More than any of the other grand collaborators of the Second World War, Bose proves how dangerous is that maxim that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’.
By June, 1945 powerful men close to the Emperor had begun to explore ways of ending the war without losing the imperial institution. Some of them reached out the Soviet union unaware that Stalin had pledged to enter the war against Japan on the side of the Allies. Then at the beginning of August, the Americans dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima then Nagasaki – and on 12 August, the Emperor at last advised his cabinet that Japan had no choice but to surrender. Although the Minister of War the ultranationalist General Anami Korechika and other hawks hoped to continue fighting, the wishes of the Emperor prevailed.
Bose was in Malaya when he heard the news about the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and decided at once to make contact with the Soviets. Although, as he rightly suspected, there were widening rifts between the ‘Big Three’, it is inconceivable that the Russians would have rushed to eject the British from India. On the eve of his departure, he told the Japanese that the Soviets ‘are the only ones who will resist the British. My fate is with them.’
But Stalin’s future quarrel would not principally be with the British, whose power was waning fast, but the Americans, transformed by the titanic struggle against the Axis into a global superpower. Bose failed to notice that August 1945 saw the first act of a new Cold War and that it was neither Japan nor the Soviet Union that was determined to wind up the British Empire – but Churchill’s special friends in Washington.
On 17 August, Bose flew into Saigon. He hoped to bring most of the Azad Hind provisional government with him to the Soviet Union – but at the last minute discovered that the Japanese could offer him two seats on a flight taking Lt. General Shidei a Japanese expert on the Soviet Union to Dairen in Manchuria via Taipei. Bose had to make a quick decision – and he chose Colonel Habibir Rahman to accompany him in the second seat. The aircraft was a twin engine Mitsubishi heavy bomber of the type code named ‘Sally’ by the Americans. The plane was already overloaded, but Bose insisted on loading two suitcases stuffed with gold and jewellery. There were in fact no ‘seats’ on the aircraft - and Bose was wedged into the back on a pile of cushions.
The aircraft took off on the evening of 17 August – and because it was so late, stopped over at Tourane in Vietnam instead of flying straight on to Taipei. As the Indians and Japanese rested, the pilot tried to carry out a few repairs: take off had been unusually sluggish and he had noticed unusual vibration in the left engine. The flight to Taipei took six hours. Bose and the other passengers suffered freezing temperatures in the unheated cabin. On landing, the pilot again complained about overloading and tried to get the left engine checked. Perfunctory maintenance was then carried out. Bose enquired if they would flying at the same altitude and, after being informed that they would be, asked for an extra sweater.
At about 2.30 p, on the 19th August, the pilot started engines and the Mitsubishi ponderously strained into the air when it reached the the very end of the runway. Seconds later, at an altitude of about 90 feet, an explosion ripped apart the left engine. The pilot instantly lost control. The aircraft plunged to the ground. Bose’s companion Colonel Rahman survived the crash – and was able to give a detailed account of this gruesome sequence of events. The Mitsubishi broke into two and caught fire. Both the pilot and General Shedhai died instantly. Rahman, sitting close to Bose, was knocked unconscious. When Rahman came round, he saw that Bose had suffered serious head injuries but had stood up and was trying to get out of the aircraft. Baggage blocked the way. Bose was drenched in aircraft fuel – and as he struggled his clothing became a roaring inferno. Rahman tried desperately to douse the flames but Bose, badly injured already, was horribly burnt. He collapsed, his hair on fire, his face contorted in agony.
Many admirers of Bose believe, even today, that 'Netaji' survived the crash and lived on - perhaps as a prisoner in the Soviet Union or as an itinerant Sadu in India. There have been frequent 'Elvis like' sightings of the lost leader. But there can be no doubt that Bose died in Taipei. In the Indian Office collections of the British Library, we can read statements made by Captain Taneyoshi Yoshimi, a medical officer in Japanese Imperial Army who was later questioned in Stanley Goal, Hong Kong:
‘When he was laid on the bed, I personally cleaned his injuries with oils and dressed them. He was suffering from extensive burns over the whole of his body… During the first four hours, he was semi conscious, and practically normal speaking quite a good deal. The first words I remember his speaking were in Japanese, when he made a request for water. After the fourth hour, he appeared to be sinking into unconsciousness. He murmured and muttered in his state of coma but never regained consciousness. At about 2300 hours he died. There was, apart from the injuries mentioned above, abrasions on his elbows and knees. There were no fractures…’
Cremation took place immediately. Yoshimi issued a death certificate which cited ‘Extensive burning and shock’ as cause of death. Japanese army representatives arrived bringing mourning flowers, fruits and cakes.
On 5 September, when Rahman had recovered, he accompanied Bose’s ashes to Tokyo – here they were interred at the Renkoji temple by a Buddhist priest. Gandhi on hearing the news said that ‘Subhas Bose died well. He was undoubtedly a patriot though misguided.’ It is hard not to agree with the second point – but by ‘died well’ the Mahatma might have been hinting that it was just as well that his old rival was longer in a position to plan for a second political coming as the British prepared to hand over the Jewel in the Crown.