Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and his relevance to youth today in the UK
20 minute speech
Thursday 30th July 2009 – Nehru Centre
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was a man ahead of his time and as such remarkably
relevant to today’s youth. How aware they are of that relevance or of the man himself
I am not so sure? When referring to his political party Forward Block, set up initially
within the Congress movement after his split with Gandhi, the initials of that party FB
will bring to mind in today’s youth more the social networking site Facebook than any
knowledge of the political party and ideas of Subhas Chandra Bose. Speaking to some
of the young people I know they have little, if any knowledge of Netaji and have had
to ask their parents for information about his leadership role in the struggle for Indian
It was not always like this. The Raj Punjab government in 1932 when arguing why
Netaji should not be transferred to a jail in the Punjab said, “Subhas Chandra Bose has
always had a disturbing effect on Lahore students, who always turn out in large
numbers whenever he visits the Punjab.” Perhaps the young people in my
constituency of Ealing Southall today, a large number of whom have their origins in
the Punjab, are suffering from that worldwide malaise amongst young people of not
seeing the relevance of politics in general and being focussed instead on music,
fashion, social networking and the consumer society?
The second generation of young people born and brought up in the UK have to work
hard to bridge that ever widening gap of knowledge between them and those who
lived through or were taught in India the story of Netaji and the independence
struggle. If you are a second generation young person of Indian origin living in the
UK today it will however be a fruitful voyage of discovery if you take the time to
study the remarkable life of Subhas Chandra Bose and his guiding philosophy. It will
also be an intriguing journey that will reveal many things about your country of origin
and about your country of birth.
Subhas Chandra Bose has always been a controversial figure when looked through
British eyes but when viewed from an Indian perspective he is legendary and a super
hero. To British historians he was a quisling of the Nazis; to Indians he was a
dynamic national leader who hastened independence and freedom.
What can today’s young people learn from his life?
The first thing to say is that he lived his life with great commitment and certainty
having developed at an early age his values and political beliefs. Education was the
foundation on which he built those values, beliefs and lifetime achievements. From
Prison in 1927 he wrote, “One has to love new things, one has to grow mad for the
unknown, one has to express himself in the free mind and und er the open sky by
breaking through all the barriers of life and by razing them to the ground.” He
understood and propounded the idea of John Stuart Mill that democracy based on
universal suffrage must be preceded by universal education and he advocated pr imary
education for all. If he were alive today he would be disappointed that this aspiration
had not been achieved in India yet and he would be working to achieve it. I believe he
would also fully support the millennium development goals of giving primary
education to all children in the world and would be actively seeking to make this a
reality. Our young people should be doing the same.
From an early age he was also actively engaged in the political process. Having made
the decision to reject a career of privilege and material well being in the Indian Civil
Service he pro-actively sought out his mentor and guru C R Das and entered the world
of political activism. When Das was elected Mayor of Calcutta he appointed Subhas
Bose as Chief Executive Officer of the Calcutta Corporation at the youthful age of 27.
Bose was in effective charge of the corporation of the second city in the Empire a
significant achievement for one so young. Our young people need to have principled
ambition like Bose and self belief that they can achieve unlimited things.
Many of Bose’ achievements in life can be attributed to his willingness to subjugate
his own individual desires and wants for a higher cause. This ability was partly built
on his religious faith and belief. Under the influence of Vivekanada in a letter to his
mother at age 15 he wrote, “Mother, how much longer shall we sleep? How much
longer shall we go on playing with non-essentials? Shall we turn a deaf ear to the
wailings of our nation? Our ancient religion is suffering the pangs of near death –
does that not stir our hearts? How long can one sit with folded arms and watch this
state of our country and religion? One cannot wait anymore – one cannot sleep
anymore – we must now shake off our stupor and lethargy and plunge into action. But
alas! How many selfless sons of the Mother are prepared, in this selfish age, to
completely give up their personal interests and take the plunge for the mother?
Mother, is this son of yours yet ready?” These are stirring and mature words from a
young fifteen year old and should challenge all our young people today.
His lifetime of devotion and service to his country and the cause of achieving
independence often at the cost of ill health and personal discomfort are inspiring. He
was jailed 11 times by the British authorities, almost always without a trial or charges
against him and spent many years either in jail or in exile overseas away from his
family often in poor living conditions. His mental strength, determination and
willingness to sacrifice his own personal comforts and pleasures for a noble cause is
in stark contrast to the “me” first attitude that sometimes characterises all sections of
our consumerist age and society.
His secular views are also well known and inspiring. He had an attitude of
impartiality towards all religions and according to him the Government of Free India
must have an absolutely neutral and impartial attitude towards all religions and leave
it to the choice of every individual to profess or follow a particular religion; religion is
a private affair it cannot be made an affair of the state. Shah Nawaz Khan said that,
for Subhas there were no religious or provincial differences. Hindu, Muslim and Sikh
soldiers in the Indian National Army were made to realise that they were sons of the
same motherland. M.A.H. Ispahani, a Calcutta Muslim League businessman said of
Subhas’ efforts to promote unity: “Had Bose remained in India, he may well have
boldly struck out for Muslim friendship.” When we look at current day international
problems and the need for community cohesion and harmony in local areas like
Southall here in the UK the need for a secular approach to governance is as relevant
and fresh as ever.
In his public speeches Subhas emphatically advocated the abolition of the caste
system in India and introduced the observance of anti-touchability week from April
6th to 13th . He supported inter-caste marriages in India and as a true disciple of
Vivekananda, Bose understood that the progress of India would only be possible with
the uplift of the down-trodden and the so called untouchables who constitute the very
essence of society. Caste discrimination in India and in the south asian community in
the UK today is a social evil that still needs to be eradicated. Our young people need
to take a lead in this.
Subhas Chandra Bose had very firm views on the emancipation of women. He rightly
diagnosed that illiteracy and economic dependence were the root cause of the serfdom
of women. He spoke in favour of an all round education for women and developed a
programme that included literacy, physical and vocational education. Subhas Chandra
Bose commended the role women played in the civil disobedience movement led by
Mahatma Gandhi in which they had been equal to men in addressing public meetings,
conducting election campaigns and undergoing the privation of prison life, torture and
humiliation. Netaji also firmly believed that no country could really be free if her
women did not enter the arena and fight for freedom and so he formed the Rani Jhansi
Regiment, the first all women’s regiment of its kind in the closing months of world
war two. He also appointed a woman cabinet minister in his Provisional Government
of Azad Hind.
The emancipation of women is still a pressing modern issue. As a Member of
Parliament I have spent a significant amount of time campaigning against forced
marriages, domestic violence, dowries and I am currently working with ministers to
include in UK law a clause making the practice of dowries illegal. I am sure Subhas
Chandra Bose would have been my ally if he were alive today.
As a Gandhian myself it is Bose’ views on armed resistance to British rule and his
alliance with the Axis powers that make him most controversial. One can argue that
by allying himself with the Germans and Japanese he was being an opportunist and
negating all the positive values I have been recounting and that he was blind to the
impact on India that a world dominated by Hitler’s Nazi Germany would have. Or
you can argue that he was merely taking a practical course of action based on
calculations of “real politik” where as he said, “If he had to shake hands with the devil
to gain Indian independence he would do that.” Bose’s correspondence reflects his
deep disapproval of the racist practices of, and annulment of democratic institutions in
Nazi Germany. He was also clear in his belief that democracy was the best option for
I believe Bose was a pragmatist and a man of action. He was fighting for India’s
independence in the here and now not as some future vision.
In deriving his believe in the use of force to gain independence, Bose had studied and
recommended the example of the Irish liberation struggle because it combined the
strongest form of non co-operation and military action. He concluded that no country
had gained independence without bloodshed and his catch cry was “Give me blood
and I will give you independence.” Bose was often frustrated that Gandhi did not
prosecute the civil disobedience campaign in a strong enough or sustained way and
his belief that Swaraj could only be achieved by including force put him on a collision
course with Gandhi. There is no getting away from the substantial support Bose had
within the nationalist movement and the Congress Party for this position, twice being
elected Congress President against Mahatma Gandhi’s wishes in 1938 and 1939.
It can also be argued that Bose’ activities as the leader of the Indian National Army in
taking the fight to the British hastened the day when indepe ndence was granted.
Militarily the campaign was not effective and ended in defeat but the impact on the
Indian population after the war was over when the British put on public trial former
INA officers was significant. The Indian public rioted and parts of the British Indian
Army mutinied at the thought of these Indian patriots who had fought for the freedom
of India being punished by the British. The British backed off, gave them pardons and
some historians cite Commander in Chief of the British Indian Army, Claude
Auchinleck's own assessment of the situation suggesting that this shortened the Raj by
at least fifteen to twenty years. Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee also
acknowledged that this was a factor in the British government’s decision to grant
independence in 1947.
So what relevance is all of this to the youth of today? Firstly in the UK we do not
have an independence struggle to fight so those difficult decisions about non- violence
or force do not have to be made. We do however have democratic institutions and a
free society that needs to be valued, participated in and preserved. That means an
engagement by young people in politics and the political process. I began by perhaps
unkindly suggesting that all young people were interested in were social networking
sites like Facebook, their music and their consumerism. I actually do not believe that
this is the true face of our young people today. Many of you will remember the recent
Make Poverty History Campaign and there is also the ongoing campaigning against
climate change. Many young people are associated with these campaigns and others
like them. They care deeply about fighting for social justice and protecting our planet.
I am sure that if Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was alive today he would be fighting for
these same issues and inspiring young people to do the same.