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The great Indian family conspiracy

The controversy around Sushant Singh Rajput's death shows that our failure to unravel real conspiracies is being balanced by the invention of fake ones

The death of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose should have been an open and shut case.
The death of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose should have been an open and shut case. (Alamy)

Now that a panel of doctors from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (Aiims) has ruled out murder as a cause of Sushant Singh Rajput’s demise, there is hope the conspiracy theory built around the actor’s suicide will gradually abate. India is in a strange place at the moment regarding the relationship between evidence and belief. Despite eye-witnesses testifying to a trial run being conducted before the Babri Masjid was razed, a court has decided that the mosque’s demolition in 1992 was spontaneous rather than pre-planned. Conversely, police have used flimsy evidence to charge activists with grave crimes relating to a clash at Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra in 2018 and the Delhi riots of early 2020. It is as if our failure to unravel real conspiracies is being balanced by the invention of fake ones. The veteran journalist Vir Sanghvi ended his latest column with the words, “We no longer care what the truth is if the lies are more interesting.”

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It was not always like this. Back in 2006, after Lord John Stevens had delivered a report crushing outlandish explanations of the death of Princess Diana, Sanghvi had observed that Indians were not predisposed to such fantastical narratives. He cited the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi as examples of shocking killings that did not lead people to seek deeper plots.

Now, however, conspiracy theories regarding the deaths of three prominent personalities have wide currency. These cases have two factors in common. First, the prominent role played by family members in fuelling the conspiracy, and second, a political interpretation of events that favours the ruling party and allied organizations.

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Consider the most famous of them all, the death in an air crash of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. It should have been an open and shut case. The Indian freedom fighter boarded an overloaded aeroplane along with colonel Habibur Rahman, his close aide from the Indian National Army (INA). The aircraft crashed shortly after take-off from Taihoku (now Taipei) airport, killing, among others, the prominent Japanese general Tsunamasa Shidei. Bose, badly burnt, was treated in hospital by Taneyoshi Yoshimi but did not survive. He was cremated and his ashes were carried to Tokyo.

Rahman survived and provided a clear account of all events, as did two other survivors. Dozens witnessed the crash, two doctors with no motive to lie gave first- hand accounts of Bose’s final moments, and a translator who had frequently interpreted for Bose identified him. A Japanese newspaper published a report about the crash soon after it happened. The British government of India, keen to ascertain the death of a dangerous enemy, tasked Colonel John Figgess with getting at the truth. His report confirmed the facts of the case, as did Japanese and American investigations.

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Since the rumours did not die out, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru established another enquiry a decade after independence. That committee, headed by the former INA officer Shah Nawaz Khan, reached the same conclusion as the Figgess report. At the last minute, however, Bose’s elder brother Suresh Chandra Bose, who was a member of the committee, refused to accept the final report after having signed the draft. He accused Nehru and Shah Nawaz Khan of prejudging the case. Those like him who supported the idea that Bose had survived the crash or never been on the plane, had to perform absurd contortions to explain why the great man, never known for his reticence, had maintained a stony silence in the years since 1945.

The conspiracy theory around prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death in Tashkent in 1966 did not achieve comparable traction in its time. Its main proponent was the late prime minister’s wife, Lalita Shastri, who believed he may have been poisoned. However, no government official present in Tashkent at the time thought his death unnatural. It is worth recalling that Shastri’s health had suffered a serious setback just 17 days after he took over as prime minister in 1964. He was bedridden with what the The New York Times surmised was a heart attack.

It is perfectly believable that a frail man succumbed to a pre-existing condition at a very stressful time, yet the right-wing director Vivek Agnihotri recently spun an entire film around the “mystery”. Titled The Tashkent Files, the movie did well at the box office, and brought Shastri into the fold of staunchly secularist figures appropriated by the Hindu right, like Bhagat Singh, Babasaheb Ambedkar and Subhas Chandra Bose.

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Sushant Singh Rajput was no politician but made his liberal perspective clear on social media and in interviews. In January 2017, after the Karni Sena, a chauvinist Rajput outfit, raided the set of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmaavat and assaulted the director, he condemned the violence and said he would drop his surname in protest. Yet, following his death, as a recent study headed by Joyojeet Pal of the University of Michigan showed, Bharatiya Janata Party-linked Twitter accounts spread misinformation to shape the narrative in their favour. Rajput was presented as an outsider driven to despair by a nepotistic clique, a narrative that paralleled the story of the self-made Narendra Modi battling the Congress dynasty. The actor’s family members have stayed at the forefront of the campaign, which is based on the false premise that somebody as successful as Rajput could never kill himself, as if the examples of Robin Williams and Anthony Bourdain, among dozens of others, have not proved that mental illness does not exempt the rich, famous and successful.

The Gandhis have many flaws, the most obvious being their status as unapologetic dynasts, the most prominent among a breed that extends across political parties and encompasses the BJP, which even counts Maneka Gandhi and Varun Gandhi among its members of Parliament. On the positive side of the equation, they have never conjured conspiracy theories from personal tragedy for political benefit.

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If Sanjay Gandhi’s plane crash engendered no myth, it was largely because Indira Gandhi did not accuse members of the opposition of orchestrating his accident. When she was killed by her personal security guards, Rajiv Gandhi never hinted at a larger plot in her gunning down. And when he in turn was assassinated, his widow Sonia and children Priyanka and Rahul did not point fingers at political opponents. It may seem a low bar to set but the rulers of today appear incapable of clearing it.

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

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  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    10.10.2020 | 09:00 AM IST

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