With no artillery or aircraft, the Indian National Army (INA) in the 1940s under the leadership of Subhas Chandra Bose was purely a guerrilla force. It fought innumerable successful battles against British and Commonwealth forces in Burma, Imphal and Kohima. This prompted the latter to furtively order a trial of captured troops of the INA at the Red Fort. The trials backfired. The humiliation of the soldiers — Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians — galvanised the Indians against their colonisers like never before. A puny guerrilla force integrated the Indian nationals to mark one of the highest points in the independence movement.
Decades later, in the winter of 2005, a Delhi-based group of youngsters with a similar unflinching belief in the vision of Bose formed the non-profit organisation ‘Mission Netaji’. Their aim was to bring to the public domain Bose’s idea of revolution by putting pressure on successive governments to declassify files relating to their leader. It was like a guerrilla warfare of the 21st Century, their zeal for truth and the Right to Information Act (RTI) being the only means to extract information from the government over one of the country’s severely botched up histories.
A weapon of civil liberty, the RTI has given the citizens the unfettered right to seek any kind of information they want on behalf of public interest. However, a more careful observation shows that certain provisions within the ambit of the Act ultimately give the government an upper hand in deciding whether or not to respond to the concerned petitions. In fact, the death of Netaji continues to remain shrouded in mystery even today because the governments since 2005, despite the enactment of the RTI, have not responded satisfactorily. It seems that the RTI is not the all-empowering tool it appears to be.
Known as the master file of all Bose files, file number 12(226)/56-PM which was related to the circumstances of his death was declared to have been destroyed in 1972 on the orders of PN Haksar, the private secretary of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, to apparently lessen the burden of the PMO record room which houses thousands of classified files.
Journalist-historian Anuj Dhar, however was aware that the file may not have been destroyed from the findings of the Justice Mukherjee Commission instituted in 1999 to look into Netaji’s disappearance. The Commission had come to know of a written communication sent by Indira to the then Jan Sangh MP Samar Guha which stated that only copies of the file have been destroyed and that the file is safe in the Cabinet Secretariat. Based on these findings, Dhar filed an RTI in August 2006 asking for a copy of the file that was lying with the Cabinet Secretariat, which denied possession of such files. Hence, no further proceedings could take place.
Dhar next knocked on the doors of the intelligence agencies, which report to the Prime Minister. In September 2006, he filed an RTI seeking a descriptive list of all records and materials on or related to Bose (classified and unclassified) held by the Research & Analyst Wing (R &AW). In early 2008, the Central Information Commission (CIC) came out with the ruling that under section 2 (h) of the RTI Act, bodies covered under it, referred to as ‘public authorities’ excludes from its ambit security and intelligence agencies. The CIC stated that it has no “jurisdiction to pass any orders/decisions in respect of disclosure of any information or files etc in possession of this organisation (R& AW) unless it is covered under… 24(1) which speaks of allegation or corruption and human rights violation (sic).” Talking to Tehelka about the restrictions in the Act that has come in the way of unravelling the mystery of Bose, one of the founder-members of Mission Netaji, Sreejith Panickar, says, “While the RTI Act has helped us force the government into releasing some secret files, the Act in its current form is nothing more than a blunt weapon in the hands of the aam aadmi. The Act should also bring within its scope intelligence records older than, say, 30 years.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pre-poll campaigns had stirred renewed vigour among the activists. One of the claims by Modi was that he would personally look into the matter and order immediate declassification of the files. He had even reiterated this in a meeting with the Bose family in Kolkata.
Just a few months back, Panickar filed an RTI with the PMO seeking a clarification on the procedure for declassification of sensitive files and the specific role of the Prime Minister, if any. The Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions to whom the application was forwarded by the PMO responded that the Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances is the nodal department for laying down the office procedure which is available in the Central Secretariat Manual of Office Procedures (CSMOP). Shockingly, this manual does not mention any discretionary powers vested in the Prime Minister to declassify records.
The limitations of the RTI have never deterred the Mission Netaji activists from probing deeper into Bose mystery. Back in 2006, activists Dhar and Chandrachur Ghose had jointly filed a petition with reference to a 1954 note, duly signed by MO Mathai (then private secretary of Nehru), that talked of disposing of ‘ashes and other remains of late Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’.