Subhas Chandra Bose and his 'Italian' Identity
In March 1941, Subhas Chandra Bose, revolutionary nationalist and the future leader of the Indian National Army, slipped out of Kabul as the British police were closing in. He was on the run, having assumed the identity of an Italian named ‘Orlando Mazzotta'. Bose was headed for Russia and Germany, to launch a revolution and lead the Indian freedom movement in exile. But who was this ‘Orlando Mazzotta’? And why did Bose assume his identity? This is the story of the real Mazzotta.
In the early 1940s, Kabul was filled with intrigue, with the ex-Emir Amanullah being in exile in Italy and Zahir Shah in charge. It was here that members of the Axis – the Italians, Germans, and initially the Russians – teamed up with dissidents who had assumed multiple identities and plotted to bring down the British colonial enterprise. One of those persons was a young Italian named Orlando Mazzotta.
The Italian Legation was an important institution in Kabul in those days. It was headed by Pietro Quaroni, an experienced diplomat, and his wife Larissa. The large building was well-staffed with Italians and locals, and included an Afghan interpreter, Muhammad Aslam. Orlando Mazzotta took care of the radio operations and cipher work at the Legation.
Quaroni’s strategy was to penetrate and arm the North West Frontier Province tribes (headed by the Faqir of Ipi), who would launch frequent skirmishes at the British from across the border. This unrest would divert British troops to quell it, reduce British ability to send Indian battalions to Europe, and later provide a smokescreen for a German-trained Indian Legion (with Bose’s involvement) to attack the British from the north.
Those were days when radio provided fast and secure communication. In addition to routine communication with Rome and many others, Mazzotta maintained the radios surreptitiously supplied through the Legation, recorded Italian news bulletins, and copied them to French, while Aslam translated them to Pashto and Farsi. Copies were secretly distributed to the far corners of Afghanistan.
Mazzotta’s India Assignment
Mazzotta first appeared in the British Secret Service files relating to the Heilmann case. In January 1938, Dr Josef Heilmann and Elisabeth Heilmann, both Germans, arrived in India, Josef being employed in Kabul as the company doctor for the Bank-e-Millie, the first financial institution in Afghanistan.
The British had them on their watch list as Nazi collaborators, and it is possible that Elisabeth requested help from the Italians in Kabul, to escape. Mazzotta may have been told to assist her in her efforts, for he applied to the British to travel to Bombay and meet Elisabeth (proposing marriage) in person. Although the British turned him down, he succeeded in passing on a message asking Elisabeth to meet officials of the Italian Consulate in Bombay. Elisabeth, who was about to be arrested and deported by the British, managed to slip out of Bombay.
Roberto Mazzotta, Orlando’s son, provided the author with information about his father’s role in Kabul. Here’s what he revealed. Orlando Mazzotta was born in 1911 near Lecce in Italy, the youngest of seven brothers and sisters. At age 15, he embarked as a ship boy on a merchant ship and ended up as a conscript seaman in the Italian Navy, where he was trained as a radio operator. As such, he sailed on several warships, including submarines, at the time when Mussolini’s Italy declared war against Ethiopia (1935 -36).
In 1938, he was sent to Kabul to serve as a radio operator at the Italian Legation. He married an Italian school teacher named Olga Giurleo. When Italy entered into WWII, Mazzotta’s tasks became more challenging, including coded communications with the main headquarters in Rome, and trips across the Indian frontiers to escort the incoming and outgoing diplomatic pouches.
He travelled widely across Afghanistan, and since his face and complexion could easily be mistaken for those of a native, he was entrusted with actions aiming at disturbing and countering the presence of British forces in the region.
Bose Arrives in Kabul
It was in January 1941 that Subhas Chandra Bose arrived in Kabul. With the help of the agile spy Bhagat Ram Talwar (codename ‘Silver’), Bose eventually met Quaroni at the Legation, and sought help to travel across the borders to Russia. Quaroni agreed to help him, and ended up affixing Bose’s photograph on Orlando’s passport, which was then used to secure a Russian entry permit. Bose, moving through Russia, settled down in Berlin, and established the Azad Hind Radio as well as the Indian Legion, subjects well known to Bose aficionados.
The real Mazzotta and his colleagues were meanwhile neck deep in intrigues in Kabul, directed by Quaroni who was masterminding Axis relations with the furtive North-West Frontier warlord, the Faqir of Ipi. Though the exact extent of Orlando’s involvement is unclear, Roberto explains, “He seldom told me about these actions; he was a very private person. I still remember distinctively that one of his missions was to a remote area of Waziristan, where the respected Fakir of Ipi – Haji Mirzali Khan Wazir - waged his war as a freedom fighter, against British attempts at putting Afghanistan under their rule. Presumably, my father brought him financial as well as propaganda means.”
In June 1941, British-Indian intelligence arrested the interpreter Aslam in Quetta. Aslam’s testimony although later rubbished by Quaroni, is quite specific, although, for some reason, he mentions neither Bose’s visit nor the subsequent relations Talwar (‘Rahmat Khan’) had with the Legation.
Aslam stated that a radio set had been delivered to the Faqir of Ipi in 1940 and that an Italian civilian Azzurri had helped run and maintain it before he absconded to Iran when the British closed in. So, we can presume that when Azzurri left, Orlando provided radio support to the Faqir. It was also popularly believed that a German and an Italian cryptographer had broken the military ciphers used by the British, thus enabling sabotage by the Axis forces. It is believed that the Italian was Orlando Mazzotta.
Bose ‘Becomes’ Mazzotta
The Italian collaboration with the Faqir did not, however, produce big results over time, although skirmishes continued. Bose remained in Berlin and used his Italian passport in the name of Orlando Mazzotta, an alias he continued to use for nearly a year. All letters sent by him and minutes of meetings in Germany and Italy are under his alias ‘Mazzotta’. His assumed identity worked so well that anti-British activities such as the Hur Insurrection in Afghanistan were linked to Bose’s ‘Mazzotta Organization’.
On 13th October 1943, Italy joined the Allied Powers, switching sides. As the war wound to a close, Mazzotta remained elusively behind the scenes. While observers related Bose to a fictional Mazzotta, a Sicilian count, the real one remained hidden behind the curtains, the veritable phantom of the Quaroni opera, also fighting for Indian independence, in a way!
Bose left Berlin and moved to Japan, and later to Burma, to lead the Indian National Army’s fight from the Eastern borders of India, but lost his life in a plane crash in 1945, at Taipei.
By May 1944, Pietro Quaroni had become the Italian Ambassador in Moscow, and continued thereafter with postings in Albania, Paris, London and Bonn, finally passing away in 1971. Orlando Mazzotta and his family joined Quaroni in September 1944 in Moscow, continuing with diplomatic postings in Vienna, Argentina, Caracas, Prague, Budapest and Morocco. Orlando Mazzotta retired in 1976 and passed away in 1994.
Alessandro Quaroni, one of Pietro Quaroni’s sons, joined the Italian diplomatic service and held distinguished positions, the world over. He retired after his final posting as the Italian Ambassador to India. Roberto Mazzotta, Orlando Mazzotta’s son, also served as a distinguished diplomat in various countries, his last posting was as the Italian Ambassador to Pakistan.
©Ullattil Manmadhan – Maddy’s Ramblings
Maddy is a history enthusiast who writes on topics relating to the history of India, more often connected to Malabar and Kerala, at his blog sites, Maddy’s Ramblings and Historic Alleys. He may be contacted at email@example.com.
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