Madan Lal Dhingra (1883–1909) was an Indian revolutionary freedom fighter. While studying in England, he assassinated Sir William Hutt Curzon Wyllie, a British official, hailed as one of the first acts of revolution in the Indian independence movement in the 20th century.
Madan Lal Dhingra was born on 18 Sept 1883 in a rich Hindu family of doctors in 1883 in Amritsar in the province of Punjab. His father was a wealthy eye specialist and Civil Surgeon of Amritsar. Some say he was the first Indian doctor to reach that eminent position. Madan Lal’s father, Dr Dhingra had seven sons in all: Kundanlal ( a businessman ), Dr Mohanlal, Dr Biharilal (MRCP 1895), Chamanlal (Barrister from Middle Temple 1899), Chunilal, MADANLAL and Bhajanlal (Barrister from Grays Inn 1911).
Dhingra’s family were loyalists of the British, and disowned him after his expulsion from college in Lahore owing to illicit political activities. Dhingra had to work as a clerk, a Tonga (rickshaw) puller, and a factory labourer. Dhingra attempted to organize a union there, but was sacked. He worked for sometime in Bombay before acting upon the advice of his elder brother and going to England for higher studies.
Madanlal 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. Dhingra’s elder brother Dr Biharilal passed MRCP from University College Hospital in 1895). Here he came in contact with Savarkar at India House. (This house at 65 Cromwell Avenue, London was purchased by Shyamji Krishnavarma in 1905. It was to be used as a students’ hostel.)
He reached England and joined a University for the engineering degree in the month of October. Dhingra was overjoyed to be in England and indulged in merrymaking. He was a happy-go-lucky man and used to take pleasure in wearing costly, smart suits; he used cosmetics and scents, and spent hours together before the mirror combing his hair. He liked to go for long walks in the streets of London in the evenings and spent much time in the company of friends. Dhingra was a highly emotional young man and was greatly attracted by the heroic deeds of Khudiram Bose and Kanailal. He came in contact with Vinayak Damodar Savarkar by whom he was greatly inspired. He also formed close contacts with Shyamji Krishna Verma, Har Dayal, Gian Chand and Kore Gakar, who were all revolutionaries and associated with the ‘India House’ in London. He was present at a meeting which was addressed by Lala Lajpat Rai during his stay in London. He was also associated with the Indian Home Rule Society and the Abhinava Bharat Society. His mind dwelt, during this period, on the British atrocities in India.
Savarkar believed in revolution by any means, and supposedly gave Dhingra arms training, apart from membership in a secretive society, the Abhinav Bharat Mandal. He was also a member of India House, the base for Indian student political activity.
During this period, Savarkar, Dhingra and other student activists were enraged by the execution of freedom fighters such as Khudiram Bose, Kannai Dutt, Satinder Pal and Kanshi Ram in India. It is this event that is attributed by many historians as having led Savarkar and Dhingra scheme of exacting direct revenge upon the British.
Curzon Wyllie’s assassination
National Indian Association was an association in London which tried to attract the Indian youths who went to England for higher studies. Miss Emma Josephine Beck was its secretary. Dhingra visited the office of the National Indian Association in the month of March 1909. He made friends with Emma Beck and expressed a desire to become a member. The very next month he enrolled himself as a member. He bought a revolver in London and another Belgian pistol from a private person. He started regular shooting practice and recorded his practice in his note-book.
On 1st July 1909, the National Indian Association was to celebrate its annual day. The venue chosen for the annual day celebrations was the Jehangir Hall of the Imperial Institute. Dhingra collected information from Emma Beck and discussed his plans with Savarkar.
Wearing a sky-blue turban in the Punjabi style and a smart suit, a necktie and dark glasses, Dhingra filled up his coat pockets with a revolver, two pistols and two knives.
Dhingra reached the party at eight. He went around talking to people there for some time. It was past ten when political aide-de-camp to the Secretary of State for India Curzon Wyllie and his wife arrived. Their arrival added zest to the merriment. It was about eleven when the proceeding ended. Wyllie got down from the dais. Then there was some music. Wyllie was moving around talking to people informally.
Dhingra fired five shots right at his face, four of which hit their target. Cowasji Lalkaka, a Parsee doctor who tried to save Sir Curzon, died of Madan Lal’s sixth and seventh bullets, which the latter fired because Lalkaka had caught hold of him.
Dhingra was tried in the Old Bailey Court . The police started the trial in an alarming manner, producing five witnesses, including an Indian, Madan Mohan Sinha, who grappled with Dhingra.
On July 10, the accused made a statement that exposed the tyranny of the British and on July 23, he was indicted for murder and sentenced to death. He stated that he did not intend to kill Cowasji Lalkaka. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to death. After the judge announced his verdict, Dhingra is said to have stated, “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.” . When Madanlal shot dead Sir Wyllie, Bhajanlal was in London studying Law at Grays Inn. Four days after the event Bhajanlal attended the public meeting to condemn Madanlal. On account of that, Madanlal refused to see Bhajanlal when the latter visited him in the prison.
After he was hanged on 17 August 1909, his cremation was not allowed. The British had not the courage to allow the publication of Dhingra’s court statement which many British papers had quoted already His father, Sahib Ditta, sent a cable from India: “I disown Madan as my son. He has disgraced my fair name.” His brother declared that he had nothing to do with Dhingra any more, since what Dhingra had done was a serious crime. Soon after Dhingra’s martyrdom, his brothers dropped the surname Dhingra, with the exception of Dr Biharilal. As their first names ended in Lal they adopted that as the surname. e.g Chamanlal Dhingra became Chaman Lal.
While most of the British press, and liberal and moderate Indians condemned Dhingra’s act, it nevertheless excited the Indian community in England and back in India. Guy Aldred, the printer of The Indian Sociologist was sentenced to twelve months hard labour. The August issue of The Indian Sociologist had carried a story sympathetic to Dhingra. Dhingra’s actions also evoked some sympathy from the Irish, who were fighting their own struggle at the time.
Some modern historians claim that the trial was grossly unfair and biased. Dhingra was not given a defense counsel (though this was at his own request, in support of his contention that no British court had authority to try him), and the entire process was completed in a single day. Some legal experts claim that it was not the business of the court at the time to decide the time and location of execution.Gandhi condemned Dhingra’s actions. To quote,
It is being said in defense of Sir Curzon Wyllie’s assassination that…just as the British would kill every German if Germany invaded Britain, so too it is the right of any Indian to kill any Englishman…. The analogy…is fallacious. If the Germans were to invade Britain, the British would kill only the invaders. They would not kill every German whom they met…. They would not kill an unsuspecting German, or Germans who are guests.
Even should the British leave in consequence of such murderous acts, who will rule in their place? Is the Englishman bad because he is an Englishman? Is it that everyone with an Indian skin is good? If that is so, there should be [no] angry protest against oppression by Indian princes. India can gain nothing from the rule of murderers—no matter whether they are black or white. Under such a rule, India will be utterly ruined and laid waste.The Indian Opinion, August 14th 1909.
The shooting brought to the fore the facts related to economic exploitation of Indians. People like eminent historian Professor Bipan Chander said the young man had given us (Indians) back our pride. Thirty-one years later in 1940 Udham Singh repeated the act in London to avenge the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh Amritsar.
This statement was said just before he died at the gallows:
“I believe that a nation held down by 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. 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. 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. My only prayer to God is that I may be re-born of the same mother and I may re-die in the same sacred cause till the cause is successful. Vande Mataram!”
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!
At the time, Dhingra’s body was denied Hindu rites and was buried by British authorities. His family having disowned him, the authorities refused to turn over the body to Savarkar.
He was buried within the Pentonville prison yard in North London and a brick in the nearby wall was marked MLD which ultimately helped locate his remains.
Dhingra’s body was accidentally found while authorities searched for the remains of Shaheed Udham Singh, and re-patriated to India on December 13, 1976. Both men came from Amritsar.
Dhingra is widely remembered in India today, and was an inspiration at the time to revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh and Chandrasekhar Azad. Udham Singh’s coffin was exhumed on 11 July 1974 and flown back to India.
Madanlal Dhingra’s coffin was exhumed on 12 December 1976 in the presence of Natwar Singh, then Acting High Commisioner for India. This coffin too was flown back to India.