Monday, November 18, 2013


Courtesy: National Archives of India

The fresh archival evidence presented in this article reveals that MO Mathai was the product of the Anglo-American intelligence bonhomie in the early 1940s. Mathai, affectionately known as “Mac”, was one of the most intriguing and influential figure in post independence India. He was Prime Minister Nehru’s Special Assistant from 1946 to 1959. He enjoyed privileged access to Nehru’s household and his office. Managing secretarial work of the leading figure of a newly independent nation was a demanding job. Mathai volunteered for the task because in his own words “he was prepared to live dangerously”.[1] (Mathai 1978: 1)

The period from September 1942 to the end-1945 is apparently the silent phase in Indian history. After the brief outburst of “Quit India” and the arrest of Congress leadership in the first half of 1942, India’s independence story goes into hibernation. It reactivates only with the outbreak of Royal Indian Naval (RIN) Mutiny in February 1946. 

However, it is during the war years, when the top Congress leadership was in jail, that the American forces, media and intelligence agency on Indian soil in a big way. In February 1942, the China-Burma-India Theater headquarters at Chungking was operationalized. In September, the India-China Wing of the Air Traffic Control and a training center was established at Ramgarh for training of Chinese troops by American and British Army in jungle warfare. Simultaneously, at New Delhi, the Headquarters of Services of Supply (SOS) logistical organization of the US army and OSS (Office of Strategic Services), a predecessor of CIA was established.[2] (Aldrich. 1998)

In December 1942 President Franklin G Roosevelt selected Mr. William Phillips to serve near the government of India as “his “personal representative with a rank of Ambassador.”[3] (NAI 50-6/1943) William Phillips saw himself as a harbinger of Indian freedom who was on a mission to find a solution to Indian problem. The ambassador was accompanied by Maj. Richard P. Heppner of the OSS, London.[4] (Clymer 1995: 131)

In 1944, OSS setup its headquarters at ‘32 Ferozshah Road’. Located in the heart of New Delhi at the eastern edge of Lutyen's bungalow zone, the 1.32 acres property had the name plate on its gate that read: 'Dr L. L. Smith, American Dentist'. As OSS, started spreading its tentacles among the Indian military, administrative and political elite, the stress in Anglo-American ties became apparent. The Roosevelt- Churchill friction on India issue went to an extent where the former threatened to “retire to private life”, if the Americans did not deter from interfering in Indian affairs. 

Dentistry was certainly not what the American intelligence was in India for. When the going was good between OSS and their British counterparts, the Americans consulate in Madras gifted an able secretary level officer to the British intelligence in India. This officer’s name was MO Mathai, who later became one of the most intriguing and influential figure during Pandit Nehru’s tenure as prime minister of India. 

Mathai’s American connections are well known. It widely believed that before joining Nehru’s secretariat, Mathai worked for United States Army on Assam-Burma border.[5] However, what is not known is that Mathai was no ordinary soldier in American Red Cross. He had a reasonably good experience of working as a personal assistant both for the top officials in American Consulate as well as to the Bishops in Malabar Church. Besides, from the mid-1942, Mathai was on the British payrolls in India. 

By end 1945, Mathai had got Nehru’s nod to handle his secretariat. His career ended in 1959, when corruption charges forced him to resign his government job. Officially, he was investigated for amassing wealth to the tune of 20 lakhs through a trust formed in his mother’s name. However unofficially, the major charge against him was that he had derived all this wealth by working as a CIA agent. According to S Gopal, “Cabinet Secretary Vishnu Sahay, who investigated the case, was privately convinced that Mathai had compromised just about every file since the days of interim government.”[6] (Akbar 2002: 513) 

Neither any book on Nehru nor Mathai’s two books Reminiscences of the Nehru Age (1978) and My Days with Nehru (1979), reveal much about his career, after graduation from Madras University. Nikhil Chakravartty’s famous 1958 report, The Story of a Gadfly, mentions, “before the last war, he (Mathai) was engaged as a typist by Sri C.P. Mathew” [7 ] (Chakravartty 1959). 

CP Mathew was a member of Lok Sabha from Kotayyam in 1952. He was instrumental in starting the Alwaye Union Christian College. This was the college from where MO Mathai had completed his Bachelor in Arts. According to a testimonial of July 1937, by economics teacher at Union Christian College Alwaye,

Mathai, Clearly understood the lectures on general economics and the interest that he evinced in that subject is, I certainly believe, as genuine as it is intelligent. Really able and perfectly pleasing in manners, he promises to come up. I cordially wish him a prosperous career.(NAI 1(14)- E/1942 : 5)

Both CP Mathew and MO Mathai were Syrian Christians from the erstwhile Travancore State. But did Mathai work for CP Mathew? According to archival documents, Mathai’s first job was as a secretary to Bishop Abraham Mar Thoma of Tiruvalla. He worked with the Church authorities for four years. It is quite possible that during this period Mathai may also have assisted CP Mathew, who was closely associated with the management of the same church. 

In 1938, he joined “the United States Foreign Service at the American consulate, Madras as an assistant,” for four years at a stretch. In 1942, when the war was at its peak, Mathai decided to seek a new job.

On 08 April 1942, the 28 year-old confident young man, wrote directly to the Secretary External Affairs Department, Government of India,

Sir, I have the honour to offer my services to my government for Foreign Service under the External Affairs Department. I am prepared to go to any country, the more war-torn the better. However, I should particularly welcome an opportunity of serving in the officers’ grade on the staff of India’s diplomatic representative to the National government of the republic of China. 

Mac’s impressive covering letter was followed by a strong recommendation letter from Bishop House Calcutta, dated 13 April, 1942 that stated:

The enclosed application was forwarded to me by the Rt Rev. Bishop Abraham of the Mar Thoma Church, Malabar with a request that I would forward it with testimonial to you. I am unable to write a testimonial as I am not personally acquainted with the applicant but the Bishop writes that “he is a young man of intelligence and ability” and for the rest the certificate is enclosed (NAI 1(14)- E/42: 3). 

With a recommendation from Foss Westcott, the Bishop of Calcutta and Metropolitan of India, directly under his belt, on April 29, 1942, MO Mathai wrote to LAC Fry, Under Secretary in External Affairs Department: 

I crave your indulgence in addressing this letter direct to you. His lordship the Metropolitan of India has informed me that he has forwarded my application dated April 8 1942, to the Secretary, External Affairs Department of the GOI for a post in the Foreign Service under the department.

I should like to add that the American consul has promised me that he would relieve me with his blessing should the government of India offer me a suitable job. He added that he would be delighted to find me in a responsible position in the government of India. I mention this in order that you may consider my application favourably without having any misgivings concerning possible offence to an allied government. If you desire you may refer the matter to the American consul in Madras (NAI 1(14) - E/42: 6) 

Mathai’s persistence paid off. On July 28, 1942, he thanked LAC Fry for giving him a personal interview and for his “kind letter of July 29, 1942, assuring him of a chance in the department” (NAI 1(14) - E/42: 8). 

On 25 August, Mathai informed the external affairs department that he had decided to stay in New Delhi indefinitely. His New Delhi address was: The South Indian Boarding house. Connaught Circus, New Delhi. 

It is not clear what Mathai did in Delhi after joining the British setup in mid-1942? When he shifted to Assam to work as an American soldier is also unknown? However, Mathai’s final departure from Teen Murti Bhavan on 27 January 1959 is vividly described in Reminiscences of the Nehru Age, “At 4.45 PM, Nehru came down to my room and sat down with Boshi Sen… As I was leaving, (for Almora) he embraced me and told Dr Sen, Boshi look after him.”

Mathai’s sudden appearance in Nehru’s life, immediately after his release from prison on 15 June 1945, remains unexplored. Nehru’s first lunch after gaining freedom at Almora was with his best “unofficial friends” Biologist Boshi Sen and his American wife Gertrude Emerson.[8] (Sheean. 1960: 254)

In view of lack of evidence one cannot even guess that the Sens’ may have recommended Mathai to Nehru. However what is certain is that both MO Mathai and Boshi Sen had strong links to American consulates in India.

[1] Mathai, MO. 1978. Reminiscences of the Nehru Age, Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi, 1978,p.1
[2] Aldrich, J. Richard. 1998. ‘American intelligence and the British Raj: The OSS, the SSU and India, 1942–1947,’ Intelligence and National Security, 13:1, 132-164
[3] National Archives of India (hereinafter NAI) NAI 50-6/43, External Affairs Department, “Appointment of Mr. William Phillips”, Letter from President Franklin G Roosevelt to Lord Linlithgow on December 3, 1942.
[4] Clymer J. Kenton. 1995. Quest for Freedom: The United States and India's Independence, Columbia University Press
[5] “M.O. Mathai, a Top Official In India During Nehru's Rule”, New York Times, August 31, 1981
[6] As cited in Akbar, MJ. 2002. Nehru: the Making of India, Roli Books.
[7] Chakravartty, Nikhil. 1959. “The Story of a Gadfly”, Mainstream, Vol. XLVI No. 28, January 3, 1959
[8] Sheean, Vincent. 1960. Nehru: The Years of Power, Random House , New York