January 13, 2015, 9:25 PM IST

Situated at one corner of the USSR, in Siberia is Yakutsk, the coldest city in the earth. 6000 kms away from Moscow, nature is at its harshest in Yakutsk what with temperatures plunging to 50 degrees below freezing point in winters. Here people can’t spectacles: when you want to take it off, flesh will come off. In the mid -1920s, barely a few years after the Russian revolution, gold and platinum were discovered here. The autocratic government of USSR led by Stalin wanted to mine these minerals to fund the five year plans to develop the country. But who would work in this harsh terrain that was not even connected to the rest of USSR by roads? The cruel Stalin soon came up with a plan: political dissidents from the republics of USSR like Ukraine and other parts who were resisting (or perceived to be resisting) the communist rule and ordinary criminals could be send to Yakutsk and forcibly made to work in mines and for building roads as conscripts. The system was refined within a few years and between 1940 – 1950, there were an estimated 80,000 to 200,000 prisoners deployed in Siberia. They lived in gulags or labor camps and made to work under harsh conditions for up-to 14 hours a day. These gulags were built across the river Lena which flows in Siberia. Many died due to exhaustion, exposure and malnourishment and thousands were shot dead for not working hard enough. The total number of deaths could be half a million. The harshness of the conditions is best described in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago which own global acclaim. The book is based on Solzhenitsyn’s experience –he was a prisoner for eleven years- and the testimony of 200 survivors.

Leading out of Yakutsk is the Kolyma highway that was built at the instance of Stalin. Prisoners built this road and the Gulag conscripts who died were interred into the fabric of the highway. For this reason the highway is called the Road of Bones.  Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose could be one conscript who lies buried here.

That Netaji had been sent to Siberia is now suspected by many who have investigated the disappearance of the leader. But the most damning evidence came from Dr Satyanarayan Sinha, a foreign language including Russian language expert who was also an MP for one term.  A Russian intelligence officer called Kozlov who had been a Soviet agent in Calcutta and knew Subhas Chandra Bose told Sinha that the Indian leader was lodged in Cell number 45 of Yakutsk prison. Kozlov told Sinha in 1954 and once before that he had seen Netaji there. Kozlov served sometime in Yakutsk before he was rehabilitated again. Sinha also said that he had met another agent Karl Leonard in Leipzig in Germany in 1950 who said that he had heard that the Indian leader Bose was serving time in Siberia. Sinha knew Nehru well and had been sent by him for some assignments in Eastern Europe in the late 1940s.

To prove his point Sinha who is now deceased testified- on oath- before the G D Khosla commission of inquiry set up to probe Netaji’s disappearance and made these revelations. But the commission did not take cognizance of these details. Sinha had also told the commission that he had mentioned the facts to none less than Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru himself in 1951 but Nehru said that this was American propaganda and brushed him aside. He had reported the matter to S Radhakrishnan, Indian ambassador to USSR and later President of India and he too did not pay attention to Sinha. The M K Mukherjee commission of inquiry which was set up during the NDA government found it strange that the Khosla committee did not follow up on the leads provided by Sinha. The first commission of inquiry the Shah Nawaz Commission was set up in 1956 and Sinha said that he was persuaded not to testify before it.

The Shah Nawaz Commission (set up by Nehru) and the Khosla committee (set up by Indira Gandhi) concluded that Netaji died on 18 August 1945 after the Japanese military bomber that was carrying him to Tokyo from Singapore crashed at Taipei in Taiwan due to overloading. Netaji received third degree burns and died while being treated. He was cremated and after a Buddhist memorial service his ashes were carried to Tokyo where they were kept in Renkoji temple. The ashes are still there. But this version was disputed by Suresh Chandra Bose, the brother of Netaji and also a member of the Shah Nawaz Commission. The M K Mukherjee commission (set by NDA government following a court order) found that no air-crash ever happened at Taipei that day. The Mukherjee commission used the information provided to him by the Taiwanese government.

So what really happened? It seems that with the war coming to an end in August 1945 and the Japanese surrender imminent, Netaji did not want to remain in the Japanese camp. He realized that if the allied forces arrested him they would try him as a war criminal and probably hang him. This apprehension was not wrong because the Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo was tried and hanged for war crimes. Instead Netaji faked his death hoping to get the allied forces – the British and Americans off his back. At the same time he entered into Manchuria that was part of China then but under Japanese control. Though Japan had surrendered, in those days of slow communications, the Japanese had not evacuated from Manchuria. From Manchuria, the trail of Netaji is lost. But British intelligence in 1946, a year after his supposed death was speculating that he had possibly entered USSR.

Nobody knows precisely how Netaji landed in Siberia. It is possible that the Soviets first kept Netaji in a safe house trying to figure out what to do with him. There was probably pressure on USSR – it was also part of the Allied forces to try him. A close relative of Netaji who does not want to go on quote right now speculates that it was on Stalin to take a final call. The Cold War era was beginning and Stalin wanted to expand the sphere of influence of USSR to India. This was to keep India abroad from the orbit of USA. China already had good relations with USSR. It had been a Great Russian dream since the times of the Czar to get to the warm water ports of Asia. A friendly India would serve this purpose. Nehru was sufficiently friendly to USSR and according this close relative of Netaji had also written glowingly about USSR after visiting the country in 1927 and how the country was transforming itself. So Stalin decided to back Nehru and to ensure that he had no competition, packed off Netaji to the Gulags of Yakutsk. Unused to the harsh life of Siberia, Netaji died a few years later. Stalin died in March 1953. Netaji’s death possibly preceded his.

Since the revelation of these facts would lead to a lot of angst in India, successive governments of India have been trying to put a lid on the controversy by suggesting that Netaji died in the air crash that never was. This is the reason why files relating to Netaji –many in the Prime Minister’s office and many in the external affairs ministry – are not being declassified by the government. In fact the government always says that revelation of the contents of the file will adversely affect India’s relations with a friendly country. But with a majority BJP government now in place: things might change. At least that is what Subramanian Swamy –who a few days ago asserted that Netaji had been killed by Stalin, promises.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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