On December 23, 1912, an explosion rocked Delhi just as Lord Hardinge, the British viceroy of India, entered the new capital on the back of an elephant.
The bomb was meant to kill him, but instead it peppered Hardinge’s back with shrapnel, killed his attendant and cast a shadow over a day that was meant to mark the transition of India’s capital to Delhi from Kolkata.
The mastermind of the attack was Rash Behari Bose, a 26-year-old Bengali revolutionary who initially posed as a British loyalist while secretly working to overthrow colonial rule.
The attack failed, but it gave Bose the opportunity to show the hundreds of people in attendance – and the world – that some Indians were prepared to expel the British by force.
The British government made India part of its empire in 1858 after suppressing a bloody and nationwide uprising known as the Indian Rebellion or Indian Mutiny – a protest against the rule of the British East India Company, which operated on behalf of the Crown.
After the failed assassination attempt, Bose’s five comrades were captured and took the stand in the Delhi Conspiracy trial, with one imprisoned for life and four others executed.
With a bounty on his head, Bose managed to flee India in 1915 to Japan, where he became a significant activist, reportedly introduced one of the country’s most popular curries and laid the foundations for the Indian National Army.
Today, the names of prominent Indian freedom fighters such as Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru have found their place in world history, but few have heard of Rash Behari Bose.
Yet in Japan his story has become something of a legend.
Foundings of rebellion
Bose was born in a village in northeastern Bengal in 1886 and grew up amid the severe famines that struck India during British rule.
The country’s colonial leaders had started to commercialize farming, collecting land revenue and encouraging the export of “cash crops” that contributed to severe food shortages when other harvests failed.
At the time, the average life expectancy for ordinary Indians was about 25 years compared to 44 in the United Kingdom.
The disparities nurtured a nationalist movement which led to the formation of the Indian National Congress, a party for Indians interested in reform and greater political autonomy.
Bose also wanted a greater say in his own future and was prepared to take up arms to get it, according to Elizabeth Eston and Lexi Kawabe, the authors of “Rash Behari Bose: The father of the Indian National Army.”
After leaving school, he made unsuccessful attempts to join the Indian Army before landing a clerk’s job with the Forest Research Institute at Dehradun, in the northern state of Uttarakhand.
Bose had wanted a role that would allow him to give the impression of being a loyal British subject while he worked on dismantling British rule from the inside, according to Eston and Kawabe.
With the Forest Research Institute he was able to travel around India and used the opportunity to secretly forge anti-colonial revolutionary networks, they wrote.
For several years, India’s colonial rulers didn’t suspect a thing.
Bose was still in his teens in 1905 when the British partitioned Bengal into two new provinces, supposedly for administrative reasons, though it appeared to be split along religious lines.
Like other Bengali Hindu nationalists, Bose was incensed.
Bengal had been a key location for India’s anti-British opposition and Bengali Hindus saw the partition as a way for the British to weaken their power base. The move was largely supported by Muslims.
Nationalist protests erupted across Bengal. The non-violent camp sought to undermine British rule through economic boycotts, while a more ruthless cohort attempted to assassinate British officials, according to Joseph McQuade, author of “The New Asia of Rash Behari Bose: India, Japan, and the Limits of the International, 1912-1945.”
Bose fell into the latter camp. His attempted assassination of Hardinge triggered a massive manhunt, but his previous efforts to ingratiate himself with the British elite served him well, according to Eston and Kawabe.
He managed to stay under the radar until his links to the independence movement were revealed in 1913 by a police raid on a comrade, they wrote.
Investigators seized a briefcase he’d left at the property – his cover was blown.
The Lahore plot
Bose was on the run when he organized one of his most audacious plans.
After the assassination attempt against Lord Hardinge, Bose became well known among revolutionary circles in India. With the British distracted by World War I, he planned to spark a mutiny similar to the uprising of 1857 – when Indian soldiers serving under British rulers had rebelled, McQuade wrote.
Indian revolutionaries from America, Canada and Germany made their way to India in 1914 and contacted several army units across India and even in Singapore, with each agreeing to defect once called upon. The date for the start of the rebellion was set for February 21, 1915, in Lahore.
But as spies infiltrated the movement, the British started disarming Indian soldiers, wrote Eston and Kawabe.
Undeterred, Bose moved the start of the rebellion to February 19 – but the simultaneous plot was suppressed by counter-intelligence operations that saw many revolutionaries executed, imprisoned and exiled.
With the authorities on his heels and a bounty on his head, Bose decided he was no longer safe in India.
Disguising himself as a relative of the poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, Bose set sail for Japan from the Port of Kolkata on May 12, 1915.
He never went back.
Looking to Japan
As a British ally, Japan may seem like an odd safe haven for a Bengali freedom fighter fleeing British retribution.
But Japan had a long history of pro-Indian sentiment, dating back to India’s exportation of Buddhism to Japan via the Korean peninsula in the 6th century.
Centuries later, many freedom fighters were starting to look east.
Japan’s rapid industrialization and victory in 1905 over Russia in the Russo-Japanese war altered the balance of power in Asia and fueled nationalist movements in India and the Middle East, according to McQuade.
The unexpected rise of an Asian nation gave freedom fighters like Bose hope. They thought Japan, with the rest of Asia, would be able to challenge Western hegemony.
Western powers such as Britain, France and Portugal had gained control of vast swathes of territory across Asia and Africa while building up their empires as early as the 15th century.
Under the guise of trade missions, they exploited the natural resources found across those territories and sought to “bring civilization” to the people there. Between 1765 and 1938, Britain is estimated to have drained nearly $45 trillion from India in unfair trade and tax, according to economist Utsa Patnaik.
Even though Japan was a British ally between 1902 to 1923, it had kept its doors open to revolutionaries who wanted to end British rule in India.
At the time, Japan was emerging as a center for Pan Asianist ideology. The Pan Asianists wanted to rectify what they saw as an unjust international system. Some wanted to articulate the experiences of non-Western people. Others wanted to establish Japan’s leadership in Asia by pushing Western powers from the region.
Dodging British authorities
In Japan, Bose laid low.
The British embassy had hired a private Japanese detective agency to track him down, according to Eston and Kawabe.
He aimed to go to Shanghai to gather weapons to send back to revolutionaries in India, but in the meantime he hid in a house in Tokyo’s Azabu district. There, he discreetly met with Sun Yat-sen, the head of the revolutionary army of China, wrote Eston and Kawabe.
Sun was in exile in Tokyo after a failed armed uprising against the Qing government and wanted to rouse support from Japan for an armed revolution in China.
Sun introduced Bose to Mitsuru Toyama, an influential figure among Japanese political circles and the leader of Pan-Asianist group Gen’yosha, which was later deemed an ultra-nationalist organization and closed down by the American occupying forces after Japan’s defeat in World War II.
Toyama knew just the place to shelter Bose, Eston and Kawabe said.
The “Nakamuraya Salon,” as it was known among Tokyo locals and intelligentsia, was a bakery and cafe located in the bustling Shinjuku district.
Owners Aizo and Kokko Soma were a Christian couple with a deep interest in the arts, literature and other cultures. Toyama convinced them to shelter Bose from the British authorities in a small guesthouse in their backyard. He stayed there for four months and in subsequent years moved multiple times to avoid detection.
In 1918, to protect him from capture, Toyama encouraged Bose to marry Soma’s eldest daughter Toshiko.
According to Eston and Kawabe, the marriage was devised to ease Bose’s integration into Japanese society so he could keep fighting for Indian independence. It also made it easier for Bose to become a Japanese citizen in 1923.
The couple had two children before disaster struck.
The dream of a new world order
Toshiko died from pneumonia in 1925. She was 27 years old.
Bose threw himself into the independence movement to overcome his grief.
Eager to build cultural ties between Japan and India, he established and ran numerous associations such as the Indo-Japanese Friends Society and a hostel called “Villa Asians” for Asian students studying in Tokyo, which he managed until 1941, according to Eri Hotta, in “Pan-Asianism and Japan’s War 1931-1945.”
He published widely on India’s past, promoted ties between India and Japan, and seized every chance to advocate for a Pan-Asian union to strengthen the region.
Bose was becoming bolder with his public profile and was regularly featured in Japanese newspapers.
When Bose came to Japan, only educated Japanese knew about India, which back then was known as “Tenjiku,” meaning “land of heavens” in Japanese. People dubbed Bose “tenrai,” which means heavenly being, according to Kawabe.
All the while, the British kept an eye on him.
Fearful of his influence on a younger generation of Indians, the colonial British government made it difficult for Indian students to travel to Japan in the 1930s, according to McQuade.
They had good reason to be suspicious.
In 1931, Bose organized the first Indian Independence League in Japan, which aimed to attain the “independence of India by all possible means,” according to a declassified CIA document.
He enlisted Indian students to help and V. C Lingam, a student from Singapore – then Malaya – who chose to study in Japan, recounts traveling to Vietnam, Bangkok and Singapore to recruit locals for the organization for the independence from British colonial rule, according to the Japan Times.
“The league became bigger, and Bose became leader of the movement throughout East Asia,” Lingam told the Japan Times in 2007.
Two years later, Bose received funding to publish a journal called “The New Asia,” which was distributed in English and Japanese.
Though that journal was banned in India and didn’t mention Japanese aggression in China, Bose “urged the Japanese government to cooperate with the United States, China, and the Soviet Union in a move to eliminate British colonial control in Asia,” according to Cemil Aydin, a historian at the University of North Carolina-Chapel.
For Bose, Britain was the ultimate enemy – and a US-Japan conflict would only play in the country’s favor.
In the lead up to World War II, relations between England and Japan had soured considerably. By 1933, Japan had quit the League of Nations, the international diplomatic group set up after World War I to find peaceful resolutions.
The strained relations removed any incentive for the Japanese government to limit Bose’s political activities, according to McQuade.
In 1938, after Bose published “Indo no sakebi” (India’s cry) – which strongly denounced British rule in India – British authorities classified him as a Japanese agent intent on spreading terrorist propaganda.
By then, there was no way Japan was handing him over.
Trouble on the horizon
Japan was hit especially hard by the Great Depression of the 1930s as agricultural and textile prices fell.
Amid the economic downturn, some radicalized Pan-Asianists gained control of Japanese politics, and the idea that Japan could solve its economic problems through military conquests gradually gained currency.
During World War II, India’s independence was an integral part of the Japanese military government’s Pan-Asianist program. For example, in 1941 Major Iwaichi Fujiwara had established Fujiwara Kikan, a Japanese intelligence operations unit tasked with supporting independence movements in British India, Malaya and Netherlands East Indies.
But as Japan launched its ruthless campaign across the Asia-Pacific during Word War II, many prominent Indian freedom fighters like Ananda Mohan Sahay and Raja Mahendra Pratdap grew wary of the country and its colonization of the rest of Asia.
Bose, on the other hand, never spoke up – even after the country invaded China and the Korean peninsula, according to Takeshi Nakajima, author of “Bose of Nakamuraya: An Indian Revolutionary in Japan.”
“Though Bose felt conflicted by the gap between what Japan said it wanted to achieve for Asia and the reality, his friendships with the Japanese and citizenship made it impossible for him to dissent,” Nakajima said.
It wasn’t long before other Indians began to see him as a Japanese puppet and a collaborator with Japan’s militarist regime, argues Eri Hotta in her paper “Rash Behari Bose and his Japanese supporters.”
Regardless of how others viewed him, Bose was convinced the Japanese military could be used to liberate India. He kept up his efforts to mobilize supporters in Japan and across southeast Asia.
On February 15, 1942, British commanders in Singapore surrendered the British Empire’s forces, numbering more than 120,000 in Malaysia and Singapore, to the Japanese, in what became known as the largest military capitulation in British history.
It coincided with Japan’s campaign to persuade Indian prisoners of war in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore to fight alongside the Japanese for the liberation of India. After the battle over Singapore, Fujiwara asked Indian military officer Mohan Singh to form an Indian army from the captured Indian soldiers there.
In June of that same year, Bose chaired the Indian Independence Conference in Bangkok, sponsored by Japan. There, he was appointed to lead the Indian National Army (INA) and the tens of thousands of Indian prisoners Singh had recruited to fight alongside the Japanese. They planned to conquer the British in India.
It was Bose’s most high-profile role and one that seemed destined to ensure his name entered Indian folklore.
But it was not to be.
Today, another man named Bose is much more closely associated with the INA than Rash Behari.
Subhas Chandra Bose, a better-known nationalist in India, took over in 1943, after tensions arose between Singh and Behari Bose. Chandra Bose steadily built the Indian National Army’s ranks, convincing a greater number of Indian prisoners of war to fight for independence, according to the CIA document.
As Chandra Bose became a popular figure in Japan, Behari Bose’s health and presence at the forefront of the Indian independence movement started to fade.
Behari Bose died in 1945 just before India gained independence from British rule in 1947 – a victory he’d worked his whole life to achieve.
In India, there is now a tourism center dedicated to him in his birthplace. And in Japan, his legacy is immortalized in a well-loved curry dish at Nakamuraya, which Behari Bose is said to have popularized during his decades-long struggle for Indian independence.
Behari Bose laid the foundations of the Indian Independence League and the Indian National Army, according to Eston and Kawabe.
Right until the end, he stood by his conviction to change the status quo. And to this day, he remains one of India’s unsung freedom fighters.
CNN’s Yoko Wakatsuki contributed to this report from Tokyo. Edited by Hilary Whiteman and Jenni Marsh.