India House: A Home for India’s Revolutionaries in London

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    In the idyllic, seaside town of Mandvi, in a corner of Kutch in Gujarat, is a mansion that looks a tad out of place. Built of red brick and distinctly Victorian in style, it stands on a large, landscaped property and is modelled on a two-storey English mansion at 65, Cromwell Avenue in suburban London.

    While the house in Mandvi is a memorial, the original London home, called ‘India House’, was a base for revolutionary activities against British rule in India, in the first decade of the 20th century. It was also here that Mahatma Gandhi and Veer Savarkar reportedly met for the first time.

    India House was founded in 1905 by freedom fighter Shyamji Krishna Varma. This was a time when ‘revolutionary nationalism’ had emerged as a potent political force in the Indian freedom struggle following the Partition of Bengal in 1905. The outrage over the Partition triggered the formation of radical underground societies in Bengal, Punjab and Maharashtra by spirited youth.

    These fiery, young nationalists were impatient with the Indian National Congress’s approach to petition the British Government to grant India self-rule, and that too within the British Dominion. They wanted swarajya and were keen on driving the British out of the country, even if it meant using violence.

    One of the guiding lights of these revolutionaries in England was Shyamji Krishna Varma (1857-1930).

    Born in the then princely state of Kutch in Gujarat, he was the son of Krushnadas Bhanushali, a labourer for a cotton press company, and Gomatibai, who died when Varma was only 11 years old. In 1875, he married Bhanumati, a daughter of a wealthy businessman of the Bhatia community and sister of his school friend Ramdas. Varma graduated from Balliol College, England, and was one of the first Indians to be called to the British Bar in 1884. He pursued a brief legal career in India and served as the Diwan of the princely state of Junagadh in Gujarat. However, he was dismissed following an alleged conspiracy against him by local British officials. This bitter experience shook his faith in British rule.

    Varma chose to return to England in 1897. By this time, he was a relatively wealthy man, thanks to his part ownership in some cotton mill presses in north-west India and then making a small fortune on the stock exchanges of Paris, London and Geneva. In his initial years in England, he spent his time reading the works of 19th-century philosopher Herbert Spencer, who propagated the theory of rationalism and denounced oppression of any kind – whether it was of children by parents, or of labourers by employers or of subjects by their rulers.

    Varma used this theory to start an agitation against foreign rule in India. He started by announcing a series of fellowships for young Indian graduates keen on pursuing higher studies in England. But there was one condition – these fellowship holders could not accept any post, office, emoluments or service from the British government after their return to India.

    This heralded the beginning of a new creed. The spirit of ‘non-cooperation’ with the British was implicit in the acceptance of the fellowship. Then, in January 1905, Varma started a publication called The Indian Sociologist – An Organ of Freedom, and of Political, Social and Religious Reform. This was his debut to Indian politics. In the first issue, Varma made the following statement, “The political relations between England and India urgently require a genuine Indian interpreter in the United Kingdom to show, on behalf of India, how Indians really fare and feel under British rule... It will from time to time remind the British people that they can never succeed in being a nation of freedom and lovers of freedom so long as they continue to send out members of the dominant classes to exercise despotisms in Britain’s name upon the various conquered races that constitute Britain’s military empire.” This monthly publication was distributed not only in England, but in India and across the world, wherever it found nationalist takers.

    A month later, in February 1905, Varma founded the Indian Home Rule Society (IHRS) in London with support from a number of prominent Indian nationalists in Britain, including Bhikaji Cama, Dadabhai Naoroji and S R Rana. The IHRS was meant to be a rival to the British Committee of the Indian National Congress.

    A few months later, in July 1905, Varma opened a student hostel and named it ‘India House’. But this hostel with its lecture hall, library and reading room soon took on a new face as it hosted students like Vinayak Savarkar, Lala Har Dayal, Madan Lal Dhingra, Pandurang Bapat, MPT Acharya and VVS Aiyar, who went on to become leading lights of the Indian nationalist movement. Varma had given radical Indian nationalism outside India a home, right in the heart of the imperial metropolis of London. He had taken this step very deliberately, in order to attract youngsters to India’s cause.

    The IHRS held weekly Sunday meetings at India House, passing resolutions condemning arrests in India and advocating absolute independence for India. They held Annual Martyrs’ Day celebrations to commemorate the 1857 Revolt. The group also circulated pamphlets advocating the methods of Russian revolutionaries (like worker strikes, peasant unrest, and military mutinies.) and expounding the policy of assassination and use of bombs.

    The students took an active part in the discussions and, besides the 20-odd students, a number of illustrious leaders also showed up at the House as short-time visitors, including Lala Lajpat Rai and Asaf Ali. Back in India, India House found many sympathisers and financiers such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda respectively.

    Vinayak Savarkar, known as the founder of the Hindutva ideology, arrived in England in 1906 to study law and stayed at India House. With his strong rebellious views, he soon became a leading figure here. He also made India House the headquarters of his Abhinav Bharat Society (a secret radical society launched in 1904). More significantly, India House was also a source of revolutionary literature that was rapidly distributed in India. In addition to the Indian Sociologist, pamphlets like Bande Mataram and Oh Martyrs! by Savarkar extolled revolutionary violence.

    Revolutionary literature was camouflaged and shipped to India from different addresses to prevent detection by the postal authorities.

    In fact, along with literature, weapons too were shipped including a number of Browning pistols smuggled by Chaturbhuj Amin, Chanjeri Rao, and VVS Aiyar, when they returned to India.

    In 1906, the same year Savarkar arrived in London, Mahatma Gandhi too visited the city in October, on deputation from South Africa and stayed at India House. Apparently, they had an interesting encounter. At the dinner table, Savarkar offered prawns to Gandhi. Being vegetarian, Gandhi refused and Savarkar apparently mocked him, saying, “If you cannot eat with us, how on earth are you going to work with us? Moreover, this is just boiled fish, whereas we want people who are ready to eat the British alive!”

    All these activities soon attracted enough attention to India House to be discussed in the British Parliament. Prominent London newspapers including The Times demanded that Shyamji Krishna Varma be prosecuted for preaching “disloyal sentiments” to Indian students. Fearing persecution, Varma moved to Paris in 1907 and continued his struggle from there, trying to mobilise support for India in the rest of Europe. His presence became an embarrassment for the French government and he moved to Geneva, where he spent the rest of his life.

    Meanwhile, many instances of revolutionary violence in India began to be linked either directly to India House or with its members. For example, one of its students, Pandurang Bapat, was declared an absconder in the Alipore bomb case of 1909, which followed the attempt to bomb a district magistrate's carriage in Bengal by Khudiram Bose. Bapat had returned to India with a bomb-making manual and distributed it among the Bengal revolutionaries. Sensing the possibility of his arrest, Bapat went underground.

    After Varma left England, Savarkar took on the onus of India House. He devoted his efforts to writing nationalist material, and organising public meetings and demonstrations. Under his guidance, the residents of India House and members of Abhinav Bharat practiced shooting at a range in Tottenham Court Road in Central London, and rehearsed assassinations. Savarkar’s Indian War of Independence was translated from Marathi to English at India House and published in London in May 1909.

    The popularity of the India House group had overtaken the London Indian Society (LIS) established in 1865 by Dadabhai Naoroji, until then the largest association of Indians in London. Subsequently, India House took control of LIS when members of India House ousted the old guard of the Society.

    By 1909, India House was under surveillance from Scotland Yard, which had at one point infiltrated the organisation via an Indian student named Kritikar. The young mole, who had been reporting on the activities of India House to Scotland Yard, was unmasked by Savarkar and forced to confess at gunpoint.

    However, the end came for India House came when Curzon Wyllie, the political aide de camp to the Secretary of State for India was shot by Madan Lal Dhingra at the Imperial Institute in London on 1st July 1909. Dhingra had been known to frequent India House and in the aftermath of the assassination, TheIndian Sociologist had published an editorial that did not condemn his actions.

    There was a crackdown on the activities of India House and a number of its leaders left England for France, Germany and even the United States. Threats to their careers robbed India House of its student support base too. India House was rapidly shut down and sold in 1910. But not without a legacy – the network India House had built was large.

    Following the example set by the original India House, other ‘India Houses’ were opened elsewhere, including the United States and Japan, although they were not officially aligned to the London one. By the end of the 19th century, Tokyo had a steadily growing Indian student population with whom Varma had been in close contact. TheIndian Sociologist gained prominence here too and an India House was opened in 1907.

    Varma had also built close contacts with the Irish Republican movement. As a result, articles from The Indian Sociologist were reprinted in the United States in the Gaelic American. Inspired by the writings, Myron Phelps, a wealthy lawyer of Irish descent, funded an India House in New York in 1908. Here, Indian students and ex-residents of London’s India House took advantage of liberal press laws to circulate The Indian Sociologist and other nationalist literature. At the same time, Lala Har Dayal, a student of the London India House, who was in the US, bridged the gap between the intellectual agitators and the predominantly Punjabi labour workers and migrants, laying the foundations of the Ghadar movement.

    Today, India House in London lies quiet with a small plaque that states that ‘Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’ lived here. Strangely, the plaque doesn’t mention that the building was known as ‘India House’.

    About a century after it was shut down in England, the Gujarat government in India commissioned a life-size replica of the London India House, in Mandvi, Varma’s hometown. Called Kranti Teerth, this lookalike was inaugurated in 2010 and is a memorial to Varma and his contribution to India’s freedom movement. It offers a glimpse into his life and is a fitting tribute to the man and his work.

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