash Bose had also taken refuge from the police. The Principal Dr Urqhart had refused to let the police enter the college premises. When Dr Urqhart heard of what had transpired, he told his former student Subhash. “Well, we have found your double. Have him around when you go on your dangerous journeys!” Glancing at Moni, Subhash Bose said gravely, “Yes, he could pass for a younger brother.”
Subhash Bose was an ardent patriot. Despite graduating from Cambridge University with first class degree and attaining first rank in the Indian Civil Service Examinations in 1921, he had renounced what could have been a life of comfort and success to serve his country.
After a few years, Moni graduated, and with the help of distinguished academics – Professor Benoy Sarkar and Professor Giuseppe Tucci -was able to obtain a scholarship to pursue post graduate studies in Rome University. The first European winter without a proper overcoat and meagre food took a toll on Moni who had suffered one bout of pleurisy in Calcutta. He was admitted to the general ward of a state hospital where tuberculosis and pneumonia patients awaited death. Moni did not expect to survive. One day as a surgeon plunged syringes into his pleurum to draw out phlegm, Moni screamed in pain. Then he saw a familiar figure standing near. Laying his hand on Moni’s forehead,
Subhash Bose murmured in Bengali, “Hold on, little brother. The pain will pass. You will recover.” Moni fainted.
When he awoke he found himself in a bright room, with lace curtains, flowers in a vase, and Subhash Bose talking to a doctor. Moni sat up and asked, “Subhash Babu, have I come to heaven?” Bose smiled. “No I asked them to shift you to a Special Ward and get you well soon.”
Moni was in panic. “But I have no money to …”
Quietly, Subhash Bose spoke. “That has been taken care of. Get well quickly and return to your studies. One of your Italian friends informed me about you.”
Tears in his eyes, Moni said, “Tell me how I can serve you.”
Subhash Bose considered the matter. “I shall let you know when the time comes.”
Two years later Moni obtained doctorate in economic history of India under British Raj. He now worked as a lecturer at Rome University and was also a foreign correspondent for Indian newspapers. One day he was summoned to a quiet hotel in Rome’s Via Veneto to meet the man who had begun to weave a spell around the youth of India.
Wearying of the passive resistance against British rule, Subhash had parted company with Gandhi and formed his own party. He believed that the non-cooperation movement could drag on indefinitely because the British Empire was powerful. To oppose them Indians had to raise arms and form alliance with Britain’s enemies. The story of Italian and German unification and liberation of Greece demonstrated the need to make alliances. So Subhash Bose had come to Europe to look for allies in a possible armed struggle against the British.
He had already met high ranking German generals to negotiate arms deal with the Krupps arms manufacturer. Now he was in Rome to discuss another arms deal with the Grottanelli arms manufacturer. It happened that Giorgio, the heir to the Grottanelli firm, was a university friend of Moni. A meeting was organized of Benito Mussolini with Subhash Chandra Bose at the grand Palazzo Venezia where Venetian Doges had once met Papal nuncios and European princes. The Italian Duce regarded the sombre Indian revolutionary with respect and curiosity. Here was a man who had renounced position and power, comfort and security to follow a star that beckoned freedom. The two men, along with Mussolini’s son in law and foreign minister Count Ciano, discussed the world scene. Bose listened politely while Mussolini outlined the program of his government. Acting as interpreter, Moni translated the questions and answers, transmuting the flamboyant Italian of the Duce to the precise Bengali adopted by Bose. Though both men knew English neither spoke it before the Italians for diplomatic reasons.
After this, Mussolini asked Subhash, “Have you nothing to say about my government’s policies?”
Subhash replied, “Excellency, I did not come here to judge your policy. I came here to see if you could assist my countrymen to evict the British should they become intransigent.”
Mussolini nodded and asked “What help do you seek, Excellency?”
“Arms from the Grottanellis,” was the reply.
Mussolini rose and paced the room redolent with the history of the Renaissance and Counter Reformation. Stopping his pacing he asked, “Indeed? Why should I help you?”
Moni translated, using the same peremptory tone, causing Subhash to colour.
Then he smiled and replied, “Excellency, a great Indian political philosopher anticipated your Machiavelli by eighteen centuries. Chanakya said that your enemy’s enemy is a friend. I followed his advice and have come to you”
Mussolini burst into laughter. “Excellent! Chanakya and Machiavelli have united us! Our nations produce astute men.”
He paused and sat down, solemn once more. “Such a clever race, so many millions of people, yet you cannot drive out twenty thousand Englishmen! You don’t need arms. You can drive them out with batons!”
Subhash Bose’s face was flushed with anger. He sat forward and said grimly.
“Excellency, how do you explain why an armed and free nation like Italy cannot evict a few thousand Englishmen from the Italian island of Malta?”
Benito Mussolini stared at Bose, his eyes rolling as was his habit when he was displeased. Subhash Bose stared back, unflinching. Impressed by Bose’s pride, Mussolini smiled.
Then he said, “Very well, I shall direct that a large consignment of arms from the Grottanelli armament factory is earmarked for Indian revolutionaries is earmarked for Indian revolutionaries.”
“I know young Count Giorgio Grottanelli. Between us we will arrange the meeting.” Moni said. Mussolini nodded.
“Meet at their castello in the Abruzzi hills. Rome is full of British spies masquerading as tourists.”
Unpredictable and whimsical Mussolini dropped his imperious manner and escorted the Indian revolutionary down the winding marble staircase to the palm lined garden fronting the Palazzo Venezia while his entourage stared in surprise. He shook hands with Subhash Bose and said, “I wish you success in your struggle to be free.”
After that Subhash Bose travelled to Czechoslovakia to explore the possibility of obtaining arms from the Skoda firm. He and Moni met the Czech president to establish cordial relations. He requested the president to ask the Czech shoe company Bata in India to be more generous to its employees.
So the foundations were laid for establishing the Azad Hind Fauz for a war of liberation to free India of British rule. The motto was Chalo Dilli and the greeting was Jai Hind. Had India been freed by a war of liberation the history of the country might have been different. The Partition of India could have been avoided because Muslims trusted Subhash Bose. His close colleagues in the Azad Hind Fauz were Muslims like Shah Nawaz Khan. But Fate had planned a tragic story.
When we see today various political groups trying to hijack Subhash Bose’s heroic legacy we forget how politicians fearing his charisma tried to obliterate his memory and downplay his role in the liberation of India. But truth has a habit of triumphing.
His ardent follower and interpreter Moni Moulik wrote soon after Netaji’s death –
“Disowned by colleagues,
Betrayed by erstwhile friends,
Periclean Athens and Augustine Rome
Would have been proud of such a son.