Can India’s Secular Son Netaji Bose Ever Become a Saffron Icon?

Part 1: Why Netaji’s legacy does not sit comfortably next to Hindutva nationalism, Sudheendra Kulkarni explains.

6 min read

On Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s 125th birth anniversary, The Quint is publishing a series of exclusive essays dealing with various aspects of his life and legacy. This is the first essay in a three-part series. Here are Part II and Part III.

“In this mortal world, everything perishes and will perish, but ideas, ideals and dreams do not. No idea has ever fulfilled itself in this world except through an ordeal of suffering and sacrifice.”

— Subhas Chandra Bose, 1940

‘PARAKRAM DIVAS’ (Day of Bravery). That is a befitting way to commemorate the 125th birth anniversary of one of the greatest sons of Mother India. Nothing better describes the life of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the supreme military hero of India’s freedom struggle, better than the word ‘COURAGE’.


Is there any other Indian who undertook the kind of valorous and hazardous mission against British imperialism that Bose did? No. Is there any other Indian patriot who travelled to countries near and far, built an army to fight the mighty colonial power, and sacrificed his life in the process? No.

Left, Right, Sangh: How Everyone Misunderstands Netaji Bose

Bose is not just a beloved national hero. He ought to have been recognised the world over as one of the great heroes of the 20th century. Unfortunately, he has not received that kind of global recognition. A good part of the reason for India’s failure to project Bose as a global icon of revolutionary courage and sacrifice lies in the needless controversies and misinterpretations which our politicians and intellectuals, both on the Right and the Left, have subjected him to.

Successive Congress government’s disinclination to give him due recognition, because of their excessive and somewhat obsequious praise for the Nehru family, also played a role.

The non-Congress Left, especially Indian Communists, grossly misunderstood him — and even maligned him until recently — because he sought the help of Nazi Germany and its war-time ally Japan in his battle against British imperialism.

Of late, the Sangh Parivar has intensified its vain efforts to co-opt him into its pantheon of saffron heroes. This is even more problematic because it seeks to distort and falsify all that Bose stood for. No doubt, he a devout Hindu with a saintly streak of self-abnegation in him. He was deeply inspired by the Bhagavad Gita and the teachings of Ramakrishna Paramahansa and Swami Vivekananda.

Part 1: Why Netaji’s legacy does not sit comfortably next to Hindutva nationalism, Sudheendra Kulkarni explains.
PM Narendra modi paying tribute to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. 
Image: IANS

Yet, he was uncompromising in his advocacy of Hindu-Muslim unity. He would have roundly rejected the Sangh Parivar’s agenda of turning India into a Hindu Rashtra, as it is totally antithetical to his ideology of secular and inclusive Indian nationalism. and hence incapable of endearing him either to India’s neighbours, or to other countries in Asia and the world. Moreover, at a time when the Hindu Right’s anti-imperialist commitment is rapidly waning, it is unlikely to show much enthusiasm in propagating the soaring internationalism and humanism that characterised Netaji’s life and legacy.

All of which is a pity.

Bose’s Internationalism Counters Narrow Definition of Hindutva Nationalism

How can the immortal legacy of this ‘parakrami’ leader help us deal with the big problems of today’s India and today’s world?

First, we must first dispel the misconception that Bose’s legacy is sullied by his choice of seeking the support of fascist Germany and Japan for his mission. This is a complex matter. History’s judgements on such matters is not always expressed in black and white terms. However, what should not be overlooked is that Bose’s primary motive was to end the rule of British imperialism over India.

Even though he did seek — and receive — help from Germany, Italy and Japan, he never endorsed their diabolical worldview or wrongdoings.

Second, at a time when narrow, selfish, exclusive and arrogant notions of nationalism are raising their ugly heads in different parts of the world, including in India and our neighbourhood, Bose’s deep commitment to the ideals of internationalism and humanism offer a lot of hope and inspiration.


Secular and Socialist Subhas Chandra Bose

Third, we are living in an era when it has become fashionable to smear the ideal of egalitarianism, and when most nations around the world are exhibiting extreme socio-economic disparities. Therefore, it is instructive to know that Bose was a strong votary of socialism.

Of course, unlike Indian communists, he did not subscribe to the Marxist variety of socialism. Instead, he tried to develop the concept of ‘Samyavaad’, which drew inspiration from the ancient Indian spiritual teachings on social harmony, compassion and mutual care.

We may call it “Socialism with Indian characteristics”.

Fourth, and foremost, Bose was deeply and unwaveringly committed to a secular and inclusive Idea of India. Both before and after his escape from India, he constantly strove to unite Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, and people of all castes, classes and regions into the common struggle for national liberation. The most convincing example of this is the composition of the Indian National Army that he built.


Why Netaji Can Never Be Appropriated as a ‘Saffron’ Hero

Here are a few facts that the Hindutva forces trying to project him as a saffron hero cannot stomach.

  • Bose had great admiration for Tipu Sultan, who is now being maligned by the Sangh Parivar as “anti-national”. The uniforms of INA soldiers proudly displayed the emblem of a springing tiger, connoting Tipu’s armed rebellion against the British.
  • The motto of the Azad Hind movement was expressed in three Urdu words — Itmad (Faith), Ittefaq (Unity) and Qurbani (Sacrifice).
  • The slogan he gave the nation was “Jai Hind”, and not “Jai Hindu”.
  • Bose disapproved of V.D. Savarkar’s Hindutva, in the same way that he also disagreed with Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s politics of keeping Muslims away from the movement for a united India.
  • There is an interesting anecdote that highlights how Netaji’s INA built a strong bond of unity among its Hindu and Muslim soldiers. When Gandhi visited a group of INA prisoners in the Red Fort, they told him they had never felt any distinction of religion in the INA. “But here we are faced with ‘Hindu tea’ and ‘Muslim tea,’” they complained. “Why do you suffer it?” asked Gandhi. “We don’t,” they said. “We mix ‘Hindu tea’ and ‘Muslim tea’ half and half, and then serve. The same with food.” “That is very good,” exclaimed Gandhi.

Just Like Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji, Too, Cannot Be Reduced To a Mere Meme

It is appropriate to end this tribute by invoking the following powerful lines from Sugata Bose’s book on why Netaji can never become a saffron hero.

“[i]t is not as easy to lay false claim to the political legacy of Subhas Chandra Bose as it is to that of Vallabhbhai Patel. Confusing majoritarianism with democracy and uniformity with unity, the contemporary Indian state runs the risk of turning its back on the best traditions of Indian anti-colonial nationalism as it behaves more and more like its colonial predecessor, drawing upon and on occasion re-enacting lawless laws of the colonial era. It seeks to extract the allegiance of

India’s diverse populace through coercive control from the centre, thereby provoking greater alienation instead of nurturing a sense of belonging to the Indian Union. It is in this context of an erosion of political ethics that life as message of both Mahatma Gandhi and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose acquires renewed salience.

Just as Gandhian values cannot be reduced to a cleanliness campaign, extolling Netaji’s military heroism sounds hollow if divorced from his unequivocal commitment to religious harmony. Both exemplary lives need to be rescued from vacuous state propaganda and the distortions of fake history.”

(The writer, who served as an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comment at This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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