By Tanvi Dhulia Jan. 23, 2017
Tales of gold treasure have captured the human imagination for centuries. One such tale is that of the elusive treasure which belonged to the Indian National Army, led by Netaji.
Snake in a basket’ is what he called me,” Purabi Roy chuckles as she recalls her meeting with Col Hugh Toye, an officer of the British Military Intelligence Department during World War II.
Brought up on Bose folklore, Roy heard all about the alleged wealth amassed by the INA; how poor villagers and affluent Indians equally contributed to enrich the coffers of the freedom-fighting force. She got deeply involved with the mystery of the missing INA treasure when she headed an Indian research team, which went to Russia and Britain in the mid-1990s, to gain access to archived intelligence files that had been made accessible to the public. Roy, who spoke fluent Russian, was surprised with the one name that emerged repeatedly: Subhas Chandra Bose.
Since then, Roy has spent the last 18 years digging through hundreds of files in India, Britain, and Russia, trying to determine the fate of Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian National Army, and their purported wealth. Her quest led her to Toye in 1996.
Toye, whose responsibility during the war was to track down and arrest members of the INA, dodged her efforts to meet. Eventually however, he gave in. Post an amiable lunch, he asked her in earnest about where the INA money was. The question flummoxed Roy. According to reports in the Russian archives, Toye had been present at a landmark meeting in Singapore, in 1964, where Nehru, Mountbatten, and the Malayan Governor dealt with the INA wealth that had come into their hands. A frustrated Toye then told her in confidence that he had handed over ₹72,000 crore worth of money to Jawaharlal Nehru and Mountabatten himself, and after that, the trail ran cold. He wanted to know if it had ever come up in the Indian Parliament.
Roy didn’t have an answer. The subject of Jawaharlal Nehru’s exchange with Mountbatten had never been raised. In fact, a thick fog of myth and mystery surrounds the whole affair. Even the exact amount which was allegedly exchanged remains disputed. According to the book Netaji: Rediscovered, the riches came into Hugh Toye’s possession upon the assassination of A Yellapa, the branch manager of the Azad Hind Bank in Taunggyi, in present-day Myanmar, by British forces. The author of the book insists that Yellapa had been carrying ₹7 crore and 170 pounds of gold bars, which amount to a fraction of the fabled ₹72,000-crore figure.
From the mysterious Nazi gold train in Poland to the legend of El Dorado, countless people have been drawn to the promise of limitless wealth. Indian history is peppered with these kinds of myths. Tales of golden treasure have captured the human imagination for centuries. One such tale is that of the elusive treasure which belonged to the Indian National Army, led by Subhas Chandra Bose.
Conspiracy theories about Bose’s death and the fate of the treasure abound. Some allege that the plane crash in which Bose carried two leather cases full of gold in Taiwan was not where he met his end, yet others believe in his supposed second marriage to a woman of Czech origin, while a trail of information in the Russian files that state he was kept prisoner in the Soviet Gulag between 1945 and ’49. The fate of the treasure is equally obscure. Some indicate that it eventually landed up in the vaults of the National Museum, others say it sits patiently in Swiss vaults, and yet in 1978, when government officials unlocked a time capsule at the National Museum, they found among the 14 packages encased in the steel attaché a large collection of gold jewellery, mostly charred. The burnt jewellery revealed in 1978 indicates that the fatal plane crash occurred but where was the rest of it?
Roy was even told by Saraswati Rajamani, a former member of the Rani Jhansi brigade, that her family had donated an entire gold mine in Madurai to the movement.
Many hold the belief that two of Bose’s associates, Ayer and Ramamurthy, swindled these funds before handing it over to Indian officials. Ayer, according to some, was highly trusted by Bose and was even the publicity and funds manager of the force. Today, he is painted as a crooked personality who swiftly latched onto the Nehru bandwagon when things began to turn sour for the fauj. Others often scoff at the mention of the INA gold alone, saying that a large portion of the “treasure” consisted of agricultural land, including an entire sugar estate in Burma, all of which is currently under dispute.
The significance of this fortune is marked by the way in which it was amassed. Tremendous amounts of riches were donated by affluent Indians settled in South-East Asian countries, all for the cause of azaadi. In his book, Hugh Toye describes how Bose was weighed against gold on his 48th birthday. During the week-long celebrations, the INA received nearly ₹2-crore worth of donations and 80 kg of gold from Indians in Rangoon (now Yangon). Women lined up to present their personal jewellery and other valuables. In their minds, the struggle for freedom should not have to be fought with the money offered by the governments of Germany and Japan. Roy was even told by Saraswati Rajamani, a former member of the Rani Jhansi brigade, that her family had donated an entire gold mine in Madurai to the movement.
For Purabi Roy, it has been an impossible battle against silence and red tape. The release of her book, The Search for Netaji: New Findings, was almost completely suppressed by the left-leaning ruling government in West Bengal at the time. All those who have been looking for answers regarding the leader have been faced with a multitude of hurdles, most of which, she believes, have been placed there by those in power.
In her book, Purabi writes about her meeting with Toye as well as an archived report, which claimed that Jawaharlal Nehru and Mountbatten may have divided the sum between themselves. Thanks to her revelations, Toye was questioned by the Mukherjee Commission in early 2000, which is when he laughingly referred to her as “a snake in the basket”. Toye’s claims were never corroborated and even Roy admits how unbelievable this piece of information is. But then she also finds it strange why Nehru was never asked about the missing funds in parliament.
After 18 long years, Purabi Roy shows no signs of giving in. She continues to fight for more information to be released by the government, while participating enthusiastically in seminars that discuss new discoveries on the subject. Over the years, the man and the legend have become intertwined, making it even more difficult for people to become detached from the stories, and many archival files that could shed light on the issue remain classified. But the truth, Purabi believes, is still out there, waiting for someone to piece it together.