Late in the summer of 1936, a man with the codename ‘Bashir’ walked into a little photographer’s studio in a dusty bazaar in Bombay and asked to see a man named ‘Mirajkar’. This simple request caused panic among the people in the studio because Bashir’s real name was Michael John Carritt. He was an officer in the Indian Civil Service (ICS), and the man he was looking for, S S Mirajkar, was the General-Secretary of the Workers and Peasants Party and one of the accused in the Meerut Conspiracy Case.
The occupants of the studio, two old men, thought ‘Bashir’ was a policeman. Mirajkar was not there, they pleaded. In fact, he had been arrested that very day, they said, and hastily turned their visitor out on the street and locked up the shop. The only white man in the entire market, Carritt was attracting some attention and so he decided to retreat.
Over the next few years, Carritt worked as a ‘double agent’. While he continued to work for the colonial government, he was also an agent for Indian communists, passing on official secrets, helping them publish secret pamphlets and becoming, in his own words, “a mole in the crown”. But Carritt’s transformation from a loyal ICS officer to a spy for Indian freedom fighters had begun a long time ago, in the villages of Bengal.
Carritt passed the ICS exam in England in 1928 and, after a year studying Indian law, history and judicial procedure at Oxford, he was posted in Bengal. At the time, Bengal was the least preferred region for new ICS officers as much for its hot and humid weather, as for the political violence the region was then witnessing.
But Carritt fell in love, both with the region and its people. In his autobiography, A Mole In The Crown (1985), he wrote, “I loved the Bengal countryside, whether it was the scorched, dusty, laterite upland of W Bengal… or the gentle evening light on the vast waterways of E Bengal. I came to love the Bengali people – nimble witted and quick to laugh, but also easily moved to anger; warm in friendship but, more than most people, bitter in enmity.”
– Carritt began his ICS career as an Assistant Magistrate in Bengal’s most volatile district – Midnapore.
The district was administered by a District Officer, who was responsible for law and order, and functioned as the District Magistrate and the Collector of Revenue. During his stint there, he witnessed two successive District Officers being assassinated by revolutionaries. At the end of his year-long stint in Midnapore, Carritt was posted in Rangpur, now in Bangladesh, to be trained in ‘Land Settlement’.
As he travelled across the district, making maps, recording the names of the cultivators, and the land revenue paid, he began to note how the poor Bengali farmer was systematically exploited by moneylenders, who extorted 50-60 per cent interest on loans made at sowing time, and by zamindars, talukdars, mazumdars and jotedars, all of whom fed off their labour without ever dirtying their hands by working the soil themselves.
From here, Carritt moved on to take charge of Asansol, a subdivision of the district of Burdwan in Bengal. Here he was, in his own words, “Chief Magistrate, Chief Executive Officer and Supervisor over the maintenance of Law and Order as well as Tax Collector”. It was his judicial duties that would change him more than anything else.
For 14 days a month, Carritt sat in court, presiding over cases without ever understanding a single word of the local language – Bengali. But as he heard more and more of the disputes among Indians, he found himself beginning to take their side. Other British officers had noted at the time that whenever there was a dispute between a moneylender and a cultivator, Carritt was likely to rule in favour of the latter.
It was either his partiality to Indians or his friendship with a local Armenian girl named Edna that led to Carritt being transferred out of Asansol and back to the administrative headquarters of Calcutta.
This time, he found himself in the Political Department, which primarily spied on and tried to control Independence activists.
After seven months of mostly routine paperwork, Carritt transferred out to what was then the East Bengal town of Tangail. It was here, during the monsoon of 1934, that Carritt finally began to turn into a communist. As an administrator, he had witnessed first-hand the cruelty meted out to Indians by the colonial government.
– He writes how an entire village was beaten up mercilessly in the wake of an Englishman’s murder; how nationalists, with whose cause he sympathised, were held in detention camps; and how the government had set up special courts to try political cases, which had no juries and were chaired by judges who could be relied upon to give out harsh sentences.
Above all, Carritt became completely disillusioned with the “civilizing mission” that the colonial government declared it was in India to carry out. He writes, “All the fine and caring work of many hundreds of Indian civil servants for over 150 years… was a façade behind which the Raj facilitated and encouraged exploitation on an even bigger scale”.
Although communist literature was banned in India at the time, using his official position, Carritt was able to bypass the laws and get his brother to mail him books by Marx, Lenin and other contemporary Left-wing thinkers. In the summer of 1934, Carritt finally left Tangail for a long spell of leave back home in England.
Here, he contacted the League Against Imperialism, a Left-wing propaganda organisation run by Ben Bradley, one of the convicts in the Meerut Conspiracy Case. The LAI pointed Carritt towards the Communist Party of India’s Bombay branch, and when he returned to India in 1936, he carried for them cash to help them publish an illegal newssheet. His slant towards communism was perhaps natural, given that it was the only major political movement that staunchly opposed imperialism and that his brother, Gabriel was involved in it as well.
For the next three years, Carritt was to work out of the Writers’ Building in Calcutta, in the ‘Political and Appointments’ division. This organisation handled postings and transfers of officials, while also maintaining law and order, trying to control political disturbances and decoding secret messages sent out from London.
Among the few English friends Carritt had at this point, there was Prof Humphrey House, a visiting professor who was then teaching in Calcutta University. House detested the British in India and was a Left-winger. Through him, Carritt was introduced to a number of Bengali Left-wingers and freedom fighters, including the poet Sudhin Dutta.
Although Carritt was still quite a junior officer at this point, he nonetheless had access to secret reports from police and district officials, and began passing on information to members of the Indian underground, often helping them evade the authorities. He also became a regular author, anonymously, for the Communist Party of India’s paper, translating foreign articles and writing reports on the international communist movement.
A year later, Carritt made his first contact with P C Joshi, General-Secretary of the Communist Party of India. Since his arrangements in Calcutta had broken down, Joshi had no place to stay, so Carritt arranged for him to stay in his flat in Galstaun Mansions (now Queens Mansions) on Park Street, masquerading as his personal bodyguard!
Over the following weeks, the two met many times, where Carritt briefed Joshi on the situation in East Bengal, while Joshi laid down the future direction for the party. Carritt’s detailed minutes of these meetings are a valuable archive for anyone wishing to study the early development of the Communist Party in India.
By the summer of 1937, the Intelligence Bureau in Calcutta had begun suspecting that there was a mole in the government. To Carritt’s alarm, reports on the subject made their way to his desk. The following year, Carritt finally resigned from the Indian Civil Service, returning to England with a £400 per annum pension and the threat of Hitler’s war looming. But he had not got away with it, after all, for it was now that the government finally decided to take action against him. In 1940, Carritt received a letter stating that his pension was cancelled “on the grounds of behaviour not compatible with approved service”.
The cancellation of his pension did not really affect Carritt, and from 1948, he worked as a lecturer in philosophy, first at Oxford and later at Sussex University. It was only in 1980, when he was approached by a researcher, that Carritt realized that the government had maintained a secret file on him, which was now available to the public. When he looked through its contents, he realized that he had been suspected of being a Marxist and having Indian sympathies for a long time. The only reason he had not been brought to book, it appears, is the fear of the public embarrassment it would cause to the colonial government.
So, had it all been worth it? In his memoirs, Carritt is emphatic. “Yes, it had certainly been worthwhile… a faith or goal that is shared with others and is other-directed – and not just for personal power, fame, wealth or a good time – gives life coherence and significance… and given the same circumstances of time and history, I think I would choose the same sort of road.” Michael Carritt died at the age of 84 in 1990 in Ploughley, Oxfordshire.