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India’s greatest spies: Unknown, uncelebrated, unacknowledged

Mohan Lal Zutshi, aka Agha Hasan Jan, helped shape Imperial Britain’s fortunes from Kandahar to Bokhara

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In February, 1833, Agha Hasan Jan stood in court of Persia’s prince-royal, Abbas Mirza, at Meshad, facing a barrage of questions on the wealth and power of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Abbas Mirza hoped to plant his standard in Kashmir, but the young Indian Shi’a would not be cowed. Even the floor of Ranjit Singh’s camp, he said, were covered with fine Kashmiri shawls, and, “as for his army, if Sardar Hari Singh, his commander-in-chief, were to cross the Indus, his highness would soon be glad to make good his retreat.”

This was not the kind of language Abbas Mirza was used to. He told his courtiers: “See the effects of an English education... How inscrutable are the decrees of providence, which has conferred so much power on an infidel.”

In 1877, Agha Hassan Jan — some also knew him by the name Mirza Quli Kashmiri — was buried in his garden, Lal Bagh, at Azadpur on what was then the highway from Delhi to Panipat. Haidari Begum, one of his seventeen spouses and many more mistresses, was buried along with him.

The tomb of India’s greatest spy has since been levelled: there is no memorial to the young Kashmiri who helped shape Imperial Britain’s fortunes from Kandahar to Bokhara, whose real name was Mohan Lal Zutshi.

From 1838 to 1841, Zutshi, on the selection of the East India Company’s secret service, served as political officer to Captain Alexander Burns, architect of the empire’s first war in Afghanistan. Believing force was necessary to prevent emir Dost Muhammad from cutting deals with Russia and Persia, Britain determined to seize his empire.

The Great Spy Who Wasn’t

“Endowed with a genius for traitor-making,” as Sir John William Kaye recorded, Zutshi bribed and bargained with local chieftains to ease Burns’ capture of Kabul almost unopposed. Then, he cautioned his masters as they alienated the local chieftains by violating promises, implementing economic policies that bred hardship, and angered local residents by their womanising and drunkenness. Zutshi’s warnings were ignored—with catastrophic consequences.

Following the imperial army’s near-annihilation, Zutshi continued to play a key role, ransoming prisoners destined for central Asian slave markets from captivity.

In 1844, on a tour of Europe, Zutshi was invited to meet with Queen Victoria, and dined with Frederick William IV of Prussia. He was even awarded high honours by nations he had spied against: Knight of the Persian Order of the Lion from Abbas Mirza; an Order of the Durrani Empire from Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk.

Zutshi wasn’t the only Pandit—as the East India Company’s native spies were known—to register extraordinary success. Trained with incredible rigour—to march in precisely-measured steps, using prayer-beads to count distances, for example—Pandits like Nain Singh enabled the first accurate mapping of the Himalayas.

Sarat Chandra Das, posing as a Hindu monk, penetrated the Potala—paving the way for Francis Younghusband’s savage military assault on Tibet.

Independent India came to covert warfare late. In 1947, the senior-most British Indian police officer in the Intelligence Bureau, Qurban Ali Khan, left for Pakistan with the few files the departing British officials had neglected to destroy.

The Intelligence Bureau, Liuetenant-General LP Sen has recorded, was reduced to a “tragicomic state of helplessness”, possessing nothing but “empty racks and cupboards”.

India’s covert capabilities grew under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s stewardship after the war of 1962, with technical assistance from the US and trainers from the UK.

Establishment 22, operating under the command of Maj Gen Surjit Singh Uban, carried out a secret war in what is now Bangladesh—using Tibetan troops trained by the.

From the early 1980s, when Khalistan terrorists began receiving weapons and arms from the ISI, RAW responded with retaliatory strikes. “The role of our covert action capability in putting an end to the ISI’s interfer-ence in Punjab by making such interference prohibitively costly is little known,” former RAW officer B Raman wrote in 2002.”

There is, sadly, no official account small army of spies who’ve fought India’s secret wars: professional spies, brave volunteers, even small-time criminals.

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