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Sanjoy Hazarika is a columnist, author, filmmaker, Saifuddin Kitchlew Chair at the Academy of Third World Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia.

Subhas Bose and the ‘special’ case of Assam

Subhas Chandra Bose

n 1938, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, then Congress president — a post he held alas too briefly, forced out by Gandhiji's own political manipulation and the weakness of men like Jawaharlal Nehru, visited Shillong to finalise the formation of a Congress-led coalition.

The Congress in Assam was at the time under another remarkable figure of the freedom movement, who remains understudied and inadequately appreciated — Gopinath Bardoloi, the leader of the legislative party in the province, then Assam's Premier and later its first Chief Minister in free India, until ill-health cut short a life of struggle, dignity, endurance and deep commitment to his land and people and also to the greater cause of India.

Netaji was regarded as having a more sensitive, sympathetic and nuanced understanding of the problems of Assam than other national leaders like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Nehru. It should be noted that even then, over 70 years back, Assam faced the pressures of migration from East Bengal, an issue that continues to haunt it and its neighbouring states, including West Bengal, today.

Bose sat down with the leaders of the state to hammer together a coalition. And when World War II was declared, and the national party leadership took a decision that all Congress ministries should resign to declare Congress' refusal to be involved in the war, Bose was of the clear view that the Bardoloi government need not resign because of the unique vulnerability of Assam on the borders of India. Mahatma Gandhi later expressed his appreciation of Netaji's astuteness, admitting his own failure to press his view strongly enough.

In 1946, he wrote, "In 1939, when there was the question of giving up the Ministry, Subhas Babu opposed it as he thought Assam's was a special case. I told Bardoloi that there was much in what Subhas Babu had said and although I was the author of the scheme of boycott. I said: 'Assam should not come out if it did not feel like it. But Assam did come out. It was wrong.'"

Netaji was regarded as having a more sympathetic understanding of the problems of Assam than other leaders like Azad and Nehru.

What is this uniqueness that we still talk about in Assam, in the Northeast? It is the deep concern that the people of the region have about their future, that many of us come from a range of communities and ethnicities that have their home in distant lands of Southeast Asia, that we will be tossed about in a maelstrom of pressures and pain, not knowing where to turn, fearful about becoming minorities in their own homelands, struggling with the deep complexities that are our daily realities, that we are not understood and perhaps never will be by the mainland.

Netaji understood this. In a letter to Nehru when the latter criticised the creation of coalition ministries, he bristled, "As a doctrinaire politician you have decided once for all that a coalition ministry is a rightist move. Will you kindly do one thing before expressing a final verdict on this question? Will you tour the province of Assam for a fortnight and then come and tell me if the present coalition had been a progressive or reactionary institution ... when I went to Assam after the fall of the (Sir Mohammed) Saadulla Ministry (of the Muslim League), I did not find one single Congressman who did not insist that there should be a Congress Coalition Ministry."

It was the same Bardoloi, it must be said in frankness, who opposed Netaji's alliance with Japan although the Congress in Assam was divided on the issue — several young Congress Socialists like Dev Kanta Barooah, later Congress president, wanted to welcome Bose, the INA and Japan to throw the British out. But Bardoloi carried the day.

et, it was in Moirang in Manipur where the flag of free India was first planted under Netaji's leadership, and where a moving museum and memorial to him remains, dusty, little-visited but still there. It is important that the Tricolour was first unfurled here — for it is in these little states which were at the edge of the last "World" War — that Netaji saw a future to the freedom of India, which he believed should be liberated by force since the "enemy had already unsheathed his sword": in which case how could non-violence work against an enemy (in his case, Britain) that was relentless in its pursuit of power and maintaining it through armed force?

That the flag of free India should first fly in Manipur is especially significant and ironical, because it is here and the bordering states of Assam and Nagaland where the most robust contestations of the Idea of India have taken place. Netaji, as we remember him on his anniversary, would have surely been fascinated by that.

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