Revealed: The secret files which show Nehru was told of Netaji’s missing war chest
New Delhu: Locked away in the vaults of South Block and protected by the Official Secrets Act for over half a century, are revelations of one of India’s earliest scandals.
Hundreds of yellowing documents that raise serious suspicions about cash, gold and jewellery that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose collected to finance his armed struggle for Independence are being siphoned away.
One of the 37 secret ‘Netaji files’ in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) deals with the ‘INA Treasure’.
Built over the years with secret reports, letters and frantic telegrams, it deals with a story of suspected rank greed and opportunism which overcame Indian freedom fighters as they looted the treasury of the collapsed Provisional Government of Azad Hind (PGAH).
This suspected loot took place soon after Bose’s demise in a plane crash in 1945. But the startling twist is not about the missing Indian National Army (INA) treasure worth several hundred crores of rupees today. It is that the government of the day knew about it, but did nothing.
Classified papers obtained by India Today reveal that the Nehru government ignored repeated warnings from three mission heads in Tokyo between 1947 and 1953.
R D Sathe, an under secretary (later foreign secretary) in the MEA, wrote a stark warning to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, also the foreign minister, in 1951 that a bulk of the treasure – gold ornaments and precious stones – had been left behind by Bose in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam. This treasure, Sathe concluded, had already been disposed of by the suspected conspirators.
All these warnings were ignored. No inquiry was ordered. Worse, one of the former INA men these diplomats suspected of embezzlement was rewarded with a government sinecure.
These explosive revelations are contained in 37-odd files which the PMO has refused to declassify for over a decade. The government line, that no public interest was served by declassification, now strains credulity: declassified papers in the National Archives show that the Nehru government initiated snooping on the Bose family and it lasted for two decades from 1947 to 1968.
On April 13, Surya Kumar Bose, Netaji’s grandnephew met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Berlin just three days after an India Today exposé revealed this snooping.
On January 29, 1945, Indian residents of Rangoon, the capital of Japanese- occupied-Burma, held a grand week-long ceremony. It was the 48th birthday of Netaji, the head of the provisional government of the Azad Hind. Netaji was weighted against gold, “somewhat to his distaste”, Hugh Toye notes in his biography The Springing Tiger: The Indian National Army and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
Over Rs 2 crore worth of donations were collected that week, including more than 80 kg of gold. Netaji had raised the largest war chest by any Indian leader in the 20th century. But by 1945, this was to no avail as the Japanese army and the INA crumpled in the face of a resurgent Allied thrust into Burma. Netaji retreated to Bangkok on April 24, 1945, carrying with him the treasury of the provisional government.
There are conflicting accounts on how much gold he took. Dinanath, chairman of the Azad Hind Bank interrogated by British intelligence soon after the war, said Netaji left with 63.5 kg of gold.
On August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered to the Allied Powers. The 40,000-strong INA also surrendered to the Allied forces in Burma, their officers marched off to the Red Fort to face trial for treason. On August 18, Netaji, along with his aide Habibur Rahman, boarded a Japanese bomber in Saigon bound for Manchuria, where he would attempt to enter the Soviet Union.
Habibur Rahman recounted the last hours of Netaji before the Shah Nawaz Committee in 1956. Netaji had been injured in the plane crash and died in a Japanese army hospital six hours after the crash. Also destroyed in the aircraft were two leather attachés, each 18 inches long, packed with INA gold. Japanese armymen posted at the airbase gathered around 11 kg of the remnants of the treasure, sealed them in a petrol can and transported it to the Imperial Japanese Army headquarters in Tokyo. A second box held the remains of Netaji’s body that had been cremated in a local crematorium in Taiwan.
Where was the rest of Netaji’s war chest? It beggared belief that over 63.5 kg of treasure could have turned into an 11 kg lump of charred jewellery. An 18-page secret note, prepared for the Morarji Desai government in 1978, quotes Netaji’s personal valet Kundan Singh as saying that the treasure was in “four steel cases”.
A leader of the IIL in Bangkok, Pandit Raghunath Sharma, said that Netaji took with him gold and valuables worth over Rs 1 crore. There was clearly much more of the treasure than the two leather suitcases burnt in the airplane crash.
One man who knew this was S.A. Ayer, a former journalist- turned-publicity minister in the Azad Hind government. Ayer was with Netaji during his last few days. On August 22, 1945, he flew from Saigon to Tokyo and joined M. Rama Murti, former president of the IIL in Tokyo, to receive two boxes from the Japanese army. Murti kept the treasure.
On August 25, 1946, Lt-Colonel John Figgess, a military counter-intelligence officer posted in the headquarters of the Supreme Allied Commander, Southeast Asia, submitted a report to his superior Lord Louis Mountbatten. Figgess concluded that Netaji had indeed died in the plane crash in Formosa (now Taiwan).
On December 4, 1947, Sir Benegal Rama Rau, the first head of the Indian liaison mission in Tokyo, made a startling allegation. In a letter written to the MEA, Rau alleged that Murti had embezzled IIL funds and misappropriated the valuables carried by Netaji. The formal reply that the president of the Indian Association in Tokyo got from the mission was that the Indian government could not interest itself in the INA funds.
The government became interested in the INA treasure only four years later, in May 1951, when diplomat, K.K. Chettur, headed the Indian liaison mission in Tokyo – as India was yet to establish full-fledged diplomatic relations with Japan. Chettur noted with dismay the return of Ayer. He was now a director of publicity with the government of Bombay state. Now, seven years later, Ayer was going back to Tokyo on what he claimed was a holiday but actually with a secret agenda.
In a series of back-and-forth cables to the foreign office in New Delhi, Chettur also made the first mention of a phrase “INA treasure”. Ayer told Chettur in Tokyo that he had been entrusted with twin tasks by the government of India: to verify whether the ashes kept in the Renkoji temple were those of Netaji and to retrieve the gold jewellery that had been recovered from the crashed aircraft.
In a secret dispatch to the MEA, Chettur said that local Indians were “seething with anger at the return of Ayer and his association with these two brothers (the Murthys)” because “both Ramamurthy and Ayer had something to do with the mysterious disappearance of the gold and jewellery collected by Netaji”. But Ayer had already pulled a rabbit out of his hat. He informed Chettur that part of the INA treasure had survived and had been in Rama Murti’s custody since 1945.
In October 1951, the Indian embassy collected the remnants of the INA treasure from Rama Murti’s residence. Ambassador Chettur still disbelieved the Ayer-Rama Murti story. Chettur believed that Ayer had come to Tokyo to “divide the loot and salve his and Shri Ram Murthy’s conscience by handing over a small quantity to the government, in the hope that by doing so, he would also succeed in drawing a red herring across the trail”.
In one of his final communications to New Delhi on June 22, 1951, Chettur offered to probe the disappearance of the “Netaji collections”. The first comprehensive warning of foul play in the INA treasure followed just months later. It was a two-page secret note authored by R.D. Sathe on November 1, 1951.
“INA Treasures and their handling by Messrs Iyer and Ramamurthi” summed up the story: considerable quantities of gold and treasures were given to the late Subhas Chandra Bose by Indians in the Far East as part of their war effort; all that was left of it was 11 kg of gold and 3 kg of gold mixed with molten iron and 300 grams of gold brought by Ayer from Saigon to Tokyo in 1945.
Rama Murti had been questioned several times by Indian officials but had denied the existence of the treasure. Ayer’s activities in Japan were suspicious, Sathe said. Sathe pointed at Ayer’s movements from Saigon to Tokyo, an eyewitness who claimed to have seen the boxes in his room.
Sathe also flagged a relationship that had baffled most Indians in Japan. Rama Murti’s proximity to British intelligence officer Lt-Col Figgess. He was now posted as a British liaison officer at General Douglas MacArthur’s occupation headquarters in Tokyo. What was the glue that held Colonel Figgess and his erstwhile INA foes together? Sathe’s letter has one conjecture.
“Suspicion regarding the improper disposal of the treasure is thickened by the comparative affluence in 1946 of Mr Ramamurthy when all other Indian nationals in Tokyo were suffering the greatest hardships. Another fact which suggests that the treasures were improperly disposed of is the sudden blossoming out into an Oriental curio expert of Col Figges, the Military Attaché of the British Mission in Tokyo and the reported invitation extended by the Colonel to Ramamurthy to settle down in UK.”
This note was signed by Jawaharlal Nehru on November 5, 1951.
“PM has seen this note. This may be placed on the relevant file,” then foreign secretary Subimal Dutt signed off on it.
Conclusive evidence that Netaji had died in the air crash could help silence government critics. This evidence came from Ayer. On September 26, 1951, Nehru wrote to Foreign Secretary Dutt that Ayer had met him with an inquiry report. Ayer, Nehru wrote, “was dead sure that there was no doubt at all about Shri Subhas Chandra Bose’s death on the occasion”.
It now turns out that Chettur’s suspicions were correct. Ayer was on a covert mission for the government. In 1952, Nehru quoted from Ayer’s report in Parliament affirming that Netaji had indeed died in an air crash in Taipei.
The INA treasure, or what was left of it, was secretly brought into India from Japan. It was inspected by Nehru who called it a “poor show”. There was a brief debate within his cabinet on what to do with it. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the education minister, suggested the gold be given to Netaji’s family. Nehru overruled the suggestion. The jewellery was sealed and consigned to the vaults of the National Museum in Delhi.
The following year, Ayer was appointed adviser, integrated publicity programme, for Nehru’s Five Year Plan. The case was closed. Or was it? The warnings from the Indian mission in Japan continued to pour in.
In 1955, A.K. Dar, the ambassador in Tokyo, made another explosive accusation. In a four-page secret note sent to South Block, Dar again demanded a public inquiry which if it would not get back the treasure would at least determine who the likely culprits were and who did away with it.
In a November 1952 letter signed by B.N. Kaul, principal private secretary to the PM, Nehru directed the Central Board of Revenue not to refund Rs 28 lakh recovered from five INA special forces men who had landed on the Orissa coast in a Japanese submarine in 1944. They were arrested by the British and the money, meant for subversive operations in India, confiscated from them.
Nehru’s silence on the fate of the INA treasure is baffling, especially since the Shah Nawaz Committee set up by him to probe Netaji’s disappearance in 1956 also recommended an inquiry into the fate of it. It was impossible to conclude what had happened to the treasure, the committee noted and called an inquiry into all the assets of Netaji’s government.
That the revelations within the ‘INA Treasure’ file is a ticking time bomb has been known to the government. In 2006, the government declassified one INA treasure file from the sensitive ‘Not To Go Out’ section of the PMO. File 23(11)/56-57 now placed in the National Archives is, however, scrubbed of any references to the angry reports from diplomats Chettur, Sathe and Dar. The file only speaks of the 11 kg of gold that survived the air crash, now in the National Museum.
The declassification ball is now clearly in the government’s court.
“It is necessary for the people of India to know the truth,” Netaji’s grandnephew Surya Kumar Bose told India Today.
“Whether it is good or bad for Netaji, we don’t know. But the truth must emerge.”.
Sandeep Unnithan, Mail Today, (with inputs from Kavitha Muralidharan)