When spies foxed and rebels bungled

Intelligence and Imperial Defence
April 19, 1996

In 1907, the leading moderate Indian nationalist, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, warned his "extremist" colleagues in the Indian National Congress as follows: "You do not realise the enormous reserve of power behind the Government [of India]. If the Congress were to do anything such as you suggest, the Government would have no difficulty in throttling it in five minutes."

This statement is pretty representative of the rather unheroic tradition of Indian peaceful agitation against British rule, later led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. But there were Indians willing to undergo the risks of violent opposition to the British. Richard Popplewell, with commendable archival industry, brings together in very readable form a lot of interesting details about their activities, and the policies of the British intelligence officials, also few in number despite their extensive international links, who scotched the revolutionary efforts.

In the period covered by this book, it was Bengal during the first world war in which armed Indian nationalist resistance reached its height: in 1915-16, Bengal was in danger of being made ungovernable by nationalist terrorism. Even then the rebel numbers were miniscule. In 1916 there were 36 cases of violent political crime in Bengal, and at a generous estimate, only about 1,000 men were thought to have been actively involved. But the Russian and Irish terrorists active at the same time were also few. Why then were their Indian equivalents comparatively ineffective?

Popplewell is unfortunately weak on comparisons with other revolutionary movements. Though he argues that Indian ineffectiveness was far from total, he cites two causes of ultimate failure: frequent "breathtaking" incompetence, and the skilful and restrained use of a spy network by the British.

It cannot be denied that even the most determined of the Indian revolutionaries had a penchant for allowing their endeavours to come to nothing. Popplewell relates that in 1915 a terrorist cell led by Rash Behari Bose seemed to have had some chance of igniting a mutiny of Indian soldiers in a regiment in Punjab - only to have the plot betrayed by a spy for the British who had acquired a leading role in the attempt because he was a cousin of one of the revolutionaries. And in September 1914 a large party of Sikh revolutionaries returning from Canada were intercepted near Calcutta. Instead of keeping their powder dry until an appropriate time, the Sikhs "suddenly became very excited", and opened fire on the police officers. They were all interned.

To cap this tale of blundering insurrectionism, there is the dismal record of the German attempt to channel arms to Indian opponents of the Raj during the first world war. The most senior German official involved was none other than Franz von Papen, later the last chancellor of the Weimar Republic, who, through foolish miscalculation, was to play a large part in allowing Hitler to come to power.

Papen's Indian role was of a piece with his later performance: he concentrated German assistance on those Indian exiles who were without real influence in their native country, prominent among them a colourful adventurer called Raja Mahendra Pratap. Popplewell seems unaware that Jawaharlal Nehru met Pratap in Europe in the 1920s and portrayed him vividly in his memoirs as a sincere buffoon.

While there is no doubting the cleverness with which the British authorities wielded their tiny but far-reaching intelligence forces to counteract Indian nationalist terrorism, Popplewell makes too much of their commitment to moderation. He states that "British sensitivities about the use of spies and covert action in this period were as strong in the Indian empire as they were in London. Above all, the government of India felt that intelligence should be a means of imperial defence, and not an arm of oppression bound to create new enemies for the Raj."

Moreover he claims, without substantiation, that "the intelligence agencies of the British Empire were not concerned with spying on nonviolent nationalists."

Those unfamiliar with the history of British rule in India might thus easily conclude that the Raj was mild in dealing with all except the most extreme of its enemies. This is far from the truth. After the Indian Mutiny the Indian army was very closely watched and the smallest signs of disaffection by Indian soldiers brought severe reprisals. During civil disobedience campaigns initiated by the nationalists, there were many cases of activists from the poorer classes being incarcerated for long periods for fairly trivial offences. If British surveillance of prominent nonviolent nationalists was relatively relaxed, that is far more likely to have derived from well-merited contempt for them as verbose lawyers unlikely to risk their skins for their cause, than from any liberal qualms.

Radhakrishnan Nayar is a writer on international affairs.

Intelligence and Imperial Defence: British Intelligence and the Defence of the Indian Empire 1904-24

Author - Richard J. Popplewell
ISBN - 0 7146 4580 X and 42 4
Publisher - Frank Cass
Price - £40.00 and £22.50
Pages - 354

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