Times of India

This is an unusual spy story. There are no John Le Carre moments but the story of Bhagat Ram Talwar is a necessary and relevant chapter in India’s struggle for independence when many patriots where confronted with dilemmas of contradictory choices, as is evident in the much narrated legend of Subhas Chandra Bose who held that ‘’our enemy’s enemy is our friend.”

Mihir Bose, a former sports editor of BBC, and the author of a critically acclaimed biography of Subhas Chandra Bose, tells us in The Indian Spy: The True Story of The Most Remarkable Secret Agent of World War II (Published by Aleph, Pages 350, Price Rs 599) that Talwar was not merely a glorified courier who undertook 12 trips from Peshawar to Kabul between 1941-45, first to ferry Bose across to Afghanistan and later as a crucial information gatherer and deceiver for Britain and the Soviet Union, but a prize asset for the Allies.

Talwar, a Hindu Pathan from the North-West Frontier Province of British India, was the only quintuple spy of World War II, spying for Britain, Italy, Germany, Japan and the USSR. He was the ultimate deceiver. To think that he peddled pure fiction about anti-British subversive activities in India to his German handlers for almost four years to pocket 2.5 million pounds is a true shocker and should force us to rethink all that goes in the name of tactics, strategies during a great war.  How naïve the Germans were not to cross-check the real Indian scene or read the day’s newspaper accounts exposes the lack of imagination as well as reality of the Nazis. Their intelligence incompetence was extraordinary. Or one will have to presume that
liberating India from the British yoke was, at best, an idle agenda for the Nazis. Mercifully, at that.

Bose’s account of Talwar’s dissembling history also offers critical insights to the nascent Communist movement in India. For all practical purposes Talwar was enticed by the prospect of a revolution in India with Stalin in the vanguard.

Bose’s skills as a journalist and researcher are evident in The Indian Spy as he portrays the big picture adding rich details gleaned from previously classified files of the Indian, British and other governments. After the war years, Talwar had written an autobiography titled The Talwars of Pathan Land in 1976 (For all his efforts, Bose is unable to tell the readers where and how Talwar died in 1983) and Bose has relied on that account to sketch the early, revolutionary days of Talwar before he turned into Agent Silver. Talwar and his elder brother Hari Kishan had come under the influence of first Bhagat Singh and, later, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan.

In June 1931, Hari Kishan was hanged by the British government for the assassination attempt on Punjab governor Sir Geofrey de Montgomery. How then the brother of a martyr became a British agent is a telling example of the choices and contradictions that confronted the educated Indians of the pre-independence era, which Bose explores in this critical account.

What changed the destiny of Bhagat Ram Talwar was the fact that he was picked to become an escort and guide to Subhas Bose by Acchar Singh Cheena, the leader of a fringe Communist party, Kirit Party.

Subhas Bose wanted to go to the Soviet capital to get Stalin’s and the Red Army’s help to invade India and drive out the British. Bose had initially approached the Communist Party of India leadership, who had turned him down as they suspected that he was, at heart, a fascist and could not be trusted. It was the Italian embassy in Kabul that helped Bose sneak into Europe. Bose named Talwar, whom he hardly knew, as his agent to the Italians and the shrewd Pathan then onwards played his cards adroitly, first to deceive the Italians, then to con the Germans and finally fool the Japanese. Talwar took money from both the Italians and the Germans but he was no fascist. The Germans in fact awarded him the Iron Cross, Germany’s highest military decoration, for his services to the Reich.

Bose argues that Talwar (Silver was the spy name given to Talwar by British spymaster Peter Fleming, the brother of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond) parleyed with the British, Italians, Germans and Russians confident in his own ability and never doubting he was their equal although his education was rudimentary. Bose notes that 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 but remained loyal only to the Communist Party of India.

In the post-independence India, Talwar’s spying legacy turned problematic. He was, after all, a collaborator with Britain and the Soviet Union. Talwar’s autobiography was published by the CPI in 1976. He had served it during the war, and now with India free he was keen to reclaim its reputation and prove that it was not the anti-national party its opponents claimed it was. Bose points out that the CPI has never owned up to his role during the war, communist historians have not revealed what exactly happened between the party and the British in any convincing detail. Bose says that Talwar’s story remains a mythicized Communist contribution to the Indian struggle for freedom.

Bose is a British citizen. The historian in him points out that for all its repressive nature, inherent in a colonial rule of whites over browns, British occupation of India does not compare with Japan’s brutalities in Korea and China. He writes: “As to how India secured its freedom, there is increasing evidence that many Indians no longer believe Gandhi just waved his magic wand of non-violence and the British fled. It was much more complicated than that.” He adds that for the Indian communists to come clean and admit the role Talwar and the party played is clearly impossible.


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