An excerpt from
“IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS”
by Adam YAMEY
The excerpt FOLLOWS this brief introduction:
A most unexpected building stands near the seaport of Mandvi in the Kutch district of the State of Gujarat in India. It is a large red brick house with white stone trimmings, typical of Victorian dwellings found in prosperous parts of London. It stands in a flat desert landscape. This structure, which looks brand new, is a replica of a late Victorian residence in the north London suburb of Highgate. Seeing this incongruous building near Mandvi made me curious about the reason for its existence and led me to investigate its story.
This book is about a relatively unknown part of the history of India’s struggle for independence from the British. It concerns events centred on Edwardian London. This is a tale of bombs, guns, lawyers, patriots, philosophers, revolutionaries, and scholars.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, before India became independent, many young Indians came to England to be educated. Most of them intended to return to the Indian subcontinent where they could enrich themselves within the constraints imposed by the British, who dominated their country. This volume is about a few Indians, who came to Britain in the first decade of the 20th century, and then, unlike most of their visiting compatriots, risked sacrificing their freedom and prospects of wealth by becoming involved in India’s pursuit of freedom.
A tall, large Victorian house stands beside a tree lined residential street in the hilly north London suburb of Highgate. It is this residence that has been replicated in Kutch. Between 1905 and 1910, this house in Highgate, which was then known as ‘India House’, was a meeting place and hostel for Indian students, many of whom wished to help liberate India from centuries of oppressive British domination.
The excerpt follows below this illustration of the book’s cover.
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E X C E R P T F R O M T H E B O O K
(The text of the book is fully annotated, but in this excerpt the annotations have been removed)
After Shyamji Krishnavarma had shifted from London to Paris (in mid 1907), he kept in contact with India House via SR Rana, who visited London frequently in connection with his Paris based jewellery business . With Shyamji’s departure from London and Veer Savarkar’s installation as leader of India House, 65 Cromwell Avenue became even more of a centre of intrigue than it had been previously. Amongst other things, it became the de facto headquarters of Savarkar’s Abhinav Bharat, an organization for which Shyamji had much sympathy and might possibly have joined . Savarkar led the group, with the help of the Tamil revolutionary and law student at Lincolns Inn VVS Aiyar (vice-President) and another law student Gyanchand Varma (Secretary). Joining Abhinav Bharat was not something that the new member could take lightly, as the words of its oath of allegiance illustrate:
“In the name of God, in the name of mother Bharat and in the name of my ancestors I (Name) convinced that without obtaining the absolute political independence my country cannot obtain the glorious space amongst the Nations of the world and convinced also that political independence cannot be obtained without waging a bloody and relentless war, do solemnly declare that I shall from this moment do everything in my power even at the cost of my life to crown my country with her swaraj and solemnly swear that I shall even be faithful and true to this society. If I betray the whole or a part of this oath may I be doomed to death. Bande Mataram ”
The organization’s manifesto was ambitious. Savarkar was actively encouraging the establishment of new branches of Abhinav Bharat all over both Europe and India. With rumours of the imminent outbreak of war (i.e. the World War that eventually began in 1914), Savarkar was keen that Abhinav Bharat should maintain strong links with Indian expatriates and, also, resistance movements in China, Egypt, Ireland, and Russia. Both Savarkar and Aiyar had made several contacts with Kemal Ataturk while he was planning to overthrow the Ottoman regime in Turkey. Savarkar ‘hobnobbed’ frequently with the leaders of Ireland’s Sinn Fein and hoped to organise an anti-British ‘front’ that would include Egypt. He even suggested blocking the Suez Canal in the event of armed rebellion in India .
Other aims of Savarkar and Abhinav Bharat included: teaching swadeshi (making, buying, and using goods made in India by Indians using Indian raw materials) and boycott (of imported goods) in India; buying and storing weapons; military training; smuggling weapons and ammunition to India; opening small factories; and persuading the members of the ranks of Indian troops to become sympathetic to the idea of overthrowing their British officers and other British people in India.
Savarkar did not share Shyamji’s faith in the efficacy of passive resistance alone as a means for ousting the British. A follower of Chandragupta (founder of the Maurya Empire), Shivaji (Maratha hero), Tilak, Mazzini, and Garibaldi, he was convinced that the human mind was addicted to the idea that ‘might is right’. He asked what good passive resistance would have done to stop the invasion of India by the likes of Nadir, Chengiz, Timur, and Ghazni . At a meeting of the Free India Society, Savarkar maintained that passive resistance would fail in India without the backing of an army and because it:
“… blindly assumes that the aggressor has a high sense of morality and will not resort to arms or enact new orders and ordinances. ”
To illustrate what he meant, Savarkar used the then recent example of farm workers in Narbonne (France) in 1907, who used passive resistance to protest. They were suppressed by the French military .
Savarkar’s personality bewitched the people who resided in or visited India House. His close colleague MPT Acharya , a resident in the house, described Savarkar as follows:
“His personal charm was such that a mere shakehand [sic] could convert men as VVS Aiyar and Hardayal – not only convert but even bring out the best of them. Sincere men always became attached to him whether they agreed with or differed from him … Not only men in ordinary walks of life but even those, aspiring to high offices, recognised the purity of purpose in him, although they were poles apart from him and deadly opponents as regards his political objectives … Savarkar’s authority was itself a discipline to others… ”
Savarkar introduced several changes to life in India House. These included regular singing of Bande Mataram; the use of the words ‘bande mataram’ as a salute between members of the ‘extremist’ group; and every night a recitation of a vow at bed time: Ek dev, Ek desh, Ek bhasha, Ek jaati, Ek jeev, Ek kasha (i.e. ‘One God, One nation, One language, One race, One life, One Hope’) .
Other changes introduced to India House by Savarkar were less peaceful in intent and reflected the approach to ridding India of the British favoured by Abhinav Bharat. Some of his ‘extremist’ supporters joined a shooting club to improve their use of firearms. Savarkar created a ‘war workshop’ in the backyard of India House. There, members of his group of revolutionaries experimented with bomb-making. Often Savarkar would attend meetings of his Abhinav Bharat group with his hands stained yellow with picric acid, a chemical which explodes with mechanical contact if allowed to go dry. On one occasion Savarkar and Madan Lal Dhingra were working in the workshop when some explosive chemicals began overheating dangerously. It was Dhingra’s bravery that helped Savarkar avoid a tragedy .
The bomb-making was guided by a bomb manual that had been obtained in Paris, translated, and then cyclostyled in London . Abhinav Bharat had sent two members, Hemchandra Das and Senapati Bapat, to Paris to be taught how to make bombs by a Russian nihilist revolutionary, Nicholas Safransky . Das, who had been a cattle pound inspector in India, was dismissed because of his anti-government activities in 1906. He left for England and lived in India House . Bapat, also a resident in India House, had sworn a revolutionary oath in 1902 in Pune and been sent to England to study engineering. He recalled many years later (in 1960):
“I was in Paris with Hem Chandra Das of Midnapore learning bomb making. That was in 1907. From a Russian we got a manuscript in Russian on bomb making. The manuscript was in quarter sheets, about fifty in number. A Russian girl friend of mine , a student in Edinburgh University, translated it for us. I made copies of that translation. Hem Chandra returned to India with some copies. I returned to India later, in March 1908… ”
When he reached India in 1908, he visited Das in Calcutta, where he and a few friends were busy making bombs in a room in his home. Bapat remembered:
“I helped the bomb making a little. That was on 7 April 1908.”
Das, who was a superb photographer, created the illustrations for the bomb manual. Members of Abhinav Bharat in London cyclostyled more copies of it. Hotilal Varma (from Aligarh) joined Bapat and Das in London prior to smuggling the copies of the manual to India. One of these copies was presented to Tilak . These manuals (and much other written matter already forbidden in India):
“… were wrapped and smuggled in the jackets of western literature classics such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (a cryptic wordplay on “picric papers” is possible). ”
Savarkar also wanted India House to become a centre for enlisting support for India’s cause from outside of the UK. He wanted to publicise and project India’s struggle onto the international scene. As part of this effort, he wrote articles for the Gaelic American, which was published in New York City. These and other articles he wrote were translated into Chinese, German, French, Italian, Russian, and Portuguese and were published in papers written in those languages .
The International Socialist Congress of 1907 was held in Stuttgart’s Liederhalle between the 18th and 24th of August . Lenin, who attended the conference, wrote:
“In Stuttgart there were 884 delegates from 25 nations of Europe, Asia (Japan and some from India), America, Australia, and Africa (one delegate from South Africa). ”
The delegates from India included Virendranath Chattopadhyay, SR Rana, and Madame Bhikaji Cama, all of whom were associated with India House. Their adoption as British delegates was much helped by the influence of HM Hyndman , who had opened the House. Savarkar, who did not attend, wanted to use the Congress as an opportunity to expose India’s cause to an international forum.
Three years earlier at the Congress held in Amsterdam, Dadabhai Naoroji had proposed that there be ‘home rule’ in India under British supervision. Much to the disgust of most of the English delegates at Stuttgart (in 1907), an Indian delegate Madame Bhikaji Cama put forward the following motion:
“That the continuance of British rule in India is positively disastrous and extremely injurious to the best interests of India, and lovers of freedom all over the world ought to co-operate in freeing from slavery the fifth of the whole human race inhabiting that oppressed country, since, the perfect social state demands that no people should be subject to any despotic or tyrannical form of government. ”
Except for Mr Hyndman and the few Indian ‘revolutionaries’, the rest of the large British delegation opposed this motion. Clearly, the liberation of India was not favoured by most British Socialists possibly because being members of a colonialist nation gave even the most idealistic British person some sense of superiority. Later during the Congress, despite opposition from the British socialists, Madame Bhikaji Cama was able to make a speech. This was fiery and full of passion. It achieved Savarkar’s aim of bringing his approach to India’s struggle for independence into the international limelight . During her speech on the 22nd of August 1907, she unfurled an Indian flag (bearing the words ‘bande mataram’), which she and Savarkar had designed . Madame Cama was aware that the Congress included Russian delegates. This was reflected in her words:
“ Our people are unable to send delegations to this conference because they are so poor, but I hope one day they will be awakened, when they will follow the example of our comrades from Russia, who are fighting for freedom and to whom we send our special fraternal greetings. ”
What neither she nor the other Indians knew was that Vladimir Ilych Lenin, then a relatively unknown person, was sitting in the audience. However, he had taken notice of the Indian element of the Congress, as can be seen in an extract from his report written shortly after the event was over:
“… as a result of the extensive colonial policy, the European proletarian partly finds himself in a position when it is not his labour, but the labour of the practically enslaved natives in the colonies, that maintains the whole of society. The British bourgeoisie, for example, derives more profit from the many millions of the population of India and other colonies than from the British workers. In certain countries this provides the material and economic basis for infecting the proletariat with colonial chauvinism. Of course, this may be only a temporary phenomenon, but the evil must nonetheless be clearly realised and its causes understood in order to be able to rally the proletariat of all countries for the struggle against such opportunism. This struggle is bound to be victorious, since the “privileged” nations are a diminishing faction of the capitalist nations. ”
It was probably this “colonial chauvinism” that caused most of the British delegates at the Stuttgart congress to support the continuation of British imperialism.
Some weeks later, Madame Cama visited the USA. During that trip, she was interviewed by many reporters. She maintained that India’s hope for bringing about the end of British rule was:
“By passive resistance. We are a peaceable people and unarmed. We could not rise and battle if we would. We are preparing our people for concentrated resistance. All that is needed is unity and organisation, why, in a trice, we could have every Englishman a prisoner in his own house without a drop of blood. All that we have to do is to unify and refuse to work. In five days a bloodless overthrow could be accomplished. ”
By 1908, she had modified her views regarding the use of violence.
Following the Stuttgart congress, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II told President Wilson of the USA that the independence of India was an essential prerequisite for world peace . For a long time, Germany had been looking eastwards towards the Middle East and India, which was a ‘resource’ that made Britain a powerful force to be reckoned with. Without Indian (and African) manpower on the Western and other fronts, the course of the First World War might have been very different. The construction of the German Berlin-Baghdad Railway, which was well underway by 1907, was regarded by the British and others as a threat to the balance of power in the Persian Gulf and beyond . So, the Kaiser’s words to Wilson were not simply a humanitarian wish on Germany’s part, but also an expression of self-interest.
By 1908, events in India were taking a violent course. Savarkar, in London, took a great interest in these. The historian RC Majumdar wrote:
“The boycott of English goods failed to achieve the desired object of … undoing the partition of Bengal and envisioned the political freedom of India. Hence a steadily increasing number of young men turned to revolutionary methods…There were two broad divisions among the revolutionaries… One believed in armed conflict against the British with the help of Indian soldiers … The other believed that violent actions such as murdering officials would paralyse the Government machinery ”
Members of both ‘divisions’ created programmes for collecting arms and military training of young people. Barindra-Kumar Ghosh in Bengal (the younger brother of the famous Sri Aurobindo Ghosh) and his associates openly advocated violent revolution and guerrilla warfare. Barindra had been initiated into a revolutionary movement by Aurobindo in Baroda and sent by him to Bengal in 1902 . Barindra and his group set up a bomb-making ‘factory’ in the Muraripukur Garden house in the Calcutta district of Maniktala . It was here that Senapati Bapat visited in 1908 (see above). And, it was where a copy of the bomb manual produced in India House was discovered by the police .
Barindra’s group’s first attempt at political assassination was a failure. They tried to blow up the train in which Sir Andrew Fraser, Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, was travelling on the night of 6th of December, 1907 . The target of another failed attempt was Monsieur L Tardivel, Mayor of the French enclave of Chandernagore. He had prevented the holding of a Swaraj meeting there a few days before the 11th of April 1908, when, whilst dining with his family, he narrowly escaped the effects of a bomb weighing two pounds. It had been placed near a window of his dining room .
The third bomb attempt went horribly wrong. The bomb was designed to kill Mr Kingsford, District Judge and formerly Presidency Magistrate in Calcutta. He had upset many Indians by the cold-blooded harshness of the treatment he inflicted on young perpetrators of mild offences connected with public nationalist protests. Kingsford was in Muzaffapur (Bihar) when his assassination was attempted. He had been sent there to take him away from busier areas, where there were many after his blood . The Times in London noted that the bomb used was not imported but was much more expertly manufactured than that used at Chandernagore. Perhaps that was because the bomb-makers had been helped by the emissaries from India House, who had been learning bomb-making in Paris. However, efforts to find the manufacturer(s) of these bombs were unsuccessful. This third bomb was thrown on the 30th April towards a carriage which the bombers believed contained Mr Kingsford on his return journey home from his club. Unfortunately, the carriage that was blown-up was not that carrying Kingsford, but another vehicle, similar in appearance, carrying a Mrs Kennedy and her daughter. The latter and the coachman were killed, but Mrs Kennedy escaped with injuries .
The bomb that had been intended for Kingsford was thrown by Prafulla Chaki and Khudiram Bose, who had been chosen by Barindra Ghosh to execute the deed. Prafulla and Khudiaram were arrested, but the former evaded justice by shooting himself . The British authorities acted quickly and indiscriminately. Explosives, bomb-making equipment, arms, ammunition, and a copy of the bomb making manual (sent from India House) were discovered at the Muraripukur Garden house. Over twenty suspected revolutionaries, including Sri Aurobindo Ghose, were arrested in and around Calcutta in May 1908 . Hemchandra Das, recently arrived from India House, was amongst those arrested . His colleague Senapati Bapat went into hiding but was eventually arrested in 1912 . Incidentally, Bapat was one of three conspirators who had earlier decided to send Kingsford a bomb concealed in a book. It never blew up . Tilak, who was nowhere near the scene of the crime but publicly condoned the use of bombs, was also arrested .
The people who had been arrested were incarcerated at, and then put on trial in Alipore (now in south Calcutta). Before the trial that began in Alipore, Sri Aurobindo and the other detainees were at first kept separated from each other in solitary confinement. They only met each other whilst waiting in court for the magistrate to arrive for a session. Later, the prisoners were allowed to live together in communal cells. Apart from Aurobindo, who was becoming absorbed in meditative matters, the other prisoners were elated at the ending of solitary confinement. In his book about the Alipore trial, Aurobindo mentioned one of the former inhabitants of India House. He noted that in:
“…the big room in which singers like Hemchandra Das, Sachindra Sen etc., were staying … no one had a wink of sleep till two or three in the morning. ”
As the bomb case proceeded, violence continued in Bengal: a senior police officer was shot dead at the Calcutta High Court; a bomb blew up in Grey Street, Calcutta; and four other bombs were exploded in railway carriages in and around Calcutta between June and December 1908 .
During the Alipore trial, it became evident to the British authorities that Bapat was a close confidant of Veer Savarkar and a ‘product’ of India House in London. The revelation that Bapat was the procurer of the bomb manual found in Maniktala startled the authorities. They immediately assumed that the bomb plot that had been designed to kill Kingsland was planned and controlled by India House. Consequently, police surveillance of 65 Cromwell Avenue intensified .
Sometime in 1908, while there was fighting between Spanish and local Moroccan forces in Morocco, Savarkar sent two of his followers, Sukhasagar Dutt and another young Bengali, to Morocco to learn military tactics by fighting alongside the Moroccan forces led by Abdul Krim . The mission was a failure; the two men were unable to join Krim’s forces. Young David Garnett, whose description of India House is quoted above, lent Dutt his Winchester rifle to use when he reached Morocco. This weapon was confiscated by the customs in Gibraltar, and eventually returned to Garnett, who recalled:
“Some months later I succeeded in getting my rifle returned from Gibraltar … When it turned up I was surprised to discover that a Browning pistol had been sent back with it. Dutt begged me to keep it. I noticed, however, that the serial number, by which it could be identified, had been filed off. I asked him why and was told that the pistol was one of a batch, some of which had been smuggled to India, and that its connection with the others might be traced. When, however, I took the pistol to pieces to clean it, I found the serial number on the barrel had not been removed… ”
Meanwhile back in London on Sunday the 10th of May 1908, a few days following the Muzaffarpur bombing, India House celebrated ‘Red Blood Day of the Meerut Uprising’ . Invitations to the meeting that was held at India House at 4 pm were printed in red ink and sent to Indians all over England. As at the celebration the year before, India House was decorated with flowers and lights. Inside, the lecture hall was also decorated with flowers and incense was burnt . The job of organising the meeting and decorating India House was allotted to Madan Lal Dhingra and Harnam Singh, who had travelled to England with Savarkar. The meeting opened with Gyanchand Varma singing Bande Mataram. Then, VVS Aiyar recited a national prayer. The song and the recitation excited the audience, who were then treated to a stirring speech by Savarkar.
The purpose of the meeting, orchestrated by Savarkar, was to celebrate many of the important leaders of the 1857 Rebellion such as Nana Saheb, and others including Emperor Bahadur Shah, the last Mughal emperor, who was accused by the British of aiding and abetting the Rebellion . The meeting lasted four hours. About 100 people attended. They came from all over the UK, from as far away as Scotland. Madame Bhikaiji Cama was present and took the opportunity to raise the flag that she and Savarkar had designed. Savarkar read a four-page pamphlet entitled O’ Martyrs! Its tone may be judged from these brief extracts:
“… For the war of 1857 shall not cease till the revolution arrives, striking slavery into dust, elevating liberty to the throne…
… The war began on the 10th of May 1857 and is not over on the 10th of May 1908, nor can it ever cease till a 10th of May to come, sees the destiny accomplished, sees the beautiful Ind[sic] crowned either with the lustre of Victory or with the hallow of martyrdom…
… With limited means you sustained a war, not against tyranny alone, but against tyranny and treachery together. ”
Other Indian speakers gave talks on the exploits of various Indians who had fought heroically in the past. For example, Rafiq Muhammad Khan, studying for the Bar at Lincolns Inn , spoke about Raja Kunwar Singh, and Hemchandra Das, who was on the point of leaving for India (see above), spoke about Rani Laxmi Bai of Jansi. Mr Master, a Parsi member of Abhinav Bharat also spoke .
After the speeches, many of those present took pledges to forego various pleasures and to contribute money to a “Fund for the Heroes and Martyrs of 1857”. Madame Cama and Mr Rana, both over from Paris, donated large sums of money. Many Indian professionals (doctors, lawyers, journalists, etc.) and businesspeople along with their families vowed to observe a month of sacrifice for the cause of the freedom of India. Enamel badges commemorating the 1857 rebellion were issued and proudly worn by students and others. Harnam Singh wore his badge at the Agricultural College in Cirencester, where he was studying. He was expelled because he, like other Indian students in England, refused to stop wearing the badge . Near the end of the proceedings, chapatis were offered to the people attending and tikkas (marks of coloured paste) were applied to their foreheads . The significance of the Indian bread is that chapatis were sent from village to village during the Rebellion, possibly as signals to encourage its spread. These chapatis, which moved across India faster than the British mail, but contained no messages, disturbed the British, who were mystified by them .
Savarkar’s pamphlet, which received wide attention internationally, was only one of the publications he produced in 1908. Ever since he had completed his book on Mazzini, Savarkar had been researching material (in the India Office Library until he was no longer admitted) for, and writing (in India House) a book about the Rebellion of 1857. As described already, he did much of his research at the India House Library until the reason for his interest in the events of 1857 and ’58 was discovered by the British authorities. His History of the Indian War of Independence 1857 was originally completed in 1908, written in Savarkar’s mother tongue, Marathi. The history was written with a specific purpose. Writing in Talwar, an Abhinav Bharat paper published in Paris, Savarkar explained:
“… that his object in writing this history was, subject to historical accuracy, to inspire his people with a burning desire to rise again and wage a second and a successful war to liberate their motherland. He also expected that the history should serve to place before the revolutionists an outline of a programme of organisation and action to enable them to prepare the nation for a future war of liberation. It would never have been possible to preach such a revolutionary gospel publicly throughout India or carry conviction so effectively as an illuminating illustration of what had actually happened in the nearest past would do. ”
As such, it presented difficulties to those who wanted to publish it . Unsurprisingly, the Abhinav Bharat tried without success to have an English version of what was essentially an anti-British text published in England or even in France. The Marathi manuscript was sent secretly to India, where it was also impossible to find a printer. Eventually, it was published and printed badly in Germany, where the type setters were unfamiliar with Indian scripts. Later, several editions of the book were published in various places including Holland. Copies were smuggled into India by disguising them with misleading covers or placing them in secret compartments of suitcases. Many years after it was written, copies of its 5th edition were distributed to members of Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army who were fighting alongside the Japanese in the Second World War .
A police report noted that sometime in June 1908, a “Hindu” (i.e. an Indian) studying at London University gave a lecture at India House about making bombs. The speaker was a Dr Desai . He described their ingredients and how to use them . In the middle of the same month, Tilak was arrested in Bombay in connection with his writings relating to the bomb blast at Muzaffarpur. After a trial lasting over a week, he was sentenced to deportation (in Mandalay, Burma) for six years . This outraged Indians all over the world. That autumn, many Indians congregated in London to appeal to the Privy Council against the deportation of Tilak…
… A ‘moderate’ leader of the Indian National Congress GK Gokhale (1866-1915) happened to be in London at around this this time . He was in London in connection with the Morley-Minto reform proposals for India (which resulted in the Indian Councils Act of 1909), which were designed to capture the hearts of ‘moderate’ members of Congress. In connection with these reforms, which offered some representation in the Government of India to compliant Indians, Motilal Nehru (father of Jawaharlal) said:
“They are … just the opposite of reforms. ”
Like both Savarkar and Tilak, Gokhale was a Chitpavan Brahmin. However, his approach to reforming India differed considerably from that of the other two men. Gokhale, who was the most important Indian leader in London at the time, refused to preside over a meeting held to protest against Tilak’s deportation. Some hot-headed members of the revolutionaries in London considered ending the ‘cowardly’ Gokhale’s life, but Savarkar counselled them against this idea …
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