Madan Lal Dhingra (18 February 1883 — 17 August 1909) was an Indian revolutionary, pro-independence activist. While studying in England, he assassinated William Hutt Curzon Wyllie, a British official.
Madan Lal Dhingra was born on 18 February 1883 in Amritsar, India, in an educated and affluent Punjabi Hindu Arora family. His father, Dr. Ditta Mal Dhingra, was a civil surgeon. Madan Lal was one of seven children (six sons and one daughter). All six sons, including Dhingra, studied abroad.
Dhingra, initially studied at Amritsar in MB Intermediate College until 1900. He then went to Lahore to study at the Government College University. Here, he was influenced by the incipient nationalist movement, which at that time was about seeking Home Rule rather than independence. Dhingra was especially troubled by the poverty in India. He studied the causes of Indian poverty and famines extensively, and felt that the key issues in seeking solutions to these problems lay in Swaraj (self-government) and Swadeshi. He found that the industrial and finance policies of the colonial government were designed to suppress local industry and favour the purchase of British imports, which he felt was a major reason for the lack of economic development in India. Dhingra embraced with fervour the Swadeshi Movement, which was about encouraging Indian industry and entrepreneurship while boycotting British (and other foreign) goods.
In 1904, as a student in the Master of Arts, Dhingra led a student protest against the principal’s order to have the college blazer made of cloth imported from Britain. He was expelled from the college for this. His father, who held a high, well-paying position in the government had a poor opinion about the agitationists. He told Madan Lal to apologise to the college management, and not participate in such activities again, and prevent his expulsion. Dhingra refused, and chose not to go home to discuss matters with his father, but to take up a job and live as per his own wishes.
Thus, following his expulsion, Dhingra took a job as a clerk at Kalka at the foot of the Shimla hills, in a firm that ran a Tonga carriage service to transport British families to Shimla for the summer months. But he was dismissed there for insubordination, he then worked as a factory labourer. Here, he attempted to organise a union, but was sacked for the attempt. He moved to Bombay and worked there for some time, again at low-levels. By now, his family was seriously worried about him, and his elder brother, Dr. Bihari Lal, compelled him to go to Britain to continue his higher education. Dhingra finally agreed, and in 1906, he departed for Britain to enroll at University College, London, to study Mechanical Engineering. His elder brother paid for his expenses.
Dhingra arrived in London a year after the foundation of Shyamaji Krishna Varma’s India House in 1905. This organisation was a meeting place for Indian revolutionaries located in Highgate. Dhingra came in contact with noted Indian independence and political activists Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Shyamji Krishna Varma, who were impressed by his perseverance and patriotism that turned Dhingra’s focus to the independence movement. Savarkar believed in a revolution and inspired Dhingra’s admiration in the cult of assassination. Later, Dhingra stayed away from India House and was known to frequent a shooting range on Tottenham Court Road. Later he joined Abhinav Bharat Mandal, a secretive society, founded by Savarkar and his brother Ganesh.
During this period, Savarkar, Dhingra, and other student activists were outraged by the 1905 Partition of Bengal. Dhingra was disowned for his political activities by his father Gitta Mall, who was the Chief Medical Officer in Amritsar, who published his decision in the newspapers.
Curzon Wyllie’s assassination
Several weeks before assassinating Curzon Wyllie, Dhingra had tried to kill George Curzon, Viceroy of India. He had also planned to assassinate the ex-Governor of Bengal, Bampfylde Fuller, but was late for the meeting the two were to attend and could not carry out his plan. Dhingra then decided to kill Curzon Wyllie. Curzon Wylie had joined the British Army in 1866 and the Indian Political Department in 1879. He had earned distinction in a number of locations including Central India and above all in Rajputana where he rose to the highest rank in the Service. In 1901 he was selected to be Political Aide-de-Camp to the Secretary of State for India. He was also the head of the Secret Police and had been trying to obtain information about Savarkar and his fellow revolutionaries. Curzon Wyllie was said to have been a close friend of Dhingra’s father.
On the evening of 1 July 1909, Dhingra, along with a large number of Indians and Englishmen had gathered to attend the annual ‘At Home’ function hosted by the Indian National Association at the Imperial Institute. 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. Cawas Lalcaca (or Lalkaka), a Parsi doctor who tried to save Sir Curzon, died of Dhingra’s sixth and seventh bullets, which he fired because Lalcaca had come between them.
Dhingra’s suicide attempt failed and he was overpowered. He was arrested immediately by the police.
Dhingra was tried in the Old Bailey on 23 July. He represented himself during his trial but did not recognize the legitimacy of the court. He stated that the assassination was done in the name of Indian independence and that his actions were motivated by patriotism. He also stated that he had not intended to kill Cawas Lalcaca. He was sentenced to death. After the judge announced his verdict, Dhingra is said to have said: “I am proud to have the honour of laying down my life for my country. But remember, we shall have our time in the days to come.” Madan Lal Dhingra was hanged on 17 August 1909 at Pentonville Prison. He also made a further statement, which is rarely mentioned.
Statement of Dhingra before Pronouncement of Verdict
“I do not want to say anything in defence of myself, but simply to prove the justice of my deed. As for myself, no English law court has got any authority to arrest and detain me in prison, or pass sentence of death on me. That is the reason I did not have any counsel to defend me. I maintain that if it is patriotic for an Englishman to fight against the Germans if they were to occupy this country, it is much more justifiable and patriotic in my case to fight against the English. I hold the English people responsible for the murder of 80 million Indian people in the last fifty years, and they are also responsible for taking away £100,000,000 every year from India to this country. I also hold them responsible for the hanging and deportation of my patriotic countrymen, who did just the same as the English people here are advising their countrymen to do.
And the Englishman who goes out to India and gets, say, £100 a month, that simply means that he passes a sentence of death on a thousand of my poor countrymen, because these thousand people could easily live on this £100, which the Englishman spends mostly on his frivolities and pleasures. Just as the Germans have no right to occupy this country, so the English people have no right to occupy India, and it is perfectly justifiable on our part to kill the Englishman who is polluting our sacred land.
While he was being removed from the court, he said to the Chief Justice – “Thank you, my Lord. I don’t care. I am proud to have the honour of laying down my life for the cause of my motherland.”
After Dhingra went to the gallows, The Times of 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.”
A stamp was released on Madan Lal Dhingra in 1992 by Government of India. After his execution, Dhingra’s body was denied Hindu rites and buried by the British authorities. His family having disowned him, the authorities refused to turn over the body to Savarkar. Dhingra’s coffin was accidentally found while authorities searched for the remains of Shaheed Udham Singh, and repatriated to India on 12 December 1976. His remains are kept in one of the main squares, which has been named after him, in the city of Akola in Maharashtra. Dhingra is widely remembered in India today, and was an inspiration at the time for revolutionaries such as Bhagat Singh and Chandrasekhar Azad.
By Kamlesh Tripathi
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