Reviewing Sugata Bose

Subhas Chandra Bose meeting Hitler.

I might as well be honest with you: the title of this blog is essentially a lie. I will not really be reviewing A Hundred Horizons, not in the traditional sense. Rather, I will be talking about his worrisome coverage of the figure of Subhas Chandra Bose, a leader of an armed rebellion of Indians against the British Empire during the second world war and, fittingly, the author’s great uncle. First, though, I should probably briefly address the general point of the book. A Hundred Horizons is, in short, an attempt to focus in on the history of colonial subjects living along the Indian Ocean rim during the period in which the British empire dominated the region, and to examine its interconnectedness. The main purpose of the book is to prove that these connections exist, and that colonial interference did not create or disrupt them. Though it partially succeeds in this objective, its discussion centers entirely around people of Indian ethnicity, and never spends any time on the many other groups living around this region. Its Indocentricity, however, is a problem that I will not be addressing too much in this particular post. Rather, I would like to turn back to the question of Subhas Chandra Bose and his particular place in this book.

Bose’s coverage of his uncle begins in 1943, with the man being transferred from a German to a Japanese submarine. Most readers with any grasp of the historical timeline will immediately recognize exactly who controlled Germany and Japan in the year 1943, but Bose makes absolutely no mention of this. In fact, neither the word “Nazi” nor “fascist” appear in the text anywhere near the name of Subhas Chandra Bose. Rather, the writer portrays his uncle as an unproblematic patriot who succeeded in uniting the many faiths and ethnicities of India, and compares them to the Free French (1). The mere fact that Bose decided to compare a group allied with Nazis to one actively fighting them seems simply farcical and painfully tone-deaf. None of the moral, ethical, or political dilemmas associated with allying with the Axis are discussed at all. The fact that the Indian National Army, the organization which Subhas Chandra Bose headed, fought directly alongside Japanese soldiers in their invasion of India is mentioned but not really discussed. Bose seems to have taken Japan’s rhetoric about the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere at face value in believing that the Japanese had no ill intentions for India.

Subhas Chandra Bose with Himmler, the head of the SS, and other Nazi officials.

One could argue that the alliances made by Subhas Chandra Bose were ones of convenience, and people often do both in his defense and in the defense of his nephew’s lack of comment on the alliances. However, doing so fails to accurately examine Subhas Chandra Bose’s own political beliefs. Even early on in his political career, he displayed himself as a militarist, appearing at the 1928 Indian National Congress with a honor guard of 2,000 volunteers dressed in military fashion and wearing a senior British military officer’s dress, complete with a field marshal’s baton. Over time, these militarist ideals grew into comprehensive, authoritarian worldview that was first put to words in his book “Indian Struggle,” in which he detailed a political system that he described as a mix of fascism and communism, which he referred to as samyavad. He presented this book to Benito Mussolini in 1935. When he did form his Indian National Army, he took the titles of head of state, prime minister, minister of war, and minister of foreign affairs in his new provisional government. In a speech given in Singapore, he declared that India needed an “iron dictator” ruling it for 20 years. A year later, he gave a speech in Tokyo University in which he said that India required a philosophy that combined Nazism and communism.

Reading this, you might wonder why any of this really matters. Sugata Bose himself is not a fascist, as he is currently serving in India’s lower house, the Lok Sabha, for a center-left party. However, recent political developments throughout the world have shown that people are once again becoming unaware of authoritarianism creeping in. By pretending that these movements do not exist or pose no threat, as Bose does in A Hundred Horizons, we are only fooling ourselves and falling right into their trap. Fascism, authoritarianism, and even Nazism do not gain power by displaying themselves openly, at least not in the 21st century, they gain power when they are allowed to grow in the unwatched backyards of the general populace. By downplaying Subhas Chandra Bose’s alliances with fascists, Nazis, and Japanese imperialists, Bose has given his nation’s far-right the chance to claim the man as a “mainstream” hero and predecessor. In doing so, he turned his eyes away from his own backyard, and much like any unkempt backyard, he may soon find it overgrown and unmanageable.

(1) Sugata Bose, A Hundred Horizons, 181.