India House in Highgate…and a Highgate House in India
August 15, 2012
Hiding away on one of the leafy streets midway up Highgate Hill sits India House.
Bearing a blue plaque on the wall to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, there is little about 65 Cromwell Avenue that suggests it has the dubious claim of being the home of one of the first foreign terrorist cells to establish itself on on English soil.
Between 1905 and 1910, the house operated as an informal but hugely influential Indian nationalist organization. Fighting for Indian freedom from British Imperialism, India House was regarded as the one of the most revolutionary and radical centres of Indian nationalism outside India during the British Empire. Valentine Choril, the then-editor of the Times, even labelled the unassuming Victorian pile in a quiet, well-off side street “the most dangerous organization outside India.”
In the late 1890s, an Oxford-educated Indian named Shyamji Krishnavarma Bhansali (commonly known as S K Varma, 1857-1939) returned to England from India, where he had become increasingly resentful of British rule. He purchased a house in Muswell Hill with a view to establishing a base for an international Indian independence movement – one in the very heart of enemy territory.
His aim was to promote nationalist views amongst Indian students studying in Britain and Varma was visited at the house by a vast number of social thinkers and revolutionaries, including Lenin and Gandhi (then working as a lawyer.)
In 1905, Varma published his first issue of his anti-colonist newspaper The Indian Sociologist and inaugurated a new organisation called “The Indian Home Rule Society”.
1909 edition of The Indian Sociologist
The first meeting laid out the society’s aims: securing home rule for India, carrying on propaganda in England to achieve it, and spreading information about freedom and national unity in India. He followed the dictum of the philosopher Herbert Spencer (most famous for coining the phrase “survival of the fittest”, he is buried in nearby Highgate Cemetery): “Resistance to aggression is not simply justified, but imperative.”
In the same year, Varma purchased 65 Cromwell Avenue to be used as a hostel for 25 Indian students.
While ostensibly accommodation for students who were often racially discriminated against by other landlords, Varma’s underlying intention was to create a new generation of Indian radical patriots. It was formally inaugurated as India House by HM Hyndman, a Scottish Socialist, on 1 July 1905.
Varma may have been the driving force behind the foundation, but the activities which took place inside the house are most closely associated with Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), described as an “Indian patriot and philospher” on the blue plaque.
Savarkar, considered the central icon of modern Hindu nationalist political parties, lived at the house from 1906 to 1909, and together with the other men now regarded as the founding fathers of Indian communism and Hindu nationalism – men like VN Chatterjee, Lala Har Daval and VSS Aiyer – he started radical student societies and produced publications calling for complete Indian independence by revolutionary means.
Still only in his early twenties in his time in Highgate, Savarkar was a fiery young law student from Pune, whose fierce and incendiary nationalism was not shared by all of the students in the house.
Gandhi made another visit to the organization (his first to India House) in October 1906, and it has been suggested that Savarkar’s militant views about revolutionary violence (and the consequences resulting from those practices) may have influenced Gandhi’s subsequent nonviolent philosophy.
By 1906, the organization was starting to attract the attention of the British authorities. An editorial in the Times suggested Varma should be prosecuted for preaching “disloyal sentiments” to the Indian students staying in Cromwell Avenue. Following police visits to both the house and the printers of The Indian Sociologist in 1907, and fearing arrest was imminent, Varma fled to France, and Savarkar took over the operation of India House.
With Savarkar in charge, India House became swiftly radicalized. Sunday night meetings took place, where Savarkar selected topics for lectures ranging from the philosophy of revolution to bomb-making and assassination techniques. Badges – known as Mutiny Buttons – were produced commemorating the Indian Mutiny of 1857, and the Indians who had died were referred to as ‘martyrs.’ The outbuilding of India House was converted to a “war workshop” where chemistry students attempted to produce explosives and manufacture bombs, while the printing press turned out “seditious” literature, including bomb-making manuals and pamphlets promoting violence toward Europeans in India.
Savarkar was at the heart of the scheme, spending a great deal of time in the explosives workshop and emerging on some evenings, according to a fellow revolutionary, “with telltale yellow stains of Picric acid on his hands”. The residents of India House practiced shooting at a range in Tottenham Court Road and rehearsed the assassinations they planned to carry out.
In 1909, Savarkar published The Indian War of Independence, which was considered so inflammatory that the British Library removed it from their catalogue to prevent Indian students from accessing it. As Savarkar’s speeches grew increasingly strident – he called for revolution, widespread violence, and the murder of all Englishmen in India – Scotland Yard placed India House under surveillance, and started to send undercover officers to meetings.
Even so, they totally underestimated the true danger that was slowly fermenting.
In July 1909, a member of India House named Madan Lal Dhingra assasinated Sir WH Curzon – an Indian army officer with close ties to the secretary of state of India, Lord Hamilton. Two years before, The Indian Sociologist had named Curzon as one of the “old unrepentant foes of India who have fattened on the misery of the Indian peasant every (sic) since they began their career.”
A student at the University of London and the son of a wealthy Hindu doctor, Dhingra shot Curzon at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington at an event organized by the National Indian Association.
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.
He was hanged at Pentonville the following month. But Indian intelligence sources suggested that the assassination was Savarkar’s brainchild, and that further actions were planned in Britain as well as India.
The Metropolitan police were unable to bring a prosecution against Savarkar, since he had an alibi for the night, but over the following year, police and political sources brought pressure on the residents of India House to leave England. Many moved to Paris (in the footsteps of Varma) where the Paris Indian Society gradually took India House’s place as the centre of Indian nationalism on the continent.
The police brought strong pressure on India House and began gathering intelligence on Indian students in London. These, along with threats to their careers, robbed India House of its student support base. It slowly began to disassemble, and the residence was treated “akin to a leper’s home” by the Indian students in the city.
In March 1910, Savarkar was arrested upon his return to London from Paris where he had briefly fled to. He was put in Brixton prison, charged with sedition and abetment to murder and deported back to India. He was freed in 1924 after serving 14 years, and turned to politics.
He established the Hindu Mahasabha and working throughout the late 1920s, 1930s and 1940s towards Indian independence from British rule: pro-Hindu, pro-Indian self-rule, and largely anti-violence.
Savarkar was one of the pivotal people in the independence movement, but disagreed with those around him: He did not like the Muslim Jinna – he believed the Indian Muslims and Indian Hindus were two different races – and he disapproved of Gandhi’s hunger strike in 1942.
Following independence, the murder of Gandhi in 1948 by Nathuram Godse – the editor of a newspaper that held Mahasabha views – led to reprisals against Hindus, and Savarker’s house was attacked. In May 1948, he was arrested with nine other men and was accused of being behind Gandhi’s assassination. A witness stated to the court that Savarker had sent two of his men a mission to assassinate Gandhi and Prime Minister Nehru, charging them to “be successful and to return.”
In February 1949, Savarkar was the only one of the nine men to be released without charge – two (including Godse) were executed, five transported for life and one turned King’s evidence. He largely retired after the trial, and died in 1966 at the age of 83.
Over the years, Savarkar has been viewed as both patriot and terrorist, but his slow ascent to respectability has no better marker than the blue plaque on the side of the house that the British establishment once drove him from.
But that’s nothing compared to his veneration in parts of India. In December 2010, an exact brick-by-brick replica of the Highgate house was built in Savarker’s birthplace of Mandvi-Kutch, Gujurat. Set in 52 acres, the replica house contains a children’s play area, statues and a fountain.
The only thing it lacks is the blue plaque.
UPDATE: Thanks to Nicole for the following clarification: “The museum in Gujerat which includes an exact replica of India House was built to commemorate SK Varma, who founded it, rather than Savarkar.”