– Ratnakar Sadasyula
As the British cracked down, more ruthlessly on the revolutionaries in India and England, the anger against their atrocities grew more. It kept growing till the boiling point had been reached, and the time was ripe for an outbreak. All it needed was one single spark to light the flame. And that spark came in the form of a strapping young land from Punjab, Madan Lal Dhingra. Hailing from Amritsar, the sixth born of the city’s Civil Surgeon, two of his brothers were doctors, while two other were barristers. Coming from a well to do and influential family, Dhingra, could have settled into a life of luxury and comfort. Yet he was restless, driven by the call for Swadeshi, right from his student days at the Government College, Lahore in 1904. He led the student protest there against having to forcibly wear a blazer made of imported cloth, which led to his expulsion in turn. Having extensively studied about poverty and famines in India, he felt that only Swaraj( Self Government) was the solution. For some time, he worked as a clerk at a Tanga service in Kalka, Shimla, where his attempts to organize an union came to nought. It was then on the advice of his brother, he went to London, for studying the Diploma Course in Civil Engineering at University College between 1906-09. A very illustrious institution of learning where Dadabhai Naoroji was Professor of Gujarati and Ravindranath Tagore studied English Literature.
Like most other Indian students in England, he was a regular to the India House founded by Shyamji Krishna Verma. His initial days, were spent in frolic and fun, and his good looks ensured, he was in the company of women mostly. The turning point came, at a meeting in India House that was addressed by Savarkar. Apparently Dhingra along with his friends, was making a noise in the adjacent room, that forced Savarkar to intervene.
“What is the matter? You only talk of action and bravery, avoid coming to our weekly meetings. Is this your bravery”
The rebuke by Savarkar had it’s desired effect, and for quite some time Dhingra was not seen around India House. Too ashamed to show his face, and fearful of facing Savarkar’s wrath, he kept away. Until one day, summoning all the courage, he came face to face with Savarkar again at India House. Savarkar however had moved on from the past incident, and spoke normally with Dhingra. A much assured Dhingra asked him “Has the time for martyrdom come?”. To which Savarkar replied
“If a martyr has made up his mind and is ready, it is generally understood that the time for martyrdom has come.”
Having made up his mind, Dhingra now joined the National Indian Association, founded by Surendranath Banerjee and Ananda Mohan Bose in 1876. The Association was primarily a gathering of moderate Indian nationalists, who denounced extremism and believed in peaceful negotiation with the British. Dhingra acted as a double agent of sorts, publicly denouncing Savarkar in front of the British, to win their favor. He soon won the trust of Ms.Emma Josephine Beck, the secretary of the Association, and got to know the timings of visits of important officials. He had a fake “falling out” with Savarkar to convince the British officials, and also left India House. Staying for some time at Ledbury Road, in 1909, he began to plot the assassination of one of the most important British officials, Lord Curzon Wylie.
Dhingra had earlier attempted to assassinate Lord Curzon, the British viceroy universally hated for his Partition of Bengal. However Curzon escaped twice, thanks to late arrival at the venue. His plans to assassinate the ex Governor of Bengal, Bramfield Fuller also came to nought, when the latter turned up late for the meeting. It was then that Dhingra decided to target Curzon Wylie, and not just because of the name. Wylie was one of the top ranking officers in the British Government. Serving the British Army in 1866, Wylie had entered the Political Department in 1879. He had earned a distinction for his role in the 1879 Afghan War, and later in Avadh, Nepal and above all in Rajputana. He was appointed the Political Aide-De-Camp to the Secretary of State for India, but more than anything, he was regarded as the “eyes and ears of the government”.
Wylie headed, the Secret Police, a fact not known to any one, except those in the upper echelons of the British Government. He in turn, was keeping an eye on Savarkar and other revolutionaries at the Indian House. He even appointed an informer, Kirtikar at the Indian House, to get information. Kirtikar was however found out by Savarkar, and gave him all the information about the police operations under force. On the home front, things were not going too well. Savarkar’s elder brother Babarao, was arrested and sentenced for life to the dreaded Cellular Jail in Andamans. His home was confiscated, and Babarao’s wife Yesu died a destitute, homeless on the streets.
The other factor was Savarkar being denied access to the Bar, after he completed his studies in 1906. Savarkar was charged of encouraging sedition by circulating pamphlets, advocating armed revolution and assassination. Given time till May 22, the trial was conducted on May 26, 1909, in camera. New charges were pressed, the letters by Savarkar were examined, and he was disallowed. The deportation of Babarao to Cellular Jail, and Savarkar’s trial, enraged the revolutionaries further, the situation was even more volatile now.
Dhingra knew Wylie personally, having met him earlier on April 13, 1909 based on a recommendation from his brother Kundan Lal. Dhingra apparently wanted to discuss the letter, but in reality his aim was to get closer to Wylie, win his confidence. The moment came when a meeting of the Association was to be organized on July 1, 1909 that would be attended by a large number of Indians and Englishmen, in honor of Lady Lyall, the wife of Sir Alfred Lyall. Dhingra met Savarkar on June 29,1909 at Bipin Chandra Pal’s home in London, discussed the plans of the assassination with him. Savarkar asked Niranjan Pal to type out the statement, Dhingra would make after the assassination, and then gave him a Belgian make Browning pistol. “Do not show me your face again if you fail this time” said Savarkar to an emotionally overwhelmed Dhingra, as he took his leave.
Accompanied by another revolutionary Koregaonkar, he had an early lunch and tea, left at 2 PM, cradling the revolver in his hands. He also bought a brand new dagger in a leather casket, placing it in his pocket. It was evening 7 PM, when the function started, Dhingra was dressed in a lounge suit and blue Punjab turban. He placed a Colt revolver in the right pocket of his coat, and the Browning gifted by Savarkar in another. He took a cab, arrived at the Institute, where Koregaonkar came also, with his pistol. When the time came for Wylie to leave, Dhingra approached him on the pretext of talking something. Just at the landing, coming closer to Wylie, Dhingra pulled out his Colt and fired two bullets point blank. As Wylie reeled, Dhingra fired two more bullets, a Parsi doctor, Cawas Lalkaka, who tried to save Wylie was also shot.
However Dhingra’s plan to commit suicide however failed , as he was overpowered by the security guards around. He managed to even bring down one of the guards, but was ultimately subdued, and arrested. He was taken to the Walton Street Police Station, where the Police Officer asked him if any of his friends knew about this. To which Dhingra calmly replied “There is no need, they will know about my arrest tomorrow in the newspapers”. It was a smart strategy, which ensured none of his friends would be implicated.
Post the assassination of Wylie, Dhingra, was vilified, repeatedly in the British media. An ex army officer at Broadhurst Gardens, Capt Charles Rollerton, even made allegations that Dhingra assassinated Wylie under the influence of “Bhang”. The psychiatrists who examined him, his land lady however testified that Dhingra seemed absolutely normal, and gave no indication of the act he would commit. During the interrogation, Dhingra expressed deep regret for the shooting of Dr.Lalkaka, saying he had no reason to shoot him, and it happened as he came in between.
Dhingra was produced before Mr.Horace Smith, the Magistrate of Westminister Police Court, and he told him clearly
” I do not plead for mercy: nor do I recognize your authority over me…”
On being sent to the Sessions Court, Dhingra asked in a trial, in which Indians were not allowed.
I do not want to say anything in defence of myself, but simply to prove the justice of my deed. As for myself, no English law court has got any authority to arrest and detain me in prison, or pass sentence of death on me. That is the reason I did not have any counsel to defend me.
And I maintain that if it is patriotic in an Englishman to fight against the Germans if they were to occupy this country, it is much more justifiable and patriotic in my case to fight against the English. I hold the English people responsible for the murder of eighty millions of Indian people in the last fifty years, and they are also responsible for taking away ₤100,000,000 every year from India to this country.
Just as the Germans have no right to occupy this country, so the English people have no right to occupy India, and it is perfectly justifiable on our part to kill the Englishman who is polluting our sacred land. I am surprised at the terrible hypocrisy, the farce, and the mockery of the English people. They pose as the champions of oppressed humanity—the peoples of the Congo and the people of Russia—when there is terrible oppression and horrible atrocities committed in India; for example, the killing of two millions of people every year and the outraging of our women.
I have told you over and over again that I do not acknowledge the authority of the Court, You can do whatever you like. I do not mind at all. You can pass sentence of death on me. I do not care. You white people are all-powerful now, but, remember, it shall have our turn in the time to come, when we can do what we like.
Though Dhingra willed that all his belongings, clothes, books be sold and the money, be given to the National Fund, it was no followed by the London Police. The police said that since Dhingra made no official will, his belongings were the property of the British Government, and they confiscated everything. Sadly Dhingra was disowned by his own family itself. His brother Bhajan Lal, who was in London, condemned him publicly in a meeting. His father publicly apologized and disowned his son. All his family members dropped Dhingra from their surname and adopted Lal, to avoid trouble with the British. The only person who actually stood by Madan Lal Dhingra was Savarkar, who visited him in prison. He was emotionally overwhelmed, when Savarkar told him “I have come here to seek your darshan”. For some one disowned by his family, it meant a lot that somebody out there still cared for him.
The Indian Association held a public meeting on July 5, 1909 to condemn Dhingra’s assassination of Wylie. The meeting was chaired by Aga Khan, and as he was prepared to pass the resolution, one hand raised in protest. It was Savarkar who said “No, not unanimously. There are opponents of the motion as well. Take down my name, Savarkar. I oppose the motion.”
The meeting went into a commotion, after Savarkar’s lone defiance. One of the members Bhavanagiri, tried assaulting Savarkar but was restrained by Aga Khan. A European member named Palmer, hit Savarkar with a stick, causing him to bleed in the eye. A defiant Savarkar refused to back down, sticking to his stand. Surendranath Banerjee was outraged at the assault ” Savarkar had a right to have his say. It was outrageous to attack him” and left the meeting in anger. The police had to rush in and prevent the situation from going out of control. That very night Savarkar wrote a letter to the Times, saying that since the matter of Dhingra was “subjudice”, no one had the right to discuss the case in public and using terms like criminal. It amounted to contempt of the court, the letter was published in the Times on July 6,1909.
Predictably most Indian leaders like Gokhale, NC Kelkar, condemned Dhingra’s act. Some like Hyndman, said that though Dhingra’s act was not acceptable, the allegations he raised against the British Govt, could not be swept away. The Media now turned their focus on Savarkar, claiming him to be the mastermind of the entire act. His relatives and colleagues in India were persecuted by the Govt, students going to London for studies had to produce certificates from the Local Government.
Dhingra meanwhile had some other admirers like W.T.Stead, editor of Reviews, an admirer of Savarkar, and believed in India’s freedom. Stead himself was arrested and put in prison for three months. In a letter to the Observer, Stead contended that Dhingra had committed the murder in a fit of insanity and hence should be given life imprisonment only. In the meanwhile VVS Aiyar,Nitisen Dwarakadas and JS Master, editor of the Gujarati daily Parsee, met the Secretary of India and requested that Dhingra’s dead body be given, so that they could perform the last rites. Savarkar wanted that Dhingra’s ashes, be sent to various parts of India. On the other hand, members of the Secretary’s Morley Council favored life imprisonment, as they felt execution would rather make him a martyr and ignite the volatile atmosphere even more.
King Edward VII was so infuriated with Dhingra’s act, that in a letter to Morley, he proposed that all Indian students should be barred from studying in England. Morley on the other hand was adamant that Dhingra be executed as it would set an example to potential assassins. This was what Wilfrid Blunt, the British poet had to say
No Christian martyr ever faced his judges more fearlessly or with greater dignity…if India could produce five hundred men, as resolutely without fear, she would achieve her freedom. It was recorded in medical evidence at the trial, that, when arrested, Dhingra’s pulse beat no quicker than normal, nor from first to last, has he shown any sign of weakening.
The Irish supported Dhingra with leaflets titled “Ireland Honors Dhingra” pasted all across the country.
August 17, 1909, Pentonville Prison.
Finally the date had come, many of Dhingra’s friends made a request to meet him for one last time. JS Master, made a request to the Under Sheriff of London and Home Office, stating he was Dhingra’s close friend and needed to meet him. However the request was turned down at both places. Dhingra however remained calm and composed, slept well on his last night, and after performing his chores, was ready for the hanging. As the clock struck nine, Dhingra walked to the gallows. Many of his friends and some from the media were waiting outside, all of them in a state of mourning.
When a Christian preacher Hudson, walked up to him, for the last prayer, Dhingra turned him down, saying he was born as a Hindu and would die as one. Metcalfe, the Dy. Under Sheriff of London, read out the death warrant to Dhingra, asked him the usual questions. Dhingra just ignored, walked calmly to the noose, to Officer Pierpoint who was waiting for him there. The noose was put around his neck, and the levers pulled, the life of a brave revolutionary was snuffed out.
JS Master who attended Dhingra’s post mortem, requested that he be taken the body for funeral rites. Dhingra wanted to be cremated as per Hindu custom, but Master’s request was turned down. And Dhingra’s body was buried in Pentonville Prison itself in a coffin.
On being asked if Dhingra would be considered a martyr, Master replied
“Certainly. He has laid down his life for his country’s good. Whether his idea of this ‘good’ was right or wrong is a matter of opinion”.
“The nonchalance displayed by the assassin was of a character, which is happily unusual in such trials in this country. He asked no questions. He maintained a defiance of studied indifference. He walked smiling from the Dock.”
As desired by Gyan Chand Verma, Dhingra’s last statement was published on a postcard by Sardar Singh Rana in Paris, along with his photograph. The statement was underlined by Vande Mataram, below which it was written “To the sacred and inspiring memory of patriot Madan Lal Dhingra, who died for his country”. The copies of this statement were sent by Rana to Savarkar in London, who in turn sent a large number of them to India. Though banned, neverthless the last statement titled “Challenge” became popular in the public. This was the text of it.
1. “I admit the other day; I attempted to shed English blood as an humble revenge for the inhuman hangings and deportations of patriotic Indian youths. In this attempt, I have consulted none but my own conscience; I have conspired with none, but my own duty.
2. “I believe that a nation held down in bondage with the help of foreign bayonets is in a perpetual state of war. Since open battle is rendered impossible to a disarmed race, I attacked by surprise; since guns were denied to me, I drew forth my pistol and fired.
3. “As a Hindu I felt that a wrong done to my country is an insult to God. Her cause is the cause of Sri Ram! Her services are the services of Sri Krishna! Poor in health and intellect, a son like myself has nothing else to offer to the Mother but his own blood and so I have sacrificed the same on her altar.
4. “The only lesson required in India at present is to learn how to die and the only way to teach it, is by dying ourselves. Therefore I die and glory in my martyrdom! This war of Independence will continue between India and England, so long as the Hindu and the English races last (if the present unnatural relation does not cease!)
5. “My only prayer to God is: May I be reborn of the same Mother and may I redie in the same sacred cause, till the cause is successful and she stands free for the good of humanity and the glory of God!”
-Vande Mataram- From the Hindu Jagruti article here on Dhingra
In another note, the Indian revolutionaries in London, paid tribute to him with the following words
“This day, the morning of 17th August 1909, will remain engraved in red letters in the heart of every Indian who loves his Motherland. This is the morning that our great patriot, our beloved Dhingra, is swinging to and fro with his sacred neck in the grip of the execution ropes in Pentonville prison. His high soul is rising from his earthly body but in spirit, he is with us, will remain with us, will guide us in the battle of freedom of our Motherland and his name, written in the history of India, will go down to posterity. The alien oppression of his Motherland he could not bear and he decided to help the movement, which is engaged in freeing Her, by giving his life. “I told you that the English Court has no authority over me. I do not care for my life. You are all powerful. You can do what you like. But remember, that one day we shall be powerful and then we shall do what we like” were his last words when the English judge, who must have been feeling demoralized in his inner heart, told him that his life would be taken…And now our enemies have killed him. But let them remember that they will never; never succeed in suppressing or killing the movement. “Moral force, like gentle tides at the touch of storm, sweeps away hills and lands. The act of a patriot comes like a storm to the moral waves of human society, and sweeping away barriers, leads the cause to success.”
From the Hindu Jagruti article here on Dhingra
Mahatma Gandhi however condemned Dhingra’s action, calling him and other revolutionaries as “anarchists” saying “Is killing honourable? Is the dagger of an assassin a fit precursor of an honourable death?”.
Dhingra, the immortal, has behaved at each stage of the trial like a hero of ancient times. England thinks she has killed Dhingra; in reality he lives for ever and has given the death-blow to English Sovereignty in India .- Lala Hardayal in Vande Mataram in 1909.
Finally on December 12, 1976 in the presence of Natwar Singh, then High Commissioner of India, Dhingra’s coffin was exhumed, and his mortal remains bought back to India.