Nedyam Raghavan – Unknown to most

Lawyer, Freedom fighter, Statesman from Malabar

We had been studying the lives of people from a past generation, those who fought for Indian independence. We read a lot about the Menon from the West - VKKM, we also perused stories on the VP Menon from the South, who integrated the country, ACN Nambiar who lived in Europe and along the way so many other Menon’s and Nair’s, lesser in no way. But we forgot to pen a detailed story of the illustrious diplomat N Raghavan. He was perhaps the person who led the most interesting of lives, moving from Shoranur to Madras, then through UK, Malaya, Burma, India and eventually various cities across the globe as a diplomat, during the Nehru years. He was even more interesting since he worked under the British Indian administration, the Japanese conquerors in SE Asia, the INA team at Burma and after incarceration by both Japanese and the British, joined the Nehru administration following independence. What a varied life, and I am sure most of you have so far, only a hint of this fascinating person.

I did introduce him briefly in the IIL stories of TP Kumaran Nair and mentioned him in the Japan elephant story. But I am sure you will agree, that he needs a page for himself, since his contributions have been numerous, with the ILL, with Rash Behari Bose, as Netaji’s INA finance Minister and finally as a diplomat for a few decades in the Nehru government representing India at Argentina, France, Indonesia (CG), Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, China and so on. Suja Sugathan did publish a paper about him some years ago, but this covered mainly his work at the helm of the IIL. He had an eventual life after all that, as we will soon see.

Like the illustrious diplomats, the Vellodi’s, Raghavan too has a connection to the Kottakal Zamorin Kovilakom, for he was the son of K C Veerarayan Raja (Neduthralpad) and Nedyamveetil Meenakshi (connected to the Guruvayur Mallissery Illam), born 23rd June 1900. After schooling in Cochin, he did his BA Econ (History & Politics) at Madras Christian College and began a career as journalist at ‘The Daily Express’ Madras.

The 1920’s had many white-collar professionals moving to work at Singapore and Malaya. Penang had a decent Malayalee émigré population and it was PK Nambiyar, who was entrenched at Penang who became instrumental in influencing Raghavan’s later life. P. K. Nambiyar, an inner temple lawyer who initially practiced in Madras during 1894 till 1904, moved to Penang as its pioneer Indian barrister. Nambiyar was a popular man, he founded the Penang Indian Association in 1924 and served as its President till 1927. Upon his passing away in April 1928, N K Menon, his son took over as the 2nd President of the PIA.

Some mentions can be seen that Raghavan first came to Penang in 1920 and assisted P K Nambiar in his law practice and somewhere along the way, he met Nambiyar’s daughter Radha, and they got married in 1924, cementing Raghavan’s ties with the Nambiyar family. Following this, he left for Britain, in order to study law. He completed it at the Council of Legal Education - London and Inner Temple in 1927, something he had to acquire since it was a prerequisite in Malaya to practice law. While in England, he was a member of the British Labor Party and the Fabian society and wrote for several newspapers and was particularly fond of G Bernard Shaw.

Raghavan came back to Malaya after his father in law’s death and started to practice as a barrister at law in Penang from August 1928. He proved to be very successful and was equally well respected in the Chinese, Indian and Malay communities. Soon enough, the couple had two sons - Keshub Chandra and Jaidev as well as a daughter Meenakshi. In 1930, Raghavan became the president of the All Malay Indian association, taking over from NK Menon. As the leader of the Penang Indian Association and CIAM between 1930-37 and from 1938-40, his involvement in sorting out various issues of estate labor have been well documented. He was also one of the two prominent lawyers who drafted the Constitution of the Malaysian Indian Chamber of Commerce, Penang and served as the president of the Straits Settlement (Penang) association.

It was in 1930 that Raghavan met Jawaharlal Nehru when the latter came to inaugurate the CIAM (Central Indian Association of Malaya) and after that event, Raghavan maintained contact and close links with Indian Congress leaders. For Indians in Malaya, the CIAM was very important as the only body which would look at the grievances of the Indian laborers in the various mills and estates. In 1936 Raghavan met Rash Behari Bose at Japan while on a holiday. Bose kindled his patriotic fire, by asking what exactly Raghavan was doing personally to further India’s freedom struggle. When Raghavan mentioned cooperation with Congress, Bose seemed to have other ideas and they parted, but only to meet much later, in 1942.

The world war followed, and in 1941, the Japanese first took Singapore, then ran through Malaya and followed on to camp at Burma. The British fled, and with that the administrative machinery at Malaya was in tatters. It was during all this that Raghavan formed and led the All Mayalan National Congress. This was the front organization which discussed the Indian question with the Japanese invaders.

Following the Japanese invasion, Malaya's major ethnic groups, the Indians and Malays, generally escaped the worst ill-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. Meanwhile, 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.

As we saw, Raghavan was the President of CIAM. in 1941, when Rash Behari Bose arrived in Singapore to organize the political and military arms of the INA. The Indian Independence League (IIL) was formed as the political wing of the INA with Rash Behari as its leader. Raghavan was one of the five members of the executive committee of the IIL.

In Singapore, we now see the proclamation of the All-Malayan Indian Independence League. The League was headed by Nedyam Raghavan. 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. KP Keshava Menon was also from Palghat, hailing from the Tharoor region and a member of the Palghat royalty. He was like Raghavan, a London educated barrister, but had moved to Singapore from Calicut where he used to practice earlier.

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.

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. 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. 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 ideas which Raghavan refused to agree with, Mohan Singh had clashes with Iwakuro. Rash Behari did not agree with Mohan and thus, KP Keshava Menon and others resigned from their posts. Mohan Singh moved a large number of soldiers to Burma for menial work. Iwakuro sent out the first set of ill-fated trainees in submarines to Indian shores without Raghavan’s knowledge.

When Raghavan at Penang heard of all this and the fact that Iwakuro was trying to set up an Indian youth league, he was furious and resigned from the ISI (Lebra suggests that Behari Bose forced his hand) without further negotiations. He had enough of the high handed Iwakuro (and it seems, he and his family were threatened of death as well) and was aghast at the Japanese behavior. 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. Anyway, Raghavan was placed into house arrest and he continued with his legal profession. Rash Behari Bose said - Because of all this muddle which could have been avoided, Mr. Raghavan, who was all the time advocating better co-ordination between the Army and the Council, resigned. Mohan Singh was exiled. Rash Behari Bose now decided to bring in a new leader, NSC Bose.

As NSC Bose arrived to take over the reins of the INA, he did not fail to note that the people’s support lay with Raghavan, and so he entreated him to join the INA which Raghavan did after Bose got him released from captivity. Bose told Raghavan - The position has changed, it is like this, If I had to choose between you and the Japanese, I would choose you. Raghavan states – It broke me down, I went with him and joined his government as a minister.

When the INA headquarters was shifted from Singapore to Burma, it was Raghavan who worked hard with the Chettiar’s in Burma and the rest of the South East to marshal support and collect enormous funds for the INA (Roughly 200 million rupees or some 61 million US dollars’ worth from Indians in Malaya and Burma). Raghavan connected better with the wealthy south Indian communities in Malaya and Burma and ensured a steady flow of resources into the INA government’s coffers. The British IB reports however point out that even though Raghavan was the head of the Finance Ministry, he did not enjoy the full control over revenue as the Netaji Fund Committee and the Azad Hind Bank were not in his control.

Records show that Raghavan was a fiercely patriotic and fiery orator, and the British considered him one of Bose’s chief propaganda agents. When Netaji reassembled his civilian administration in Bangkok,  Raghavan brought resources from Singapore, and Ayer negotiated a loan from the Thai government. He was one of the last to see Bose before he flew to Saigon, via Bangkok.

It was Raghavan who complained and forced Bose to take up the plight of the civilian Tamil estate laborers who had been forced by the Japanese to build the death railway. The Japanese admitted to taking 120,000 Tamils for the work of which only a third survived. Raghavan estimated that they took an additional 60,000 of which a mere 20,000 returned. It is perhaps the most horrible event of the war, which has since then been simply glossed over by all concerned. We can see that patriotic fervor and the desire to liberate India from the British kept Raghavan going even in the dark days when the INA lost battles, when Bose departed for Japan and lost his life, and the INA collapsed.

On reoccupying Singapore and Malaya, the British jailed most of the INA soldiers and leaders at Singapore, Raghavan was among them. It has been mentioned that the British were no better than the Japs, in this regard, being arbitrary and revengeful. Eventually in Dec 1945, a deputation from India were able to meet them and soon enough, the wheels in India started to turn. 

SK Chettur who visited Malaya with the team met Radha Raghavan and he wrote - Mrs. Raghavan was a distinguished-looking lady who greeted me with a sad face. She had learnt that two days before I arrived her husband had been transferred to Singapore jail for interrogation. She was bearing up bravely under the strain as did all the other wives.  Nehru took it upon himself (supported by GF Hutheesing) to sort matters out and obtain his release in 1946, even when the British tried to trump up charges on Raghavan about INA fund management. Hutheesing quickly proved that the evidence, a letter, had been forged. Nehru later appointed Raghavan next as the vice-chairman and the acting chairman of an Indian relief committee in Malaya.

Nehru stated formally in his report dated 16th April 1946 - Certain allegations were made specially against Mr. N. Raghavan, the Finance Minister of the Azad Hind Government. None of these were substantiated and indeed a document produced in support of these allegations was found by Hutheesing to be forged. Both Hutheesing and I are clearly of the opinion that Raghavan is completely free of any taint in this matter or in any other. He is undoubtedly one of the leading and most popular Indians in Malaya though he has a number of enemies especially among those who have recently returned from India. It was because I had full faith in Raghavan and his capacity that I appointed him the vice-chairman and acting chairman of the relief committee I have formed there. I might add that all the I.N.A. officers here whom I have consulted have also expressed their full faith in Raghavan.

In June 1946, Raghavan went back to India with his wife and children to settle down in Madras. With war out of the way, and his path into the foreign service paved, Raghavan took over as consul general at Dutch Batavia (35,000 Indians lived there, those days) to handle Batavia and set up a diplomatic link with the newborn state of  Indonesia. He served there until 1948. Although Raghavan was representing India in Dutch Batavia, he was also instructed to be in contact with Sukarno and his new Government in Djakarta. From 1948 to 1950 he was the Indian ambassador to Czechoslovakia, moving on to Brussels and as an envoy to Luxembourg until 1951.

He was by then a somewhat changed man, the years of rough life had hardened him, and he took his position and its pomp perhaps a bit too seriously. Jagat Mehta mentions in his memoirs that he was a strict father to his children and that the ambassador was a stickler for rules at the embassy, enforcing full compliance in all matters. MO Mathai adds that Raghavan once set a telegram to India, conveying exact details of somebody (perhaps an embassy employee) smuggling some precious stones (?) and suggested he be administered castor oil on arrival to get the precious contents out of his posterior, which as you can imagine, the customs officials gleefully executed!!

From 1951 to 1952 he was an ambassador in Bern and accredited to the Holy See and the Allied Commission for Austria in Vienna. After flitting around Europe, it was time to move back East, and he took on the critical post in China as India’s Ambassador, as KM Panikkar headed back home, due to his wife’s illness. Thus, he was the second Indian Ambassador in Peking during the 1952-56 period. During this tenure, the governments of India and China agreed on the much talked about Panchsheel Treaty of peaceful coexistence.

An interesting vignette which I chanced on, relates to his embassy team serving South Indian Sambar to the Chinese (a total of 520 servings) plus other Indian food such as jalebis when Nehru visited Peking during Diwali 1954. Mao said after the dinner – Indian diplomacy is something we should copy; all the service is praiseworthy. China thanks you!

Raghavan had a unique advantage compared to Panikkar, he had lived for many years among the Chinese at Malaya and understood their mindset and behavior. Without doubt, his days at Beijing were trying and Raghavan with his astute people skills, correctly judged that the Chinese could not always be taken for face value. His report to Nehru is telling. He mentions to Nehru that the Chinese, unlike warm-hearted Indians, are not emotional by nature, and while the Indian people often displayed an emotional approach towards China, the Chinese themselves have none such towards India. He added that “Any friendship [in China] is evaluated from the standpoint of its usefulness to China.” For more details check out the article - On China, when shall we learn the lessons – Claude Arpi.

Raghavan left China well before the cauldron boiled over and was soon headed for the Southern hemisphere. From 1956 to 1959 he was ambassador at Buenos Aires and was accredited to the government in Santiago de Chile. Moving back to Europe he served as the Indian ambassador to Paris 1959-61. Raghavan hung up his boots, to retire at long last, in 1963 after which he did a lecture tour through Malaysia and Ceylon. From 1964 to 1965 he traveled around and made lectures in the United States, Japan and Southeast Asia.

We can see from various sources that he led a varied and interesting life, for a while he was even a senior hospital assistant, and at Penang was active in the art scene, writing and directing stage plays (acting as Jesus) for the Kerala Samajam. He wrote two slim books, one about Malaya and another on Burma. On the sporting side, we find a mention of his playing tennis whenever opportune. His son Keshub Chandra worked as an executive for Gillanders Arbuthnot. His daughter Meenakshi married PS Menon. I was not able to determine any details of his second son Jaidev. His sister Ammalu Amma lived out her life with her family in Singapore.

Raghavan passed away in Dec 1977, unheralded, for I could not find a single obituary (maybe it is my fault entirely in not searching even harder!) and this was a man who did so much for India, at such huge personal hardships. But then again, life is like that, forgetfulness comes easily, I guess!

References
Selected works of  Jawaharlal Nehru Vol 15
N Raghavan – A Malayali freedom fighter in SE Asia – Suja Sugathan JOKS , Vol 32, 2005
Rash Behari Basu, his struggle for India’s independence – Radhanath Rath
The INA and Japan – Joyce Chapman Lebra
India and Malaya – Nedyam Raghavan
His Majesty’s opponent Subhas Chandra Bose and India’s struggle against empire - Sugata Bose
When Nehru Looked East: Origins of India-US Suspicion and India-China Rivalry - Francine Frankel
From Malabaris to Malaysians: The Untold Story of Malayalees in Penang – Suresh Narayanan
Class, Race and Colonialism in West Malaysia: The Indian Case - Michael R Stenson
Indian Diplomats abroad – Nilkan Perumal
Witness to History – J Victor Morais
Maddy’s Ramblings - T P Kumaran Nair’s story Part 1 and Part2


Raghavan Photo courtesy - Class, Race and Colonialism in West Malaysia, Stenson

Notes
  •  It is from Raghavan’s book on Malaya that I gleaned an interesting fact - In those days all South Indian laborers landing in Malay were called ‘Ramaswamy’s by English supervisors in the Rubber estates!
  • One Lt Col JP Cross who wrote a book titled Operation Black Rose, describes Raghavan with a racist undertone as ‘a round faced Penang Lawyer who had eyebrows like hairy caterpillars, was small bodied and  hirsute as a man-eating spider’! What a snobbish pom!
  • It was while perusing this story that I came across Dr Anitha Devi Pillai, author of “From Kerala to Singapore, yet again. Many years ago, she was searching for details on Raghavan, but at that time, I had only some. I went through her book recently while researching further for this article and would recommend the book as a good resource for anybody who wants to know more about the many people who sailed to Singapore and Malaya in those days from Kerala, as well as their varied lives and times.  The book traces the lives of Malayalees in Singapore through conversations covering their memories and experiences of moving from Kerala to Singapore and how their families subsequently built their lives here, slowly sinking their roots and becoming Singapore Malayalees. Anitha currently teaches writing pedagogy and writing at the National Institute of Education (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore) and is currently working on a book of short stories and a historic novel.


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8 comments:

Unknown said...

The Japanese landed in Kota Baru , north east of the then Malaya and occupied the Peninsula and finally overran Singapore island where the British finally surrendered.
Free School was housed in a building beside St George Church in Farquhar street which as you accurately say is now a Museum.
The present Free School is in Green Lane now named renamed Jalan Mesjid Negeri occupying 30 acres.

Maddy said...

Thanks unknown...

Unknown said...

My name is Vivek. A first generation Malaysian of Malayalee origin. My late father was one of those who joined the Indian National Army at Singapore travelled up to the border of the then Malaya / Thailand stationed at what you mentioned Jitra. While crossing towards Burma the war ended and he chose to settle in Penang. These luminaries are known and spoken with high regards by the migrant Malayalees at that time. So we grew up hearing those names and also met Dr. N.K. Menon who was also a past president of our Samajam.

mysticdoc said...

If I am not mistaken NRaghavans nephew was NHaribhadkar former Chief Secretary of Tamil Nadu who was a jayalalitha favourite

Unknown said...

Came upon your article researching Hardit Singh Malik (another extremely interesting life..lived). His daughter Veena married a Raghavan and lived in Queens. That’s Jaidev!

Maddy said...

Yeah, Hardit Singh Malik was some character, from what I read. Interesting life, must read his autobiography.

Maddy said...

Thanks vivek..
Yeah those times must have been interesting, to say the least..

Maddy said...

Thanks mysticdoc..
I don't know much about Haribhadkar, will check it out.