Sunday, May 28, 2023

Netaji Wasn't 'India's First PM', He Was The Second. And He Was No 'Hindu PM'

Netaji Wasn't 'India's First PM', He Was The Second. And He Was No 'Hindu PM'

Azad Hind was not India’s first provisional government. The credit for establishing that – formally known as the ''Hukumat-i-Moktar-i-Hind" – in Kabul on 1st Dec, 1915, goes to Raja Mahendra Pratap and Maulana Barkatullah.

Netaji proclaims the Provisional Government of Free India. 21st October, 1943, Singapore. Photo Courtesy: Prof. Sugata Bose, Netaji Research Bureau, Kolkata

A recent claim that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose had been India’s first prime minister leads to some obvious questions – Is the claim authentic ? If yes, which government did he lead? Were there other pre-1947 governments?

The Provisional Government of Free India

The answer to the second question is, of course, well known. On 21st October, 1943, at the Cathay Theater in Singapore, Netaji did proclaim the establishment of the Arzi Hukumat-e-Azad Hind (The Provisional Government of Free India) and, three days later, declared war on the British Empire and the USA.  The broad details of the efforts by this provisional government and its military wing, the Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army, INA), in the last stage of the anti-colonial struggle remain one of India’s most admired facts. It has been officially commemorated in the original volume of the Constitution , by release of stamps and by the recent raising of the tricolor on its 75thanniversary. It is reverentially recalled by millions of citizens to this day.

However, what has remained unknown to most Indians - in spite of three prominent biographies of Bose, the memoirs of  INA veterans and the scholarly books by professional historians - are some of the interesting details of the Azad Hind government. A detailed presentation is out of the scope of this article. Nevertheless, even a tabulated approach to the major features of the provisional government –  the flag, the emblem, the choice of words and language, the cabinet composition –  clearly demonstrate the pluralist ideals of Bose and how he had envisioned a united and non-sectarian Indian government.

National Flag:

Tricolour, with the Gandhian charka in the centre


Itmad-Ittefaq-Kurbani (Urdu: Faith-Unity-Sacrifice)

Slogan/ Greeting:

Jai Hind

INA Insignia: 

'Springing Tiger' of Tipu Sultan, in the centre of  the Tricolour


Sab Sukh Chain (simple Hindustani translation of the 'Jana Gana Mana')


Hindustani (Hindi-Urdu mixture in Roman script). Tamil and English were also used in official declarations. (The official newspaper, named the ‘Azad Hind’, was published in Hindustani, Gujarati, Malayalam, Tamil and English)



National Bank of Azad Hind


Azad Hind Fauj. 45-50000 soldiers at its height. Three divisions (including the famed Gandhi, Nehru and Azad Brigades and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment - all of whom saw action in the Burma and Imphal campaigns of 1944-45); five more divisions in various stages of planning and training.


Gallantry medals

Sher-e-Hind, Sardar-e-Jung



Cabinet members


Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose

Head of State, Prime Minister, Minister of War and

Foreign Affairs

Lt. Col. AC Chatterjee (later N. Raghavan)

Minister of Finance

Dr. Lakshmi Swaminathan

 Minister of women's affairs


AM Sahay

 Secretary with ministerial rank


SA Ayer


Minister of publicity and propaganda

Rash Behari Bose

Supreme Advisor

Karim Giani, Debnath Das, John Thivy, Sardar Ishar Singh,

DM Khan, M Yellappa

Advisors from Burma, Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore


Lt. Col. JK Bhonsle, Lt. Col. Gulzara Singh, Lt. Col. ShahNawaz Khan, Lt. Col. Aziz Ahmed,

Lt. Col. MZ Kiani , Lt. Col. NS Bhagat , Lt. Col. Ehsan Qadir ,

Lt. Col. AC Loganathan


Representatives of the INA

AN Sarkar

Legal Advisor


International Recognition

Axis Powers and satellite states, Burma, Thailand, congratulatory note from Ireland.



It is impossible not to note the pan-India inclusive ideals of the Azad Hind. Of course, it was not exactly new from Bose. From his earliest days as a young lieutenant of Chittaranjan Das, he had shown concern for recognizing the aspirations of various Indian communities. In the 1920s-30s, he had always resisted the imposition of one community over the other, much to the anger of communal organizations. And, now with the Provisional Government under his command, Bose's plans for 'inclusive patriotism' would  include a) the Tricolour and Charka - a flag that freedom-fighters had identified with for two decades, b) the reliance on 'old' Hindustani in the names and motto, rather contrasting to the present re-naming, c) veteran Rash Behari Bose, as representative of the old armed-revolutionary order, d) brigades named after Gandhi, Nehru and Azad - the three top-notch leaders of the struggle at home, e) the anti-British symbolism of Tipu Sultan and Rani of Jhansi  and f)  the use of both North and South Indian languages in correspondence (the idea of using the Roman script must have been an influence of Turkey's founding father  Kemal Ataturk, whom Bose had admired and hoped to emulate !) . 

In addition to symbolism, Bose would put to test his idea of 'cultural proximity and exchange', even in the smallest unit of his army. He had attempted this in the small 'Indian Legion' in Germany and would scale it up in the INA. And, the results are best reflected in the memoirs of Abid Hassan, '' Baluchis were there among us, and Assamese, Kashmiris and Malayalis, Pathans and Sikhs and Gujeratis,..... Every region in India was represented and every religion and every caste, mixed inseparably together not only in bigger formations but even in small platoons and sections, each unit being a living tribute to the unity of India. We had our different private faiths and we had our different languages, but in our purpose and in our political belief we were a well-knit, determined and indivisible whole". Of course, in these ideals, Bosewas not very different from  agnostics like Nehru and declared-atheists like Bhagat Singh. What set him apart was he did this while  remaining a theist (devoted to the 'Mother Goddess') all his life . But, as his deputy SA Ayer noted, ' He never even once spoke his God in public.....He lived  him” [Sugata Bose, His Majesty's Opponent].


The 'first' Indian government

Interestingly, Azad Hind was not India’s first provisional government either. The credit for establishing that – formally known as the ''Hukumat-i-Moktar-i-Hind" – in Kabul on 1st Dec, 1915,  goes to Raja Mahendra Pratap and Maulana Barkatullah who served as its President and Prime Minister respectively. Others members included Ubaid al Sindhi as Minister for India,  Maulavi Bashir as War Minister and Champakaran Pillai as Foreign Minister. Its purpose was to enroll support from the Afghan Emir as well as Tsarist (and later Bolshevik) Russia, Turkey and Japan for the Indian freedom struggle.

The prime mover of this (forgotten) enterprise was Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh (1886 – 1979) prince of the native state of Hatras and alumnus of the Aligarh Muslim University (where his portrait adorns the library wall). An uncompromising man, Mahendra Pratap travelled far and wide for enlisting support for India’s freedom.  He met the German Kaiser Wilhelm II in Berlin, travelled to Istanbul to contact the Ottomans and had discussions with both Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin in Moscow. In Afghanistan, he negotiated the support of the anti-British sections of Afghan elite who helped in recruiting an Afridi tribe-based force that hoped to attack British India from the North-West. In this, he was assisted by Maulana Barkatullah, a founder of the Gadar Party, whose rousing articles in the newspapers were widely appreciated. Resistance from the pro-British Afghans and the changing course of war blockaded it and finally, in 1919, British diplomacy succeeded in shutting down the provisional government. Overall, the effort can be considered part of the global efforts by Bagha Jatin, Rashbehari Bose, Lala Hardyal, Sachin Sanyal, Bhupendranath Dutt, Kartar Singh Sarabha and others of the Gadar Party, the Jugantar, and the Berlin ‘Aid-India’ committee to take advantage of WWI to uproot British rule. In their approach –although not in scale or success – they can be considered to be strategic predecessors of Bose.

[Pratap - a true internationalist - escaped to Japan and continued his travels through China, Mongolia and South Asia. A sincere believer in universal fraternity, he addressed himself as 'servant of mankind' , founded the 'World Federation Center' in Tokyo and strove for a 'happiness society'. His efforts earned him a Nobel nomination in the 1930s. Nehru, who met him in Switzerland, has written, '' ... a Don Quixote who had strayed into the twentieth century. But he was absolutely straight and thoroughly earnest''. Although settled in Japan in the 1940s, Pratap could never bring himself to accept Japan's imperialist arrogance and stayed away from the Azad Hind. He returned to India in 1946, composed his enjoyable (although rather haphazard) memoirs and won the 1957 Lok Sabha seat from Mathura defeating Jan Sangh's AB Vajpayee.  It is a pity that he has been all but forgotten today] .

‘Who is first? Who is greater?’

The portfolios in the 1915 and 1943 cabinets should make us return to the first question. The facts are – i) Netaji did hold four portfolios, including prime minister in 1943, ii) Mahendra Pratap and Burkatullah held the premier posts in 1915.

But, the noteworthy point is that both were PROVISIONAL governments. In fact, the title  – chosen carefully by Netaji himself – explicitly states that. It was a provisional/temporary government established outside the formal (and traditional) borders of India by people of Indian origin based outside India, to formally fight an armed struggle for the freedom of the motherland. It had no jurisdiction over Indian soil (except the Andaman and Nicobar islands which the Japanese nominally handed over), and Netaji himself stated that its role would come to an end once India had been liberated. Obviously, if the provisional government already had complete control over India then there would have been no need for a military expedition and its officers would not have faced trial at Red Fort in end-1945!

Today, such ‘Who is first? Who is greater?’ ponderings serve us little beyond pre-electoral crackers. Rather, they (deliberately?) help us to forget the ideals of those outstanding men and women who fought against the most tyrannical of all regimes. Rather than engaging in this favourite online quest for making 'angels and demons',  it’d be more appropriate to recall Netaji’s concluding words at the proclamation of the Azad Hind government – “….The Provisional Government is entitled to,  and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Indian. It guarantees religious liberty, as well as equal rights and equal opportunities to its citizens. It declares its firm resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation equally and transcending all the differences cunningly fostered by an alien government in the past.”

(Anirban Mitra is a molecular biologist and a teacher based in Kolkata. His interests include history of science and less-known aspects of India's freedom struggle.)