The fate of the Penang ISI's 5th column

The stories of TP Kumaran Nair and Abdul Khadir  Contd..

To recap, the INA had been built up in Malaysia by Mohan Singh and a few others with Fujiwara’s guidance. Getting it recognized by the Japanese was proving difficult and the top brass were quarreling. Raghavan had started his Swaraj institute where young Indians were trained in spy craft, such as opening letters, tapping phones, making secret ink, forging documents and so on. Iwakuro however had other ideas. Before Raghavan could do anything, he spirited away the first batch of 20 cadets and sent them off to India. The first two batches were sent by submarine to the West Coast, the next two overland through the Burma border. Raghavan resigned in a huff and that was the end of new Indian recruitment to the ISI. Meanwhile the four groups had landed and curiously they proved to be very ineffective, since every single one of them were picked up within no time by the British who were lying in wait. But then again what could you achieve in a month’s training?  These people had no local contacts and stood out like sore thumbs. Anyway they were all caught quickly and sent off to Madras for trials.

The first Madras trial in April 43 was supervised by Judge Elmar E Mack, a tough burly burgher of Dutch Afrikaner origins from Ceylon, legally trained at Oxford. As S Muthian put it…

Of him it was said, “Mr. Mack often behaved in court as if he was on the golf course, intensely human every minute of his life.” Informal in court almost to a fault, his sympathies always lay with those he thought had been charged wrongfully or were not willfully guilty of the crime charged with.

That was exactly what Mack thought from the beginning. That they should not have been charged so severely and that the rule of ‘putting all of them to death’ should not be enforced. Anyway they were so charged and his task was to determine if they were indeed enemy agents by definition, if they planned to commit espionage and other terrorist acts in India and if they had been paid to do so by a foreign country, an enemy. It was easily possible to establish the last aspect since they had Indian money from the same source (Rs 10 notes evenly numbered, presumably stolen by the Japanese from a British treasury). It was however difficult to establish that all of them were agents since most were simpletons with no real aim or purpose. What worked completely for the British and against the Indians was the fact that one of the group turned approver and provided complete details of the entire operation. That was the Malabar subject named KP Balakrishnan Nair (Balan) from Tellicherry who for doing it (at the Calicut court on 6th Jan 1943) got a pardon in Feb 1943. He named 33 of his team mates and outlined the full workings of Raghavan and the ISI, to the authorities.

The defendants had only one thing to say, that they just wanted to come back home and were in no position to do anything else as they were afraid of the Japanese in Penang. They had just nodded and gone along with the plan to drop them in India as that was the only way they could get back to their families.

Anyway let us quickly trace the movements of the four teams. Khadir’s group landed at Tanur in two rubber dinghies on 27/8/42 after midnight. Tanur was mostly awake as it was Ramzan. Poker a local Moplah who was relieving himself on the beach saw the group was given a Rs 10 note and asked by the group to go to Tanur and get them food. This kind of money is not usually seen and the alert shopkeeper Syed Ali Kutti reported this to the police. The police sent food to the beach and found one of the team digging a hole at the beach claiming they were looking for a lost watch. The group then bluffed the police that they were on a pleasure trip from Travancore and had landed in Tanur since there was a hole in one of the rubber boats. The police found close to 500/- on them and took them to a room above a shop. During further interrogation, Khadir admitted that he was trained in the ISI and had come to do propaganda work. The others also maintained similar stories, but with some changes here and there. Anand Thanu pillai however tried to keep himself separate and tried other tactics (In fact he knew about all the other 19 members). He wanted to write down what he said and wanted to discuss with the police and the authorities in private. Khadir in the meantime talked to two local men and exhorted them to join his cause and work against the British and that they would be paid for the same by the Japanese. This event was to play against him.

The second batch had meanwhile landed at Okhamandi in Gujarat. Only one spoke Hindi and he asked a local laborer who saw them, to get them food. They were taken to a local choultry and while they were resting, the local police arrived. Again the Rs 10 note was to become the cause of suspicion since it was a large note which could not be easily exchanged for annas & paise. The police recorded that the group was headed to Karachi for subversive activities. The only person who stated his real name was KP Balan the approver, who was part of the 2nd group and turned approver.

Balan of course gave a lucid account of the ISI, the days spent at Penang and the 27 days of training. After they were bundled into the subs, they were given typewritten instructions and the money. They were to scatter, find out details about troop movements and meet up with their partners at predesignated places such as the Meenakshi temple or the Tajmahal. In fact the instructions were somewhat stupid and required these chaps to travel the length and breadth of India. Balan knew all the others and he accounted for them in his confession.

The third group were taken to Rangoon, given money and the typed sheets and then inserted at Akyab (Sittwe) in Burma, south of Chittagoing. They were picked up by the police at Girjiana. In this group we see Govindan from Cochin (who was represented by Damodara Menon) and the curious case of a well-qualified CGK Reddi, INS Dufferin trained. They all claimed they were escaping the Japanese. Many of them got into further trouble by stating they earned the money they had in their possession and thus lied.

The fourth group also moved up the Burma mainland towards the Manipur border and were picked up by the British, failing to slip through. In fact they had even been instructed to separate out and act as mad men if captured. Also the Japanese had informed the Indian groups that the civil administration had broken down and that they would therefore have no problems with the police etc. Eventually the plan was to get them all back to the Burma border with the information that had gathered, to be used when operation 21 was executed, i.e. the Japanese surge into India. But was that really so? Judge Mack used his sleuthing mind efficiently to come to a conclusion which I will detail later.

TP Kumaran Nair
Photo courtesy Vijay Balakrishnan
The judgement file of Madras case 1 makes interesting reading and the arguments look sound in most respects. Mack did not agree that all of them should be put to death but found only five of the 19 accused, guilty. But he did not want them hanged. He also concluded that Thanu Pillai was the kingpin for he alone knew the exact instructions of the Japanese. In a review judgement by Judge Wadsworth, Boniface was sentenced to five years RI on a technicality since he a Travancorean was arrested in Baroda and not in English territory. The case went for appeal, with V Rajagopalchari arguing for Khader. The appeal was rejected as it was groundless and a further appeal to the Governor General also failed. The guilty five were hanged on 10th Sept 1943. This therefore covers the fate of 20 people from the first batch.

The ordnance was strict in making sure that nobody breathed a word of what was going on, and the trials were secret (in camera). The first time any information hit the press was when the Statesman reported on Oct 21st 1943 that Jap agents were foiled by villagers at Tanur. Following this the Home secretary JA Thorne was questioned and came out with some obscure answers.

But how did Kumaran Nair get into this sordid mess? We still do not have a clear answer as to when he was pulled out of the ISSI bungalow and sent to India by Iwakuro. We also do not know if he went on his own accord to find out what happened to his compatriots or if N Raghavan sent him to track them down and help them. From the records of KAK Menon we see that the people of Malaya considered him alone a martyr, not anybody else from the first 20. So it is very possible that he set out on his own for KAK Menon says Kumaran vanished from the school many days after the first 4 batches had left.

Now let us pick his story from the court trial records of what is known as Madras case 2, relating to the enemy agents. We see that three people are named in the trial, that they were TP Kumaran Nair, Ramu Thevar and Sethu Sankaran Nair. The last named had already killed himself in jail at Bengal. We also note that in all 26 people had been sent, 20 in the first four groups after a ‘short course’ in the ISI and then there were these two, and a final four tried in the Madras case 3. The additional person tried in case 2 was Kumaran Nair and it is recorded that he is considered as part of the same parcel only due to the confession by KP Balakrishnan Nair or Balan.

Kumaran Nair was unfortunate in a way that he was tried separately, and not together with the other 20, for Judge Mack was perhaps a little bit more lenient. This case came up separately since it came to light much later that three others Ramu Thevar, Kumaran Nair and Sethu Nair were being held in Bengal. Sankaran Nair (Sethu) however committed suicide in the jail and so there were only two brought over to Madras, based on their identification and role at Penang revealed by the approver Balakrishnan Nair. So a fresh trial was ordered and ND Krishna Rao ICS presided as special judge and the high court Judge Wadsworth as the reviewing judge. The date of their entry into India is not clear but it was sometime between end Nov and early Dec 1942. Kumaran Nair was represented by V Rajagopalachari and the trials started on 13th March 1944.

In the trial, it was established that Ramu was part of the original 26 and that four others were presumed missing or still in Penang, after accounting for the dead Sethu. But why was Kumaran Nair tried in this group? The home department (Jenkin, 8-9-43) opined that it is better to wait and find out what Nair was upto, however the Madras CID were firmly in favor of prosecution based on the information provided by the approver. The home ministry stated that they did not wish to continue to oppose opinion so firmly held! The public prosecutor was VL Ethiraj.

Nair was interrogated many times and from the results, it appears Nair staged an elaborate event to get into India and escape detection. He claimed that he was jailed by the Japanese at Pokokku and that he escaped, after which he met three Indians (Sethu, Ramu and XXX). On 1st Dec he was shot at and hit on the knee at the Chin Hills. Later Sankaran Nair and Ramu Thevar were arrested at Cox bazar. A number of lies told by the two were checked and proved false. They also got an admission from Thevar that the Iwakuro Kikan people at Akyab had helped them.

The findings state that Kumaran Nair, assistant drill teacher at ISI was deputed to supervise the teams sent earlier, after making contact with them and was caught while attempting to cross the border between Gaugaw and Haba on 1st Dec 1942. When caught at the Chin hills, Nair went on say, he was fleeing Singapore via Rangoon and that he had been a Japanese POW briefly from which detention he escaped. This was established as a lie since he had tutored others in the group of 3 to say the same, if questioned. Rajagopalchari argued that these were only acts preparatory to espionage, but the court decided that Nair became an enemy agent as soon as he agreed to conduct espionage for Iwakuro and accepted his money. Acharya also argued that while taken, Nair was actually in Burma and so fell outside the purview of the act. This fell flat since he was from Malabar and hence a British Indian subject. Also the currency notes which Nair had were of the same series as the ones with the others and finally he had in his possession some Japanese propaganda material (notices, posters etc). This trail was also held ‘in camera’ or in other words was a secret trial.

Krishna Rao judged thus – I find that both the accused are enemy agents, they conspired with each other and other members of the ISI to do acts of espionage. Their intention was undoubtedly to aid the enemy state of Japan although their ultimate object might have been to secure Indian independence with Japanese assistance. For the offence under section 3 of the ordinance, I have no other alternative but to sentence both the accused to be hanged by the neck till they are dead.
The judgement was passed on 13th March 1944. One the main witnesses for the prosecution was the approver KP Balakrishnan Nair. An appeal to the governor general failed.

The last letter written by Nair was addressed to his brother. It said thus
Courtesy KAK Menon'

TP M Nair esq, Nellikode, PO Puthiyara, Via Calicut, Malabar

My Dear brother,

I have just received information that the Governor General has refused to interfere in the sentence passed on me. I never counted on it and so am not at all disappointed. I am extremely happy I will soon be rid of this brutal world and its treacherous ways. I am commending all to the almighty and wish you all goodbye. 5/7/44.

PS. I am to swing on to the other world on 7/7/44 early morning s.d. TP Kumar

The handwriting is meticulous and the grammar precise, which is a bit unusual for an SSLC educated young man. Perhaps he was very well read and his stay at Singapore and Malaysia may have augmented his skills, but of that, I am not sure.

Accordingly both men were hanged on 7-7-1944. Curiously nobody came to claim their bodies, and for that reason they were not cremated, but buried in the public cemetery at Ottery outside the jail. It is surprising that Nair’s brother and wife did not turn up at Madras to claim his body. Did they know in time? I don’t think so for the above letter should have taken a couple of weeks to reach Calicut.

In the Madras case 3 which took place later, Unniram, Rathnam, Muthumani and Krishnan were tried and all sentenced to death in March 1945 for the same reasons. One later prisoner who also trained in the ISI and was sentenced to death, Americk Singh Gill, escaped while being transported under police guard in Calcutta, in a crowd. He lived to tell his tale.

The Swaraj institute was bound to fail (after Mohan Singh and Raghavan left) for unbeknownst to them was the existence of a 6th column (Gill and Durrani) within the school, passing on information to the British. All other cadets sent to India were captured by the British.

Raghavan was threatened with arrest and forced to resign from the IIL/INA on health grounds by Feb 1943. The Japanese had decided on handing over INA command to the incoming Subash Chandra Bose and did not want any dilution of authority. Eventually Raghavan rejoined the INA at the behest of Bose as finance minister and continued on dealing with the Penang chapter and the fund collection for the INA.

Iwaichi Fujiwara served as Intelligence Officer on the staff of Fifteenth Army in Burma. He reconnoitered the border to prepare for Operation U-Go, the offensive into British India. Following the failure of this offensive, Fujiwara was reassigned to Japan, in December 1944. He survived the war and is sometimes known as the ‘Lawrence of Arabia of SE Asia’.

N. Raghavan too survived the war and served as Indian Ambassador in Indonesia, Brussels and Germany until 1952. The next posting was in China where from 26 September 1952 to 2 October 1955, he served as the Indian Ambassador. It was during his tenure that India and China agreed to the Panchsheel Treaty. From 1956 to 1959 he served in Argentina and Chile before zigzagging to Europe. He was ambassador in Paris until 1962. In 1963 returned for a lecture tour of Malaysia, and Ceylon.

Judge Mack had in his judgement concluded with remarkably lucid reasoning behind the sordid affair involving all these men from the ISI. He believed that Anand Pillay alone knew the real reasons and that the team was sent out simply for its propaganda value, to be captured and publicized so that the rest of India knew that many of their counterparts were working with the Japanese and willing to lay down their lives against the British. But the British did not publicize the arrests until much later.

According to Mack, Pillai’s plan was to become the approver and condemn the rest as soon as he got caught, but Balakrishnan did it even before he could. As for Kumaran Nair who set out to find out what happened, well, he had no idea of all this and simply walked into a trap. And because of Balan’s becoming approver, he lost his life.

Judge Mack continued to make a name for himself, became a popular person in Bellary and went on to sue Air India for damages when his wife slipped and broke her leg while disembarking from one of their flights. He was a fair man and in his fine judgment states that he does not believe any of the nationalists should be hanged, but then the law was the law and took its course.

Of Balakrishnan Nair’s fate, nothing is known in detail, but his ancestral house in Tellicherry is still around, so I could gather. We do note that all the acquitted including Balan served jail terms until 1945.

Iwakuro continued his stint in Burma, but left back for Japan as his kikan did not do well after the acts of the 6th column in the ISI. But he too rose up the ranks, survived the war and was one of the founders of the Kyoto Sangyo University.

The Madras penitentiary which was built in 1837 to house the Kaala Paani convicts, became the Madras central jail. This was where all the ‘enemy agents’ were housed. It became the central Jail and was finally closed in 2009 to make way for other buildings. The Ottery burial grounds (I am not sure if this was also a public burial ground, for Kumaran Nair and Thevar were actually buried in the Public grounds) still exist at the St Mary’s Church and Kumaran Nair’s bones still lie there, unclaimed.

Who built the road after him? Was it due to the benevolence of Raghavan or was it because of KPK Menon? I do not know, but the road is mute testimony to the efforts of small men like Nair who strived for a change.

In many ways it was a sad effort, tracing the story of Nair and Khader. They were all beset with homesickness, did what they did for a few hundred rupees and the feelings of patriotism and nationalism, goaded on by local leaders, but at the wrong moment chose to believe the words of Ikamuro instead of Raghavan and rushed into action. Perhaps they really had no choice, for they had already been quartered in a Japanese bungalow and were perhaps coerced into taking the trip to India, like proverbial pigs led to the slaughter house, all for the sake of the propaganda value and success desired by the I Kikan.

So the next time you go to Calicut and by chance traverse the TP Kumaran Road, spare a thought for that poor soul.

Indian national Army Secret Service – Motilal Bharghava, Amerik Singh Gill
Towards freedom: documents on the movement for independence in India, 1943-1944, Volume 3
TPK Nair’s last letter – Courtesy Kavungal Anat K Menon

Why did I write this article? Well, it started with the Hindu report by Maleeha Raghaviah and in it there was a mention of a retired school teacher named Sulochana who was TPK Nair’s niece. It reminded me of one of my school teachers at Ganapati School in Chalappuram. She has since then always remained in my mind. I am not sure if she was the same person mentioned in the Hindu article, but if it is, this is my tribute to her.

Kumaran Nair’s role in the taxi case is not quite clear. It may have been another Kumaran Nair.

Vijay, my friend (I did not known until after I uploaded part 1 that he was TPK Nair’s grandnephew) explained the difference between the terms ‘in camera’ and ‘on camera’ to me. ‘In camera’ is a legal term that means ‘in private’. The same meaning is sometimes expressed in the English equivalent: ‘in chambers’. Generally, in-camera describes court cases, parts of it, or a process where the public and press are not allowed to observe the procedure or process. I was initially under the impression that the trial was filmed ‘on camera’ which was not the case.



Vijay said...

The story of my grand uncle, TP Kumaran Nair, was part of my childhood. My late father often told me about his uncle. By way of tribute, I have been working on a book about my grand uncle for a few years. It is close to completion. Writing the book has been a fascinating journey- both physically in terms of travel, and mentally as I delved into a remarkable life. I am touched by Maddy's tribute to his teacher. Keep on writing your wonderful blogs, Maddy. All the best!

Maddy said...

Thanks Vijay...
I can imagine how important this story is to you..
Wishing you all the best with your novel..
Turbulent times sometimes bring out the best and worst in people...
and as always the two points of view will continue to be debated....

Calicut Heritage Forum said...

We look forward to Vijay's book about TPK Nair. Maddy has given a wealth of material which can be pursued. Incidentally, on a visit to INA related spots in Singapore, we noticed that the common Singaporeans were lukewarm to the memory of Subhash and INA, as they saw them as agents of Japanese invading army. In fact, there were letters in the Singapore press about why they should preserve INA memorials (in Farrer Park or Tanjong Pagar, probably).

Pradeep Kumar said...

I'm moved to tears after reading your two-piece article, Maddy; (Well, nearly) ! Its painstakingly-researched and neatly written.You always keep a distance from events and personalities which is the sine-qua-non of a true historian.While I'm reading T.P.Kumaran Nair's last letter for the first time, I still remember the two lines from Abdul Khader's farewell letter which is a poem about Death. Khader too faces his impending fate with courage and dignity. However he is a bit romantic about death.On the other hand, Kumaran Nair sets his feet firmly on the soil and never say 'die'.

Maddy said...

thanks CHF..
yes, you are right about the Malay Chinese & Singaporean perceptions at that time. They were indeed against the Indian population since the IIL card gave them a number of benefits. That was mainly due to the work by AM Nair and Resh Behari Bose in Japan.
Looking forward to Vijay's book myself

Maddy said...

Thanks Pradeep..
Do we know each other from NIT?
Glad you like the article. I have not read Khader's letter actually. Where did you find it?
Wonder if the Sept10th movie on Khader came out eventually. I saw the FB page etc announcing it