The personal and political struggles of a family whose legends still haunt India
COUNTLESS BRAVE INDIANS went to prison under the Raj. Many served long jail terms, sometimes for life. Those who had attempted armed resistance were routinely executed, starting with the defeated rebels of 1857. In other cases, penal terms often amounted to a death sentence, such as for revolutionaries sent to the bespoke Cellular Jail on the Andaman Islands.
The 16th-century Lahore Fort—the Raj’s most notorious detention facility apart from Cellular Jail—was however reserved for a rather select cohort. After my father, Sisir Bose, arrived there in October 1944, aged twenty-four, nobody spoke to him for a few weeks. Then the special superintendent of police in charge of the fort’s prisoners, Nazir Ahmad Razvi, paid him a visit and told him: ‘You look like an educated gentleman. This is no place for gentlemen; only very dangerous characters are brought here. People who take part in satyagraha are sent to ordinary jails and detention camps—they have company and are comfortable. The Lahore Fort is a very bad place. Once you come here, the world forgets you’.
My father’s memoir and autobiography of his early life has just been published, fifteen years after his death, as Subhas and Sarat: An Intimate Memoir of the Bose Brothers. The two central figures are, of course, his uncle Subhas and father Sarat, who was Subhas’s lifelong confidant and supporter. The memoir- cum-autobiography offers a uniquely authentic and finely textured account of the Boses’ family life and political struggles. Its most gripping part is certainly the blow-by-blow narrative of the planning, execution and aftermath of the future Netaji’s escape from India in 1941, in which my father was his chief accomplice, and drove him from Calcutta to the Gomoh railhead in Bihar (now in Jharkhand) for the onward journey.
My father was brought to the Lahore Fort after being dramatically arrested on the street in Calcutta and taken by plane to Delhi, where he spent ten days in an underground cell at the Red Fort. It was not his first experience of arrest and detention—he had earlier been arrested following a police raid on his home in September 1942 and lodged in Calcutta’s Presidency Jail, where he almost died of typhoid fever. For all of 1943, he had been subject to a stringent ‘home-internment’ order.
He ended up at the dreaded Lahore Fort after the second arrest both because of his key role in Netaji’s 1941 escape and because he had during 1944 been in contact with and helping a small team of men who had arrived by submarine in India to prepare the ‘home front’ as the Indian National Army advanced into north-eastern India. The charge-sheet served on him in the Lahore Fort stated: ‘…You Sisir Bose are informed that the grounds for your detention are that you were acting in a manner prejudicial to the defence of British India… [and] you were actively engaged in a manner calculated to assist Subhas Chandra Bose and the Japanese’.
Its most gripping part is certainly the blow-by-blow narrative of the planning, execution and aftermath of the future Netaji’s escape from India in 1941
The excerpt below is from his detailed narrative of the three-and- a-half months (October 1944-February 1945) he spent in a solitary- confinement cell at the Lahore Fort. Bhagat Singh, Raj Guru and Sukhdev had been there before him, and other inmates in 1944 included Jaya Prakash Narayan and Ram Manohar Lohia. In February 1945, he was transferred to Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) jail in Punjab’s Multan division, from where he was released in September 1945, at the same time his father Sarat was released, after four years of imprisonment, from a detention centre in Coonoor, a town in the Nilgiris district of present-day Tamil Nadu. The Lyallpur prison stint was not easy either, but, he writes, ‘I felt relieved to be out of the terrifying environment of Lahore Fort’.
In the late 1950s, Sisir K Bose was to establish the Netaji Research Bureau at Calcutta’s Netaji Bhawan—the house on Elgin Road from where he helped his uncle’s escape in January 1941—and built it over decades of work into the only serious centre of research on Netaji (as well as a world-class museum). After his release, he resumed his interrupted medical studies and became one of India’s pioneering and finest paediatricians. He also dabbled in politics and was elected to West Bengal’s legislative assembly from Calcutta’s Chowringhee constituency in the 1980s.
A note on two characters who appear in the excerpt. My father re-visited the Lahore Fort in 1994 with my mother, Krishna Bose. I believe he tried to locate Nazir Ahmad Razvi’s family during that visit but was not successful. In the process of editing this book for posthumous publication, I found that Razvi, who interrogated Sisir relentlessly during the second half of his stay at the Fort, published a book from Lahore in 1961 titled Our Police Heritage: Saga of the Police Forces of Pakistan and India. Richard Tottenham, additional secretary (home) of the Government of India, came to meet my father at Lahore Fort in December 1944 and is the official who signed his charge-sheet. There are three portraits of Sir Richard Tottenham, described as a ‘colonial administrator’ born in 1890, in London’s National Portrait Gallery.
Cell No 12, Lahore Fort
By SISIR KUMAR BOSE
Cell number 12, which was to be my abode for the next three and half months, was much smaller than the underground cell in the Red Fort. It was around ten by twelve feet.
The only furniture was a ramshackle charpoy that was so small that it looked as if it was meant for a child. There were a couple of rough blankets riddled with holes. In one corner stood an earthen pitcher of water and a brass tumbler broken at the rim. A low brick partition in another corner enclosed an ancient toilet, which could be cleaned from outside.
My first visitor after I was locked up was a black cat. A large raised terrace faced the gate of my cell. The cat came and sat on the edge of the terrace and observed me with a steady gaze. A little later a handsome deer appeared outside my cell and looked at me with much curiosity. I started feeling amused—this place was a zoo in reverse!
The nights were particularly difficult. A bright light was focussed on me from the ceiling of my cell all night. The surroundings were pitch dark. So I had the chilling feeling I was being watched all the time while I, myself, could see nothing.
I tried to sleep by protecting my eyes from the overhead light with my palm or by covering my face with the blanket. It was not easy.
I lived in the same clothes for three and a half months. I never had a bath throughout my solitary incarceration at Lahore Fort, nor did I shave or brush my teeth. My appearance must have been that of a lunatic or a wretched beggar.
Days passed but nobody came to see or speak to me. Water was poured into the pitcher from outside the cell and a plate of food pushed in under the iron bars, as animals in a zoo are fed. But nobody would speak a word to me. In the mornings, I had some tough dry bread and tepid tea poured from a kettle into my half-broken tumbler. I felt so cold in the mornings that I rushed to warm my hands by clasping the tumbler as soon as the watery tea was poured into it from outside. The less said about the food, the better.
After some time I realized I was starting to lose track of the days. So I started to scratch lines on the wall with my nails, one scratch for each day that passed.
When there was no news of me for nearly two months my mother feared the worst: that I was no longer alive. In the fourth week of November, I was told I could write a postcard home but in English. I wrote a few lines to Mother, giving my address as Lahore Fort. After two days I was told that the address I had written was not acceptable. I had to write ‘C/O The Additional Secretary to the Government of India (Home Department)’! This postcard reached my mother in Calcutta but did not allay her anxiety.
After some time I realized I was starting to lose track of the days. So I started to scratch lines on the wall with my nails, one scratch for each day that passed
I still cannot figure out how I survived those three and a half months at the Lahore Fort in the winter of 1944-45.
Off and on I heard, I think, screams of prisoners being tortured in underground cells under the terrace in front of my cell. One day I clearly heard shrieks of ‘More gelam, more gelam (I am dying, I am dying)’ in Bengali. Once or twice I also heard, at some distance, muffled sounds of beating and the wailing of a prisoner.
Evening came early. As darkness fell, the strange and frightening stillness of the Lahore Fort took over.
As time passed I met some of the characters of the Lahore Fort. Razvi was the man in command, well-educated, very intelligent and evidently a trusted henchman of his British masters.
Two men moved around with Razvi. One was Mirza Sahib, who behaved like a little prince but who did not appear to me to be doing much. The other was Sardar Daswant Singh, who had received me at Lahore railway station. He gave himself airs. A third man was Khan Sahib, who appeared to be the fort prison’s in-house torturer. He was let loose on me on a few occasions. I had the impression that he was sadistic and found real pleasure in his work. He boasted to me that they had obtained incriminating information about me by ‘working’ on other prisoners.
Eventually, I fell ill at Lahore Fort with dysentery. They brought a doctor to my cell to examine me. When medicines arrived I found that the name of the patient noted on the label was ‘Sansar Chand’. When the affable warder who had delivered the medicines came to enquire the next day about my condition, I told him about the wrong name on the label. He said there was no mistake. My name in Lahore Fort was in fact Sansar Chand. ‘The real names of those who are held here are never written in the records,’ he said.
Subhas Chandra Bose with his nephews Amiya and Sisir (right), 1936 I lived in the same clothes for three and a half months. I never had a bath, nor did I shave or brush my teeth. My appearance must have been that of a lunatic or a wretched beggar
Two days later, when it was already dark, the same warder came back to see me. He asked in a low voice: ‘How are you, Your Honour?’ I was taken aback and asked him why he was addressing me with such a grand honorific. He replied in a subdued tone: ‘You are the really honourable people, suffering so much for the country. We are slaves, we just do as they ask.’
It was the second week of December 1944. One day I felt an unusual flutter of activity around me. In the afternoon, Khan Sahib arrived in front of my cell with a heavy pair of handcuffs. He took me out and led me up the stairs, on to the wide terrace and finally into the building which I had come through during my arrival in October. In the hall, I found Nazir Ahmad Razvi waiting to receive me. He took charge of me and my handcuffs and led me inside a room. There was a large table in the room, and three chairs. I was asked to sit down and Razvi stood behind me, holding tightly on to the chain of my handcuffs.
Directly facing me across the table was an Englishman. Another Englishman kept staring at me from one side. Razvi told me later that he had to hold me chained like that as a precautionary measure. There had been instances of prisoners lunging at high British officials during such interviews.
The man facing me conducted the conversation. The other one to the side kept completely silent. My interviewer’s first question was: ‘You are Sisir Bose?’ Then he said: ‘Before your uncle left the country, you were rather close to him, isn’t that so?’ I replied: ‘In an Indian joint family, relations between an uncle and a nephew are normally close.’ He was visibly angered by my reply and let out a low growl. Then he said in a rather challenging tone: ‘Tell me, why do you help the Japanese?’ I said: ‘I have hardly met any Japanese in my life—the question of helping them doesn’t arise.’ He persisted: ‘Do you help the Japanese because your uncle is helping the Japanese?’ I replied: ‘I have no reason to believe my uncle is helping the Japanese. As far as I know his only interest is working for our country’s freedom.’ At this he shouted in anger: ‘Take my word for it, he is a great helper of the Japanese!’ The man seemed obsessed with the Japanese. He continued: ‘Do you want the Japanese to win the war? We know very many people in this country want the Japanese to win the war.’ I answered: ‘Whether or not the Japanese win the war is not my concern. We want our country to be free.’
When I described this meeting in the Lahore Fort, to Satya Ranjan Bakshi after my release, he told me that the man was none other than Richard Tottenham, additional secretary (home department) to the Government of India.
After the encounter, Khan Sahib took me back to my cell. The same evening, however, they brought me back to the same room. The seating arrangement in the room was unchanged, but now Razvi was sitting at the head of the table. He handed me my chargesheet, signed by Tottenham and dated 7 November 1944, New Delhi.
That night the weather took a nasty turn. A thunderstorm hit, followed by a heavy downpour. Rainwater poured through the leaky roof of my cell. I shivered in the biting cold all night and the morning was freezing.
(Excerpted from Sisir Kumar Bose’s Subhas and Sarat: An Intimate Memoir of the Bose Brothers, edited with an introduction by Sumantra Bose (Aleph, 278 pages, Rs 599))