Book Review: The Indian Spy

The True Story of the Most Remarkable Secret Agent of World War II, 2017 by Mihir Bose

Reviewed by Swaroop Mami

In The Indian Spy, Mihir Bose, the UK journalist whose erudite writings on cricket I’ve previously enjoyed, explores the life of Bhagat Ram Talwar, a spy sometimes known as Rahmat Khan, other times as Harbans Lal, or simply Silver, who, in an astonishing five-year spy career (quintuple-gamed) Italy, Germany, Russia, Britain, Japan, and, indirectly, Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army.

Silver was a Hindu from Galla Dher in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in Pakistan, that has since 9/11 seen the worst of Taliban-inspired violence. Seen from today’s eyes, it seems unreal that the province had a Hindu population less than a century ago, and was an Indian National Congress stronghold, that joined Pakistan after a referendum. Bose tells us that Silver was not just a Hindu, but a Hindu Pathan — an identity Silver wore with pride.

The NWFP, of course, was the land of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Frontier Gandhi, who was amongst Silver’s inspirations to join the Indian independence movement. Silver’s brother was executed for trying to assassinate a British officer, and Silver’s youth brought him into the fold of the fledgling communist movement in India, with whom, Bose argues, his sympathies lay till the end of his spying career. The NWFP was also placed geographically between Punjab, where Silver initially worked for the communist Kirti Kisan Party, and Kabul, where he landed up with Subhas Chandra Bose in tow, helping the leader flee India to Russia or Germany. Until this point, The Indian Spy faithful follows Silver’s own memoir, and it begins to feel a bit redundant, until Mihir Bose makes startling revelations about how Silver’s memoir was, like much of his life, an act of duplicity.

Afghanistan was not colonised at the time — and had independent diplomatic relations with all the major powers of the World War. This, again, from today’s lens, seems unbelievable. And because Afghanistan was neighbours with Britain’s crown jewel, India, on one side, and Iran and USSR on the other side, Kabul was a hotbed of World War II politics and spying. Silver, as an Indian who could speak Pashtun, Urdu and basic English, arriving with the famous Subhas Chandra Bose, was in the perfect place to exploit this scenario to his advantage. Through doublespeak, white lies, outright lies, and spectacular deception, Silver found himself on the payroll of all the five countries he spied for, eventually remaining loyal only to the British. His British handler was Peter Fleming, whose brother Ian continues to be rather famous. His German handlers loved him enough to give him an Iron Cross on behalf of the Third Reich.

It is a matter of personal embarrassment that I know precious little about World War II. When it comes up in conversation, thankfully not that often, I tend to skirt the issue by resorting to vagueness, and when it came up in my brief quizzing career, I resorted to looking meaningfully at my teammates and whispering, “Hitler, that bastard!” For this reason, perhaps, I found some parts of The Indian Spy a little tough to follow. I did resort to Google more than once to follow some of the politics. Even for someone with a more working knowledge of the war, the book will, from time to time, bog you down with minutiae. Is that the curse of the researcher dying to cram all his research into the book?

Even so, The Indian Spy never loses the ability to surprise the reader, and raises some interesting questions for us. Firstly, what did the partition mean to Silver? What is ‘India’ and ‘Pakistan’ for a Hindu Pathan from the NWFP? Even Mihir Bose has not been able to trace Silver’s whereabouts between the time when he fled to India after the partition, and when he resurfaced in a Subhas Chandra Bose conference in 1973. It seems that in 1973, and in his memoirs, Silver was wistful about having lost his hometown to the partition, a bit like how Babur, at the end of his life, living in Delhi, was nostalgic about Kabul. Did Silver, despite his Indian nationality and his connections to the freedom movement, ever feel ‘Indian’ in the post-independence sense?

Towards the end of his spying career, Silver was only truthful to the British, and did pass on a shocking amount of wrong information about India to the Germans and the Japanese, who, in turn, passed this information on to Subhas Chandra Bose. The book reveals that Bose lived, till the end of his life, under the impression that the violent movement for Indian independence was much stronger than it actually was — most of that was yarn spun by a man called Sainsra, Silver’s close ally. This part of Silver’s story was hidden from the world and even whitewashed by the Communist Party of India (CPI), who projected him (and themselves) as nationalists in Silver’s memoir. It does strike one as odd that both the far left (CPI) and the extreme right (RSS) were, by the end of the British-rule in India, anti-independence.

Bose (Mihir, this time) makes a convincing case for Silver not being anti-national (a loaded term in these times), but just being a follower of the CPI, whose sympathies lay first with communism and not nationalism. The CPI was a British ally during the war, and did not support the Congress’ Quit India Movement. Silver, Bose says, was just following his masters, who in turn looked only to the USSR for their inspiration. That makes Silver, in today’s terms, a leftist anti-national. Oh, the horror. Ultimately, to an Indian reader, The Indian Spy is a reminder that labels mean little, and that a lot of the identities that we take for granted today are not as old or sacred as they seem.

Swaroop is a lawyer, flautist and writer based in Chennai.