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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 44, New Delhi, October 16, 2021

ACN Nambiar: An Unknown Freedom-Fighter Abroad | B P Mathur

Friday 15 October 2021, by B P Mathur


As we enter the 75th year of our freedom, the most appropriate thing to do is to pay homage to our freedom fighters by remembering the sacrifices, trial and tribulations they have gone through. This would inspire our countrymen, particularly youths and develop a spirit of nationalism and patriotism in them, so necessary for nation building. During our long struggle for freedom, a band of daring youths went abroad to Europe, USA and other places to escape the iron hand of British rulers and worked tirelessly for the cause of country’s freedom, despite facing great hardship and suffering. One of these freedom-warrior was A C N Nambiar, who had the unique distinction of being a close compatriot of Subhash Chandra Bose when he founded the Free India Centre and the Indian Legion in Germany in 1942, as also a confidant of Nehru family, both Jawaharlal and Indira Gandhi. Nambiar being a very reticent and self-effacing person, little is known about his life and work. In this context a recent book, A Life in Shadow - The Secret Story of ACN Nambiar - A Forgotten Anti-colonial Warrior by Vappala Balachandran (Roli Books, New Delhi, 2016), assumes great deal of historical importance. Balachandran a former Intelligence Officer, while stationed in Europe in 1980s, was asked by Indira Gandhi then Prime Minister, to look after the health and well-being of Nambiar, who had grown old and living in Switzerland. This brought the two together, which blossomed into close intimacy and lasted till January 1986, when Nambiar passed away at New Delhi, where he had shifted a year earlier. In the book author has pieced together, Nambiar’s life from a sketchy transcript of his past life which he had dictated when he was very old with fading memory, declassified records of British Intelligence and secret Bombay Special CID papers from 1928 onwards, besides his own intimate conversation with Nambiar. The author has done meticulous research, consulted old archives and travelled to far away places at personal discomfort, to construct facts about the life of this extra-ordinary person, who had to perforce live in secrecy .

Arathil Candoth Narayanan Nambiar was born on 2nd June 1896 at Tellicherry in Kerala. He came from a distinguished family background, known by the family name of Arathil Candoth, which was suffixed to Nambiar’s name, as per the custom. His father was a rich landlord and a well known literary figure in Malayalam. He did his early education in Tellichery and thereafter moved to Madras for higher studies. He studied in Presidency College for four years and passed law from Madras Law College. While at college he chanced to meet Suhasini Chattopadhyaya, a very beautiful and talented girl with distinguished family background. The two fell in love and got married. This changed the course of Nambiar’s life. In 1914 Nambiar’s father passed away and the management of family fortune came in the hands of his elder brother Madhavan who became the family patriarch. Madhavan was staunchly opposed to his marriage with Suhasini and the two fell out over the issue, resulting in Nambiar walking out of the family house in a huff. Nambiar was in severe financial distress with no means to support himself, when a benevolent family friend helped him and suggested that he should go to London for higher studies and offered to bear the expenses. Accordingly he sailed for London in autumn of 1919, leaving Suhasni behind to complete her studies. He initially joined London School of Economics but later shifted to a training college for teachers, as he had flair for teaching. It was at London that his political consciousness and anti-colonial spirit was born. After three years stay in London, he returned to India in 1922 with high expectations. On reaching Madras he met his brother, but found him still very cold and unhelpful. He was greatly disappointed and was in a bit of wilderness, when an unexpected opportunity opened up. The same family friend who had financed his studies in London had established a branch of his trading firm in London and wanted Nambiar to take up its management responsibility. Nambiar was given a brief training in Madras and soon thereafter he left for London to take up his new job.

A new life began for Nambiar in London. He hired a flat and was joined by his wife Suhasini who had come to England a few months earlier for higher studies at Oxford. But this cosy domestic arrangement was soon disturbed. The firm where Nambiar was working suffered financial loss and wound up operations in London and he lost his job. Nambiar again found himself in financial difficulty and was looking around for a job, when he found it expedient to move to Germany where Suhasini’s elder brother Virendranath Chattopadhyaya was living. He along with his wife moved to Berlin in 1924. In Berlin Nambiar launched on a new career as a journalist. His past experience as a correspondent of Hindu and association with its editor came to his rescue. He got an assignment as its foreign correspondent and started writing a weekly column. He also started writing columns for several Indian newspapers, such as Amrita Bazar Patrika, besides contributing to the local press. His modest income was supplemented by Suhasini, who took up job as an English teacher. In Germany Nambiar came in close contact with a group of Indian revolutionaries who found the country most hospitable for work relating to India’s freedom and himself became an intimate part of the group.

Suhasini’s eldest brother Virendranath Chattopadhyaya had come to London in 1902 for higher studies to qualify as a barrister and take up ICS examination. He was soon drawn into anti-British movement launched by Indian nationalists under the umbrella of Home Rule Society and found the atmosphere in England very hostile and moved out, first to Paris and thereafter to Germany. The pre first-world –war Germany offered a very hospitable environment to Indian revolutionaries as German officials believed that they will be useful allies in the event of a war with Britain. As a leading member of the Indian revolutionary group, he became Secretary of Berlin India Committee and in 1915 coordinated the planning of an attack on India with German support, by sending armed men via Afghanistan. This operation, however, fizzled out due to various imponderables. He later worked towards internationalizing the issue of India’s freedom and was actively associated with founding of a left-wing organization- League Against Imperialism in 1927, with the objective of fighting against colonial oppression and imperialism. Hitherto a staunch nationalist, his political views took a new incarnation and he turned communist. In 1931 he moved to Soviet Union and took its citizenship. Tragically, he fell out of favour with communist leadership and became a victim of Stalin’s infamous purges and was executed in 1937.

Suhasini came from a very distinguished and talented family background. Her father was a reputed educationalist based in Hyderabad and was the first Indian to earn D.Sc from Edinburg University. Her eldest sister was the celebrated Sarojini Naidu, well known poet and politician, who had held the post of President of Indian National Congress. Another brother Harindranath was a reputed poet, script writer, actor and parliamentarian. Suhasini herself was a woman of great talent, well versed in music, dancing and fine arts with a noble bearing. As a student in England she was caught up in anti-colonial movement, which gradually turned into radical left wing politics and she eventually became a staunch communist. She returned to India in September 1928, with the idea of working as a communist party activist and made Bombay her base. She was soon involved in what was known as Meerut conspiracy case, though unlike other communist leaders she was not arrested and prosecuted in a court of law, but from hitherto onwards, was kept under constant police surveillance. Suhasini had hoped that Nambiar would follow her and return to India. On her return she wrote him numerous letters to come back to India or sponsor her visit to Germany so that she could join him, but Nambiar was cold and unresponsive. Finally in February 1929, Nambiar dropped a bombshell, telling her that their relationship has to be broken as he has found a new partner and living with her and they have to separate. Eva Geissler was a German woman, active member of communist party, who worked as Nambiar’s secretary and he became very fond of her and she started living with him as his mistress. Later, Eva moved to Zurich from Berlin and married a Swiss man but kept her contact with Nambiar and helped him on various occasion, particularly after the 2nd world war, when he was in severe difficulty. Nambiar’s letter devastated Suhasini, she kept pleading with him to change his mind but Nambiar remained unmoved. Eventually, after a wait of six years, she got a divorce. At Bombay Suhasini came in contact with Ramkrishna Mahadev Jambhekar who was an active communist party worker and a veteran trade union leader and with whom she shared common interests in music, visual arts and literature. They developed a liking for each other and got married in 1939 and continued to work for the communist party. Over years Suhasini’s health deteriorated, she developed knee problem and passed away in 1973.

Nambiar was an accredited journalist and came to know large number of Indians of different political persuasion, who were living in Berlin or came there on a short visit and kept abreast of political developments in India. He developed acquaintance with M N Roy, who was a very influential member of communist party, due to his closeness to Lenin and had founded the Communist Party of India. But after Stalin came to power, he developed serious differences with him, which forced him to leave Moscow and move to Berlin. He was also in touch with revolutionaries such as Champakaraman Pillai and Bhupendranath Dutta, who were staying in Berlin. In 1929 Nambiar was given responsibility of running the ‘Indian Information Bureau’, a small office to help and support Indians who come to Germany for studies. Amongst the students who came in his contact were Zakir Hussain, the future President and Ram Manohar Lohia the famous socialist leader. The office had to fold up after three years due to shortage of funds.

This was a tumultuous period in German history, when Nazi’s were gaining ascendency and Hitler was bidding for power. On 27th February 1933 there was mysterious burning of Reichstag- the German Parliament building, which provided Hitler alibi to assume absolute power. The next day Nazi storm-troopers raided Nambiar’s flat and arrested him, assaulted him and put him under police custody for an indefinite period without any specific charge and trial. They also took away his files, documents and typewriter and confiscated his cash. Finally, at the intervention of British embassy he was released on 25th March, after being kept in custody for 26 days. His papers and belongings were not given back. He was also instructed to leave Prussia within eight days. Following the traumatic experience, Nambiar left Germany in April 1933 and moved to Prague facing an unsettled future.

At Prague Nambiar got introduced to Prof Lesny, head of Department of Indian language and literature at the University, who proved to be of great help in his settling down in the new city. Prof Lesny had worked as a Visiting professor at Shantiniketan and had soft corner for India. At Prague, Nambiar continued writing for several Indian papers as before, reporting on Central European and Balkan affairs. He also became a correspondent for National Herald which was just started by Pt Nehru. He also supplemented his modest income from writing book reviews. Many of his dispatches were anti-Nazi, which greatly offended the German leadership.

Nambiar’s coming to Prague gave a new direction to his life. He met Subhas Chandra Bose, which fructified into his becoming a close confidant and threw him into the vortex of India’s war of independence. Subhash’s health had greatly deteriorated during his long prison sentence in India and was given parole to be able to go Europe for treatment. In June 1933, he came to Vienna for treatment and visited Prague, where he met Nambiar first time, who helped him in building ties with politicians and intellectuals in nearby countries. At Prague he met Edouard Benes, Czechoslovakia’s Foreign Minister who later became Prime Minister. He also visited Poland. Czechoslovakia and Poland were the two countries which greatly interested him. He carefully studied the way Czechoslovakia legion had been formed during World War I, with Britain and Russian help, to win Czechoslovakia freedom from Austrian domination and the way Polish legion had benefitted from Japanese help to enable it to throw off the Russian yoke. Bose believed that India’s struggle required support from abroad, the same way other nations had benefitted. He stayed in Europe almost three years, travelling extensively establishing associations to promote friendship between India and European countries and meeting opinion makers and leaders of government to win their support for India’s freedom. Nambiar had cautioned Bose, not to expect any help from Germany. Hitler had written in Mein Kampf that Britain’s domination as a superior race is preferable to Indian independence and saw no problem in imperialist collaboration between Germany and Britain for mastery over the world. Bose’s visits to Germany were disappointing, but nevertheless he continued to seek her support for liberation of India. While at Vienna, an interesting development in Bose’s personal life took place. In June 1934, a pretty young woman, named Emile Schenkl, coming from an Austrian Catholic family background, who knew English and could take dictation in short hand, came to work as his secretary. Bose was working at frantic pace on his book, The Indian Struggle to meet a deadline for its publication, and was in dire need of secretariat assistance. Gradually a close friendship developed between the two, which blossomed into love. Subhas returned to India in March 1936, plunged headlong in national politics, but kept in close touch with Emile through correspondence. He was elected President of Indian National Congress, but before taking charge in January 1938, he made a short breezy visit of six weeks to Vienna, to spend time with Emile at his favourite resort of Badgastein. On December 26, 1937 Subhas married Emile, but the marriage was kept a secret. Nambiar met Subhas during this visit to Europe, probably knew about the marriage, but kept the secret to himself.

Nambiar’s stay in Prague saw fast changing political landscape in Europe. German troops marched into Prague in March 1939 making Czechoslovakia a German protectorate, to the bewilderment of entire world. Nambiar thought it would not be safe for him to stay there anymore and hurriedly left for Paris, leaving behind his belongings which included his precious collection of books. Simultaneously rapid developments were taking place on India’s political landscape. Bose became President of Indian National Congress in January 1938 , but had to resign in April 1939, due to irreconcilable differences with Gandhi Ji. The second-world war had broken, Bose was put behind bar and was under house arrest in Calcutta. He made a dramatic escape in January 1941, reached Kabul and from there landed at Berlin on 2nd April 1941. He was soon joined by Emile who gave him company off and on during his eventful stay in Germany. After reaching Berlin Bose, set up a Free India Centre comprising Indians in Europe, including students, who were committed to India’s independence. Some prominent among these were Abid Hasan, N G Swamy, Habibur Rehman, M G Vyas and Girja Mukerjee. In October 1941 an Azad Hind Radio, with a powerful transmitter was set up, which made fiery broadcast for India’s freedom. Everyday, broadcasts were made for several hours in English as well as several Indian languages including Hindi, Bengali and Tamil.

Bose was desperately looking for Nambiar to join him, but his whereabouts were not known. The German troops had reached the doorsteps of Paris and to escape his possible arrest, Nambiar had moved to a small town Foix, in the southern France on the Spanish border. After some effort, Nambiar was located and he came to Paris to meet Bose, who fervently requested him to join him in Berlin. Nambiar was very reluctant to come to Germany because of his past bitter experience. After considerable persuasion, he agreed and moved to Germany in January 1942 and started working as his second in command.

Bose held detailed talks with German authorities regarding his plan of armed liberation of India. Bose met Ribbentrop the influential foreign minister as well as Adolf Hitler. To facilitate his plan of liberating India, Germany constituted a Special Indian Bureau headed by Adam Von Trott with Christopher Sykes as his deputy. They proved very helpful and had anti-Nazi leanings. With the support of German military an Indian Legion was formed in December 1941 and consisted of Indian prisoners of war taken in North Africa, who were held in Italy and later transferred to Germany. The recruitment to Legion was voluntary and it needed considerable persuasion by Bose and his team to join it. Initially about four thousand of nearly seventeen-thousand prisoners who were kept in captivity in Italy and Germany joined. Later the number swelled as a large number of Indian prisoners of war joined it as volunteers. Bose was very keen to go to South-East Asia, as he thought the real action to liberate India lay there. The Japanese were getting stunning victory in the war, with Singapore falling in their hand in February 1942. A joint German –Japanese submarine journey was worked out for Bose and in February 1943, he along with Abid Hussain as his companion, boarded the submarine at Kiel for travel to actual theatre of war in Asia.

With Bose’s departure from Germany, the responsibility of Free India Centre and Indian Legion fell on the shoulders of Nambiar. The majority of the troops of the Indian Legion were initially given only non-combat duties in the Netherlands and in France. But after the Allied invasion they saw action in the retreat from the Allied advance across France, fighting mostly against the French Resistance. Some troops were sent to Italy in 1944, where they saw action against British and Polish troops. A small contingent, including much of the Indian officer corps were transferred to the Indian National Army in South-East Asia. Meanwhile, the war was turning against Germany and she was on the verge of defeat. Allied Forces were bombing West Europe and Berlin from mid-1944. It was therefore decided to shift Free India Centre to Helmstadt, a small German town. Radio transmission was also shifted there but was badly disturbed. Nambiar had a bad car accident in last week of February 1945, was admitted in a hospital for three weeks, when he came out, he faced a highly volatile situation. Realising the futility of continuing armed engagement, Nambiar in consultation with other members of Free India Centre decided to withdraw the Indian Legion to Germany and its members told to take their own decision. The transmission from Azad Hind Radio was also stopped from March 1945. The Free India Centre was practically wound up and all the relevant papers destroyed. With the defeat of Nazi Germany, the men of the Indian Legion made efforts to march to neutral Switzerland over the Alps, but these efforts proved futile. They were captured by Allied troops and eventually shipped back to India to face charges of treason. There was a huge uproar against such an action and the legion members’ trials was not completed.

On 3rd April 1945 , Nambiar escaped to Bad Gastein, a small town in Salzburg, Austria on the German border accompanied by Habibur Rahman and Dr Ram a young student studying in Germany. Germany announced its surrender on 15th May 1945. On 7th June 1945 an officer of the British Indian Army arrested him and Habibur Rehman and they were taken to Hertford in Germany and kept in separate cells. Some Indians from Free India Centre were already imprisoned there. Nambiar was interrogated by a Sikh officer who was in intelligence unit of British Indian Army. He was kept in prison for six months and then shifted to a concentration camp, where there were several hundred German prisoners, some holding very high ranks. Life in this camp was more relaxed, as compared to earlier detention where it was very dull and dreary with no recreation. At the end of six months the camp authorities started releasing Indian prisoners in batches and fixing their internment. Nambiar was brought to the university town of Gottingen and his residence was fixed with a German family as an intern. The internment restrictions meant reporting to a British Officer weekly and not leaving the town. The German couple with whom he stayed were very helpful. With great difficulty he managed to get some work as a translator with an astrologer, who had British Army Officers as his client. His life in Gottingen was enlivened by making acquaintance with some professors of Sanskrit and Indian Literature in the university of Gottingen. He stayed at Gottingen for about a year. An offer was made to Nambiar to be repatriated to India but he was not keen to go there. Instead he wanted to go to Switzerland. His former mistress Eva Geissler was living in Switzerland, was in touch with him and helped him getting a Swiss visa. Eventually he reached Zurich in July 1947 and thus began a new chapter of his life.

Nambiar was on very intimate terms with Jawaharlal Nehru and close friend of Nehru family. In 1935 Kamala Nehru had come to Vienna and close-by health resorts for medical treatment and Nambiar being nearby at Prague, was of great help. Indira, a young student at that time had accompanied her mother. Nambiar helped Indira finding foot in Europe, advised her on her studies and acted like a father-figure, a relationship which was maintained life-long. Nambiar was also on very friendly terms with Jawaharlal’s sisters Vijay Lakshmi Pandit and Krishna Huteesing and exchanged letters with them discussing personal as well political matters. Nehru saw substantial role for Nambiar in free India, and wanted him to come back. After considerable persuasion he came back for a brief spell in 1948, after a gap of 25 years, but carrying with him a heavy burden of personal turmoil, financial ruin and scars of indictment, prison and war. He stayed with Nehru at Prime Minister’s official residence. He met many important people and familiarised himself with general conditions in India. He visited Calcutta and met the editor of Hindustan Standard who re-confirmed his appointment as correspondent of the paper with improved terms, a job he was already performing at Zurich. At New Delhi he was offered the post of Counsellor at the Indian Embassy at Berne.

After a month’s stay in India, Nambiar returned to Switzerland and joined the diplomatic assignment in the last week of April 1948. The Indian embassy in Switzerland was set up only a couple of months earlier and the head of mission was Dhiru Desai, son of famous lawyer Bhulabhai Desai. Due to some mischief played by personal secretary to the ambassador, Nambiar was put in a very embarrassing situation and he decided to take retirement. His retirement lasted for two years, when Nehru offered him another diplomatic post and he took charge as ambassador to Sweden with concurrent accreditation to Denmark and Finland. He liked the assignment and became friendly with the Swedish royals, who were very informal. In April 1955, after a year in Sweden, he was appointed as ambassador to Federal Republic of Germany. Post war Germany with Konrad Adenauer as Chancellor was a very different Germany than the one in which Nambiar had lived. With his intimate knowledge of the country, he developed very friendly diplomatic relations with Germany. After three years in Germany, Nambiar felt that the onerous diplomatic responsibility is telling on his health and he took retirement in April 1958. The same year in October 1958 he was awarded Padma Bhushan by the President of India.

On his retirement, Nambiar moved to Switzerland and lead a quiet uneventful life. He remained in close touch with Jawaharlal Nehru, who regularly corresponded with him despite his extremely busy schedule. After Nehru’s passing away, Indira Gandhi maintained close relationship and continued to give him fatherly regard. This is evident from the fact that when she was Prime Minister on a visit to Geneva to attend WHO meeting in March 1981, she made a detour to Zurich to meet him. From 1980 onwards, gradually Nambiar’s health deteriorated causing great concern to Indira Gandhi. She asked his close confident, the Intelligence chief R N Kao, who had his officers stationed in West Europe, to keep in touch with Nambiar so that his health and welfare could be monitored. Balachandran, his biographer was posted on an intelligence assignment in West Europe and given this task and his meetings with Nambiar gradually matured into close friendship and intimacy with him. It was felt that he should move to Delhi, where his health and well-being could be taken care of. After considerable hesitation Nambiar agreed to relocate to New Delhi. By that time Balchandran had returned to India. He was assigned the task of going to Zurich and escort Nambiar to New Delhi. In mid- October 1984 Nambiar came back to India and moved into his new house, which was taken on rent in Uday Park. Immediately on coming to Delhi, he met Indira Gandhi who told him, that he is welcome at her home at any time he feels like coming. A week after Nambiar’s coming to Delhi he received the tragic news of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Nambiar was devastated and deeply shocked. His health started deteriorating and for whole of 1985 he suffered serious health situation. On 19th January 1986 he felt very unwell, was taken to Holy Family Hospital and given prompt medical help, but couldn’t be saved and passed away. He was around ninety at the time.

Balachandran has done great service to the nation, by painstaking collecting material on Nambiar’s life and putting it together in a very interesting, lucid and cogent style. However, there are many missing pieces. The British Intelligence had classified him as a communist spy for the Soviet Union, but there is no creditable evidence. Nambiar had stayed for long years in Germany, Czechoslovakia, France and Switzerland. How did the official agencies in those countries view him and what underground revolutionary work for India’s freedom, he was doing there, while engaged as a journalist? Nambiar being a very secretive person, little is known about his personal life. Besides Eva Geissler, he was in relationship with some other women. The Nazi’s had placed Frau Neidermeyer to spy on him- a honey trap in which he possibly fell. There is need for some dedicated scholars to do further research in the European countries where he lived, dig into official archives and find out other relevant material about his life and bring it in public domain.

A C N Nambiar deserves a place in the history of country’s freedom struggle, as a leading revolutionary believing in arms insurrection to drive the mighty British out. A close confident of Subhas Chandra Bose, he was asked to head Free India Centre and Indian Legion, when he left Germany for south-east Asia in February 1943. From that time onwards, till the end of war in mid-1945, he coordinated with German authorities, the management and deployment of Indian Legion, comprising several thousand troops, with great aplomb. Nambiar’s relationship with Jawahar Lal Nehru was more in the nature of personal friendship and he hardly ever involved him in political matters. However, his closeness with Nehru and later with Indira Gandhi gives a rare glimpse of the personalities and human side of two distinguished prime ministers of the country. In the 75th year of our freedom, the contribution of Nambiar and other revolutionaries like him, should be remembered by the nation. That would be a fitting tribute to the great heroes of the freedom movement, who underwent great hardship and sacrificed their lives, so that their countrymen could breathe fresh air of freedom and live with dignity.

(Author: Dr B P Mathur is a former civil servant and has authored books and articles on governance, economy and general interest related issues. )

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