CHARLES TEGART : HERO OR VILLAIN?
(Published in The Statesman on 13 August 2014 under title "Relevance of Tegart")
I grew up on stories my father told me about the legendary Calcutta Police Commissioner Charles Tegart’s exploits as a policeman and detective. I thought about Tegart off and on in course of nearly forty years with the Indian Police Service. He had a sixth sense for unearthing plots, criminal or political A look at Tegart’s memorabilia in the Calcutta Police Museum rekindled my interest in him. If Tegart could develop a network of informers among the Bengal revolutionaries why have our police and intelligence agencies not been able to penetrate the Maoist den? As I researched Tegart’s profile I wondered if there is a message for those involved in containing the spreading footfalls of left extremism in our country.
Sir Charles Augustus Tegart (1881-1946) was born and brought up in Ireland. He competed into the Indian Police (1901-1931) and joined the Bengal cadre which then included what is now Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa.. After serving as SDPO of Patna City, in which capacity he was this author’s grand predecessor removed sixty years, he was promoted as Acting Deputy Commissioner of Calcutta Police. He became closely involved in the suppression of Bengal revolutionaries dedicated to overthrowing British rule; he was hailed as a hero by the European community but reviled as a villain by the Indians.
The 1905 partition of the province was viewed as a national insult by Bengalis who began to see armed resistance as necessary to secure Indian self-government. Bengal revolutionaries travelled to Paris to learn bomb-making techniques from Russian anarchists, (Where did the Indian Maoists learn making bombs and laying land mines?). In 1913 Tegart was appointed to the newly-established Intelligence Branch of the Bengal CID, where he was tasked to gather information, call it intelligence, about the main players of the revolutionary movement which was then raging in the province. His Irish origin gave him a better understanding of the problem. The majority of Tegarts’s Indian subordinates were Bengali bhadralok and thus from the same background as the revolutionaries themselves. For Tegart to motivate them to act against their own people is a lesson in leadership. He was fair and supportive and they in turn were fiercely loyal to him.
Tegart quite enjoyed his job and proved highly resourceful and innovative. H also made good use of the Defence of India Act which was then in force. Such was his enthusiasm that he often joined or led the raiding party acting on his own information. One of the most famous examples occurred as a sequel to the well known uprising by Bengal revolutionaries, the Chittagong Armoury Raid, in April 1930. When the Calcutta police received information that a number of raiders had taken refuge in the French enclave of Chandernagore to the north of Calcutta, Tegart organised a group of heavily-armed British police officers to capture them. He gained the permission of the French authorities to carry out an illegal attack in the middle of the night, and, after a short gun battle, most of the suspected revolutionaries were captured. He superannuated a few months later.
Hero or villain, Tegart had proverbial cat’s nine lives from the way he survived several attempts on his life. He had a dare-devil approach to fighting terror and preferred to lead from the front even in penetrating the revolutionary cells. The sight of Tegart driving through the streets of Calcutta in an open car with his faithful dog perched on the hood behind him did more than anything else to keep up the morale of his team. He devised his own techniques of interrogation which did not rule out the use of third degree. Annie Besant, of the Indian National Congress, accused him of punching suspects and threatening one with a gun; Tegart was not bothered while the government winked at the allegation. He was obviously not above the circumvention of law and procedure to achieve results; but then he did not have to bother about the Writ of Habeas Corpus, Human Rights Commission or the Civil Liberty groups.
In spite of his lack of resemblance to a Bengali Tegart did not shy away from using disguise as a tool for intelligence work; he liked to take his chance. He is believed to have once visited the Sonagachi red-light district of Calcutta in the disguise of a Bengali gentleman talking with pimps and prostitutes. At night, wearing a beard and puggaree, he could comfortably pass as a Sikh taxi-driver, and even in the daytime he could go unnoticed as a Kabuli or Pathan.
Tegart had an uncanny knack of spotting potential informers and recruiting them. But that was always on one to one basis. He would much rather kill an information than risk revealing a source. The identity of many informers was known only to Tegart himself, who met them always at night, in some lonely place previously agreed on, and rarely took notes but committed the whole of what he was told to memory. David Petrie, former Director of the Intelligence Bureau of the Government of India, and later head of the British MI5, regarded Tegart as one of the best officers at recruiting informants, cross-checking their information, and keeping the confidences of his agents. One should not dismiss all this as stories from a bygone era but look for lessons in how to infiltrate the Maoist network. If a foreigner could develop a network of informers and undercover agents why can’t we?
Like most Inidan Police officers Tegart too volunteered to fight for his county in the First World War. Refused permission to enlist Tegart remained in India, monitoring plots to import armaments from Germany, Britains’s enemy and thus a friend of the Indian revolutionaries. Here again is a lesson from Tegart for our police and intelligence agencies how to monitor and choke the channels through which the Maoists receive their supply of arsenal.
After the war was over Tegart’s services were used by the British government for odd jobs connected with intelligence and protection. In a hush- hush posting in France and England he is believed to have rendered valuable service in the counter-espionage work against the Bolsheviks. From July to November 1920, Tegart served as an intelligence officer in Ireland during the Anglo-Irish War, when he was one of several Indian police officers imported to bolster flagging British intelligence networks. He was regarded as an expert on both Irish and Bengali ‘terrorism’. In 1923 Tegart was appointed Police Commissioner of Calcutta. After his retirement in 1931 he served for six years on the Council of India, the first member of the Indian Police to be so honoured.
After the War the Ottoman Empire had been dismembered and the Jewish settlement in Palestine had been placed under British Mandate. In 1937 Tegart was offered the post of Inspector General of the Palestine Police based on his experience in India. He declined the post but accepted a mission to reorganise the police force to combat Arab terror there. Tegart recommended building a series of police forts across the country, to serve as well-defended positions and bases for suppressing revolt, and to prevent the infiltration of armed Arab guerrillas from Syria and Lebanon. The forts were also to be used as government offices in areas that were regarded as unsafe. A 2- metre high barbed-wire fence ran all along the frontier with Lebanon and Syria. Giving Tegart full credit for this initiative these were colloquially referred to as Tegart’s Forts and Tegart’s Wall. He also had some fifty fortified police stations built to preempt surprise attacks. Looks like these can be tried, with suitable modifications, in our Maoist-affected areas too.
Tegart, more than anyone else, was responsible for crushing the revolutionary terrorism in Bengal in the first two decades of the twentieth century. As a patriotic Indian one may hate him but cannot detract from his effectiveness as a police officer. Tegart had a charismatic personality but the purpose here is not to glorify him but to see if his strategy of tackling the Bengal revolutionaries could be selectively adopted by our police and intelligence agencies in dealing with the Maoist menace. Tactics will have to be modified considering the time gap of a century; our Constitution and laws do not give us the leeway which Tegart had. Of particular interest will be his building up a network of informers within the revolutionary groups, pitting bhadralok against bhadralok. Not all so-called Maoists are committed and hard core and attempt can be made, and surely must have been made, to win some of them over. For that mutual trust has to be built up over a period of time. Although the area to be covered is very large Tegaart’s Forts and Tegart’s Wall can be tried on an experimental basis.
Dr Sudhir Kumar Jha
(The author is a former Director General of Police, Bihar)