The Dragnet

Gautam Pemmaraju in Fiftytwo.

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 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.

On 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.

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