Netaji & Hindu Nationalism: A Complicated Relationship

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On 15th March 1940, Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, then a leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, was holding a meeting to address workers in the run-up to the Calcutta Municipal Corporation elections. But in the middle of his speech, a stone was thrown at Mookerjee which hit him on the head. Complete chaos ensued and Hindu Mahasabha workers beat up the goons. But the identity of these men were no surprise to Mookerjee. They were supporters of Subhas Chandra Bose.

In his diary, Moorkerjee reminisced [‘Leaves From A Diary’, Published 1993]:

‘Subhas once warned me in a friendly spirit, adding significantly, that if we proceed to create a rival political body in Bengal, he would see to it (by force if need be).. that it was broken before it was really born. This is considered most unreasonable and unfair attitude to take up.’

Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee
Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee | Wikimedia Commons

Author Chandrachur Ghose, in his book Bose: The Untold Story of an Inconvenient Nationalist, writes how two days after this attack, a lead editorial was published in the pro-Bose Bengali newspaper Amrita Bazaar Patrika titled ‘The Plague of Fascism’, which asked the people to defeat the candidates of ‘the fascist party’ (Hindu Mahasabha) in the upcoming Calcutta Municipal Corporation elections. Years later, Dr Mookerjee would go on to the Jana Sangh in 1951, which later evolved into the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In January 2022, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled a hologram statue of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose at India Gate in Delhi, there was are a lot of discussion on Netaji’s views and relationship with the Hindu nationalist movement, especially with leaders like Jana Sangh founder Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and Hindutva ideologue V D Savarkar.

A number of arguments were put forward about how Bose was pro- or anti-Hindu nationalism, depending on which side of the ideological spectrum you stood. But like most things in history, the relationship between Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Hindu nationalists can be termed as ‘complicated’.

A good example of this is the 1940 Calcutta Municipal Corporation elections, which caused a fallout between Bose and Dr Mookerjee. It was Bose who had first approved the pre-poll alliance between the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha in February 1940.

Bose Was Against ‘Communal Politics’

Subhas Chandra Bose
Subhas Chandra Bose | Wikimedia Commons

Bose was staunchly opposed to what he called “communal politics”. A staunch socialist, he had been highly influenced by the Socialist movement in Europe, where class struggles gained primacy over religious issues. In his unfinished autobiography An Indian Pilgrim (1937), Bose wrote:

“History will bear me out when I say that it is a misnomer to talk of Muslim rule when describing the political order in India prior to the advent of the British. Whether we talk of the Moghul Emperors at Delhi, or of the Muslim Kings of Bengal, we shall find that in either case the administration was run by Hindus and Muslims together, many of the prominent Cabinet Ministers and Generals being Hindus. Further, the consolidation of the Moghul Empire in India was affected with the help of Hindu commanders-in-chief. The Commander-in-chief of Nawab Sirajudowla, whom the British fought at Plassey in 1757 and defeated, was a Hindu.’’

VD Savarkar
VD Savarkar | Wikimedia Commons

Bose had an interesting relationship with Hindutva ideologue, V D Savarkar. Author and researcher Chandrachur Ghose, in an interview to Live History India, revealed how both Savarkar and Bose mutually admired each other despite their differences.

For example, when Savarkar was released from internment in March 1937, Bose issued a statement welcoming him to public life. Bose had hoped that Savarkar would join the Congress, but much to his disappointment, Savarkar joined the Hindu Mahasabha, to work for Hindu interests. This put them on opposing paths.

In November 1938, when Bose served as President of the Indian National Congress, he made a statement to the national press that in the event of a future round table conference, the Congress alone should represent all Indians. To this, Savarkar issued a strong rebuttal, arguing that it was the Hindu Mahasabha which alone represented the interests of India’s Hindus.

The clashes continued when Savarkar attempted to strengthen the Hindu Mahasabha in Bengal in December, 1939. Opposing Savarkar and the Hindu Mahasabha, Bose in his political weekly Forward Block argued how:

‘The Hindu Mahasabha has been doing incalculable harm to the idea of Indian nationhood by underlining the communal differences—by lumping all the Muslims together…. We cannot oblige Mr Savarkar by ignoring the contributions of nationalist Muslims to the cause of India.’

And, yet, just two months later, in March 1940, Bose approved the pre-poll alliance between the Bengal Provincial Congress Committee (BPCC) and the Bengal Hindu Mahasabha led by Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee. But this alliance ended just seven days later, when the parties failed to come up with a mutually agreed-upon list of candidates.

When the deal fell through, a vicious campaign of intimidation by Bose supporters against the Hindu Mahasabha followed. Senior Sangh Parivar leader Balraj Madhok, in his book Portrait of a Martyr: Biography of Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee (1954), writes how Bose supporters would break up Hindu Mahasabha meetings and even attack Dr Mookerjee.

But attacks on the Hindu Mahasabha did not pay political dividends in the March 1940 elections. Of the total 42 reserved ‘Hindu’ seats in the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, Bose supporters won 21 seats and the Hindu Mahasabha won 16 seats. This led to even more bitter disputes between the BPCC and the Hindu Mahasabha. Bose kept attacking the Mahasabha in his speeches and editorials.

Alliance With The Muslim League

 Muhammad Ali Jinnah With The Founders of Muslim League
Muhammad Ali Jinnah With The Founders of Muslim League | Wikimedia Commons

Much to the shock of Mookerjee and the Hindu Mahasabha, Bose and the BPCC formed an alliance with the Muslim League on 17th April 1940, for elections to the five seats of the governing body of the corporation. This ‘Bose-League Pact of 1940’ is one of the lesser known aspects of Netaji’s political career and has been studied by historian P K Chatterjee in his research paper ‘Bose-League Pact in Calcutta Corporation in 1940’ (1980).

Through this pact, Muslim League nominees were elected to two seats and Bose supporters got three. Bose also issued a statement expressing his satisfaction with the pact and claimed that the agreement was the beginning of a ‘new era’ in Bengal politics. There was a virulent reaction from the Hindu Mahasabha to this pact, who in their statement on 18th April 1940 accused Bose of ‘selling the interests of Hindus’. Most newspapers such as the Tribune of Lahore and the Bombay Chronicle criticised for the pact with the Muslim League.

Interestingly, the following month, Bose wrote an editorial in the Forward Block (4th May 1940), in which he condemned both the Hindu Mahasabha and surprisingly, the Muslim League as well. The editorial, titled Congress and Communal Organizations, said:

‘That was a long time ago, when prominent leaders of the Congress could be members of the communal organisations like Hindu Mahasabha and Muslim League. But in recent times, the circumstances have changed. These communal organisations have become more communal than before. As a reaction to this, the Indian National Congress has put into its constitution a clause to the effect that no member of a communal organisation like Hindu Mahasabha and Muslim League can be a member of an elective committee of Congress.’

Just a week later, in his speech at Jhargram in Bengal on 12th May 1940, Bose thundered:

“The Hindu Mahasabha has entered the political arena by taking advantage of religion and has desecrated it. It is the duty of every Hindu to condemn it. Banish these traitors from national life.”

And, yet, despite deep political differences, Subhas Chandra Bose as well as Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and V D Savarkar had mutual respect for each other. Before his escape to Afghanistan and Germany, Bose had met Savarkar in 1940 and in his book Indian Pilgrim lamented that ‘Savarkar seemed to be oblivious of the international situation and was only thinking how the Hindus could secure military training by entering Britain’s army in India.’

Chandrachur Ghose, author of Bose: The Untold Story of an Inconvenient Nationalist reveals how Savarkar sent a message to the organisers of ‘All India Subhas Day’ on 23rd February 1941, stating: ‘May the gratitude, sympathy and good wishes of the nation be the source of never-failing solace and inspiration to him wherever he happens to be.’

Ghose also reveals that, in one of the last interviews given by Savarkar to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh publication The Organiser, Savarkar listed the role of Netaji and his Indian National Army as one of the reasons India won its freedom. Balraj Madhok, Dr Shyama Mookerjee’s biographer, too noted how Bose and Mookerjee shared a mutual admiration even though their paths differed.

So, as we can see, the relationship between Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and the Hindu nationalist movement was layered and complex. It is very easy to use epithets such as ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ to describe it, but it will be a gross simplification. And, in politics, nothing is simple.

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