What connects an address in London with a memorial in Mandvi, Gujarat? More intriguingly, what did this London address mean to all of these luminaries of the freedom struggle: Dadabhai Naoroji, Bhikaji Cama, VD Savarkar, Lala Lajpat Rai, Madanlal Dhingra, PM Bapat and MK Gandhi? The answer is a many-layered one and reveals much about the beginnings of the struggle for freedom against the British in the first decade of the 20th century, the endpoint of which was Independence on 15 August 1947.
Today, 65, Cromwell Avenue, Highgate is a modest draw especially for people interested in history. It is not in the league of Buckingham Palace perhaps, but a place of interest nevertheless. But in the early 1900s, it was merely one structure among many, with nothing particularly alluring to distinguish it. A Victorian structure in a nice neighbourhood, it didn’t attract any attention.
Perhaps that’s what prompted Gujarati businessman, lawyer and ardent Indian nationalist, Shyamji Krishna Varma to acquire the dwelling and then proceed to transform it, not so much from the outside, as from the inside, through what went on within its four walls.
Shyamji Krishna Varma
Varma was born on 4 October 1857 in Mandvi, Kutch in Gujarat to a family of modest means. After his initial education in Bhuj, Varma then went to Bombay for further education. In 1875, he married into wealth. His spouse, Bhanumathi, was the daughter of a wealthy businessman besides being the sister of his close friend, Ramdas.
At some point over the next few years, Varma began to read the works of Swami Dayananda Saraswati and reached out to him to assist him in his mission of reviving Indian society. Dayanand Saraswati was a Vedic exponent and inspired by him, Varma embarked on a study of Sanskrit. He soon came to be hailed as something of a scholar and came to the attention of Monier Williams, an Oxford professor who offered him a position as his assistant.
Varma arrived in England in 1879 and besides working as Williams’ assistant, also enrolled at Balliol College, Oxford University for a BA, which he completed in 1883. It also appears that he acquired a legal qualification for when he returned to India in 1885, he set himself up as a lawyer. But soon, he was made Diwan of Ratlam State. While this appointment did not last very long owing to ill-health, he came into a considerable sum of money as gratuity when he left service.
He invested this in three cotton presses and secured sufficient permanent income to be independent for the rest of his life. Stints in Bombay, Ajmer and Udaipur followed post which he became Diwan of the princely state of Junagadh between 1895 and 1897. He left this position under a cloud owing to a tussle with the British Agent and this appears to have embittered him towards British rule.
Varma, however, was not a fan of the then Congress practice of petitioning and seeking dialogue with the British administration (the mass agitations that the Congress later came to favour only came to pass post-1915). He favoured a more radical approach and supported the action of the Chapekar brothers who had assassinated the Plague Commissioner of Pune, Walter Rand in 1897.
Around 1900, Varma arrived in London and purchased a property in Highgate. Soon, it became an important port of call for Indian leaders visiting London. But Varma was not merely content to play host to others. The urge to participate actively himself and make a difference also gnawed at him.
In 1905, Varma emerged as an important player on the political scene. That year, he founded The Indian Sociologist, an important journal that spoke of political, religious and social reform in India. He was also instrumental in founding the Indian Home Rule Society that same year to secure home rule for India. The society also decided to work both in England and India towards this objective.
In July 1905, the India House was founded as a hostel for Indian students in England.
The founding of India House
Formally inaugurated on 1 July by Henry Hyndman, of the Social Democratic Federation, in the presence of Dadabhai Naoroji, Lala Lajpat Rai and Madam Cama, India House was ostensibly merely a boarding house for Indian students who often faced racist attitudes in England when trying to find accommodation. But given Varma’s other preoccupations, in reality, he hoped that it would incubate Indian revolutionaries. The House also served as the headquarters for the Home Rule Society.
Varma was now leading a hectic life of political activism and his actions did not go unnoticed by the British establishment. His anti-British writings in The Indian Sociologist, his interviews to the press and his public statements all served to make England too hot to hold him forcing him to shift to Paris in 1907 to continue his activities. At this point, the leadership of India House came to rest in the hands of Savarkar.
Savarkar was then a law student in England and an acolyte of Tilak. Deeply influenced by the Italian struggle for unification, Savarkar believed that an armed revolution in India was the way to end British rule. He founded the Free India Society (FIS), and in December 1906 he opened a branch of Abhinav Bharat, a revolutionary organization he had been part of in India. This organisation attracted a number of radical Indian students, including Bapat and Madanlal Dhingra. Around this time, Savarkar also met Gandhi when Gandhi visited India House. It appears that they did not make much of an impression on each other.
India House now transformed into a hub for revolutionary activities. Many of its residents were young men and women from Bengal, Punjab and Maharashtra, all centres of radical activity in India. Visits by Indian nationalists like Bhikaji Cama and others kept the cauldron of Indian nationalism boiling. By now, the place was also under observation by Scotland Yard.
By 1909, Savarkar had become increasingly radical in his speeches and public postures. He openly advocated an armed revolution. His brother, Ganesh was arrested in India that year and sent to the Andamans.
And then came Madanlal Dhingra’s action which shook the British establishment.
Dhingra was the unlikeliest of revolutionaries. His father, a well-respected Amritsar doctor was a government servant and had no patience with agitation and protest. Dhingra’s brothers all studied abroad, perhaps, with a view to securing employment in the government. Dhingra himself was cut from a different cloth though. After being estranged from his family owing to his nationalist beliefs, he was persuaded by his older brother to head to England to study engineering. In England, he came under Savarkar’s spell. Radicalized, he was intent to do his bit for the struggle.
On 1 July 1909, Dhingra, along with many others, attended a function hosted by the Indian National Association. When Sir Curzon Wyllie, political aide-de-camp to the Secretary of State for India, was leaving the hall with his wife, Dhingra fired five shots right at his face, four of which hit their target. He later attempted suicide to avoid getting caught, but failed and was arrested. He was later hung to death on 17 August after a quick trial.
The assassination prompted the authorities to shut down India House. Savarkar, who had been in Paris at the time of the assassination, was later arrested and deported to India. In prison in the Andamans, his life took a different turn. Varma continued his revolutionary activities in Paris and later, in Geneva, before passing away in 1930. Many others, who had partaken of India House’s revolutionary flavor, went on to contribute their mite to the struggle, none more prominently than Lala Har Dayal, who spearheaded the Ghadr movement in the USA and P.M. Bapat, who later worked closely with Gandhi.
India House continues to survive, more or less, in its original form as a reminder of those times. More interestingly, a memorial built for Varma in the seaside town (and Varma’s birthplace) of Mandvi in Gujarat has replicated India House. Built in the Victorian style and modelled on the original India House, it was opened in 2010. The memorial, called ‘Kranti Teerth’ is spread over a vast expanse of land and besides the replicated India House, there is an amphitheatre and urns containing Varma’s and his wife’s ashes.
A lasting monument to serve as a reminder for both the man and the revolutionary institution that he built!