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     Volume 4 Issue 35 | February 25, 2005 |

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In Retrospect

Netaji Bhavan
and the Story of His Great Escape

Azizul Jalil

It was after half-a-century that I had an opportunity to revisit Netaji Bhavan, the house of Subhas Chandra Bose on Elgin Road in Calcutta (i.e.Kolkata). The last time I had gone there was in 1954 as a Dhaka University student during the brief euphoric days of the Jukto-Front government in East Pakistan. This time, accompanied by my wife, I went there in January 2005 to refresh my memory of a house from which Netaji had escaped to fight his battle until death for the freedom of India.

Compared to the last time the house, now a museum, was in a better state of maintenance. The visitors can see the exhibits and learn about Netaji for a modest fee. There is also a small bookshop near the entrance. A few things relating to his illustrious elder brother, Sarat Chandra Bose, like a memorable speech on the diversity and unity of India on a plaque in the wall, were also on display. As we entered through a large gate, to the left of the driveway within a huge glass enclosure was the Wanderer, a German vehicle with the registration number BLA 7169. This is the car in which in the dark of night on January 17, 1941, Subhas Chandra's nephew Sisir Kumar Bose drove him away to freedom from British police surveillance. In 1986, Sisir Kumar Bose wrote a political biography titled "Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose". In it, he provided a full account of this episode, and his uncle's daring journey through India's North West and Afghanistan before going to Germany and Japan in quest of India's freedom.

Most of the exhibits are on the first floor. The partition walls between the various rooms of that floor had been dismantled to give it a long gallery-like view. Many old pictures of Netaji's political days in the twenty-year period between 1921 and his escape from India are on the walls. This included his days at the Calcutta Corporation as the Chief Executive Officer and later the Mayor, Congress activities, numerous periods in jail, and the glorious but stormy days as the twice elected and the youngest Congress president during 1937-39 and his travels to Europe. There were also pictures of his student days in Cambridge and family pictures with his parents and dear brother Sarat Bose. There were pictures with the commander of the German craft, Captain Musenberg and of Subhas having a shave and a bath on its deck. The most dramatic pictures related to his transfer in the turbulent Indian Ocean from the German to the Japanese submarine in 1943. VDOs constantly played scenes of the INA parades and gatherings in Singapore and Rangoon and Subhas Chandra's patriotic and emotional speeches in his own voice. Documents including correspondence of Bose and his clothes, including INA uniforms and boots are on display. After standing fourth in the ICS examination in 1920, Subhas Chandra had given it up in April 1921 by writing to the Secretary of State for India, E.S.Montague from Cambridge withdrawing his name from the list of ICS probationers. His letter in his own hand to Sarat Bose giving the reasons for what he called an "eccentric" decision is displayed on the wall. In the letter, he stated that it was time for him to come forward with a little offering of sacrifice and that "on the eve of this hazardous undertaking, my only prayer is - may it be for the good of our dear country". From then on, Subhas Chandra opted for the path of idealism and moral action. At one end of the exhibits' hall, were Netaji's, and his father Janakinath Bose's bedrooms with the furniture used by them. It was from these rooms that Subhas escaped.

Here are some of the interesting details of Netaji's great escape, as narrated by Sisir Bose. Subhas was released from imprisonment by the British on grounds of health in November 1940. Soon after, he had his last correspondence with Gandhi. He had written to Gandhi pledging full cooperation even by non-violent means to expedite freedom of India. However, Gandhi rebuffed Subhas by saying that there were fundamental differences between them and that he and Subhas would have to sail in different boats. That is what Netaji did. He had to do it his way and as a first step started to plan an escape from India.

He confided his plan to Sisir and Mian Akbar Shah, a Forward Bloc leader of Peshawar to go out of India through the tribal territories in the North-West Frontier. Subhas Bose would travel under the name of Mohammad Ziauddin, in the guise of an upcountry Muslim. He was supposed to be a travelling insurance inspector. Sarat Bose gave the final touches and approved the plan. A few days before departure, Bose declared that he would go into seclusion and would not see or talk to anyone even on the telephone. He had his room curtained off into compartments and his food was passed under the curtain. This was because there were suspicions that the police had recruited an agent amongst the servants in the house. On the fateful day, he had dinner with his mother (Prabhabati Devi) and when everyone retired, he left in the car driven by Sisir at 1:30 a.m. on January 17, 1941. He was wearing a <>sherwani<>, loose pajamas, laced European shoes, and a black cap of fur.

They took the Grand Trunk Road reaching Asansol the same morning. After refueling there, they reached Barari, where Asoke, Sarat Bose's eldest son, lived with his family. Subhas posed as an insurance man and stayed in the guest room, so that servants would not be suspicious. The guest left on foot in the morning and a little later Asoke picked him up in a car and took him to Gomoh for the train to Delhi, from where he would take the Frontier Mail to Peshawar. At Gomoh, Subhas Chandra bought a ticket, boarded a first class compartment and was on his way. When he reached Peshawar on January 19, Akbar Shah met him at the station and put him up at the house of Abad Khan who had long experience of secret journeys through the tribal territories. Abad briefed Subhas Chandra for a few days about Pathan manners, customs and habits.

On the morning of January 26, 1941, Subhas Chandra, now pretending to be deaf and dumb and dressed as a Pathan, was ready to leave. Accompanied by three guides, he left for the border of Afridi tribal territory in a car. Near the actual tribal border, they started their trek, scaling mountains, parts of which were covered with snow. On January 28, they reached the first village in Afghan territory. From there partly riding a mule and hitch-hiking on a truck full of tea-chests, he reached Jalalabad the same night. On January 30, they set out for Kabul in a tonga and then changed to a truck on the way, reaching Kabul on January 31. He stayed in a Serai near the Lahori Gate, in the most inhospitable surroundings.

At the Serai, an Afghan police officer visited him a number of times. Since it appeared that his suspicions had been aroused, Subhas Chandra had to part with his watch to keep the man happy. His destination was Central Europe but efforts to go via Moscow took nearly two months to arrange between the Soviet, German and the Italian governments through their officials in Kabul. It was a very frustrating time for Subhas Chandra. At the initial stage of these contacts, he had to confide to the Italians and Germans his plan to set up a Free India Government in Europe and form an Indian Liberation Army with the Indian prisoners-of-war captured by the Germans and the Italians.

On March 17, Subhas Chandra left in a car for the Soviet frontier accompanied by three Germans. They crossed the Afghan frontier and drove along until they reached Samarkhand. From there they travelled by rail to Moscow, and then went by plane to Berlin, reaching there on April 2, 1941. Sarat Bose received a letter from Subhas Chandra through a messenger on March 31 at his Calcutta residence at No.1 Woodburn Park. The Bose brothers were able to maintain contact with each other until November 1941 through wireless messages exchanged via Tokyo with the secret assistance of the Japanese Consulate General in Calcutta.

Let me conclude with an anecdote. In 1935, Subhas Chandra had an operation in Europe for an infected gall bladder. Because of the inherent risks involved in major surgical procedures in those days, he was asked to put down in writing his last testament. The great patriot that he was, Subhas Chandra wrote these unforgettable words-"My assets to my country-men, my debts to my brother Sarat."

Azizul Jalil, a former civil servant and a retired member of the World Bank Staff, writes from Washington.


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