logo image Tracing the identity & history of the Indian Subcontinent via family archives

War Hero

185 – The Indian man in the concentration camp

Cancellation of the look-out notice for A.C.N. Nambiar. 25 March 1938. UK

Image courtesy Bombay Special Branch Archives
Narrative points contributed by
Vappala Balachandran, Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, India
Facilitated by Gautam Pemmaraju, Mumbai

This narrative has been rewritten and reformatted for the purpose of this archive.

During the early 1980s I was posted in a western European station as a diplomatic officer with an added responsibility of covert security intelligence. Under diplomatic cover I had the usual consular duties but my real work was gathering information in a clandestine manner. One day my boss, the chief at RAW (Research & Analysis Wing/ Indian Intelligence) NF Suntook briefed me about an unusual assignment that was requested directly by the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. I was to ensure the well-being of a former anti-colonial activist, journalist and a personal friend to Nehru, ACN Nambiar who was based in Zurich. He was 84 and I was 43.

I didn’t really know much about Nambiar, and an assignment with no intelligence agenda provided relief from my regular stressful duties. I met with Nambiar in his modest flat in Spiegel Gasse, two buildings away from Vladimir Lenin’s old residence. He was quiet, humble and a bit of a recluse and I struck a strong friendship with Nambiar. He was a treasure trove of information on European history, governance, security and power play of nations from the 1920s to the 1980s, and mentioned that he knew Subhas Chandra Bose well. Years after he passed away in 1986, in 2001, I happened to read a book by Rudolf Hartog that mentioned a rarely known “Indian Legion”, a small Indian Army in Nazi Germany raised by Subhas Chandra Bose. The Legion comprised of Indian POWs (Prisoners of War) captured by Nazis during their North African Campaign. I was surprised to know that Mr. Nambiar was the main person administering this 4,000-strong army. He had never mentioned anything about that in our meetings and conversations over six years. To challenge all contrarian views, Nambiar was not only a close friend to the Nehru family but he was also the right hand man of Subash Chandra Bose (Netaji) in Berlin.

This discovery set me off on a years-long research to find out who Nambiar really was. To understand what his contributions to the subcontinent were, brief but imperative points of world history in this narrative are important.

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Born in 1896 in Thalassery, Malabar in an intellectual and wealthy family, Arathil Kandath Narayanan Nambiar or ACN Nambiar was the son to the well known Malayalam litterateur Vengayil Kunhiraman Nayanar. Surrounded with the educated and the elite of the subcontinent, in 1919, he fell and love with, and against the wishes of his brother, married Suhasini Chattopadhyay, sister of freedom fighters Virendranath Chattopadhyay (known as Chatto) and Sarojini Naidu.

After the World War I, Berlin had become a center for nationalists associated with India’s freedom movement. Assuming that Germany’s bitter relations with Britain will offer cover, money and political support for their agendas, Indians ranging from students to revolutionaries began to frequent/live in Berlin. Inspired by the Ghadar Party, and support of German authorities,  Chatto along with other freedom fighters had helped form the Indian Independence Committee (Berlin Committee), and Nambiar was right in the middle of it, a witness to all of world’s modern history at once, at one of its most interesting times.

After their marriage, Suhasini attended Oxford, and Nambiar and she later moved to Berlin around 1924, for Nambiar had been asked to administer the Information Bureau of the Indian National Congress – The Indian News Service & Information Bureau co-set up by Chatto, on Nehru’s instructions. Nambiar had also began writing as a correspondent for European and Indian Publications about several issues including unequal treatment of Indians by Europeans. After an extra marital romantic affair, Nambiar’s marriage however did not last –and the couple separated. With funding from Nehru in tight supply, and eventual ideological differences between Chatto, Gandhi and Nehru, the Indian News service also lost its influence.

Circumstances placed Nambiar in a fascinating position to interact with various leaders, activists, conspirators, and revolutionaries from all over the world. British intelligence reports that though acquainted through a number of people including his brother, Nambiar met Nehru in person for the first time in Brussels in 1927, at the anti-imperialist congress and they became very good friends. Nambiar was also meeting with correspondents from different parts of the world that helped him form a excellent network with vast number of political organisations and ideologies. Nambiar on the invitation of USSR also visited Moscow in 1929, but that may have also been to meet Suhasini who was imbibing the values of a chosen political path, Communism. Suhasini  became the first woman communist member in the subcontinent. When she returned to India, the British Special Branch in Bombay began intercepting private correspondence between Nambiar and Suhasini.

In 1933, when the Germany came under the Nazi regime, Nambiar and Chatto took an anti-Nazi stand, and were arrested for an alleged involvement in the burning of the Reichstag building in Berlin. Hitler’s people (SA) caught him and kept him under arrest for four weeks in Berlin. He was then expelled from Germany and he fled to Prague, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic and Slovakia) and from there in hiding to France. In 1934, when a tall German approached him in a café, he says he thought- “This is the end”, but it turned out to be a representative of Netaji Bose who wanted to meet him. Bose was aware of Nambiar’s network and though both differed on the relations with Nazis, a friendship blossomed. Nambiar agreed albeit reluctantly to help Bose, aware that they shared the same goal – an Independent India.

When Bose was incarcerated in India from 1940, he escaped and resurfaced in Berlin in 1941. He finally got an appointment to meet with Hitler in 1943, and after tracking down Nambiar again in France, much to the chagrin of the Nazis, insisted that he came along as an interpreter. Bose wanted Hitler’s support in defeating the British in India, and insisted on the Indian POWs they had captured during the North African operations against UK & Commmonwealth troops. In winter of 1941, Nambiar became Bose’s deputy and they both jointly established Free India Centre, a division under the Azad Hind movement, working to rally support or India’s independence, use psychological propaganda warfare via radio & print material,  and train the POW army known as Indian Legion – IR 950, into an assault group that would form a pathfinder to a German–Indian joint invasion of India via Afghanistan. In 1943, Bose left for the far east to puncture Britain from the East with his already established Indian National Army (INA), leaving Nambiar to handle all his European operations. Despite Nambiar’s efforts, not much of the Indian Legion was put to use eventually.

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After the surrender of Germany in the World War II in 1945, the remaining soldiers left with the Indian Legion were either shot to death or shipped back to India to face charges of treason. Nambiar again went into hiding in a village in Germany, but was caught by the British intelligence, interrogated as a Nazi collaborator and was for a year, ironically placed in a concentration camp with several other Nazis. Nambiar may have also provided intelligence to the British spies posing as a representative of the Gestapo during his arrest but there is no evidence that he was an active asset for any agency. British Intelligence Records opened in 2014 state that Nambiar was a Soviet spy, but I don’t think it is confirmed statement – more a usual ‘suspected Soviet spy’ reference often put on doubted persons. Having said that, I have no doubt that he knew a lot more and operated behind the scenes in many matters than we will ever know. The British government did not want him in Europe, nor did they want him to go to India where he would have become a hero but against the wishes of Britain,  Nehru’s interim government gave him an Indian passport. It is noteworthy that Nehru considered Nambiar to be family despite knowing that Nambiar was associated with Bose. Letters between them show how Nehru taught him how to cook good eggs and he was instructed by Nehru not to miss physical exercise; and that “one could pursue such activity even while shaving, by just raising one’s legs.”

After independence, Nambiar was assigned diplomatic assignments in Europe by Jawaharlal Nehru, including an ambassadorship to Scandanavia, and in 1951 as the first Indian Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany and helped forge European alliances for the Indian Governmnent. With German ex-officers of the Indian Legion he even founded an Indo-German Society in 1950. But he didn’t quite enjoy the diplomatic profile and became a European correspondent of the ‘Hindustan Times’ though some suggest his last post was a cover for industrial intelligence collection. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1958.

Contrary to what Indians think, the Nehru and Bose rivalry was a creation by later political groups. Yes, they had different opinions, but they deeply respected each other and looked out for the others’ well being. Bose ensured Kamala Nehru was well cared for during her medical treatment in Switzerland, while Nehru was in prison. After Bose went missing in 1945, Nehru insisted on financial compensation to his family in Germany, that was facilitated by Nambiar. Nambiar’s account of Nehru and Bose does not reveal any personal grudges or tensions between the two. Yes, Nehru held certain assumptions of Bose, but didn’t doubt his patriotism. Bose too recognised Nehru’s influence in India although he did not agree with Nehru’s pro-British attitude. This is a reminder for current generations that we can maintain good relationships despite differences.

Over time Nambiar became a guardian and god-fatherly figure to Indira Gandhi —a friend and a confidante, politically and personally. He even advised her on the selection of officers for India’s Intelligence & the RAW head. In 1984, with concerns for his health, Indira Gandhi insisted that he return to Delhi, and he reluctantly agreed, however a few weeks after he returned, she was assassinated causing him severe trauma, and depression. Nambiar and I had come to form a wonderful warm friendship, and he considered me to be almost like his own son. To help him, I suggested he write his memoirs, instead he agreed to dictate his memoirs to a tape recorder. In January of 1986, the man who knew too much, and whom no one knew too much about, passed away at his residence in New Delhi.

Vappala Balachandran’s Book A Life in Shadow: The Secret Story of A.C.N. Nambiar is available here


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169 – Hiding out in the forests of Assam-Burma-East Bengal border

My grandfather with his brothers. Assam Burma Border. c

My grandfather Suresh Chandra Mukherjee (extreme right) with his brothers. Assam-Burma-East Bengal Border. Circa 1943

Image & Text contributed by Shravani Dang, New Delhi

This photograph taken in 1943 or 44 is of my maternal grandfather, Dr. Suresh Chandra Mukherjee (extreme right) with his brothers. It was taken in a forest hideout at the Assam-Burma-East Bengal border.

My grandfather, Dr. Suresh Chandra Mukherjee whom we fondly called Dadu, was born in 1895. 
Our family originally came from a small town in undivided Bengal and India called Khulna (now in Bangladesh) but they worked across the states of Bengal and Assam. Dadu’s hobbies included fishing and photography. He married my grandmother, Bimala Bala in 1909 when she was only 9 years old, he was 23 and already a doctor.

Dadu was a renowned gynecologist & an obstetrician, and also specialized in tropical medicine. He worked with the George Williamson & Co., a Tea Company in Assam ( now Williamson Magor & Co.).  In this photograph, my grandfather wears a British army uniform as he had been recruited into British Army to serve during World War II, when the Japanese occupied Burma and parts of the North-East Frontier.

During the war, and due to fears of Japanese attacks and bombings, the entire family of six brothers, their wives and children moved to a relative’s place and hid in the forest. The second person on the left is his younger brother Dinesh Chandra Mukherjee who later worked in the Foreign Service. The other brothers’ names I don’t’ know but one was a school headmaster. Not in the photograph is the fifth brother, Dr. Debesh Chandra Mukherjee who was also a doctor and was one of the five physicians dispatched to China by Netaji Subas Chandra Bose to provide medical assistance during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1938. Dr. Dwarkanath Kotnis was the other well-known Doctor in the group, on whom the film Dr. Kotnis ki Amar Kahani is based, and my granduncle is mentioned in it. My grandfather was the only one who served in war.

Life during the war was difficult. Most importantly, food was rationed. No cattle or milkmen were available as lived in far away towns and villages. Each time my grandfather visited the family, he would bring milk and a prized tin of English biscuits – Jacob’s Biscuits. Sometimes, but not often, he would manage to bring in eggs and Anchor Butter (from New Zealand). Without refrigeration, and in the dense tropical forest, the milk would get spoilt. In army rations, milk was only available in army rations in form of powder, that the family would then hoard. Sugar was in very short supply and often not available- so they had to manage with Gur (Jaggery) to satisfy the Bengali sweet tooth. And the most difficult thing, especially for Bengalis- was that rice was rationed, and if it was available, it was very poor quality and hardly edible. So the family learnt to eat fish curry with chapatis (flat Indian bread). 
The family had to maintain a very low profile and keep their oil lamps, candles, and fires to a bare minimum in the forest, lest they attracted the enemy.

My grandfather served on the Manipur-Burma border and they were successful in stemming the Japanese entry. He had a team of informants to keep the British army abreast of the activities of the Japanese. He helped and supervise the construction of roads and bridges in the region for the British army to travel to strategic places to quell the enemy. Eventually, in 1945 the Japanese were defeated and my grandfather was decorated and personally thanked by Field Marshal and Commander-in-Chief of India Sir Claude John Eyre Auchinleck otherwise known as “The Auk”, who also served as the British Army commander during World War II. The Auk also wrote my grandfather a personal note on his efforts, that still lies in our family archives.

Dadu continued to serve the tea company after the end of Japanese occupation. Later he moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) and established a private practice. He retired at the age of 75 and passed away of old age at 85, in 1980.


144 – The most infamous helicopter crash in our history

My grandparents Nalin and Sharda Nanawati. 1962. Bombay

My grandparents Nalin and Sharada Nanawati. New Delhi. 1962

Image & Text contributed by Diya Nanawati, Mumbai

My paternal grandfather Nalin Kumar Dhirajlal Nanavati was born in Rangoon, Burma in 1915, during the British Raj. He was the second of three children born to my great grandfather, an Indian civil servant (ICS) from Gujrat. The family belonged to a trading community called Surati Baniyas.

Nalinkumar Dhirajlal Nanavati, my grandfather, was a dashing soldier with the Allied Forces in the 1940’s. He was a soldier in the British Eighth Army and a Major with the 5th Royal Maratha Light Infantry. When the forces were ordered to go and fight the wars of WWII, he left behind a beautiful wife of Bengali and French parentage and a young daughter. But the family back home didn’t hear from him a long time and his beautiful wife assumed that he has passed away in war.

But he did return to India, a battle scarred survivor, victorious from saving peninsular Italy from the German Nazis. Later, he was awarded a military cross for his bravery in the Battle of Monte Cassino. However, he had won the war but lost his family, his wife and daughter, to another man. His daughter later married into a Parsi Baronetcy in Bombay. As time passed my grandfather became Lt. Colonel in the Indian Army, and he met Sharada Ramaiah, the woman who would become my grandmother.

My grandmother Sharada Ramaiah and my grandfather Nalin met over a game of tennis in New Delhi. He was charmed by her intellectual personality. Both my grandparents from my dad’s side of the family came from educated families and had english governesses. Grandma Sharada (born in 1925) was a Brahmin from Karnataka, and even though it was an inter-caste marriage, her mother did not object. My grandfather was so charming and friendly that it really did not matter whose ancestors were traders and whose were priests. As with many families in India, they came from the same class though not the same caste.  She took on the role of being the Army wife with utter grace, entertaining diplomats and politicians with great élan. My grandfather was by then the commandant of the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun and later the military attaché for India with the Indian embassy in Moscow. He enjoyed huge success and a meteoric rise to the rank of a Major General. In 1959, Sanjeev Nanavati, their only child, my dad, was born.

Tragically, the beautiful life my grandparents and father enjoyed was to be short lived. My grandfather Nalin was sent on a non-family posting in Kashmir where he was killed on the November 22, 1963 at the age of 45 in one of the most tragic helicopter crashes of all times. All six senior officers including my grandfather died. The other officers were –

  • Maj. Gen Nalin Kumar Dhirajlal Nanavati (Military Cross, General Officer Commanding 25 Infantry Division)
  • Lt. Gen Bikram Singh (General Officer Commanding, 15 Corps)
  • Air Vice Marshall Erlic Pinto (Air Officer Commanding, Western Command)
  • Lt.  Gen Daulet Singh (General Officer Commanding in Chief, Western Command)
  • Brigadier SR Oberoi, (Military Cross, Commander 93 Infantry Brigade)
  • Flt. Lt. SS Sodhi

Many conjectured that the helicopter was sabotaged because so many senior officers lost their lives at the same time, but the Indian Army ruled out sabotage and stated that it was an accident. Later as cautionary rule, the government banned senior officers of the army to ever travel together. The same rule now applies to several corporations too.

Grandma Sharada Nanavati was widowed at a young age of 34, and my dad Sanjeev, was just four years old. With only 12 rupees in her bank account, it took Sharada many years to get a succession certificate (issued by a civil court to the legal heirs of a deceased person). She never took a paisa from her wealthy relatives and instead chose to live her life with dignity and raise her son alone. Fortunately she was educated with a Masters in History, Politics and Economics and was a journalist too. With recommendations from Field Marshall Sam Maneckshaw, she began working at the WHO and then later with the USIS in New Delhi. This was a great achievement for a woman in her times.

As a single and independent mother, my grandmother educated my dad, and with blood, sweat and tears built a modest home in the ‘War Widows colony’ in Delhi. Daddy and Grandma remain very grateful to the Indian Army. My granddad was a war hero but I believe my grandma who is 89 years old now, is a hero too.