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In Fancy Uniform

In response to:

The Last Laugh from the December 8, 1988 issue

To the Editors:

While you are free to feel that Mr. E.N. Buruma [“The Last Laugh,” NYR, December 8] is the only living expert to review all books on Asia, I must take strong exception to his characterization of the Bengali politician Subhas Chandra Bose as a “fascist poseur in fancy uniform.” Mr. Buruma also displays his own ignorance by stating that “there were plenty of them in Bengal.” It is true that there were plenty of Bengalis, as also Indians in other parts of the country, who chose to adopt violent means to overthrow the British, but to call them “fascist poseurs” is grossly unjust. While one does not condone such violent means justifying an end, unfortunately it is still a reality of life. One might justifiably and more correctly call them terrorists. Mr. Menachem Begin, the late Prime Minister of Israel, for instance, was a terrorist to some and a freedom fighter to others, but certainly not a fascist.

Mr. Buruma’s equation of “Netaji” with the German word “fuhrer” is also unfortunate, and only displays his linguistic inadequacy. Apart from the fact that the suffix “-ji” is a term of respect as well as endearment across India, its application for Bose has a totally different value than the way the German word was used for Hitler. Although both words mean “leader,” because of Hitler’s heinous crimes the word “fuhrer” carries an evil connotation which is not true of “Netaji.” He did leave India and cooperated with the Japanese Army to liberate India, but he did not indulge in the kind of genocide for which Hitler is infamous. One did not also address Bose as “Heil Netaji.” If collaboration with the Japanese makes him a fascist, then the entire world today can be regarded as such.

Pratapaditya Pal
Senior Curator
Indian and Southeast Asian Art
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Los Angeles, California

Ian Buruma replies:

Not every fascist is a poseur, not every poseur is a fascist, and not every Führer is a mass murderer. But a civilian politician getting himself up in military gear is a poseur and, well, Nirad Chaudhuri put it well enough: “If [in 1921] India had been anything like Italy or Germany Subhas Bose would have been the Indian counterpart of Mussolini or Hitler.”

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