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

Exile

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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166 – The families that fled Tibet with the Dalai Lama

My grandfather Faizullah Baba with my uncles Abdullah and Majid. Darjeeling, India. Circa 1957

My grandfather Faizullah Baba with my uncles Abdullah and Majid. Darjeeling, India. Circa 1957

Image & Text contributed by Soheb Ahmed Baba, New Delhi

The man in the photograph above is my grandfather Faizullah Baba. Standing left is my grand father’s eldest son, my uncle, Abdullah, age 7, and on the right is Abdullah’s cousin Majid.

During the Tibetan Uprising in 1959, fearing for his life, the Dalai Lama and his advisers fled Tibet with the help of the CIA and were given asylum by the Indian Government. While the world press published stories of strain in Indo-China relationships, very few threw light on the families that followed the Dalai Lama and fled from Tibet to India in the subsequent months. My grandfather and his family were few of the many that also fled to India to seek a better and peaceful life after the uprising. Our family, however, weren’t Buddhists but Muslim minorities living in Tibet and were often referred to as “Ka- chee” which literally means Kashmiri or Kashmir. One of the reasons that my grandfather also decided to flee was because he sensed Islam being suppressed by the Chinese Government and felt India to be more secular and comforting.

Historically, our ancestors were from Kashmir. On one hand, they were traders who would travel between Kashmir and Lhasa to exchange goods, and on the other, they preached the teachings of Islam. Many community traders married local Tibetan women forming a fusion of cultures and resulting in the gradual growth of the Tibetan-Muslim community in Tibet.

It was important for our ancestors that the young were educated in the lessons & practices it boasted and there were a few madrasas in Lhasa but these institutes were limited to religious education. My grandfather instead wanted his kids to gain more knowledge and decided early on (before the uprising) to send the young boys all the way to Delhi, in India, to study in a school founded within Jamia Millia Islamia.

What fascinates me about this picture and the story, are the journeys young Abdullah and his cousin Majid, made each time they crossed over to the Indian border to study and to return during vacations. From Lhasa, they would hitch a ride with the traders, trekking through the rough terrains until the border, and then use public transport into India. Sometimes they would make a pit stop at Darjeeling, West Bengal and carry on till Delhi to attend school. They would embark on this journey back and forth each time they visited home in Lhasa.

Occasionally, my grandfather, Faizullah, would make the same journey to go and pick them up from Delhi. This photograph was taken during one of those journeys. The well ironed collared shirts and half trousers with a book in hand were perhaps important props to display at the time because quality education in Tibet was rare and only a few attained an English education.

The separations and the hard journeys must have taken a toll on both Abdullah & his parents but my dad says it was these characteristics of my grandfather that he greatly admired – His inner strength, his will power to let go of problems and his faith in the almighty. Maybe this is why my father, his siblings & cousins were encouraged to travel to far out places and pursue their dreams.

By 1962, the Indian government granted the Kachee community permission to settle in India and many of my relatives began a new life in Delhi, Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Siliguri, Gangtok, Kashmir and Srinagar. My grandparents themselves earned a living by selling garments at one point. Abdullah, my uncle in the picture, took up teaching as a full-time profession in Kargil, Ladakh for most of his adult life. He passed away in Srinagar, Kashmir, at the age of 62.

Today, 57 years later after this photograph was taken, I, a grandson of this community is writing this testimony in Delhi, the capital of India. My sister, our cousins and I are the third generation born and brought up in this country and a city that we now proudly call home.


132 – A Subhas Chandra Bose loyalist who refused the Indian freedom fighter’s pension

My father, P. Devrajan’s identity card, issued to him by the Japanese army in Singapore as a member of the Indian National Army [INA] (top). His identity and oath card issued to him by the Azad Hind Sangh (India Independence League). Singapore. Circa 1942

My father, P. Devrajan’s identity card, issued to him by the Japanese army in Singapore as a member of the Indian National Army [INA] (top). His oath and loyalty card issued to him by the Azad Hind Sangh (India Independence League). Singapore. Circa 1942

Images & Text contributed by Ranjit Devraj, New Delhi

My father, P. Devarajan was very young, maybe around 16 or 17 years old went he went to meet his uncle in Singapore from Kerala. Singapore was, at the time, a major British military base in South-East Asia and was nicknamed the “Gibraltar of the East”.

During British Reign, many Indians and especially from the south of India, had migrated to Singapore, and surrounding countries. If they were illiterate they worked in Rubber plantations and if literate they could do clerical jobs, or even find higher positions as doctors and engineers.

At the time he was planning to return to his state Kerala, the Japanese army attacked the british Base in Singapore in 1941 (Battle of Singapore) and he with all borders shut down, was stuck. However, in retrospect he made good use of his time. I am not sure how he decided to enrol himself into the INA, the Indian National Army, that was run under the leadership of Subhas Chandra Bose, but he most likely met and was heavily influenced by freedom fighters and the strong belief in fighting for the Independence of India, a movement that catching fire in Singapore. While in the INA (as allies to the Japanese army), my father then fought alongside with the Japanese to defeat the British. The British lost the Battle of Singapore and surrendered to Japan. Though, ironically, when the war ended, Singapore reverted to British control because of the increasing grants of Self Controlled governance.

One could say that Imperial Japan was the first country that formally initiated a huge battle against the ‘white man’s’ supremacy, an event that encouraged and inspired millions of Indians and citizens from African countries trying to do the same. Japan was also one of nine countries that had forged a great relationship with Subhas Chandra Bose and supported the Azad Hind Sangh, the Indian provisional Government for a Free India.

My father was strongly inspired and encouraged by Bose’s philosophies and beliefs. He was also well acquainted with Captain Lakshmi Sehgal who as one of first strong female personalities in INA, played a very influential role in fighting for independence. The INA after all was at the forefront of women’s empowerment and equality.

The oath card (bottom) that you see was a card issued by the Azad Hind Sangh and as a first-of-a kind experiment offered Indian Citizenships to South Asian Indians living in other countries in exchange of this sign-up of loyalty, because to Bose, India’s people were more important than just re-claiming territory. Hundreds of thousands signed on and it was to become an important part of several efforts made by Bose to help him achieve legitimacy than just formal recognition of the Azad Hind Sangh. Ironically, the same cards were then used against INA in the Red fort trial as evidence of war and treason waged by Azad Hind.

[Translation of Oath card]

I, the member of the Azad Hind Sangh (India Independence League), do hereby solemnly promise, in the name of god and take this holy oath that I will be absolutely loyal and faithful to the provisional government of Azad Hind, and shall always be prepared of any sacrifice for the cause of freedom of our motherland, under the leadership of Subas Chandra Bose.

Though eligible, my father, earlier a British Singaporean citizen, refused to accept a UK citizenship, a job at the War office in London offered by the British, and then later even an Indian freedom fighter’s pension or benefits, stating diplomatically, that it was honour enough to have been able to strike a blow for Independence. For all his life, my father remained a staunch admirer of Bose. He was later conferred an Indian Citizenship, and died an Indian Citizen in 2009.

 


73 – He folded sarees for One paisa each, and went on to become the Director of a Bank.

My maternal grandfather, Manikchand Veerchand Shah (seated in white turban) and extended family, Solapur, Maharashtra. 1956

Image and Text contributed by Anshumalin Shah, Bangalore

This image of maternal grandfather, Shri Manikchand Veerchand Shah and our extended family was photographed in November 1956, by the famous ‘Malage Photographer – Oriental Photo Studio’ who charged a tidy sum of 30-0-0 (Rupee-Anna-Paise) for two Black & White 6” x 8”copies with embossed-border mounts. The occasion was my grandfather’s birthday, he had just turned 60.

The family was photographed in the front yard of the bungalow called ‘Ratnakuti’ opposite the Fort in Solapur (then Sholapoor), Maharashtra. Ratnakuti was one of twin bungalows built around 1932 as mirror images of each other, known as ‘Jod-Bangla’. Beautifully crafted in stone and plaster, with imposing pillars, balconies and rooms with ceramic-chip handcrafted flooring, exquisite teak, brass grills for windows, coloured glass panes on windows and doors, verandahs with neat terracotta tiles, a large court-yard in front, ‘Ratnakuti’ and its twin would never fail to draw the attention of passers-by and stands to this day as a well known landmark. Eventually, the two bungalows were sold and are now owned by the Goyal family.

My grandfather, Manikchand Veerchand Shah, born in 1896, came from a pioneering and visionary Gujarati Digambar Jain family. He was a self-educated, successful entrepreneurial man with modest beginnings. Before 1910, he along with his younger brother, Walchand Motichand Shah, worked in a Saree shop of their guardian where they got paid One Paisa for every saree they neatly folded, ready for dispatch or sale and delivered on a bicycle to the shop at Phaltan Galli.

As they grew up together, my grandfather and his brother established and operated several businesses together complementing each other’s strengths. The businesses included a handloom cloth dyeing unit, in Valsang, near Solapur, for which the dyes were imported from Japan. They also began importing General Motors cars, motorcycles and trucks around 1922. I am told my grandfather would drive and deliver the imported truck chassis himself from Bombay to Pune and Sholapur. Their firm ‘Sholapur Motor Stores’ continues on in Pune, albeit only as a Fuel Station. He also established the well-known ‘India Garage’ in the 1930s where the present showrooms of Renault and Volkswagen stand, still operated by the family.

Closely associated with the freedom movement in Solapur, opposing the Martial Law imposed in 1930, he was arrested by the British, sent to Bijapur Central Jail and later exiled. Not to be outdone by the British, he used his stay at Bijapur Jail to monitor the establishment of a ‘Sholapur Motor Stores’ branch in the city.

Also associated with the Hindu Mahasabha, he rubbed shoulders with very important personalities like V. D. Savarkar, Dr. K. B. Hedgewar, M. S. Golwalker Guruji and Gulabchand Hirachand Doshi. While he was also deeply involved with several causes for the people of Valsang, unfortunately, owing to his association with the Hindu Mahasabha, an irate mob of villagers from Valsang set his car on fire in a frenzied reaction to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948. Barely managing to escape with his life, he was deeply hurt and disillusioned by the senseless act by the people of Valsang. In consequence, he wound up his businesses and left Valsang, never to return.

After the death of his wife, my grandmother, when he was just 34, and as a sign of love for her, he changed his attire to only pristine white – a white turban, coat and a dhoti with white canvas pump shoes. While visiting us in Hyderabad, he would regularly buy the special black metal ‘Bidriware’ buttons for his white coats from a handicraft showroom at Abid Road.

My grandfather was a man of many parts. He was the Director on the Board of Bank of Maharashtra Ltd. As well as on the governing council for several religious and temple trusts. His contribution to the educational infrastructure development from his own funds at Solapur is widely acknowledged. He offered personal loans, scholarships and donor’s seats at the Walchand College of Engineering, Sangli for students pursuing higher studies in the 1950s and 60s. Several successful senior Engineers owe their careers to him.

Farming, Gardening, and Photography were his passions. I remember us youngsters gathering on his farms near Sholapur during summer holidays and enjoying the juiciest mangoes to our brim. Quite taken up with Photography as well, he had acquired a glass-negative Camera in the 1920s and his collection of glass negatives and pictures are our family’s priceless treasures.

My grandfather passed away in June 1968. Many members of the two older generations of the three appearing in the pictures have also passed on. The third generation now have their own children and grand-children. I feel very honoured to have shared some of the birthday celebrations along with my grandfather as we were both born only a few days apart.

Time moves on, but photographs manage to freeze fleeting moments here and there. If we could preserve these photographs, we succeed in reliving those moments over and over again and again.


36 – The most dangerous man in Bombay Presidency

My Grandfather (sitting, left) Narasinhbhai Patel with family.. Anand, Kheda District, Gujarat. Circa 1940

Image and text contributed by Sandhya Mehta

My maternal grandfather, Narasinhbhai was a revolutionary man. Records of British India describe him as ‘most dangerous man in Bombay Presidency ‘. He was exiled from British India for writing proscribed books. Though the Maharaja of Baroda clandestinely supported him. After completing his exile term in Germany and East Africa, C.F. Andrews persuaded him to join Ravindranath Tagore in Shantiniketan . He taught German there for a short time and then returned to his native town Kheda to support Gandhiji’s Salt Satyagraha . He became a leader in Kheda district. to mobilise Satyagraha. Standing behind him, first from left is his grandson Dr. Shantibhai Patel who also actively participated in the freedom struggle and later became a successful scientist . Narsinhbhai’s daughter, Shanta Patel (my mother), sits, first from right with my father G.P.Patel, standing behind her. My father, G.P Patel supported Narasinhbhai’s views, work and philosophy. They all were followers of Gandhiji.