The many adventures and misadventures of 'Silver', a remarkable Indian spy

The many adventures and misadventures of Silver, a remarkable Indian spy

New Delhi: Bhagat Ram Talwar -- a Hindu Pathan from the North West Frontier Province of British India -- was perhaps the only quintuple spy of World War II and the author of perhaps his first detailed sketch has said that even as the master spy helped Subhas Chandra Bose escape from India via Kabul, he was actually betraying him to the British.

The event that London-based award-winning author Mihir Bose talks about in his book "The Indian Spy" (Aleph/Rs 599/368 pages) unfolded in 1941 when Talwar escorted Netaji on foot from Peshawar to Kabul. The Italians and Germans helped him to get to Berlin but before leaving, Netaji told the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) that Talwar was his agent.

"This gave Talwar the opportunity to become a spy. Initially he spied for the Axis Powers, but he was a communist and the moment Hitler invaded Russia he contacted the Russians in Kabul, told them everything and with their help started deceiving the Germans and the Italians," Bose told IANS in an email interview from London.

The author, who came across Talwar's story while writing "The Lost Hero", a biography of Subhas Chandra Bose, further elaborated that the Russians then passed Talwar to the British and the two countries collaborated in providing him "duff information to fool the Germans and double-cross Subhas Bose".

Talwar's British spymaster was Peter Fleming, the brother of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. Fleming, operating from the gardens of the Viceroy's House in wartime Delhi, gave him the codename "Silver". His spying missions saw him walk back and forth 24 times from Peshawar to Kabul, eluding capture and certain death.

Mihir, who researched documents relating to Talwar in Britain, Italy, Russia and India, is particularly struck by the fact that he could deceive so many Europeans at a time when India was a colony of Britain and most Indians were treated as inferior to the whites.

"The Second World War produced many spies, some of them very famous, but Talwar can claim to be the most remarkable of them. And the fact that he was an Indian is in many ways quite extraordinary," maintained the author, whose 28 books range from biographies, history, business, sports and Bollywood.

But despite his established reputation as a quintuple spy, Talwar has largely remained an enigmatic figure in the history of India's independence. Why?

Mihir said that the reason for this historical amnesia is that the history of the Second World War reflects national biases. In Britain and in America, for instance, the war's history is written with the slant on "what these two countries did to defeat the Nazis" and the other Axis powers.

On the other hand, in the erstwhile Soviet Union, Mihir said, WW-II is seen as the Great Patriotic War and the emphasis is on "the immense Russian sacrifice" to defeat Hitler and the Nazis.

And as far as India is concerned, Mihir regretted that most historians write about the struggle waged by Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress against the British during this period, while also acknowledging the fact that there has been some writing about the efforts of Subhas Chandra Bose to raise an army to fight the British.

"However, very little has been written about the Indians who collaborated with the British during the war. A million Indians fought in the British Indian Army, millions more formed part of the British war effort, opposing Gandhi and India's Freedom movement. This included the Indian communist party of which Talwar was a member. It is as if modern Indians would rather draw a veil over their fellow Indians who sided with a foreign occupying power," lamented the author, who has been awarded an Honorary Doctorate for outstanding contribution to journalism and promotion of equality by Loughborough University in the East Midlands of England.

In Talwar's case, the author agreed, that there is "the additional complication" that much of the material on him is in British and other foreign archives, which are not so not easy to access.

"It has also not helped that the Indian communist party have lied about their role in helping Talwar deceive Subhas Bose and work with the British. It may also be the case that many Indian historians have what may be called a certain left wing bias and this communist deception of one of India's great freedom fighters is not an area they want to explore," he added.

After partition in 1947, Talwar migrated to India but nothing was heard from him until January 1973 when he surfaced at the first international Netaji seminar held in what was then Calcutta to honour the memory of Subhas Bose. He presented a paper and spoke eloquently about Bose, praised him as a great Indian, and detailed how he had helped Bose get to Kabul and how he had worked for the Germans, the Italians and the Japanese.

But Talwar never admitted that he had double-crossed Bose and was working for the Russians and the British. The claims made in "The Indian Spy" are based on the author's research.

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