When the colonial authorities in India sent Hariharnath Thulal Atal to teach at the prestigious Tokyo School of Foreign Languages in 1916, they had no reason to suspect his loyalty to the Crown. Within a year, things changed. A list was prepared of “Indian Seditionists” who were under surveillance by the British Embassy in Tokyo and its consulate in Yokohama and on it was the Urdu teacher.

Atal was being tracked by two British agents, referred to as P and Q, who were tasked with keeping an eye on potential Indian seditionists in Japan. “Agent Q expresses himself as highly dissatisfied with the attitude adopted by the lecturer in Hindustani at the Tokio School of Foreign Languages, Hariharnath Atal, towards the revolutionaries and their propaganda in this country,” CJ Davidson, the British Consul General in Yokohama, wrote to the British government in a letter dated January 9, 1917. “Not only does he continuously associate with persons such as Kesho Ram and Bakshi, but the views he expresses are distinctly adverse to the British Government, nor does he make any attempt to combat the violent and anarchical views expressed by those men in his presence.”

The Urdu teacher was not the main target of British surveillance. Agents P and Q’s primary task was to track the activities of suspected Ghadar revolutionaries who wanted to liberate India from British rule.

Indian revolutionaries

Founded in 1913 in Oregon in northwestern United States by expatriate Indians, the Ghadar Movement aimed to overthrow the British through violent means. At first its activity was mostly limited to North America, but over time the movement spread to other parts of the world, including to Japan, which was seen as an ideal base from which men and material could be moved to places like Calcutta.

The British suspected a variety of men in Japan of being Ghadar members. Correspondence between British diplomats in Japan and London in 1917 identified Tarak Nath Das, Kureshi, Bakshi, John Cooray and Raj Rattnam as a few of the main suspects involved in revolutionary activity.

In a secret letter to British diplomats, Agent P shared his assessment of these revolutionaries, expressing the greatest amount of concern about Bakshi. Calling him “very cunning” and a “bitter hater of the British government”, P wrote, “He is a devoted disciple of Ghadr and called the Ghadr movement ‘God to liberate India.’” In the eyes of the agent, Bakshi wasn’t just a threat to the British: “I think his views are dangerous to Japan also as he incites young men to kill wealthy men in order to obtain their wealth and distribute it to the poor.”

Agent P assessed Kureshi to be an “influential” man who supplied arms to Indians who unsuccessfully attempted to migrate to Canada on the Komagata Maru ship. “Kureshi when introducing his son to me remarked that he wished him to die for India,” the agent wrote.

Cooray, referred to as a “Cinghalese” by the British, hailed from Ceylon and was in Japan long enough to become a fluent Japanese speaker. He served as an interpreter between Indian revolutionaries and the Japanese who were sympathetic towards India’s freedom struggle.

Tarak Nath Das had lived in Japan in 1905, before moving to North America. The revolutionary and intellectual returned to the East Asian nation in 1916 and British diplomats began tracking him. In a letter to London, Davidson, the consul general in Yokohama, said Agent P believed Das was being protected by the Japanese government. Das’s book Is Japan a Menace to Asia? made a case for the country to help liberate colonised nations in Asia and British diplomats were worried that the book would create greater support in Japan for Indian independence.

A fascinating personality among the revolutionaries was Raj Rattnam, who hailed from the princely state of Cochin and lived with Cooray. Rattnam had been away from India for 10 years, mostly in Singapore, where he came across compatriots eager to fight for Indian independence. “While relating the story of the mutiny at Singapore, he remarked that the good work of killing Europeans could not be done completely owing to the assistance rendered by the Japanese soldiers,” Agent P wrote.

Suspicious ally

The correspondence between British diplomats in 1917 suggests that they were afraid of Ghadar members getting covert support from the Japanese government. There was deep suspicion among these diplomats towards Tokyo, even though Japan was officially considering an ally and the Japanese had sided with Britain, France and Russia in the First World War. By this time, Japan had emerged as the foremost economic and military power in Asia and had earned the respect of European nations after defeating the Russian Empire in the 1904-’05 War.

The ultranationalist and powerful Amur River Society, better known as the Black Dragon Society, which played a key role in Japan’s victory over Russia, backed the Indian revolutionaries. Toyama Mitsuru, a pan-Asianist who founded the society, remained in close contact with the Indian revolutionaries in Japan.

Agent P, who was of Indian origin, managed to meet Toyama at his home. The house had a large oil painting of a Toyama disciple who was implicated in the 1899 assassination bid on Japanese Foreign Minister Okuma Shigenobu.

“He remarked that the evils of a bad government could be removed, only by a revolution and he expected every young man in India to be a revolutionary,” Agent P wrote. “On being asked as to how self-government could be obtained, he said that first India should decide once for all that she must be free and then act as men should act; the barbarians could not remain long.”

Toyama had enough influence over the Japanese government to block the deportation of Indians to India, much to Britain’s chagrin. In a note to British diplomats in April 1917, Agent P reported, “With the exception of a few ministers, all the authorities in Japan have full sympathy with the Indian Revolutionaries.”

The sympathy was growing. There were several believers in Pan-Asianism who called on Japan to reconsider its alliance with Britain. In 1917, Soong Tsung Fong, professor of modern languages and literature at St. John’s University, Shanghai, wrote an article in which he called Japan’s alliance with Britain its “greatest mistake”. The article, preserved by the British Embassy in Tokyo, quotes Rabindranath Tagore from a 1916 speech in Japan: “The European nations, for all their differences, are one in their fundamental ideas and outlook. They are like a single country rather than a continent in their attitude towards the non-European. If the Mongolians threaten to take a piece of Europe’s territory, all European nations would make common cause to resist them.”

Safe refuge

One of Britain’s key Indian targets in Japan was Rash Behari Bose, a key organiser of the 1915 Ghadar Conspiracy, which aimed to stir a pan-India mutiny in the Indian Army to end British rule. The mutiny failed, but Bose managed to escape to Japan, where he had the protection of the Black Dragon Society.

The British tried hard to get Bose, who assumed the alias PN Thakur, back to India – all in vain. Notes sent to London in 1917 suggest that British spies and diplomats monitored almost every move of Bose. Davidson too seems to refer to Bose in a 1917 letter as he writes about an Indian living in a house in Azabu, Tokyo.

“The Indian has living with him three Japanese women, one of whom appears to be his concubine, another who might be her sister, and the third, who has the appearance of a servant girl,” Davidson wrote. “One of these women is named Tamura Masa and the house is rented in her name. The substation for Masami for Masa on the nameplate is evidently done with the objective of giving the impression that a man, not a woman, is the owner of the house.” The house was in a secluded location, and no tradesmen were allowed in. The women of the house would do all the shopping and take care of the outside chores, Davidson wrote.

Once the Ghadar Conspiracy failed and its members were put on trial, Bose decided to stay on in Japan and founded the Indian Independence League. He was also a key member of the Indian National Army. Meanwhile, in India, the winds were shifting. After the end of the First World War, Mahatma Gandhi was able to mobilise the masses in a nonviolent movement for freedom, and while the country continued to have revolutionaries, Gandhian methods prevailed in the independence struggle.

Documents from 1917 suggest that the British wanted to send Hariharnath Thulal Atal back to India. In a March 1917 letter to the Viceroy of India Frederic Thesiger, the British Ambassador to Japan Conyngham Greene wrote, “During his visits to the embassy, Atal professes his loyalty and his desire to exercise a good influence on his fellow countrymen here and prevent them from drifting into revolutionary courses.” He added that Atal, who never supplied any information about other Indians or their activities, had suggested that Agent P was a revolutionary.

“In spite however of his strong declarations to P, he may, as Mr. Davidson says, be merely a weak man who has been influenced by others and the attitude he adopts towards P may merely be assumed to conciliate P, whom he imagines to be a revolutionary,” the letter said.

Spies informed the British Embassy that Atal was planning to try and secure Japanese citizenship, something that the Black Dragon Society could have helped with. An entry on a genealogical networking website says he killed himself in Tokyo on June 14, 1921. His life, like that of Agent P, remains a mystery.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.