Mihir Bose tells how he uncovered the extraordinary story of an Indian spy who fooled the Axis and still discomforts India’s communists
The Second World War produced many remarkable spies. But Bhagat Ram Talwar, from the North-West Frontier Province of British India, now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan, was undoubtedly the most remarkable.
The only quintuple spy of the war, he worked for the Germans, Italians, Japanese, Soviets and British. He was also the only spy the Soviets shared with the British. And, while he wanted to free India from British rule – indeed, his older brother had been executed by the British in the 1930s, following a botched attempt to assassinate a British governor – Talwar happily double-crossed Indians who were trying to evict the British.
Talwar became a spy quite by chance. In 1941 he helped Subhas Bose, the Indian revolutionary (no relation of this writer), to escape India, escorting him from Peshawar to Kabul on foot. Bose, working on the principle that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, made his way to Berlin, but before he left Kabul he introduced Talwar to Axis diplomats as his Indian agent. This quite fortuitous event provided Talwar the chance to become a spy: a restless soul who sought adventure, he seized the opportunity brilliantly.
Talwar quickly discovered that the agents of the Abwehr, Hitler’s secret service, were not only very gullible, but had no way of discovering that he was deceiving them. He set out to fool them on a grand scale. By the end of the war the Germans had paid Talwar £2.5 million in today’s money, and also gave him the Iron Cross, Nazi Germany’s highest military decoration. But Talwar was a communist, and once Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, he contacted the Russians in Kabul, making a full confession of his work for the Nazis.
A year later the Russians handed Talwar over to the British, who brought him under the control of Peter Fleming, then in charge of D (Deception) Division in Delhi. It was Fleming who gave him the nickname Silver, and when the Germans gave him a transmitter, Fleming used it to broadcast fictitious military information from the garden of the Viceregal Palace directly to Abwehr headquarters. Fleming also encouraged Talwar to contact the Japanese in Kabul – and, like the Germans, they were willing to pay for false information. Nothing in the annals of Second World War spying comes close to what Talwar did.
I first became aware of the story in the mid-1970s, when I was researching The Lost Hero, my biography of Bose. I had before me Talwar’s memoir, a carefully constructed tale in which he dressed up the truth with a lot of lies. The first part was devoted to proving that he came from a ‘family of martyrs’, which had always fought for India’s freedom. In the second part he spoke about working for the Axis powers, but there was nothing about spying for the Russians and the British, and double-crossing Bose. And, far from admitting he had received any money from the Germans, he berated them for doing nothing to help Indians fighting the British. Talwar had little reason to fear he would be rumbled. Fleming, who was planning to write a book, had died two years earlier, and before leaving India the British had destroyed their intelligence records.
When my book came out, Talwar wrote to me, a letter that summed up the man rather well, both in his use of English and in the way he upbraided me, saying, ‘You might have presented some copies to some of your friends. But you have forgotten me.’ Having made me feel guilty, he asked me to send him a copy of my book, which I did. I did not hear from him again. Then, as if he had made sure his version of history would prevail, he disappeared from view and died some time in 1986 in Maharashtra, western India.
However ,Talwar’s story did not ring true to me, and my questioning of senior Indian Communist Party officials, who had advised Silver, increased my doubts. How, I wondered, was it possible that by 1942 all Talwar’s associates had been arrested by the British, but he was free to carry on spying, making 24 journeys on foot between Peshawar and Kabul? I concluded that, ‘even when we have allowed for Talwar’s extraordinary brilliance at deception we are left with some doubts… The record is so murky that a clear answer is impossible.’
But that answer emerged after my book was published, when documents were discovered in British archives that contained a full confession by Talwar to the British, as well as details of the money the Germans had paid. Over the years more documents have emerged, which paint a picture of a theatre of the war, ignored by Western historians, but which could not be more fascinating.
Afghanistan was neutral, and the area between Afghanistan and British India was the world of tribals who saw the British, not the Nazis, as their enemies. Today the domain of the Taliban, then it was the area where the British fought a relentless, and often brutal, campaign to suppress rebellious tribes who considered them occupiers, denying freedom to people who had never accepted any master. This was where Winston Churchill had first seen war in the 1890s; by the 1940s its essential character had not much changed.
This ‘war within war’ produced its own drama, with Hitler’s men trying to use Talwar to recruit the Faqir of Ipi, Britain’s fiercest tribal opponent. The quintuple agent made sure the Germans did not succeed, and prevented what could have been a dangerous uprising at the back door of British India, diverting resources from other theatres. Talwar also provided the British information about anti-Russian intrigues by the Germans in Afghanistan, so turning the old Great Game on its head that the British even admonished the Americans for undermining the Anglo-Soviet alliance.
While it is understandable that Western historians have seen little need to write about this theatre of the war, what is more interesting is how, even today, Indian communists refuse to come clean about Talwar. His memoir, an official publication of the Indian Communist Party, has been used to draw a veil over their wartime collaboration with the British.
After Hitler invaded Russia, the Indian communists accepted the advice of their mentors, the British Communist Party, that to ask for Indian independence would be making ‘impossible demands’. They supported the British war effort, and opposed Gandhi’s call for the British to quit India. Talwar’s lies helped the communists spin the story that they had actually helped Bose, now seen in India as a great freedom fighter, and that they were not the anti-national party their opponents called them.
Indian communists have published many volumes of the party’s history, but for the full story of its collaboration with the British secret service during the war, you have to go to British archives. The French may now admit the Vichy regime’s collaboration with the Nazis, but Indian communists cannot come to terms with their own collaboration with a foreign power.