An Indian Revolutionary Gains Favor Posthumously

In foreground from left, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Subhas Bose and Vallabhbhai Patel at the 51st Indian National Congress in 1938. Bose is believed to have died seven years later.
In foreground from left, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Subhas Bose and Vallabhbhai Patel at the 51st Indian National Congress in 1938. Bose is believed to have died seven years later. (Keystone Via Getty Images)
By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 23, 2005

CALCUTTA -- Asha Pachiasia has a problem with Gandhi.

Sure, she said, the frail, cotton-robed independence leader -- known as "the Mahatma" -- did his part and then some, leading the nonviolent rebellion that drove British colonial rulers from the subcontinent in 1947.

But as a hero and symbol of India's freedom movement, Pachiasia said, Mohandas K. Gandhi leaves something to be desired.

"I don't believe so much in Gandhi's policy of just showing the other cheek," said Pachiasia, a 47-year-old Montessori teacher. "I think now Indians are more aware that we should have fought for our freedom. I see how the Americans celebrate the Fourth of July. Mentally, we are still in the chains of the British Raj."

Pachiasia's attitude helps explain her presence the other day at a popular new movie on another, lesser-known icon of independence, Subhas Bose. A Cambridge-educated aristocrat who launched his political career here in the capital of West Bengal state, Bose rejected Gandhi's pacifist ways in favor of violent revolution, to the point of forming a rebel army and joining forces with the Axis powers in World War II.

A controversial figure in the West, where his choice of allies won him few admirers, Bose is enjoying a surge of renewed interest and popularity in India. The new film -- "Bose: The Forgotten Hero" -- is the latest in a series of books, magazine articles and other tributes to "Netaji," or "the Leader," as Bose is generally known.

Directed by veteran Indian filmmaker Shyam Benegal, the 3 1/2 hour, $5.5 million epic -- an exceptionally costly film by Indian standards -- focuses on Bose's war years, when he made a daring escape to Nazi Germany via Afghanistan and later led his ragtag followers in quixotic battle against British forces in the jungles of Burma.

"It was a great adventure story," Benegal said by telephone recently from Madrid, where he was attending a retrospective showing of his work. Bose "had this impossible dream."

In part, the public's fascination with Bose reflects continuing questions about his disappearance and presumed death in a plane crash, shortly after the Japanese surrender in 1945. Fueled by reports that he might have survived, the mystery has been the focus of several government inquiries, the latest of which is slated to report its findings soon.

But the biggest reason for Bose's renewed popularity, analysts say, probably has more to do with India's changing self-image, from an underdeveloped, aid-dependent champion of the Non-Aligned Movement to a rising economic power with nuclear weapons and an increasingly important role on the world stage.

In that context, Bose -- a militant nationalist and revolutionary -- has become for many Indians a more compelling symbol of India's independence struggle than the ascetic and pacifist Gandhi, especially among the fast-growing middle class.

"People think that now that India is entering the globalized world in a more serious fashion, the conventional heroes who fought against imperialism in the conventional way, even if they have lost, their tragedy must also be articulated," Ashis Nandy, a prominent sociologist, said in an interview. Many Indians, he added, "feel saddled with this kind of idea of Indians who do not hate back."


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