Madan Lal Dhingra: A lion hearted National hero
By Dr. Shreerang Godbole
- India House and contact with Savarkar
- Curzon Wylie (05 Oct 1848 – 01 July 1909)
- Preparing for the assassination
- The assassination
- The trial
- Condemnation meeting
- Admiration from the enemy
- Grudging admiration from the British Cabinet
- Last statement
- Tribute by compatriots
- Dhingra the Immortal
Madan Lal Dhingra was born on 18 September 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.
Tilak gave him a reference and also assured that Savarkar had no intention of seeking government employment. Accordingly, Savarkar arrived in London on 15 June 1906. Savarkar went to London ostensibly to study law. But he had other ideas in mind. He wanted to observe at first hand, the strengths 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.
Madan Lal had come to London to pursue his studies. Tall, well-built and handsome, he was a fun-loving guy and was naturally the centre of attraction of young men and women. Madan Lal’s friends were boisterous and often sang romantic songs. In those days, freedom of the motherland was not particularly on Madan Lal’s mind. 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.”
Few weeks before killing Curzon Wyllie, Dhingra had tried to kill Lord Curzon, who was the most arrogant of all Viceroys. But fate saved Curzon twice. Dhingra had also planned to assassinate ex-Governor of Bengal, Bramfield Fuller. However, he arrived late for a meeting where these two were to be present and hence could not carry out his plan. Dhingra then decided to kill Curzon Wyllie. It must be emphasized that it was not the killing of another Englishman just because he had a similar name. Curzon Wyllie was a very ranking officer. 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 26 June 1906. After completion of his studies, he should have been called to the Bar on 05 May 1909. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Harnam Singh passed final examination. 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 :-
(1) That by assisting in the circulation of pamphlets and by taking part in seditious meetings, he incited the Nation of India to revolt.
(2) That he advocated assassination
(3) That he expressed approval of assassination.
Savarkar was allowed time till 22 May in which to frame his reply. The reply was considered on the 26th May 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 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 09 June. Just three weeks later i.e. on 01 July 1909 Sir Wyllie himself was shot dead by Dhingra.
On 08 June 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, Curzon Wylie could not escape their wrath. His days were numbered.
Savarkar discussed his plans with Savarkar. Savarkar asked Gyan Chand Varma “not to leave London and to attend the function at Imperial Institute.” On 29 July 1909, Dhingra finalized 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 spirits. 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 memorize it. Savarkar then gifted Dhingra with a Belgian-make Browning 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. On 30 June, Dhingra went to ‘India House’ to meet Savarkar but the latter had gone to Reading. Dhingra looked happy. On 01 July, Dhingra’s Sinhalese friend Santiago had gone to Dhingra’s residence but did not notice any difference in his behaviour.
Dhingra then went to Koregaonkar who was to accompany him to the Imperial Institute. He had an early lunch and afternoon tea at his own residence at 108 Leadbury Street. He left his house at 2 pm armed with a revolver. He bought a brand new dagger with a leather casket and put it in his pocket. He then went to ‘Funland’ and fired 12 rounds from a distance of 18 feet. Of these, 11 were close to the bull’s eye. He then asked his revolver to be cleaned.
At 7 in the evening, he dressed in lounge suit and a blue Punjabi turban. He loaded his Colt revolver and placed it in his right coat pocket. He placed one revolver each in another coat pocket and his vest. As he was unable to memorize the statement written by Savarkar, he wrote it in pencil on a sheet of paper and placed it in his inner coat pocket along with some newspaper cuttings. He put 10-12 shillings in his pocket. He hailed the first cab that came his way and left for the function.
When the examining doctor felt Dhingra’s pulse, he was astounded to find that it was ‘even’. After his arrest, the Police Officer asked Dhingra, “Do you want us to inform any of your friends of your arrest?” Dhingra cleverly replied, “There is no need. They will know about my arrest in tomorrow’s newspapers.” The Police were trying to find out if they could implicate any of Dhingra’s friends. He proved a match for them. Dhingra was taken to Walton Street Police station.
At the inquest held at Westminster before Coroner Mr John Troutbeck, Dhingra expressed his deep regret for the accidental death of Lalkaka. He stated that had Lalkaka not come in the way he would not have been killed. He had no reason to kill him.
When produced before Mr Hoarce Smith the Magistrate of Westminster Police Court, Dhingra said, ” I do not plead for mercy: nor do I recognise your authority over me…” Dhingra was committed to the Sessions Court. Dhingra bluntly asked the Court, “…If the Germans have no right to rule over England what right have the English got to rule over India ? ” During the trial Indians were not allowed inside the Court.
In his last days, Dhingra had wished that his clothes, books and other belongings should be sold and the money thus raised be given to the National Fund. However, these were confiscated by the Metropolitan Police (of London). Two trunks were taken away by Chief Inspector McCarthy. Dhingra had given a letter authorising Nitinsen Dwarakadas to be the owner of his personal belongings. But when the case came to Bow Street Magistrtate’s court on 31 December 1909 it was ruled that as Dhingra had made no will the police were not bound to return Dhingra’s belongings to Nitinsen! (London Times 01 January1910).
When Dhingra shot dead Curzon Wyllie, his brother Bhajan Lal was in London studying Law at Grays Inn. Four days after the event Bhajan Lal attended the public meeting to condemn Madan Lal. On account of that, Madan Lal refused to see Bhajan Lal when the latter visited him in the Brixton prison. Soon after their brother was hanged, his brothers dropped the surname Dhingra, with the exception of Dr Bihari Lal. As their first names ended in Lal they adopted that as the surname. e.g Chaman Lal Dhingra became Chaman Lal. ( In a similar manner, many Indian freedom fighters changed their names so that their relations would not be identified and harassed by the British Authorities.). When Savarkar went to visit Dhingra, he said, “I have come to seek your ‘darshan’”. Both were overwhelmed on seeing each other.
There was great uproar. Bhavnagari became furious and wanted to get hold of Savarkar and expel him. Agakhan reprimanded Bhavnagari. A Eurasian named Palmer hit Savarkar near his eye. Savarkar started to bleed. Even then, Savarkar said, “I still oppose the motion.” M P T Acharya, a friend of Savarkar then hit Palmer with a stick. Surendranath Banerjee expressed his anger. He said “Savarkar had a right to have his say. It was outrageous to attack him.” Banerjee left the hall in protest. Women panicked and left the hall. Police rushed in and the meeting ended in disarray.
Afterwards, Savarkar wrote a letter to the ‘Times’ and other newspapers. He maintained that as the matter was subjudice, discussing the case in public and using the words ‘crime’ and ‘criminal’ amounted to the contempt of the court. Savarkar’s letter was published in the ‘Times’ on Tuesday 6 July 1909.
But Morley was adamant that an assassin who was caught would be sent to the gallows and the same fate awaited Dhingra. Dhingra’s valour infuriated King Emperor Edward VII. In a letter dated 17 August 1909, he wrote to Morley that Indian be barred from coming to England without valid reason. Such students learn treason while in England and incite others back home, he fumed.
In his memoirs, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, the British poet and writer who also served in the Diplomatic Service writes (entry dated 24 July 1909) writes, “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.” On the day of Dhingra’s martyrdom, leaflets entitled ‘Ireland Honours Dhingra’ were distributed and pasted on walls in Ireland. As chance would have it, Dhingra’s martyrdom day coincided with Blunt’s 69th birthday. Blunt remarked that they (meaning the British) had honoured him (Blunt) by choosing his birthday to hang Dhingra. For this day would be remembered as Martyrs’ Day for several generations, exclaimed Blunt!
But Dhingra turned him away saying that he was a Hindu. The Deputy Under-Sheriff of London Metcalf read out the death warrant to Dhingra in the presence of Deputy Governor Hales of Pentonville prison and asked him the usual questions. But Dhingra ignored their questions and walked calmly to the noose. His bravery left the accompanying offcers dumb-founded. Officer Pierpoint stood at the hangman’s noose waiting for Dhingra. Dhingra smiled at him and ascended the steps to the platform. He himself placed the noose round his neck. Soon thereafter, the wooden platform underneath was withdrawn. Dhingra’s body dropped eight feet and lay hanging. As per convention, his limp body was left hanging for half an hour. When his body was brought down, it showed no trace of fear.
Master was allowed to be present at the post-mortem examination which was performed by Dr. Wyliss Shroeder and Asst. Medical Officer Dr. Francis Forewood of Pentonville prison. He wrote the death certificate in the presence of five witnesses. Master again requested that he be allowed to claim Dhingra’s dead body so that his final rites could be performed. However, this request was turned down. The Times, London of 18 August 1909 reported on page 7 column 2, ” Shortly after 9, death was announced. Pierpoint was the executioner. An application for leave to have the body cremated was refused and it will be buried in accordance with the usual custom, within the walls of prison.”
Then Master followed Under-Sheriff outside the prison. The correspondent for the Daily Mirror interviewed Master. He asked, ” Will Dhingra be considered a martyr by the Indians ?” 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.”
Madan Lal Dhingra went to the gallows in Pentonville prison in London on 17 August 1909. This prison was built between 1840 and 1842. Two Indian revolutionaries went to the gallows here. Madan Lal Dhingra on 17 August 1909, and Udham Singh on 31 July 1940.
Dhingra wished that last rites according to Hindu Dharma should be performed on his dead body and it should be cremated. Many Hindus petitioned to the Home Secretary Mr Herbert Gladstone that Dhingra’s body should be handed over to them, as Brahmins were ready to perform the last rites. This request was denied! The last wish of a man sent to the gallows was denied! His body was put in a coffin, which was buried within the prison premises.
THE TIMES, London of 18 August 1909 reported on page 7 column 2, ” Shortly after 9, death was announced. Pierpoint was the executioner. An application for leave to have the body cremated was refused and it will be buried in accordance with the usual custom, within the walls of prison.”
(Note :- The Cremation Society of England was founded in 1874. So, cremation was definitely available in London in 1909)
After Dhingra went to the gallows, the Times, London wrote an editorial (24 July 1909) titled ‘Conviction of Dhingra”. The editorial said, “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.”
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!”
During his brief stay in London, Gandhi, the much-touted apostle of nonviolence, deplored Madan Lal Dhingra and other revolutionaries to please the British, declared them anarchists and said, “Is killing honourable? Is the dagger of an assassin a fit precursor of an honourable death?” He also said that he wanted to purge India of the atmosphere of suspicion on either side and there was no reason for anarchism in India. Dhingra’s martyrdom and his last statement evoked widespread sympathy and admiration in Ireland. Posters entitled “Ireland Honours Dhingra” along with the last statement adorned the walls in Ireland.
(The author is a Pune-based endocrinologist, activist and author. He has contributed to the making of www.savarkar.org)