From An Historian’s Notebook: Netaji’s Treasure Box

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Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose with the INA

This is a story we know: of the all-conquering hero who fails to conquer, having worked with Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan, and who has staked everything in the hopes of an Axis victory in the war. In 1945 it’s all over. He gets into an airplane on the island of Taipei, and is about to escape, when his plane crashes during attempts to take off. He’s severely burned, and dies soon after[1]. The British imperial government of India, his immediate adversary, gets the news, but is cautious about believing it– after all, it’s perfectly possible to stage your own death, and then reappear at a later, more opportune moment. They then decide that it’s better to accept the news as fact, because if an escaped pro-Axis self-proclaimed liberator of India is indeed acknowledged to be on the loose, this might encourage those who supported him to pin their hopes on the return of the Leader.

‘Netaji’ Subhas Chandra Bose is therefore proclaimed dead; but in death he proves more effective than in his true-life adventures as an attempted soldier commanding a war of liberation[2]. His troops, organised as the Indian National Army (INA), mostly comprising deserted soldiers of the British Indian Army, are selectively prosecuted, on the basis of the level of their involvement in betraying (someone else’s) King and country. But the trials go wrong, becoming the focal point of popular protest. They lead to further unrest and disloyalty in the armed forces, notably the Royal Indian Navy mutiny in 1946, and contribute to a British decision to withdraw from India as soon as possible – a decision that had been backed by the penultimate Viceroy of India, Lord Wavell, who felt that India was being held as an occupied country and not as an ally in the latter part of the war, and that the army was a weak link in the chain of loyalty that had kept British rule in India safe for so long[3].

Subhash Chandra Bose with Jwaharlal Nehru and others

Various theories of Mr Leader still being alive, leading a secret existence until that opportune moment when he appeared in his country’s hour of need, have done the rounds in the years since his presumed death. Many beneficiaries and votaries of the theory have resisted, therefore, bringing back his ashes from Japan to India, or subjecting these mortal remains to DNA testing, because to accept them as his ashes would be to acknowledge his death; and indeed, the story of his impending return has been extremely resilient. Various astrological almanacs in West Bengal would be printed with the prediction ‘ei bochor Netaji phiriben na’ (Netaji won’t return this year’) in a slightly mournful sub-theme to their many colourful astrologically-calculated assertions, which did something to suggest that there might indeed be a year in which he would come back: but other optimists also kept the legend alive. The last prediction I came across would have had him appear in Siliguri, in North Bengal, at the age of 117. In between, various Commissions of Enquiry have pronounced him dead, alive, or somewhere in between; and one Gumnami Baba, a wandering holy man of uncertain origins, who appeared at the funeral of the dead Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in May 1964, has had several people posing his candidacy as the real Subhas Bose. There were also other theories of his death, among them that he had indeed staged his own death and run away to the Soviet Union, where Stalin, unhelpfully, sent him to a Gulag; and it is there that he died, unable to escape in order to reappear in India’s moments of crisis.

A mostly Bengali public has been excited by the possibility that there’s a deep and dark secret related to the death or disappearance or both (in whatever order you care to place them) of Netaji; and this excitement has been intensified in recent years, after the election in 2014 of the fascist militia-based Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi, who has attempted to claim for itself the heritage and legacy of Subhas Chandra Bose. One of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s red herrings in support of their attempt to claim the life and death of Netaji was their insistence that the Nehru government had hidden the real story, in part by not releasing relevant historic files in their possession to the public. In pursuance of this claim that something had been hidden, and at about the same time as the government was destroying other files that they didn’t want the public to see, presumably concerning their own political predecessors, a hundred files were released from their abodes in various government offices. Their contents, as most historians expected, are generally pretty banal; but one of them reveals a story that is mildly interesting to historians, and perhaps also to the Netaji-Is-Alive brigade. It is the story of Netaji’s ‘treasure box’.

Subhash Chandra Bose and Labour politician George Lansbury in England in 1938

Among the declassified files released by the Government of India following the Netaji files suppression row was one that related to a Lok Sabha question from 1978: What was in Subhas Chandra Bose’s ‘treasure box’? The file proceeds to relate a curious case:

In 1951 the Head of the Indian Liaison Mission in Tokyo was contacted by some Indians who were associated with Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. They informed him that they were in possession of some gold and jewellery which, they stated, had been collected from the plane which crashed with Netaji. The Head of the Indian Liaison mission was also informed that in addition to the gold and jewellery, they were also in possession of Yen 20,000 (then equivalent to Rs. 265 and annas 10 only).

On instructions from the then Prime Minister, the Head of the Indian Liaison mission in Tokyo kept this gold, jewellery and cash in our mission until further instructions.

After the signing of the peace Treaty with Japan, these articles were sent to Delhi in November 1952 through an official of the Government of India. They were delivered to the Ministry of External Affairs, who retained them temporarily. On December 30, 1953, the gold and jewellery were handed over to the National Museum for safe custody. The cash amounting to Rs. 265 and annas 10 was, with the approval of the then Prime Minister, transferred to the INA Relief Fund on December 16, 1954.

 

With his patrons and followers

The file does not mention who the ‘some Indians who were associated with Netaji’ were, though it mentions that the box had been in the possession of one Mr Ramamurti in Tokyo from 1945 to 1951, and it was the same Mr Ramamurti who had also received at the same time a casket containing Netaji’s (or if we believe a different story, someone else’s) ashes. The fact that the ‘treasure’ had been gathered from the site of the plane crash, and that its custodian(s) believed they ought to hand it over to the government of independent India appears to suggest that they thought that wherever he was, their Great Leader had no further use for it, or at least was unlikely to return to claim it from its custodians.

Recent research on the origins of what became, in truncated form, the ‘treasure’, has ascertained the modes in which Subhas Chandra Bose, under the tutelage of the Japanese, conducted ‘fund-raising’ ventures in South-East Asia, in a manner which we would, by the ungenerous standards of peacetime, probably refer to as a mafia operation. It worked like this: prominent Indians in various parts of the former European empires, now a part of the Japanese ‘Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ would be visited by someone representing the Indian National Army, and be informed of the nature and amount of their ‘voluntary contribution’ to the great national war effort, in proportion to their wealth and social standing; not paying up was not an option.

Bose expected all Indians to join the liberation struggle. He thought that they had a duty towards the Indian nation and, therefore, he had a natural right over them in his quest for Indian Independence. He and his associates employed various means at their disposal, including persuasion, propaganda, and sometimes threats and harassment, to extract maximum money from the Indians settled all over East Asia for waging the liberation war. Bose himself sometimes used threatening language to get funds in Malaya and Saigon.

Netaji and members of the Azad Hind Fauj

A portion of this fundraising that Netaji, if it were indeed him, had taken on board the aircraft with him, became the ‘treasure’ that made its way to India. Or was it raised elsewhere? This is, of course, what economists call a nominalist problem: money is money, and where a particular coin comes from originally has little bearing, moral or economic, on its role as a medium of exchange and a store of value. But at times when governments’ remits are uncertain, and their promises-to-pay-bearers correspondingly compromised, token currency tends to be replaced by currency with a high intrinsic value or by non-money: goods with a high resale or barter value (in wartime highland Burma, for instance, the British sought to finance resistance with Indian silver rupees; but they had had to be debased over time, and the currency that replaced it was Indian-grown opium, even though locally-grown opium was of better quality)[6] or objects that hold their value (the famous photograph of the Soviet soldier hoisting the red flag on the ruins of the Reichstag building in Berlin had had to be doctored for propaganda use because the soldier concerned would otherwise have been shown to be wearing a wristwatch on both his wrists, suggesting a practice of almost-legitimate loot in times of war, the objects taken from those who had no more use for either wristwatches or concepts of time and place.

The file does not mention who the ‘some Indians who were associated with Netaji’ were, though it mentions that the box had been in the possession of one Mr Ramamurti in Tokyo from 1945 to 1951, and it was the same Mr Ramamurti who had also received at the same time a casket containing Netaji’s (or if we believe a different story, someone else’s) ashes.

The first two Committees set up to find out about the circumstances behind the last days of Bose presumed alive and the (after)life of Bose presumed dead mentioned the treasure: the first ‘Netaji Inquiry Committee’, the Shah Nawaz Committee, headed by a former INA officer, published its report in 1956, and had a chapter in it enticingly entitled ‘Treasure’. It is clear that a great deal of money had changed hands, been spent, and had been hidden or given to people for ‘safe keeping’ in the scramble of 1945. The Shah Nawaz Committee talks of great wealth and of destroyed documents so as to keep information away from the approaching Allied forces. Colonel Habibur Rahman, Netaji’s fellow-traveller and a survivor from and key witness of the plane crash, had wanted to know about the fate of the two leather suitcases containing valuables that had been on the crashed plane, and had been told of the salvaging of some of it. The departure of the plane had indeed had to be delayed by two days pending the arrival of ‘the two boxes containing presents to Netaji by 3 lakhs of Indians in East Asia’.

 

Subhash Bose arriving at 1939 AICC meeting

But what was recovered was certainly less than what Netaji was carrying away with him, and pilferage was assumed to have happened at various stages. The Japanese accounts of salvaging the contents of Netaji’s treasure from the crash site speaks of their having been placed in an 18-litre gasoline can. The recovered portions of the ‘treasure’ were later deposited with Messrs SA Ayer, Bose’s Minister for Publicity and Propaganda, and Munga Ramamurti, the head of the Indian Independence League in Tokyo. Both Habibur Rahman and then Ramamurti, who disagreed as to the weight of its contents, spoke of a wooden box with a nailed-down lid, prompting the Shah Nawaz Committee to remark, ‘How a sealed gasolene [sic] could become a nailed wooden box is not clear.’ The Committee took pains to explain how Netaji himself might have come to possess what looked like the assorted loot of a potential blackmarketeer rather than the leader-in-waiting of a great nation:

It was the intention of Netaji to depend as little as possible on his Japanese allies, and to finance the Indian National Army from resources collected from Indian residents in South-East Asia. For this purpose, regular collection drives were made by Netaji and his lieutenants, and large funds were collected. A special committee called “Netaji Fund Committee” was established under the Minister of Revenue. Gold and other valuables were generously donated by Indians in South-East Asia. On the occasion of his Birthday in January 1945, Netaji was weighed against gold…

The 1978 file wryly reaffirmed that the treasure ‘was not one of the terms of reference of the Committee’, while reminding its readers that the contents had been valued at one lakh rupees by 1956 prices; that a witness before that committee said that the box had been tampered with and was now lighter and less than half full; and that both the Shah Nawaz Committee of 1956 and the subsequent GD Khosla Committee which reported in 1974 had commented on the damage to some of its contents and the difficulties of ascertaining with any certainty whether they had indeed been gathered at the site of the plane crash. The box was, however, still in the National Museum, and its seal was opened and the contents re-evaluated on 9th October 1978, with a new inventory being prepared: a steel suitcase containing 17 packages, the contents of most of which ‘were all found in a damaged condition due to burning, as well as twisted, sometimes broken, and many of them formed into lumps or conglomerates. All the wrist watches are badly charred.’ Wrist watches? How many? The inventory doesn’t tell us. But it also lists an inordinate amount of gold, in the form of jewellery: rings, pendants, bangles, medals, earrings, ear studs, cuff-links, shirt buttons, unworked gold wire; assorted loose semi-precious stones; brass; other metallic objects, a few gold nuggets (referred to as ‘Ayer’s lot’ and as the only things still in good condition). And wrist watches. A few unburned. Some wrist watch straps. More wrist watches. All this was indicative of an attempt to pack into as small a space as possible as much material of value as possible.

Somewhere between the grandeur of the would-be dictator being weighed in gold in imitation of a Mughal emperor, the loss of the gold cigarette case presented to Netaji by Hitler, and the scrambling about on a runway in the wake of a plane crash, seeking to salvage fragments, is the story of the failure of the first act of Indian fascism. And could it be true that the famed stories of women of the Indian community sacrificing their inherited items of value for the cause of the Great Leader had as their unhappy endings less than half a steel suitcase’s capacity in overheated precious metal?

Images courtesy: Wikimedia Commons, Flickr, Picryl

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Thespace.ink or its editorial team members.

Notes:

  1. Leonard Gordon, Brothers Against the Raj: A Biography of Indian Nationalists Sarat and Subhas Chandra Bose (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990).
  2. Maybrit Jill Alpes, ‘The Congress and the INA Trials, 1945–50: A Contest over the Perception of ‘Nationalist’ Politics’, Studies in History 23, 1 (2007), pp. 135-158.
  3. Penderel Moon (ed), Wavell: The Viceroy’s Journal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973).
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