The Swaraj Spy – A Novel by Vijay Balan

After more than a decade of concerted effort, Vijay Balan’s studies have culminated in a novel depicting his grand uncle’s life and times, published by Harper Collins as ‘The Swaraj Spy’ under the historic fiction genre. Without a doubt, Vijay’s painstaking research is evident from the meticulous unraveling of Nair’s life. The writing style is languid and easy, and the reader will soon find himself moving from Malabar to Singapore, through Burma and the jungles of Assam, ending up at what was once the great metropolis of Madras.

Vijay Balan has added meat and bone to the shadowy character of Nair and made him come alive in his 500-page book. I should, however, mention that while the book tends to skim over the cruel vagaries of war, as well as the stark violence and tragedy the Japanese left behind in Singapore, Malaya, and Burma, the book focuses mainly on the travails of Nair and the games fate played upon his life. And most importantly, the book ends leaving the reader on a positive note.

My own involvement in retelling the same story, albeit briefly as a blog post, was coincidental. Many years ago, the story of TP Kumaran Nair found me, while I was searching for something else. My close links with Calicut, the very city of Nair’s origin, made me search deeper for answers on the events surrounding his fate and the subsequent naming of an obscure road, after him. The story was touching, somewhat disheartening actually, and one which I felt that a larger audience should know.

As days went by and the characters became familiar to me through many other tales and events, I found more and more connections to them. Nedyam Raghavan, a prominent character and TP Kumaran Nair’s boss at the IIL, turned out to be a relative, and KP Keshava Menon, yet another from the Singapore of those days came back to Calicut and worked with A Karunakara Menon, my great grand uncle, at the Mathrubhumi. A.V. Lakshmi, a.k.a. Lakshmi Sehgal turned out to be the daughter of a neighbor and family friend at Chalappuram. As some of you may realize, while many of the aristocratic families toed the Congress line in Calicut, it was only Lakshmi who went the INA way.

Coming back to the book, while one agrees that the British in India were self-serving, especially during WW II, with the Americans just flitting by, the horrors of Japanese occupation, their treatment of the Tamils and many Malayalee laborers at the Death railway camps, should have found mention, so also the fate of the millions who had to flee Burma. This would have lent more sanctity and balance to Nair’s story. Another aspect I observed was the perpetually buoyant attitude of Nair as depicted, which may not have been a reality, since many of us know that as a second-class citizen in Singapore, a place exhibiting a high dose of white racism, Nair seems to display none of the reticent attitudes usually prevalent among Indians, then and now, in the prose.

But then I also realized at the end of the tale, that the breezy prose was deliberately left neutral, written without taking sides, with the reader sometimes feeling that even Nair may have been somewhat undecided on which side he was on – the British and the Japanese, and like millions of others, bobbed along as a victim of circumstances. As I read the book and got to know the character of Malu, Nair’s wife, I could not help but wonder – what if Vijay Balan had talked to her too, since she lived a long life and passed away only in 2002? What additional insight could the author have gleaned? Not very much I assume, for Vijay Balan has been meticulous. One other aspect though, I thought Vijay may have missed another side of an MSP man’s character, drilled into him by Hitchcock and other superiors at Malappuram – which is ruthlessness. We don’t get to see that in Nair’s persona. I also felt that some maps would have helped the reader trace Nair’s path, and a few pictures would have lent a better perspective.

One wonders what course Nair’s case at the Madras High Court would have taken if Justice Mack had been asked to review Nair’s actions, in 1944. I feel that Nair may have been sentenced differently, and while one cannot fault Justice Rao for following the rule of law, it is apparent that he may not have had the self-belief (as an Indian Judge toeing the British system) that somebody like Justice Elmar Mack had in abundance. Justice Mack exhibited humaneness in most of his cases with the dictum - Justice means justice shorn of all technicalities. And as some readers familiar with this case know, Mack used this logic to acquit many from the first batch of 20 tried by him during the same period. Unfortunately, Nair’s case was fated differently and decided by Rao.

I have also pondered at length on the fateful role played by another Calicut and Malabar bureaucrat, J. A. Thorne, who as home secretary, argued forcefully against the actions of these enemy combatants and upheld the rule that they should be given the most severe of punishments. He was the man behind strict censoring and the sternest sentences, and he argued for its applicability to the common man. Then again, he seems to have kept mum when bigwigs were involved, sparing many of them, if only to avoid a public censure of the British Raj.

INA enthusiasts may recall a 2015 article in The Hindu, written by Price Frederick, a journalist who came face to face with Kumaran Nair– All of us are in some form of shackles, self-imposed or otherwise....My own helplessness has made me an admirer of those who have shaken off their yokes. For one, I have been a witness to stirring expressions of love for the country, when it was under British yoke….. It surprises me no end how we forget our heroes – most of them, I mean. I got to see T. P. Kumaran Nair, when he was lodged in the Madras Central Jail in the early 1940s…... Nair worshipped Bose and he trained cadets in the Indian National Army. It’s a pity that except for a road in Nellicode, Kerala, that bears his name, T.P. Kumaran Nair remains largely forgotten.

As I have mentioned often, the many books on the INA and its work, published thus far are centered around its leader Subhas Chandra Bose, his life, vision, and strategies. Very few works cover in detail or even mention the selfless sacrifices of the thousands of Tamilians and Malayali laborers and entrepreneurs in Singapore, Malaya, and Burma. The Chettiars, the Malayalee Moplahs, and the others who gifted away their life’s savings to the INA cause are mentioned only in passing in those works. Therefore, the many who took up arms for Bose remained unseen and unnamed faces, their stories and sacrifices, hardly mentioned or told.

Vijay Balan’s book is one of the first books which takes you down to the life of that ordinary soldier, well below the titled rank and brass of the INA. It thus fills an important gap, covering the lives and sentiments of simple men like TP Kumaran Nair and Abdul Khader, who too fought for the concept of a United India before its conception and who were instrumental in shaping the huge patriotic rebellion of the Indian, against their colonial masters.  

It is well worth a read, and this book will take you to an India of the ’40s at the threshold of Independence, when many people fought wars for the benefit of their masters, but foreseeing only a faint result called Swaraj.

And when you are done, spare a thought for kindred souls like Kumaran Nair, who fought for that hard-won independence, and laid down their lives for that cause.

This brief review follows the perusal of a copy of the book provided by the author, acknowledged with many thanks. Those desiring more details may visit


Orlando Mazzotta

The phantom in Quaroni’s opera

In March 1941, Subhas Chandra Bose slipped out of Kabul, holding the passport of an Italian named Orlando Mazzotta, headed for Moscow, leaving behind the real Italian, in Afghanistan. I had previously covered the tale of Bose’s flight out of British India, and his travels through Russia, Italy, and eventually to Berlin in Germany. At the end of that article, I mentioned that one Mr. Orlando Mazzotta worked in Vienna in 1963, and wondered if it could be Bose. Well, it was not, it was the real Orlando Mazzotta. This is his story.

As it turned out, the son of the real Orlando Mazzotta, himself an Italian diplomat, fortuitously reached out to me a couple of weeks ago, with additional details about his father. So here we go - to the Kabul of the early 1940s, where the Axis supporters plotted against the British, while the British CID leaned on their extensive spy network to figure out what was going on. The ex-Emir Amanullah was in exile in Italy, and Zahir Shah was in charge. At this fringe of the British empire, members, and employees of the nations of the Axis - Italians, Germans, and initially Russians, teaming with many other dissidents passing off under multiple guises, plotted to bring down the British colonial enterprise.  One of those persons was Orlando Mazzotta.

Orlando Mazzotta
The Italian Legation was an important edifice in Kabul in those days. It was headed by Pietro Quaroni – 38 years old, who had joined the Italian diplomatic service in 1920, starting in Constantinople, as a diplomat well-versed in Russian, French, German, and English. Moving to Argentina and then to Moscow, Pietro met and married Larissa, daughter of Prince Alexander Cegodaeff from the Volga region, in 1927, only to get expelled from Russia, for it. A Posting in Albania followed, then it was back to Rome for a stint in Mussolini’s foreign service. Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini's son-in-law and Minister of Foreign Affairs, had him transferred to Kabul (ostensibly after a critical article was submitted by Quaroni) in 1936. Italy had by then established a good relationship with Afghanistan. With the start of WW II, Quaroni was busy establishing his Legation as a central point in information gathering on British India for the Axis powers, creating a spy network, and fostering relations with potential dissidents, assisted by his wife Larissa and the legation’s First secretary Enrico Anzilotti.

While Larissa, the lady with a booming voice and confident airs concentrated on covert message deliveries (as she did in the case of Subhas Bose) and socializing with the bigwigs in Kabul, Anzilotti, the front man, established contacts with collaborators. Mario Ungaro was the commercial attaché, Adolfo Crescini was the Legation chancellor, and Orlando Mazzotta took care of the radio operations and cipher work. Ernesto Cagnacci was the diplomatic courier, in fact a priest himself. A few other Italians working in the government services and as artisans, completed the Italian population in Kabul. Well connected to them were Italian civilians - Giovanni Azzurri an engineer and his wife Valentina. It must be noted here that during the war days, all of them were involved in undercover activities, and were frequently spied upon by the British. The legation also housed a Padre named Egidio Caspani, and local staff to support operations, the most important among them being their interpreter Muhammad Aslam.

Pietro Quaroni
The Italian legation was in close contact with the German as well as the Russian legations. Quaroni had clear ideas on supporting the Axis war machine, he had planned to penetrate and arm the NWFP tribes, who would then launch frequent skirmishes at the British across the Border. This unrest would ensure that the British had to divert a large number of their forces up North, thus depleting the force which would otherwise be sent abroad to fight in Europe. Secondly, it would enable Indian legions trained in Germany to travel to Afghanistan and launch attacks on the British Indian forces. Finally, Quaroni planned to provide covert support to Radio Himalaya, a radio station run by Mohammad Iqbal Shedai in Italy, to transmit anti-British propaganda beamed to Asia.

Crescini, Anzilotti, and Mazzotta were the lynchpins of this team, during the period 1938-1943. Early on, Quaroni had identified the Faqir of Ipi as the person who could marshal resources and mobilize a revolution. With that in mind, Quaroni decided to strengthen his relations with the Faqir. Afghanistan itself was pro-German, and with about 150 German agents and deep German penetration into the Afghan ministerial circles, the Axis-leaning Afghan power was being cultivated. Though Rome was not in full support of Quaroni’s ideas, they were still in favor of the Legation’s pro-Axis actions.

As we saw, Orlando Mazzotta handled the radio and communications in the Legation. From the testimony of Aslam, the interpreter who was arrested by the British in Quetta around June 1941, we can make out that radio sets were delivered by the Italians and Germans to the Afghan officials as well as some dissidents, and Mazzotta was responsible for testing them. The receiver for the legation itself was placed in its dedicated room, but the transmitter was moved around to ensure it was not detected. Important messages were delivered at night (Cagnacci was the backup to Mazzotta). In fact, for a long period, the transmitter was hidden in the house of Padre Caspani! In addition to routine communication with Rome and others, Mazzotta used to record Italian news bulletins, do a copy of them in French and Aslam would then do translations in Pashto (Urdu script) and Farsi. Copies were secretly distributed to the far corners of Afghanistan, regularly.

Mazzotta first figured in the British secret service radars in the Mrs. Heilmann case, just after he arrived in Kabul. In Jan 1938, Dr. Josef Heilman and Elisabeth Heilmann, both German nationals arrived in British India, Josef being employed as the company doctor for Banke Mille in Kabul. Dr. Hielmann spoke Italian and was noticed by the British and kept on their watch lists, as the couple traveled often to Peshawar.  In 1939, Elisabeth went to Bombay, and moved in with Frau Mattke, the wife of a German agent. Elisabeth then met with Chancellor Crescini who arrived to see her in Bombay. In Oct 1939, Orlando Mazzotta applied to meet Elisabeth in Bombay with the claim that he intended to marry her. The Italian Legation in Kabul also stated in the application, that they would withdraw the request if the Indian government had the slightest objection. The British refused permission (as they had planned to arrest and deport Elisabeth). Orlando Mazzotta then sent a telegram to Elisabeth asking her to visit Sig Silvio Marabelli at the Italian Consulate, in Bombay.  One could surmise that Elisabeth was a German agent or Nazi sympathizer on the run, and wanted to escape from British India. Whether there was a relationship between Mazzotta and Elisabeth, or if it was just a ploy to assist her in her escape, is not clear.

The British had as mentioned previously, decided to expel Elisabeth Heilmann together with some others, suspected to be Nazi agents. Paperwork was in progress, but in 1940 they discovered that Elisabeth had already left India. Elisabeth was grouped among German consulate employees, considered to be ‘leading Nazi concerns’. Dr. Josef Heilmann was later picked up and interned at Ahmednagar together with other Germans and Italians. He admitted that he was a Nazi party member, but he claimed that he joined the party only for the sake of health insurance. In these records, we can also see a mention that Mrs (Olga) Mazzotta arrived in Kabul in 1941 (probably erroneous, 1940 seems appropriate).

The Italian Legation - Kabul

Let’s pick up Orlando's story from Roberto’s notes.

In Roberto’s words - Orlando Mazzotta was born in 1911 near Lecce (Italy), then a small city of Apulia region on the heel of the peninsula, looking onto the coast of Albania, the youngest of seven brothers and sisters. He left Lecce very soon as his parents died and was "adopted" by one of his elder sisters, who moved to Marseilles (France). At age 15 he embarked as a ship boy on a merchant ship, ending up as a conscript seaman in the Italian Navy, where he was trained as a radio operator. As such, he embarked on several warships, including submarines, sailing the seas from Gibraltar to Djibouti, where he found himself, at the time when Mussolini’s Italy declared war against Ethiopia (1935 -36). In 1938 he was eventually sent to Kabul to serve as a radio operator at our Legation in the capital city of Afghanistan.

He married by proxy (circa 1939-40) an Italian school teacher Olga Giurleo, whom he had probably met in Tunis (Olga was teaching in the Italian school there), and the marriage was later solemnized in the Catholic chapel, which was part of the Italian Legation in Kabul, in the summer of 1940. As Italy entered into WWII in June 1940, my father's tasks became more challenging, including coded communications with the main headquarters in Rome, and trips across the Indian frontiers to escort the incoming and outgoing diplomatic pouches. He had plenty of opportunities to travel across the country and since his face and complexion could easily be mistaken for those of a native, he was soon entrusted with actions aiming at disturbing and countering the presence of British forces in the region.

Subhas Bose - in the
guise of Mazzotta
Now we get to the story of how Bose got to use this Mazzotta’s identity. Many had assumed that the guise under which Bose traveled and lived a life outside India until he reached Japan, that of Orlando Mazzotta, was a fictional one. Some writers mentioned that the real Orlando was an Italian Count, while others thought he was a Sicilian. Quaroni, the Minister Plenipotentiary at the Legation, had pried Orlando’s smiling photo out of Orlando’s passport and replaced it with one of Bose, looking a little alien and sober, with a French beard and all.

Subhas Chandra Bose, slipped past the British in 1941, destined for Soviet Russia or Germany. After escaping confinement in Calcutta, he arrived at Peshawar on 19th Jan 1941 and met Bhagat Ram Talwar – a.k.a. Rahmat Khan - codename Silver. Before long, Bose was dressed and trained to pass off as a deaf and dumb Pathan pilgrim, headed for Adda Sharif, under the guise of Ziauddin, with Khan, his nephew guiding him. After a weary and long trek, they arrived at Kabul on the 27th. An initial attempt at contacting the Russian consulate for help failed (Moscow had told the Ambassador to give Bose a wide berth), and Bose decided to try the Germans next. The Germans liaised with them through a Siemens radio engineer named Thomas, who dragged his feet while awaiting word from Berlin. A nervous month passed by and a trader named Uttam Chand provided Bose with a place to live. The Afghan police got wind of the stranger and Uttam had to silence the constable, with regular bribes. Tired of waiting, fearing arrest at any moment, and exasperated, Bose decided to trek it to the Soviet border, after meeting Thomas for the last time. The German had an answer this time – he asked the duo to go to the Italian Legation and meet Pietro Quaroni. Quaroni met Silver on the 22nd of Feb 1941 followed by Subhas Chandra Bose. They discussed plans and strategies over the next three weeks, as they waited for the Russians to grant Bose a visa to travel to Moscow.

Quaroni explains his actions in a telegram to his superiors in Rome - 26th March 1941 - In order not to prolong the extremely delicate situation, I gave Bose an Italian passport under the name of Orlando Mazzotta - radiotelegraph operator of this legation on which I changed the photo after getting a visa for the Afghanistan exit. Please excuse me for doing it without authorization but the Soviet consulate refused to do anything other than affix the visa on the document provided by us and the Minister of Germany did not want to act without precise instructions from his government. On the other hand, given local circumstances, the risk was much greater than it may seem. If necessary, I ask that the passport be collected in Berlin to make sure.

Since Bose was leaving as an employee of this Legation, I paid for his car to the border and provided the minimum necessary funds for the trip; please telegraph how I must account for the aforementioned sum which amounts to 1,500 Afghans. I recommended that Bose go directly to the Embassies of Italy and Germany in Moscow and wait for instructions that will be given to him to continue his journey and leave Russia as soon as possible. He thanks you for our help and your message. Some months later he met a surprised Mussolini, who had not been fully appraised of the developments.

Quaroni’s son Alessandro added in a 2009 speech - Details on the preparation and issuing the false passport: after many suggestions exchanged, it was finally decided, after a "Europeanization" of his looks (the Germans had been prompt to suggest that he could much appear more Italian than German) it was decided on a casual meeting by chance of my mother, Crescini and Bose, all having a stroll on the road to Darul Funun, outside Kabul, as the best opportunity to take a snapshot of a passer-by…. The substitution of the photograph, exactly to coincide with the Italian official seal, was not an easy matter for people not having this specific experience: my father remembers having been very proud of receiving compliments from his Soviet colleague on the quality of the work done!

Anyway, Bose was out of the Kabul scene, and Quaroni had set into action something which was to have huge repercussions in the future of British India, his support for Bose’s escape. Bose was by now, settling down in Berlin, a trifle disappointed though with the lukewarm reception from the Germans, but well into the process of establishing the Azad Hind Radio, making visits to Italy, meeting Mussolini, etc., subjects which we have discussed and covered earlier. During all those years which passed by as well in his relations with Emilie Schenkel his secretary, Bose went by the alias - Orlando Mazzotta.

Those are well known to Bose aficionados, but what they did not know was that the real Mazzotta, Crescini, and Anzilotti were neck deep with intrigues in Kabul, working hand in hand with Quaroni and masterminding Italian relations with the furtive warlord, the Faqir of Ipi.

Roberto, born in 1943, had only a general understanding of his father’s activities but it certainly helped me get a rough idea of Orlando’s days in Kabul between 1939-43. Roberto feels that his appearance and complexion was the reason why Quaroni used his passport to get Bose out of Kabul. He continues - These must have been the reasons on which Ambassador Pietro Quaroni (in those days the head of a Legation, a lesser diplomatic mission, had the title of Minister Plenipotentiary) based his decision to grant Chandra Bose an Italian passport bearing my father’s name.  Of course, under instructions from headquarters in Rome, where Mussolini received Bose personally to agree with him on ways and - above all - means to fight against British rule.

He seldom told me about these actions – he was a very private person. I still remember distinctively that one of his missions was to a remote area of Waziristan, where the respected fakir of Ipi – Haji Mirzali Khan Wazir - waged his war as a freedom fighter, against British attempts at putting Afghanistan under their rule. Presumably, my father brought him financial as well as propaganda means.

In June 1941, British Indian intelligence picked up and arrested an interpreter Muhammad Aslam in the Italian Legation – Aslam’s testimony though rubbished by Quaroni later (he wondered how the British could have "swallowed the most palpable rubbish" and then made themselves "ridiculous in Afghan eyes by using it as evidence), is exact, very specific in detail and damming. Curiously, however, it does not mention the visit of Bose, or the relations Rahmat Khan (Silver) had with the Legation in the early part of 1941, something Aslam would have known, since Bose lived in the Legation at times, during February 1941. I cannot however conclude that Aslam’s testimony was burnished by the British CID, to build up a case against the Axis legations of Italy and Germany, it is true in most parts.

Aslam claimed in his statement that several members of the Italian Legation had visited the Faqir between 1939 and 1941 and supplied him with money and weapons, including machine guns and a wireless transmitting and receiving set. He also supplied the British with the names of Afghan officials and army officers collaborating with the Italians and with the Faqir, which were then used to bring more pressure to bear upon the Kabul Government.

Faqir of Ipi
Aslam mentions that the first radio set was sent to the Faqir of Ipi in 1940 and that Azzurri helped maintain and run it. Azzurri later vanished, and British sources state that he went to Iran. Aslam records in his extensive report that a senior diplomatic official from the Italian foreign office named Ciraolo arrived via Russia with a wireless transmit/receive set, money, weapons, and propaganda literature and that Aslam accompanied him as an interpreter, to the Faqir’s caves. The equipment was delivered to the Faqir in person and the Faqir when specifically queried answered Aslam that Giovanni Azzuri was not around then. With Azzurri gone, the only person who could have provided training to the Faqir in 1941 on the wireless set, should have been Orlando Mazzotta.

Quaroni later admitted that he had personally presented the Faqir with a light machine gun and ammunition to match, and also stated that Anzilotti had been to the caves in June 1941, to meet the warlord. This, of course, contradicts the testimony provided by Aslam but is in line with what most other historians, including Milan Hauner, have narrated. A subsequent attempt by the Germans to establish contact with the Faqir failed. Specific details of the Italian moves are not available, but they continued to believe that the Faqir of Ipi would be of assistance in the long run. It did not work out, and we know now that the Faqir proved to be an insatiable money trap throughout the war, delivering hardly any goods in return.

Bose as you will recall, lived in Berlin with his Italian passport (Reg. No. 64932) under the name of Orlando Mazzotta - a name he continued to keep for nearly a year. All letters sent by him and minutes of meetings in Germany and Italy mentioned Bose only by his alias Mazzotta. So much so, those anti-British activities which happened in Afghanistan were connected to the ‘Mazzotta Organization’ – An example is the Hur insurrection in 1942 and 1943 when they attacked railway lines. The general belief was that the railway sabotage had been directly instigated by the 'Mazzotta Organization', and the Faqir of Ipi. 

It was also mentioned those days or popularly believed that a German and an Italian cryptographer had managed to break the military ciphers used by the British, thus enabling sabotage by the Axis forces. It is believed that the Italian man was Orlando Mazzotta, but no further details are as yet available.

The relations between the German and Italian legations were also becoming thorny and the Germans eventually took control of the coordination of the Axis relations with Afghanistan and India. On 13th October 1943, Italy joined the Allied Powers and declared war on its former Axis partner Germany. Cooperating with the British now, Quaroni was interrogated by the British, at which juncture he provided details of all the activities of the Italian legation, but hardly mentioned the role of Orlando Mazzotta. Quaroni and Mazzotta continued to work at the Legation, and Roberto Mazzotta was born to Olga Giurleo and Orlando Mazzotta, in the winter of 1943.

As the war wound to a close, Orlando Mazzotta continued to remain elusively behind the scenes, and the names we see mentioned are those of Quaroni, Crescini, Anzilotti, and Larissa. With the British and other observers relating Bose to a fictional Mazzotta, the real one remained hidden behind the mist, the veritable phantom of the Quaroni opera. Details of Mazzotta’s times in Afghanistan are still largely unclear and we can therefore make only some broad assumptions.

By May 1944 Pietro Quaroni was appointed the Italian Ambassador at Moscow. He later served in Albania, Paris, London, and Bonn and passed away in 1971. Enrico Anzilotti took over as Minister Plenipotentiary in Israel, later as Ambassador to Austria, and then Somalia.

Roberto Mazzotta
Orlando Mazzotta and his family too moved in September to the Moscow embassy to join Pietro Quaroni, on camel back first to Tashkent and then by a ramshackle Russian train. Orlando later served at the Italian Consulate in Vienna, as an administrative clerk in the early sixties, after Moscow, then at Argentina and Morocco. His varied life took him to many other places, he served as a chancery clerk in Caracas, Prague, and Budapest, retired in 1976 after a long service, and passed away in 1994.

Alessandro Quaroni, one of Pietro Quaroni’s sons, joined the diplomatic service and held distinguished positions, the world over. He retired after his final posting as the Italian Ambassador to India.

Roberto Mazzotta, Orlando Mazzotta’s son, the person who has been in touch with me, too served as a distinguished diplomat in various countries, his last posting was as the Italian Ambassador to Pakistan.

Personal communication – Roberto Mazzotta, acknowledged with thanks
Muhammad Aslam’s testimony – HOME_POLITICAL_I_1941_NA_F-109-7_41KWPART-IV, Indian National archives
Hielmann case - HOME_POLITICAL_EW_1940_NA_F-5-6, HOME_POLITICAL_EW_1939_NA_F-93KW, HOME_POLITICAL_EW_1941_NA_F-10-58 Indian National archives
India in Axis Strategy—Germany, Japan, and Indian Nationalists in Second World War - Milan Hauner
Pietro Quaroni e l’Afghanistan - di Luciano Monzali
One Man against the Empire: The Faqir of Ipi and the British in Central Asia on the Eve of and during the Second World War - Milan Hauner
Silver – The spy who fooled the Nazis – Mihir Bose
Alessandro Quaroni’s speech – The Oracle – Vol XXXII, Jan 2010 #1
Afghanistan, crocevia dell'Asia. Caspani, Egidio und Ernesto Cagnacci

Orlando Mazzotta, Roberto Mazzotta – with permission Roberto Mazzotta,
Italian legation – courtesy Afghanistan - Caspani, Cagnacci
All others – Wikimedia commons


©Ullattil Manmadhan – Maddy’s Ramblings - Do not copy any portion of this article, without permission, and if required contact


Menon and the Coorg War

And the tragedy which befell the Chikka Deva Rajendra

The house imprisonment of Karunakara Menon was a major cause that precipitated the invasion and acquisition of Coorg by the British, a sad tale in itself. An event which is said to have weighed upon the conscience of Menon, until the end of his life, this resulted in the British acquiring the rich Coorg highlands, the banishment of the Raja to Banaras, and the adoption of his daughter by Queen Victoria, among other things…All in all, an interesting story, if you are inclined to join me on a trip up to the NE of Calicut, where Menon had been living in retirement when this furor started. 

The role that an aging Menon played in the final days of the Coorg kingdom and the life of that infamous (or not) Kodagu King Chikka Devarajendra is fodder for a good film. But then, the real character of Chikka Devarajendra is not quite clear to most of us, and almost all accounts stick to the version provided by the missionary Moegling in 1855, which was repeated by English writers, and many others who followed, such as Masti Venkatesha Iyengar who published a fictional novel following the same storyline, and CP Beliappa who covered the dynasty in his book on Coorg. While the monetary greed of the EIC and its modus in taking over Coorg, after blackening the character of its ruler Veera Rajendra followed a pattern from other EIC acquisitions, one should take note that Chikka Veera Rajendra was not a paragon of virtues. Though I feel that he was involved in ordering some nefarious activities and exercised bad judgement, the salacious rumors of his promiscuous and violent life are based entirely on heresy, gleefully spread by his enemies. But let’s go to those lush green hills of Coorg, home to many coffee plantations, known as the Scotland of India, to see what this was all about.

The Lingayat Haleri dynasty was not that ancient and ruled over the small hilly terrain for just 200 years or thereabouts. The highland area of Coorg was of not much interest to the neighboring kingdoms, and it was only after the British arrived and locked horns with the Mysore Sultans that the Kodagu (Coorg) kingdom came into prominence as a strategic hilly region between Malabar and Mysore, East off the EIC offices at Tellicherry. 

Without much ado, let us quickly zoom into the time frame we are interested in, the final decades of the 18th century with Coorg’s Raja ruling from Madikeri (Mercara), it's capital. Hyder Ali of Mysore had usurped the throne, defeated the Ikkeri rajas, and was out to expand his realm. Malabar and its treasures were in his crosshairs, and seeing a possibility to take over the region from its feuding chieftains, decided to invade, but made the mistake of antagonizing the English, as well as the Dutch. The English came to the aid of the Malabar and Travancore Rajas. Up North East, the Kodagu chiefs resisted the initial forays, and Hyder wisely decided to leave the hilly region alone. Succession disputes resulted in a Haleri aspirant Lingaraja seeking the help of Mysore (just like it happened in Palghat), and with Hyder’s support, gained the throne, but after agreeing to pay Hyder an annual tribute of Rs 24,000. 

When Hyder meddled in the administration of his state, Lingaraja resisted. After his untimely passing, his children (Veerarajendra, Appajiraja, and Lingarajendra) were held in captivity. Around this time, the first of the Anglo-Mysore wars occurred, and eventually, after the death of Hyder, and the coronation of Tipu Sultan, the situation went south. Tipu threatened to convert the populace, and decimate all opposers unless they stopped their rebellion. The rebellion continued, and Tipu retaliated mercilessly, transporting large numbers to Seringapatam, renaming Madikeri to Jaffarabad, and installing Janulabin as his man in Kodagu. Two of Veera Rajendra’s sisters were attached to Tipu’s harem. 

As the story goes, the three sons eventually escaped from Tipu’s fort and got back to Kodagu. Dodda Veera Rajendra (dodda – senior) as he was known, after a series of skirmishes, threw out Tipu’s army and regained the Madikeri fort. In 1791, the new Raja signed a treaty with the EIC, represented by Robert Taylor. Nine years later Tipu had been killed, thanks to the passage provided through Coorg for the Bombay forces who joined hands with the Madras forces, ending in the taking of Seringapatam.  As threats to the Kodagu kingdom receded, the EIC now asked the Raja to pay them the amount of Rs 24,000 which they had been making annually to Tipu. An agreement to give an elephant annually seems to have resolved this issue, though it came to the fore again years later, in the court of law, as a technicality.

Over time, Dodda Veera Rajendra became paranoid and frustrated as he could not sire a son, only four daughters. Not only was he depressed, but was also prone to fits of violence and it is said that his African Sidi guards killed many of his purported enemies and schemers. During this period, he wrote the Rajendraname – a history of the Haleri dynasty, as well as his will, in which asked the British to make his daughter the queen, leaving behind a sizeable deposit of around Rs 7 lakhs for her care, etc. By 1807 he was gone, after another bout of insanity. His brother Appaji had in the meantime been assassinated, while Lingaraja settled down in Haleri. As matters would have it, Linga Rajendra was appointed as the regent. Accompanied by his lame childhood friend Kunta Basava, Lingaraja soon convinced the young queen Devammaji to hand over the throne to him, which she did by abdicating, in 1810. He then demanded the EIC return the Rs 6.4 lakh deposit (in her name), which they did not, but agreed to continue paying interest. He too seemingly, proved to be a despot until death and in 1820, was succeeded by his son Chikka (Junior) Deva Rajendra. Chikka’s mother it seems, committed suicide by swallowing diamond dust.

As the story goes, Chikka Veera Rajendra was no better than his father, and proved to be despotic, and indulged in kuthinasa, or the murder of others in his family to prevent dissent. He was rumored to have had over 28 members of his family killed with the help of Kunta Basava, the new Dewan. Chikka remained suspicious of his female cousins, especially his senior cousin Devammaji, the original heir of the Coorg throne. Alarmed when he decided to move against them, his sister Devamma and her husband Chenna Basappa decided to flee across the border seeking refuge with the British, in Mysore. The next decade pitted the Mysore resident Casamajor against Chikka Veera Rajendra, a period which proved to be very turbulent for the Kodagu populace, culminating in a war in 1834, the takeover of Coorg by the British, and much later, into what was known as the long-drawn Coorg Case, in the London courts.

The story has two sides, the popular British account as presented by Moegling, Lewis Rice, and others, which detailed the King’s salacious and violent misdeeds, while the other is a concise rebuttal of the events by Chikka’s estate executor, the eminent historian Robert Montgomery Martin. Perhaps, the truth rests between the two and very few have chosen to refer to the latter. That Chikka Veera Rajendra was not a virtuous king is clear, but at the same time, he was not quite the person, the British writers as well as Masti Venkatesha painted him to be. The complication in determining the facts about Chikka is the distrust Koduvas had about their rulers, of the Lingayat cast, who were not only considered unwelcome foreigners but also as iron-fisted tyrants who frequently subjugated them. Masti Venkatesha’s portrayal did have detractors and Sanganna Kuppast made a detailed rebuttal which I perused; he certainly raises pertinent arguments, and he points to the lack of accurate historical content in Masti’s novel..

B Surendra Rao studying the many accounts of Coorg concurs in his assessment - The knowledge which the European writings produced on Coorg shows a considerable preference for the description of its despotic, depraved royalty. The Rajas are generally portrayed as mean, cowardly, and cruel, and their licentious criminalities are described with voyeuristic relish. But it is interesting that Lt. Conner and William Jeaffreson were less harsh in their judgment of the rulers than Moegling and Richter who wrote after the annexation….

The Colonial construction of the native rule hugged the logic that the native ruler was everything the colonial ruler was not. The imperialist claim that only morons and monsters were pulled out of their disgraced thrones, produced such portraits as that of Siraj-ud Daula, Tipu Sultan, and Wajid Ali Shah, and the Coorg royalty was no different.

While Casamajor, the resident at Mysore was steadfast in his negative opinion about the king based on heresy reports (and his bad equations with the Raja) of the mass murders in Coorg, Veera Rajendra was miffed that the British, whom his ancestors had wholeheartedly supported in their fight against the Mysore Sultans, were now going against him. Accusations flew back and forth and soon the Kodagu King closed his borders to foreigners. Casamajor then made a formal visit to Coorg, but the meeting was a disaster, the Raja complained to the British and had him recalled to Mysore. Meanwhile, a demand was made by the Raja for the return of his deposit, which the British denied paying, but continued to pay a lower annual interest.

The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was the flight of Chikaveera’s sister (also named Devamma) and her husband Chenna Basappa in 1832. It appears that the henchmen of Veer Rajendra put the heir apparent, the Raja’s cousin Devammaji to death, misappropriated her jewels, as well as assassinated seven other women and the son of his sister Devamma. This is not documented or proven. The Gazetteer states that Chenna Basavappa, was a Koduva but had become a Lingayat before his marriage. This Chenna Basavappa, discontented (as he stated later in Mysore) with the tyrannical rule of the Raja, formed a league to dethrone him. Chikka Vira Rajendra getting the scent of evil designs against him, wanted to imprison Chenna Basavappa. But Chenna Basavappa escaped across the frontier with his wife and a few faithful followers and took refuge with the British Resident. During their flight, they killed a few Coorg guards. 

Casamajor decided to overlook the murders and provided asylum to the two fugitives of Coorg law and simply refused to send them back to Coorg. The battle of words between the Raja and the resident reached nowhere and the British stood firm, stating that Chikka was in the wrong. They had by now obtained a good reason to take over the Coorg principality, to rescue, as they publicized, the common man from a despotic ruler. Many wild stories were circulated but they were refuted when a Dr. Jefferson from Bombay was deputed to Mercara and found the supposedly dead people very much alive. Gen Welsh added in his report- Before leaving Bombay, several persons residing there, and who had received intelligence that some of their relatives in Coorg had been unjustly and most cruelly put to death by the Rajah, desired me to make inquiries as to the truth of such reports. This I did and it was with the greatest pleasure I obtained the surest proof of the falsehood of such allegations, by the appearance before me, in real flesh and blood, of the very parties who were said to have been so unceremoniously disposed of.

As Martin puts it - His (Veera Rajendra) mind became much disturbed and irritated by the calumnies propagated against him, consisting of the customary allegations of cruelty and misgovernment which usually preceded Indian “Annexations”. To add insult to injury, Messrs. Binny and Co., withheld payment of the yearly interest in 1833 on some of the promissory notes, contrary to usual practice. The Raja was incensed and blocked off Coorg from the outside world, while Casamajor sent away the fugitives to safety in Bangalore. 

It was at this point in time that the British deputed two persons to the troubled zone - a civil servant from Madras named Graeme and our man K Karunakara Menon. Graeme never entered Coorg and stayed on the outskirts, whereas Menon, the dependable troubleshooter for the EIC, now pulled out of retirement, initially reported the activities and developments from across the borders, but was promptly arrested by the Raja, as he entered the country. The British demanded that the Raja immediately release Menon or face consequences. Veer Rajendra was meanwhile pressed by his henchmen that he could indeed wage a winning war against the British. For five months, the battle of letters and words continued, and Menon remained under house arrest. While the Raja maintained that Menon was deputed to spy on the Coorg preparations, the British retorted that he was sent as an emissary to try and discuss the matters with the Raja. The Raja reinforced his defenses, and the British prepared to conquer Coorg and displace the Chikka Raja. Casamajor was sent off to manage Travancore.

It is quite clear that Menon was sent to spy and report on the battle preparedness of the Coorg Raja, so let us now see what Menon had to say. A detailed report from Menon had previously been posted by Nick Balmer writing about the incident and linked here.  

Nick Balmer explains the background - Appreciating the need for intelligence on what was going on in Coorg he (Collector Clementson) had brought Thomas Baber's old Sheristan (Karunakara Menon) out of retirement. He was sent up the road from Cannanore to the Stone River on the border with Coorg. It was not possible to send spies into Coorg as the local population could easily spot them and they would soon be killed or apprehended. However, the road from Cannanore through Coorg to the east was used by grain merchants and these were in the habit of attending the market in the capital of Coorg. Menon set up his post in the rest houses (Vayatoor) that these returning Moplah merchants were using, to gather up-to-date information on events in Coorg.

Briefly put, Menon reported - Making enquiries of what was going on in Coorg, as well as respecting the Rajah’s hostile intentions and submitted to you under dates the 18th, 20th, 21st and 24th October 1833, reports containing the result of my enquiries and a further memorandum after I joined the Cutcherry at Tellicherry on the 28th of that month….

After a while, he was allowed to enter Coorg - We arrived at Maddakery on the 5th November, from which date I was, without any reason whatever, placed in confinement, and was not released until after a period of five months, just on the 6th April 1834. In the course of the confinement, I had fourteen interviews with the Rajah…

At Madikkare, Menon was lodged in a bungalow with a guard. During his meeting with the Raja, the Raja wanted to know if Graeme was a good person or a deceitful one like Casamajor. Menon asked the Raja to trust Graeme and explained to him that the translations of English letters he had been provided were faulty and were reworded to sound disrespectful. After many meetings, the Raja stated to Menon that he had enough of the British deceit and was willing to wage war if so required. Menon expressed his alarm at that and gave examples of how Veluthampy at Travancore and the Pazhassi Raja at Kottayam had succumbed after threatening the British. He implored the Raja not to plan such extreme actions. The only mention of the Raja's frustration and violent fits is this - On one of these occasions, he halted opposite to the Parboothy Cutcherry about 100 yards distant from the Bungalow in which I was, caused large plantain trees to be cut, had three of them lashed together and with one blow of the crooked knife severed them in two.

During the time that I was confined in the Bungalow namely 4 ½ months, there was no want of anything. The only annoyance we experienced was we being laughed at by the people who daily passed by the Bungalow (which stood near the high road) on their way to and from the fairs and other passengers. The greatest restriction was laid to out walking and speaking to people passing by and to writing.

More details can be found on Nick Balmer’s blog and Prema’s book (in Malayalam), suffice to conclude that the British finally gave a six-day ultimatum to the Raja to release Menon, and with Menon still in confinement, the British invaded Coorg and the Raja surrendered, releasing Menon with many gifts, including an elephant. 

On the 4th of April 1834, a flag of truce was sent to the British camp at Harangi from the Raja and on the 6th April, 1834, at 4 PM., the British flag was hoisted in the fort at Mercara. After the English troops entered the Muddakery Fort and hoisted the Flag under a salute, I went to Muddakery ambalom (temple). The story is quite complex and analysis will show deft manipulations from both sides, along the way, with the Koduvas bearing the brunt of the aftermath.

So that was how a Menon from Kalpalli (later living at Ramanattukara), near Calicut, was connected with the precipitation of the Coorg war and its accession by the British. Menon, who was made a Pymash Sheristadar in Malabar after the Pazhassi incident in 1805, had been provided with a 29-pagoda palanquin allowance and this was later adjusted to a land assessment in 1822. He retired, but was recalled for this purpose, especially as he was quite adept at managing to penetrate enemy territory as he had proved in the past, during the Nasik affair. But Menon was mentally affected after this event, adding to the stress from the earlier Pazhassi incident which had been preying on his mind. 

The PTSD is evident – as narrated by Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair in his autobiography - When the British acquired the country, a Kottayam Raja refused to submit and waged Guerilla warfare for many years causing great loss to the East India Company in men and money. One Menon who was an agent of the East India Company is supposed to have been responsible for his capture and death. This Menon rose high in the British Service and was deputed afterwards to the Coorg Raja, whom he persuaded to surrender to the East India Company on the assurance that he would not be deprived of his Kingdom. The East India Company however deprived him of his Kingdom and I believe he died afterwards in England. The story goes that Menon’s tarwad is troubled by the Pretas of the Coorg Raja and the Kottayam Raja to the present day, and by his own Preta in their company, as the tarwad had not been able to gain admission for him into the world of fathers or Pithrulokam by appropriate ceremonies or offerings.

A troubled Menon wrote later to the EIC - I am strongly convinced that there are no black marks on my service record under you either. I was incarcerated for five months by the King of Coorg while on your mission there. I had supplied you with intelligence regarding the King's movements on October 18, 20, 24 and 28 in the year 1833. I was imprisoned as I put myself at an extremely vulnerable position defending Gramme during his Madikkara visit. I would like to remind your Highness that despite having several committed soldiers, you have just one who risks his life constantly in the service of the British Empire and that is me. Due to all these reasons, I cultivated plenty of enemies and their tribe just keeps growing with each passing day. This has forced me to carry arms on a regular basis for self-defense, offer free food to Brahmin pilgrims once every year. I also engage in feeding the poor five months in a year and have constructed a structure for the same. With all these in mind, I request the esteemed Empire to kindly declare the land I was gifted with during different instances of my 33 years of service to be tax-free. I also request you to kindly grant me a handsome pension that will take care of the well-being and security of my descendants and me.

After the Coorg incident and his request, his land assessments were adjusted and he was provided with a monthly pension of Rs 350/- per month. Menon’s home and boat were pictured by Gen Welsh who spent some time with him, while in Malabar. A book on Guruvayur cites that a stately lamp post (Deepastambha) at its North entrance had been gifted by Karunakara Menon, in gratitude, to the lord of the temple, after his release from detention by the Raja of Coorg in 1834. Prema Jayakumar, his great grandniece, in her book, explains that this had been replaced by another, larger one, gifted by some other devotee, later. Menon passed away in 1842.

I should now close the story of what happened to Chikka Veera Rajendra. Well, he was first exiled to Bangalore, then Vellore, and finally sent off to Benares where other Rajas were exiled - like the Awadh Raja, the Sattara Raja etc, they were ensconced in large haveli’s, provided pensions, and watched over by British officials appointed to do just that. The Coorg Raja tried to take along with him a lot of gold and jewels (hidden under their clothes) while being led away, but much of it was lost in transit or misappropriated by others. He spent a long period of 14 years with his family, a few wives and daughters at Benares. Eventually, it seems that he converted to Christianity, with his daughter Gauramma and they were allowed to go to Britain in 1852, the purpose being to fight for the Rs 7 lakhs deposit still held by the EIC. The British had viewed it as victors’ spoils and tried their level best to prove that Veera Rajendra had no claims over it. After trying hard for many years and walking in and out of courts in London, Veera Rajendara died in London in 1859. 

The study of the case and all the tribulations the Raja faced, can be read in Martin’s account. Unfortunately, the many documented facts presented by Martin in support of the Raja’s character have not been considered by the biographers of the Coorg raja, whose character continues to be as black as one could be, viewed in today’s moral light. The daughter of Veer Rajendra, i.e., Gouramma, was adopted by Queen Victoria, as godmother and christened Victoria Gauramma. Chenna Basappa and Devammaji came back to Coorg and life went on for the Koduvas under the new British masters. Planters arrived, estates were created, and Coorg became the coffee plantation estates. 

Along the way, Coorg produced many distinguished officers in the Indian Army, namely Cariappa and Thimayya. Chepudira Ponnappa was one of the four dewans in the court of Chikka Veera Rajendra. K S Thimayya, later India’s chief of Army staff, turns out to be Dewan Ponnappa’s great-great-granddaughter’s son. That he had problems with another Menon is well known, but since it is not so correctly known, I will retell it later.

A few words about Montgomery Martin, the man who stuck his neck out for Veera Rajendra – Robert Montgomery Martin was a historian of the British colonial empire; writing about the East India Company and other subjects. Ever ready to take a public stance on many of the controversial issues of the day, Robert Martin did not go far in his later life. He withdrew to Sutton in Surrey where he became a Justice of the Peace and a magistrate until he died in 1868. 

Moegling, the missionary who penned the black character of Veera Rajendra, was financed to collect and translate Kannada records by the same Casamajor, so one can imagine a certain amount of collusion. 

Queen Victoria’s involvement and feelings for Indians were enumerated in an earlier article. Her relationship with Duleep Singh and Gauramma is retold by CP Beliappa, in his second book. 

Then again, all this is water under the bridge, and as they say, history is usually written by the victor. Eventually, what the Koduvas feel, is how it would remain.

An exposition of British ingratitude, injustice, and breach of national faith to the sovereigns of Coorg - Martin, Robert Montgomery
Karunakara Menonum East India Companiyum – Prema Jayakumar
An account of Coorg and the Coorg mission – Rev H Moegling
Coorg & Its Rajas - anonymous
Sir C Sankaran Nair - Autobiography
Nuggets from Coorg History – CP Beliappa
British paramountcy and Indian renaissance – R.C. Majumdar
Chikkaveera Rajendra – Masti Venkatesha Iyengar (Translation- Padma & Ramachandra Sharma)
Dr Masti and his Chikkaveera Rajendra - Sanganna Kuppast
Conquest through knowledge: a case of the 19th century 'Colonial Coorg' -B. Surendra Rao

Pics – Wikimedia – Thanks and acknowledging the original owners.


The Taj and the Elephant

Strange, you will mutter, reading the title. Well, I had been wondering about elephants in Istanbul after I had finished the research on the embassy of Tipu Sultan to the Rum in 1787. In that large effort, four elephants were sent along as gifts to the Ottoman Sultan, accompanied by a wasteful 700-person retinue. Continuing on with that story, I chanced on the marvelous book (The Architect's Apprentice) written by Elif Shafak, a fictional tale about an albino Indian elephant named Chota in the Ottoman stables and the story of its young Indian mahout Jahan. That book takes you from India to Istanbul and back finally to the Taj Mahal and well, this touches on two of the aspects around whom Shafak, whom I admire greatly, wove her delightful caper. More as we go along, but if you have not, please do pick up the book and give it a read, you will not regret it. Following all that, I visited the elephant stables at Guruvayur with our little granddaughter a couple of months ago and regaled her with the sight of many elephants being tended to. That was indeed a marvelous sight, that too, seeing them up and close.

Shafak mentions that it was a palace painting showing an elephant behind the Ottoman Sultan, which set her mind to the tale. Commencing with Chota’s arrival in Istanbul sometime in the second half of the 16th century, the evocative novel takes you through medieval Istanbul, educating you on the palace intrigues, the scheming of the eunuchs, and Jahan’s collaboration with one of the world’s greatest architects – Mimar Sinan. For me, it struck many chords, simply because I had spent over 5 years in that magnificent city and could follow Shafak through the streets and buildings of erstwhile Constantinople, feel the smells and sounds she wrote about, just like I was right there. I still think often about Istanbul, and in our home, I have two large panoramas of the city, which I look at every time I pass them. Readers, please take note, that this is not a book review, but some aspects of connected history.

In the medieval period, when ships became the camels of the ocean, large objects could thence be moved from place to place. As traders and colonizers came across the elephant in India, an animal that had been a source of amazement since Alexander’s battles with Porus, the desire to take one back to the West became paramount. The indenter of the elephant, usually a king or a sovereign, could now boast of something unique and boast of not only his long reach across the universe but also the extent of his power and wealth with this new ‘larger than life’ acquisition. Many elephants were thus moved across the oceans, and the Indian elephant was perfectly suited for it, as it was the most docile of the lot. Tragically many of them died in transit or soon after they arrived, mainly due to the lack of good attention, bad weather, and wrong diet, as we saw in the case of Suleiman and Hanno. In the initial dispatches, mahouts were also sent with the elephants, but I guess many of them suffered from the same amount of homesickness and perished quickly in foreign lands.

As we read over many articles, the monsoon trade connected India’s south, especially Calicut and Cochin with many Red Sea ports. Egypt became an epicenter for imports, with the establishment of the Mamluk sultanate. Later, when the Ottomans conquered it in 1517, the reins of the Indian spice trade moved to Turkish masters. The Egyptian government was now headed by bureaucratic officials sent from Constantinople and supported by Ottoman troops, though the Mamluks continued to rule as the powerful emirs under them.

Trade with Malabar did not suffer and continued, with the marked regularity of the monsoons. Goods arrived at Egypt after being initially unloaded at Red Sea ports and branched either towards the spice bazaars of Istanbul or Westwards to Venetian ports for disbursement into Europe. To get to the finer details, one may peruse this study of mine covering the final years of the Mamluk era. (See link). There were powerful forces vying to wrest this trade away from the Arabs and so, Western interlopers from Spain and Portugal, as also from Easterly China, were viewing the scene with keen eyes. Spices, textiles, and gems traveled westwards, while horses moved East to buyers in the Sultanates of Deccan as well as the Mughals. Space in the small dhows which traversed these oceans was always at a premium and therefore only prized animals found occasional charter. Transporting elephants was particularly difficult as they needed huge amounts of food and water to be carried along during the voyage, and this took away cargo and crew space. They could as you can now understand, only be afforded by very rich buyers, typically sovereigns.

The first notices of Elephants in Turkey, date way back to the 6th century at Cappadocia and at Constantinople (Pre Ottoman-Istanbul) as well as the menageries at Fustat in Cairo during the 9th century. Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX paraded an elephant during the 11th. These reached their new destinations via Egyptian emirs, as gifts. There were several elephant stables in Byzantine Constantinople, from which the animals were brought to the Ottoman court, on special occasions. Several of these stables were converted into mosques after the Muslims finally captured the city in 1453.

After the 1517 sack of Egypt, the Ottoman capital of Constantinople got itself directly linked to the Indian Ocean trade. Tigers, monkeys, rhinos, birds, and of course elephants were in demand, especially for the menageries in Constantinople. These menageries were located near the great Topkapi palace and curiously, within an ancient church, the St Johns Church near the Hippodrome. Pierre Belon du Mans a visitor, mentions that larger animals were located within the palace grounds. It seems reasonable to assume that a mahout (elephant handler) accompanied elephants on their journey from the subcontinent and then remained in Istanbul for at least some time to care for the creatures. There is, moreover, some evidence suggesting that elephant handlers were in demand in Istanbul since Ottoman authorities occasionally sought them out and paid for their travel to and maintenance in the city. The gifting of elephants continued as a diplomatic practice in South Asia and as a sign of power and prestige. Mentions continue through the 16th century of elephants heralding battles and gracing palaces. 16th century Istanbul exhibited two skilled elephants, the sight of which was recorded by European envoys. By the 18th century, there was always at least one elephant in the royal stables and large budgets were allocated for its upkeep as well as its mahout. By all accounts, being a mahout accorded meant a comfortable life, and by 1742, there were as many as fourteen men tending to a single elephant.

But we now zoom to one of the two elephants possessed by Sultan Suleyman. He used them for his 1521 campaign, and we can also see mentions where these elephants accompanied his army in the 1526 campaigns. Kemalpasazade mentions them walking like graceful clouds before the Sultan as he marched out of the city on 23 April 1526, and so do Bragaddin and Luigi Bassano.

Melchior Lorck was one such artist who did many sketches of Istanbul. N Westbrook writing about Lorck’s panorama explains - The artist Lorcks, who departed the city in 1559, traveled widely, and spent his time in Istanbul making many drawings that recorded Ottoman costumes, customs, and monuments—an elephant and its driver, a funeral procession, women of a harem, and others depicting building structures. It is not known whether he was commissioned by the sultan to make his portrait, but there are several engravings of the Sultan based, presumably, on drawings he made in Istanbul, and which Melchior Lorck included in his book of views of the city. Lorck did in his portraits of Suleiman, while his panorama of the city of Constantinople, was more than 11 meters long. He is also recorded as having painted twelve portraits of the Sultan, though they were later destroyed in a fire.

Marina Warner reviewing a Lorch book (A view of a view) states - Lorck had a brief audience with the sultan, which he re-created afterward in two different prints, both extraordinarily impressive, revealing his underused capacity for psychological insight: a head and shoulders portrait, and a full-length figure positioned in front of the Suleimaniye mosque, completed in 1557 (Lorck was in Istanbul for its opening). In the full-length portrait, Suleiman is standing with his right hand extended in a gesture that admonishes all those who are present to remain alert; everything about him is grave, and imposing; he appears to be 12 feet tall, erect and majestic, with a curved sword reaching down to the floor, his frame flowing with gleaming silk, dwarfing an elephant which is entering the palace through the archway behind him. The painted version, which Lorck sent to the emperor Maximilian II, seems to have vanished.

The engraving of Suleyman II, (the Sultan shown standing, with an elephant with the Süleymaniye mosque in the background, a print of 1574, thought to be based upon a drawing of 1559), was again altered in 1688 to represent Ibrahim I. This above painting, which you can see above is the one that Shafak Elif observed. She explains - Inside the book - Gülru Necipoğlu’s - The Age of Sinan: Architectural Culture in the Ottoman Empire, one particular drawing caught my eye: it was a painting of Sultan Suleiman, tall and sleek in his kaftan. But it was the figures in the background that intrigued me. There was an elephant and a mahout in front of the Suleimaniye Mosque; they were hovering on the edge of the picture, as if ready to run away, unsure as to what they were doing in the same frame as the Sultan and the monument dedicated to him. I could not take my eyes off this image. The story had found me.

So much for the elephant, and though I could gather nothing about its antecedents, I would assume that like many who preceded them and many after, they too had been captured near Nelliyampathy or the Anamalai forests near Palghat, and shipped through a port in Malabar, usually Calicut or Ponnani.

Now we come to the second part which deals with the fictional involvement of Jehan and his dome-building skills being put to test in building the greatest edifice at Agra, the Taj Mahal. But let us see what that story is about. I won’t spill the beans on what Jehan did in the fictional account, but he arrived at Agra in 1632. The draftsman in charge of construction Mir Abdul Karim takes him in, after seeing the seal of Mimar Sinan the great, with Jahan (Mimar Sinan- The son of Greek or Armenian Christian parents, Sinan entered his father’s trade as a stone mason and carpenter and rose to become the most celebrated of all Ottoman architects, whose ideas, perfected in the construction of mosques and other buildings, served as the basic themes for virtually all later Turkish religious and civic architecture) takes him in. Jahan Khan Rumi is then appointed by Shajahan to contribute to the building of the Taj Mahal. Jahan invites his favorite student Isa and they set about designing the magnificent edifice and what the Turkish craftsmen were in those days famous for, building the dome. If only, the story is as pat as Shafak puts it, though the Taj part of the book is hurried through with an aging Jehan, becoming a family man.

In reality, the architecture of the Taj Mahal is still a hotly contested topic. For such a prominent monument, there are no clear records of its architect, and the general conjuncture is that it was the effort of a huge team (1,000 - 20,000) that worked for 10-22 years from 1632 AD, on land/structure purchased from Raja Jai Singh, with even the emperor Shahjahan contributing to its design.

Arguments fly, not without sparks, from some who say that it was a temple complex retrofitted into a mausoleum, with others contesting it stating that the Taj looks like no other temple, while some experts chime in saying it cannot be a retrofit (old structure re-laid with marble, with a single door and decorative minarets around) as there are no clear clues of an earlier construction in the design or in its structure. Then there are comments that the dome is based on the Lotus canopy (bulbous dome) - an old temple concept, and that this dome is unlike any Turkish mosque dome (true, it does look more like most Samarkand domes), especially Mimar Sinan’s Blue Mosque.

P. N. Oak in his book "The Taj Mahal is a Temple Palace” opines that it was originally a temple in the 12th century AD, which fell to Rajput kings during the period of Humayun and was later used as a palace by Raja Man Singh of Jaipur. This according to him, was then commandeered by Shahjahan from Raja Jai Singh of Jaipur and converted into a mausoleum. Proponents of this thinking add further that it does not accurately align (off by 15 degrees) to Mecca, as most Muslim monuments do. Then there is the Aurangzeb letter of 1652 which records that the master architects had no solution to dome leaks, suggesting they were washing their hands off something they had nothing to do with, in the first place. Yet others state that Samarkand domes were in the first place, actually built in the lotus style by Buddhist architects taken as prisoners by Timur, the lame. Nevertheless, neither side present clinching arguments or evidence.

After some pottering about, trying to get to the bottom of this, I realized that I would find no clear answer and that the surviving legends had taken deep root. Strange also is the fact that the Mughal court had so many European emissaries and none recorded details of this massive construction effort – barring a few sparse mentions by Peter Mundy the EIC man in town, Tavernier, the French gem trader, F Bernier, and also Thevenot, thereby raising questions as to whether it was a 1,000-person effort spanning 10 years or a 20,000-person effort spanning all of 20 years. The deeper one went, the more the questions he ended up with, suggesting that the real truth may be somewhere in the grey zone.

Two names however stand out to support the traditional argument that it was built from scratch on Hari Singh’s land – Ustad Isa (Discounting names such as the Italian Geronimo Veroneo, the Frenchman Bordeaux, and Persian Ali Mardan) and Ustad Ahmad Lahori. There are even mentions of Shahjahan having drawn up the design, but then again, in those days like in the case of some musical compositions, the credit for a building's design also went usually to its patron, rather than its architects.

There are draftsmen, masons, goldsmiths, and so on named in palace accounts, and Prof Nath in his books, provides details. For example, there are - Mukrimat Khan and Mir Abdul Karim from Shiraz, chief supervisors and administrators, Ismail Effendi (Ismail Khan Rumi) who had worked for the great Ottomans in Turkey as a designer and builder of the dome, Mohammed Hanif, Chief mason as well as other master masons from Iran, Central Asia and India. The list goes on, naming many artisans and craftsmen, but nobody as a chief designer. The world heritage monument register # 252, Oct 15, 1982 states - The monument, begun in 1632, was finished in 1648; unverified but nonetheless, tenacious, legends attribute its construction to an international team of several thousands of masons, marble-workers, mosaicists, and decorators working under the orders of the architect of the emperor, Ustad Ahmed Lahori.

There were mentions, from no lesser an authority than James Fergusson (supported by Dr Burgess) that Ali Mardan, the Persian refugee was the designer of the Taj Mahal, perhaps based on the similarity between the Shalimar Gardens and the Taj’s Garden. This never found any acceptance among Taj historians. Those in support of Ustad Isa’s name believed the British explanation, which is considered flawed. One Carlo Basil suggested that Ustad Isa was actually Geronimo Veroneo! This was echoed by Rev Heras and Vincent Smith, but contemporary writers also failed to support the theory of a European designer. As it turned out, Ustad Isa Khan was a draftsman in the team, not a mimar.

Sometime in 1930, a work in Farsi, named Diwan I Muhandis was discovered by a scholar in Bangalore, a work penned by Lutfullah Muhandis which went on to mention that one Ustad Ahmad Lahori from Lahore designed both the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort. The record which also praised Dara Shikoh (Shahjahan’s son and Aurangzeb’s enemy) was held in secret as Lutfullah was his follower. Fearing retribution from Aurangzeb the family went into hiding and died in penury, survived only by the book. It turns out that Lutfullah was Ustad Ahmad Lahori’s son and he states in the book that his father was the king’s chief architect who built the Mumtaz Mahal mausoleum and the Delhi fort. This was formally presented in a paper by Dr. Nadvi and has been accepted as fact by most historians.

Fergusson, the pioneer in the field of Indian archaeology and an authoritative historian makes this brief but startling remark about the Taj Mahal, "When used as a Baradhari, or pleasure palace, it must always have been the coolest and loveliest of garden retreats, and now that it is sacred to the dead it is the most graceful and the most impressive of the sepulchers of the world" making it clear that he too had doubts about its origins.

Prof R Nath is steadfast in his works that there may not have been any chief architect (other than perhaps Ustad Isa), and decries the naming of Lahori, stating that a verse of a son praising his father’s work, in a private diary cannot be considered factual, without additional corroborating evidence.

But it should be noted that construction work in the Mughal dynasty was usually executed under the supervision of a senior mimar. The term normally denoted a mason but was also used for the chief of works or its supervisor. Ustad Ahmad and Ustad Hamid, were both expert mimars, so one or both of them may have been in charge.  

A rather pessimistic Robert Chisholm had this to say in a 1910 paper - In regard to its architectural merits, buildings can be found in India surpassing it (The Taj Mahal) in every direction: thus, for size and boldness of construction, the Taj falls far below the Gol Gombez at Bijapur. In his paper he details at length the various architectural flaws and explains - It is as if the man with the idea (the so-called chief architect) had been allowed to experiment with white marble in Shahjahan's time on Humayun's tomb, and that while he worked, the idea of the Taj grew and became perfected; that he worked only on those features which he intended the Taj to possess - the great dome and the facade. That a successor, knowing Humayun's tomb to be his source of inspiration, but not understanding the principle on which his predecessor worked, constructed the four smaller domes and the lighthouse-looking minarets at the angles of their platform after the man with the idea left.

It will certainly be a never-ending effort to determine if it was once a temple, just a Baradhari, or built as a sepulcher, but we do know it turned out to be a lovely building, and certainly each argument has its merits and demerits allowing us to reach no firm conclusion. For now, we can conclude that it was a mammoth effort that took many years and many men to complete, and the result is as we all agree, a lovely edifice, and one which we are all proud of, irrespective of who designed it.


The Architect's Apprentice - Shafak, Elif
Islamic Culture, Vol 48, 1974 - Ustad Ahmad Lahori – H I S Kanwar
Eastern world, Jan 1958 - Designer of the Taj – H I S (Hari Inder Singh) Kanwar
The Taj Mahal and its incarnation – Dr R Nath
Taj Mahal – An illuminated Tomb – Begley & Desai plus review/ rejoinder by Dr Nath
The Taj Mahal, Agra, and its relations to Indian architecture - Robert F. Chisholm
The Myth of the Taj Mahal and a New Theory of Its Symbolic Meaning - Wayne E. Begley
The Question of the Taj Mahal - P. S. Bhat and A. L. Athawale
Constructing Melchior Lorichs's Panorama of Constantinople - Nigel Westbrook, Kenneth Rainsbury Dark and Rene van Meeuwen
The Animal in Ottoman Egypt by Alan Mikhail

Also read – Maddy’s Ramblings, Historic alleys

A Pope and an Elephant

Tipu’s delegation to Istanbul 





The Seventh fleet and the 1971 Indo-Pak war

Task force 74 in the Indian Ocean

The arrival of the US Seventh fleet in the Indian Ocean caused much apprehension in an already volatile Indo – East Pakistan war zone, in the middle of Dec 1971. India had just staved off a Pakistani attack on its western borders and was crushing Pakistani army forces at its Eastern flanks, off Calcutta. It was at this juncture that the mighty 7th fleet, headed by its flagship USS Enterprise, steamed into the Indian ocean. Hot at their heels was a Soviet task force, supported by submarines. Much has been written about this event, but unfortunately, quite a bit of it is glazed with bombast. After some deep digging, I unearthed a better picture, so here it is.

Let’s first recap the Bangladesh saga, referring to my earlier article covering journalist Jack Anderson’s involvement.

Following the Agartala case, the West Pakistani government’s keenness to prove that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was an Indian agent and a separatist backfired, and a mass movement erupted. Yahya Khan became the dictator of Pakistan and surprisingly held open elections only to find the rebel Mujibur Rehman winning most of the seats, 141 of them amid murmurs of secession from West Pakistan.  The Awami league headed by Mujib won the 1970 elections and was in control of East Pakistan, much to Yahya’s disgust. He then launched Operation searchlight with the ruthless dictum – ‘kill 3 ½ million of ‘em Bengalis and the rest will eat out of our hands’. In the resulting genocide, millions perished and others (close to 10 million) took to flight, towards the Indian border, while India offered support to the Mukti Bahini.

Anderson explains - When the slaughter of the Bengalis began, Archer K. Blood, then U.S. Consul General in Dacca, the capital of East Pakistan, sent details to U.S. Ambassador Joseph Farland in Islamabad and to the State Department in Washington. Blood was summoned to Washington in June 1971, but planned to return to Dacca for the remaining eighteen months of his tour of duty. At the State Department he was told he was an alarmist, and was given a desk in the personnel office.

Nixon and Kissinger threw their lot with Yahya while badmouthing Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister, in the vilest terms. While the bad personal equations resulted in a lot of friction, Nixon believed that the bluff, direct military chiefs of Pakistan were more congenial to him than the complex and apparently haughty Brahmin leaders of India (Kissinger).

Nixon had in the meanwhile planned to restart friendly relations with China, using Pakistan’s help. That said, Nixon also supported Pakistan and their dastardly actions in the public sphere and refused to condemn the atrocities being wrought in East Bengal. Yahya ramped up the rhetoric accusing India of direct support for Mujib, and launched a propaganda campaign ‘crush India’. Indira Gandhi who wanted to stop the genocide quickly was informed by Gen Manekshaw that it was not yet opportune due to various tactical reasons. As the water was getting to a boil, Russia warned Yahya not to go to war. China was expected to support Pakistan and the reason why Manekshaw delayed his counter was to stop the Chinese with the snow and the ice-clad Himalayas in December. War was inevitable, armies were amassed at both western and eastern borders, and the Taj Mahal was camouflaged.

In Dec 1971, Pakistan preemptively attacked Indian airbases, and as the world quickly condemned the attack, Nixon demurred, stating staunch neutrality and non-involvement. However, that was only in public, for in secret he decided to help Yahya, in spite of a congressional ban on any form of aid to these warring countries. Iran, Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia were contacted and asked to stealthily assist Pakistan by transferring fighter planes and armaments, which they all did, except for Iran. Indian forces countered the attack with massive well-coordinated air, sea, and land assaults on Pakistan from all fronts. The Pak navy was decimated and soon enough the submarine Ghazi was sunk, a story I had written about some years ago. As China continued their military preparations (53rd and 157th infantry) at the Himalayas to carry out ‘urgent missions’, Russia contemplated a preemptive strike at Sinkiang to wipe out some of China's missile launchers.

Anderson the Washington journalist who had been publishing about the misdeeds of the Nixon administration thus far now informed the world about the US Pakistan tilt and the movements of task force 74 – the seventh fleet, and the dangerous turn such a move could take, potentially WW III.

After the initial attack, the Pak air force went into a defensive mode. Nixon, following up the above indirect actions, ordered the seventh fleet and its support force, into the Bay of Bengal, ostensibly to rescue a handful of Americans in East Bengal. He wanted to throw a royal scare onto Indira Gandhi, and needle the Soviets who were planning to support India. It is specifically the involvement of the task force 74 (7th fleet) hastily mobilized by a brash Nixon and his security advisor Kissinger, which we will get into today.

Nixon and Kissinger were absolutely convinced that India was planning to crush Pakistan once and for all, and many of their actions were based on that singular premise. There may have been a lack of clarity in India’s stance on the retaking of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, but there were no declarations of a larger invasion strategy. Despite assurances from India and USSR albeit later in Dec that they would not dismember West Pakistan, Nixon, was convinced that Indira Gandhi, who he hated fervently, was lying. We now head to Dacca, to the closing stage of the 14-day war (which started on 3rd Dec 1971) in the Eastern theater, while the global powers were still in the grip of cold war throes.

Pakistan was aligned to the US, and a member of the SEATO plus CENTO while India was tied to the USSR. The Bengalis of East Pakistan were the aggrieved party and were pulled into this fracas by Pakistan, who was in turn allied with China. Note here that China though communist, were wary of Russians at their borders and had thence opened themselves to talks with the US, through Pakistan’s Yahya Khan. The US, represented by Kissinger, wanting an ally on USSR’s borders, was mighty thankful to Pakistan, for this opening. At that juncture, India signed the friendship and peace treaty with USSR, due to these strategic concerns and alliances. Anyway, the war on the Eastern front which started with the offensives on the 3rd Dec saw India’s infantry might at play, and by the 10th, Pakistani defense had ground to a halt, and the Pakistan Army in the East had made its first tentative move to obtain a ceasefire.

Meanwhile, Nixon and Kissinger had been planning other strategies, Goh explains - Kissinger encouraged Beijing to support actively its Pakistani ally in several ways. He provided the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, Huang Hua, with detailed intelligence information about Indian deployments. He also indicated that the US could provide details of Soviet forces at the Chinese Northern border and tacit US support. Nixon then decided on the deployment of the 7th fleet. This same fleet had been around for quite a while and its deployment to the region in India’s support during the 1962 Chinese aggression had been contemplated when India asked the US for support, but the Chinese quickly withdrew and Ambassador Galbraith who originated the idea (as he said - with the benefit of insomnia) canceled his request.

The 1971 involvement was broached in a Nixon-Kissinger meeting on 8th Dec and discussed around a plan to repatriate Americans in E Pakistan using helicopters, to a US aircraft carrier in the Bay of Bengal. On the 9th, the order was given to the 7th fleet to move towards the Indian ocean. The Chinese when asked to move their military over the Himalayas, demurred, promising nothing (anyway it was a mammoth task, during those winter months). On the 10th the USS Enterprise and support ships left Yankee station in Vietnam and sailed towards the action zone.

On the 11th, the news hit the press and India was in an uproar, hearing about the US naval moves against her. A lot of things happened the next day. The fleet arrived in Singapore on the 12th, Nixon concluded that China would not act and the opinion was that this could even culminate in a US-USSR conflict. A Soviet delegation in Delhi reported that India would not invade West Pakistan. Four C130 aircraft owned by the UK airlifted most American personnel from Dacca. Nixon and Kissinger flew off to attend some MBFR talks and the 7th fleet in Singapore awaited further orders. Niazi is exhorted to hold on for another 36 hours by Gul Hassan – Yellows from the North, whites from the South.

The US Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations, Adm Zumwalt halted the fleet (Kissinger says he halted it, awaiting a report from Moscow) at Singapore for two days since his advice had not been taken, and because vague orders had been given by the civilian administration. The original orders for the TG74 were to deploy to a position off East Pakistan. Adm Zumwalt felt that this would put them in harm’s way and he convinced the powers to change their deployment area to a holding position, South-East of Sri Lanka. Finally, they were ordered to proceed to the Bay of Bengal through the Malacca Strait in broad daylight so as to be as conspicuous as possible.

They left on 13th evening, destined for Lanka. On 14th Yahya wrote to Nixon - The Seventh Fleet does not only have to come to our shores but also to relieve certain pressures which we by ourselves are not in a position to cope with. In this connection, I have sent a specific proposal through General Raza about the role the Seventh Fleet could play at Karachi which, I hope, is receiving your attention. This probably referred to Raza’s note to Kissinger the previous day which - requested that the Seventh Fleet be used to keep the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea open to Pakistan and to deter the Indian Navy from attacking Pakistan's harbors

On 16th Niazi surrendered. According to Niazi’s memoirs, he took the final decision because he was told to do so by the Pakistan GHQ and since Air Chief Marshall Rahim called him up and told him that West Pakistan was in danger.

Late on 16th December, the day after Pakistan forces in East Pakistan surrendered, TG 74 arrived at this station, many hundred miles away from the combat zone. The TF74 comprised the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, three missile-bearing destroyers, 3-4 amphibious assault ships, an ammunition ship, and a nuclear class submarine. It was considerably powerful, compared to the Soviet task force in pursuit, but still 2 days behind.

On 14th, Pakistan had formally requested the 7th fleet’s support at the Bay of Bengal, and US politicians mentioned the fleet deployment in a press conference, but neither confirming, nor explaining its real purpose. India once again reaffirmed that it would not attack W Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Soviets task force comprising a guided missile cruiser, a diesel-electric submarine, and a replenishment ship were on the move, in pursuit, but expected to arrive in the region 3-4 days later, around the 18th. The situation had by now escalated to dire proportions and the deliberations at the UN security council were reaching nowhere with a plethora of resolutions and vetoes.

The paper by Srikant, Doraibabu and Ashish states - The Indian Naval leadership assessed that Task Force 74’s primary intention was to frighten the Indian Forces into withdrawing their forces from the operational area and let the PN ships break out. Admiral Krishnan, FOCINC East, decided that it must be ensured that Chittagong airport, which had already been bombed and rendered useless to the Pakistanis, must remain in that condition. Also, the five merchant ships that had been camouflaged and concealed by the enemy to be used for evacuation of troops were located after a thorough aerial search and destroyed.

FM Manekshaw and his generals, who had been ordered to hasten the warp up of operations in East Pakistan, met his objective in the nick of time and forced the Pakistani military to the surrender table (Yahya, not expecting this, was incensed!) on the 15th. The Soviet Ambassador to India now dismissed the possibilities of US or China intervening by emphasizing that the Soviet Fleet was also in the Indian Ocean and would not allow the Seventh fleet to interfere; and if China moved into Ladakh, the USSR would respond in Sinkiang [Xinjiang].

The 7th fleet as we saw, arrived at Lanka on the 16th, a day after the surrender. Lanka already the refueling point for Pakistan due to overflight bans, now formally invited the US fleet in, for demonstrative purposes. The first Soviet task force arrived on the 18th and a second on the 26th. The waters churned as the naval assortments faced and shadowed each other, though unequal in might.

Interestingly, India did have a dialogue with China at this juncture – As Raghavan explains - Mrs. Gandhi sought China’s understanding for India’s predicament and requested Zhou to “exercise your undoubted influence” on Yahya to acknowledge the will of the Bengalis. “We seek China’s friendship,” she said. “In my last letter, I had indicated our readiness to discuss problems of mutual interest”. Zhou later explained to Kissinger, “By that time East Pakistan was already unable to be saved.”

So, what was it all about? A subtle threat to intervene if India invaded West Pakistan? Mishra explains the rationale - Considering the international milieu where its (US) stock was low by the Vietnam overhang, the emergence of a technologically improved and numerically robust Soviet Navy under Admiral Gorshkov, and the necessity of sending a reassuring signal to its allies, mandated some visible proof. The naval deployment was a gesture of solidarity for a formal ally (Pakistan) and an indicator to a future partner (China), that the US could be relied upon to abide by its formal commitments.

Kissinger confirms it in his memoirs - The Soviet aim in the wake of our China initiative was to humiliate Peking and to demonstrate the futility of reliance on either China or the United States as an ally. Nixon had to disprove this by sending a clear message, even though E Pakistan was falling and he had been reasonably assured that India would not attack the West.

Jack Anderson, however, concluded that it was - a) compel India to divert both ships and planes to shadow the task force, b) weaken India's blockade against East Pakistan, c) possibly divert the Indian aircraft carrier Vikrant from its military mission; and d) force India to keep planes on defense alert, thus reducing their operations against Pakistani ground troops.  

But as it turned out, this was generally interpreted in India as US chest thumping and posturing, resulting from its misinterpretation of third-party intentions and actions. Wild press reports could be seen by now, including mentions of Soviet Nuclear submarines in the area. Did the soviet task force also possess a nuclear submarine, in hot pursuit? Was there a possibility for a nuclear showdown? Did the 7th fleet beat a hasty retreat as claimed by the press?

According to Anderson, there were many more Soviet assets in the region, in poised readiness. He stated that there were a total of sixteen Soviet ships and submarines near the combat area, though in reality, the Soviets reached only on the 18th and 26th. As far as Russian nuclear submarines are concerned, the reports were wrong, while an Alpha class prototype was developed in 1971, the Delta class was inducted only in 1974, and hence, there was no Russian nuclear submarine trailing the 7th fleet. Were the Soviets like the US testing their naval surge capabilities and also posturing for public eyes? Some strategists believe so and conclude that the US were victors in that sense - The US found it took them 5-6 days to get to the Indian Ocean while the Soviets took 10-15 days.

The 7th fleet remained in the vicinity for a few more weeks with the Russians shadowing them, before moving back to Yankee station. Bass summed it nicely - The USS enterprise carrier group was an atomic-powered bluff, mean to spook the Indians and increase soviet pressure on India for a cease-fire, but nothing more, while Palmer added - The U.S.S. Enterprise, though doing nothing to change the outcome of the war, damaged Indo-American relations for years to come and risked a clash between the United States and the Soviet Union. For the first time, India started to consider the United States a serious security threat to India.

Kissinger explains in his memoirs - Were we threatening India? Were we seeking to defend East Pakistan? Had we lost our minds? It was in fact sober calculation. We had some seventy‐two hours to bring the war to a conclusion before West Pakistan would be swept into the maelstrom. It would take India that long to shift its forces and mount an assault…. It was also the best means to split the Soviet Union and India. Moscow was prepared to harass us; it was in our judgment not prepared to run military risks. Moving the carrier task force into the Bay of Bengal committed us to no final act, but it created precisely the margin of uncertainty needed to force a decision by New Delhi and Moscow.

According to him, this pressure resulted in firm Indian assurances via Moscow that it would not attack W Pakistan. He concludes - Next day Mrs. Gandhi offered an unconditional cease‐fire in the West. There is no doubt in my mind that it was a reluctant decision resulting from Soviet pressure, which in turn grew out of American insistence, including the fleet movement and the willingness to risk the summit. Kissinger also mentions that Yahya and Niazi held on long enough, i.e., until the 16th, time enough for US to ensure that the 7th fleet strategy was in place, to deter a W Pakistan attack. Then again, if there had been no such Indian West Pakistan attack plan, such a deterrence move becomes purposeless, simply because there was nothing to deter.

But in a meeting with Zhou En Lai June 20th, 1972, he said - The reason we moved our Fleet into the Indian Ocean was not because of India primarily – it was as pressure on the Soviet Union if the Soviets did what I mentioned before. This is a bit confusing, though Sheldon Simon states in his 1973 paper that - The Soviets, meanwhile, were reported to have fulfilled their part of the security arrangement with India not only through stepped up military supplies but also through timely troop movements along China's borders.

People continue to ponder over the question - Did India indeed have a plan to roll into Pakistan, as Bhutto, Yahya and Nixon feared? Who was the CIA mole in Delhi who fed them this information and started the whole rigamarole? It was obviously a very senior asset.

Kissinger writes - A report ( 8th Dec?) reached us from a source whose reliability we had never had any reason to doubt and which I do not question today, to the effect that Prime Minister Gandhi was determined to reduce even West Pakistan to impotence: she had indicated that India would not accept any General Assembly call for a cease‐fire until Bangladesh was “liberated”; after that, Indian forces would proceed with the “liberation” of the Southern part of Azad Kashmir—the Pakistani part of Kashmir—and continue fighting until the Pakistani army and air force were wiped out. He added in his memoirs that Anderson never understood the strategical significance of all this.

In subsequent years, many allegations were leveled at prominent people in power, but nothing ever came out of those allegations. Indira Gandhi stated that no such discussion took place in any cabinet meeting (the details of which had purportedly been sent as a cable by the mole, confirming India’s intent to invade West Pakistan) according to Srinath Raghavan. The mystery still remains.

Anyway, as all this ended, many Indians were left with some distrust of America, while Kissinger moved on to work with new masters, after muttering to Ambassador Keating, "the President has a special feeling for President Yahya. One cannot make policy on that basis, but it is a fact of life”. Interestingly we can see from Kissinger’s memoirs that he is still mystified at why he and Nixon did not get any Congressional or public support for what they staunchly believed in – that India was at fault and Pakistan was in the right, as well as the US response. He says - But neither our briefings nor the overwhelming expression of world opinion softened media or Congressional criticism.

But there was still some humor to take back - When discussing the final, feeble UN resolution (where Bush termed India as the aggressor), Kissinger told the UN Ambassador, George W Bush - “don’t screw it up the way you usually do.” to which Bush Senior replied, “I want a transfer when this is over. I want a nice quiet place like Rwanda.”

This was all long ago, and life today, so also the world, has changed drastically, with another cold war looming at the horizon, though the players are pretty much the same. It is all difficult to track, and to put simply, as I do often - Geopolitics is best understood by those in power, not mere mortals like us!

The Blood Telegram – Nixon, Kissinger & a forgotten genocide – Gary J. Bass
1971 A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh - Srinath Raghavan
Revisiting the 1971 ‘USS Enterprise Incident’: Rhetoric, Reality and Pointers for the Contemporary Era – Raghavendra Mishra
Superpower naval diplomacy in the Indo-Pakistani CRISIS - James M. McConnell, Anne M. Kelly
Operational Aspects of the 1971 War in the Maritime Domain - Srikant B. Kesnur, M. Doraibabu and Ashish Kale
Nixon, Kissinger, and the "Soviet Card" in the U.S. Opening to China, 1971–1974 - Evelyn Goh
Indo-US Relations, 1947-71: Fractured friendship - Shri Ram Sharma
The White House Years, 1968-72 – Henry Kissinger