The Dragnet

Beyond Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah or Bose, the British Empire feared one revolutionary. This is the story of how MN Roy was chased around the world.

The Dragnet by Gautam Pemmaraju; Illustration by Akshaya Zachariah on

January 1922. Ballard Pier, Port of Bombay. Passengers at the trans-oceanic passenger terminal sense the presence of watchful eyes. Some will be taken aside, searched and questioned. A new danger lurks. It seeks to bring down the British Empire.

The danger comes from the east, coloured red. Having brought down the tsar in Russia, the Soviet communists are now looking outwards with a grand plan. Vladimir Lenin has already discarded the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 [1] and is calling on the Asian people to overthrow their colonial oppressors. Just two years earlier, he’d announced: “England is our greatest enemy. It is in India we must strike them hardest.”

The Bolsheviks now have operations in India to “penetrate the existing nationalist movement.” Meanwhile, the British already have a lot to contend with. Indian nationalists are clamouring for swaraj. The country is convulsed by workers’ strikes. There are periodic violent attacks on British officials. India’s Muslims are seething over the dismemberment of Ottoman Turkey. Bombay is a tinderbox, waiting to be sparked.

At the centre of Lenin’s plans is one man: Manabendra Nath Roy.


n that day in 1922, officers of the Foreign Branch of the Criminal Investigation Department are on alert for any and all suspicious characters. An agent of M.N. Roy could try to slip through with banned books, manifestos and money. The man himself might show up to direct the revolutionary movement from within.

To the British, the ‘red peril’ is nothing less than terrorism. The Great Game of the empires for strategic control over Central Asia has mutated and Moscow is plotting to foment global revolutions, to violently overthrow capitalists and imperialists. Any intervention has the potential to strengthen nationalist and anti-colonial movements across the realm. And losing India, everyone knows, would be the beginning of the end for the Empire.

This “second tournament of shadows” [2] will be substantively conducted in the murky world of secret agents and surveillance. In the colonies, communists mostly operate undercover. Intelligence systems and spy craft, developed to tackle Indian revolutionaries operating in Britain and around the world, will now deepen.

Activists and agitators are increasingly mobile across the seas, seeking to forge alliances, stoke revolutionary fervour, and conduct anti-British propaganda with support from Moscow.

A century on, the nationalist and revolutionary movements of this time are well documented. But one vast arena remains relatively unexplored: the surveillance and intelligence operations that the British deployed against communists and other dissidents.

Here is one fascinating thread of that mostly hidden history. While Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and other national leaders represented overt resistance, M.N. Roy posed a covert menace. He became the primary target for British intelligence. This is the story of how the Empire cast the dragnet for this enigmatic man, whose extraordinary web of agents, collaborators, lovers and enemies made him the central, shape-shifting figure of an existential threat.

The Target


arendranath Bhattacharya was born into a Brahmin family in the village of Arbelia near Calcutta, on 21 March 1887. Expelled from school for organising support for the pioneering nationalist Surendranath Banerjee, Naren decided the British would “have to be driven out by force.” He joined the prominent militant group Anushilan Samiti and embarked on a series of raids and attacks, killing an Intelligence Bureau officer in 1908. A rising revolutionary “with scholastic views,” he was arrested three times: in 1908, 1910 and then 1915.

In April 1915, after his release, Naren travelled to Batavia (present-day Jakarta, capital of Indonesia) to secure arms in a German-sponsored plot, but the arms did not arrive as planned. Naren went to Batavia again that August, determined to not return without them. In transit, he learned that police had killed his colleague Jatin Mukherjee and vowed to avenge his death. Naren would now be doggedly hunted across the seas.

15 June 1916. San Francisco. Naren landed in the port city as the Reverend Charles Martin, supposedly en route to Paris to study theology. Not long after, when the “young and attractive” graduate student Evelyn Trent at Stanford University was introduced to him, he was no longer Naren; he was M.N. Roy.

But British intelligence and American federal agents had been tracking him all along: the morning after his arrival in San Francisco, one newspaper splashed the headline “Mysterious Alien Reaches America—Famous Brahmin Revolutionary or Dangerous German Spy.”

At the time, British intelligence was countering German intrigues in America; their imperial rivals, they believed, were helping finance Indian revolutionary groups including the famous Ghadar Party, threatening British rule. They established a makeshift spy station at the consulate in San Francisco with “dozens of informants, double-agents and private detectives to infiltrate, subvert and expose” the threats they rightly perceived. In what came to be known as the Hindu-German Conspiracy, Indian revolutionary groups had sought arms and resources to facilitate a large-scale rebellion in India.

He was transforming from a militant Indian nationalist to a cosmopolitan, radical, intellectual aesthete.

Roy was soon arrested in consequence, this time in New York. [3] He jumped bail to escape with his newly-wed wife Evelyn to Mexico, assuming the false name Manuel Mendez. US Military Intelligence records reveal that he was a wanted man at the time. He was well-received in Mexico, where a decidedly anti-British government assured him that he was “free and safe here.”

Autumn 1917. Mexico City. The tall, charismatic M.N. Roy was safely ensconced in his new surroundings. He had started Spanish lessons and befriended diplomats, businessmen, journalists, intellectuals, bohemians and artists. He gave up vegetarianism, abstention from alcohol, and discarded the Brahmanical shackles that came in the way of worldly pleasures. He was transforming from a militant Indian nationalist to a cosmopolitan, radical, intellectual aesthete. As he wrote later, “Mexico was the land of my rebirth.” The dwija Bengali Brahmin from a village was now a “twice-born heretic.” [4]

1917 was also the year of the Russian Revolution, which tilted the balance in world affairs. The Soviets wasted no time in setting up the Communist International, or Comintern, to take its ideology beyond Russia. When its emissary Mikhail Borodin travelled to Mexico in October 1919, he met the fiery Indian revolutionary.

The friendship and mentorship of Borodin aided Roy’s political transformation. With his approval, Roy helped establish a splinter Mexican Communist Party with “six members and a calico cat.” [5] Soon, there followed an invitation to meet Lenin in August 1920 for the Second World Congress of the Comintern. An exchange of written drafts and the Roy-Lenin debates on the colonial question set the stage for Comintern’s policy towards India, which, importantly for Roy, included the facilitation of major resources. [6] He became the point man for Russia’s plans for India despite the efforts of fellow revolutionary Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, or Chatto, to gain favour with Moscow. [7]

17 October 1920. Tashkent. [8] The Communist Party of India was born under the auspices of the Comintern. At that point, it comprised of émigrés: many of the first recruits were muhajirin, those who had voluntarily moved to Afghanistan to protest British action against the Turkish Caliphate. [9]

In Tashkent, Roy started running a military school for Indian revolutionaries. [10] Several graduates also joined him in Moscow, to train at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV). With funding from Comintern, Roy brought together a group of radical activists across India: S.A. Dange in Bombay, Muzaffar Ahmad in Calcutta, Singaravelu Chettiar in Madras, Ghulam Hussain in Lucknow and Shaukat Usmani (who travelled back from Tashkent) in the United Provinces. As his influence grew, Roy went on to become a full voting member of the ECCI, the Eastern Commission, and in 1923, he was elected to the Comintern Presidium. (His Comintern career peaked in 1926).

To the British, Roy’s command of the fledgling Indian communist movement was clear. In India, an enigmatic figure using the pseudonym Satyabhakta was claiming that the Indian Communist Party (ICP) had been formed on 1 September 1924. Satyabhakta had sent out invitations to the first ever conference of Indian communists to be held in Kanpur in December 1925.

But the majority of delegates at the Kanpur conference were Roy’s associates, who were deeply suspicious of the unknown organiser’s intentions. They rejected Satyabhakta’s opposition to alignment with the Comintern, prompting him to leave his own conference in protest.

Roy’s CPI gained the upper hand and decided to relocate to Bombay to aid liaison with the Comintern. Roy was convinced Satyabhakta was a spy and that the ICP was a creation of British intelligence. [11]

The British had, over the years, developed a well-entrenched intelligence network in India. As early as June 1919, the Viceroy Lord Chelmsford had written to Secretary of State Montagu, saying:

All authorities concerned are alive to the importance of intercepting Bolshevik agents and literature…But with our vast frontier we must rely in the main on the evil being tapped at its source by means of intelligence systems at all chief centres of Bolshevik activities.

The security infrastructure was now paying off. Returning émigrés from Tashkent had been arrested on suspicion of being Bolshevik agents and were tried as part of the Peshawar Conspiracy case of 1922. Between May 1923 and March 1924, most of M.N. Roy’s Indian associates were arrested and tried under the Kanpur Bolshevik Conspiracy case of 1924. Roy himself was named an absconding accused.

Getting to and operating in India had become truly dangerous. Revealingly, a Home Department memorandum of that time indicated that the best intelligence had come from “members of the organisation itself.” The dragnet laid out for Roy was working.

The Unrest


ew Year’s Eve, 1926. Philip Spratt, a Comintern operative of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), landed in Bombay, having been recruited by the quietly influential British writer and journalist Clemens Palme Dutt, who headed the colonial bureau of the CPGB.

Spratt first travelled to Paris where he met Roy’s mysterious right hand man, Mohammed Ali ‘Sepassi’. Provided with cover addresses, codes for communication and the names of Indian communists, Spratt was supposed to ensure that the CPI established a legal entity in the form of a Workers’ and Peasants’ Party (WPP), which would infiltrate trade unions and gain control of them.

The nationalistic WPP would fight for workers’ and peasants’ rights, but its ultimate objective would be “to obtain Swaraj wherein the means of production, distribution and exchange are publicly owned and socially controlled.” [12]

Philip Spratt arrived “under the guise of an agent of a Firm (sic) of booksellers. He also represented that he had been deputed by the Labour Research Department (London) to study labour conditions in India.” Word of Spratt’s imminent arrival in India sent in code by Sepassi spoke of a “Herald” who would be coming from “us.” The volume of communication passing through Spratt convinced British intelligence that he was the main channel between Roy and his co-conspirators in Europe and their foot soldiers in India.

Bombay was roiling at the time. Besides civil disobedience protests, there was major unrest in the city’s textile mills. The discord between mill owners and labour unions had deepened. Owners, seeking to rationalise operations and cut costs, had retrenched large numbers of workers. WPP began to take over the radicalised unions. As tensions increased, the WPP activists called for a strike on 16 April 1928.

By 25 April, all but two of the city mills struck. The communists gained control of the Girni Kamgar Mahamandal and soon joined up with S.H. Jhabwala’s Bombay Mill Workers Union to form the powerful Bombay Girni Kamgar Union or GKU on 23 May 1928.

Benjamin Bradley, another recruit of the CPGB, became a vice-president of GKU. (A coded message from Clemens Palme Dutt had mentioned his impending travel to “Glasgow” in order to “help the University there as you will be glad to learn.” While “Glasgow” meant Bombay, “University” referred to the trade unions.)

The WPP members also made serious inroads in other cities and other unions. By the end of 1928, British intelligence was saying: “Hardly a single public utility service or industry remained which had not been affected, in whole or in part, by the wave of Communism which swept the country during the year.”

The efforts of Roy and his associates had borne fruit: missives and money had continued onwards despite all efforts by the British. This cast of characters included several British emissaries: prior to Spratt’s arrival, other agents including Charles Ashleigh, Percy Glading and George Allison were sent to Bombay. While the first two made no dent, Allison helped establish the WPP in Bombay and Calcutta.

The unaffiliated Lester Hutchinson also arrived on the scene in September 1928 working with unions and editing a radical publication. [13] In January of the previous year, the British MP and communist leader Shapurji Saklatvala travelled to India and reluctantly met with Indian communists: he was largely dismissive and alleged that the CPI was infested with spies.

The gains unravelled quickly, however. The government conducted simultaneous raids across the country on a single day in March 1929, and over 30 activists, including Spratt and Bradley, were arrested. Hutchinson was arrested in June.

The subsequent trial of the activists came to be known as the Meerut Conspiracy Case. It was “supported by a vast mass of documentary evidence the like of which had probably never been handled in a single case in the whole history of Indian legal practice.” [14]

At the heart of these arrests was an intelligence coup—the interception, in 1928, of a document which came to be known as the “Assembly Letter.” British intelligence saw this as conclusive proof of a widespread conspiracy and leaked it to the press. On 10 September 1928, parts of the letter were read out in the Bombay Legislative Assembly while the house debated the Public Safety Bill, which was clearly intended to target communists and other dissenters. It failed to pass but the Viceroy later promulgated it as ordinance in 1929.

The author of that letter was M.N. Roy. The Empire had struck back.

The Letter


he Assembly Letter was carried from Europe by Mohammed Abdul Hakim, a sailor on the SS Mercara. Hakim had been given the assignment by N.J. Upadhyay in London. The task was straightforward: the letter was to be delivered in person to Muzaffar Ahmad in Bombay. Abdul Hakim forgot about the letter on arrival. By the time he remembered, he was already in Colombo on his onward journey. So he posted it from the port of Aden.

As it happened, the letter was intercepted and withheld in Bombay. Clandestine operations under cover of the WPP would “develop into a rallying ground of the exploited social elements (proletariat, peasantry and petit bourgeoisie),” it stated, “which must unite themselves in a revolutionary struggle against foreign imperialism and native reaction.” It also revealed details about finances from Moscow routed through Roy and the Foreign Bureau in Europe—more than incriminating enough for the British.

The letter writers commonly used invisible ink, as well as a transposition code that interpolated the names of places and people.

Frustrated by the constant interception of his letters via post despite cover addresses, Roy had taken to recruiting “lascars”, or seamen. He would send a letter in three different ways, hoping that one would reach the recipient. Ajudhiya Prasad (arrested in the Meerut Conspiracy) travelled as Abdul Hamid numerous times between England and India and “played an active part in the establishment of communications.” A letter found on the former Ghadarite and seaman Amir Haider Khan or “Dada,” provided “detailed instructions which seamen, used as messengers, should adopt to make sure that their letters reach the right hands.” Several letters of Spratt mention other letters brought by sailors, and those sent back for “elder brother”, a code for Roy, via Colombo or Madras.

The communications used code and ciphers. Spratt, Bradley and others often used a system for which the key was a poem taken from the classic poetry compendium Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. The letter writers commonly used invisible ink, as well as a transposition code that interpolated the names of places and people. Fascinatingly, “the letters were frequently written in a cryptic manner resembling a sort of grotesque correspondence between two clergymen: there are references to the Church and Methodists and the Y.M.C.A (which all refer to various aspects of the work in India).”

Roy’s letters were “an unfailing source of information of proved accuracy as to the movements of men, money and literature.” [15] From as early as October 1920, the British believed that Comintern subversion in India was backed by Moscow and was a greater threat than in Britain. The Home Department’s Intelligence Bureau, then headed by Colonel Cecil Kaye spearheaded the anti-Bolshevik operations and shared information with London. The mandate was to use “every step necessary to checkmate them.” [16]

A 1924 report claimed that successful infiltration of communist circles had a lot to do with the “incompetence of Roy and his Indian agents,” many of whom were “greedy opportunists lacking in scruples.” British intelligence had penetrated Roy’s network and ‘turned’ some members. [17] (Roy himself was accused of misappropriating funds by some of his Indian associates, but counter-narratives suggest this was a ploy by British intelligence to sow differences in the cadre.) [18]

By this time, British secret services back home had gone beyond just surveillance and infiltration. An egregious instance of this was the public outrage caused by the “Zinoviev Letter” in 1924, [19] which appeared to show that the CPGB had received instructions from Moscow to lobby British Labour Party sympathisers. According to the letter, Moscow sought support on a proposed Anglo-Soviet treaty, propaganda with the armed forces, and “generally to prepare for the coming of the British revolution.” But skulduggery was afoot. The letter was a fake; part of a false flag operation.

These methods may have also been put to use in Bombay. Inspector Derojinsky, an officer of Russian origin who had joined the Foreign Branch of the Bombay Police in April 1923, would later face accusations of planting evidence in relation to Benjamin Bradley’s arrest. There were suggestions that the Assembly Letter, too, was a concoction. The courts ruled otherwise in both instances.

Through all this, the hunt for Roy went on unabated. The enterprising Richard Keith Hampton, a fellow officer of the Foreign Branch, had committed himself to the task of weeding out suspicious elements in the city. He acted on tips from informers, surveilled suspects and was not averse to using his son and wife for cover.

Hampton appeared to have conducted surveillance on a key figure who would unwittingly provide regular intelligence on Roy: Suhasini Nambiar. Nambiar, the first woman member of the Communist Party of India who had attended the Toilers University in Moscow, had arrived in Bombay with Lester Hutchinson.

The vivacious and strikingly beautiful Suhasini lived in the northern suburb of Khar with her sister Mrinalini; both younger siblings of the famous poet and nationalist leader Sarojini Naidu. [20] Their residence and Suhasini’s workplace in Bombay proper were cover addresses for clandestine communications between activists in Europe and associates in Bombay. Roy regularly addressed letters to them.

In April 1927, Hampton thought he had netted the biggest catch.

False Alarm


n 5 April 1927 just short of midnight, one of Hampton’s fellow officers spotted Philip Spratt near the iconic Army and Navy Stores, “walking along a dark arcade” on Esplanade Road. Aware of a surveillance order on Spratt, the officer followed him. Spratt met an Indian briefly, and then left for the YMCA where he was staying.

The officer trailed the Indian and arrested him for loitering. At the police station, a large amount of cash was found on him and also documents showing he had come from a German port. Hampton claimed that the man was none other than the “militant Communist” that the police were desperately searching for across India: M.N. Roy.

But Hampton was mistaken about the man his colleague had spotted that night. At the time, Roy was on a mission to China. Roy had been sent east to work through the deepening fault lines between the nationalist Kuomintang and the communists. In 1927, the right-wing faction of the Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-shek, staged a coup against the Chinese Communist Party. The coup came as a betrayal to the Comintern who had established an alliance with the Kuomintang.

Roy and his mentor Borodin were blamed for this debacle. A period of intense debates and isolation over 1928 ensued. Roy disagreed with the Comintern power centre; the establishment had taken a sharp ultra-left turn and was now proscribing alliance with the nationalists in India. (Internal factionalism contributed to this: Stalin sought to discredit those opposed to him and dispense expediently with others who were inconvenient.)

A dejected and very ill Roy seemed headed for more trouble. His Berlin-based lover Louise Geissler feared the worst. She travelled to Moscow and removed him surreptitiously, quite possibly saving him from the dark fate of Stalin’s infamous purges. [21] He was formally expelled from the Comintern in 1929.

In Berlin, Roy fraternised with the German Communist Opposition and published critical pieces against the Comintern, which tipped him over from disgraced colleague to archenemy of the Soviets. Over the next two years, he was “hunted by the British Intelligence Service, maligned and under attack by the Comintern apparatchiki and by party-line Communists in Germany, England and India. He moved from place to place to avoid arrest and extradition, considerably handicapped by illness and lack of regular income.”

The dragnet was closing in on Roy and he knew it. Far from running away, he ran towards it.

The Return


une 1929. Bremen Port. Roy met a seaman named Abdul Waris to deliver chapters of his new book to Suhasini Nambiar in Bombay. Over beers, Roy sought Abdul Waris’s help to travel back to India. He was sure to be arrested, the sailor told him. He wanted just six months in India, Roy had told the sailor some years back; “after that, he would not mind even if he were hanged.”

At the time, Roy was living in Berlin with Geissler, a Munich-born Comintern employee who had previously worked with the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) as a secretary. [22] His marriage with Evelyn had fallen apart some years back; they had divorced in the autumn of 1926.

The time had come for Roy to return to India. It was the autumn of 1930.

After bidding Geissler and other Berlin friends farewell, Roy spent three weeks in the Tyrolean Alps convalescing from an ear surgery and enlarged heart. Ellen Gottschalk, a Comintern activist originally from Paris, joined him there, determined to stand by him until the end. Roy had met her in Berlin in 1928 at his favourite café in Kurfürstendamm.

With stops in Istanbul, Baghdad and Karachi, he reached Bombay on 17 December, nearly 15 years after he left the country as a young revolutionary.

On 24 November 1930, Roy said goodbye to Ellen at Verona railway station. With stops in Istanbul, Baghdad and Karachi, he reached Bombay on 17 December, nearly 15 years after he left the country as a young revolutionary in search of arms. As ‘Dr. Mahmood,’ he was temporarily taken to the Theosophical Society in Juhu. Thereafter, he shifted lodgings frequently and often attended meetings with a small group at V.B. Karnik’s flat. [23] On occasion, he went to public gatherings in disguise.

The prominent filmmaker J.B.H. Wadia, who went to a mass gathering at Bombay Gymkhana Maidan (now Azad Maidan), recollected seeing “a tall Arab called Dr. Mahmud in the crowd.” Wadia learnt that Roy was attending clandestine meetings in disguise with a “few ultra leftists in an old dingy building.” In fact, the ten-member group known as the Royists had no idea of Roy’s real identity when they first met him.

At first, Roy moved about relatively freely. The police had also noted the presence of a ‘Dr. Mahmood’ but had no inkling of who he really was: they did not have a recent photograph. During this period, Roy met prominent Congressmen, including Sardar Patel, Bhulabhai Desai, B.R. Ambedkar and N.M. Joshi.

February 1931. Hanuman Terrace, Lamington Road, Bombay. Roy’s identity was betrayed at a meeting of the Royists. Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, or ‘Harin,’ was by then making a mark as a poet and playwright. He had travelled across Europe in the autumn of 1927 studying “Modern European Theatres and Play Production” and upon his return lectured frequently on communism. He had met Roy on his travels. Harin was a younger sibling to Sarojini Naidu and Chatto, and older brother to Suhasini Nambiar. British intelligence regarded Harin a “good for nothing sort of man” and “a poor sort of creature altogether.”

That particular evening at Karnik’s flat, Harin greeted Roy like “a long-lost brother.” Roy, as Karnik says, “dropped a hint that the chance meeting might not end well.” Harin lost no time informing Suhasini of Roy’s presence. Days later, he advised Karnik not to “associate with a dangerous person of that type.”

Given the surveillance on the Chattopadhyaya siblings, the police got wind of their target. But Roy was already on the move. He soon left for the United Provinces staying with his associate Brajesh Singh of the Kalakankar royal family, who would later marry the daughter of Josef Stalin. [24]

Politically, the Royists were now making good progress. In collaboration with the nationalists, they had gained control of India’s largest trade union group, the AITUC, edging out the CPI. Roy even travelled to Karachi undetected to attend the annual session of the Indian National Congress at the invitation of Jawaharlal Nehru. [25]

Roy, who attended the meetings in disguise, was said to have “had the ear of Nehru at this time.” British intelligence amplified his influence, and Nehru was forced to deny press reports that “a certain mysterious individual with communist affiliations” had penned a resolution pertaining to fundamental rights and a national economic programme. Roy dismissed the resolution as an “instrument of deception.”

Roy’s return to Bombay was much anticipated​​ by th​​e Royists, who had been receiving regular instructions from him regarding a strike at Khatau textile mill. But they were not th​e only ones waiting. [26]

The Arrest


ichard Keith Hampton took his wife out to dinner at a fancy hotel one evening in February 1931. He had no inkling that Roy was in Bombay, but there was another target in his sights. From the specially requested seat, he had a clear view of an American couple. The Special Branch had information that an “importer of skins” Henry G. Lynd and his wife had arrived in Bombay as tourists. During this period, the Intelligence Bureau had been alerted that there had been a split among Indian communists, and that an agent had been sent to fix things. The Lynds were placed under 24-hour surveillance.

The news about the split was true: it had been precipitated by the increasing influence of the Royists. Comintern, anticipating further divisions, had sent Lynd. As British intelligence put it: “Lynd’s mission to India was clearly to apportion the blame for the ‘official’ party’s breakdown, to remedy whatever defects he found, and to fight the influence of M.N. Roy’s party.”

In the meantime, despite Roy’s instructions, Louise Geissler arrived in Bombay on 1 July. Information of her departure from Europe had come in advance, and she was put under watch. On her very first day, she was detained outside Churchgate station along with a male friend, and then let off. The man was not Roy. Only days later, the Royist Maniben Kara drove her to Bhulabhai Desai’s house. They snuck out the back entrance and met Roy secretly, evading the police tail.

At around 5am, Petigara knocked on the door and was reluctantly let in by a domestic helper. Roy was found asleep in his pajamas.

20 July 1931. A rainy night in Byculla, Bombay. The Royists met at 8pm at the house of Dr. M.R. Shetty on Adam Wyllie Road. Their deliberations lasted till midnight. Roy went to a nearby building, where arrangements for him to sleep had been made. The group took no notice of three ‘mawalis’ sleeping on the road. They were undercover CID officers.

An urgent telephone call was made to DCP Khan Bahadur Kavasji Petigara. Policemen surrounded the vicinity. At around 5am the next morning, Petigara knocked on the door and was reluctantly let in by a domestic helper. Roy was found asleep in his pajamas.

The Commissioner of Police G.S. Wilson arrived shortly after. “Good morning, Mr. Roy,” he said, before placing him under arrest.



.N. Roy had evaded arrest in India for seven months. News reports revealed that the police had failed on numerous occasions. “But for his amazing cunning,” one suggested, “Roy would have been in custody within a week of his arrival.” The Times of India said that “stories of his hair-breadth escapes read more like a chapter of an Edgar Wallace thriller than incidents in the life of a man ‘wanted’ by the police.”

Roy’s subsequent trial and incarceration provide great insight into the paranoia of the times. Secretly taken to Kanpur, he stood trial there in jail: without a jury and not in open court.

In January 1932, he was sentenced to 12 years’ transportation, which was reduced to six on appeal. When he was released on 20 November 1936, he was in very poor health. Ellen Gottschalk and he had stayed in touch. After they married and moved to Dehradun, life centred around their cats and entertaining visitors. With a marginal role in politics, Roy continued to write, and became a proponent of Radical Humanism, emphasizing morality in social order and change.

This account of M.N. Roy’s clandestine activities, agents, enemies, friends and lovers remains limited. There are far, far more plots and subplots than appear here. The imperial state had cast a dragnet like no other for Roy, constantly surveilling numerous targets, maintaining an extraordinary amount of confidential documents, and stoking its own paranoia of its impending collapse at the hands of malcontents, radicals and revolutionaries. Beyond M.N. Roy’s political life, adventurism and intellectual output, his singular role as the totem of the imperial fear of communism is one of his enduring legacies.

Gautam Pemmaraju is a Bombay-based writer and filmmaker with a special interest in Indian anti-colonial activists of the early 20th century.

Note on sources: 

A number of diverse sources were used for this narrative, including numerous biographies of M.N. Roy and other books on him (including those by J.P. Haithcox, Samaren Roy, Sibnarayan Ray, V.B. Karnik, J.B.H. Wadia and Taiyab Shaikh aka AK Hindi, amongst others); his own memoir and other writings and letters; numerous scholarly works & intellectual histories (books and journal articles) on communism in India, Comintern, labour movements and strikes, and of transnational revolutionary and anti-colonial movements; court documents (including witness depositions) related to the Meerut Conspiracy case, M.N. Roy’s trial, and cases of some of the other accused; memoirs and accounts of Philip Spratt, Muzaffar Ahmad, Sundar Kabadi, Lester Hutchinson, Harindranath Chattopadhyaya and more; books and research articles on the imperial intelligence services (including the well-known ones by Richard Popplewell and Christopher Andrew); internal confidential guide books published by the Intelligence Bureau of the period; numerous intelligence records from the National Archives of India including periodic reports, surveillance and arrest records, intercepted letters, statements of those arrested and history sheets; letters exchanged between Ellen Roy and M.N. Roy and oral history transcripts from NMML; G. Adhikari’s “Documents of the History of the Communist Party of India”; some limited records of the Bombay Police Special Branch related to surveillance on Suhasini Nambiar; and newspaper articles on the Meerut Conspiracy case and the arrest of M.N. Roy. “Zar, Zan, Zamin” by Richard Keith Hampton provided colourful details of the Foreign Branch officer’s activities during this period. 

Including other miscellaneous items, I have looked at over a hundred sources over a ten-month period. Given the profusion of material on M.N. Roy, this is a limited survey of literature focused mostly on imperial intelligence systems, tracking of communists and revolutionaries, and M.N. Roy’s arrest.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Vappala Balachandran, former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, GoI, for providing a few critical sources and for his specialist insight and invaluable advice. His important biography of A.C.N. Nambiar planted the seed for this article. Thanks also to Sayan Gupta for accessing some material from the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, and to Rajesh Devraj for providing some newspaper reports.