The Mumbai police department has in recent times been plagued with several controversies. From the alleged illegal sharing of confidential files, dubious plots involving explosive-laden cars to accusations of concocted evidence, extortion, corruption and other nefarious activities, there has been a great deal of negative news. This brings to mind a nearly century-old story of an intriguing controversy surrounding a police officer of the Foreign Branch of the Bombay Police’s Crime Investigation Department, Special Branch.
Archival records, including confidential communication between the Bombay Police and the Home Department, court documents and newspaper reports of the time, reveal a peculiar story of how a refugee migrant officer inducted into the force came to be regarded as a spy who planted evidence to bolster the government’s case against Communist activists in the Meerut Conspiracy of 1929.
Inspector Boris Derojinksy (BW Derojinsky), formerly a member of the Russian Life Guards, was said to have fled Russia in 1920. He had fought against the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution. Facing ruin, the alleged “White Guard” (anti-Bolshevik militia), left with his family and arrived in Constantinople in August 1920, whereupon he was employed for two years with the British Section of the Allied Police Commission. His duties “were to investigate and report on cases both criminal and civil”.
‘An intelligent young man’
Given his skill with languages, he acted as an interpreter for the British police on raids. Derojinsky wished to travel onward to Siam (present-day Thailand) where a friend had promised a secure job, but due to the cancellation of the transport he could only make his way to Bombay. He arrived in the city on the troopship SS Derbyshire on March 26, 1923, with a French Laissez Passer and a recommendation letter from his former employer to the Bombay Governor and the Commander-in-Chief in Simla.
The police immediately sent information of his arrival to the Political Department of the Bombay government. On March 28, Derojinksy wrote to the commissioner of police requesting help “in obtaining a position that would enable me to live with my wife and child”. The request was granted since “he is an intelligent young man, who claims to be of a good family”, and he was appointed a probationary sergeant on April 5.
Derojinsky was appointed initially to the Water Police but the department wished that he be inducted into the Foreign Branch of the Crime Investigation Department. The Bombay police had faced embarrassment with the Charles Ashleigh case the previous year, wherein the British Comintern emissary had slipped past surveillance and conducted secret meetings. As part of an inquiry, the commissioner of police brought up the shortage of qualified European officers in the Foreign Branch who could operate in a clandestine manner gathering intelligence and consequently, Derojinky’s appointment fit well in the circumstances.
Within months, his appointment was confirmed and over the next few years he became a full inspector in 1926. As Mumbai began witnessing an influx of foreign Communist agents seeking to infiltrate trade unions and further the cause of Moscow’s (and Communist leader MN Roy’s) plans, Inspector Derojinsky would have become a very busy man.
On August 8, 1929, The Bombay Chronicle reported on the deposition of Inspector Derojinksy as a prosecution witness in the Meerut Conspiracy case proceedings the previous day. In response to the Crown counsel Langford James, the Russian policeman said that he had been in charge of the Foreign Branch for six years and had arrested British communist Benjamin Francis Bradley on March 24 that year, recovering from him various documents.
On being cross-examined by the defendant SA Dange, Derojinsky stated that he was “not a member of the White Guard” and that when in Russia, he had traded in jewellery as an occupation but not openly since that would have put him at risk with the regime. He added that he was a capitalist and had opposed the Revolution. Dange’s intention, which the Crown prosecutor objected to, was to “prove that witness had been a bad character in Russia”. When asked why the officer did not wear a uniform, Derojinsky responded that it was due to the nature of his duty.
The strategy of the defence was to attack the credibility of Derojinsky and impute that he was involved in skullduggery. Derojinsky responded that he had never been employed by the British Secret Service, did not have any expertise in printing and had “never forged Russian letters to implicate Indian workers nor was he aware of ‘anti-Soviet forgeries’”.
The next day, an explosive report of the court proceedings appeared in The Pioneer titled “Forging Russian Letters; Defence Allegations in Meerut Case; Cross-examination of the Bombay Inspector.” This deeply disturbed the British authorities. The following day August 10, The Pioneer published an editorial titled “Inspector Derojinsky”, characterising him as one of the chief witnesses for the prosecution. It stated that he had no passport when he landed in India but as the preparations for the Meerut arrests were underway in February 1929, he was naturalised as a British citizen. The timing of his being granted British citizenship seemed suspicious, the article hinted.
It further remarked that he was lucky to not have been arrested while in Russia despite conducting his secret business of selling jewellery. Ending on a caustic note, the article added that Derojinsky was to be congratulated on having found such “pleasant and congenial employment while many of his unfortunate compatriots who were also opposed to the revolution are said to be driving taxicabs in Paris, serving as waiters in night clubs on the Continent, or acting as dancing partners to elderly and wealthy ladies on the Riviera”.
‘A scurrilous ploy’
The article further infuriated the establishment who saw it as a scurrilous ploy to prejudice the public’s mind against the trial by misrepresenting Derojinsky’s role and casting aspersions on his character. The public prosecutor sought to file a contempt petition against the editor of The Pioneer, FW Wilson, saying that the article made “quite definite suggestions that Inspector Derojinsky is a man with a very dubious history” and that “one of the principal witnesses…is a Russian spy of disreputable antecedents.”
Langford James urged the secretary to the Home Department to proceed immediately against the newspaper, who in turn raised the question as to “whether action against the ‘Pioneer’ is likely to prejudice public opinion in regard to the trial more than the article itself.”
Indicating also that Derojinsky was merely a search witness and that “there is no Russian document in the case except one large poster” in relation to the imputation that he was brought in to forge Russian documents to bolster the conspiracy, Langford James pressed for urgency. Further communications resulted in the opinion that Derojinsky’s conduct and antecedents were beyond suspicion.
The Bombay Chronicle reported on August 27 that Langford James had appeared before the Allahabad High Court and argued that The Pioneer had committed gross contempt and the said articles were attempts to poison the minds of the public and prejudice a fair trial. On November 14, the editor of The Pioneer FW Wilson appeared before a judicial bench headed by the Chief Justice with an affidavit filed by his counsel (and friend) Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru saying it was not his intention to prejudice a fair trial and offered an unqualified apology.
Additionally, his counsel argued that the editorial was written in a light-hearted manner, to which the chief justice replied: “Humour is a most devastating weapon. There is a definite attempt to belittle and disparage Derojinsky and suggest that the prosecution is getting a very fishy witness.”
As the Meerut Conspiracy case unfolded over the next couple of years, a voluminous amount of evidence was presented before the court. This episode gets murkier with the defence statements of Benjamin Bradley, who Derojinsky had searched and arrested. The Bombay Chronicle carried a story on July 3, 1931, titled “Mystery of A Letter; Not Found But Planted There: Bradley’s Allegation” reporting that Bradley had said that a month after his arrest his landlord had suddenly “found” a letter “in one of the almirahs used by me and he of course immediately sent this letter to Inspector Derojinsky.”
Bradley further stated that Derojinsky’s “very name and origin introduce an atmosphere of suspicion.” The British Comintern activist added that Derojinksy was opposed to the present Russian government and like others, he has sought “willing allies in Imperialist countries.” Importantly, Bradley doubted the “Almirah letter” as it came to be known, suggesting that it was a forgery planted by the Russian officer.
A scholarly paper authored by John Tulloch and Jane Chapman on The Pioneer’s “outlaw editor” Wilson’s tenure in India argues that although his articles were widely seen as an error in judgment, it displays “a principled suspicion of the Indian police and a serious critique of the prosecution case…”
Drawing parallels to the infamous 1924 British controversy of the Zivoniev letter, which suggested that Labour Party members were colluding with the Soviets, Wilson had indicated in a column dated July 15 that it was “a White Russian forgery constructed in Berlin”. The Zivoniev letter indeed turned out to be a fake, in what possibly was a false-flag intelligence operation.
While the truth of this intriguing case may remain elusive, it is clear that the curious Inspector Derojinsky was a most valuable officer of the Foreign Branch of the Bombay Police during a period of great volatility and heightened surveillance as the British Empire battled numerous threats, overt and covert. Perhaps, there is more to Derojinsky’s shadowy role than the records reveal.
The author is a Mumbai-based writer and filmmaker with a special interest in Indian anti-colonial activists of the early 20th century.