(This graphic novel was first published on 23 January 2021. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives to mark Netaji's birth anniversary.)
On 16 January 1941, 44-year-old Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, who was under house arrest following his release from prison in December 1940, escaped in the dead of night, from under the noses of India's British rulers. As fate would have it, he would never return to his beloved India again.
The Quint revisits the last day that India saw its most revered revolutionary on its soil.
Netaji was released from prison in December 1940 after a seven-day hunger strike. However, he was put under house arrest at his Elgin Road home in Calcutta (now Kolkata). He was under the close watch of the British government. But Netaji had made up his mind to escape. His plan was to escape from Kolkata, reach Afghanistan, and then travel to Germany via the Soviet Union.
Bose's brother Sarat Chandra had left the Elgin Road house and moved to a home nearby, at Woodburn Street. Sarat's son Sisir was Netaji's chief co-conspirator in his grand escape plan.
A few days before his escape, Netaji got into the habit of meeting almost no one. On this pretext, he avoided meeting his British guards, servants and most visitors. Just a chosen few of his relatives were taken into confidence.
Crucially, during this time, Netaji grew a beard. The idea was to have an altered look and be unrecognizable on the day of the escape.
Netaji made sure that everyone got used to his new routine. It was important for the day of the escape to seem like any other ordinary day. He got his nephew Sisir to start visiting him daily to make it seem like a habit.
A black German Wanderer sedan was chosen for the escape. On 25 December 1940, Sisir took the car for a 'test' drive to Burdwan to confirm that it was dependable over a long drive.
This car (BLA 7169) had been registered in Sisir's name in 1937.
The Great Midnight Escape
On the fateful night of 16th January, Netaji disguised himself as a Muslim, giving himself a false identity - Mohammad Ziauddin, an insurance agent. He wore a long brown coat and broad pyjamas.
At 1.30 am, Sisir stepped out of the house and got into the car, on the driver's seat. Netaji slipped into the left rear seat. He took care not to shut the car door till they travelled some distance. Sisir slammed his door shut loudly, so the British ‘watchers’ heard only one car door closing. They never noticed the other bearded figure sitting at the back of the car.
After driving out of the house, Sisir and Netaji's first stop was Rishra. Sisir and a "handsome Muslim man" stopped at their relative Ashok Nath Bose and his wife Mira's house for dinner. From there, all four of them drove for several hours to Gomoh railway station in Bihar (now Jharkhand).
Netaji bid farewell to them and boarded the Kalka Mail. He didn't want the others to enter the station to see him off. But Sisir insisted on pretending to be a visitor seeing off his 'uncle'. The policemen at the railway station had no clue that India’s most sought-after revolutionary was escaping in plain sight.
Netaji journeyed to Peshawar, close to the Afghan border. He then tried to enter Russia through Afghanistan. Not knowing Pashto could have made him an easy target, so Netaji pretended to be deaf and mute and dressed up as a local tribesman. Supporters of Aga Khan III helped him enter Soviet Russia.
Netaji changed his guise and travelled to Moscow using an Italian passport. From Moscow, he was taken to Rome, before finally reaching Germany in April 1941. He was able to meet Adolf Hitler only in 1942, by which time he had realised that Hitler wanted to use him only for propaganda against the British.
He travelled to Japan in February 1943 and formed the Azad Hind Fauj in Japan occupied Burma with the backing of the Japanese army. Netaji's dream of liberating India didn't become a reality as the Azad Hind Fauj saw defeat. But even so, the British never managed to re-capture him. Netaji is believed to have died in a plane crash in Taiwan in August 1945.
Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose will always be revered as one of India’s greatest patriots and freedom-fighters.