The Indian Spy in Turkey

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

Ankara in the post WW1 period was a hotbed of activity in the middle of the Turkish war of independence. The Kemalists were busy, going about the hustle and bustle of creating their new country. Istanbul was not yet won, still Ottoman in character and full of foreigners and large doses of intrigue. It had been German supported during the war, with Turkey on the Axis side, but was in dire straits after it under Allied occupation where the Italians, French and the British squabbled as the Turkish resistance movement grew and rose in momentum. Greeks and others had been deported earlier. In diplomatic circles, Ankara was still called Angora. Back in the silk route days it was just a Keravansarai or a stopover for the caravans, but for now it was the center of activity. Kemal Ataturk soon chose it as a capital for its central and safer location over Istanbul.

Into the middle of it all walked in an Indian from Moradabad, and his name was Mustafa Saghir. Different stories abound, he came as a professor, he came as a friend of the Turks, and he came as a representative of the Khilafat movement from India, with tons of money. Did he know what he was getting into? Was he sure of his destiny? Was he being manipulated? Did he see the hopelessness of the situation or was he so confident of success? Was he under duress? We still do not know, but let us study his days in Istanbul and Ankara.

This is one of the strangest cases I have come across and perhaps one that is still not solved. On May 24th 1921, this Indian was hanged to death in Ankara, indicted of spying for the British and of a purported assassination attempt on Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Well, as it was to turn out, that was a turning point, and a reason for a total lack of Turkish support for the Indian independence and Khilafat movement in India. Later as it turned out, when the Ali brothers went to Turkey, they could not even get an audience with Mustafa Kemal, perhaps owing to the aborted plans of Saghir. At that point in history, it became a major event in Turkey and the nationalists made a big fuss of it, due to their own issues with Britain. It was a period when Indians in general were not too popular in Ankara as a large number of Punjabi’s and Gurkha’s were involved in the battles at Gallipoli and part of the Allied powers.

It was a story that went into deep freeze in the British archives and is mentioned in vague terms during the Khilafat days prior to the quit India movement. As one can imagine, it occurred at a critical juncture. The British were worried about Turkey’s alignment with India. But then, as things were to turn out, just as it was during the Portuguese era in Malabar, the Turks did not provide that support, Mustafa Saghir being one of the main reasons.

But before we get to Ankara, we have to start this story in Afghanistan, then a part of the North West frontier province of British India. It was the area where the great game was being played by the British and where they were expecting Russian forays some time or the other in the near future. They were intent in keeping the jewel of their crown, India safe in their cupped hands

In 1919, after the First World War, after support provided to the British, Emir Habibullah, the secular leader who had declined to support the Ottoman Empire or entreaty to join the axis powers after a health subsidy from the British, was found murdered at Jallalbad, in a mystery where the assassin was never identified. It appears that Habibullah Khan’s murder occurred just after he demanded from the British some returns for his steadfast support.

Ironically after the murder of Siraj-ul-Millat-Wad-din, the Emir of Afghanistan, on Feb. 20, the Afghan Mission left for Moscow to establish relations between the Soviet Government.

The details of the murder of the Emir Habibullah Khan were given in a Calcutta newspaper, The Englishman. It appears that his Majesty had proceeded twenty-seven miles beyond Khalat-ul Seraj, near Jellalabad, and from Feb. 17 to 20 was camping at a little place known as Kollagosh. He slept in a large tent well-guarded by soldiers drawn from a number of regiments, and within were just his Majesty in one section, while in the other were four or five page boys, who took it in turn to watch. At about 3 in the morning a pistol shot was heard, and on the Emir's brother and eldest son rushing into the tent they found Habibullah Khan lying dead in his bed, shot through the ear, the bullet having passed out of the side of his head.

Amanullah Khan had other ambitions. At the time of the assassination, the Emir's son, Amanullah Khan, was the governor of Kabul and was in control of the army and the treasury and was suspected of having organized his father's death. The Russian secret service identified the killer in their records, but without any proof, to be an Indian named Mustafa Saghir. But Amanullah Khan had already decided the killer was one Shah Ali Reza and had him executed. As is stated by Iraj Bashiri in his overview of Afghanistan, the multiplicity of motives, chief among them hired British assassins, resulted in many assumptions and a number of arrests and executions. The real motive and the true identity of the killer, however, remained a mystery. But I will get to this story and the importance of Afghanistan in the great geopolitical games, in more details some other day when explaining the ‘Great Game’. But the Afghans suspected a British hand behind this Habibullah murder.

Amanullah seized power and imprisoned relatives with competing claims to the succession, but he won the allegiance of most of the tribal leaders. On May 3, 1919, he led a surprise attack against the British on Afghanistan's frontier with India -- while the British were under pressure from unrest in India and suffering from the costs of the Great War. In May 1921 Afghanistan and the Soviet Union signed a Treaty of Friendship, and in 1921 an armistice between Afghanistan and Britain was agreed to. Things as you saw did not quite turn out the way the British would have liked. Amanullah’s idea was to become Afghanistan’s Kemal Ataturk and bring about a number of modern reforms such as unveiling women, forcing Afghans to wear western style clothing etc. But all this resulted in civil war in the area and soon he abdicated and fled to India.

Much later, in 1922, it was discovered in Turkey that a man named Mustafa Saghir was involved in a plot to assassinate Ataturk Mustafa Kamal. This man confessed his involvement in the murder of Amir Habibullah Khan during the investigations carried out in Turkey (quoted from A Word from Antiquity by Fazal Ur Raheem).

The Turkish wars of independence had started to ratchet up to a culmination and the destiny of Mustafa Kemal was on the rise. As Sanderson Beck explains,

The British had promised the Muslims of India that Turkey and the Caliphate would be given sympathetic treatment after the war; but their failure to do so led to the All-India Khilafat Conference at Delhi in November 1919. Muslim clerics in India considered the Sultan of Turkey the Khalif (Caliph) or spiritual head of Islam, and they were concerned that he would lose sovereignty over their holy places of Mecca and Medina. The peace terms for Turkey were announced on May 15, 1920, and two days later Gandhi urged the Muslims to adopt non-cooperation. The Khilafat Committee met at Allahabad in June and planned four stages of non-cooperation as resigning titles and honors, resigning from the civil service, resigning from the police and army, and refusing to pay taxes. Gandhi attended the Khilafat Conference in Sind in July, and they decided to call upon millions of Hindus and Muslims to begin the non-cooperation campaign on August 1. In addition to the Khilafat issue, Gandhi and Congress added reparations for the Punjab and the independence of India. That summer about 30,000 Muslims sold their property and emigrated to Afghanistan (Some also tried to go to Turkey). They were not well received, and the Afghanistan government closed the border. Most of the impoverished migrants went back to India.

Muhammad and Shaukat Ali supported an Afghan invasion into India and got arrested for their efforts, but were released after Gandhiji’s intervention. The Khilafat movement was launched in 1921 and the Ali brothers were again arrested. This was the situation in India and Afghanistan at that time while in 1921; Mustafa Kemal had secured most of Turkey’s borders and drawn the constitution, though Istanbul was still occupied by the Allies.

Mustafa Saghir Beg is a mystery. Was he an Afghan? Was he an Indian? Was that his real name? Nobody is too sure, but the information we can dig out is that he was apparently from Moradabad, UP and that his father’s name was Zakariyah. It is said that he worked for the British consulate in Iran and later moved to work under Col Nelson in Istanbul. It is also stated that he could speak in addition to Indian languages, English, German, French and Turkish. But how did he stray into this intrigue? What was his relationship with the British? Were his strings pulled by Lord Curzon? Even after all these days and the release of various papers into the public domain under the national archives, little has been stated about this Indian British national. Let us take a look at what happened and the different perspectives.

Nur Bilge Kriss in her book about Istanbul under allied occupation is clear that Saghir is a British intelligence agent who infiltrated the Karakol committee which resulted in a number of them getting arrested. The objective of the Karakol (Sentinel) Association was as you can imagine, thwarting Allied demands through passive and active resistance. Later he escaped to Greece pretending he was fleeing British surveillance, and then to Bulgaria. From there he sailed to the black sea area and moved to Ankara, with Karakol support. He arrived in Ankara with the statement that he represented the Khilafat movement in India and that he wanted to transfer 2.5 million pounds of donations collected from Muslims in India.

Now we get to MAA Khan’s narrative. Ankara was certainly a place where many a plot was hatched in those days. At that time, there was a printing press that published Urdu papers (for the Turkish war ministry) edited by a man named Abbas who had deserted the English army in Iraq, refusing to fight Turks. This paper was later sent to India, and of course the British were not too happy with that. When Saghir reached Ankara, he stayed with Abbas.

That is one explanation, but Turkish journalist Sapolya has another which is that Saghir was actually a resident of Istanbul and was well acquainted with Colak Sami Pasha a member of the Turkish Mim MIm Grubu or National defense organization with the secret name Nuh. The British getting wind of it arrested him and sent him to Igue Island where he was brainwashed and trained as a spy and reinserted into Ankara with a mission. That sounds pretty difficult to believe. So was Saghir under duress? Nevertheless, carrying on with this story version, Sagir sailed into the port of Inebolu on the ship ‘Bahri jedid’ and became a house guest of Dilzade Vehbi bey and Hikmet bey where he announced that he represented the Muslims of India and wanted to bring across large sums of money from India for the Turkish freedom movement. This again is difficult to understand for the money even if sent would have been for the support of a Caliphate, not the Turkish freedom movement.

Saghir then went to Ankara and stayed at the Hurriyet hotel (the earlier version had it that he stayed with Abbas. In fact other versions mention him staying elsewhere). But Turkish intelligence agencies were tracking him and it appears that the Russians were too.

Yet another story attributed to Lt Gen Ekram Baydar states that Saghir was a professor of Turkish at the Islamic department of London University and visited Istanbul to transfer the Indian contributions. Here he started the Turko-Indian Islamic society and then went to Ankara, meeting Mustafa Kemal as well personally and presented him the Khilafat flag. Upon asking Kemal bey how he could transfer 3 million gold coins for their support, Kemal bey suggested he discuss the modalities with the Interior minister Adnan Adiver. They had a number of meetings and it transpired as there was no telegraph link between India and Turkey, handwritten letters had to be couriered. Saghir proposed that his letters be delivered by Adnan bey to a certain Remiz bey in the Turko-Indian society in Istanbul. Adnana bey asked Aziz Khuda to examine these letters and he checked them with ammonia, found them to have elaborate hidden messages written in phenolphthalein based invisible ink.

In the earlier story, Abbas (as told to Jaffer Hassan Aybak) discovered Saghir sitting late at night and writing letters which were given to Abbas to dispatch to Istanbul. Abbas opened one of the letters out of curiosity and found just two lines written in a sheaf of blank papers addressed to one Gen Harrington. This lead to Saghir’s arrest on March 21st, 1921. Many weeks later an announcement of the investigating agency stated that they had thwarted a plot to assassinate Kemal Ataturk by Saghir with poison as the method. The letters also provided details of a pickup by a British plane after the assassination was completed. In another account the name Abbas is substituted by Mehmet Akif.

The trial of Mustafa Saghir started on May 1st and continued until May 23rd. When Saghir confirmed that he was deputed by the British, the British apparently published an account in the Times that he was a mentally unbalanced person visiting Turkey as their sympathizer. However the British ambassador sent a letter demanding his release and threatened serious consequences if Turkey did not. They even had the letter signed by the Agha khan, the spiritual head of Indian Muslims as he was considered the Indian Muslim league representative since he had successfully negotiated a previous release of British captives, with the Turks.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk
But the documents that the Turks got from Saghir were too much of an implication of his motives, as they related to where Kemal lived, what speed his car travelled at, what his relations were with the Russians, what the parliament leanings were and so on. These coupled with Saghir’s confession were to clinch the verdict of death by hanging and he was hanged publically in front of a big crowd on 24th May 1921, at 430AM. It was the Empire Day in Britain.

Clair Price in her article about Kemal Ataturk explains the locale (Current History July 1922) - The Grand National Assembly meets at 1:30 o'clock every afternoon, except Friday, in the gray granite building at the lower end of the Ankara town, which was once the local headquarters of the Committee of Union and Progress. The crescent and star now flies over the building, night and day, its grounds are fenced with trenches, and back of a restaurant, just off its grounds, is a ten-foot upright, with a small pulley attached to the end of its cross-beam. The trenches have never been used. The ten foot upright, with the cross-beam and pulley, has been used on numerous occasions, notably on British Empire Day, in 1921, when Mustapha Saghir, the British Indian spy, was hanged there.

The British perhaps wanted to manipulate the situation and declare war on Turkey, but it did not quite work out that way. Mass support was not received from the khilafat supporters against Kemal bey and on top of it, Moulana Azad mentioned that Saghir was one of those unfortunate Mohamedans who sold his conscience and religion for some little worldly benefit…Did it mean that momentary compensation was provided to Saghir? It is not known for sure though the trail mentioned large amounts of 20 or 50 thousand pounds.

But who was Mustafa Saghir? We get only a hint from Halide Edip that he had another name. Halide Edip Adivar of Istanbul, was a social activist and witness to all those difficult days of Turkish independence in her book The Turkish Ordeal states - Lieutenant-Colonel Kemaleddine Sami, before he left us that evening, told me that he had traveled with an Indian called Mustafa Saghir, a representative of the caliphate’s committee, and that the man wanted to come and visit me. He never did come, and as he had a tragic end I am glad that he didn’t. Before he had been in Angora a month he was suspected of being a spy. The suspicion was well founded, and during the famous trial in Angora he confessed that he was an important British spy who had done special work in Germany during the Great War, and that he had come to Angora for the same purpose. Before he died, however, he bravely admitted that his loyalty was to the British and that he did not mind dying for it. But he was a Moslem, and his wife and family didn’t know that he was a spy and that Mustafa Saghir was only an assumed name. He was evidently very fond of his little daughter, and he asked the Turkish authorities not to publish his real name. He knew that his family would be hurt and ashamed beyond words if they knew that he had tried to betray a Moslem race in its struggle for existence. His wish was respected by the Turkish authorities as a dying wish.

Bulent Gokay in his book Soviet eastern Policy explains also that during the trial Saghir was very clear in providing names of his British minders, that a special committee put together the assassination plan for Kemal Ataturk, though the authorities never explained how they got the clinching evidence or what it actually contained. He also explains that Saghir was a handsome young man who came to Istanbul in 1921 living at the Korker hotel in Tepebasi, near the English palace in Istanbul. After his association with anti-imperialist Turks, the British arrested him and he was put in jail for 17 days. After he was released, his friends helped move him to Ankara and he lived then in the Hurriyet hotel. During the next two weeks he me a lot of prominent people, including Mustafa Kemal, without any issues. Sudden was his arrest and then started a two week interrogation where he admitted he was a British spy. He did leave a letter in which he confirmed what is stated by Halide Adip in the previous para, but actually asked that the British take care of his little brother and insisting that he had not provided any sensitive information to the Turkish authorities.

Frank Rattigan of the British High Commission later stated that he was indeed a British spy and so his execution was not to be considered a monstrosity. But there are still the signs of a bigger conspiracy, for the Russians were first to tip the Ankara government of Saghir as soon as he landed in Istanbul. What was the real story of the GRU involvement? We do not know much other than the fact that the British buried the case soon after and that the GRU got deeply entrenched in Turkey following the incident.

An Indian article mentions that the real Mustafa Saghir was a Kanungo (Supervising Tapedar) from somewhere in North India, perhaps Moradabad and so it is difficult to figure out how he got educated in Oxford or Cambridge in languages, rising to be a professor etc.. So it does look like the Saghir name was an alias.

Nevertheless, after this incident, and for reasons different, the Khilafat people got no further support from Turkey. The Sultan of Turkey fled from Istanbul in November 1922, and his successor Mustapha Kemal abolished the Khilafat (Note however that the Ottoman Sultanate and all aristocratic titles were abolished only later, on October 30, 1922). Ataturk was more interested in the future of Independent Turkey, not creating a larger caliphate or its successor. The non-cooperation of the Khilafat movement slowly subsided but leaving a bloody rebellion in Malabar

Some additional detail can be obtained from some meeting notes of Yusuf Kemal and the American consul.1315 Date: August 9, 1921

Lieutenant Robert S. Dunn, U.S.N., in a recent visit to Angora had an interview with Youssouf Kemal Bey, Mustapha Kemal's Minister for Foreign Affairs, who during the war was Under Minister of Justice at Constantinople. He was not an extremist of the Committee of Union and Progress.

Youssouf Kemal Bey dwelt longest on the affair of Mustapha Saghir, the one subject he and all Turkish officials like to discuss and gloat over, since it hangs something "on" British political methods and confirms all their ideas about British repute for intrigue in the Near East. He said that a blue book with photographs and copies of letters put in evidence at the trial and the whole trial proceedings was being produced in an English text. Two points were put before Youssouf:

1) Are there any proofs beside his confession that Saghir was sent to Angora to negotiate the preliminaries for the assassination of Mustapha Kemal Pasha as his people charged?

2) Whether the Turks were justified or not in shooting him?

In regard to (1), his main proof lay in the confession which he admitted was made solely to save life and was repudiated at his execution. Youssouf declared that the confession included that not only had Mustapha Saghir received in Constantinople instructions to inquire how Mustapha Kemal's personal servants and cook were engaged, who took care of his tableware (with a view to poisoning him supposedly), but that he had actually made these inquiries in Angora and witnesses had testified to this. Also that he had received from and sent to the Indian Independence Agent in Constantinople letters that showed the same thing and which will be produced in the brochure mentioned. Youssouf would not admit that the execution was a diplomatic error. He seemed very sure that Saghir was a practiced assassin because he had included the Afghan Emir business in his confession.

What could have been a possible ulterior motive? Keal Oke in his book The Turkish war of independence explains – The second British aim was to destroy the trust and confidence of Ankara in the loyalty and friendship of the Indian Muslims. For this purpose, the British arranged the "Mustafa Sagir Incident……. First, the British planned the Saghir spy affair; then they helped the Turks to catch him; and finally, the British turned round to accuse the Turkish nationalists of committing a murder of an Indian Muslim…

The British have but little in their published records (Courtesy – National archives) - Execution of a British Indian.-Qn 29th May Mr. Rattigan reported [No. 379] that the Angora telegraph agency had announced that Mustafa Saghir, a British Indian, had been sentenced to death about three days before on a charge of espionage, and that sentence had been immediately carried out. Sir H. Rumbold had telegraphed to Bekir Sami on 12th May claiming the surrender of this man under the exchange agreement.

Whatever said and done, this is still a story with much intrigue, a story without answers.

Who is Mustafa Sagir? If he was well trained since the Habibullah incident, why did he slip up in Turkey? Was it really a plan to kill Ataturk or just a ruse? Was it simply a destabilization attempt by the British? Or was it a GRU plot to mess up with the British? Considering that the telegraph lines were not open with India and the fact that Saghir was not known to anybody in India, how could the British have used the news fallout? Was such a well-educated spy so naive? Why were the evidence never brought out to the Public by the Turks? Was it a great propaganda incident for the Turks? Why did the British eventually admit that Saghir was a spy? Why is it that no information is available about this case in the archives? Even the MI5 records of much later are available. Why was the Agha Khan’s offices used for negotiation? One may never get the right answers, or probably the answer is in front of us and between all the lines…

A curious heading can be found in a later newspaper…The Milwaukee Journal June 1947.
Who could this new Mustafa Sagir be?


Istanbul Under Allied Occupation, 1918-1923 - Bilge Criss
The Turkish ordeal – Halide Elip Adiver
Soviet Eastern Policy and Turkey, 1920-1991- Bulent Gokay
Pan-Islam in British Indian Politics: A Study of the Khilafat Movement, 1918 .M. Naeem Qureshi
Saghir’s Court ruling 
Mustafa Sagir – A British Indian Spy in Turkey –M Ali Asgar Khan