Mohan Lal (1812-1877) was an ethnic Kashmiri Pandit belonging to the Zutshi Pandits of Kashmir. He was brought up in a cosmopolitan atmosphere and free thinking. Mohan Lal was a great traveller, brilliant diplomat, reputed author, the first Kashmiri to learn English and probably the first Indian to educate his daughter in England. He had graduated with first-class degree from Delhi English College. He commenced his travels at the young age of eighteen, and journeyed through the Punjab, North-West Frontier Province, Afghanistan, Turkistan, Khorasan, Iran, Baluchistan, Sind and Northern India; and later on visited Egypt, England, Scotland, Ireland, Belgium and Germany.
The exact date when Mohan Lal’s ancestors migrated to Delhi is not known; but it is certain that the family’s fortune was at its height during the time of his great grand-father Pandit Mani Ram, who enjoyed a high rank with the title of Raja at the Mughal Court in the reign of Emperor Shah Alam II (1759-1806 ). He possessed a considerable estate worth about Rs. 14,000 a year.
His father Pandit Brahm Nath Zutshi was affectionately called as Budh Singh by his Sikh mother, as he was born on Wednesday and having a good knowledge of Persian language. It is said that some enmity existed between Rai Budh Singh and the Nawab of Ferozepur, Jhirka. The Nawab seized some of his villages. The creditors sued Budh Singh and all the family lands were lost. With this predicament Budh Singh sought temporary service under Mount Stuart Elphinstone. He accompanied him in the capacity of Persian Secretary to Peshawar. He retired from this position in the close of 1809, and his financial condition soon relapsed.
Mohan Lal joined the British Secret Service in 1831 at the age of 19; he assumed the name of Mirza Quli Kashmiri as the Persian interpreter to Sir Alexander Burnes on a salary of Rs 1,000 per annum. Sir Alexander Burnes was appointed as chief spy to gather information in the countries lying between India and the Caspian by The British East India Company in 1831. His deputation was a part of great design of the British to penetrate into Afghanistan, Central Asian Sultanates and Tibet with the dual purpose of “introducing its costly products of looms as well as the preaching of the Gospel of Christ among the dense population”. The final aim was to subjugate these Muslims countries under the British Raj.
The first task of Pandit Mohan Lal, who now was known as Mirza Quli Kashmiri, was to recruit his agents to bring about defections among the Afghan resistance movement. He accomplished this difficult task with tact and intelligence. Posing himself belonging to a noble Kashmiri Muslim family, he married a girl from the royal house. Now he was free from all dangers by entering into intrigues with the people among whom he was going to spy with an assumed name of Mirza Quli Kashmiri.
Both Sir Alexander Burnes and Pandit Mohan Lal explored Central Asia in 1832-4 for procuring political and military intelligence.
It was in 1845, when Queen Victoria invited Mirza Quli Kashmiri to a royal ball in London that he declared that his birth name was Pandit Mohan Lal Kashmiri. This declaration makes this Kashmiri a fascinating personality.
After his Central Asian tour, Pandit Mohan Lal Kashmiri alias Mirza Quli Kashmiri was promoted as the Commercial Agent for the British on the Indus and Political Assistant to Sir Alexander Burnes in Kabul. Unlike Burnes, he survived the massacres of 1841 and continued to keep Calcutta informed of events in the Afghan capital from the house of a merchant where he had taken refuge. His reports contained many strong and cogent criticisms of the behavior of British officers in Kabul.
During the first Anglo-Afghan War, he was instrumental in setting up and expanding the British intelligence network in Afghanistan. He found out and handed over to the British secret letters written by the rulers of Kandahar to Merab Khan, the ruler of Baluchistan, exhorting him not to allow passage to the invading British army. He managed to obtain the services of very important functionaries for spying like Mohammad Tahir, Haji Khan Kakari, Abdul Majeed Khan, Akhundzada Ghulam and Mullah Nasooh in Kandahar.
On the second of November 1841 the residence of Sir Alexander Burnes in Kabul was stormed by a mob and both he and his brother Charles were killed. But Pandit Mohan Lal jumped out of a window and escaped but was apprehended soon thereafter. He saved his life by reciting the Kalimah as MirzaQuli Kashmiri.
Pandit Mohan Lal was taught Urdu and Persian by local Muslim Molvis in Delhi. Besides studying the Boostan and the Gulistan of Saadi Shirazi, he learnt poetic compositions of Rumi and Omar Khayam. The Molvis also taught him elementary Arabic and some verses of the Holy Quran. He joined the English class in 1829 at the Persian College at Delhi that was founded in 1792 during Mughal rule. The English class later developed into the Delhi English College. Pandit Mohan Lal studied here for three years. He was perhaps the first Kashmiri Pandit to have studied English and standing first in his class.
During his interaction with the Shia Muslims of Iran, he felt highly impressed with Persian history and culture. He now embraced Islam in a true way at the hands of a Mujtahid, who gave him a new name, Agha Hassan Jan Kashmiri. As he undertook long journeys to Arabian countries in connection with his job much against the wishes of the highly orthodox Pandit community, he was excommunicated from the Shiva cult in 1834.
In 1843, Pandit Mohan Lal Kashmiri, alias Mirza Quli Kashmiri, alias Agha Hassan Jan Kashmiri retired on a pension of Rs.1000 per annum. Now, he embarked on a long journey to Egypt, England, Scotland, Ireland, Belgium and Germany. Shah Kamran of Herat was delighted with his Persian. Mirza Abbas of Iran bestowed him, with the honour of Knight of the Persian Order of the Lion. Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk, The king of Afghanistan, granted him an Order of the Durrani Empire. Maharaja Ranjit Singh presented him with Rs. 500 and a robe of honour. The Mughal Emperor Mohammad Akbar Shah conferred upon him a Khilat with some jewels on a turban which His Majesty tied with his own hands. Agha Hasan Jan Kashmiri was well received in England and other countries in Europe.
After his European tour in 1846, Agha Hasan Jan Kashmiri published a revised work of his travels in Central Asian countries and Europe.
Agha Hassan Jan Kashmiri’s later years were spent in obscurity and financial troubles. But inspite of his high status and fame he became a highly frustrated and isolated person because of his total boycott by his own community members. Even his close Pandit blood relations disowned him. He felt extremely depressed and dejected.
Agha Hasan Jan Kashmiri died in 1877 at the age of 65, and was buried in Delhi in a garden called the Lal Bagh, near Azadpur on the Delhi-Panipat road. At the time of his death he left behind five widows, four married daughters and three sons. He kept a diary of his life from 1831 to his death in 1877. This diary has disappeared. Dr. Hari Ram Gupta says that a grandson of Pandit Mohan Lal is Agha Hyder Hasan of Hydarabad.
Mohan Lal was a typical Kashmiri Pandit. He was an adept in the art of pleasing, capable of both thought and action. In the time of political crisis he alone could display his great talents to the full. He was therefore at his best when he was required to persuade people, not ordinary persons, but leaders of men. In a word he was a born diplomat and the real field of his work was politics.