Interview: Uncovering the Remarkable Life of A.C.N. Nambiar

Vappala Balachandran speaks to The Wire about his book A Life in Shadow: The Secret Story of ACN Nambiar.

A.C.N. Nambiar. Credit: Government of India

A.C.N. Nambiar. Credit: Government of India

In 1980, deployed overseas as an intelligence officer operating under diplomatic cover, Vappala Balachandran was asked to meet a sprightly old gentleman named A.C.N. Nambiar. It was not a mission but merely instructions to meet a man that Balachandran knew little about, except that he had been of great service to the country and that he had no ties left to his own family. Over the six years of his association with Nambiar small details came about – little anecdotes that revealed the man to be a journalist, a possible spy, a friend of Virendranath Chattopadhyaya (Chatto), “the best known-known Indian revolutionary abroad, much sought after by British intelligence,” an assistant to Subhash Chandra Bose, confidante of Jawaharlal Nehru and adviser to Indira Gandhi.

Nambiar’s life was such a full one that it is hard to say what is more remarkable, that the British intelligence was able to consider him both a communist revolutionary as well as a fascist sympathiser, that he barely escaped with his life from Hitler’s Nazi henchmen and still managed to advise Bose on his dealings, or that it was on his advice that Indira inducted R.N. Kao – the founder of RAW – as her senior intelligence adviser in 1981. Or maybe in this day and age when we have become so used to nepotism, the most surprising is that this man, with his access to people in power across political lines, remained barely solvent, resigned his job as ambassador, and took no benefit from any of his positions.

Speaking to The Wire, Balachandran talks about writing his book, A Life in Shadow: The Secret Story of ACN Nambiar, his memories of Nambiar and the things that moved him to write this book now.

As a former intelligence officer, did you have to take permission to write this?

As long as you are not writing about direct security issues, or things that will reveal how the intelligence agencies work, then no permission is needed, although I have let my old place know what I am writing. This is, in fact, my second book. The first was a compilation of my columns that I have been writing since 1998, and came out in 2014 under the title, National Security and Intelligence Management.

Vappala BalachandranA Life in Shadow: The Secret Story of ACN NambiarRoli Books, 2017

Vappala Balachandran
A Life in Shadow: The Secret Story of ACN Nambiar
Roli Books, 2017

In this case, it is a simple biography, of a man who has done a lot for his country, but who most people have never heard of.

Why is it that they never heard of him?

Jairam Ramesh spoke at the book launch – actually this was the first time we interacted with him like this, did not really know him before until he sought out this book – and said that this is the first time that the European aspect of the independence movement had been really written about. That is true. We generally only hear about what happened in England, and even a bit in Canada with the Ghadar movement, a lot of this may be explained by language difficulties when it comes to Germany, where many of these people like Nambiar and Chatto operated, as well as the effects of both World War Two and its aftermath.

For example, we know much about Bose’s Indian National Army. We had a famous trial, and even now there are occasional articles on the subject. On the other hand not one book has been written in India on the Indian Legion. In fact it was only after reading a book review by Natwar Singh published in 2001 that I got a better sense of it. And it was Nambiar that managed the Indian Legion. That was his style, keeping a very low profile.

But Germany must have been difficult to work with under the Nazis?

Yes, it was. As I mention in my book, Hitler’s people caught him and kept him under arrest for six weeks. When he got out, he ran for his life, literally, to Czechoslovakia and from there to France. When a tall German approached him in France, he thought it was the end, but it turned out to be an overture from Bose.

He had personal reasons to dislike and fear the Nazis – he thought he would be killed by them – but he agreed to help Bose, even though he disagreed with the latter. You have to remember the fiercely nationalistic circles he moved in, or even his despatches from Germany for the Hindu from 1924 to 1932, which show a mind very against the unequal treatment of Indians by Europeans. He found Nazi rule completely unpalatable – to put it mildly.

How did you find out so much, then?

Much of it was his conversation. I encouraged him to write his memoirs but he didn’t. There were also the letters between him, Nehru, Indira and others. His own family knew nothing of him. I also purchased a set of British intelligence records, and checked with Bombay Special Branch. The last helped me double check some details.

And his political opinions? He moved in circles that not only included Bose and Nehru, but also Chatto on the Left, and through some connections, Savarkar on the right.

He never expressed his political opinions clearly. British intelligence described him as a Communist sympathiser and a fascist one. In documents declassified in October 2014, they say he had exceptional information, and was close to Nehru. They tried to recruit him and failed. They just didn’t know what to make of him.

Vappala Balachandran. Credit: Twitter

Vappala Balachandran. Credit: Twitter

In India there has been a lot of unnecessary controversy about Nehru and Bose being at loggerheads. Yes, they had different opinions, but they had the grace to work as humans as well. Why else would Bose take such personal interest in Kamala Nehru’s medical treatment in Switzerland? Why would he go personally to receive her? A lot of the controversy was manufactured by MI5. And it has to be said that our Intelligence Bureau, for some years after independence, continued to do things that pleased the British more than Indians.

In fact he only expressed his political opinions openly once – in his 26 despatches for the Hindu, when he was writing a ‘Letter from Berlin’. Not only does he talk about the dignity of the colonised people, but he also shows what he wanted a free India to become. This was a broad goal, in which all these strong personalities found. After World War Two, he never expressed an opinion on the Cold War, or the US. And he did not really like his role as ambassador to Germany, he felt far more comfortable among their intellectuals and press corps, with whom he felt he had much more in common.

What was his opinion on Germany?

He really felt at ease there, despite the imprisonment and harassment by the Nazis, and the subsequent imprisonment after World War Two by the Allies. He was strongly in favour of the India-Germany relationship, and felt that V.K. Krishna Menon had sabotaged them. Although Konrad Adenauer, first post-war German Chancellor, initially felt that Nehru was a Communist sympathiser, Nambiar helped to change that view. Nevertheless the meeting never took place, Nehru was badly advised, Nambiar felt. It was his one great sadness not to have made that relationship stronger.

But his advice was taken much more seriously by Indira Gandhi.

Yes, when Indira Gandhi came back to power in 1980, she did not take back the advisors she had in the Emergency and pre-Emergency period. It was only on Nambiar’s advice that she inducted Kao, the founder of R&AW, as he Senior Intelligence Advisor in 1981 (I have reproduced the letter in my book0. She felt very comfortable with him. He had been the “uncle” who had taken care of Indira, and her education, as well as Kamala Nehru’s health, in Switzerland. When Kamala was severely ill, Nehru was given parole from jail to travel to Switzerland. But when he got there, Rajendra Prasad telegrammed to let him know that he had been elected President of the Indian National Congress, and asked him to come back. Nehru was conflicted, so he asked Nambiar to ask Kamala what she thought. Even before Nambiar could frame that question, Kamala told him that Nehru should go back to deal with the bigger challenge.

And Indira knew she could trust him explicitly. He had never misused his proximity to people in power. In fact it was only to Nambiar that Bose had revealed his date and way of departure from Germany to the Far East when all of British intelligence was targeting him. He took no advantage of being close to the biggest leaders of the Independence struggle, nor did he even write about them.

Is there anything you would like to end with?

You know, during Indira Gandhi’s time, I was tasked to look after Atal Behari Vajpayee, Bansi Lal and Balram Jakhar when they were visiting Paris for a parliamentarians conference. The first was leader of the opposition, the second was defence minister, and the last was the speaker of the Lok Sabha. For two days I was with them, and watched them tease and joke with each other. They might have been politically opposed, but they never allowed this to interfere with their human relationships. This was true of Nehru and Bose as well, and the great human link was Nambiar. All of them were involved in a great cause for the country. Today, though, it seems this generation needs reminding that you can maintain such relationships despite differences.

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