In the past few decades, public discussion on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose has been so mired in the controversy around his death that we forgot to pay attention to his life. Netaji’s contribution to the Indian national movement is in any case under represented in modern Indian history textbooks of undergraduate and postgraduate levels in our country. Furthermore, what never finds mention is his contribution to ideas related to future nation-building. How many students of this generation know that it was Netaji who was as much a mastermind behind the Economic Planning that was adopted in post-independent India as Jawaharlal Nehru is credited to be? Textbooks on post-independent Indian history, which deal with the Five-Year Plans extensively, never discuss this fact. Well-known historians like Bipan Chandra and Ramachandra Guha do not even mention Bose’s name in the context of Economic Planning.
By Dr Arpita Mitra
The politics runs so deep that Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, the architect of the Second Five Year Plan, in his book Talks on Planning, called Jawaharlal Nehru the pioneer of economic planning in India. Mahalanobis wrote: “On the initiative of the Congress President, a Conference of Ministers of Industries was convened in Delhi in October 1938, which was of the opinion that ‘the problems of the poverty and unemployment, of national defence and the economic regeneration in general cannot be solved without industrialization.’ And on its recommendation, the National Planning Committee, with Jawaharlal Nehru as Chairman, was set up by the Congress President in October 1938. This gave a decisive turn to thinking on economic problems in India.” It was scholar Sankari Prasad Basu who brought to our attention this statement by Mahalanobis, and pointed out that nothing could be a cleverer act of subterfuge, as Mahalanobis mentioned the Congress President of 1938 but did not commit the blasphemy of uttering his name. It was none other than Subhas Chandra Bose.
The Congress Working Committee in 1937 adopted a resolution that a committee of interprovincial experts be formed to consider the vital issues related to national reconstruction and social planning. Nehru was then the Congress President and was certainly instrumental in getting this resolution accepted, but as argued by Sankari Prasad Basu, this cost him the exclusion of an important issue—the resolution, while it elaborately mentioned everything from famine to irrigation to river survey, carefully avoided the question if India was to follow the path of industrialization or that of the revival of cottage industries. Within Congress, there was a significant lobby that was opposed to industrialization. The next Congress President, Subhas Bose, however, in his Haripura address and other speeches took such vexed questions head on and clearly stated that industrialization is the only path before India, while assuring that “we should reconcile ourselves to industrialisation and devise means to minimise its evils and at the same time explore the possibilities of reviving cottage industries where there is a possibility of their surviving the inevitable competition of factories.”
It should be pointed out here that there was a transformation in Bose’s initial position vis-à-vis the question of industrialization. A 25-year-old Subhas was certainly not in favour of industrialization on account of the ‘poison’ machines had injected into human life and civilization. But in the course of years, as he matured as a political leader, he accepted the importance of machine-led industrialization for a country’s development. In this context, it would be instructive to mention Bose’s fruitful exchanges with the scientist Meghnad Saha regarding the issue of industrialization. Prof. Saha unequivocally articulated his critique of the Gandhian model of charkha and “bullock cart” economy in his editorial of the magazine Science and Culture he founded in 1935 and to which Bose also contributed an article in October 1935. With Prof. Saha, Bose enthusiastically discussed how the resources of science could be fully utilized for achieving nationalist purposes. In the general meeting of the Indian Science News Association held on 21 August 1938, Meghnad Saha posed this question to the Congress President, Subhas Chandra Bose: “May I enquire whether the India of the future is going to revive the philosophy of village life, of the bullock-cart—thereby perpetuating servitude, or is she going to be a modern industrialised nation which, having developed all her natural resources, will solve the problems of poverty, ignorance and defence and will take an honoured place in the comity of nations and begin a new cycle in civilisation? Bose’s reply was equally unequivocal. As expected, this pro-industrialization stand rattled those sections within the Congress, foremost amongst whom was Gandhi, who envisioned whole-scale adoption of Khadi as the panacea for the ills of Indian society.
Industrialization or no industrialization, young Subhas Bose had felt the importance of ‘planning’ since 1921 (or perhaps earlier), as is demonstrated by his letters written to Chittaranjan Das in 1921. After his election as the Congress President, Bose became pro-active in giving a concrete shape to national planning. In May 1938, he convened a meeting of the Congress Working Committee in Bombay, then another meeting of the same in the month of July that year. Next was the Industries Ministers’ Conference in October, and finally the first meeting of the All India National Planning Committee in December 1938. On 19 October 1938, Bose had written to Nehru in a letter: “I hope you will accept the Chairmanship of the Planning Committee. You must if it is to be a success.” Thus, in less than a year, Bose had the entire outline as well as apparatus of Planning in place.
Many elements of the Economic Planning of independent India were already mentioned by Subhas Bose in his different lectures. In his Haripura Address of 1938, apart from predicting the breaking up of the British Empire on account of its internal contradictions, the decline in the military prowess of Britain because of the rise of air power in modern warfare, and the uncanny prediction of the British move to partition India before leaving as inevitable for “neutralising the transference of power to the Indian people”, Bose already laid down several principles, which were later adopted in independent India. His speech contains abundant indications that he was certain independence was in sight. The principles highlighted by him included the adoption of a democratic form of government, upholding of the Fundamental Rights, the protection of the minorities and special provisions for their social and economic development, unification and integration of India (the issue of the princely states), the achievement of national unity along with the preservation of cultural autonomy (he even talked about bringing the different parts of the country together with the help of the radio, television, films etc.), the need to develop a lingua franca for which he proposed a mixture of Hindi and Urdu as an ideal candidate, population control, and his vision for future national reconstruction. All these issues were taken up systematically by the new Indian state after 1947.
A few excerpts from Haripura address are in order:
“Though it may be somewhat premature to give a detailed plan of reconstruction, we might as well consider some of the principles according to which our future social reconstruction should take place. I have no doubt in my mind that our chief national problems relating to the eradication of poverty, illiteracy and disease and to scientific production and distribution can be effectively tackled only along socialistic lines. The very first thing which our future national government will have to do, would be to set up a commission for drawing up a comprehensive plan of reconstruction. This plan will have two parts—an immediate programme and a long-period programme…
Regarding reconstruction, our principal problem will be how to eradicate poverty from our country. That will require a radical reform of our land system, including the abolition of landlordism. Agricultural indebtedness will have to be liquidated and provision made for cheap credit for the rural population. An extension of the co-operative movement will be necessary for the benefit of both producers and consumers. Agriculture will have to be put on a scientific basis with a view to increasing the yield from the land.
To solve the economic problem agricultural improvement will not be enough. A comprehensive scheme of industrial development under state ownerships and state-control will be indispensable. A new industrial system will have to be built up…The planning commission will have to carefully consider and decide which of the home industries could be revived despite the competition of modern factories and in which sphere large scale production should be encouraged…In a country like India, there will be plenty of room for cottage industries, especially in the case of industries including hand-spinning and hand weaving allied to agriculture.
Last but not the least, the state on the advice of a planning commission, will have to adopt a comprehensive scheme for gradually socialising our entire agricultural and industrial system in the sphere of both production and appropriation.”
It may not be an exaggeration to say that Bose’s Haripura address is a unique address in the history of Congress Presidential addresses. It is an address where Bose drew a pen-picture of future India. Bose’s response to Meghnad Saha’s questions in the Indian Science News Association’s general meeting of August 1938, Bose’s address at the Industries Ministers’ Conference held in Delhi on 2 October 1938, and his inaugural address at the first All India National Planning Committee held in Bombay on 17 December 1938—all provide a complete outline of Economic Planning as envisioned by Subhas Chandra Bose. In his inaugural speech, Bose said that the National Planning Committee had “first to direct its attention to the mother industries, i.e., those industries which make the other industries run successfully—such as the power industry, industries for the production of metals, heavy chemicals, machinery and tools, and communication industries like railway, telegraph, telephone and radio.” This is precisely what the Second Five Year Plan did. When he said “our country is backward in respect of power supply”, he anticipated the future investment of the Five-Year Plans into developing India’s power sector. And the person to drive home the importance of power supply as Meghnad Saha.
Regarding issues such as a democratic form of government, integration of princely states, the protection of minorities, and Fundamental Rights, Bose’s Haripura address reflected the general consensus within the Congress, which it had arrived at as a result of the culmination of historical processes. There is also no question of denying the avowed socialism of Nehru, and the common interests he shared with Bose in the alleviation of poverty, abolition of zamindari, land reforms, village co-operatives and other socialist-minded issues, and issues such as the language question. Nehru and Bose belonged to the younger, socialist group within Congress, and both had highlighted in their speeches that imperialism cannot be separated from capitalism. However, it is adequately clear from the above discussion that Bose gave expression to concrete ideas related to planning in a definitive way and did everything that was needful for their immediate implementation—despite opposition from certain quarters—during his Presidentship of the Congress; but this fact is not adequately represented in the historiography of modern India.
Secondly, the power of Bose’s words is unmatched. It was such power that everybody would have taken note of—his peers, the British Raj, and the people of India. In this sense, Bose was the true leader of the people—Netaji—one who was born a leader. It is important to refer to Subhas’s early days as an administrator in the various positions he occupied in the Calcutta Municipal Corporation. He became the CEO of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation in 1924 and brought about changes of such order that even the British started fearing his popularity. He was so popular that in 1930 he was elected Mayor of the Corporation while he was still serving in prison. Swami Vivekananda once wrote: “Not everyone is born to lead…Many feel, but only a few can express. It is the power of expressing one’s love and appreciation and sympathy for others that enables one person to succeed better in spreading the idea than others.” Bose was certainly an example of this kind of a leader.
Bose was no less a socialist; and he was not just an arm-chair theorist, but a socialist in practice as well. His simple lifestyle and social behaviour of parity with other staff members of the Municipal Corporation was what won him the love of his co-workers and made him a living embodiment of socialism. He was also a proponent of ‘Municipal Socialism’. He was impressed by the Municipal Socialism as he saw being practiced in Vienna and its success in ensuring access to housing, education, medical relief and social welfare to the people of Vienna. In the context of municipal socialism, he also highlighted that “the real school of democracy is local self-government.” Before one passes a judgment on the historically proven problems of socialism, it is important to remind the reader that these were the decades of the 1930s and 40s where great political and ideological upheavals were taking place in the world and established ideas about imperialism and capitalism were being questioned. Socialism was a critique not only of capitalism but also of imperialism and colonialism that were seen to be inextricably tied with capitalism.
Despite all this, such contribution by Subhas Bose hardly finds praise or even mention in the annals of history. For reasons best known to him, Bipan Chandra wrote: “Although Jawaharlal Nehru’s was undoubtedly the most important role, other groups and individuals too played a crucial part in the popularization of the socialist vision. Subhas Bose was one such individual, though his notion of socialism was nowhere as scientific and clear as Jawaharlal’s.” Whatever Chandra meant by this he did not spell out the reasons for such a belief. He also claims: “It was above all Jawaharlal Nehru who imparted a socialist vision to the national movement and who became the symbol of socialism and socialist ideas in India after 1929.” Chandra does not even mention Bose’s Haripura Speech either in his India’s Struggle for Independence or in his India Since Independence, let alone discuss his ideas related to Municipal Socialism or his other speeches.
The only reason for the omission of a discussion on Subhas Chandra Bose’s ideas related to socialism, planning and nation-building could be the desire to downplay his contribution. The purpose of this essay is not to vie exclusively for the epithet of the architect of modern India (he most certainly was one of the architects) for Subhas Chandra Bose. We shall not appeal for Bose being given the singular credit for this, as Nehru has been given since Independence. The purpose of this essay is only to point out that Bose’s legacy and contribution has been almost completely obliterated in the state-patronized so-called ‘nationalist’ historiography in independent India. It is now time to give Netaji an equal place at the table—a place that is rightfully his.
This article first appeared in www.vifindia.org and it belongs to them.