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

Posts Tagged ‘Communism’

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.

//

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.

//

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


The work on Indian Memory Project takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But it is necessary work and parallel views on our histories matter – now more than ever. If everyone who reads or refers to the project – likes it, admires it and benefits from it, please do help fund it and it will make the future of this project much more robust and reassured. You can support Indian Memory Project for as little as Rs. 100 or more if you prefer – AT THIS LINK


114 – The Last Great Silk Route trader of India

My great grandfather Munshi Aziz Bhat with his two sons, Munshi Habibullah and Munshi Abdul Rehman. Kargil, Ladakh. 1945.

My great grandfather Munshi Aziz Bhat with his two sons, Munshi Habibullah and Munshi Abdul Rehman. Kargil, Ladakh. 1945.

Image and Text contributed by Muzammil Hussain Munshi, Kargil, Ladakh

This photograph is of my great grandfather Munshi Aziz Bhat, in his proud head gear Pagdi (locally the Thott) with his two sons, Munshi Habibullah (my grandfather) and Munshi Abdul Rehman, sitting at the Sarai on a usual business day. It was taken by a Mr. Daniel Berger from Neuchatel, Switzerland in 1945, who was probably a Moravian Missionary travelling across Ladakh and Tibet. This photograph along with few others was telegraphed to my great grandfather in Kargil, Ladakh the following year.

Munshi Aziz Bhat was my paternal as well as maternal great grandfather. My mother (daughter of his son, Munshi Abdul Rehman, seated left) and father (son of his other son Munshi Habibullah, seated right) are first cousins. In older times, marriages between cousins was normal like many other cultures of the world. Marriages were fixed when the betrothed were still children and they hardly had any say in the decision.

My great grandfather, Munshi Aziz Bhat was last of the Great Silk route traders of India. Born in Leh in 1866, he was the son of Khoja Rasool Bhat. The last name Bhat came from his ethnicity of  Kashmiri Brahmins from Kishtwar, Kashmir. Due to influences of Islamic revolutionaries during the Mughal period, several Kashmiri Brahmins converted to Islam but the last name was retained. Khoja Rasool Bhat was a record keeper with the Maharaja Pratap Singh of Jammu & Kashmir State government. After he died suffering a sudden illness in 1868, Aziz Bhat’s mother brought up him with the pension she received from the Maharaja’s Government. He was a bright student and managed to pass the class V examination from Skardoo Primary School which was the only primary school in Baltistan (now in Pakistan).

Soon after his mother passed away, Aziz now alone, married four women (two Buddhists and two Muslims and had 15 children between three of them. His first wife Khatija Begum came from Gungani in Baltistan (now Pakistan) and had two sons, (in photograph) Munshi Habibullah (my grandfather) and Munshi Abdul Rehman. The second wife was originally a Buddhist from Zanskar called Kunzes Bee, but she later changed her name to Karima Banoo. His third wife was from Kargil and the fourth, a Buddhist lady came from a village Mulbek about 50 kms from Kargil. With a large family of 40 members, my grandmother tells me that the food cooked everyday was literally like a community feast.

The Silk Route(s) a forgotten road of history, is almost mythological in it’s essence. Eponymous with its most valued piece of trade, Silk from China, it in fact traded every possible item for daily as well as luxury use. Goods were despatched from Asia to many ports and towns in Africa, Europe and the Americas, receiving produce and manufactured items in return, as was the trade system of Barter. The overland and sea Silk Routes frequented during reign of Greek Emperor Alexander, and the Han Dynasty in China, expanded to become a multi-directional, transcontinental thoroughfare for traffic on horseback, donkey, mule, yak and foot. And Kargil, before the infamous wars, had a rich heritage as one of the key feeder routes of the Silk Route.

An important stop on the “Treaty Road” from Srinagar, to Leh and Central Asia, it was said  ‘all the roads lead to Kargil’ as it was equidistant from Kashmir, Baltistan (in Pakistan), Zanskar and Leh. Kargil literally means a place to stop from all directions. Its etymology has evolved from the word Garkill. Where “gar” means from all places and “khil” to stop. And true to its name, all historical accounts of British and European travellers reveal Kargil to be just that. Situated along the river Suru (a tributary of the Indus, which flows into Pakistan) it boasted of a fort build by the Ladakhi King in the 19th century. The old caravan bazaar ran along the river and a few mud houses by the slopes nestled in a green oasis of the Suru valley. The town had a population mix of (Shia) muslim and buddhists, both of whom were very indifferent to the prejudices of creed. Although the local language was Purgi, it is said that atleast two people in each village were also fluent in new Persian and Urdu, and the knowledge of English was very rare.

Munshi Aziz Bhat rose to prominence as a pioneer Silk Route Trader during 1880-1950 when all trading activity in Kargil, both retail and large scale was run and controlled by Punjabis & Hoshiarpuri Lalas. He began his career as a ‘Patwari'(village accountant) for the revenue department, but quit his job in 1915 to try his luck in business. He began as rival to his competitors but soon merged with them to established himself as a large scale trader in the region. He partnered with a Punjabi Sikh merchant Sardar Kanth Singh and started a retail-whole sale shop with a capital of 6000 silver coins (equal to Rs. 6 Lakhs today) and by the end of the year they had made an annual profit of Rs. 9000. In 1920 he established his own large scale trading business with the help of his two older sons and a cousin. The enterprise was named “Munshi Aziz Bhat & Sons”.

Imported from Europe, the shop sold soap, toiletries, stationery, cosmetics, medicines, spices, textiles and shoe polish which was considered a luxury item. The carpets were imported from Central Asia. It also sold unusual items such as horse and camel accessories, catering to the big demand to decorate horses and camels which were a status symbol like cars today. The items were bartered between the traders from all over the world but later with the influence of East India Company and Christian Moravian missionaries, goods began to be traded in money and silver coins. The shops was known far and beyond for its variety of goods and earned itself a local folklore that “one could even find Birds’ Milk at the Munshi Aziz Bhat Sarai”. It is notable that stocking such a range of goods in Kargil, almost 100 years ago, with no paved roads or motor vehicles, was a great feat.

The usual trade route began from Kashgar, Yarkand, Khotan in Central Asia, Xingjiang province of China and entered Indian borders at Nubra valley in Leh to Kargil then carried on till Srinagar on horse or camel backs. From Srinagar it travelled to Hoshiarpur or Amritsar via Rawalpindi by lorries. And from there it travelled to the ports of Bombay and Bengal via trains from where on these goods were shipped to Europe, Africa and Arab countries.

Munshi Aziz Bhat who by now was also appointed as the official petition writer of the Maharaja of the Jammu and Kashmir state for Baltistan Wazarat (region of reign), also built the first ever Inn in Kargil for central Asian traders, the Aziz Bhat Sarai. The Sarai, built as a three story square building in 1920 still stands by the banks of river Suru in old Caravan Bazaar. It was the main hub of activities, a depot for goods meant for all directions including Tibet, India and Baltistan routes. It also housed Bhat’s seven shops. The ground floor of the inn was used to keep horses and straw. The first floor to keep the goods of the traders and the third floor was used for boarding and lodging.

Munshi Aziz had become one of the  most influential people in the whole of Ladakh & Baltistan wazarat.  As a petition writer for the Maharaja he had managed to network with Princes, Kings and high ranking officials from all around the world, including the Moravian missionaries and East India company officials who frequented the town for business and strategic concerns. He was considered a man with integrity because he knew English, was literate and fair in his dealings. He was publicly appointed as the village decision maker, and people from all villages would come to him to settle disputes. For a very busy man he was was a very caring and a loving person. Everyday, he would return from the Sarai, bearing gifts for all of his children and a loaf of meat for his pet dog, a Tibetan Mastiff.  Once, during a famine in the region, he sheltered and fed 60 villagers in his house for almost 50 days.

The Silk Route trade saw its lasts days during the Partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and the uprising of communism in China the following year. All the major trade routes were shut down between India and Pakistan which had now become two separate countries. Hence, all the traders along the route were forced to shut down business activities. The Munshi Aziz Sarai also suffered a similar fate.

My great grandfather passed away of old age in 1948 just one year after the Independence of India and closure of the great silk route. My Grandfather, Munshi Habibullah then joined the state politics. Following him my father, Munshi Abdul Aziz (named after my great grandfather) got into government service in the Revenue department as a Tehsildar and my mother was a government school teacher. My family left the Silk Route trade post independence and most of the family members either joined politics or government service.

The Sarai remained under lock and key for almost half a century before the chance discovery of nothing less than treasure prompted efforts that culminated in the establishment of a museum. On the classic persuasion of a researcher, Jaqueline who immediately recognized the value of the contents, we eventually decided to safe-keep the memorabilia and intensified efforts to house them in a museum in a designated house-space. If it was not for not that intervention, the artifacts would have been forever lost to antiques shops. The Museum is curated from the mercantile items found at the Sarai, from family possessions and relics, and donations from local and other interested parties.

The Aziz Bhat Sarai is considered the only surviving inn of the Silk route in Ladakh and North-West India and the discovery of incredible mercantile items has been an unprecedented find in recorded history. Today, the  museum in our house, This family-operated, public museum the Kargil Museum lives with a vision to preserve ‘The Last Great Silk Route Trader’, Munshi Aziz Bhat’s legacy. It offers anyone who visits a rare glimpse into the Indian and Central Asian business culture of the 19th and early 20th centuries.