A Delicate Truth

Who was the real ACN Nambiar? A riveting account of the life of an enigmatic man and his role in a lesser-known strand of the Indian national movement that was centred in Berlin

Written by Amrith Lal | Published:February 25, 2017 2:16 am

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A Life In Shadow: The Secret Story of ACN Nambiar
Vappala Balachandran
Roli Books
348 pages
` 695

Intelligence agencies have described him as a “notorious communist”, a “Nazi collaborator”, “a tool in the hands of the Nazis”, “Indian renegade” and so on. British documents declassified in 2014 claimed he could have been a Soviet spy. What is known is that he was close to — and trusted by — Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose. If Bose chose him to run his operations in Germany when he left for Japan in the 1940s, Nehru helped him tide over financial difficulties during the war years and supported him in the activities of Indian Information Bureau in Berlin, and eventually, appointed him India’s envoy to Sweden and West Germany in the 1950s. So, who was Arathil Candoth Narayanan Nambiar or ACN Nambiar? Was he just an anti-British Indian journalist making a living in Europe, who was close to some of the most remarkable figures of modern India? Was he just a captive of circumstances, who was never really in control of his part in a historical drama directed by unseen forces? Who was the real Nambiar, whose story recalls characters we encounter in the fiction of Joseph Roth and John Le Carre? Vappala Balachandran, a former intelligence official who became close to Nambiar towards the end of the latter’s life, has set out to answer these questions.

Balachandran’s Nambiar is a lonely, enigmatic figure, who was trusted by his friends, among whom were Nehru, his daughter, Indira, and Bose, and whose anti-colonial and nationalist credentials are beyond reproach. Balachandran’s sources include his own numerous conversations with a self-effacing Nambiar, a 124-page oral transcript Nambiar had prepared about his life story at the insistence of Balachandran, a recording of an interview Nambiar gave to well-known historian BR Nanda in 1972, the many letters between Nambiar and Nehru, letters from Indira Gandhi to Nambiar, British intelligence records, Bombay Special Branch files, interviews with Nambiar’s extended family and so on. The riveting account is not just the story of “a life in shadow”, but also a glimpse of a lesser-known strand of Indian national movement that was centred in Berlin between the two World Wars.

In the immediate decades preceding Indian Independence, Berlin was a hotbed of nationalists associated with the freedom movement. A large posse of Indians, ranging from students to anti-British revolutionaries, gravitated to Berlin, assuming that Germany’s hostile relations with Britain would offer cover for their activities, provide them a base and political and monetary support. Berlin was also the transit point for Indian Marxists seeking to travel to Moscow. By the end of World War I, a politically active Indian community had emerged in Berlin, whose leading lights were Champakaraman Pillai, an activist from Thiruvananthapuram, and Virendranath ‘Chatto’ Chattopadhyay, Sarojini Naidu’s brother. The Indian Independence Committee or the Berlin Committee as it was popularly known, was a platform of Indian students and activists, set up with help from the German authorities to espouse India’s cause in Europe. MN Roy was another Indian revolutionary who frequented Berlin in the 1920s.

In the midst of such radical figures lived Nambiar, who had arrived in Berlin after finishing his education in London to work for an Indian firm, with his young wife, Suhasini Chattopadhyay, sister of Chatto and Sarojini Naidu. The business enterprise soon folded, but Nambiar lived on, eking out a living as a journalist, writing from Europe for a host of publications like The Hindu and Modern Review.

In the course of his life in Europe, Nambiar, by choice or otherwise, became not just a witness to history but also a part of it because of his close association with Chatto, Roy, Nehru and Bose. When Bose left Germany on a submarine to Japan in 1943, Nambiar, who saw him off, was entrusted with the task of running the Azad Hind Office in Berlin and the Indian Legion, the precursor to INA that Bose had raised in Germany. Nambiar, despite his known anti-Nazi views, survived the reign of Hitler, and was arrested by the Allied Forces when Germany fell. He was treated as a collaborator and interrogated by the Allied forces. After the war, Nambiar, despite pressure from Nehru, refused to return to India. Later, at Nehru’s insistence, he, served as India’s ambassador in West Germany. Thereafter, he retreated into the background, living in Zurich and returned to India at the insistence of Indira Gandhi at the age of 90. Just a few days after he set up home in Delhi, Indira Gandhi was shot dead. Nambiar, who first met Indira when she had accompanied an ailing Kamala Nehru to Vienna as a 17-year-old, never recovered from the shock of her assassination. Two years later, he died in Delhi. Balachandran notes that a prominent presence at his cremation was RN Kao, the doyen of Indian intelligence.

Balachandran’s conclusion is that Nambiar may have provided intelligence to the British “without his conscious knowledge” when he was living in exile from Berlin in Prague, but “there is no evidence that Nambiar was an active asset for any agency”. More relevant to our times is Balachandran’s observation that Nambiar’s account of Nehru and Bose does not reveal a single instance that suggests any tension between the two; in fact, there seems evidence to suggest that both respected each other despite their differences and cared for each other’s well-being.

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