Harvard, £25.95, 382pp. £23.36 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

His Majesty's Opponent, By Sugata Bose

Subhas Chandra Bose (1897-1945) – affectionately known as Netaji, "the revered leader" of India's struggle against the British Raj - was an unusual His Majesty's Opponent. He came from a middle-class, affluent Bengali family. Unlike the Gurkhas or the Panjabis, the colonial government regarded the Bengalis as a "non-martial race".

He studied at Cambridge, passed the bureaucratic Indian Civil Service examination with good results, admired the openness of English society and later married a Western woman. And yet he was the staunchest firebrand of all Indian nationalists. Early in his political career, he successfully campaigned to remove Lord Curzon's offensive "Black Hole" memorial of 1901 from a prime spot in Kolkata.

The account of Bose's adventurous escape from house arrest and constant surveillance in Kolkata to Nazi Germany would humble Osama Bin Laden's ingenuity. His accidental death in a plane crash in Taipei finally turned Bose into a legendary hero.

I grew up in Kolkata with the stories of his derring-do in my school history primer. His garlanded moon-faced portrait hung at a prominent place in our home among other Bengali worthies. Later, I read about his disagreements with Gandhi and Nehru and his association with Hitler and Mussolini during the Second World War, and felt uncomfortable with his politics - though I knew of Rabindranath Tagore's endorsement of Bose as a prospective political leader of India in 1939.

At the height of Nazism in Europe, he absconded to Germany and lived with his German wife-to-be, enjoying the privileges of an expatriate diplomat and political ally. Even the Führer had to address him as "Your Excellency" and allowed him the facilities for regular broadcasts into India.

Though Bose's first communiqué from Germany after his departure created a stir when he announced that the Germans were going to defeat the British and that India was about to win her freedom, his words had little impact. By then, Mahatma Gandhi had already launched his "Quit India" movement with mass support.

Undeterred, Bose began creating an Indian Legion from about 3000 Indian soldiers of the British Army captured by the Italians as POWs. In spite of the soldiers' pledge of loyalty to the colonial army, Bose managed to persuade them to join him by speaking individually and promising appropriate rank, salary, benefits and, of course, certain victory. He had an excellent gift of speech. Strategically, Bose expected that when the German army, approaching from the southern USSR and the Middle East reached India with newly-converted Indian soldiers in the frontline, the colonial army would be hesitant to attack them. Even if they did, the Indians would protest at the massacre of Indian soldiers.

In theory it was a win-win scenario, but actually Bose's masterplan ended in disaster. Germany's defeat at El Alamein in 1942 halted Hitler's progress and the Indian Legion's leadership and morale collapsed. Ultimately, Bose's men were absorbed into the retreating German army; some joined the French resistance, others deserted.

After Japan's victory at Pearl Harbor, thousands of Indian soldiers in the Allied forces fell into Japanese hands. Once again Bose began to organise an Indian unit to attack British India from Japanese-occupied territory at the India-Burma border. Hitler helped to transport him secretly in a German submarine to the coast of Mozambique, where he boarded another submarine bound for south-east Asia.

The Japanese prime-minister Tojo welcomed Bose and regarded him as the Indian head of state in exile. Without any qualms about Japanese war atrocities, Bose was comfortable with his reception. He then took charge of a pre-existing Indian National Army (INA) with integrated regiments of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs; more significantly, he established a female brigade – the Rani Jhansi Bahini – celebrating the rebel queen who fought the British in 1857.

He formed a provisional government of Azad Hind in Singapore during October 1943, collected tax, enforced laws, recruited soldiers and acquired a personal motorcade, aircraft and honour guards He also designed the tricolor Indian national flag of saffron, white and green horizontal stripes with a leaping tiger, reminiscent of Tipu Sultan's mechanical toy. Though Bose's INA once reached a peak strength of 50,000, his flawed logistics and an untimely monsoon caused them a heavy defeat at Imphal.

Bose boarded a Japanese bomber in Saigon on his way to China, once again preparing to attack British India from a Russian territory. The plane crashed in Taipei, fatally injuring him. He died in a Japanese military hospital on 18 August 1945.

This competent biography by Bose's great-nephew, a historian, is the best work to date to clarify some of his paradoxes. With unpublished material from family archives and public records, Sugata Bose supplies a fuller back-story of Netaji's predicaments. The book has illuminated my understanding of a controversial and charismatic Indian militarist who remains inspirational to many in India, despite his questionable status in the global politics of the period.

Krishna Dutta's 'Calcutta: a cultural and literary history' is published by Signal

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen