The intriguing death of an Indian holy man in 1985 suggested that he was none other than Subhas Chandra Bose, the revolutionary and nationalist who, it is officially claimed, died in an air crash in 1945. The truth, however, is harder to find, as Hugh Purcell discovers. Hugh Purcell is a writer on British India. His latest book is The Maharaja of Bikaner in the Makers of the Modern World series (Haus Histories, 2010). In History Today:
On September 16th, 1985, in a dilapidated house in Faizabad, formerly the capital of Oudh province in India, a reclusive holy man known as Bhagwanji or Gumnami Baba (‘the saint with no name’) breathed his last. Locals had long suspected that he was none other than Subhas Chandra Bose (1897-1945), the Indian quasi-Fascist leader who in the 1930s had advocated a violent revolution against the British Empire to gain total independence for India.The Second World War had enabled him to practise what he preached and his Indian National Army had fought with the Japanese in Burma attempting to drive the British out of the subcontinent.
Although Netaji (Great Leader) Bose was reported killed in an air crash in August 1945, while trying to escape to the Soviet Union, many believed then and continue to believe now that, helped by his Japanese allies, he faked his death, reached Russia and returned to India many years later to lead the secret life of a hermit. Surprisingly for a poor sadhu (mystic) the ‘saint with no name’ left behind many trunks of possessions and in 1986, realising that these might solve the mystery once and for all, Bose’s niece Lalita obtained a high court order for an inventory to be made of their contents. Among the 2,673 items indexed, Lalita claimed she saw letters in her uncle’s handwriting and family photographs. Gumnami Baba’s belongings were re-packed in 23 boxes and sent to the District Treasury.
This was the latest but by no means the last of the dramas attending the fate of Bose. During the previous 40 years the Indian government had been forced to set up two inquiries into his death (the Nawaz Khan Committee in 1956 and the G.D. Khosla Commission 1970-74) and, although both confirmed the reported story that he died in an air crash, the rumours persisted. In 1999, reluctantly, but under pressure from Bose’s home state of Bengal in particular, the Indian government appointed Justice M.K. Mukherjee to ‘launch a vigorous inquiry … to end the controversy … over the reported death of [Bose] in 1945’. More: