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

Gunned Down

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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143 – Celebrating the end of war at the Great Eastern Hotel, Calcutta

My grandparents, mother and her boyfriend. The Great Eastern Hotel. Calcutta, West Bengal. 1946

My grandparents, mother, and her then boyfriend. The Great Eastern Hotel. Calcutta, West Bengal. 1946

Image and Text contributed by Jonathan Charles Cracknell, London, UK

Just as India was heading towards Independence in 1947, people were celebrating the End of the World War II and this picture was photographed at New years Eve in the real capital of British India, Calcutta (West Bengal). My maternal grandfather, Peter sits here with a fez on his head, and next to him is my grandmother Anna. She was of mixed heritage –  of Kashmiri and German Jewish descent. Sitting next to her is my mother and her then boyfriend, a British soldier, on leave from his posting in Malaya (now Malaysia). It was earlier in the same year that the British Military Administration in Malaya had been replaced by its own, the Malayan union.

The hotel, then known as the Great Eastern Hotel where this image was taken is now called the Lalit Great Eastern Hotel. An extremely popular place, the colonial era hotel was originally established as a confectionary shop and then grew into a grand and plush hotel in the early 1840s, a time when Calcutta was the top seat of the East India Company. The hotel had a 100 rooms, and claimed to be second oldest of the British Empire and India’s first luxury hotel. It was also well known for its extravagant and delicious french cuisine, and served snacks and a whisky peg or two, similar to a drive-by service, to horse drawn carriages. Referred to as “the Jewel of the East” and the “Savoy of the East” in its heyday, Great Eastern Hotel hosted several notable persons visiting the city including I am told, Queen Elizabeth II, the well-known author Mark Twain & musician Dave Brubeck. The hotel’s repute and value declined later during the Naxalite Era of West Bengal and was only recently reopened, now as a heritage property, by its new owners in 2013.

My mother’s father was worked with the Railways in Lahore (now in Pakistan) to which they would return to face the horrors of Indo/Pak Partition. But for the time being that seemed a long way off. This was the “New” India everyone was celebrating, not the Victorian dream of the memsahibs. A new comprehension and understanding of Indian culture and the world, was in the making, and this time, it was to be without the tired old prejudices of yesteryear. It was a time of great optimism and home and even back home in the UK people imagined a new world of equality, which would be reflected in the British election soon to come, when Winston Churchill was defeated by a Labour majority.

My father Aubrey Cracknell, too was brought up in Lahore. His father Charles Edwin Cracknell was a  soldier in the British Army. After the Boer War ended in the early 20th century, he was shipped out to the Indian subcontinent, to Rawalpindi (now Pakistan) on the North West Frontier. It was here that Charles, my grandfather, met and married my grandmother, several years younger to him,  and they had a son, Aubrey, my father, in the Cantonments.

When my father was only eight years old, Charles, my grandfather was wounded on a train from Peshawar, the city of the Frontier (Pak-Afghan Border) to Jalalabad (eastern Afghanistan). Hit by an Afghan sniper and wounded in the lung, he was hospitalised in Rawalpindi but died of pneumonia and other complications. He is now buried in the British cemetery in Rawalpindi which lies neglected and all the graves have fallen to ruin. My Grandmother left the cantonments and moved to Lahore where my father grew up.

 


93 – He designed motorbikes, served the British Army and worked in a circus with his wife.

My grandfather, Captain Glyndon Ralph O’Leary, fondly known as Mike. Location – probably Sibi, Balochistan Province (Now Pakistan). 1941

 

Image and Text contributed by Shaun Waller & Oonagh Waller, United Kingdom

These are the memories of my mother, Oonagh who was born in India to my grandparents, Glyndon Ralph O’Leary (Mike) and Sheilagh Anges Mary Maguire. – Shaun

“My father, Glyndon Ralph O’Leary was fondly known as Mike. He was born in 1902 in Toronto, Canada to Winifred and Ralph O’Leary, who were of Irish descent.

At the age of Twelve, he left Canada and began his military career in the Boys service, Indian Subcontinent from 1914 – 1919 and continued in various regiments serving the British Empire on and off until 1946.

Mike was also a Practical Motor Engineer: his brothers and he owned and worked in a motorcycle workshop and showroom called the O’Leary Brothers in Dehradun, Uttar Pradesh. They also designed and built a motorcycle called the White Streak. However, it never made it to production. At one point, they bought an old motorcycle, a Brough Superior from T. E. Lawrence (The very original Lawrence of Arabia) and exhibited it in their showroom.

While in the army in Lahore, Mike manufactured scale models for Forest Research, Rural upliftment, P.W.D. and Irrigation departments and also tactical models for training of mechanised fighting vehicles. 12 such gold medal standard models manufactured by him were on display in the Forestry Department of Lahore Central Museum. I wonder if they are still there.

Mike married Sheilagh Anges Mary Maguire in October 1928 in Lahore and subsequently had three children – Michael, Oonagh and Larry. Later the children went to boarding school in Mussoorie: Wynberg Girls High School and Allen Memorial Boys School.

In between postings, and to earn more money, Mike and Sheilagh also joined a circus, I don’t remember the name of the circus anymore, but it was in Lahore and managed by a Captain.Edwards. Mike trained would ride the Drome (‘Wall of Death’ or ‘Maut ka Kuan’) on his motorbike and also climbed a high ladder (in costume): he would douse himself with Petrol, set himself on fire and dive into a tank below full of water. Sheilagh, my mother, play her part too: she stood on stage with a cigarette between her lips while Captain Edwards, trained as an ace shooter in the military, would fire a pistol at the cigarette.

In Sibi, (a Balochistan province of now Pakistan) Mike and family represented the only military presence there, amid railway workers and their families. For leisure, Mike would hire ‘beaters’ and go on a wild boar shoot – the beaters would make as much noise as they could with sticks, tins etc. to flush out the boar then Mike would shoot down a couple. Back home the meat would be shared with neighbours.

On other occasions, the family went ‘fishing’, travelling on a trolley (a bench like structure on a platform with four wheels which fitted on the railway lines). Hired help would run along the lines, bare foot and push the trolley along and when the lake was reached, a halt was called. Mike would unsportingly throw a couple of sticks of dynamite into the water and the stunned fish would rise to the surface: all the men and boys would jump in the shallow end and retrieved the fish which, again, was shared with local families. His last posting was probably in Quetta (also a Balochistan province of now Pakistan).

Mike (Capt. Glyndon Ralph O’Leary) died in September 1945 during a Diabetic Coma. My mother Sheilagh and us children then moved to Meerut, Uttar Pradesh to stay with our maternal grandparents. A year later and a few months before Partition, in September 1946 we emigrated to England.”

On the ship, a whole trunk of personal belongings was apparently lost overboard and it included most of the family photos: very few images survive today. This is one of them.

 


82 – The first time she saw a man die

My father, Anupam Kumar Shome and I. Srinagar, Kashmir. 1983

Image and Text contributed by Tillotama Shome, Actress, Bombay

In the early 80’s we lived in Rajbagh extension, near Zero Bridge in Srinagar, Kashmir.

I was four years old and on my way to school with my father Anupam Kumar Shome. He was an Airforce officer. En route to school we got stuck in traffic. Apparently, there was a ‘shoot out’ up ahead. As the police cleared the traffic and guided us, I saw through the arches of crowded human legs, a body of a dead man, drenched in blood. The contrast of the red blood against white of snow was inexplicable and I was witnessing the lifelessness of death for the first time.

My father shepherded me back home. His face was gaunt and I kept crying all the way back home. The same day he took me out for a ride in a boat and suddenly said, “You saw what happened today? It is all because of religion.”

I had no idea who religion was, the names of religion’s parents, where he or she lived, what he or she did for a living, why he or she killed that man or did not save him. I was only four. I just cried.

Because of what he may have seen and experienced, I think my father had come to a conclusion and a decision that religion brings grief, so Hindu spiritual ceremonies or references like Pujas, pundits, shradhs, kundli (astrology), and havans were never a welcome guest in our household. My religion or requirement of some faith, became the need to be aware of the consequences of my actions, my thoughts and even my memories. I think which is why, many decades later, before I became an actress,  I decided to go and work at a girls orphanage in Kupwara, Kashmir despite the extremely tense situations at the border, and against the advise of many others, including my father.

My memory of that dead man, my love for Kashmir, the beautiful memories held in photographs of our time in Srinagar became the mental armor that helped me. And that armor remained intact when we were questioned by militants at gunpoint. Fear of death at that moment was fogged out, as all I felt at that moment, was that the Militant holding a gun was just a few years older than I was when I saw a man die for the first time.

I felt sad for him and lucky that I had a privileged childhood. Our memories hold a key to our future in ways that can surprise us. Luckily, it sure did surprise me.