When Mr Shyam Benegal, Mr Kingshuk Nag and Dr Purabi Roy take the dais for the first session on the second day of the Kolkata Literature Festival, the mood in the tent is sombre and tense. The topic under discussion is one of great sentimental value in Kolkata. It is the issue of the death- or abrupt disappearance- of one of the city’s most famous and well-beloved sons, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
The opening question by Mr Nag cuts straight to the chase: in his book, he has taken the position that there was no death and there was no plane crash. In the time of faction-oriented politics, Netaji has been neatly sliced up and distributed between believers and non-believers, Modi and Nehru, liberal and orthodox. What does Mr Benegal, who was introduced to Netaji’s extraordinary life and equally strange “death” through an uncle who served in the INA, believe?
His position is simple and sincere: “I am not interested in Netaji’s death.” The statement sums up his position throughout the session. “Instead of celebrating his life, why are we constantly focusing on his death?” he asks directly. “He led an extraordinary life and that is what is important.He was a man of destiny. He flew away- became at one with the dying Universe. To me, there is a resolution there. I don’t need any further resolution.” That is why in his film, “Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero”, he left the ending unresolved.
The situation is very different with the other panelists. Dr. Purabi Roy, whose academic research has led her to write some of the most influential articles on the topic, is certain, “I am very sure that he didn’t die in the alleged plane crash. From the papers of the Public Records Office in Britain and 18 archives in Moscow, I can provide chronological details. One must remember that the announcement was made by British government.” She has seen documents in which MI6 agents said that the accident was deception. To distract from it, another news report had been created.
Dr Roy and Mr Nag are in agreement: The final push against British India had been given by Netaji. Gandhiji, they emphasise, didn’t give India its freedom; Netaji did. Mr Benegal concurs: if he had reappeared in public life after 1945, Netaji would have come out as the most unchallenged leader in all of India.
Dr Roy points out that although we are writing the history of Netaji, history is not looking to him. Mr Nag concludes the discussion on a poignant note. “Though the life of Netaji very important,” he says, “we should know. We need closure. How did he die? Did anyone kill him? We ought to know.”
The issue of Netaji’s fate may never be decoded. In any case, I am inclined towards Mr Benegal’s view. When we have such an extraordinary life to celebrate, all other questions seem to pale into insignificance. I am sure I am in the minority, and it is a debate that will rage on.
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