The Spy and the Kingdom

More often than not the more well-known spies are the ones notorious for having betrayed the country they ostensibly serve, i.e. double agents, primarily those that betrayed the countries of the ‘free’ world, like Great Britain. While few stones are left unturned to expose these traitors so long after the fact, the counterspies of the Crown lay respectably buried in the historical record. This short note by historian Suchetana Chattopadhyay is about one such anti-Soviet British spy of the interwar years that she discovered during her work as a doctoral student in London.

Abdul Qadir Khan was an anti-Bolshevik espionage agent working for British imperial intelligence. This is his photo from the Soviet archives. He was inserted as an eighteen-year-old spy among the Muhajirin, the migrants from colonial India, who refused to live under British rule and travelled to Kabul and then to Tashkent in 1920. He quickly infiltrated the tiny communist and revolutionary émigré circle there and later in Moscow. He returned with some of the Muhajirs-turned-communists by crossing the Pamir. He furnished a full account of their eventful journey to his handlers in British intelligence when the Peshawar Bolshevik Conspiracy Case was instituted in the course of 1922–23 by the colonial government to curb the ‘Bolshevik Menace’. According to the dossiers Abdul Qadir, requested to speak to the CID officer Mr Ewart ‘for a second time on his own volition’, conveyed by telephone through his jailor. According to Ewart he was ‘a boy still, but with all his wits about him, frightened and more inclined to be truthful than the others’. This gentle and paternal description of Qadir hid a special relationship. Qadir stated that the returnees were hoping to establish contact with workers’ unions in various industrial centres of India, send more recruits for training in Moscow, organise women workers so that they became political activists, form ‘secret circle’ of ‘inner workers’, influence the army by enlisting or other means and carry on radical propaganda against the government through lectures and writing.

After his cover was blown within the communist left, he was employed as a lecturer in Pushtu at the School of Oriental Studies (then SOS now SOAS), an institution created in London to train imperial administrators, military men and spies. My attempts to see his staff file when I was a doctoral student there failed; it was firmly ‘sealed’ and not open for researchers. During the early 1940s A.Q. Khan popped up in Calcutta and joined the All India Radio. Since he was a seasoned hand in intelligence circles by then, he was suspected of being a double agent by the British authorities. They bitterly complained in confidential memos that he was probably working for Turkey and that his demands had become ’exorbitant’; a senior British intelligence officer even confessed: ‘Since we introduced him to this path at a young age, he knows our ways of doing things very well.’ The decision was to remove him ‘quietly’. Whether this meant bribery, blackmail or murder we will never know. The MI6 might.

Featured image courtesy Suchetana Chattopadhyay.