The ‘India House’ Circle of 1909 and its modern resonances (2014)

In July 1909, a young student of engineering at University College, London, was pinned down by on-lookers after he had killed two men with a Colt pistol at a meeting of the Indian National Association in the Imperial Institute, Kensington. Madan Lal Dhingra’s victims included a high ranking official in the Political & Secret Department of the India Office, Colonel William Curzon-Wyllie – shot five times in the face. A body search of the assailant yielded another fully loaded pistol and this letter of intent:

“I attempted to shed English blood intentionally and of purpose, as an humble protest against the inhuman transportations and hangings of Indian youth. In this attempt I consulted none but my own conscience; conspired with none but my own duty. I believe that a nation unwillingly held down by foreign bayonets is in a perpetual state of war. Since open battle is rendered impossible I attack by surprise – since cannon could not be had I drew forth and fired a revolver. As a Hindu I feel that the slavery of my nation is an insult to my God. Her cause is the cause of freedom. Her service is the service of Sri Krishna. Neither rich nor able, a poor son like myself can offer nothing but his blood on the altar of Mother’s deliverance and so I rejoice at the prospect of my martyrdom. The only lesson required in India is to learn how to die and the only way to teach it is by dying alone. The soul is immortal and if every one of my countrymen takes at least two lives of Englishmen before his body fall the Mother’s salvation is a day’s work.

This war ceases not only with the independence of India alone, it shall continue as long as the English and Hindu races exist in this world. Until our country is free Sri Krishna stands exhorting ‘if killed you attain Heaven; if successful you win the earth’. It is my fervent prayer. May I be reborn of the same mother and may I redie in the same sacred cause till my mission is done and she stands for the good of humanity and to the glory of God”.

In a subsequent search of Dhingra’s lodgings a Police statement noted that two picture postcards were found “depicting the blowing of Indian rebels from the mouths of cannons, and the other a portrait of Lord Curzon on which was penciled ‘Heathen Dog’.”

In 1909, Dhingra’s London was highly charged. The year had commenced with a delegation of Muslims meeting the Secretary of State for India, John Morley, to present their proposals on electoral reform. Students from Egypt would have been discussing the emerging nationalist movement against the British military occupation. There was also a war going in Morocco between the Riff tribesmen and the Spanish. The Government’s change of foreign policy, supporting Italy and Russia against Turkey, was a matter of anxiety for Indian Muslims, just as Curzon’s partition of Bengal in 1905 was a source of deep anger amongst Indian Hindus like Dhingra. Secret anarchist societies had been established in Russia and France. It was also an era in which the first tentative anti-colonialist alliances were emerging, bringing together Egyptians and Indians, Hindus and Muslims.

Dhingra employed religious language and symbols in his suicide note, but he was very much the product of his times. The truly traditionalist Hindu would have been reluctant to come to Britain for education, because of a taboo on sea voyages – to cross kalapani – the black waters of the sea, and the fear of becoming an outcast if he adhered to the shastras when abroad.

Like in our own times today, there were those who had been co-opted by the establishment and were on its payroll, both among the Hindu and Muslim communities. An example of one such dedicated subject was Barrister Syed Abdul Majid, quick to point out at the failings within Indians rather than the inequities of colonialism:

The education among the Indians has not made them less selfish, more self-sacrificing, has not made them less offensive to other nations less educated, living in India, but has had contrary effect. Unless and until they act in a more reasonable manner, unless and until they do not disregard the claims of other peoples, and unless and until the Mohammedans and the other important sections of Indian people lose their consciousness of strength, administrative capacity, forget their traditions and past history, the question of Home Rule, noble as the idea is, seems to me impractical, at least at the present (from his ‘England and the Moslem World’, 1912).

There were also the more independently minded, to be found in three separate groupings. Firstly, there were the pragmatic empire-loyalists – members of the London branch of the Muslim League, led by Syed Ameer Ali and the Aga Khan, who knew their way round Whitehall and cultivated contacts with the elite. Secondly were groups that operated outside official patronage, such as the London Islamic Society (in 1917 renamed the Central Islamic Society), comprising men like the enigmatic Sudanese Duse Mohamed Ali, journalist and author ready to write about the class inequalities to be found within Britain itself, the businessman Mirza H. Ispahani and the eccentric Mashir Hussain Kidwai, who insisted on wearing at all times an insignia given to him by the Ottoman Sultan. In language that still resonates, Kidwai is described in Police files of the period as someone “well-known to hold extreme views, and to exercise a mischievous influence”. Thirdly came the revolutionary idealists, and among their organisations was a ‘Free India Society’ based at their self-styled ‘India House’, a hostel at 65 Cromwell Road, Highgate.

The Society organised regular meetings attended by both Hindu and Muslim students and Madan Dhingra had lived for a while at ‘India House’ on his arrival to London in July 1906. A key figure in the Society was Vinayak Damodhar Savarkar, studying for the Bar and founder of an inner secret circle, which seems to have included an informer who provided the authorities some tit-bits. For example the Police files have notes of his talk at the Society in November 1908, ‘Are we really disarmed?’. The files indicate that he “pointed out that in spite of the Arms Act there was plenty of warlike material in India…what was wanted was active work…the advent of the bomb had terrified the British public ‘we must teach our people to hate the foreign oppressor and success is sure’.” The Society encouraged members to hone their skills in pistol-shooting, a challenge taken up by Dhingra.

The leadership at ‘India House’ decided that Colonel Curzon-Wyllie was to be targeted and arranged a conduit for weapons from anarchists in Paris. A senior official at the India Office was selected as a target: Colonel Curzon-Wyllie was responsible for supervising students from India, and had taken measures to prevent them establishing contact with ‘India House’.

Several Indian Muslims were associated with Savarkar’s secret circle: there was Rafik Muhammad Khan, who was asked to leave his studies at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester for refusing to commit himself to not wearing a ‘Mutiny medal’ – a circular enameled band with the ‘Bande Matram’ flag in the centre and the words ‘In memory of the martyrs of 1857’ inscribed on it. His colleague at the College, Harnam Singh, was similarly defiant, and according to Police files, on their return to London, there was a party in their honour at ‘India House’ and they were titled ‘Yar-i-Hind’. Another Muslim in the Highgate set was Muhammad Nayeem, who acquired an interest in Egyptian affairs. Police files note that in one of his lectures organized by the Free India Society, he drew comparisons between Dhingra and the Egyptian student Wardani – the latter established a secret society and shot and killed the pro-British Interior Minister Boutros Ghali Pasha. There were also the two friends Haidar Raza and Asaf Ali,who were asked to launch a newspaper to be called ‘Jehad’, but this did not materialise, though they did produce a few issues of ‘The Young Muslim’. Haidar Raza for a time even became warden of ‘India House’, and in a speech entitled ‘What should be our next move’ suggested – with an allusion to the actions of the Italian revolutionary Garibaldi – that if an attempt was made by the British Government to suppress the agitation in England they should flee to Brazil. Raza was well-read, and offered tuition in Persian to students at Oxford. The Free India Society were not riff-raff: the Police files include two group photos of impeccably dressed Edwardian gentlemen.

It seems that the security services of the day, notwithstanding the network of informers, were flummoxed by Curzon-Wyllie’s murder. Steps had been taken for over two years to monitor Indian students and a report was published prior to the incident entitled ‘Secret Memorandum on the Anti-British Agitation Among Natives of India in England’! There were also agents in France who provided details of contacts of visiting Indians with French anarchists. All to no avail. Security can only be ensured by addressing underlying political causes of disquiet and despair.

Four days after the assassination, the authorities encouraged the empire-loyalist groups to convene a condolence meeting. The Aga Khan chaired the session held at Caxton Hall held to condemn the crime. The reports note: “after the resolution was moved, Mr Theodore Morrison led to the platform Dhingra’s brother who he said had come to him that morning and asked what he should do to show his repugnance of his brother’s crime. He told him that it was his duty to come there to show before his fellow-countrymen that he dissociated himself from the murder. The young man was too overcome to seek and was led back to his place”. There was pressure on the Indian community to feel collectively responsible for the tragedy.

However the reckless and irrepressible Savarkar had also found his way into this condolence meeting:

After the resolution had been put and declared to be carried Savarkar jumped to his feet in the centre of the hall and announced he was not in agreement with the motion. A certain Mr Edward Palmer attempted to eject him, and was struck on the head apparently by Tirumal Achary, who is known to have accompanied Savarkar to the meeting with the object of obstructing the proceedings. Savarkar and Tirumal Achary were eventually ejected, and the meeting proceeded after unexpected speeches from the Mr Palmer above-mentioned and Bhattacharji who assaulted Sir William Lee-Warner last January. The latter said, “whatever may have been the cause of the misunderstanding the other day, I have come here today to tell you I have not connection with any anarchist movement in London, and I hate anarchy and violence as much as my grandfather did.

So we see public repudiations and confessions – much the same way as ex-Hizb Tahrir and other defectors today declare their disavowal of ‘Islamist’ thinking.

Dhingra himself was condemned to the gallows and was hung in August 1909. Savarkar managed to escape suspicion for another year. During that period he boldly organised a Dassera celebration in October 1909, at which there was an interesting clash with Gandhi – mirroring amongst Hindus the different points of view that had emerged between empire-loyalist Muslims and those who stood up for Muslim autonomy.

The Police files record the encounter:

M K Gandhi of Transvaal fame presided and somewhat surprised the audience by commencing his after-dinner speech with the remark that he belonged to a different school of thought form Savarkar. He said he considered Savrkar’s teachings injurious to the well being of the counry and that the real oppressor – the ten-headed monster – was within them and not without. His speech caused considerable dissatisfaction and he was cheered with much less enthusiasm at the end than he was when he rose to speak. He then called upon a Muhammad Haji from the Transvaal who also struck a discordant note.

Savarkar was then called upon and he also criticised the chairman’s remarks. He disagreed with the chairman’s interpretation of the Ramayana; Rama did not invade Ceylon, the island of the tyrant, for the sake of peace, and did not carry war abroad to kill the ten-headed monster within him. He fought for Sita the chaste, for Sita the freedom of India. His speech is said to have been effective and well received.

Savarkar, not unexpectedly, was denied his call to the Bar. He responded to this with characteristic defiance: “it means only a few farthings to me; not even rupees, but only a few farthings. Now that they have not called me I shall be able to work better for it”. He was refused charge of Dhingra’s body to perform a burial according to Hindu rites. The body was subsequently lost for seventy years, and repatriated to India on December 13, 1976. Dhingra today is part of the pantheon of nationalist martyrs. The mentor Savarkar was deported to India and jailed – police restrictions on his activities would not be dropped until the Congress came to power in the provincial elections of 1937. His estrangement with Gandhi however became even bitter, the former moving towards Hindu-Muslim amity, while he himself became the leader of the Hindu Mahasaba. Little is presently known of the fates that befell the Muslim members of the Free India Society. Muslim political consciousness was to become even more acute in the decade to follow, once Britain declared war on Turkey and then participated in the dismemberment of the Ottoman caliphate.

The events of 1857 and Curzon’s partition of Bengal in 1905 weighed on Dhingra’s mind. Siddique Khan, the London bomber had this to say in his departing video in 2005:

“….I and thousands like me are forsaking everything for what we believe. Our driving motivation doesn’t come from tangible commodities that this world has to offer. Our religion is Islam – obedience to the one true God, Allah, and following the footsteps of the final Prophet and Messenger Muhammad… This is how our ethical stances are dictated. Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world…. I myself, I myself, I make dua (pray) to Allah… to raise me amongst those whom I love like the prophets, the messengers, the martyrs and today’s heroes like our beloved Sheikh Osama Bin Laden, Dr Ayman al-Zawahri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and all the other brothers and sisters that are fighting in the… of this cause. With this I leave you to make up your own minds and I ask you to make dua to Allah almighty to accept the work from me and my brothers and enter us into gardens of paradise”. The events of 1909 demonstrate that Dhingra’s actions were primarily political acts in the cause of national freedom. Religious language and symbolisms were deployed in this pursuit of politics through violent means. In much the same way, Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq weighed on Siddique’s mind. There are uncanny similarities in their final testaments. The search for an understanding of the actions of the Siddique Khan’s of today needs to be in a very different direction to that being taken by our policy makers – however unpalatable the findings. There is as little ‘Islamic terrorism’ today as there was ‘Hindu terrorism’ at the turn of the twentieth century.