The Indian Swaraj Institute (ISI) and the 5th column
The stories of TP Kumaran Nair and Abdul Khadir
Each of the 5 Indians in the Japanese submarine prowling under the Indian Ocean waters, of which four were Malayali’s, had Rs 500 with them in crisp Rs 10 notes, an astronomical sum in 1942. They were after a long sojourn in Malaysia, destined for the shores of Tanur near Calicut, to be precise. Though all the Malayalees were from Travancore, they were bound for the shores of their motherland, and so joy filled their hearts. Somewhat groggy with the seasickness pills and the many deep dives the U boat took at sea to avoid allied ships, the boys were still in good shape. The little training they had received in the swimming pools helped, but it had been many years since they left Indian shores and the five were unsure of what to expect when they reached the shores…
Retracing the days of the Indian freedom fighters in SE Asia is not too easy and the fragmentary stories left by them, the evolution of the INA from the IIL and so on are not very easy since a good amount of spin and nationalist fervor can be seen in those accounts. Separating fact from fiction is quite complicated and sources not easy to come by. But then, this forgotten story of the actions of a group of Malayalees at the very onset of the INA would be interesting to some readers, who have so far mainly seen and read about only the highly publicized moves of NSC Bose. Stories of people like Kumaran Nair, Raghavan and Khader fell by the wayside and never got recounted, but they were all people who gave it the right impetus at the outset.
By 1930, the demand for Purna Swaraj (Full independence) had been made and the non-co-operation movement had started to gain traction. The salt satyagraha followed, and congress became a resourceful power. In 1939, the British declared India's entrance into the Second World War without consulting provincial governments and by 1940 Jinnah promulgated the two nation theory. Back in Kerala the Kallara Pangode struggle resulted in the hanging of Kochappi and Krishnan, one of the 39 such events against the British. In 1942 the Quit India resolution was passed and the anti-British activities strengthened.
On the war front, the Japanese were victoriously marching through SE Asia and Malaya, Singapore and Burma had fallen by Dec 1941. The British retaliated by imprisoning Gandhi and banning the INC. Violence erupted and with Gandhi in jail, the leaderless masses resorted to many attacks on British interests. Earlier NSC Bose had escaped from India and gone to Germany, but gained no real support from the Nazi’s. His next destination was Japan where revolutionary Resh Bihari Bose had launched the IIL or Indian Independence league. Resh Bose found support in Malaya and Singapore, with Mohan Singh in Malaya and KP Keshava Menon in Singapore. The INA was formed in Malaysia and they were supposed to march through the Burma border with the Japanese army with an aim to free India. Penang had become the Japanese submarine base and some of those I class U boats would feature later in this story.
The British, not sure how the eastern border would hold up, focused a lot of attention on the boiling cauldron called SE Asia. By 1931 there were 640,000 Indians in Malaya and Singapore and interestingly they even outnumbered the native Malays in the state of Selangor that year. They were predominantly adult males who were single and with family back in India and moved because there was work at hand and the situation benign compared to Malabar where poverty was strife.
Zoom in to Today - If you go on the Mavoor road in Calicut and deviate to the right to go to the Presentation convent, you will note that the road is named the TP Kumaran road. If you asked somebody who this Nair is, they would have no earthly idea. If you asked somebody in the bureaucracy or the PWD, they would blink. Members of the his family would mention that he was involved in building the road many years ago to reach the Nellikode Ganpat school (now Presentation school). We note that this Kumaran’s parents were Krishna Panickar and TP Kalyani Amma, and that he studied first at the Ganpat School at Nellikode and later at the Zamorins School Tali. His wife Malu Amma no longer lives to tell Kumaran’s hair raising tale.
And so we go on to tell his story- Nair was just that, one such person who moved to Singapore in 1939 in search of a new life. In the Hindu newspaper report, we read that he was a jamadar in the MSP and that it was circumstance which caused his move to Singapore, resulting from his resignation from service after refusing to stop a patriotic procession protecting the death of Bhagat Singh. We also note that Kumaran, was born around 20 September 1906 at Calicut, passed his S.S.L.C. examination and eventually joined the Indian National Congress.
While we see from the Hindu article that Nair was in the MSP, we also see from trial records that Nair perhaps served in the RAF or the Bengal air force as a clerk for some time before proceeding to Singapore. We can guess that he must have been aged 34 when he moved abroad. Tracking Kumaran Nair proved tough and we get a first notice of him right after he reached Singapore and took up the job as a Taxi driver. In fact he soon landed up in court, accused or murder. On May 22nd, 1939, his car, passing a parked bus, hit and killed a Chinese woman Ong Ah Yit, crossing the Sembawang road. CH Witton the judge acquitted Nair, after reviewing evidence and analysis of the brake marks, concluding that his car was too slow and that the woman was perhaps at fault by running into the oncoming vehicle.
His next brush with the British law system was unfortunately not so fortunate, for it would lead him to the gallows. How did this turnabout happen and why did he end up in the courts again? Trail records leave a sorrowful tale of treachery, homesickness and patriotism, as well as a show of heroic valor and leadership.
I would assume that Nair continued to work in Singapore till 1942, not really making a mark, perhaps the typical frustrated overseas Malabari, itching for action. Life was actually a total mess in those parts by 1941 especially in Malaya, where in reality the situation was somewhat different. While the marauding Japanese were somewhat partial to Indians, they still showed a marked racial attitude towards the Indians whom they held in low esteem. Many stories of them using Indians for menial work had been reported and even at more influential levels, Japanese officers held Indian counterparts in contempt. R Bose and AM Nair had the right connections in Japan, but rapidly moving events did not allow that goodwill to filter down the ranks to the common man.
Malaya's major ethnic groups, the Indians and Malays, generally escaped the worst of this treatment while the Chinese bore the brunt of it. The Japanese wanted the support of the Indian community to invade and free India from British rule. As the war progressed all three ethnic communities began to suffer deprivations from increasingly severe rationing, hyper-inflation, and a lack of resources. Both the Malay and Indian communities gradually came into more conflict with the occupying Japanese.
Japanese intelligence officer Major Iwaichi Fujiwara had persuaded Major Mohan Singh of the 14th Punjab to form the INA with defecting and Indian soldiers (POW’s from the battle of Jitra). By 1942, the INA had 40,000 members with Mohan Singh as CInC.
In Singapore, we now see the proclamation of the All-Malayan Indian Independence League. The League was headed by Nedyam Raghavan, a Penang Barrister and a prominent Malayan Indian. Joining him at the board was another Malayali, K.P.Kesava Menon from Singapore and S.C Goho (head of Indian Passive defense in Singapore and a lawyer himself). Indians flocked to join the IIL and membership was estimated to be around a hundred-thousand at the end of August 1942. The IIL card helped them when accosted by a Japanese soldier for the League's membership card identified the holder as Indian (and thus an ally), it was needed to collect rations from Japanese depots.
Kumaran Nair but naturally joined the IIL like others at the exhortation of Raghavan and we see him next moving to Penang. But as he still is somewhat obscure and out of harm’s way, let us meet the other prominent Malayali whose name we saw a little while ago.
Nedayam (Nediyamveetil) Raghavan, what an interesting person he was, and like many others, you
KP Keshava Menon on the other hand was from Palghat, hailing from the Tharoor region and a member of the Palghat royalty. He was like Raghavan, a London educated barrister, but had actually moved to Singapore from Calicut where he used to practice earlier. Keshava Menon established the popular Malayalam newspaper Mathrubhumi in 1923 and was its Chief Editor from the beginning till his death, except for the brief period when he went to practice law in Malaysia and Singapore and got actively involved in the nationalist movement.
These gentlemen were some of the people in SE Asia who organized finances for the nationalist movements, with the benevolent Nattukottai Chettiars in Malaya, Burma and Singapore contributing lavishly to the INC.
Soon, the paths of all these people from Kerala were to cross and remain intertwined. Even more coincidental is the fact that the fates of some of them, such as Abdul Khader and Kumaran Nair were to a certain extent in the hands of the organization headed by another person so well known to Calicut, none other than the Hon A C Thorne, the home secretary.
The dashing Japanese officer who fostered goodwill for the Indians in 1941 (at Bangkok) and the one who personally promoted Mohan Singh into limelight was one Iwachi Fujuwara who went on to form the network called the F Kikan or the Friendship Kikan. He was the person who with the help of POW Captain Mohan Singh, the one who created the first rag tag INA after the Jitra debacle. The Singapore prisoners joined the INA, so persuaded by Mohan Singh. Mohan Singh then became a general commanding the IN army, much to the disgust of the senior officers. But soon the ‘Indian friendly’ Fujiwara was transferred back to Japan and his place was taken by a rigid intelligence officer Hideo Iwakuro who was not too particular about Indians of their independence. He was a spy maker and this was the reason why Iwakuro sponsored the school for spies in Penang.
That was how N Raghavan decided to head what is known as the Hind Swaraj vidyalaya (Indian Swaraj institute) or the Nakano Gakko at the Free school building (now the state museum) on the Green line road in Penang on 3/8/42. The school was formed to provide crash courses for people of Indian origin, in espionage, intelligence gathering, photography, use of firearms and surveying. The intention of course was to create a 5th column and send them to India. Did they join due to the lure of adventure or was it just to get a ticket back to India? Other units were also being trained, namely the Osman group with Sikhs, the Gilani group with Muslims, a group destined for Ceylon and finally a group with Gurkhas.
The cadets were perhaps never aware of the Enemy ordnance act which had been passed in India. In fact the rule of the law was stretched to the fullest in some of these cases against the defendants, and perhaps the spy school should have concentrated on such matters, but then again, perhaps not, for these were simple lower middle class people with little education.
Needless to say that the British had their eyes and ears in Malaya and Rangoon, for they knew quite a bit of what was going on. In fact Dewan CP Travancore also had his informers in Malaya reporting events as they progressed. The British and the Travancoreans were on the watch, waiting for action.
The first ISI batch had a number of Malayalees (13/26) , VMA Khader, Surveyor from Vaikom, Anand Thanu Pillai, foreman from Trivandrum, KA George, teacher from Ambalpuzha, CP Eapen, Stenographer from Tiruvalla, Leon D’Cruz, Salesman from Trivandrum, Boniface Periera, draftsman from Kazhakuttam, K Mamman Mathai chemist from Tiruvalla, Kochugovindan from Tiruvillwamala, KM Cherian from Airoor, M Gangadharan from Palghat, TP Kumaran Nair from Calicut, Sethu Sankaran Nair and KP Balakrishnan Nair from Tellichery. So you see that two were from Malabar, one from Cochin and 8 from Travancore. This is of particular importance since Malabar was British territory while Cochin and Travancore were independent states at that point of time. Except for the senior Anand Thanu Pillai (aged 39) and another named CGK Reddy who were well employed even before joining the ISI, all others were low level employees and aged under 30.
The curriculum comprised history & geography, history, Revolution, nationalism, British acquisitions first aid, Physical & military training etc were imparted by instructors Keneko, Dallal, Alagappan, Raghavan, Kaneko and Ichiunna. TP Kumaran Nair served as the drill instructor, perhaps due to his familiarity with task from his MSP days in Malappuram (Dare we say - trained by Hitchcock?). KNS Iyer was the superintendent.
However matters started to take a change for the worse in the military circles at Malaysia, mainly due to ego clashes and internal squabbles. Iwakuro had other ideas in mind which Raghavan refused to agree with, Mohan Singh had clashes with Iwakuro and the Japanese high command, Fujiwara’s intervention proved useless, Resh Behari did not agree with Mohan and so KP Keshava Menon and others resigned from their posts. The INA was not accorded the due status (The Japanese believed the lack of unity among the units with low morale, cast issues and so on would never suit the creation of a unified army) by Japan and Mohan Singh was exiled.
During all this turmoil, Iwakuro forcefully moved the first batches totaling some 26 of these cadets into a nearby bungalow one night in Nov 1942 and made them undertake intensive courses on subversion and guerrilla activities. He decided to deploy them out with immediate effect, into India in line with independent Japanese plans.
Kumaran Nair however continued as drill instructor at ISI Penang. His fate had still not been decided. That it would be decided by one of his own compatriots from the first batch is the tragedy of the story.
Iwakuro decided to send the first batches into India by submarines and overland. The first group comprising Anandan, Khader, Abdul Ghani, Eapen and George started on 26th Sept 1942 and were destined for Tanur near Calicut. The second group Bonifice, Baradan, Decruz, Mammen and Balakrishnan Nair left Penang on 27th Sept 1942 and were dropped off near Okhamadi on the Gujarat coast.
The British trackers even had code names
for each of these groups. The Calicut group was called Hat trick, the next two were called Audrey and Doubtful. In
fact the British were lying in wait to catch them at an opportune movement and
turn them around against the Japanese as double agents, so sure where they of
Indian duplicity. But then again did Iwakuro have other ideas with his pawns
which only he and his Japanese circle knew? We will soon find out.
The submarine carrying Khader (Anand Thanu Pillai at 39 was the senior most) and party reached the Calicut shores in the evening of the 27th. Due to RAF planes patrolling the shores, the submarine surfaced only in the early hours of the 28th. The Tanur town having a substantial Moplah population was busy with Ramazan fasting and so there were many people awake and alert when the rubber dinghies carrying the five landed on their shores. Abdul Khader was to make a fatal mistake, for he met the Moplah leaders in Tanur and secured from two brothers, a place to stay. During the night the villagers passed on information to the Calicut police about the agents from Penang. Khader tried to persuade the two brothers to join him in the Indian independence movement.
In the meantime, Gangadharan, Dufferin trained CGK Reddi, Kochugovindan, Santa Pillai, Pal, Mathew, Andrews and Faulja Singh had also been deployed as the 3rd batch. The 4th batch had Unniram, Rathnam, Muthumani, Mazumdar, Ramu Thevar. A total of 26 agents had been deputed by now, including TP Kumaran Nair who was sent later overland with Sankaran Nair.
When Raghavan at Penang heard of all this (in fact he had known that a plan was afoot and had warned the Japanese to wait for a decision by the Council of action), he was furious and resigned from the ISI without further negotiations (he and his family were threatened of death) on 29/11/42. He had enough of the high handed Iwakuro and was aghast at the timing of the deployment and the way the whole thing was done. As Raghavan was to recount later, his instructions to the cadets were, as patriots, to report to the local INC personnel after reaching India, not to do spy work for Japan, but to work for the Azad hind.
Meanwhile the second group who landed in Gujarat were apprehended and soon enough the rest of the motley team were also arrested.
The complete story would come out only at two trails held in Madras called the Madras Enemy Agents trials 1 and 2. The first covered the 20 and the second the case of Kumaran Nair and Ramu Thevar. While the former was under the special justice Elmar Mack, the latter was judged by Krishna Rao ICS. All prisoners were provided Indian lawyers by the court, except for one who hired his own lawyer, that being Damodara Menon. Khader and Kumaran Nair were represented by V Rajagoplacharya. Did they have a chance? We will find out in the next part of the article.
Hindu article - Remembering an unsung hero June 19, 2007
N Raghavan: A Malaysian freedom fighter in South-East Asia – Suja Sugathan, JOKS Vol 32
From the diary of a freedom fighter – K A K Menon
Indian national Army Secret Service – Motilal Bharghava, Amerik Singh Gill
The Indian National Army and Japan - Joyce Lebra
Devil's Circle - Walter Woon
British intelligence in the 2nd WW – Vol 5, Michael Howard
Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945 - Christopher Alan Bayly, Timothy Norman Harper
The Springing Tiger: A Study of the Indian National Army and of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose- Hugh ToyeTowards freedom: documents on the movement for independence in India, 1943-1944, Volume 3
Note: The agents code named Audrey, Hattrick and Doubtful belonged to a 1944 group, so corrected..
To read the rest of the story, click on this link