Enter the Renkoji Temple and you find a tiny urn that holds a huge controversy. Two commissions from India have examined the ashes it contains to determine whether or not they are the last remains of Bose. A third commission is on its way. But while India discusses, ad nauseam, whether Bose is still alive or not, these Japanese patriots struggle to keep his memories alive.
More than five decades back it was quite another story. Bose is generally believed to have first arrived in Tokyo in May 1943, after a German submarine carrying him made a daring rendezvous with its Japanese counterpart, 400 miles southwest of Madagascar. In what is reported to be the only submarine-to-submarine transfer of passengers in World War II, Netaji was transferred to the Japanese submarine and brought to Japan. By then, the Indian National Army (and also the Indian Independence League which the other revolutionary, Rash Behari Bose, had earlier formed), was faltering, outlining the need for Netaji's leadership. At a public meeting in Singapore later that year, Rash Behari formally handed over the leadership of the iil and the ina to Bose.
In the months that followed, Netaji aligned himself with the Japanese army and toured East Asian and Southeast Asian countries to enlist moral and monetary support for his army of three million, composed of Indian pows and civilian volunteers. In early 1944, the ina First Division and its civil and military headquarters moved to Rangoon, Burma.
Today, a retired colonel leads the old war veterans who worked with Bose. Eighty-nine-year-old Hayashi heads the Tokyo-based Subhash Chandra Bose Academy that was formed in 1945 to keep Netaji's memories alive and to send his "ashes" back to India. Afflicted by asthma and arthritis, and a pacemaker implant, Hayashi is almost inaudible. But ask him to recount the war and his eyes light up, even as his sentences run into each other.
It was Hayashi's advice to carry out the Imphal mission as early as 1942, close on the heels of the Japanese conquest of Burma. The British were then unprepared for a Japanese assault. Imphal's capture could also rob them of the best base for launching a counter-offensive against Burma. But the plan was delayed for two years, and when Japanese and ina forces invaded Imphal, they were overrun by the British. "We had no food, we had no guns, and the jungles were hostile," recalls Hayashi. According to one historical account, only 1,30,000 of the original 2,20,000 Japanese troops survived the tragic Imphal defeat; ina casualties were over 50 per cent. Bose supporters say that had Imphal been captured earlier, history would have run a different course; there would probably have been no partition, and no Pakistan.
Major Takeshi Kuwabara, now 82, was only 26 when he was stationed in Rangoon. Knitting his eyebrows in an effort to recall those days, he says: "I was so junior, I couldn't talk directly to Netaji.
Sometimes his speeches lasted for more than an hour. It used to be very hot and soldiers would keep fainting. Yet people stood patiently for Netaji to finish. The Indian soldiers and commanders thought Netaji was God. I couldn't understand the words of his speech, but I could get the feel. One time, during his speech, the enemy planes flew overhead and started shooting. The people ran into the fields in a panic, but Netaji, he just walked slowly and I copied him. He looked so great."
It's these last survivors of the period who come together at the memorial to relive the wartime and piece together, with tattered memories, their accounts of Bose. Captain Fuji, 85, worked with the ina and the iil as a member of the F-Party, a Japanese intelligence organisation; Dr Aoyagi, a bespectacled, white-haired 89-year-old, provided hygiene material to the early ina troops; S. Okuda, 79, the youngest member of the academy, fought beside Indian soldiers on India's northeastern frontier as a member of the Hikari Kikan, the Japanese liaison organisation with the ina that succeeded the F-Party.
Hayashi, at 89, is still a man waiting to complete his final mission: sending his leader's "ashes" home. "I will die soon," he says. "Who'll remember Netaji then? I want to take his ashes to India. If the government agrees to accept them, I will take them myself. If I die during the journey, never mind. My wife and my son have come to terms with the fact that there are only two things to my life: the army and Netaji."
His might not be an easy task. For, the circumstances of Bose's 'death' have always been contentious. He reportedly died on August 18, 1945, in an air crash in Taiwan. However, his older brother, Sharat Bose, declared that Netaji could not have died in that crash. The first inquiry commission of Shah Nawaz Khan, appointed in 1956, concluded that the ashes at Renkoji were of Bose. However, Bose's elder brother, who was a member of the commission, gave a dissenting view. In 1970, the Justice G.D. Khosla commission endorsed Khan's conclusion. And now the H.N. Mukherjee commission, appointed in May 1999, is again investigating the disappearance of Bose.
According to some historical accounts, a Japanese military officer brought the ashes to Tokyo. Japan had just surrendered and the political environment was too volatile to risk sending his ashes to India immediately. ina officials searched for a temporary place to store the ashes. "They asked other temples in the area, but they were turned away because the situation was so sensitive," says the Rev Mochizuki, head priest of the Renkoji Temple. His father, the late Rev Nichiki, agreed to keep the ashes till a permanent place was found for them. "My father accepted the ashes," says Mochizuki, "because he believed that when people pass away, they are all the same, only their spirit remains. I continue to look after the ashes, but it is not right to keep them here. They must go home."
The Indian embassy in Tokyo frequently sends its representatives to the memorial service. But a visceral resistance to accepting the death of Bose, as well as a strong strain of Nehru loyalism in India, have thwarted the academy's efforts to return the ashes. "When your leaders are in Japan, they seem to understand our urgency to return the ashes," says 50-year-old Ban Takezumi. "But once they go back to India, there is no news from them. India should be more interested, after all, he is your leader, not ours."
Of all the old men who once knew Bose, 92-year-old Shizuo Maruyama is the only one who wasn't in the military. A wizened man, with lively eyes trapped behind thick spectacles, he was once a reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's second-largest national newspaper. It was Maruyama who wrote about how an Indian businessman approached Bose at the Saigon airport, before he was to fly over to Taiwan, and requested him to receive jewellery and money gifted by two million Indians living in East Asia.
"It was a carriage-full of treasures," recalls Maruyama. "It was so heavy that the plane, which was rather old, couldn't take off. Bose made a parcel of the most valued things. When the plane crashed, girl students of Taipei salvaged the jewellery and handed it over to the Indian associations there. Some of that money was used for the welfare of ina members after Bose's death."
Maruyama speaks very little to the others. "I was in Rangoon, right before the Imphal operation," he says. "Bose was standing tall and brave and smart. While the papers reported colourful stories about that day, the reality was very different. People were sad because they already knew the outcome of the war."
During the memorial service, Maruyama sits silently at the back of the room. The air in the prayer hall is thick with the scent of burning incense. One by one, everyone files up to pay tribute to Bose at the ornate altar, where his characteristic side-profile picture is propped between two candles. Bells clang, the priest chants, but other than that, there is absolute silence.
"Bose has been over-treated as a hero," Maruyama says. "Admittedly, he was a great figure to work for India's freedom. But his methods, how he tried to win his freedom, all that is problematic. He should have seen that we were losing, he should have rethought his strategy."
Maruyama's words strike a sobering note. "Some heroes are real, some heroes are created by an ideology," he says. "How we construct our history is a very serious issue. Do we have the courage to write about the real Bose and the real Japan?" That is what Maruyama is trying to do, as the only journalist to have accompanied the ina on its Imphal mission. His first book, Indo Kokumin Gun, was published in 1985. At present, he is writing his second book, re-examining the ina and exploring the fallout of World War II for the Japanese army and for the country's history. Most of the 18 other books in Japan about the ina are written by former army people.
Who will study Bose, write about him or speak of him after all these men are gone? He is fated to be forgotten because of his connection with Japanese leaders like former prime minister Hideki Tojo, who was indicted as a war criminal by the Allied Forces war tribunal. It is a phase of its history Japan would rather not remember. And the core group of Japanese war veterans is dwindling fast. Which explains their sense of urgency about returning Bose's ashes during their ebbing lifetimes.
Most young people in Japan have never heard of Bose. And there aren't many of them at his memorial service. Mari Sekiguchi, a 39-year-old historian and part-time lecturer, learnt very little about Bose during her student days. "In the classroom, most stories were about Gandhi and Nehru. But when I visited Calcutta more than 10 years ago, I met people who'd ask me, because I'm Japanese, 'Do you know Subhash Chandra Bose? You are just like the daughter of Netaji.' Then I realised how important Bose was."
Similarly, Akira Ishikawa, 32, an assistant director at the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, was introduced to Bose history by friends in Calcutta. He now calls himself a "devotee of Bose". Fifty-year-old Takezumi, a deputy editor at Kyodo News, says she was fascinated when she learnt about how "we helped India's freedom movement". Sekiguchi says she hopes that more Japanese will learn about Bose as young historians re-read old material and reinterpret it.
After the memorial service, 85-year-old Fuji breaks into an old marching song that they once sang every morning on the Burma-India border, while hoisting the Indian flag. "Jayo ho, Jayo ho, challo Dilli pukar ke," he sings in a wildly wavering voice, inspiring his old army colleagues to join him. Soon they are all singing, their words mispronounced or half-forgotten, and slapping the table enthusiastically in a final Jai Hind.
The prayers for a leader whose life touched two countries draw to an end. And there is a shared sentiment that this might be the last memorial service for many of the old-timers. They depart with gusto, waving "Jai Hind" to each other. And for Hayashi, as long as there is a memorial of this sort, his life's dream will remain unfulfilled. "I have lost all hope from the Indian government," he says. He asks the same unanswered question again: "What will happen to these ashes when I die?"