Gumnami Baba may help BJP to appropriate Netaji

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose

John Boehner, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives till 2015, once said any good comeback ‘needs some true believers’. As far as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was concerned, he never had any dearth of followers, neither before his disappearance in 1945, nor after it. Millions believed, for decades, that Netaji would come back. The hope only died out in the 1980s, as by then he would have been more than eighty years of age were he alive. Over time people came to believe that the chances of his return were dim. Bose’s name more or less disappeared from public discourse. That was why Shyam Benegal named his 2005 film ‘Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: A forgotten hero’. The film flopped; and it looked like his die-hard followers too had forsaken Bose.

But now a new story is taking shape. But before we come to that let’s look at the recent attempt to resurrect Bose in the public imagination again.

Narendra Modi, after becoming PM, decided to resurrect Bose and juxtapose his sacrifice with Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘dynasty’. The PM threw open secret Netaji files, commemorated 75 years of his establishing the provisional government of free India, and named three islands of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago as Netaji, Swaraj and Shaheed Dweep. Bengal, and rest of India showed a renewed interest in the unforgettable hero. Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee too released whatever documents were lying with the state government. The renewed interest in Netaji was further stoked by ‘Bose: Dead or Alive’, a web series aired on AltBalaji in 2017. A Bengali TV channel too launched a TV serial that would depict Bose’s life from his childhood.

Realising the fact that after Vallabhbhai Patel and BR Ambedkar the Sangh Parivar was now eyeing appropriation of Netaji, Left and secular politicians jumped into the fray. Many like Subhashini Ali, Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member and daughter of colonel Prem Sahgal and the legendary Lakshmi Sahgal (both served in Netaji’s INA), wrote articles portraying the secular side of Netaji and arguing his ideology was just the opposite of what the RSS believed in. Netaji’s family members, some of whom are associated with Trinamool Congress (TMC), also raised questions. Many thought Modi was bent upon resurrecting Bose to sway the people of Bengal for 2019 Lok Sabha and 2021 assembly elections. It looked like Netaji would now be used as a political weapon seven decades after his disappearance.

Now, suddenly, a new twist has to the tale. It all is about Gumnami Baba, an unnamed mystic who died in Faizabad (UP), in 1985. For long, it has been speculated he was Bose. The mystery was so compelling that the Allahabad High Court directed the UP government in 2013 to set up a panel to end the controversy about the identity of this ‘extraordinary person’. A judicial commission was set up, but the commission reportedly found no conclusive evidence on his identity. Meanwhile, in the last year, tens of articles have appeared in the national media on Gumnami Baba, and many TV programmes were aired about him. His and Netaji’s handwriting were sent to a foreign expert, who confirmed that both were written by the same man. Now, National Award-winning director Srijit Mukherji is making a film on Gumnami Baba in Bengali. Anurag Kashyap too is planning a film on similar lines in Hindi, based on his childhood encounters with the man.

Srijit’s film, based on a book by Chadrachur Ghose and Anuj Dhar, and starring the hugely popular Bengali star, Prosenjit, is scheduled to release later this year. It may make a tremendous impact on the Bengal psyche. As the film is being promoted by the makers, objections on equating Gumnami Baba with Netaji, or even dropping a broad hint of it, are being raised from many quarters. Chandra Bose, Netaji’s grand-nephew and a BJP leader, held a press conference to oppose the film. A less known Bengali film director too joined the chorus on social media. The moot point here is the alleged connection of Gumnami Baba with former RSS sarsanghchalak MS Golwalkar. From among the artefacts of the late Baba, a letter written to him by Golwalkar in 1972, has been found. So, many ‘secularists’ believe the resurrection of Gumnami is aimed at helping BJP’s appropriation of Netaji, who was known as a secular man until his disappearance. On social media, some of them have even dubbed Gumnami an imposter.

However, the impostor tag does not go with Gumnami Baba (aka Bhagwanji) as he never claimed he was Netaji. The reclusive man rather shied away from publicity, and never visited Bengal. Those who knew him described him as a learned man who devoted most of his time reading and writing or meditating. He spoke Hindi with Bengali accent. Myths around him are based on the assumptions that he came back to India after being tortured in a Russian jail. The debate on whether Gumnami Baba was Netaji, in fact, started after his death. Probably, it will never be established who he was. Bose’s family has not granted permission for a DNA test on the ashes kept in Renkoji Temple in Japan, purportedly belonging to Netaji. The mystery surrounding Netaji’s death will ever remain a mystery.

But the film on Gumnami Baba and the debates on it will surely help the BJP. The theory will find believers and they will keep him alive. And, thanks to Gumnami Baba’s connection with the RSS, a muted campaign by the Saffron Brigade to appropriate Netaji will surely be strengthened.

(Diptendra Raychaudhuri is a Kolkata-based journalist and author of books including, A Naxal Story. He is a deputy editor at the Bengali daily, Aajkal)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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