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Did Bhagat Ram Talwar betray Netaji? Read extract from The Indian Spy by Mihir Bose

Bhagat Ram Talwar helped Subhas Chandra Bose escape India. Bose never discovered that Talwar was betraying him to the British. An excerpt from the introduction to a new book on the only quintuple spy of World War II.

books Updated: Mar 25, 2017 13:52 IST
The enemy’s enemy is a friend:?Subhas Chandra Bose and Adolf Hitler in Berlin, Germany in May 1942.
The enemy’s enemy is a friend:?Subhas Chandra Bose and Adolf Hitler in Berlin, Germany in May 1942.(UIG via Getty Images)

On the afternoon of 22 February 1941, a small, clean-shaven, nondescript man, whom one British official described as ‘unattractive of appearance’, walked down an alleyway in Kabul and knocked on the back door of the Italian Embassy. Afghanistan was a neutral country, the war far away from its borders and, despite having started 17 months earlier, it was not quite a world war yet. The Nazis were supreme in Europe, with only Britain holding out. Hitler and Stalin, having parcelled out Poland between them, were still allies. Japan had a very fraught peace with the United States where, five weeks previously, Franklin Roosevelt had been sworn in as President for his third term, having promised ‘the mothers and fathers of America’ that ‘your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars’.

The Afghan employees of the Embassy who were gathered round the back entrance having a smoke had little reason to doubt that the man seeking entrance was anything other than a local. Like many Afghans he wore the Karakuli Afghan cap, a long shirt that came down below his knees, and flowing, loose-fitting trousers. The man’s mission was to see the Italian ambassador. But, aware he could not just turn up and ask to see him, he told the guards he was a cook who had been sent to work for him. The guards showed him into a high-ceilinged room where the ambassador was sitting behind a large desk framed by the Italian flag and a huge picture of the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini.

The ambassador, who was in the middle of talking to one of his Afghan employees, was more than a little upset at seeing the man. For a start he was not in a good mood. Two weeks earlier, Hitler had sent Rommel to Libya to rescue the Italians, who had been forced to flee by Wavell’s forces despite having five times more troops than the British. Like all the foreign diplomats in Kabul he dreaded unannounced visits from local Afghans, unsure whether they were spies of the government or of other embassies. He could not be sure whether this man was a spy. His mood was not improved when the man told him he had been sent by Herr Thomas, the German who ran Siemens’ Kabul office. ‘What for?’ roared the Italian. But instead of being cowed the man replied in a very firm and determined voice, ‘I don’t know. I have just been asked to see you.’

There was something in the man’s voice that made the Italian think this was no ordinary Afghan. He now had a good look at the man: he was small, but had a strong, wiry frame. The Ambassador picked up the phone and rang Thomas. For a few minutes the Italian and the German spoke, the Italian listening attentively to what the German was saying and, occasionally, murmuring. They spoke in German, which the ambassador, who was half German, knew well. The visitor, not knowing the language, could not understand a word, but because of the way the ambassador nodded, he sensed the conversation was serious. A few minutes later the Italian put down the phone, and asked his Afghan assistant, and the servant who had brought the man to his office, to leave. As they did so the ambassador closed the door behind them, offered a seat to his visitor and, speaking slowly in English, said, ‘My name is Pietro Quaroni and I am the Ambassador of the Italian Legation in Kabul.’

The man then told Quaroni his name was Rahmat Khan, although, as we shall see, that was not his real name. He was more honest when he told the Italian that he was not an Afghan but an Indian who had arrived from India on 27 January, having made the near-200-mile journey from Peshawar to Kabul on foot, through tribal territory that separated Afghanistan from British India. Khan then explained that he had not travelled alone but had acted as guide and escort to the charismatic Indian revolutionary, Subhas Bose, who had escaped from India and now wanted to go to Berlin to seek German help to free India from British rule. Khan and Bose had established contact with the German Embassy in Kabul some weeks earlier, which is how they had been put in touch with Herr Thomas. But, despite several meetings, no firm arrangement had been made to get Bose out of Kabul. The pair were worried that the longer they stayed in Kabul the more they were exposing themselves to great danger. They had entered Afghanistan illegally, had no passport or any other papers, and had just managed to avoid being arrested by bribing an Afghan policeman. They were convinced they could not hold out much longer and feared that if they were arrested by the Afghan police they would immediately be handed over to the British. Khan’s call on Quaroni was the last throw of the dice to make sure Bose secured travel documents which would help him cross the Afghan–Russian border and then, via the Soviet Union, make his way to Hitler’s Germany.

Unlike the Germans, who appeared to be stalling, Quaroni proved very willing. After several meetings over the next three weeks Bose, given the passport of an Italian diplomat, was escorted over the Afghan border and put on a train to Moscow, from where he took the overnight sleeper to Berlin. There he plotted ways to free his country, met Hitler, and eventually travelled to Japan to raise an army to fight the British. He died in a plane crash days after Japan’s surrender. In India he remains a hugely controversial figure worshipped by many, some of whom still refuse to believe he died in the crash. But in many ways it was what happened to the man he left behind in Kabul, Rahmat Khan, that is an even more extraordinary story. And one that has not yet been fully told.

Within days of Bose’s departure for Europe, Khan the escort was converted into Khan the spy for the Italians. Since the start of the war Quaroni had been trying to find a weapon with which to strike at the British in India. Having diligently followed events in the country he was convinced India was Britain’s weak link, and a blow against the jewel of the British crown would have a tremendous impact. So when Bose nominated Khan as his agent to work with the Italians, Quaroni seized the opportunity. A few months later Khan was taken over by Italy’s Axis partner, Germany. But while Khan took money from both the Italians and the Germans he was no fascist, in fact a communist, and from the beginning was deceiving both countries. While initially this deception game was virtually a freelance effort, once Hitler had unleashed Operation Barbarossa, his invasion of the Soviet Union, Khan worked with the Russians to continue to fool the Nazis. Later still he worked for the British, who gave him the name Silver. …

Mihir Bose (Aleph)

The Germans rated him so highly that they awarded him the Iron Cross, Germany’s highest military decoration, for his services to the Reich, and gave him a transmitter which he used to broadcast directly to the headquarters of Abwehr, Hitler’s secret service, in Berlin. He also swindled the Axis of £2.5 million in today’s money (See Appendix 2: Money given to Silver by the Axis powers). The Germans never for one moment suspected these broadcasts were fictitious military information concocted by the British in the garden of Delhi’s Viceregal Palace. Before the war had ended he also deceived the Japanese, making him a quintuple agent, the only one of the war.

There were many remarkable spies in the war. The Spaniard, Juan Pujol Garcia, had 27 names, the most legendary of which was Garbo: he helped the Allies deceive the Germans on where the D-Day landings would take place, thus playing a crucial role in the success of the Allied offensive. Richard Sorge proved himself to be the Soviet Union’s greatest spy, providing them with many intelligence scoops, including the fact that Hitler was about to invade Russia, although the paranoid Stalin refused to believe Sorge. Cicero, Elyesa Banza, the valet of the British ambassador to Turkey, proved to be one of Hitler’s most successful spies. He provided Germans with details of British and Allied policies both on the diplomatic and military front.

What puts Silver on an altogether different level from any other Second World War spy, and makes him very special indeed, was the unique theatre in which he operated during the length of the war. Unlike Garbo, Sorge and Cicero, who essentially operated from one base — Garbo in London, Sorge in Tokyo, Cicero in Istanbul — Silver was constantly shuttling back and forth between Kabul and India. This meant dodging British and Afghan border guards and travelling through tribal territories. … In the period we are talking about, the area nominally under the control of the British was also where the British fought a relentless and often brutal campaign to supress rebellious tribes.

October 1939: Prime Minister of Great Britain Winston Churchill (1874 - 1965) making a speech. Churchill’s unfavourable views on Indians aggravated food scarcity during the Great Bengal Famine of 1943. (Getty Images)

The Second World War is widely seen as a great fight for freedom with the British and their Allies liberating countries from Nazi occupation. But on the North West Frontier of India it was the British who were seen as the occupiers, denying freedom to tribes who had never accepted any master. The tribes generally had no political or even religious agenda. They fought the British Empire largely to assert their right to their traditional occupations of raiding and looting, or in pursuit of clan quarrels which were generations old. The British paid bribes to keep the tribes sweet and, a year after the war in the west had begun, a secret British report showed that up to 31 December 1940, the bribes paid in Waziristan, one of the tribal areas, amounted to a total of Indian rupees (INR) 248,845 with some of these allowances dating back to the 1920s and 1930s. But even such bribes could not stop the tribes waging war against the British.

We shall hear more about one of these rebels, a Faqir of Ipi, of his intrigues with the Nazis and how Silver got involved. But just to provide a flavour of the terrain that Silver repeatedly crossed on foot during the war consider this fact…

Throughout the war Silver also operated in an area where Mullahs ruled, whom the British monitored carefully. In December 1941, 10 months after Quaroni recruited Silver to spy for the Italians, C. E. Joyce, Deputy Director of Government Intelligence at Peshawar, grading the most influential Mullahs from hostile through to friendly, produced a report that made gloomy reading for the British. It is hard to resist the conclusion that Silver’s deception of the Germans certainly prevented an uprising in the tribal areas by the Faqir of Ipi and others. Such an uprising, given how much the Germans were willing to spend, would have forced the British to divert resources from other sectors of the war to protect the back door to India...

This was not all that made the background of Silver’s spy career very different to that of Garbo in London, Cicero in Istanbul, Sorge in Tokyo or any other spy of the war. Silver also had to cope with how the war impacted on India. The only fighting India saw was in 1944, when Japan invaded. Yet during the war three and a half million Indian civilians died. (The comparable figure for UK civilian deaths is 67,200). This was during the Great Bengal famine. Famines were hardly unknown in India, and during British rule there had been many. But this one, in the summer of 1943, was the worst in twentieth-century south Asia history. It was caused not by lack of food, but by dreadful incompetence on the part of British Raj officials and the local Bengal government, which was run by Indians. …

National volunteers, supporters of Mahatma Gandhi march through the streets of Madras carrying the banner of home rule, 1930. (Getty Images)

Silver during his spying career had to cope with the consequences of the famine and we shall see how he reacted when his German paymasters asked him to capitalise on the British responsibility for this tragedy.

Silver’s story also challenges the widely accepted version of the Second World War being a straightforward story of the good Allies versus the evil Nazis. While the Allies had every right to claim the moral high ground in the war, in much of Asia they also had skeletons in their cupboards. To ignore that, as George Orwell pointed out in his brilliant essay of the same name, is a case of ‘Not Counting Niggers’. …

…This background is important in Silver’s case because, despite the fact that the Second World War was truly global like no other, the great majority of wartime histories reflect the white view of the world: whether they are western Europeans, eastern Europeans, Russians or Americans. Despite the fact that a million Indians fought for the British—the largest volunteer force in the war— you will not find the name of an Indian commander in these histories. The simple reason is that, while many Indian soldiers fought with great bravery in many fields and won honours, there was no Indian commander. The highest ranking Indian officer, and that towards the end of the war, was Kodandera Madappa Cariappa, a Temporary Lieutenant-Colonel. It was only after Indian independence that he became the first Indian commander-in-chief...

Hard as it is to imagine such a world today, that was the wartime world for many Indians who had anything to do with whites. In his spy career, Silver interacted not only with the white rulers of his country, but also with whites from many nationalities. He not only coped with them but carved out a spying career during which he was never seen as inferior to a white man or woman. Indeed he did so well that Michael Howard, the doyen of British historians of wartime intelligence work, wrote:

India had a figure comparable with Garbo himself; comparable if not in inventiveness, then certainly in intelligence, personality and the dominance he established over his control … [he was] a kind of Lawrence of Arabia, a master of disguise, held in numinous respect by the hill tribes of the northwest frontier.

This praise for Silver cannot be over-emphasised, for in the histories of the Second World War no other Indian on the Allied side is so singled out for praise. Silver parleyed with the British, Italians, Germans, and Russians confident in his own ability and never doubting he was their equal. The fact that he was a brown man from a country held in colonial subjugation by a white country made no difference to him. He could deceive anyone and often did, even, at times, the Russians and the British whites he worked for. Yet before the war had started he had never even met a white man. So from where did he get the confidence to think of himself as the equal of a white man and, what is more, go on to prove himself to be so? Given that as Liddell had said ‘India [was] a second-class war area and had to wait for everything’ it is truly extraordinary that Silver emerged as such an outstanding spy.

Read more: Review: His Majesty’s Opponent

Some commentators, in order to explain this Silver riddle, have described him as educated. In fact he was not. He was a Matriculate. English was not his first language, he spoke broken English, and he knew no other European tongue. Nor did he have distinguished looks. When, during the war, Major Peter Thorne of the Grenadier Guards first set eyes on Silver he was struck by the fact that he was short and lean. He came from a small, remote village of about 1,000 people, which gave no hint of having been touched by modern, western civilisation and progress. There were none of the comforts of life that his white contemporaries took for granted. But then, almost everything in Silver’s life was astonishing, starting with his most unusual upbringing. For a start the name he gave Quaroni, Rahmat Khan, had suggested to the Italian that he was Muslim. He was not.

Silver the spy proved the great deceiver of the Second World War. And in many ways his upbringing, and where he grew up, was the starting point of this deception.