The Malayali Platoons at the Dimapur - Tedim track

Indo Burma Border 1942 – The story of Jamadar Gopala Krishna Warrier

I did not believe that there existed any book in the history of this world, so dedicated to a simple Malayali soldier, but I was wrong, for there is one as the author states prominently on its first page. My heart swelled when I saw that his English officer had written it proudly and prominently and quite rightly I guessed that both the writer and the dead men must have been buddies. What made this man who by hereditary profession should have been stringing garlands or doing some such work in a temple, march against the Japanese at the remote jungles bordering Assam and Burma? What happened to him? Would you not like to find out? If so read on…

Maj David Atkins, his officer wrote thus, in dedication:
Dedicated to the memory of Jemadar Mohan Singh (a Sikh) and Jemadar Gopalkrishna Warrier (a Malayali) who died building the Tiddim Track on 24th December 1942 and 14th January 1943 respectively.

Gopala Krishna Warrier was a dark skinned, buck toothed, short man from Travancore as described by his superior officer. He was a jamadar, meaning in the British Indian Army, that it was the lowest rank for a Viceroy's commissioned officer commanding platoons or troops themselves or assisted their British commander. It was later renamed as Naib Subedar in the JCO or junior commissioned officer category. He hailed from E Kalalda, Quilon and was in charge of a group of transport soldiers doing back breaking work of driving a number of Ford 3 tonners from Canada, ferrying goods and supplies, part of the 309 GPTC, during the buildup of Dimapur in the preparation for a war with the Japanese at the Indian borders in Assam.

Today you have so many youngsters from Assam working in Kerala, but this was a time when it was just the reverse. A time when the allied wanted to desperately shore up the border from the marauding Japanese, who had managed to get Singapore to capitulate, taken Burma and driven the British and all the Indian working class out of Burma and across the mountains back into India. Now they were digging their heels in Rangoon and planning the next steps with India. On the Western front, the Axis powers led by Germany were chalking up many a victory and were poised at the gates of Leningrad. In the East, Japan had entered the war with a roar, bombed Pearl Harbor, got the Americans involved and the Great War was on. As people died in the thousands and the entire world was in disarray, the Japanese earned victory after victory, until the mountains, lack of supplies and an inhospitable terrain stopped them at the Arakan mountain range dividing British India on one side and the fallen British Burma on the other, with not only the Japanese but the budding INA led by Subhas Chandra Bose. The Naga and the Chin hills presented the armies some of the most difficult jungles in which the allies had to fight a war, and prevent a potential Japanese conquest into British India. 

Why do I say potential? Because it was not really in the plans, but on the other hand, the humiliated British did want to take back Burma, Malaya and Singapore while the INA wanted to march into India. The Japanese, in a veritable quandary were rethinking their strategy, while cooling their burning heels in Rangoon, and taking their time. It was this time which afforded the British to build up at the inhospitable border, racked with monsoons, malaria and disease, and put together a few plans to build roads leading into Burma, roads which could carry men and machinery, weapons and tanks. Easier said than done, as you will soon see. Some would wonder why such a network was being considered during wartime, and well, it was because all movement was across the bay in ships until the war. During the war the Bay of Bengal no longer afforded safe passage with the prospect of monsoon winds and bad weather, air attacks, mines and submarines. So the bosses had to resort to building a twisting, turning road which dropped into valleys, climbed up mountains, ran past fjords and rivers over new bridges and would they hoped, be all weather and not just fair weather.

It was in this inhospitable country that two platoons of Malayalis, a third comprising Tamil and a fourth from Andhra, all in all four platoons forming the 309 General purpose Transport Corps totaling to 450 recruits, literally broke their backs on, after arriving with a few hundred badly designed and hurriedly constructed, 3 ton Canadian Ford trucks. Their story is hardly known, and their efforts totally forgotten, but for the small book written about them by their commander, the inimitable Major David Atkins. He had a tough task, commanding a group of people who had no training, who had seen no war and who had never been under command or orders. They spoke a mish mash of six languages. David Atkins spoke two, English and Urdu (sparingly) which again was foreign to the people he commanded. What could have transpired?

But before the formation of the 309th GPT, let’s see how the situation was in Malabar and Travancore. As I wrote in a previous article, the south was starting to suffer from the effects of a terrible famine. Jobs were becoming scarce and many an able bodied person joined the Indian army, for it was a source of food and some money.  The political situation was bad, with the heavy handed rule of Dewan Sir CP and all the other issues going on with anticommunist moves, the Punnapra Vayalar uprising and so on. All in all, it was a good idea to join the British Indian army and keep your stomach full and have a steady income. As records were to show, some 160,000 people from Travancore joined up either in the army or in labor battalions working in Burma. Many of them were formally attached to the newly formed 309th which was part of the RIASC or the Royal Indian Army Service Corps. They were not really considered fighting material and were usually part of these labor corps, responsible for the provisioning, procurement and distribution of food, living supplies, fuel, munitions etc. to the forward units. All mechanical transport (except at the front lines) and animal transport (mules, horses and elephants to name a few) were the responsibility of the RIASC.

It was in these circumstances that our story starts. Presumably Warrier joined up in the army even before the war, for we see that from the outset, he was a JCO, a Jamedar. His boss, Staff Captain David Atkins had just escaped dismissal by court martial, the dismissal being contended for two very interesting reasons. The first was that he, in charge or the Army supplies at Delhi had requisitioned 20 million bottles of Rum instead of 2 million (an act which was to later help the army in very distressing conditions). The second was diverting all spare flour supplies to Karachi with the feeling that the soldiers at the western front would needed them, when all of a sudden, many military units had to be rushed to Assam to stave off a potential attack by the Japanese who had taken Burma. To get the supplies diverted from Karachi to Assam was going to be very difficult indeed and the army laid all the blame on Atkins. But there was a shortage of officers, especially those who spoke Urdu and so Atkins found himself promoted to Major instead and transferred out of Delhi and ordered to head the 309th GPTC which was to be formed at Jhansi, South of Delhi.

The events which transpired were to expose not only Britain’s total unpreparedness for an attack from the East and a war on India’s frontiers, but also  its inability to handle the difficulties and logistics in mounting a counterattack on the inhospitable and terrible mountain jungles of Assam. That they prevailed in the end was a combination of many acts of fate, some superb tales of valor, individual grit and determination of many a soldier and their supporting units. The Kohima and Imphal battles, the effects of disease and lack of supplies on the Japanese, who got stranded on the mountains, fighting the British and the issues they had with the INA units are all part of another story, this was a period in 1942, well before the war heated up in those cold mountain jungles.

Many a story of valor has been written about those larger battles on the Assam front, a few have been written about the miserable trek of the Indians who fled Burma, but the story of the 309 GPTC is a rarity. The men so slated to form this new company under Atkins were fresher’s from the South, kind of irregular as they say, for most other companies had picked their men from the Northern regions. Atkins who himself was new to the workings outside an office, waiting for his new junior officers and men, was summoned to the station to take charge of his 400 or so men who were asleep at the station. The Punjabi VCO introduced the group as ‘a very bad sort – the Telugus are  black and ugly,  the Tamils obey, but they are smooth like girls, but most of the men, sahib, are Malayali and they are very clever, Sahib, but bad. Yes indeed, much bad! They have hit our colonel on his illustrious head, they have chased the Subedar Sahib into his house, and they have fought with the military police’.

A Marathi Havildar who was later put in charge of the two Malayali platoons added that the ‘malayalis sit and make much talk, and that they did not love the king emperor or the sahibs. After they had settled down, the first of the rebellions had Atkins rush to mediate, over the food quality, which as you can imagine, was not right for the Malayali, for he wanted rice and not wheat rotis. The second was over the fact that some of the Punjabi officers had tried to bugger some of the young Tamil recruits. Thus started the days of the 309 Madrasi Company.

Atkins’s translator was one Havildar Kuttappan Nair, an NCO, but soon two other Malayali VCO’s arrived, Jamadars Warrier and Koshy. Gopalkrishna Warrier was a dark skinned, short man who Atkins states, looked like a walking mushroom under his toupee, and was to later known as Mickey Mouse for his large ears. Warrier was a joy to work with according to Atkins, but had this disconcerting habit of quoting Shakespeare often. Understandably for an Englishman, managing this group was tough, for example the Malayali platoon had over 20 Krishnan’s and most names had initials. Atkins also found out soon that the Malayali is a great lover of disputes, for disputes sake!

Training continued and it soon dawned that the company’s responsibility was to get supplies to the rough Burmese front. The people from the south could handle heat and humidity, but handling cold weather was going to be testing, as they would all soon find out. Nevertheless, the men shaped up and Warrier was to declare “They say best men, Sahib, are molded out of faults and are better for being a bit bad”! They heard about the malaria and mosquitoes, cholera and typhus in those north eastern jungles and were armed only with mosquito screens constructed by themselves. Their orders were to pick up 134 trucks or as the British called it, Lorries from Delhi and drive out to Agra, then go by train to Calcutta and head to Guwahati in Assam.

There were interesting events such as the one when they found one of the recruits had nice little breasts when everybody was stripped waist up during a physical exam. It is perceived that the recruit was actually a girl who had joined up, anyway he or she was quickly sent home.

The Lorries were beasts, and were fondly called green elephants, and notoriously hard to drive, heavy to steer due to half of its weight tilted up front, horrible gears and a lousy petrol system. Added to it, these Ford 3 tonners made hurriedly in Canada for the war effort had underpowered engines making them very difficult to handle. The green elephants actually proved to be surly pigs and on top of it to be driven by men who had no idea about driving, for the only powered vehicle they had been on had been a bullock cart. But war is war and you learn on the field, as they say, and on the very day when Gandhiji called on the British to Quit India, August 1942, the Lorries and the Malayalis and Tamilians and Telugu platoons drove out of Delhi to protect that same country, under the command of a British major.

Both my wife and I are fond of crème caramel, and many a time, we found it prominently mentioned on all menus while traveling around India. We never thought about it and it was while reading Atkins’s memoir that I chanced on the tidbit that the pudding was part of every railway refreshment room’s offering, perhaps concocted so by Spencer’s of madras. It appears that for a cook to be certified good, he had to know how to make crème caramel to the liking of his British boss! Atkins believed that this had been so for some 200-300 years! So now you know!

Atkins’s biggest challenge was teaching the soldiers driving and how to wear a condom seeing how many of them quickly contracted VD. And thus armed with this kind of important knowledge, the platoons trudged down to Manipur road and on to Dimapur from where their adventures were to start. But let me warn you, this is not a story of shooting or armed combat with slashing sabers and whirling knives. It is a tale of work, hard work on a dirt track running through a steep, rough, torturous and rugged jungle terrain. Their task was to supply the teams building the road in front and preparing for large armies which would come later to battle the Japanese and after victory in the plains, go on to liberate Rangoon.

It was a tale of how officers learned to command, of soldiers learning to obey, learning to drive and handle a beast of an unserviceable truck, up and down a length of some 120 miles of terrible single and double tracks and finally of making soldiers of themselves! The Burma campaign was a low priority war for the British high command in London, for they were more worried about losing Britain and the western fronts, and so the army at Assam had to improvise and help itself most of the time. They had hardly any medicine to fight the many diseases which would soon decimate everyone out on the hills, friend or foe, British, Indian or Japanese, soldiers and refugees.

The trains with the trucks and men reached Manipur road. Atkins found to his horror that there was no hospital, repair shops or anything by way of support at this frontier post. And he heard about the rampant malaria, caused by the feared anopheles mosquito, the characteristic of which was that it rested with its butt in the air. In a matter of days, every single person in his unit, except him were down with illness. All they could witness was the dense jungle, rain and a steady stream of emaciated refugees arriving from Burma. Many arrived and simply died at that entrance point into India. Atkins was ordered to go from Dimapur to Kohima and on to Imphal with his Lorries and men. You can imagine how tough it was when the daily distance covered was just 5 to 10 miles! Some Lorries went over the edge (over the khud as they termed it), many had mechanical and fuel problems, most batteries were flat and so once started with a spare, the truck had to be kept running the whole day!

As the drudgery and hard work continued, Warrier kept pestering Atkins with questions on why a poet like Tennyson used words like jug-jug in his poetry (Atkins brushed Warrier off saying English poets wrote no such thing). How Warrier learnt and memorized this amount of diverse Elizabethan poetry is mystery to me, but perhaps he was a student at the Travancore University, a fact I really could not ascertain!

The terrain was unforgiving, the roads continued to be tracks of slush which these trucks could not really handle and the health of the drivers down to nothing. The Madrasi was less resistant to disease compared to the Northern recruits, perhaps attributed to their eating polished rice which held less vitamins, according to Atkins.

Atkins being born in India was somehow immune to malaria and was the only one in the platoon who did not fall sick. The quinine stocks had been depleted, for they were coming from Malaya, which was in Japanese hands and that meant everybody contracted the fever. During his days of despair and anger, he took to observing his people and some of his jottings would not be alien to us even today – Look at this classic example. The Madrasi soldier when sick had a disconcerting habit, he pulled his shirt out and left it flapping and wrapped a rag around their head! He noticed that they too slowly picked up Pidgin English and Urdu as days went by, with more and more sick personnel shivering and groaning, and Warrier quoting Keats grandly ‘the weariness, the fever and the fret, here where men sit and hear each other groan.’ They struggled to drive the three tonners, having no strength left with malaria bouts every 5-7 hours and no medicines even invented to treat it, so it was just a matter of suffering till it went away. Everybody was sick, looking like bags of bones, tempers ran high and it was an absolute disaster, with nothing got done. But they soldiered on, while the high command complained about the 309 GPTC’s lack of pace and results. Nobody had time to listen to complaints about the trucks, lack of spares or repair shops, lack of experience and so on and a funny facts that only 3-4 out of the 450 men had a watch!

It appears many officers were to remember and comment on this Madrasi unit which stood out for its ‘strange looking’ people and the ghastly green steel Ford 3 tonners. Their problem was that the other companies were issued with long nosed Chevrolets with twin headlights. These were better vehicles which handled well and so the frequent comparison between the Madrasi unit driving Fords and the others driving Chevys always resulted in the former being branded as the losers. But soon enough the Chevy drivers were also bogged down with malaria.

Many a truck went over the ‘khud’ as they ferried goods and men back and forth. The Malayali, Tamil and Telugu driver stuck to their task and held on to the steering wheel for dear life as the Fords sometimes spun off the road and teetered on its edge. The lone headlight on the Fords reduced to a slit produced no light and trucks drove bonnet to boot (actually there was no boot, they were mostly tarpaulin covered backs behind the cabin). The road was dotted with broken down green Ford Lorries and many remembered the sight. Atkins was castigated often by his superiors, but nobody understood his problem with the horribly designed trucks and lack of medicines to fight malaria which every single one in his platoon suffered. Nevertheless, they soldiered on or more correctly, drove on, back and forth.

Dec 1942, the Lorries were directed to the Tedim track. The 6,000 odd men who worked on the road construction cut through the jungles and rock at the rate of 1 mile a day. Mohan Singh was the first JCO to die, owing to rash driving after an argument with Atkins. It was tragic, for in fact Atkins had just the previous week sent recommendation letters promoting Mohan Singh and Warrier. A few days later, Warrier was also dead, at Milestone 48 when he hitched a lift on another truck after his 3 tonner had broken down. That 15 cwt truck he was on, flipped over at a turn and Warrier was crushed in it. In five terrible and difficult months at the border, his life had been laid to waste.

Only Atkins remembered him. Jemadar Warrier was a fine officer, a jolly man and above all he was Atkin’s friend, so concluded Atkins as he ended his book, and forlornly packed up Warrier’s belongings to be shipped back to his parents Quilon. I think he was buried at the Rangoon war memorial cemetery, or not, at least his name is mentioned.

Most people do not get the point that at no time was India to become a base for any kind of military operations. While the Americans used the Assam bases to build the Ledo road to China, it was only the Japanese entry into Singapore, Malaya and Burma which forced the British to make new plans in 1942. There was no war infrastructure in place such as roads, trucks or transport trains. All of these had to be hurriedly imported and that is how these Ford & Chevy trucks as well as Jeeps landed up in India and how inexperienced people were put on the supply corps. On top of all that, these chaotic years were compounded by famine in Bengal and Malabar, Travancore, a subject I partly covered earlier. 

There were two journalists who reported later on, during the actual war from that front, and one of them was the great man PRS Mani who wrote about the bravery of Dr Goplakrishnan of Calicut, Havildar Ravunni Nayar, Yakub from Malabar and Kuttiya Pillai. 

There were 10 transport companies and 1,200 Lorries on that front. 309th was one of them and of the 1,200, only 120 lorries plied the 120 mile track at any given time due to disease and mechanical and support issues. Supplies never got to the fronts in time and many fighting units were recalled. Malaria abated, The Dimapur project was scrapped and a new strategy to build a proper Tedim road was now formed. This ‘forgotten army’ as it was called, forged on, without enough tools or support, this was warfare as it really is at its worst, confusion, lack of clear directives, sickness and danger

The records at the Rangoon memorial state starkly ; THEY DIED FOR ALL FREE MEN

GOPALA KRISHNA WARRIER, Jemadar, M, 17185/IO. 309 G.P. Transport Coy. Royal Indian Army Service Corps. Died 14th January 1943. Age 22. Son of K. Madhava Warrier and K. Subhadra Amma, of East Kallada, Quilon, India…

I tried to track down the family of Warrier, but nobody in East Kallada seems to remember them. Atkins, Koshy and Kuttappan Nair continued on with new duties after the Dimapur buildup was scrapped. Their story is continued in a sequel to the first book and their next task was the Tedim road construction. I will cover all that when I write about the rest, looking from the other side, from Burma.

The Reluctant Major – David Atkins
The Forgotten Major – David Atkins
Military economies, culture and in logistics the Burma campaign 1942-1945 - Graham Dunlop
Tedim Road—The Strategic Road on a Frontier: A Historical Analysis - Pum Khan Pau

I tried to find an answer to Warrier’s question and did.
In fact Thomas Nash did write - Cold doth not sting, the pretty birds do sing: Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!

A definition of the term Jug-jug goes thus -Jug Jug' can sound like sound without meaning, nonsense syllables; or 'in Elizabethan poetry' it can be, in Southam's words, 'a way of representing bird-song', or, alternatively, 'a crude joking reference to sexual intercourse'." According to Gareth reeves, jug jug could be an approximation of wordlessness, a sound without meaning.

Hope JCO Warrier up there reading this, is contended…..

Burma border pic Courtesy – Burma star association, Ford truck Google pics (thanks to the unidentified owner)


A Wartime Travesty - Louise Ouwerkerk in India

Louisa Carolina Maria Ouwerkerk and her travails

There are some people who deserve all the respect you can give them. Louise, if you ask me is one of them. Her story is multilayered and complex, with only one facet briefly known to most, her life in Travancore. As you will soon read, her decision to venture out for a career in the East, would prove to be very stressful, for her independent thinking and forceful nature pitted her against some very powerful forces that converged to take her destiny far away from what she planned it to be, a simple teacher.  She was to get involved in the Indian freedom movement, many intrigues in the South Indian Kingdom of Travancore, a wartime prison camp, an eventful fight to clear her name and finally find peace.

Her ten years in Travancore are well detailed (based on her recollections and research) in her account ‘No Elephants for the Maharaja’ and the book covers her turbulent relationship with the mercurial dewan Si CP Ramaswami Iyer. After she passed away in 1989, the book was put together and published posthumously by Dick Kooiman in 1994. What it did not cover, however is the story of the rest of her life in India. This is that story, which readers will read for the very first time, but before we get into it, a recap.

Louise Ouwerkerk was born in England to naturalized Dutch parents in 1904 and went on to obtain an MA degree in economics from Cambridge, in 1925. As a student she was involved in many movements and was a keen rower. After graduation, she had some difficulty in finding a job and for a while worked as a temporary teacher. One day she saw an advertisement inviting applications for a professorship in economy and history at the Maharaja's Women's College in Trivandrum.  Louise applied, got the appointment, and sailed to India in 1929. Aboard the steamer, she raised eyebrows by dancing with the one and only Indian on the ship. Many a memsahib warned her that it was not right "You wait till you get out East, then you will understand the color bar". She cared not, and was to cross that divide many times after that.

She arrived in Colombo sometime in the fall of 1929 and was led to Trivandrum by an exquisitely dressed Indian in a blue flannelled suit who was sent by the government of Travancore to tend to her luggage. Travancore surprised her, it was green, the people looked contended, buses plied on the roads and electric street lighting was in vogue. When she joined the Women’s college, she found it a mess, undergoing a renovation and run haphazardly. Moreover, she was asked to teach economics and political science instead of economics and history.

She found her students mugging their topics and it took a while for her to wean them away and get them to derive their own answers to problems. Later she was given the additional responsibility as warden of the women’s college hostel. In 1936, she became an acting principal and proved to be an able administrator. Soon she had moved into a bungalow opposite the college sharing it with the principal Ms Grose and later into her own, which she found hard to tend even with half a dozen servants to help. Her next advance was to a new position in the University of Travancore as a professor of history and Economics. It appears she was quite uncomfortable in a largely male bastion. But her independent self, abundant energy, keen intellect and lofty ideals carried her through.

Louise’s book goes on to detail the days when Sir CP ruled Travancore with an iron hand and tolerated no dissent. Brilliant as he was in actions favoring Travancore, the way he steered Louise out of the state eventually is a sad tale. That much is well known.

This tale however starts after Louise left Travancore, and will perhaps be the first time a wider audience gets to know it. I had initially completed a draft on Louise’s times in Travancore and her tempestuous relationship with Sir CP, but I shelved it for a later date after I got a chance to read her wartime internment files. The story it revealed, was sobering, saddening and something that should never happen to anybody.

Louise found time for her work and much more within both European and Indian circles mingling with families, partaking in many social activities. The British resident CP Skrine was a friend, so also many other key Europeans. As a devout Christian, she was in regular touch with not only Catholic clergy, but also the protestant missionaries and many a missionary at Kodai Kanal. Along the way, she acquired a summer holiday house there, so she was not doing badly. She got involved with Rev RR Dick Keithan’s Sarvodaya and national congress movements at Kodai Kanal after which she is known to have imparted socialist and pacifist ideas to her students, sometimes discussing these with them after hours, at her house.

Meanwhile, there was a good amount of turmoil in the palace and to get a good feel, one should read Manu Pillai’s well-researched book, Ivory Throne. In 1924, Mulam Tirunal had adopted two nieces (cousins between themselves) from the Mavelikkara royal family and the junior Rani’s son was to be the heir to the throne. The accession of Chitira Tirunal as planned was becoming a tough prospect, what with rumors (seemingly propagated by some in the Christian clergy of Travancore) of the young Raja being a bit on the wonky side, doing their rounds early on in 1930. To add to the discomfort there was an anti-royalty movement afoot in Trivandrum, led by the anti-durbar Nair party.

Sethu Parvathi had been in contact with Sir CP earlier in 1929 as waters were getting murky. CP who was serving as the Viceroys EC member, put in a good word with Willingdon. The Viceroy eventually agreed to let the boy be the king a bit earlier than originally planned. Eventually, the prince and the Viceroy met at Simla, the latter agreed that the boy's mind was sound and the decision was sealed. The boy had earlier requested (with Willingdon’s prodding) that Sir CP become his legal and constitutional advisor. That was how CP first landed in Travancore.

Why did Louise, who thought Sir CP was the "the perfect dinner partner" change it later to Sir CP, the "the power-hungry autocrat"? Was it her strong evangelical roots manifesting themselves, was it her strong sense of righteousness or did she just nurse a grouse? Was Sir CP or for that matter Chitira Tirunal a staunch proponent of a Hindu Travancore?  Or was the queen mother behind it all?

If you read other accounts of that troubled period in Travancore, you will find vociferous arguments by the Catholics and vehement retorts from the Hindu factions, both seemingly right in their own ways. In addition you will find another set of factions, pro-British and pro monarchy, both marvelously detailing and exquisitely positioning their lucid arguments alongside other issues such as development and social rehabilitation. I was alternatively swayed by these groups as I perused the many sources, tilting from one side to the other. But as I mentioned earlier, this is more about Louise, the lady, in the middle of the storm.

Ouwerkerk’s problems, so to say, started with the arrival of this egoistic and forceful new Dewan, the well-known C P Ramaswami Aiyar. As time went by, in the Travancore of the 30’s and well into the 40’s and until independence, three people shared the powers of the Travancore throne, the young Chitira Tirunal, his mother Sethu Parvathi and most of all, Sir CP occupying the driver’s seat,

Ouwerkerk is not at a loss of words to describe the volcano of character that Sir CP was. She does not hide her admiration in any way, for she says CP was ‘a man of outstanding intellect, immense charm, a rapier keen mind, prodigious learning, and possessing an incredible ability to marshal facts, administrate and deploy arguments, with brilliance in oratory, conversation and always, an outstanding lawyer’.  As contemporaries in Travancore, Louise was some 25 years younger than the senior statesman CP was and perhaps for that reason, she would mostly observe him from a distance. Even after all the bitterness she left with, she stated that in CP’s canvass, you would see two threads of pure gold, his sincere devotion to the Hindu religion and his unshakable devotion to those he elected to serve, in this case Sethu Parvathy and Chitira Tirunal. He braved many political storms and even threats to his own life in defending them. Louise however maintains that he never cast the blame where they belonged (at the royal doors).

The next decade saw a number of issues crop up between the royals and the people. The Syrian Christian lobby, the Ezhava SNDP lobby, the TSC, the youth movement, the anti-Durbar Nairs and a smaller number of communists questioned every move of Sir CP and he countered them sternly. He muzzled the press, banned organizations, used his law and order machinery, sometimes mercilessly and they were all actions which invited much wrath from the general public.

CP stuck to his guns and once he was formally instated as the Dewan, the autocracy that he supported came down heavily on the rebels and violence erupted at times. While the temple entry announcement surprised all and sundry, CP’s opposition to responsible government was firm and absolute, he would not have it. The Quilon bank case threw much mud on the Syrian Catholics. All these stories are well known to the knowledgeable Travancore public even now and so I will cut to the chase.

As all this was going on, Ouwerkerk, now a professor of History in the Travancore University was getting more and more involved with the pacifists, congressmen, the Syrian Christians, the missionaries and the agitators. CP was losing his patience with this foreigner in his employ, who he now believed was stirring up the mud excessively and also hobnobbing too much with the British resident CP Skrine. He decided to get rid of her and wrote to the Raja on Sept 17, 1938 thus “She seems to be a very disturbing factor in the Arts College. It has been reported to me that she is in touch with a lady who lives in Kodai Kanal and who poses as a dancer and who constantly frequents Trivandrum and meets the member of the state congress and students in the middle of the night in Miss Ouwerkerk’s house. There is some reason or thinking that she is really a communist doing some propaganda”.

Sir CP also mentioned to Resident CP Skrine that O’s house was the rendezvous of ‘an unhealthy pseudo religious spiritualistic circle’. Sreedhara Menon notes that the immediate royal decision was to keep a watch over her.

Ouwerkerk had an inkling that her job was already in jeopardy as she set out to Europe on vacation in March 1939, amplified by the fact that she was drawing a salary more than two times the other professors in the college. By July, vacationing in Denmark, she received the formal notification of her termination. She was first served a 6 months’ notice of termination and the Raja’s final decision of her termination (due to exigencies of public service) was recorded on June 17th 1939. Louise travelled around Sweden, Holland, Denmark and Germany before being served with the termination notice by post.

Events rapidly snowballed and soon the world was at war, by Sept 1939. Louise hastened back to India in Dec 1939 and went on a lecture tour around India visiting Bombay, Calcutta (meeting R Tagore at Shantiniketan), Wardha (meeting M Gandhi) and most other cities in the north on behalf of the International fellowship, to end up conducting a rural survey in Paniyaram TN. She then managed to obtain the position in May 1940 as Acting principal at the Maharani’s College for women, in Bangalore. We can note that she is happy that she had left the intrigues at Trivandrum and was slowly relaxing and enjoying Bangalore. What she did not know was that her world would very soon get turned upside down.

In Travancore, CP reigned supreme and his 60th birthday was celebrated in grand style.  As Travancore tensed, some leaders agitating for responsible government were arrested while others fled to neighboring British India and Cochin and some went underground. Newspapers were shut down. People learned that war policies and draconian laws were too difficult to fight.

Louise had an inkling that something was not right. Perhaps her friends in the Sarvodaya movement (Ramachandran, Brother Keithan)  supporting home rule, tipped her that the CID were watching her, or perhaps it was because she saw that her letters were being intercepted or tampered with. The input to all this activity seemingly originated from Travancore, where it was determined that Ouwerkerk was known to express anti British sentiments, was not only friendly with congress leaders but was also known to associate with pacifists, communists and other undesirables (As a member of the international fellowship, she was decidedly pro congress). The first tip of Sir CP’s involvement appears in the home ministry files where it is stated that he did not approve of her behavior in Travancore. But the British also noted that they felt Sir CP was biased in this opinion. Later letter intercepts proved that she did have pro congress, pacifist and Anti-British leanings and that this was the reason she got her into a morass. Dr Ada Hetherington (Nabha Maharani’s physician) also seems to have made some negative remarks against Louise, around this time.

The state of Mysore decided that she was undesirable and had to be expelled, and it was decided that she should not be allowed to ‘wander around India ‘and stir up dissent. The debate between the political and Home department was if she should be sent back to England or interned in a parole camp. Eventually, in Nov 1940 it was decided to arrest her and send her to the parole camp in Satara, concluding that she would neither become pro-British nor neutral during the war period.

The bewildered and overwrought Ouwerkerk objected in no uncertain terms and insisted on a review of her case, as a British subject. Both she and her mother in England contacted everybody they could think of and in power, sometimes repeatedly asking for their involvement and personal influence to get her released. Many who reviewed her files suggested that this was all too drastic and that she had done nothing ‘dreadful’ or extreme. On the other hand they recorded that she was more of a crank, somewhat queer, an eccentric or quite opinionated at times and that the action planned was unduly harsh. But it was not reversed. Her mother wrote to Winston Churchill asking for redress stating that they were owed that (reminding Churchill of the services Gen Ouwerkerk had carried out for Churchill’s father, the Duke of Marlborough). This flurry of communication was making the political department and the home department very nervous. As letters flew back and forth, Ouwerkerk languished at the Satara camp, ensconced with other female parolees, where she would soon fall sick of food poisoning.

In the meanwhile, she got a job offer as principal in a women’s college in Bombay, and she tried again to get a release, but the Home department refused. They believed that she should not be allowed to teach again, since she would impart bad ideas to her young wards. But there was one person who always thought she was being treated wrongly, that was Sir Maurice Gwyer, the Chief Justice of India who stood squarely in support behind her.

In desperation, Ouwerkerk changed her stance from wanting to finish her ‘mission in life in India’, to being expatriated to London, which the ministry wanted to mull over, if only she could find funds to finance her voyage back. She also resigned from all her pacifist association memberships. Some officers looking at her files remarked that she was harmless as such, and belonging to ‘a wild type of theoretical pacifist’, many of whom could be seen even in England. But the outstanding issue was her association with the objectionable Rev Keithan, his so called communist views and the strong pacifist faith Louise’s mother was exhibiting through her letters to Louise.

By April 1941, the government who believed that O’s case had given them far too much of trouble than it ever deserved, decided to ‘perhaps’ let her go if she could maintain herself and not teach. Louise suggested that she could lodge herself with friends and support herself from a £120 annual pension she was drawing from Travancore. Thus she was eventually released from detention in April 1941.

The Mysore resident was however not willing to take her into his state considering her previous activities. In the meantime the Maharani of Vizhianagaram decided to employ O as her assistant at Ooty, and live there, as she said, quietly and not teach. O later contacted the resident to ask if she could go back with the Rani to Bangalore. The request was denied.

Ouwerkerk was not going to let this lie, she challenged the grounds on which she had been instructed not to take a teaching post (she of course did not know it was due to her being perceived to be one with communist views). As this was going on, she got a position as a Hostel superintendent at Lady Irwin College Bombay. This did not work out for obvious reasons, and next O applied for a position at The Nazareth convent in Ooty. The Home department asked the Madras government for advice. It was Jan 1942 already and an entire year lost in limbo for this iron-willed lady, but she was slowly wilting.

The Chief justice recommended that the case be taken leniently since O had learnt her lesson and changed her views. He pointed out that she had renounced her pacifist views. The government was finally willing to lift the ban placed on her teaching. As this was being discussed, Louise obtained a job with the department of information & broadcasting as a Publicity officer to lecture American troops on Indian economic problems.

She did not let go of her ongoing battle with Conran Smith of the Home dept. on the teaching ban, which she wanted fully lifted. She now ratcheted it up a notch by applying for a position as a secretary in the WVS (woman’s voluntary service). The home department when asked for a reference was lukewarm, suggesting that her talents lay elsewhere. Eventually, not having sufficient grounds any longer, and perhaps positive news from the war fronts, a formal notification allowing her to teach was issued by the Home department in Oct 1944.

O continued her wartime work, and won much appreciation. Later on in 1946, she was even recommended for an MBE but it did not pan out after the concerned in the Viceroy’s office read her files.

The machinations of the British bureaucrats would have naturally made you wonder how they ever thought O had communist leanings. An analysis shows that it was her proximity with RR Keithan in Kodai Kanal which triggered it. The British in those days saw all the people against British rule to be possessed by leftist leanings, be it Krishna Menon, Nehru or Keithan. Added to that, Keithan had correspondence with a group called war resistors international, considered communist. The CID established that O continued close contacts with Keithan (who had also moved the IF to Banaglore and O was a family friend), Leonard Schiff, Dr Mees, G Ramachandran and UG Exner all of whom had problems on the same count with the British and were not people with strong Anti-Nazi feelings. O also blundered in stressing that she was proud of her Dutch origin in various meetings, rather than British. Finally, the CID tapping O’s mail found her making general antiwar remarks when communicating with her mother and Hilda Elsberg.

Though Sir CP had started the train rolling, I cannot affirm he had any interest in O personally and did not quite destroy her career, as O herself thought. Nevertheless, Sir CP continued to target those against his interests and his CID continued to track activities in neighboring regions.

Sad, the way this brilliant lady was treated, as she herself explains – ‘being judged for the acquaintances she had with such persons under police supervision, but not the far wider contacts she normally had which had not attracted police attention’. Anyway, after a fight of over 4 years, she managed to get justice, though her teaching career in India had been inexorably ruined. In 1945 she published her book ‘The Untouchables of India’ and had the last laugh, to see Sir CP himself being ejected out of Travancore.

She was later involved in creating an East-West fraternity in Delhi and after Indian independence, O returned to England and moved later to Nigeria where she taught during 1953-1963. In 1963, she returned to Ooty, spent 4 years reconnecting with old friends and went back to England for good. In 1974, she completed her accounts of Travancore, but did not succeed in getting it published even though advertisements appeared calling it “A popular history in Epic tone” and describing the book thus - A readable, impressive story about the Princes and the people, the modernization of Travancore, communal problem, temple entry proclamation, attitude of the Paramount power, civil disobedience and the final steps towards independence.

MA Thomas wrote fondly about her in his memoirs, explaining how she treated him like a younger brother and even taught him how to use a knife and fork. He recalls a visit by her and her sister in the 60’s to Bangalore and the important advice she gave him while in London - ‘Do not be in a hurry to make your contribution. Study and prepare yourself’.

Louise Ouwerkerk passed away in 1989, 85 years old.

That was Louise Ouwerkerk, India’s friend….

No elephants for the Maharaja – Dick Kooiman
National archives of India – Home office files, Louise Ouwerkerk (Political-E-1940-Na-F-67-32-40)
Ivory Throne – Manu Pillai
Triumph and Tragedy in Travancore: Annals of Sir CP's Sixteen Years - A Sreedhara Menon
Envoy of the Raj (the career of Sir Claremont Skrine) – John Stewart
Sir CP Ramaswami Aiyar a biography – Saroja Sunadararajan


The dancer, Hilda Elsberg, was a Jewish German, who was employed in the Presentation Convent in Kodaikanal as a dance and gym teacher. She too was a pacifist and as a good friend of Ouwerkerk, corresponded with her, but if she went regularly to Trivandrum or not is not clear (I still don’t know what she was up to in Trivandrum. Interestingly, the daughters of the Queen Regent were studying at the very same Kodai School – Information courtesy Manu Pillai). Copies of letters sent to her by Louise do exhibit some controversial views and were intercepted by the British.

Dick RR Rev ‘brother’ Keithan was expelled from India, but returned and spent his remaining life, as a Gandhian, in Dindigul. His story is a project for the future, I will retell it another day.

Xanadu – Where Ouwerkerk lived in Trivandrum, is a minister’s house, these days!

O defined Malayalees thus - The Malayalee is above all an individualist, used to going about his business regardless of anybody except the members of his own family, tenacious of his personal rights, quarrelsome, difficult to organize for any continuing purpose. There is a saying in Kerala which may be relevant here, as it certainly is to the main theme of her book: “Take one Keralan: you have a politician; take two Keralans: you have a political party; take three Keralans: you have two political parties.”