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When Britain decided to stop spying on India

world Updated: Sep 21, 2010 23:35 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

The British were so unsure about intelligence sharing with post-independent India, its spy agencies decided to set up an unprecedented covert operation in the country but its agent — an unnamed high-profile police officer — was exposed.

The result of the fiasco, according to a book launched at the British foreign office on Tuesday, was the historic decision taken by Prime Minister Clement Attlee that British agencies would no longer spy in any Commonwealth country without that government’s approval.

The saga, according to MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949, began when representatives of three British spy agencies met secretly to decide what to do about intelligence sharing with independent India.

At the meeting were officials of MI5, the internal spy agency, the Indian Political Intelligence (IPI), an arm of the India Office, and MI6, which collects foreign intelligence. On security issues, writes author Prof Keith Jeffery of Queen’s University Belfast, MI5 was happy to leave matters to “proper liaison” between it and Indian agencies.

MI6, however, thought the new government would be unable, “either on account of inefficiency or lack of interest,” to furnish all the information required by the British. Instead, it proposed that MI6 should set up a spy operation without telling India’s first government.

The British appeared to have made an exception for India: a foreign office mandarin wrote that “in theory secret service cannot operate in British Commonwealth territory, but we feel that for this purpose we should be wise to treat India as a foreign country.”

The operation began in the month of India’s independence, and the man chosen to head it was a former Indian policeman who went with the cover of an ‘economic adviser,’ said Jeffery.

The British High Commissioner in New Delhi, Sir Terence Shone, protested saying the man was too well known.

However the plan unravelled spectacularly within just months — in March 1948 the policeman’s cover was blown, and he was recalled to Britain “with a distinct possibility of his not returning,” reported British spy Dick Ellis. The entire operation was finally scotched by Britain’s new envoy to New Delhi, Gen Sir Archibald Nye.

The final nail in the brief misadventure was driven in when Attlee decided that MI6 should withdraw completely from India after 1948, establishing the policy principle that came to be known as the ‘Attlee Doctrine.’