Subhas Chandra Bose has always been a topic of subterranean admiration—and debate. As a charismatic figure from our freedom movement, he had a pan-India following surpassed perhaps only by Gandhi. Children were named after him. The mystery around his disappearance and death did no harm to the hero worship, which extended well beyond Odisha, where he was born, or Bengal, where his family roots were. Or indeed, across religions. The man was stridently secular too—his view on the Mughals may not sync well with the contemporary mood, many of his lieutenants were Muslim, and his government-in-exile carried a cussedly Urdu/Farsi name.
What has happened now, on Bose’s 125th birth anniversary, is a formal iconisation of a people’s hero. The domineering symbolic space he has been accorded—replacing the forgotten Indian soldier—is something he himself may have had qualms over. The spatial significance of the placement cannot be ignored: Netaji, as he was fondly called, is now being installed at the very centre of the Indian republic. As expected, it has sparked a debate. Should an ‘eternal light’—a memorial to dead soldiers—be extinguished and merged with a more expansive National War Memorial? Does Netaji or any single individual deserve such a centrality of space?
Every democracy must renew itself from time to time. It must also be able to look critically at its icons—whether Gandhi, Nehru or Patel. Not all their words or actions can go without re-evaluation. In the same way, not all that Bose did is above critical review. Even when his valour and patriotic fervour is celebrated. The other day, Patel was elevated—literally above everybody—with a colossal statue. Now it’s a figure of militarism. A nation should doubtless recognise its heroes, but judge the asymmetry: a granite Bose will loom over a central vista where a Sree Narayana Guru, an ascetic reformer who sought to heal society from within, is not allowed in.