It’s time to reopen RAW’s case files on the covert activities of ACN Nambiar in Europe of the 1920s and 30s. They might help us solve many a riddle of the foreign ties of Indian freedom fighters
Iqbal Malhotra | 06 Apr, 2018
According to MI5 documents that remained classified until 2014, the British believed that the closest aide in Europe of Subhas Chandra Bose, ACN Nambiar was a Soviet spy before the war. The documents show that a Soviet defector in the 1950s said Nambiar had been an agent of the GRU—Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye or Main Intelligence Directorate—in the 1920s.
ACN Nambiar was the fourth son of writer Vengayil Kunhiraman Nayanar and Arathil Kandathil Kalyani Amma. Nambiar was born in Thalasseri, Kerala, in 1896 and had gone to London to pursue studies. Over there, he became influenced by the famous revolutionary Chatto or Virendra Nath Chattopadhyay, younger brother of Sarojini Naidu. He married Suhasini Chattopadhyay, the strikingly beautiful sister of both Sarojini Naidu and Virendra Nath Chattopadhyay in 1919 in Berlin. Both of the newly wed Nambiar’s were part of a secret circle of Indian revolutionaries in Berlin. This circle was operated by Virendra Nath Chattopadhyay.
Chatto who was born in 1880 had been in Britain since 1902. He had studied at both Oxford University and at the Middle Temple in London. Thereafter, he flitted around Europe flirting with several revolutionary movements, while basing himself in and around Berlin.
Meanwhile, from Berlin, Chattopadhyay went to Moscow in 1920 to attend the 2nd World Congress of the Comintern or Communist International. There he met famous Indian Communist MN Roy and used his help to develop financial and political support by the Communists for the Indian independence movement, including among other Asians in Moscow who were working on revolutionary movements. Helping them closely was Mikhail Borodin, a prominent Comintern Agent. MN Roy also introduced Chatto to Agnes Smedley, whom he had intimately known from his time spent in the US. Back in December 1921 in Berlin, Chattopadhyay founded an Indian News and Information Bureau with Rash Behari Bose,who was his correspondent based in Japan. For seven years during the 1920s, namely from 1921 to 1928, Chattopadhyay lived in Berlin with Agnes Smedley, an American, who was also an agent of the OGPU, the predecessor to the NKVD/KGB. Chatto remained in Berlin until 1932 as the general secretary of the League Against Imperialism and was able to convince Jawaharlal Nehru to affiliate the Indian National Congress with the league in 1927. Thereafter, in 1927 itself, he accompanied Nehru to Brussels to attend the Conference of the League Against Imperialism. Nehru was President of the Congress Party at this point. Nehru also became acquainted with Agnes Smedley.
During this period, Nehru along with his father Motilal and wife Kamala also met Nambiar in Berlin. A deep and lasting friendship developed between the two men. Nambiar’s elder brother Madhavan had been a contemporary of Nehru’s in Cambridge. Nehru financially provided for the Indian Information Bureau in Berlin, which had earlier been set up by Chatto. Nambiar was placed in charge of it. Nambiar ran this office with help from his typist Eva Geissler who had earlier worked in the KPD or German Communist Party. An affair followed and Nambiar divorced his wife some years later. Nambiar’s wife Suhasini had been studying in Moscow for quite a few years and in July 1928, he visited her in Moscow at the invitation and expense of the Soviet Government. Nambiar also joined the KPD. Eva Geissler’s sister Louise was living with MN Roy. The link to Moscow and the Comintern was secure. Nambiar was in their embrace.
The year 1927 was very significant for Chatto. With pressure from MN Roy, Willi Munzenburg who was a Member of both the Comintern as well as the KPD became Chatto’ s new mentor. He secured admission for Chatto to both the KPD as well as the League Against Imperialism. Chatto had finally secured an identity he had been searching for all of these years. Because of his being an agent of the Comintern, the KPD and the League Against Imperialism, Chatto developed a very close relationship with the Berlin based representatives of the Soviet News Agency TASS. He became a key source for TASS to secure information about the entire Indian revolutionary movement based in Europe. Chatto worked very closely with both Mr ZH Menkes and Ms UI Annankova of TASS in Berlin.
Chatto in fact formally introduced his brother-in-law Nambiar to Menkes of TASS by a letter of introduction dated February 20th,1930, as revealed by Historian Purabi Roy. Nambiar had returned to Berlin after a stint in Moscow as a student at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV). This was run by the Comintern. This letter also confirmed and formalized the existing financial relationship between TASS and Nambiar. What was the need for such an introduction? Was this a move to provide legitimate justification for Nambiar’s visits to the TASS office in Berlin? The GRU office also operated from the same place under TASS cover. In fact, there are declassified reports that reveal that the GRU was running an ‘illegal’ in Berlin at that time who provided information on India and this agent was referred to as ‘B’. This supply of information from ‘B’ was regularly passed on to the TASS Chief in Moscow Mr Yakob Doletskii by Ms Annankova. Was Annankova the ‘case officer’ who ran B? Was Nambiar B?
According to Volume 3 of The Cold War: Hot wars of the Cold War, which was edited by Lori Lyn Bogle, GRU officials enjoyed the typical and transparent covers of Military Attaches in foreign countries. In addition, the GRU made use of TASS cover.
The GRU’s first predecessor in post-tsarist Russia was created on October 21st, 1918, under the sponsorship of Leon Trotsky, who was then the civilian overseer of the Red Army. It was originally known as the Registration Directorate (Registrupravlenie or RU). It was given the task of handling all military intelligence, particularly the collection of intelligence of military or political significance from sources outside the Soviet Union. The GRU operated residencies all over the world. It also ran a network of ‘illegals’ or non-Russian foreign nationals who worked for the GRU but were not on its rolls. During this period, the GRU was headed by Jan Berzin. Berzin served in the GRU from 1920 to 1935. Among his agents was Richard Sorge.
When Agnes Smedley left Chatto in 1928, she moved to Shanghai as foreign correspondent for a liberal German newspaper. Thereafter, she had a torrid affair with Richard Sorge, Berzin’ s deep cover agent in the Far East. Ruth Price, author of the most recent and extensive biography of Smedley, writes that there is very strong evidence in former Soviet archives that Smedley was indeed a spy who engaged in espionage for the Comintern and on behalf of the Soviet Union. Did Berzin order Agnes Smedley to move to Shanghai to work with Richard Sorge as a team after she had switched to the GRU from the OGPU? All illegals recruited by the GRU from the pool of exiles in Berlin were approved by the GRU’s Alexander Krotokov aka Alexander Erdberg.
With this historical evidence, no further proof is needed to infer that Nambiar was a ‘fellow traveller’ with the GRU. At the same time, he was extremely close to Nehru. Over the years, through the 1930’s, Nehru continued to fund Nambiar’s existence in Europe. Both Nambiar and Chattopadhyay used their journalistic cover to spy for the USSR. After Chatto moved to Moscow in 1931, Nambiar was pretty much left alone in Berlin.
However, Nambiar’s movements were also being watched by Department 1A, the German Counter Intelligence Agency that made way for the Gestapo in April 1933. He was a foreigner with a British Passport. He was a member of the KPD and he also worked for TASS. As soon as the Nazi’s came to power in January 1st, 1933, along with a number of other Indian ‘revolutionaries’, he was arrested on January 27th, 1933, and only released after two months on March 25th, 1933. Thereafter, he was deported and he left for Prague. Was Nambiar ‘turned’ during his two-month detention and did he become a ‘double agent’ now working for both the Soviets and the Nazis? Why was he released unless he was turned? Did he continue to work for the GRU? If the GRU felt that he had been turned, they would definitely have had him liquidated. Could he therefore have transitioned into a double agent?
BAIRELY A FEW Weeks before Nambiar’s release and deportation from Berlin to Prague, Subhas Chandra Bose arrived in Vienna in the first week of March 1933. Bose and Nehru were very close friends. Bose’s approach to befriend Nambiar was not a bolt from the Blue. There are very strong grounds to infer that Bose was introduced to Nambiar by Nehru. Nehru had been financially supporting Nambiar since 1927 and also was a contemporary of Nambiar’s brother in Cambridge. Further, Nambiar had in turn been introduced to Nehru by Chatto. When Nambiar finally met Bose in Prague, he was possibly working for three masters, namely, the Soviets, the Nazis and Nehru. All three of his masters had a common interest in Bose.
The Soviets had been pursuing Bose since early 1920 when he had been ‘spotted’ by Rajni Palme Dutt and identified to the Comintern’ s Comrade Petrov as a very promising recruit to push the Comintern’ s agenda in India. Bose had declined an invitation to attend the Second Comintern in Moscow in the early 1920s and the Comintern had sent Abani Mukherjee to India in pursuit of him. But Bose had refused to board the Soviet Bus. Stalin needed a man of Bose’s talents to steal the Congress Party away from Gandhi and use its mass base to promote revolution through armed struggle and thus deal a death blow to the British Empire. But no one in the Soviet system was able to explain the dialectic of this argument to Bose. The task was to fall upon Nambiar.
The Germans who were rearming after Hitler took power needed to identify potential partners in their anticipated forthcoming confrontation with the British. Both Captain Conrad Patzig Abwehr Chief till 1935 and his successor Admiral Canaris succeeded in befriending Bose and he became a critical part of their future plan to confront the British. For this task, the key was also Nambiar. However, without access to relevant Nazi archives, it is difficult to confirm this hypothesis. However, the fact that Nambiar was back in Berlin in December 1933, albeit on a visit barely nine months after having been released from incarceration, is a valid and tested prediction of this theory.
Nehru regarded Bose as an adversary to his personal rise to power in the Congress Party and therefore needed to find a peg to ring fence Bose’s ambitions and capabilities. Nehru entrusted Nambiar to find such a peg to tie down Bose.
For Nambiar, this confluence of interests of his three masters made his task simpler and also enabled him to reconcile the contradictions that were likely to arise in the pursuit of such an objective. Bose needed a German interpreter who was also fluent in English. The Nazis would not permit any interpreter other than one of their own for this task.
A young Austrian girl called Emilie Schenkel who was 24 years old and came from a petite bourgeoise background was introduced to Bose by a Dr Mathur in 1934. Who was this Dr Mathur and how did he know Bose? Did Nambiar introduce Dr Mathur to Bose? Did Dr Mathur know that Emilie Schenkel’s membership number in the NSF&DF (National Socialist Women’s Organization) was E 211? This was the Ladies wing of the Nazi Party. Was Emilie Schenkel an Abwehr Agent whose mission was to seduce Bose into a honey trap? Was Nambiar aware of this and was he a party to this plan? Did the prospect of Bose falling for a German girl also serve Nehru’s purpose of tying down Bose?
BY THE TIME the Nazis took power in Germany in January 1933, various German Indologists were drawing ethnocultural parallels between German warrior castes and the Vedic Kshatriya’s by analysing the Bhagavad Gita with the Nordic Edda for similarities. Two eminent Indologists, namely Jacob Hauer and Walter Wust, were at the forefront of this theory. Wust was a Vedic Scholar and also SS Standartenfuhrer who was close to Reichsfurher Himmler as Director of the SS’s Ahnenerbe, a pseudo-scientific organisation dedicated to discovering and propagating research about the ancient Aryan ancestors of the Germans. In his 1939 book , Hauer who was also an SS Officer portrayed the Vedic god Indra as a model for Nazi soldiers. To spread Indo-Aryan martial values within the SS Himmler advocated regular meditation sessions according to Indian religious leaders. He also used the Bhagavad Gita to rationalize SS crimes like The Night of the Long Knives by citing the sacralisation of terror embodied in the Gita.
Himmler was therefore looking at connecting with an Indian leader who could convert the German theoretical identification with Vedic philosophy and spirituality into a practical partnership on the ground. Bose was such a potential candidate and his guide in Europe was Nambiar, who was also presumably working with the Nazis after his release from incarceration.
The Historian Purabi Roy has argued that upon Nambiar’s return to Berlin in 1933, he also introduced Bose to the TASS Representatives in Berlin, namely Menkes and Annankova. The Soviets were very pleased. Bose was unaware of the depth of Nambiar’s entanglement with Nehru or of the honey trap that the Germans set up for him with Nambiar’s acquiescence. Bose was in bliss and failed to read the nuances when he met the entire Nehru family of Jawaharlal Nehru, Kamala and Indira with Nambiar in December 1935 in Vienna and the Badenweiler health resort in Germany.
The Nazis gave Bose a long rope in pursuing his leftist agenda. This pursuit brought a whole range of Indian origin revolutionaries, anti- British individuals and Soviet illegals into the knowledge of both the Abwehr and the Kripo or Nazi Germany’s Criminal Police. At the same time, pressure was put on Bose by Emilie Schenkel to formalise their relationship. Such a step would however have spelt the death knell for Bose’s continuation as a serious political figure in the struggle for independence. What was he to do? Faced with this quandary Bose returned to India in early 1936.
But the lure of Emilie Schenkel was very powerful and Bose was back in Badgastein in November 1937. At that time, he was President Elect of the Congress Party. Nambiar was a witness to the unconventional marriage ceremony Bose had with Emilie Schenkel on December 26th, 1937, at Badgastein. Bose also used this time in Germany to complete his book , in which he advocated the superiority of armed struggle over non-violence to secure independence for India. There was now a public tilt in Bose’s posture towards the Comintern line. Nambiar’s co-brother MN Roy had been admitted into the Congress in December, 1936 along with several hundred other leftists.
When Bose took over the post of Congress President in February 1938, the time appeared ripe for a left-wing coup to take over the Congress Party and turn it into a weapon of armed struggle against British rule. Bose decided to break convention and stand for a second term as Congress president against Gandhi’s candidate. He had the support of all of the radical left in the Congress. In the presidential elections held on January 29th, 1939, Bose defeated Gandhi’s candidate P Sitaramayya by over 200 votes. Nehru sided with Gandhi. But, despite his unexpected victory achieved with left support, Bose, in the face of Gandhi’s strident opposition, couldn’t last long in his second term as Congress president and resigned on April 29th, 1939. Did Nehru reveal all the secrets of Bose’s life in Germany to Gandhi? Did Nambiar have a role to play in bringing all these facts to Nehru? With this, did Nambiar thwart the Comintern’ s plan to take over the Congress Party? Did Nambiar finally prove his new unswerving loyalty to the Nazis who didn’t want to lose Bose to the Soviets?
Were the Soviets disappointed with Bose’s dethronement? Did they fear that Bose’s romantic involvement with Schenkel would cause him to fall into a Nazi embrace? Did the Soviet Nazi pact of 1939 present a dilemma to the Soviets about the future moves of Bose? On July 4th, 1939, Bose was corresponding with Schenkel and had plans to visit her in Germany in August or September 1939. However, Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1st, 1939, put paid to all such plans. Bose was grief stricken.
There are unsubstantiated reports that if Bose had not been arrested for seditious speeches in July 1940, he would have been escorted to Moscow by Punjab Kirti Party Leader Achhar Singh Chhina to meet Stalin. It is acknowledged in certain left-wing circles that after Bose’s arrest in July 1940, Chhina went to see Stalin by himself and secured promises of continuing Soviet help to Bose. On his return, Chhina is reported to have submitted a written report to the Politburo of the CPI. The existence of this document is neither confirmed nor denied. It is within this backdrop of both the Nazi Soviet pact of 1939 and the confluence of interest in Bose by the Nazis and the Soviets that a joint Abwehr-GRU operation spirited Bose out of house arrest in Calcutta via Kabul and Moscow. Nothing has been revealed about what Bose did and whom he met while he transited to Berlin through the USSR between March 23rd to 31st,1941. This information is also classified in Soviet era archives in Russia. Further, when Bose arrived in Berlin in April 1941, adequate ground work had been done to label and stigmatise Bose as a left-wing pro-Soviet agent of the Comintern. Was this disinformation spread by the GRU so that the Nazis would expel Bose back into the USSR? The GRU had not reckoned with the important role that the Nazis had earmarked for Bose. Not only were they expecting him to enlist the 40,000 Indian POW’s captured by Field Marshall Rommel’s Afrika Corps into the Wehrmacht, but Himmler also needed him to orchestrate the symbiosis of what the Nazis perceived as Indo-Aryan esotericism with the Nazi ideology.
Within two months of Bose’s arrival in Germany, Operation Barbarossa had been launched and the Soviet Union was invaded by Nazi Germany. Bose was focused on ensuring the enlistment of all of the 40,000 Indian POW’s in Germany to Hitler’s cause. This proved to be a major disappointment as only 4,000 signed up. This put paid to the Nazi plans to create two Divisions of Indian troops in the Wehrmacht. One of the two most important reasons for Bose’s relevance to the Nazis had been utterly unsuccessful. The 4,000 strong Indian Legion or Legion Freies Indien, while being commissioned into the Wehrmacht, did not carry the punch it was expected to do. Nambiar was a worried man. What would happen if the Nazis lost interest in Bose? With the Wehrmacht slicing through the Ukraine towards Moscow, what new demands would the GRU place on Nambiar? General Jan Berzin under whose watch Nambiar had been recruited into the GRU, had now been replaced by the much more demanding General Fillip Golikov.
Nambiar was also very friendly with Count Hiroshi Oshima the Japanese Ambassador to Germany. Nambiar knew through him that his old colleague at the Indian Information Bureau in Tokyo, Rash Behari Bose, had taken charge of the newly formed Indian National Army in Singapore. The INA consisted of Indian POWs from Singapore and Malaya under the leadership of Captain Mohan Singh who defected to the Japanese. The INA had about 40,000 troops in its ranks. Nambiar convinced Count Oshima that Bose was the natural leader of this army and should replace Rash Behari Bose. Did Nambiar then sell this to the GRU as a brilliant idea to get access for Bose into the highest echelons of Japanese decision making? The Soviets were looking for such a source after the arrest of their deep cover agent in Japan, Richard Sorge in September 1941. This would also place Bose far away from trouble from the Abwehr in Germany and also provide the Abwehr with an additional source of intelligence from within the Japanese War Machine. This was a veritable coup to move Bose away from Europe to South East Asia. That Nambiar succeeded in placating both the Nazis and Soviets was a major achievement of his and actually opened the way for India’s independence in 1947. Though Bose was elated with the prospect of breaking out of the Nazi embrace, he was also in a quandary about Emilie Schenkel and their newly born daughter. With US entry into the War in December 1941 and with the German defeat at Stalingrad in the autumn of 1942, it was a foregone conclusion that Germany would be on the losing side. Therefore, as a plan for the future, if Bose wanted to go to Austria after the end of the war to be reunited with Schenkel and their daughter, he could only do so by travelling through the Soviet Union. And at the end of the war, Austria was under Allied occupation and Vienna was in the Soviet zone. For some time, there were Soviet troops lodged in Schenkel’s house. Schenkel was now no longer controlled by the Abwehr. She was employed in the Vienna Trunk Office and looked after by the GRU.
Nambiar was deliberately fleeing the Red Army after the war and ended up being arrested in Austria by the British. Upon his release from internment, he managed to get across to Switzerland with the help of his former mistress Eva Geissler. Nehru it appeared was in touch with him during his internment and got him a job with the Indian Embassy in Berne, Switzerland. Over the next 10 years he was appointed Indian Ambassador to Sweden and Germany and sought retirement in Zurich at the age of 62 in 1958. Post retirement he was awarded the Padma Bhushan by President Rajendra Prasad. Having served in the External Affairs Ministry for 10 years, Nambiar had earned himself retirement benefits. After all, he couldn’t have retired in Zurich without a form of income? Within the Ministry of External Affairs Secret files, there must be an executive order authorizing payment of Nambiar’s pension in Swiss Francs till his demise? Whenever he travelled to India he stayed at the Prime Minister’s house. Why was Nehru so concerned about Nambiar’s whereabouts and well-being after the war and what was so special about their friendship? Why did Nehru provide Nambiar a Diplomatic job in Europe and attendant Diplomatic immunity for a period of 10 years?
THE GRU IS not unforgiving to defectors from its ranks. Recently a former Russian Spy Sergei Skripal who defected to Britain’s MI6 was allegedly poisoned by the Russian Governments agents as charged by the British Government. Nambiar could have been worried about being assassinated by a GRU hit squad? By providing him first diplomatic cover and then Ambassadorial postings, Nehru gave him legitimate protection. Further, the Cold War was raging in Europe. A former officer of German Military Intelligence, Major General Reinhard Gehlen set up an intelligence organisation with CIA help in 1946 called the Gehlen Org. This organisation interviewed every German resident who had anything to do with either the KPD or the Red Army or Soviet Intelligence or was interned as a POW after the war and released thereafter.
Till January 26th, 1950, India was still a British Dominion. All Indian Ambassadors presented their credentials on behalf of the King Emperor. Nambiar was permitted to be employed under the British crown even though he had been a Nazi collaborator. Could this have been possible because he was re-employed by the Germans in 1947 within the Gehlen Org and therefore the British waived aside their objections? This re-employment would have provided him with an additional security cover.
Nehru also had the Government of India pay small sums of money to Emilie Schenkel in the immediate post war years, particularly after Nambiar took up employment in Berne with the Indian Embassy. Thereafter, Nehru also had created and institutionalized a trust fund with a corpus of Rs 2 lakh for Anita Bose, Subhas’s daughter. This was called the Anita Bose Trust Fund. Did Nehru bring Nambiar under the ambit of the Government of India for 10 long years after his release from incarceration and provide financial support to the Bose family in Austria purely out of altruism? Or was there more to it? Did Nehru disbelieve the plane crash story about Subhas Bose’s death and had Nambiar monitoring news about Subhas Bose’s resurrection, in the event it ever happened or was to happen?
The Nambiar story never ended with his retirement in 1958. In March 1980, 22 years after Nambiar’s retirement from the Government of India and right after Mrs Indira Gandhi’s return to power, why did then RAW Chief NF Suntook on a visit to Zurich, direct his Zurich Station Chief V Balachandran to provide protective cover to Nambiar in Zurich? What event had transpired in 1980 or in the years when Mrs. Gandhi was out of power, that the 84-year-old Nambiar suddenly needed a baby sitter? Intriguingly, in October 1982, this protective cover was transformed into protective custody and a reluctant Nambiar acquiesced to being virtually ‘extradited’ back to India. Why?
V Balachandran has recently written a very quaint book on this subject that raises many more questions than it provides answers. What it does reveal is that there exists a whole body of files within RAW on Nambiar and by extension, on Bose. On April 26th, 2016, the Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju told the Lok Sabha that two out of five Japanese files on Subhas Bose would be declassified by the end of 2016. Thereafter, there is no news in the public domain about the actions of the Japanese government. Why does the Japanese government still hold classified files on Subhas Bose 73 years after his alleged death?
A declassified SDECE or French Intelligence document dated December 11th, 1947, lists Subhas Chandra Bose as ‘missing’ from French Indo-China. If Bose had indeed perished in the plane crash, why would French Intelligence list him as missing, well over two years after the alleged crash was supposed to have occurred?
Perhaps the most interesting clue has been provided by Balachandran himself on the last page of his book, where he has inserted a quote given to the Indian Express on 19th June, 1988, by George Fernandes: “The full account of the Nehru family, living and dead, will be known when we are able to get a complete dossier on late Narayan Nambiar’s activities abroad.”
The files on Nambiar that exist within RAW could perhaps show the way forward. Is the Modi Government listening?