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Spying for Empire

Spying for Empire: The Great Game in Central and South Asia, 1757-1947

Rob Johnson traces the history of British intelligence to its South Asian beginnings.


Empires can leave painful legacies. When India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka celebrate their national independence in 2007-08, the emphasis will be on the idea of ‘liberation’, but there will be a poignancy about the commemorations too. Some will refer to the communal violence, the massacres of men, women and children that accompanied the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Post-colonial scholars will comment on the less physical injuries of imperialism, particularly a sense of humiliation, of being subordinated, and of being moulded to think and behave like inferior ‘subalterns’.

However, there are other aspects of the British-South Asian connection that give us a different perspective. The vibrant Indian and Pakistani communities within Britain and the import of South Asian cuisine and fashion indicate that the British Empire in India was more than a system of political oppression: it was a meeting point of cultures which have left us with more positive outcomes. Indeed, the relationship between India and Britain was often deep and profound. South Asia provided Britain with the largest volunteer army in history and with a vast reservoir of resources to assist in the two world wars. As so many personal testimonies confirm, the bonds between the British officers and their South Asian troops were strong. This co-operation was not limited to the army. Despite the concerns about internal security and governance, the British used their relationships to tackle the other great conundrum of their rule in the region, namely the threat to India from external rivals.

The Great Game

Throughout the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the primary concern of Anglo-Indian diplomats and senior officers was the threat posed by Russia to the landward approaches to the sub-continent. The British annexed mountainous border areas to secure their frontiers and sent both British and Asian agents into Central Asia to gather intelligence on the routes their enemies might take. Immortalised by Kipling, the ‘Great Game’ that ensued involved clandestine surveying and the gathering of information on Russian troop movements, the construction of railways, and the sympathies of Central Asian rulers. But there was another, more shadowy development taking place in this period: the emergence of a professionalised British Intelligence Service.

British Intelligence is usually regarded as an amateur effort until 1909, when the Secret Service Bureau was established as a response to a perceived German espionage threat. There had been some earlier false starts, not least attempts to detect and neutralise Irish terrorists in the late nineteenth century, but, as far as domestic and secret intelligence was concerned, it appeared that it was all a product of the twentieth century. In fact, the recruitment of local personnel, the running of agents by British handlers, the ‘turning’ of enemy spies, the use of invisible inks and other ‘spycraft’ techniques can all be dated from this period. South Asians played a key role in this intelligence effort. Many risked their lives in long and hazardous expeditions deep into Central Asia. A few were detected. Some were killed.

Faiz Baksh, who went by the alias of Ghulam Rabbani, made a journey into Russian Central Asia in disguise in 1865 to ascertain Russian strengths, deployments and relations with local tribesmen. So successful was this operation that a number of agents were soon to follow on similar missions. Men of special aptitude were selected. One of these operated under the code-name ‘The Mullah’, joined the Service and carried out detailed surveys of the remote Hindu Kush. Like many of his colleagues, he assumed the role of merchant or horse trader and could speak several languages.


There was also an internal dimension to Britain’s intelligence work. Whilst reluctant to erect a police state, by the early years of the twentieth century, the British had infiltrated the more radical and violent of the nationalist movements. Kirpal Singh, a police agent, worked under cover inside the Bengali revolutionaries’ organisation, revealing its links to the Ghadr movement in the Punjab. Although compromised, he managed to attract the attention of a surveillance team who rushed in to save him. His actions thwarted a bombing campaign that may have caused many hundreds of deaths.

Nationalist agendas leave little room for those that acted as ‘collaborators’ to an occupying power. It is a pity that the courageous, skilled and dedicated efforts of a handful of South Asians will be largely overlooked or perhaps even dismissed as atypical or unworthy. But there can be no doubt that they achieved a great deal. That they did so in partnership with the British, rather than opposed to them, should not be forgotten. One hopes it will serve to remind us of what we have shared – that is, our history, for both good and ill.

Rob Johnson’s study Spying for Empire is published by Greenhill Books, London.