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MUST READ: The FIRST scam of independent India

By Vicky Nanjappa
August 14, 2012 14:20 IST
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While we celebrate Indian independence with much pride, here is a fact that does not quite hold much celebratory value.

A book reveals that independent India's first scam may have taken place as early as 1947 – the year the country won freedom its people had fought hard for.

The treasure of the Indian National Army comprising jewellery, diamonds and other valuables donated by expatriate Indians for the country's independence movement was siphoned off at the end of World War II by four men.

Anuj Dhar, author of India's Biggest Cover Up, a book dealing with the mystery surrounding freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose, believes that this was "independent India's first scam". He also insinuated that Nehru later hired one of the culprits despite knowing his antecedents. 

With the help of confidential documents from the ministry of external affairs, Dhar has concluded that a "gang of four" was responsible for the loot.

According to his book, Munga Rama Murti of the Indian Independence League, S A Ayer, the publicity minister in Bose's provisional government and Colonel John Figges, the military attache at the British embassy at Tokyo, appropriated the proceeds from the treasure.

Rama Murti and his brother J Murti "bought two sedans and were seen riding about in them, seemingly leading quite a luxurious life" at a time when even the affluent Japanese were reeling under the financial miseries brought about by the World War.

"Later, they were caught for illegal dealings in US dollars," according to Sir Benegal Rama Rau.

Rau, the head of the Indian Mission in Tokyo and later the longest-serving governor of Reserve Bank of India, informed New Delhi about this "on December 4, 1947, but received no encouraging reply".

Quoting from a series of secret notes exchanged by the mission with the external affairs ministry in New Delhi, the book highlights the role played by another mission head -- K K Chettur -- in cracking the case.

When Ayer -- one of the 'gang of four' -- returned to Japan in 1951 at the behest of the ministry, his movements caught the eyes of Chettur.

"This sudden hurry over what is purported to be a holiday trip and the fact that he is visiting this country as Rama Murti's guest makes one wonder if there may not be more to it than meets the eye," he wrote on May 21, 1951 to B N Chakravarty, secretary of Commonwealth Relations in New Delhi.

"As you are no doubt aware, there have been serious allegations against Rama Murti with regard to the misappropriation of the funds of the late Indian Independence League, as also the personal property of the late Subhas Chandra Bose, consisting of considerable quantities of diamonds, jewellery, gold and other valuable articles. Rightly or wrongly, Ayer's name has also been associated with these charges," he said.

Chettur made clear his annoyance to the ministry that had kept him in dark over Ayer's hush hush visit.

"I should have thought that in the circumstances, it was most essential that I should be kept in touch with what was happening, particularly in view of Ayer's past history, his relationship with Rama Murti and the scandal connected with the disappearance of Netaji's collections," he stated.

Chettur then confronted Ayer at the mission; the latter refuted reports that the treasure was worth millions of rupees. He, however, admitted, that "some part of Netaji's collections had been saved" but it largely comprised "fused and melted gold ornaments" worth "about a lakh of rupees of so".

In October 1951, Chettur informed New Delhi that the mission had taken possession of whatever was left of the treasure from Rama Murti and Ayer. He noted in a damning top secret report to  Foreign Secretary Subimal Dutt that "the twenty thousand Yen handed over by Ram Murthi are in current notes of ¥ 1,000 each, and not in the note which were current in 1945" and that "the gold lumps given by Ayer" were also of recent origin.

In 1955, a top secret report on the issue was made in the ministry for the perusal of PM Nehru by R D Sathe -- who became the foreign secretary later and whose son-in-law is National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon.

In the report, Sathe agreed that "Ayer's activities in Japan have been rather suspicious" and noted that "another fact which suggests that the treasures were improperly disposed of is a sudden blossoming out into an Oriental expert of Colonel Figges, the military attache of the British mission in Tokyo, and the reported invitation extended by the colonel to Rama Murti to settle down in the UK".

The note, dated November 5, 1951, carried the PM's signature and the noting of the foreign secretary that the "PM has seen this note".

But, "Ayer received a warm welcome by the prime minister when he met him in New Delhi on his return" from Japan. "In 1953, he (Nehru) appointed him as an adviser for the publicity of his flagship five year plan," said the book.

Tracing the antecedents of the people involved in the loot, Dhar says that Colonel Figges was "an honoured guest" at the marriage of Murti's younger brother.

"Murti's Japanese bride wore Indian jewellery that some people alleged had come from the INA treasure," he said.

In 1952, Rama Murti and his Japanese wife got embroiled in a case of tax evasion and were forced to shift to India. J Murti went on to open a restaurant of Indian cuisine in Tokyo.

Figges "is now remembered in the United Kingdom as Sir John Figges -- a leading authority on oriental porcelain".

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Vicky Nanjappa