India won freedom due to the blood and tears shed by hundreds of nameless revolutionaries and their families who braved British barbarity and faced death, deportation, imprisonment and forfeiture of property. Freedom was certainly not won by pleas, prayers and petitions. It was won substantially by violent and armed struggle by revolutionaries, a process that culminated in the Naval uprising of 1946. The struggle for freedom was carried out not only in India, but also abroad, by people such as Shyamji Krishnavarma, Veer Savarkar, Madam Bhikaji Cama, Barrister Sardar Singh Rana, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, Sardar Ajit Singh, Lala Hardayal, Rasbehari Bose, Raja Mahendra Pratap and Champakraman Pillay. In this illustrious list of fiery patriots, Madan Lal Dhingra stands out for his sheer courage and supreme sacrifice. Madan Lal Dhingra went to the gallows on August 17, 1909. The centenary of his martyrdom is an occasion for us to remember his immortal saga.
Madan Lal Dhingra was born on September 18, 1883 in Amritsar. His father was an eye specialist and Civil Surgeon of Amritsar. Some say he was the first Indian doctor to reach that eminent position. Madan Lal was the sixth of his seven sons. Two of Madan Lal’s brothers were doctors, one was an MRCP (1895); two other brothers were barristers. Madan Lal was married and had a son. If he had desired, he could have lived a life of luxury. But he chose to be a martyr for India’s freedom struggle. Madan Lal Dhingra studied for Diploma in Civil Engineering at University College, London from 1906-09 (it is interesting to note that Dadabhai Naoroji was Professor of Gujarati in this college from 1856 to 1866. Ravindranath Tagore studied English literature at the same college during 1878-1880.
India House and contact with Savarkar
In 1905, Shyamji Krishna Varma purchased a house on 65, Cromwell Avenue, London to be used as the students’ hostel. This was inaugurated as India House by Henry Myers Hyndman, President of the Social Democratic Federation and a votary of India’s freedom on July 1, 1905. This India House is not to be confused with the present office of the Indian High Commission also called India House, which was built in the late 1920s and inaugurated by King George V and Queen Mary on July 8, 1930. Dadabhai Naoroji, Lala Lajpat Rai, Madame Cama, Harry Quelch of the Justice paper and Mr. Sweeny of the Positivist Review were present at the ceremony. In 1905, Lokmanya Tilak’s Kesari carried an editorial about Shyamji’s activities in London including his starting of the students’ hostel, India House. In Pune, Savarkar read about Shyamji’s activities in Tilak’s Kesari. He also came across an issue of Shyamji’s monthly Indian Sociologist, which contained information about scholarships being offered to Indian students by Shyamji. In March 1906, Savarkar applied for the Shivaji scholarship. Tilak gave him a reference and also assured that Savarkar had no intention of seeking government employment. Accordingly, Savarkar arrived in London on June 15, 1906. Savarkar went to London ostensibly to study law. But he had other ideas in mind. He wanted to observe at first hand, the strength of the British people which enabled them to rule over India and also to note their weaknesses and to think of ways of using them to achieve India’s freedom. Savarkar also wanted to establish contact with Indian students who came from all parts of India and to enlist them in India’s freedom struggle. Such meetings were easier in London than in India. In 1907 there were some 700 Indian students in Great Britain, of whom 380 were in London alone. Savarkar also wanted to establish contacts with revolutionaries of other countries like Russia, China, Ireland, Turkey, Egypt and Iran. He wanted to learn the art of making bombs from them, and put that knowledge and friendship into use for concerted attempts to overthrow the British rule. He also wanted to smuggle pistols and ammunition into India.
The speed of Savarkar’s activities in London was breathtaking. India House was constantly in the news from 1906 to 1910. Savarkar started regular Sunday meetings to discuss various topics related to India’s future. It soon became popular among Indian students. In an interview given to Campbell Green of Sunday Chronicle in March 1909, Savarkar said, “India House is an inexpensive hostel. But for admission as a lodger, one does not need to have any specific political opinion. All that he has to do is to pay one pound (per week) for board and lodge. Political discussions do take place. Persons like yourselves and those who say that the British Raj is a divine dispensation also come here. Discussions take place. Those who can convince others by means of truth and logic win the day.” Among those who attended India House were Bhai Parmananda, Lala Hardayal (founder of the Ghadar Party), Virendranath Chattopadhyaya (revolutionary and brother of Sarjoini Naidu), Senapati Bapat, Hemachandra Das (who was Transported to Andamans), MPT Acharya, VVS Aiyar, Gyan Chand Varma (secretary of Abhinav Bharat), Dadabhai Naoroji, Lala Lajpat Rai, Bipin Chandra Pal, Madame Cama, Sardar Singh Rana, Dadasaheb Karandikar and Khaparde (both Tilak’s lawyers), Ravi Shankar Shukla (later Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh), Saiyyad Haider Raza, Asaf Ali, Shapurjee Saklatwala (nephew of Dadabhai Naoroji and founder of the Communist Party of Britain). Interestingly, the young Barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi met Savarkar at India House. Revolutionaries from other countries such as Egypt, Ireland, Russia, China and Turkey used to attend. One such Russian revolutionary who attended these meetings was Lenin.
In one of the Sunday meetings at India House, Savarkar was delivering an impassioned speech on India’s freedom. Madan Lal and his friends were creating a ruckus in the adjacent room. The din forced Savarkar to interrupt his speech and peep into the adjacent room. There he saw Madan Lal and his friends enjoying themselves. “What’s the matter, Madan? You talk of action and bravery and avoid coming to our weekly meetings. Is this the bravery you keep talking about?” reprimanded Savarkar. The words shamed Dhingra. He quietly left India House and did not show his face to Savarkar for several days thereafter. When he mustered courage to enter India House again, it was to find out if Savarkar was still annoyed with him. When the two met, Savarkar behaved as if nothing had happened between them. He spoke with the same affection. Emboldened, Dhingra asked, “Has the time for martyrdom come?” Savarkar replied, “If a martyr has made up his mind and is ready, it is generally understood that the time for martyrdom has come.”
Sir Curzon Wylie (October 5, 1848—July 1, 1909)
Dhingra had now made up his mind. In July 1908, he deliberately joined the National Indian Association. This Association was doing its best to discourage Indian students from the militant path. Important British dignitaries attended their functions. Dhingra denounced Savarkar and other revolutionaries in the company of appropriate persons. He soon secured the trust of Miss Emma Josephine Beck, the secretary of the National Indian Association, and came to know the timings of visits of important English guests attending various functions. Eventually the opportunity came and Dhingra took full advantage of it. Having decided on his mission, Dhingra left India House to show that he disagreed with Savarkar. He took lodgings with Mrs Harris at 108 Ledbury Road, London W11 after Easter of 1909.
Curzon Wyllie was a very ranking officer. Sir Curzon Wylie had entered the British Army in 1866 and the Indian Political Department in 1879. He had earned distinction in the Afghan War of 1879-80, in Oudh, in Nepal, in Central India and above all in Rajputana where he rose to the highest rank in the Service. In 1901 he was chosen to be political aide-de-camp to the Secretary of State for India. He was also the head of the Secret Police, a fact not mentioned in contemporary British newspapers. He was trying to get information about Savarkar and the revolutionaries. They, in turn, tried to find about the operations of the British Secret Police. Wyllie planted an informer in India House. His name was Kirtikar and he pretended to be a student of dentistry. Savarkar found out who Kirtikar really was. When exposed and threatened with life, Kirtikar gave all the information he had about the police operations to Savarkar.
Savarkar joined Grays Inn on June 26, 1906. After completion of his studies, he should have been called to the Bar on May 5, 1909. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Harnam Singh passed final examination. Sir Curzon Wyllie was trying to ensure that Savarkar and Harnam Singh were not called to the Bar. As a result, Harnam Singh was informed that “no further proceedings will be taken against him but he will be admonished by the Treasurer in the presence of the Bench.” Savarkar was to be called to answer three charges :-
That by assisting in the circulation of pamphlets and by taking part in seditious meetings, he incited the Nation of India to revolt.
That he advocated assassination
That he expressed approval of assassination.
Savarkar was allowed time till May 22, in which to frame his reply. The reply was considered on the May 26, by the Benchers. The trial was held in camera. Therefore, evidence for prosecution which would not have been admitted in an open court was permitted. New charges were being added even when the trial was half way through. Two official detectives who had shadowed Savarkar for two years were testified. Their reports were submitted. Letters by Savarkar which were in the possession of Government of India and those used in the Nasik Conspiracy trial of Babarao Savarkar were translated and given to Grays Inn. Savarkar was cross-examined by some of the eminent Barristers on June 9. Just three weeks later i.e. on July 1, 1909 Sir Wyllie himself was shot dead by Dhingra.
On June 8, 1909, Babarao (Ganesh) Savarkar, elder brother of Veer Savarkar, was sentenced to Transportation for Life. All his earthly possessions, including saucepans and broom, were confiscated. His wife Yesu was left homeless, penniless and destitute. (She sought refuge in local crematorium for some time. She never saw her husband again and died childless in 1918). The prosecution could only prove that he had published four historical poems, which were construed as seditious. Three days later, Viceroy Lord Minto sent a telegram to the Secretary of State for India, “Ganesh Damodar Savarkar convicted under section 121 and 124A of the India Penal Code and sentenced to transportation for life and forfeiture of property.”
The deportation of Babarao Savarkar enraged the revolutionaries in London. As a high officer in charge of India, Sir Curzon Wylie could not escape their wrath. His days were numbered.
Preparing for the assassination
Dhingra was personally acquainted with Curzon Wyllie. Wyllie had received a letter from Kundan Lal Dhingra (Madan Lal’s eldest brother). On April 13, 1909, Wyllie wrote to Madan Lal suggesting that he should meet Wyllie. Dhingra pretended that he wanted to dicuss contents of that letter. On July 1, 1909, several prominent Britishers (including Curzon Wylie) and Indians were to attend a meeting of the National Indian Association at Jehangir Hall in the first floor of the Imperial Institute. The reception was given in the name of Lady Lyall, wife of Sir Alfred Lyall. Madanlal was an Associate Member of the Association. That is how he could approach Wyllie.
Savarkar discussed his plans with his elder brother. Savarkar asked Gyan Chand Varma “not to leave London and to attend the function at Imperial Institute.” On July 29, 1909, Dhingra finalised his plans. He met Savarkar on that evening in Bipin Chandra Pal’s house. Niranjan Pal was present at that meeting. Dhingra seemed to be in good spirit. Savarkar and Dhingra spoke to each other with great affection. Savarkar apprised Dhingra of the statement he was to make after assassinating Curzon Wylie. Niranjan Pal typed the statement and Savarkar asked Dhingra to memorise it. Savarkar then gifted Dhingra with a Belgian-make Broning pistol and took his leave with great affection. Dhingra was overcome with emotion. Savarkar said, “Do not show me your face again if you fail this time.” Dhingra reassured him that this would not happen. The two friends departed.
(To be continued)