Behind the spotlight

A Life in Shadow: The Secret Story of ACN Nambiar, A Forgotten Anti-Colonial Warrior Vappala Balachandran Roli Books ₹695  

There has been a big gap in the historiography of our freedom movement, almost ignoring the revolutionaries, especially those active abroad like Subhas Chandra Bose, following the diktat of authorities and its willing acceptance by a pliant academia.

After Romain Hayes’ Bose in Germany, Anuj Dhar’s India’s Biggest Cover-up, Purabi Roy’s The Search for Netaji: New Findings, Vappala Balachandran, an intelligence officer, offers us a fresh look with a book on Arathil Candoth Narayanan Nambiar, (1896-1986) Netaji's closest aide in Europe. Interestingly, Nambiar maintained excellent relations with both Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira.

Based primarily on Nambiar’s oral transcripts and correspondence, official records, exchange of ideas and information with scholars and family members, Balachandran worked diligently and systematically to throw new light on Nambiar and his network.

Born in Kerala, Nambiar went to France, before being asked to go to Germany by Bose, when he arrived there in 1941. After independence, he was assigned a few diplomatic assignments in Europe by Jawaharlal Nehru, including an ambassadorship to West Germany. Called ‘Nanu’ by both Nehru and Indira, he was shifted to Delhi at her urging, when she became Prime Minister. Why was it done? There is no clear answer to that.

‘Shadowy figure’

For many, as Balachandran suggests, Nambiar remains a ‘shadowy figure’, whose ‘activities’, movements and political affiliations were obscured in secrecy. There is another issue lurking in the background—on whether Nambiar who had ‘rubbed shoulders with kings, democrats, dictators, journalists, political activists and revolutionaries in Europe’ was a ‘spy’. The writer calls him a ‘truly enigmatic figure, who kept to himself.’

Some personal details came to light through intercepted letters when Balachandran was able to access intelligence and surveillance reports of the Bombay Special Branch.

Nambiar had worked with Govind Talwalkar and N.G. Ganpuley, who had set up the Hindustan House in Berlin. Married to Suhasini (sister of Sarojini Naidu) Chattopadhaya, he was closely associated with Virendranath Chatttopadhaya (Chatto), the brother of his wife, and convinced Girija Kumar Mookerjee to join the Free India Centre in Berlin that Bose was setting up.

Nambiar, in his foreword to N.G. Ganpuley’s, Netaji in Germany (1959), says that Bose, who founded the Indian Legion, was “greatly stimulated by accounts of the Czechoslovak and Polish Legion,” and repeatedly compliments Bose’s “unique enterprise in the whole history of Indian struggle for independence... whose extraordinary activities in Europe” happens to be the “the first and the last of their kind in the history of the political struggle of India.”

Nambiar took an anti-Nazi stand, and was arrested for his alleged involvement in the burning of the Reichstag building in Berlin in February 1933, along with Chatto, who had introduced him to Comrade Menkes, the TASS correspondent in Berlin. The TAAS was ‘one of the main sources of receiving information about India and supplying it to the USSR.’ (Roy).

In 1933, Nambiar had to leave Germany and went to Prague while Chatto travelled to Moscow. Maintaining his ‘active relations with the Third International,’ Nambiar provided all help to Bose in his excellent networking efforts in the 1930s, that helped Bose to consolidate in the 1940s. After Bose left on his epic journey to South Asia, Nambiar was appointed by him to look after responsibilities in Germany, and his reports to Bose were sent by German submarines.

Friend of Indira

Balachandran further says, “Over time it becomes clear that Nambiar was more than just a guardian and an avuncular figure to Indira—he became a friend and a confidante.” He found no correspondence between the three (Bose, Nehru, Indira) indicating any misgivings about the assignment that Nambiar undertook for Bose in Germany but “... there is no doubt that Nehru was aware that Nambiar was associated with Bose, as was in all likelihood Indira.” Nambiar also told the writer that Bose “felt that Nehru’s pro-British attitude could be a problem.” Bose was, indeed, proved right.

After Sanjay Gandhi’s tragic death, Indira ‘mystified’ him by saying, “What is worse is that some of those who had, and have, no foothold are now trying to stage a comeback.” Rajiv Gandhi, however, remained aloof from Nambiar.

Another mystery remains, surrounding Netaji’s disappearance. There is not a hint on what Nambiar may have known, or Balachandran himself had gathered, about Bose’s whereabouts after August 18, 1945. The Mukherji Commission confirmed that the alleged air crash never happened.

May be, we have to wait for the unearthing of the Nehru/Indira correspondence with their dear ‘Nanu’ or some other ‘top secret’ files. Did he know the truth?

Should we then assume, that Nambiar, once the most trusted aide of Netaji, became a changed man after 1945?

A Life in Shadow: The Secret Story of ACN Nambiar, A Forgotten Anti-Colonial Warrior; Vappala Balachandran, Roli Books, ₹695.

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 10:49:56 AM |

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