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The Great Spy Who Wasn’t

World War II was fought not just with tanks and torpedoes, but also with intrigue and spies. A Chennai journalist seized the chance to spin the story of a lifetime. The story of KS Narasimhan

Firstpost print Edition

The year was 1940 and the spectre of Adolf Hitler stalked the planet. Around corners, behind trees, under beds—Nazis were suspected of being everywhere. Neville Chamberlain’s “peace for our times” had come a cropper and Britain, one of the great powers of the age, was scrambling for a coherent strategy to counter the biggest threat of the 20th century.

Today, everyone is an expert on cricket and politics. In 1940, everyone was adept at war stratagems. Most would air their dissatisfaction while huddled over the radio, listening to news bulletins. The blotto ones would bore their friends with how they would approach the war—slurring out grand strategies as the sun set on the day and their bottles. Not KS Narasimhan. The Madras Mail journalist  was disenchanted with the British approach to the war in the East and he was going to do something about it.

Narasimhan had contacts in high places. He was a close confidant of Mysore Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Rangaswami Iyengar, a man eager to please his superiors and climb up the greasy pole. Narasimhan was the DSP’s key source for information on labour and political troubles in the region, so naturally when Iyengar was given an information-gathering assignment, he called on his journalist pal to help.

India’s greatest spies: Unknown, uncelebrated, unacknowledged

Rumours about a Mysore-based German businessman, Ernest Neuenhofer, had been swirling about for a while. A suspected Nazi spy, he was being held at Parole Camp in Yercaud by the British. When the rumours reached the higher-ups in Mysore, they asked JM Green, the Bangalore Commissioner of Police (Bangalore was part of the Mysore Residency), to investigate. Green, in turn, passed it on to the Mysore Inspector General of Police, a man called Peel, and his deputy Iyengar.

PLOTTING A PLOT

Narasimhan got to work as soon as Iyengar recruited him for this project in September 1940. He established contact with two informants—Nagaraja Rao, an ex-employee of Neuenhofer, and one Shivaram—and started passing on copious amounts of information, some of it extremely alarming, to the British.

Hundreds of Nazi agents across India were sending out and receiving coded updates and instructions from the German high command through radio stations in Cochin, Bangalore, Bombay, Karachi, Madras, Calcutta and Vizag.

These agents were being financed through German businesses in India as intermediaries who would receive the money from the Nazi government and transfer it to the German Club in Bombay for distribution across the country. Japanese firms were also involved in financing the German agents, as the two countries sought to take control of the East.

Arms, ammunitions and explosives were being smuggled through Bombay and according to a note intercepted by Narasimhan and his contacts in early January 1941, 75 sub-machine guns, 800 rounds of ammunitions, numerous hand grenades, pistols and revolvers were distributed in Uttar Pradesh and Bengal alone.

Numerous U-37 and U-38 class submarines were operating off India’s west coast and would be joined by an aircraft carrier with 40 planes. The Nazi eagle was unfurling its wings over India.

Mysore Police were in a tizzy. Iyengar, Peel and Green pressed Narasimhan for more information and he obliged, handing over a flurry of lengthy notes.

According to one, Nazi agents in India were serving as intermediaries between the Germans and the Japanese war minister. The Germans were pressing on the minister to attack the British in the eastern seas through “dummy submarines”—merchant vessels disguised as military—so that their attention would be diverted from the west, where Germany was amassing her navy that would torpedo “freight steamers and passenger steamers without distinction and without warning. The British Empire must be broken on all sides in all manners at all times,” read decoded note number XXXV (35). The Japanese, in turn, said they had given their navy free rein to decide the best course of action.

Peel, before passing this on to Green and John de la Hay Gordon, the Resident of Mysore, edited the hand-written message passed on by Narasimhan. He jotted down a note at the back, “Movements that Germany would attempt by virtue of her pact with Japan. Most of the conclusions are arrived at by me after studying the documents.”

In India, said Narasimhan, agents were surreptitiously rallying support for the Nazi cause through propaganda campaigns designed to undermine the British position in the war. Once the public was sufficiently primed, they would be encouraged to take up arms and “conduct organised violence and rowdyism” as part of Freiwilliger Schutzdienst (Voluntary Defence Service–the FS). FS organisations were already active in the Northern Provinces, ready to paralyse the local administration and “strike terror in the minds of the civilian population”, said decoded message number XXV (25). The FS would be assisted by the Hindustan Revolutionary Party, an anti-British outfit with branches across the United Provinces and deep links to student organisations, industrial workers and other agent provocateurs. The instigators included a Dr Chathukutti Menon of Cochin, Louise Mary Salm in Mysore and Herr Saymon in Nainital.

British India, much like Europe, was on the verge of a Nazi/Japanese takeover and it was Iyengar, Peel and Green who had uncovered this threat through the trusted Narasimhan. Once this threat was defused, congratulations and promotions would be in order. It was quite a coup.

Gordon, who had been kept apprised of all the 35-odd notes Narasimhan sent between October and early January, now saw it fit to call in the cavalry. The Bombay Police, Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and Intelligence Bureau (IB) were informed of this imminent threat.

The central authorities in Delhi first dispatched Keene, Central Intelligence Officer, Madras, to look into the matter. But, when he demanded access to Narasimhan and his sources, Peel and Iyengar refused. They didn’t want to spook the people providing information that could change the course of the war. Given the urgency of the situation, Delhi deputed one of CID’s senior-most men and one of its foremost naval experts, HJ Thom, to investigate.

Thom arrived in Bangalore on January 24, 1941. After conducting a series of lengthy interviews with Gordon, Peel, Iyengar, Rao and Narasimhan, he wrote to his bosses on January 30, “Narasimhan has come clean. Whole thing product of his own imagination.”

Narasimhan, that man of destiny, had fabricated the whole thing. Made it out of whole cloth. Well, not entirely. In the tradition of the most accomplished plagiarists, he lifted chunks of his notes — 41 in total and running up to more than 50,000 words—with sources as varied as Winston Churchill’s World Crisis, The Daily Mail yearbook to official German WWI documents and old speeches.

THE FANTASY UNRAVELS

Many of the people, including Shivaram and Dr Menon, never existed. Others like Neuenhofer and Salm were innocent bystanders, given colourful backgrounds by Narasimhan’s fecund imagination. His recorded confession may be one of the most remarkable documents to have emerged out of the records of British India.

“I gradually began to exercise a power of influence on Mr Rangaswami Iyengar and he began to show me some of the reports he was getting from the Office of the IGP and also the references. These were about the activities of German individuals and other suspects. I was careful enough to get a skeleton as to their activities from him so that I could develop it later,” reads one excerpt.

So convinced were Iyengar, Peel and Green of the authenticity of Narasimhan’s information that they made him privy to some extremely sensitive documents, including a list of names of all suspected spies and foreign agents operating in India. The journalist made use of these very names and information associated with them to create elaborate backgrounds which he fed back to the authorities. Thom characterised Iyengar as “stupid and criminally careless” for falling for the ruse.

The British believed Narasimhan created the whole conspiracy to extract money on the pretext of gathering information. Iyengar claimed he gave nearly Rs 1,000; Narasimhan said it was Rs 530 but that is so prosaic.

“I honestly felt that some of the measures now undertaken both by the Government of India and the Defence Department were very inadequate and unsatisfactory that I thought I can really do a useful service by giving such a kind of possible manoeuvring in this way. I could not content myself in stopping the matter at that when I began to read the prophetic announcements of Mr. Winston Churchill and I thought that I can give my own idea by reading these pre-war books,”  Narasimhan said in his confession letter.

THE BITTER END

In the final analysis, the Madras Mail journalist attempted to change the course of WWII because, well, he believed he could. The British did not find it endearing, but couldn’t do much about it. As Thom said, “I would favour prosecution but for the publicity which would have to be given to high sounding spy stuff, and but for the inevitable reflections which would be cast on the local authorities for swallowing such rubbish.”

Iyengar admitted he “made no attempt whatsoever” to check the veracity of Narasimhan’s claims. Not a shining beacon of exemplary police work but what’s interesting is that while Iyengar’s salary was cut from Rs 410 to Rs 330 for six months, no action was taken against Peel and Green.

There is some vicarious pleasure to be had from the fact that accusations continued to fly among the British bureaucrats for the next few months. Thom was scathing in his assessment that “from the very beginning, the very rudimentary elements of police work with respect to the handling of sources were entirely neglected”.

Peel and Green responded that the Intelligence Bureau, to whom they had been sending updates, had not responded to “specific requests” to supply “special information in their possession” and “the whole affair assumed the proportions it did entirely on account of what appears here to be the incomprehensible attitude of the Intelligence Branch which, apparently deliberately, withheld information vital to the forming of a proper judgement of this case”.

Narasimhan was imprisoned for two months, then kicked out of the Mysore Presidency, with instructions to never speak or write about this affair. And, that is when one of India’s greatest figures disappears from the pages of history.

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