Myopic anti-imperialism


Since returning from a trip to India recently (I’ve been going since I was a kid but this was my first visit in a decade), I’ve been thinking about Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian nationalist leader who fled to Berlin during World War II in order to form an alliance with the Nazis and later organised and led the Indian National Army (INA), which consisted of Indian prisoners of war who fought alongside the Japanese against the British in Burma and Imphal. I’ve always been interested in Bose, who, it seems to me, went spectacularly wrong because although his own cause was just, he completely failed to see beyond it. In particular, he failed to see the connections between India’s struggle for independence and the struggle against fascism in Europe. But despite his association with Nazism, Bose is still a revered figure in India. Marine Drive, the famous seafront promenade in downtown Bombay – my favourite place in the city – has even been renamed after him.

I’m looking forward to reading a new book on Bose’s relationship with the Nazis that comes out in May. The extraordinary story parallels in some ways that of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who was one of the key figures in the German foreign ministry’s attempts to reach out to Arabs during World War II (I mentioned Bose in my review last year of Jeffrey Herf’s book Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, TLS, June 25 2010). Like al-Husseini, Bose spent part of the war in Berlin, where he broadcast to his homeland and set up the Indian Legion – a unit of Indian prisoners of war that later became part of the Waffen-SS. But Bose’s alliance with the Nazis seems to have been less of an ideological meeting of hearts and minds (in particular he was not, as far as I know, anti-Semitic in the way al-Husseini was, though he does seem to have been attracted to some other aspects of Nazism) and more of a pragmatic alliance based on overlapping interests. In other words, it was largely a case of my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

Nevertheless, it seems extraordinary that someone like Bose would fail to see the contradiction between his own anti-imperialism and an alliance with the Third Reich. While I was in India, I picked up a copy of a book of Bose’s writings and speeches that came out last year and was particularly struck by a broadcast entitled “The Axis Powers and India” from Berlin in May 1942 in which Bose rejects the idea that Indians should co-operate in the Allied war effort and argues instead for an alliance with Germany, Italy and Japan. “In spite of all that British propaganda has been saying or may say in future,” he says, “it should be clear to all right-thinking Indians that in this world India has but one enemy, the enemy which has robbed her of her freedom, the enemy which has been exploiting her for years and years, and that enemy is British imperialism.” Bose says that all Indians needed to know about the three Axis powers was that they “want to see India fully independent and mistress of her own destiny”.

This, it seems to me, is exactly where Bose went wrong. Because he was so focused on the cause of Indian independence, other people’s struggles and suffering were irrelevant to him except in so far as they benefited it. Because he believed that India had “but one enemy”, he was apparently indifferent to other forms of imperialism that were as bad as, if not worse than, British imperialism. (Bose eventually left Berlin in 1943 disillusioned with the Nazis, but this seems to have been mainly because of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, which he admired.) Bose epitomises what might be called myopic anti-imperialism – the idea that the only freedom that matters is my own. It also seems to me that Bose is a particularly interesting figure now because his story connects important Western and non-Western narratives (the Holocaust and imperialism) in exactly the way I described in a previous post.

Pankaj Mishra also mentioned Bose in his review in the New Yorker last year of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Nomad and Paul Berman’s Flight of the Intellectuals. Mishra points out that anti-imperialist leaders such as al-Husseini and Bose who formed “unlikely alliances” with the Nazis were and are viewed very differently in the East than in the West. While Bose remains a nationalist icon in India, Winston Churchill is seen there as a “crude imperialist who delayed Indian independence as long as he could and inflicted death on millions with callous policies during the Great Famine in Bengal in 1943”. Mishra is surely right that we need to understand figures likes Bose and Churchill in all their complexity – Churchill the imperialist as well as Churchill the anti-fascist and Bose the fascist ally as well as Bose the anti-imperialist. But if we are going to integrate these different narratives – rather than just play them off against each other – don’t we also need to go a step further than Mishra does and say clearly that Bose was wrong to collaborate with Nazi Germany?

UPDATE 28/1/10: My friend Gautam Pemmaraju pointed me to a recent illustration of the esteem in which Subhas Chandra Bose is held in India – particularly in West Bengal. Earlier this week, N. R. Narayana Murthy, the founder of the software company Infosys, described Bose as “the most courageous leader of his time” and urged the Indian prime minister to name “a major avenue in Delhi” after him.

UPDATE 28/10/11: The Indian historian Ramachandra Guha touched on Bose in a brilliant lecture on Gandhi earlier at LSE this week. The problem with Bose, Guha said, was that “he had a liking for khaki shorts”.


6 thoughts on “Myopic anti-imperialism

  1. I’ve always been interested in Bose, who, it seems to me, went spectacularly wrong because although his own cause was just, he completely failed to see beyond it.

    Maybe the lesson to be gleaned from the likes of Bose is that their causes are not actually “just” simply by virtue of being liberation movements. Much more is necessary, and that might include something like Hannah Arendt’s “distinction between ‘liberation’ and ‘freedom'” as discussed by Helmut Dubiel in his essay, Hannah Arendt and the Theory of Democracy (which can be found here).

    Dubiel analyzes Arendt as holding that “[l]iberation solely involves struggling to gain negative rights”. When these negative rights are conceived in such a way as “to guarantee the possibility of individualism”, the “negative rights of freedom” serve as “the very precondition for the existence of a political space that could … embody public freedom.” However, “the establishment of freedom involves setting up those institutions and practices that publicly embody freedom” for participation by individuals as individuals. Based on such a distinction between liberation and freedom, I think it apparent that a dedication to freedom is far more necessary to a “just” cause than is a passion for liberation.

    Was Bose particularly interested in anything like what Arendt later conceived of as “political freedom”?

    Whether or not he was, the brief description provided of him reminds me of Indians I know who have said that the Indians should have supported the Japanese against the British inasmuch as the Japanese were more “honorable”, and the Bose discussion also reminds me of Indians who have flat out insisted to me that “Hitler was a great leader.”

    Clearly, such perverse ways of regarding and attributing honor and greatness depend on a moral myopia, and such a myopic condition is best never regarded as “just” — no matter how practicably difficult it is to ever associate politics and moral justice.

  2. Pingback: Enlightenment and empire « Hans Kundnani

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