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Posts Tagged ‘Jawahar Lal Nehru’

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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165 – My mother’s journey from India to England

Departure_low

My mother Dr. Rehana Bashir (middle with sunglasses) at the Bombay Airport with her friends and family. Bombay, Maharashtra. March 31, 1957

Image and Text contributed by Sohail Akbar, New Delhi

This photograph, as the handwriting below tells us was taken on the 31st of March, 1957 at Bombay Airport, Santacruz. Among the many photographs that adorn a very beautiful album maintained by my mother, Dr. Rehana Bashir, I find this picture the most fascinating, perhaps because of my love for airplanes and airports but also because it is the first picture of a photo album that is primarily a pretext to my mother’s life in England as a student. This picture is clearly my mother’s favourite too as it the opening image of that album.

My mother Rehana was the only daughter born to Prof. Bashiruddin and his wife Shafiq Begum (standing left most in the picture) in 1930. Her father was a Professor at the Aligarh Muslim University and was a true modernist. He sent his daughter to St Mary’s Convent in Allahabad (UP), one of the best missionary schools in the state. She did well in studies and qualified to study Medicine at Lady Hardinge Medical College in Delhi. The year was 1949 and India had only recently achieved Independence, though the scars of partition were very visible.

The best story that she has about going to study in Delhi is the scare that her father’s friends had tried to instill in his mind – of sending a young Muslim girl to study alone in a city where a number of people of the community had lost their lives in the partition riots. But my maternal grandfather was brave and did not succumb to pressure. His daughter found an admission into the Medical College. Needless to say that she was the only Muslim girl in her class. She recalls the time during the admission process – her father had stayed in old Delhi with his friends – and there was night curfew and an electric fence was drawn and turned on around the locality at night.

Lady Hardinge Medical College exposed my mother to a cosmopolitan life and new friends. She remembers riding a bicycle around Connaught Circus, having ice cream at Wengers, (Delhi’s oldest bakery) and watching films at the Regal theatre (the first cinema theatre constructed in Delhi).) She completed her MBBS in 1953. The same album has a lovely photograph of hers in a black graduation gown holding her degree, posing at perhaps one of the famous Connaught Place photo studios.

Her first job brought her back to Allahabad, where a hospital had been opened in the premises of Anand Bhawan, the residence of the Nehrus. It was called the Kamla Nehru Memorial Hospital. This was a prestigious first job, where Prime Minister of India, Jawahar Lal Nehru would drop by whenever he was in town to see how things were. After working for four years and acquiring much needed experience my mother, Rehana, decided to go to England for higher studies. England was still the most favoured destination for education and she already had a couple of her friends in London.

On 31st of March 1957, Dr. Rehana Bashir took a flight, possibly the plane behind her (Flying Tiger Line), or maybe an Air India flight, from Bombay Airport to spend the next three years garnering a Diploma in Gynecology at a hospital in Brighton, England. A whole band of friends and family had come along dto see her off. In the photograph are my grandmother (left most), my two uncles and an aunt. My mother is in the center wearing dark glasses, holding a bouquet of flowers. Next to her is a close doctor friend Pushpmalti who had travelled from Allahabad just to say bye. The lady standing behind my grandmother in dark glasses is a friend from Medical College, Dr. Urmil Shah, their host in Bombay (now Mumbai); this picture is perhaps taken by Dr. Urmil’s husband, Gunvant Bhai and my mother recalls that the three gentlemen standing on the right are friends of Urmil and Gunvant. If we look closely, one of them holds the camera case.

I have often discussed those years in England with my mother and what is fascinating in today’s context is that she says that for three years she did not hear her parent’s voice. Phone services to Aligarh from London were not possible then. It is indeed incredible that we are living in the grand leap of technology.


127- Qutub Minar, the place where many loves met

My husband Rabinder Nath Khanna and I at the Qutub Minar. Delhi. 1954

My husband Rabinder Nath Khanna and I at the Qutub Minar. Delhi. 1954

Image and Text contributed by Deesh Khanna, Gurgaon

I remember when I would visit Delhi from Simla, the Qutub Minar was the place where my husband and I used to meet even before marriage, with family approval, of course. There were several couples and families who would come to the Qutub, meet, hang around, picnic, play and talk. It was and still is, indeed a beautiful monument of India.

I am not sure who took this picture though. It had been only a few months since my marriage in June, because we had begun wearing sweaters. I was wearing a Ferozi (Fuschia blue) Salwar Kurta with the latest cut, with a wonderful complicated hairstyle. Now my hair has thinned so much, but at that time, indulging our hair with beautiful complicated Hairstyles was a huge hobby and personal challenge every morning. I could style my hair in ways you can’t even imagine.

Every weekend, my ‘Rodu” as I fondly called him, and I would take the Tanga (horse carriage) from Daryaganj (old Delhi) and go and see places. Rodu was very fond of showing me new places, and if not places then it was the movies. We loved watching movies at Golcha Cinema. The matinee shows were old movies, and evenings were new ones. In Daryagunj, we lived in one of the several apartments in Madras House.

Both my husband’s family and mine, had come to live in Simla, Himachal Pradesh after Indo-Pak Partition. The families had originally lived in Lahore (now Pakistan). And we girls had studied in Kinnaird College in Lahore and then later at the Church College in Simla. The girls from Kinnaird College were very popular for being feisty, smart and opinionated. In Simla, I used to participate many drama and theatre Groups, all the time playing roles as a man, and the one time I got to play a woman, it was the role of a nurse.

My family were also huge supporters of the Congress, and we cousins and sisters enrolled ourselves to be Congress workers and worked very hard campaigning and collecting donations for Jawahar Lal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. One of those times, we were also asked by the Congress workers to wear Burqas, pretend to be Muslim women and vote on their behalf. We were almost caught when one of my cousins tripped over on a stone and in pain exclaimed “Hai Ram! (Oh Lord Rama – the Hindu God)”. We ran and gave the booth care-takers quite a chase. I laugh when I think about that, but you know, at that time no one thought what was right or wrong, we just did what we were told, and as far as we were concerned it was for a good cause. Anyhow, those requests never came again.

My husband was one of the most well known portrait photographers of Simla and then later Delhi. He had studied Chemistry in Bombay but then he went back to Lahore and worked as a darkroom assistant in a ‘S.Rollo’ Studio. After Partition he got a job with a Kinsey Photo Studio in Simla and worked under a German photographer there. He learnt a lot from him. Their job entailed developing other people’s work as well as photographing people and important delegates and leaders who visited Simla and then later Delhi.

Everyone in my friend’s circle except I knew that Rodu was interested in me and rumours were abound. So when I got wind of that, very upset I confronted him about it on Mall Road. His unexpected response was “Would it be so bad if we were to be together?” I was stunned and I confess I may have begun to like the idea right then.

Later Rodu moved to Delhi to work with the Kinsey Studio, (a branch of the one in Simla) a very popular Photo Studio in Connaught Place and when he sent a marriage proposal, my entire family was delighted, because all this while my mother had used my future husband as a sound board and advisor on my other prospects, and he would sheepishly give her feedback, all the while suppressing his own feelings for me. But nonetheless, when he finally let my family know of his intentions, everyone was happy and we got married six months later.

When we moved to Delhi he continued working with the Kinsey Studio, later he joined the USIS in Delhi (United States Information Services) as a photographer and photographed several of their events, delegates and leaders. At home we converted a small bathroom in the backyard into a darkroom and Rodu and I would develop the negatives that he had photographed. I also continued working as a volunteer for Congress and campaigned for Indira Gandhi.

In Delhi, I remember meeting Amrita Pritam, the acclaimed author and writer, often on the bus. Our families were acquaintances since Lahore. She remembered me from my theatre days and insisted that I did not give it up. But by now I had had three children, and big family responsibilities and so I decided not to do so. We were good and we were happy. In 1980, Rodu decided to work on a contract basis with USIS, and one of those assignments in 1983 he flew on a special plane with the then Secretary of State (USA) to Agra. Upon return, he gave up his seat for another delegate, and took the car instead. My beloved Rodu passed away that day in a car crash on the Agra-Delhi highway. Our lives went through a very dark time, but at the least I know that we really loved and respected each other and we were the best of friends one could ever ask for. We had made each other very happy.

Today my daughters Meenu and Amu, and grandchildren are happy and well. My son Dinesh, is now one of the best known photographers of India. A passion and profession for long he resisted, until one day, years after my husband’s death, he too could not resist the call of the Photograph. I wish Rodu could see his children now. He would be so proud.