The Taipei Saga
When you enter the museum at Kolkata’s Netaji Bhawan, 38/2 Elgin Road, the first exhibit is a page from a diary. In it, Janakinath Bose records that his wife Prabhabati gave birth, on 23 January 1897, to a son, Subhas Chandra. The baby born in Cuttack (Odisha) that day was destined to become a world traveller. He spent his childhood in Cuttack and adolescence in Calcutta, then went to England to study at the University of Cambridge. Jailed in Mandalay, Burma from 1924 to 1927, he spent a lot of time during the 1930s in enforced exile in Europe. Bose became intimately familiar with Europe and many of its cities: Vienna, Prague, Rome, Berlin, Dublin, and London. In February 1943, he boarded a submarine in Kiel in northern Germany and travelled underwater over 93 days to East Asia. During the next two years, he was in Singapore, Malaya, Burma, Thailand, Japan and China. The globe-trotter’s final port of call in August 1945 was Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, then known as Formosa.
Taipei first came to my attention in 1957, when I read a book (published 1956) called The Gallant End of Netaji. This was shortly after my marriage to Sisir Kumar Bose, son of Netaji’s older brother Sarat Chandra Bose. The book’s author was Harin Shah, a journalist. In 1946, Mr Shah visited Taipei to ascertain the facts about the airplane crash of 18 August 1945. The book was based on that investigation and described Netaji’s last hours in great detail. It was a distressing read.
Sisir was already familiar with Harin Shah’s account. After returning from Taiwan, Shah spoke to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Sardar Patel asked him to speak to Sarat Bose, who was Subhas’s closest political ally and lifelong confidant. In November 1948, Harin Shah was posted as press attache in the Indian embassy in Prague when Sarat Bose visited the city during an extensive tour of Europe. Shah decided to take this opportunity to speak to him. Sisir, who was accompanying his father, was asked by Sarat to be present in the hotel room when Shah came over and briefed them about his inquiries and findings in Taiwan two years earlier. Sarat, who loved Subhas dearly all his life, heard Mr Shah out and was very distressed by the account. Sisir’s autobiography of his childhood and youth, Subhas and Sarat: An Intimate Memoir of the Bose Brothers, published posthumously in its English version in 2016, describes this meeting in Czechoslovakia’s capital.
In 1965, Sisir—with whom Netaji plotted his 1941 escape from the Elgin Road house and who drove him on the escape’s first leg to the Gomoh railhead in Bihar (now in Jharkhand)—visited Taiwan himself. In the meantime, Sisir, a paediatrician by profession, had founded the Netaji Research Bureau at the house (Netaji Bhawan) in 1957 to document all chapters and aspects of his uncle’s extraordinary life. Sisir first went to Japan, where he met most of the Japanese political and military figures who had come into contact with Netaji during 1943-1945 and been involved in some way with the Azad Hind movement and the Indian National Army. He stopped over in Taiwan on his way back to India. When he returned to Calcutta via Bangkok, we stayed up all night as I listened to him recount his time in Taipei.
Sisir had wandered around freely and taken many photographs in the premises of the old airport where the crash took place on 18 August 1945, as well as the nearby hospital where Netaji breathed his last and the crematorium where his funeral rites were performed. He also visited the Taiwanese foreign ministry. He was told there that the crash took place when the Japanese were still in effective control of the island (Formosa), during a chaotic period three days after Japan’s formal surrender to the Allies. The present (1965) government of Taiwan had been established only in 1949, when the remnants of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang regime fled there from mainland China upon being defeated by Mao’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) forces. So, they did not have any documentary record of the crash. The Taiwan authorities gave the Mukherjee commission, the third to inquire into Netaji’s fate, the same, formal response nearly four decades later. On the basis of that response, this commission reported that no plane crash had happened at the Taihoku (Taipei) airfield on 18 August 1945.
My chance to visit Taipei came in 1979. By that time, the Khosla commission of inquiry (1970) into Netaji’s fate had completed its work and, like the earlier Shah Nawaz commission (1956), confirmed the veracity of Netaji’s death in the plane crash on the basis of the convincing and consistent testimonies of the survivors and of the many eyewitnesses to its immediate aftermath. It had reiterated the recommendation of the first commission that the late leader’s ashes be brought back to India with due honour from Tokyo’s Renkoji temple, where the remains have been preserved since September 1945. Sisir and I travelled first to Japan in 1979 and one day we met at the Renkoji shrine with many of Netaji’s old Japanese associates and close acquaintances, in the presence of its chief priest, Rev. Mochizuki (junior, son of the priest who had been in charge in 1945). Generals Fujiwara, Isoda, Arisue and Katakura were present, among others. I already knew most of them because they had come to Calcutta in the 1960s and 1970s to attend history conferences at the Netaji Research Bureau. General Katakura, a bluntly spoken man, expressed astonishment that the ashes had not been taken back to India 34 years after Bose’s demise and were still lying in the Renkoji temple, which was intended to be a temporary resting place. In Kyoto, we met with the family of General Shidei, who was one of Netaji’s co-passengers on the plane and was killed instantly when it crashed. They showed us the general’s military record. It said: ‘Date of death: August 18, 1945. Place of death: Taihoku airfield. Cause of death: Death by war’.
Our main host in Japan was General Fujiwara Iwaichi (1908-1986). As a major in Japanese military intelligence, he had been intimately involved with the INA since its formation in Singapore in 1942. He retired from active service in the mid-1960s as a lieutenant-general in the Japan Self-Defence Forces, established after World War II. Fujiwara, who visited us many times in Calcutta starting in 1967, remained a friend of India all his life. When he died in 1986, a telegram from his family reached us in Calcutta: ‘Fujiwara returned to Hindustan forever’. On our 1979 trip to Japan, the plane had actually had a stopover in Taipei. But we were uncertain whether we would be able to visit Taipei during our return journey because India, like most countries, did not have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Fujiwara, ever resourceful, arranged Taiwan visas for us in Tokyo. He also informed a friend of his in Taiwan, a business tycoon, about our impending arrival. This gentleman became our host in Taipei and his staff acted as our guides. Sisir and I landed at Taipei’s Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport and checked into the city’s Grand Hotel. There was much excitement going on because Elizabeth Taylor was visiting Taiwan. From the window of our hotel room, I spotted an airport; planes were landing and taking off. We were told that this was the old Taipei/Taihoku airport, which was now used for domestic flights.
The morning after a formal welcome banquet—with the typical dozen courses—attended by various state officials, the tycoon, Mr Oo, drove us personally to the domestic airport. Sisir remarked that the terminal had been modernised and expanded since his 1965 visit. Mr Oo took us along a corridor to a point with an unrestricted view of the runway, framed by hills at some distance. He said the runway had been widened a bit but was otherwise the same as in 1945.
Standing there, I was reminded of Col. Habib-ur Rahman’s account of what had happened there on the afternoon of 18 August 1945. As Netaji’s aide-de-camp, the INA colonel had been his only Indian companion on the plane. Originally from the Bhimber district of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (presently part of PoK), he died in Pakistan in 1978.
Netaji and Col. Rahman ate bananas and sandwiches sitting under an awning on the tarmac during the refuelling stop in Taipei. They had boarded in Saigon on 17 August, stopped overnight in Danang in central Vietnam—a port city then known by its French name, Touraine—and the plane was headed next for Manchuria. Habib was feeling a little cold and he asked if Netaji would like to put on a sweater—Netaji said no. Habib put on a sweater standing by the plane.
As soon as the plane took off, Habib heard a loud sound like an explosion and one of the plane’s twin propellers (the one on the left side) detached and fell off. The plane crashed to the ground and fire immediately engulfed its front section. Habib looked towards the rear exit and saw that it was completely blocked by fallen baggage. He said: ‘Netaji, aage se nikliye, pichhe rasta nahin hai’. Bose promptly walked out of the front exit through the flames. The plane was a converted Japanese bomber, and everyone was seated on the floor. As fate would have it, Bose was sitting next to the aircraft’s petrol tank, and fuel had spilled on the military uniform he was wearing from the impact of the crash. Rahman followed Bose out of the plane and was aghast to see his tight-fitting uniform ablaze. Rahman rushed to him and started to tug at the belt in order to undo the uniform. In the process, Rahman sustained burn injuries on his hands. He managed to lay Netaji on the ground and, overcome by his own injuries, collapsed beside his leader. Netaji said to him calmly, in a tone of concern: ‘Aapko zada to nahin lagi?’ Then, as they lay side by side, Netaji said to Habib in an equally calm tone: ‘Jab aap mulk wapas jaye, mulki bhaiyon ko batana ki main aakhri dum tak azaadi ki liye larte rahen, woh jung-e-azaadi zaari rakhen. Hindustan azaad hoga, usko koi ghulam nahin rakh sakta’. Standing there overlooking the runway, I thought: Somewhere over there Subhas Chandra Bose and Habib-ur Rahman lay side by side on 18 August 1945.
Next, we set out to look for the hospital where the casualties were brought. At that time (1945), this Japanese military hospital was locally known as the ‘Nanmoon’ hospital and also as the ‘South Gate’ hospital. Our guides said that the present (1979) hospital on the same site is referred to as the University hospital and also as the ‘Peace’ hospital. I was rather disappointed when I saw a large, modern building. It bore no resemblance to the photographs I had seen of a low-slung single-storeyed structure, much like a barracks, which Sisir had visited in 1965. But then, we spotted that old structure in a field to the rear of the new building! It was exactly the same, its long front veranda framed by arches. The central archway was the Emergency entrance and led into the Emergency ward. There were a few other rooms. The Peace hospital’s deputy director, a woman, took us around. She said that the old structure would be demolished soon to build a new, modern facility as part of the hospital’s enlargement plans.
On 18 August 1945, the casualties were treated by Dr Yoshimi Taneyoshi, assisted by Dr Tsuruta. Yoshimi was later detained by the British. He repeated the testimony he gave them to the Shah Nawaz and Khosla commissions. He and Tsuruta bandaged Netaji’s burns and gave the patient injections of vita-camphor and digitamine. Shortly afterwards, a gentleman called Juichi Nakamura arrived at the hospital. Nakamura knew Netaji well, having acted as his interpreter during four stopovers Netaji made in Formosa in 1943 and 1944 while flying from Singapore or Rangoon to Tokyo. According to Nakamura, Netaji spoke four times in the hospital, and he translated each time. In the evening, his condition deteriorated. When he passed away, those present at the bedside were the two doctors, two nurses, Nakamura, a ward-boy named Mitsui, and Habib-ur Rahman. Everyone felt shattered. Colonel Habib, extremely distraught, went down on his knees by the bed and prayed for the departed soul. According to Dr Yoshimi, he issued a standard death certificate, written in Japanese. He wrote the deceased’s name as ‘Chandra Bose’, as Netaji was widely referred to by the Japanese. The cause of death: ‘third-degree burns’. This Japanese death certificate has not been recovered.
Mr Oo accompanied us to search for the crematorium where the last rites took place. Sisir had located this crematorium easily in 1965—he recalled it lay at the end of Sun Yat-sen Avenue. It was still in use then. In 1946, Harin Shah spoke to one Chu Tsang, a worker at the old crematorium, who said that he had been present at the cremation ceremony of a very famous Indian leader the previous year. But now a new crematorium had come up, which our local friends were familiar with. We found the site of the old crematorium, occupied by a new-looking gasoline station (petrol pump). Its employees confirmed that the old crematorium, now demolished, had stood there.
We then went looking for the Nishi Honganji shrine, where the urn containing Netaji’s mortal remains was brought from the crematorium and kept before being transferred to Tokyo in September 1945. A prayer meeting also took place there during that time. Sisir had visited this temple in 1965. When we arrived at the site, we saw a number of steps leading up to a raised platform, the shrine’s base. The wooden temple had burned down in a fire. We were told it would be rebuilt. When the urn containing Netaji’s remains was brought there by Nakamura and Habib, an urn containing General Shidei’s remains—he had been killed instantly in the crash—was already there. Nakamura told the temple’s priest that the urn they had brought contained the remains of a person much more important than the Japanese general. The priest then brought an object similar to a high stool and placed the urn on it, at a higher level than Shidei’s urn. Nakamura asked the priest to place fresh flowers daily in front of Netaji’s urn.
Our new Taiwanese friends—Mr Oo and his young, English-speaking staff members Christine Lee and Roger Koo—came to see us off at Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport. We travelled to Malaysia and then Thailand before returning to India. They said they sincerely hoped we had had a nice stay in their country. I did not have the heart to tell such wonderful hosts that I was actually feeling very sad.
I thought at the time that this was my first and last visit to the place where Netaji’s life-journey was so tragically cut short. I was wrong. My connection to Taiwan revived two decades later, during my three terms in the Lok Sabha.
From 1999 to 2004, I was the chairperson of the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs. In that capacity, I met regularly with ambassadors of various countries in New Delhi. Taiwan of course did not have an embassy; that is an absolute no-no if India, or any other country, wishes to have diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China. However, Taiwan did have an economic and cultural office, a de facto mission, in New Delhi. Joseph Chen, the head of that office, made courtesy calls on me, because my position had Minister of State (MoS) rank. Then, in the summer of 2002, I received an invitation to speak at a conference on ‘Democracy in the Asia-Pacific’ to be held in Taipei in August 2002. By that time, Taiwan had evolved remarkably from its authoritarian Kuomintang origins into a democracy. But it was a somewhat sensitive matter because my attendance could attract an official protest from the PRC’s foreign ministry—in the event it did not—to our ministry of external affairs. After consulting the MEA, I decided to go.
My older son, Sugata, was in India on his summer break from his academic job in the United States and he travelled with me, at his own expense, so I would not have to travel alone. My two sons, Sugata and the much younger Sumantra, had become rather protective of me since Sisir’s death in autumn 2000. On arrival in Taipei, we checked into the same Grand Hotel where Sisir and I had stayed in 1979. While I attended the conference, Sugata visited the domestic airport and the site of the old hospital. He also visited the rebuilt Nishi Honganji shrine, in a congested locality close to the hospital site. As in 1979, I could see planes taking off from and landing at the domestic airport from the window of my hotel room; I went to the domestic airport once during this visit. After Taipei, we travelled to Japan on our own. There I met in a formal session with the chairpersons of the foreign affairs committees of the lower and upper houses of the Japanese parliament, the Diet. A dinner hosted by the Indian embassy in Tokyo was attended among others by Rev. Mochizuki (Jr.), the priest of the Renkoji shrine, and his wife. Of course, we also went to the shrine one day to pay our respects. Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee all visited Renkoji as prime ministers during official visits to Japan to pay homage to Netaji’s memory. Vajpayeeji, whom I remember often and with great regard, visited Renkoji for the first time as minister of external affairs in the late 1970s.
Three years later, in autumn 2005, I received another invitation to speak at a conference on democracy and democratisation in Taipei. By that time, I was no longer an MP. Sugata, in Boston, and Sumantra, in London, were both against my undertaking the fairly long journey alone. But Taipei had such a pull on me that I disregarded their objections. I left Kolkata on the night of Ashtami, the peak of Bengal’s Durga Puja. When I arrived in Taipei after stopovers in Bangkok and Hong Kong, I was received at the door of the plane and escorted through the diplomatic channel. On my third visit to Taipei, I was taken not to the Grand Hotel, but to the city’s Holiday Inn, where the conference was to take place. Vijay Gokhale, our representative in Taiwan (he’s now our ambassador in Beijing), called on me there soon after I checked in.
The conference was inaugurated by Annette Lu, Taiwan’s vice-president. At its formal banquet, I found myself seated next to Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan’s president. We could not converse much because his English was limited, but he was extremely warm. Both he and Annette were from the Democratic Progressive Party, which had after a long struggle ended the Kuomintang’s one-party dominance of Taiwan’s politics.
Once the conference got over, I went again to the domestic airport, and to the site of the hospital, by then known in its 21st-century avatar as the ‘Hoping’ hospital. I also went to see the Nishi Honganji shrine, and found that it had been temporarily moved as that congested locality was being spruced up. But, to my surprise and delight, I found the Railway Hotel, where Netaji stayed four times in 1943 and 1944 during stopovers in Taipei on flights from Singapore or Rangoon to Tokyo. Juichi Nakamura, the interpreter who was a tragic eyewitness to Netaji’s demise in 1945, met him on each of those occasions and dined with him at the Railway Hotel. An elegant building of colonial-style architecture, it was unused and dilapidated at the time of my visit in October 2005. My Taiwanese guides were curious to know what had happened to the so-called ‘treasure’ Netaji and Habib were carrying—mainly jewellery donated to the Azad Hind movement by Indian and Indian-origin women in South-East Asia. I told them that the Shah Nawaz and Khosla commissions had been shown those items, burnt almost black by the fire from the plane crash, from the collection of the National Museum in New Delhi, then situated in Rashtrapati Bhavan. Aside from the jewellery, Netaji’s faithful valet, Kundan Singh, identified several personal items belonging to Netaji which were recovered from the crash site: a gold supari container, a gold cigarette case (a gift from Adolf Hitler from their only meeting in May 1942), a cigarette lighter, and a nail-clipper.
According to Juichi Nakamura, Subhas Chandra Bose spoke four times before passing away at the hospital in Taipei. The first time, he said that several top INA officers and other close associates were due to follow him from Saigon. This was quite correct; his mind was clearly functioning still despite his horrific injuries. He asked that they be looked after once they arrived. The second time he spoke, he asked after General Shidei, his co-passenger (who was already dead). The third time, he said that his head was throbbing unbearably. The fourth and last time, he simply said, in English: ‘I want to sleep’. As he fell asleep, Habib-ur Rahman sank in prayer by his bed and Yoshimi, Nakamura and the other Japanese stood chanting Buddhist mantras.
In the summer of 2017, sixty years after I first learned about Taipei and Netaji’s heart-rending death there from Harin Shah’s book, the calling bell rang in our apartment in New Delhi. The visitor was Dr Shekhar Shah, director-general of the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and the younger of two sons of Harin Shah. He had come to see us accompanied by his charming half-Bengali wife, Malati. Shekhar got in touch on e-mail with Sumantra—coincidentally both he and Sumantra earned PhDs from Columbia University in New York, but two decades apart, in the late 1970s and late 1990s respectively—after reading Sisir’s memoir Subhas and Sarat, published in English in 2016, which towards its end recounts Harin Shah’s meeting with Sarat Bose and Sisir in Prague’s Alcron Hotel in November 1948. While Harin Shah was posted in Prague as the press attache in our embassy there in the late 1940s/early 1950s, his wife completed a PhD in sociology at its famed Charles University under the supervision of Professor Vincent Lesny, the director of its Oriental Institute, who was a friend of Subhas’s since the 1930s. She also gave birth to Shekhar’s older brother in Prague.
My sixty-year journey of coming to terms with Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s martyrdom in the cause of India’s freedom had come full circle.
In 1916, Subhas was expelled from Calcutta’s Presidency College for allegedly assaulting a professor after a dispute over the latter’s arrogant behaviour. In 1971, Sisir and I spent an autumn day with that professor, Edward Farley Oaten, and his wife at their home in Walton-on-Thames, a town just south of London. Professor Oaten gifted us a book of his poems—he was an accomplished poet. It included a sonnet he had written 25 years earlier, in a state of grief, after hearing about Subhas’s passing. Then 87, and almost blind, he had difficulty reading but recited the poem faultlessly from memory for my tape-recorder. In it, he likened Subhas to Icarus, the figure of Greek mythology who perished after flying too close to the sun:
Did I once suffer, Subhas, at your hand?
Your patriot heart is stilled! I would forget!
Let me recall but this, that while as yet
The Raj that you once challenged in your land
Was mighty; Icarus-like your courage planned
To mount the skies, and storm in battle set
The ramparts of High Heaven, to claim the debt
Of freedom owed, on plain and rude demand.
High Heaven yielded, but in dignity.
Like Icarus, you sped towards the sea.
Your wings were melted from you by the sun,
The genial patriot fire, that brightly glowed
In India’s mighty heart, and flamed and flowed
Forth from her Army’s thousand victories won.
(This is an abridged version of an article published in the Bengali weekly Desh on 17 August 2017, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of India’s independence and the 72nd anniversary of the martyrdom of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Translated into English by Sumantra Bose.)