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Explorer, Scholar, Spy: The Life and Times of Mohan Lal Kashmiri

Explorer, Scholar, Spy: The Life and Times of Mohan Lal Kashmiri

“Now I shall go far and far into the North, playing the Great Game”

– Rudyard Kipling, Kim

The recent tensions between China and India across the high Himalayas have been labelled by some scholars as the ‘New Great Game’. This harks back to an episode in history called the ‘Great Game’, the shadow boxing between British-India and Tsarist Russia for access to and control over South and Central Asia across the 19th century. 

The original Great Game had all the characteristics of a bestselling novel, filled with action, adventure and intrigue. It also had its set of glamorous characters: Sir Alexander ‘Sikunder’ Burnes – the famous British spy with oodles of charm and dashing good looks to boot – was the James Bond of his era. He was matched on the Russian side by Captain Yan Vitkevich, the enigmatic Polish-Lithuanian orientalist and explorer. Mercifully, there was very little by way of direct bloodshed between the principal protagonists, although things did come close to getting out of hand on a few occasions. No wonder the Russians evocatively called the contest ‘The Tournament of Shadows’.  

It was compelling drama and the public in Britain, India, Russia and beyond lapped it up. The romance and zeitgeist of the times was captured by the great Victorian author Rudyard Kipling in his famous novel, Kim. Afghanistan was a particularly important theatre of the Great Game. It was the gateway to India and became the place where British paranoia and Russian ambition collided spectacularly.A popular 19th-century portrait of the Great Game: the Emir of Afghanistan surrounded by the Russian Bear on one side and the British Lion on the other

A popular 19th-century portrait of the Great Game: the Emir of Afghanistan surrounded by the Russian Bear on one side and the British Lion on the other | Wikimedia Commons

A lot of the literature on the Great Game is from a Western, predominantly British- perspective. This essay looks at the role played by a remarkable Indian player of the Great Game: Mohan Lal Kashmiri.

The Kashmiri Pandits, an itinerant community of Brahmins from the Vale of Kashmir, were much sought after as bureaucrats and court officials by rulers across Northern India. Their felicity with languages, including Persian and Sanskrit, natural intellectual bent and industriousness were valued by rulers, Hindu and Muslim alike. They were duly rewarded with high status and large estates. 

Mohan Lal came from such a family. His great-grandfather was a high-ranking official in the court of Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II (1759-1806). His family had since suffered a reversal of fortunes and fallen on hard times. Growing up in Delhi in the early 19th century, a city still very much defined by Mughal etiquette and décor (adab-o-tehzeeb), Mohan Lal was acutely aware of his family legacy. By the 1820s, British influence over Delhi was growing. They were literally making a mark on the city. The Delhi English College was set up to provide an English-language education to Delhiwallas. Sensing the direction of the wind, Mohan Lal’s father enrolled him in the school. It would prove to be a remarkably prescient and consequential move, allowing Mohan Lal to leave his mark on history.

Mohan Lal distinguished himself at school, impressing the British both with his intellect and his impeccable manners.  In 1831, he was introduced to Alexander Burnes, a 26-year-old polyglot Scot, who had been in India for a decade and served the East India Company in various capacities. Burnes, who was about to make his epic journey through Central Asia, got along with Mohan Lal instantly. He was appointed as Burnes’s Persian interpreter for his Central Asian mission. 

The journey to Bukhara (now in Uzbekistan), by way of the Punjab and Afghanistan, was extremely successful. Burnes’s travelogue Travels Into Bukhara (1834) became a sensation across Europe, providing a peek into hitherto wild and unknown Muslim lands. Burnes became a celebrity and the toast of London’s high society. 

Mohan Lal was with Burnes every step of the way and wrote his own memoirs, Travels In The Punjab, Afghanistan and Turkistan (1846), which provide fascinating snippets of his encounters with, among others, Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab, Abbas Mirza, the Prince of Iran, and Dost Mohammad Khan, the Emir of Kabul, with whom he would go on to have a long history. He published a monograph on Greek antiquities, which the mission had discovered in Afghanistan, which contributed to the understanding of the Greco-Bactrian period of Afghan history. 

Mohan Lal was also an aesthete who possessed a glad eye. His memoirs are peppered with observations of ordinary people he encountered and their lifestyle. He left a deep impression on Burnes, who wrote “…the most remarkable was Mohan Lal, the Hindoo lad from Delhi, who exhibited a buoyancy of spirit and interest in the undertaking most rare in an Indian.” Their association was not over yet.Alexander Burnes in disguise during his travels to Bukhara (left) | Gutenberg.org; Portrait of Mohan Lal Kashmiri (right)

Alexander Burnes in disguise during his travels to Bukhara (left) | Gutenberg.org; Portrait of Mohan Lal Kashmiri (right) | Wikimedia Commons

Armed with glowing recommendations from British officials from the Bukhara mission, Mohan Lal was given training in surveying techniques and appointed as a political agent (19th-century lingua for a ‘diplomat-cum-spy’) in Khorasan (roughly present-day Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan).  He joined Alexander Burnes as part of the British mission to Kabul, to the court of Emir Dost Mohammad Khan. 

The Emir, who was being courted by the Russians (led by Captain Yan Vitkevich) at the same time, put forward some tough conditions in return for cooperation with the British, including their assistance in the return of Peshawar, the erstwhile winter capital of the Afghans, from Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Sikh Empire. 

Burnes had a very favourable assessment of the Emir and wanted the British to sign a treaty of friendship with him. His views were not shared by other British officials. Negotiations did not succeed and the mission returned empty handed to India. As a direct fallout of this event, the British decided to embark upon the first attempt by a Western power at a regime-change in Afghanistan, in 1839. This was the genesis of the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42).

In order to keep Afghanistan out of Russia’s orbit, the British planned and led an operation to replace Dost Mohammad Khan with Shuja Shah Durrani, a descendant of the legendary Afghan Emperor Ahmad Shah Durrani. Shah Shuja had been deposed as Emir three decades ago. He was living in exile in India and had been lobbying with the British for a while to assist him in returning to the throne. 

The mammoth expedition to Afghanistan by way of Punjab and Baluchistan, the so-called ‘Army of the Indus’, included 21,000 British and Indian troops, 38,000 camp followers and adequate provisioning of goods and livestock for a long haul. One regiment even took its pack of fox hounds. The image of a bunch of Englishmen fox hunting in Baluchistan is somewhat difficult to conjure. The recently knighted Sir Alexander Burnes and Mohan Lal were part of this virtual township in motion.

 The Army of the Indus marching into Afghanistan in 1839 | UK National Army Museum

The Army of the Indus marching into Afghanistan in 1839 | UK National Army Museum

The mission faced difficulties from the beginning, particularly around the mountain passes connecting India with Baluchistan and Afghanistan. It took some casualties on the chin and battled on, managing to storm and conquer the famous fortress of Ghazni. The Afghans had considered the fortress to be impregnable and its loss was a rude shock to them.

 The success at Ghazni was thanks in no small part to the crucial intelligence secured by Mohan Lal on the weak ramparts of the fort, together with securing the defection of one of the fortress’s key defenders. The mission fought its way to Kabul and managed to install Shah Shuja Durrani in place of Dost Mohammad Khan, who escaped to Bukhara and lived to fight another day. 

Having engineered the regime change, the British set up a cantonment near Kabul, signalling that they were in no hurry to leave. Burnes and Mohan Lal took up residence in the heart of Kabul city, among the locals, becoming the mission’s eyes and ears in the city. From the start, the British were deeply unpopular with the independent-spirited and conservative Afghans. Their haughty behaviour, machinations and interference in Shah Shuja’s government, and most controversially, their ‘womanising’, did not help. 

Mohan Lal himself identified their philandering as a key source of Afghan resentment: ‘stealing’ wives and mistresses was never going to be taken kindly, especially in a society steeped in honour culture. His warnings of brewing Afghan dissatisfaction were not taken seriously by the powers that be. Things eventually reached a boiling point. Within two years of their entry, there was a full-scale rebellion against the British led by Akbar Khan, the son of Dost Mohammad Khan. 

At the beginning of the uprising, Sir Alexander Burnes, a particular target of Afghan ire on account of his philandering, was slaughtered by an angry mob. From the terrace of his house, Mohan Lal was an eyewitness to Burnes’s decapitation and recorded the events in gory detail. Due to the intervention of some friendly locals, Mohan Lal barely escaped the same fate himself. 

The failure of the mission to prevent Burnes’s death greatly emboldened the rebels, who then went on to violently uproot the British from Kabul. Mohan Lal tried to assist the mission by paying (and promising even more) bribes to some tribal chieftains, but this was too little, too late. He also sent several missives to the nearest British garrison in Jalalabad, near the Indo-Afghan border, but no help was forthcoming. 

The subsequent retreat of the mission from Afghanistan to India – history knows it as the ‘1842 Retreat from Kabul’ – was bloody and sordid. The army was constantly plundered and harassed, and was almost to a man either killed or captured and imprisoned or sold into slavery. Mohan Lal himself was captured and imprisoned by Akbar Khan. While in captivity, he was tortured and forcibly converted to Islam. Following the withdrawal of the British, Shah Shuja’s reign at Bala Hissar (the seat of government in Kabul) was short-lived. 

The humiliation of the British mission at the hands of the Afghans caused a sensation in the world of geopolitics. The shockwaves were felt far beyond India and Britain. The British immediately began plotting their revenge. An ‘Army of Retribution’ led by General George Pollock made their way back to Kabul and exacted savage vengeance on the Afghans. 

One of the key objectives of General Pollock’s expedition was to secure the release of British and Indian prisoners left behind during the retreat. Mohan Lal was one of the first captives to be rescued when General Pollock’s army reached Kabul. Here again, Mohan Lal used his knowledge and acquaintance with the key local players and played a crucial role in negotiating and securing the release of a large number of British and Indian slaves and prisoners. 

Having achieved their objectives, the British did not repeat their earlier mistake of turning the expedition into a permanent occupation. They also did not try and engineer a regime-change this time. The entourage returned to India swiftly, Mohan Lal among them. In 1845, Afghan power politics completed a full circle and Dost Mohammad Khan returned to the throne.

The failed Afghan adventure ended Mohan Lal’s career as a political agent at the very young age of 34. He had incurred various debts from Kabul merchants and chieftains in aid of the British effort. His petitions to the authorities for reimbursement were rejected. These debts plagued him for the rest of his life. He did, however, get a generous pension from the East India Company, which helped him send his daughters to boarding school in England – another pioneering achievement in his day and age. It also enabled him to travel to Europe. 

Mohan Lal sailed to England in 1844 and travelled across the British Isles. On account of the friendships made and references provided by his colleagues from the Afghan mission, he was treated with great hospitality and warmth wherever he travelled. He adopted the role of a flâneur, acutely observing British society and culture and recording his observations for posterity. Highlights included an emotional meeting with the late Sir Alexander Burnes’s family at Montrose in Scotland, and an audience with Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. This was followed by a trip to Germany and dinner with the King of Prussia. He published a travelogue, Travels in the Punjab, Afghanistan & Turkistan and a two-volume biography of Afghan Emir Dost Mohammad Khan. 

The years after his trip to Europe, the final three decades of Mohan Lal’s life, were spent in relative obscurity, largely in Ludhiana and Delhi. There was a touch of drama: he orchestrated a dramatic escape during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. At the height of the uprising, Mohan Lal was hosting an English friend, Robert Hodges at his house in Delhi. Four armed mutineers from the East India Company’s Meerut regiment appeared at the gates of his house, baying for his blood. They accused him of being a British sympathiser and giving refuge to an Englishman. Mohan Lal managed to hide and ferret Hodges away to safety on that occasion. The mutineers returned a couple of days later, pillaging Mohan Lal’s house. They seized him at gunpoint and were about to kill him. They only released him due to the desperate pleas of his neighbours, who persuaded the rebels to postpone the killing until an investigation was completed. Mohan Lal escaped from Delhi following this episode, returning only after the rebellion was over. Hodges was less fortunate- he was caught by the mutineers and shot dead. 

There was also breach of social convention: he married a Shia Muslim, Hyderi Begum, one of the many women in his life, and adopted the Shiite moniker ‘Agha Hasan Jan’. Other than that, his largely uneventful twilight years were far removed from the action-packed earlier years of his life. 

Mohan Lal was a pioneer in many ways. A polyglot, philomath and bon vivant, one cannot help but think that fate did not allow him to fulfil his early potential. As a famous admirer, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (before he became independent India’s first Prime Minister) observed: “In a free India, a man like Mohan Lal would have risen to the topmost rungs of the political ladder. Under early British rule… he could not rise higher than the position of… a munshi (secretary).”

Mohan Lal’s accomplishments encouraged the British to use Indian spies and explorers, who came to be known as the ‘Pundits’, more widely during the Great Game. Famous Pundits such as Nain Singh Rawat, Kishen Singh Rawat and Sarat Chandra Das would carry forward his legacy and perform remarkable feats of their own in places as diverse as West Turkestan (modern day Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), East Turkestan (modern day Xinjiang province in China) and Tibet. 

Mohan Lal’s contributions and accomplishments have been sadly forgotten in India today. The nationalist sentiment in independent India tends to taint anyone who worked with the British colonial authorities as ‘collaborators’, regardless of their individual merits or qualities. The only ones glorified as heroes are the freedom fighters, who fought against colonial rule. 

Such attitudes are a mistake. While the freedom fighters deserve due admiration and respect, Mohan Lal, and the Pundits more generally, are equally worthy of appreciation. Their love for adventure and thirst of knowledge can kindle a spark in a new generation as it gears up for the New Great Game. They are heroes who deserve to be remembered.   

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Parag Sayta works in the financial sector in London and tweets @paragsayta.

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