Centenary of Madan Lal Dhingra – Patriot, Revolutionary and Martyr

August 17th 2009 marked the 100th anniversary of the martyrdom of Madan Lal Dhingra, a great Indian revolutionary patriot, hanged in London for striking a blow for the freedom of his country. He was aged just 26.

Madan Lal Dhingra was born on 18 September 1883 in the Punjabi city of Amritsar into a rich Hindu family of doctors. In fact, his family were one of the wealthiest in Punjab and among the most servile to the British rulers. In a word, one could say that they were well paid for their treachery and servility.

Madan Lal, however, was to take a different road – one that led him to London and to his paying back his nation’s oppressors in a little of their own blood-stained coinage.

After he was expelled from college in Lahore for his underground political activities, he was disowned by his family. Undaunted, this young man, raised in privilege, worked as a clerk, a tonga (rickshaw) puller, and as a factory labourer. He was sacked after attempting to organise the workers into a union.

Upon the advice of the one brother who had not completely disowned him, he travelled to London and studied civil engineering at University College London from 1906-09. Here he came into contact with fellow patriots and revolutionaries, particularly those grouped around the student hostel, India House.

Enraged by the executions of freedom fighters in India, Dhingra and his closest comrades resolved that their country could only be freed by means of armed struggle and he acquired a revolver and two pistols and trained himself assiduously in their use.

On 1 July 1909, the National Indian Association held its annual celebration. Dhingra decided to go there and to shoot Sir William Hutt Curzon Wyllie, the aide-de-campe of the British Secretary of State for India, and a man notorious for instigating Indians to act as informers against their compatriots.

At around 11pm, he fired five shots at Wyllie’s face, four of which hit their target. In the ensuing melee, he also accidentally killed an Indian doctor who was trying to save Wyllie’s life. 

On 23 July, Dhingra was indicted for murder and sentenced to death. When the judge announced his verdict, Dhingra responded: “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.”

True to form, Mahatma Gandhi roundly condemned Dhingra’s heroic deed. Writing in the journal The Indian Opinion of 14 August 1909, he declared:

Even should the British leave in consequence of such murderous acts, who will rule in their place?… India can gain nothing from the rule of murderers – no matter whether they are black or white.”

To which, one can but respond with Dhingra’s words just before he faced 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.”

Dhingra’s defiant words before the judge in a London court bear repeating as they resonate down through the generations, reflecting the authentic, defiant and just stand of a risen people:

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.

And I maintain that if it is patriotic in 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 millions of 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. I am surprised at the terrible hypocrisy, the farce, and the mockery of the English people. They pose as the champions of oppressed humanity – the peoples of the Congo and the people of Russia – when there is terrible oppression and horrible atrocities committed in India; for example, the killing of two millions of people every year and the outraging of our women. In case this country is occupied by Germans, and the Englishman, not bearing to see the Germans walking with the insolence of conquerors in the streets of London, goes and kills one or two Germans, and that Englishman is held as a patriot by the people of this country, then certainly I am prepared to work for the emancipation of my Motherland. Whatever else I have to say is in the paper before the Court. I make this statement, not because I wish to plead for mercy or anything of that kind. I wish that English people should sentence me to death, for in that case the vengeance of my countrymen will be all the more keen. I put forward this statement to show the justice of my cause to the outside world, and especially to our sympathisers in America and Germany.”

When asked by the judge whether there was any reason for him not to be sentenced to death, he responded:

I have told you over and over again that I do not acknowledge the authority of the Court. You can do whatever you like. I do not mind at all. You can pass sentence of death on me. I do not care. You white people are all-powerful now, but, remember, we shall have our turn in the time to come, when we can do what we like.”

The British authorities dared not publish Dhingra’s defiant statements, but nevertheless the word spread and he inspired many other freedom fighters, including Bhagat Singh, who wrote about Dhingra in his sketches of revolutionary freedom fighters.

His heroic stand also drew the strong support of the Irish people, fighting the British Empire for their national liberation. On the day that Dhingra went bravely to his death, leaflets and posters headed ‘Ireland Honours Dhingra’ appeared widely in Dublin and around the country. Under the headline “A scandalous placard”, the London Times of 19 August 1909 reported:

Last night a large placard was posted within a mile of the city of Dublin on the main road leading from the city to Malahide, which bore the following inscription in big type:

“‘Ireland honours Madan Lal Dhingra, who was proud to lay down his life for the cause of his country.’

The poster bore no imprint and there was no clue as to its origin. It appears that a similar placard has been posted up in other parts of the country.”

Dhingra was hanged in Pentonville prison, north London. Almost exactly seven years later, on 3 August 1916, the Irish patriot Sir Roger Casement, whose eyes had been opened to the horrors of imperialism through his travels in Congo and Peru, was hanged in the same jail for his role in support of Dublin’s Easter Rising.

Dhingra’s body was refused cremation, as required by his Hindu faith, and like Casement, he was buried in quicklime in the prison grounds, his resting place marked only by a brick bearing the initials MLD. Finally, this helped to locate his remains and his coffin was exhumed on 12 December 1976 and returned home to India. Sir Roger Casement’s remains were returned to Dublin for a state funeral in 1965.

On 15 August 2009, the centenary of Dhingra’s martyrdom was marked at a Birmingham rally organised by the Indian Workers’ Association (IWA-GB) and attended by around 150 people. Speakers included Avtar Jouhl, IWA-GB General Secretary, whose account of Dhingra’s life informs the contents of this article, along with Harpal Brar, who spoke on behalf of Lalkar and the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), and a representative of the Socialist Labour Party. A cultural programme of poetry and songs was presented by Ashwani Kumar, Surinder Virdee, Prakash Azad and other progressive artists from the local community.

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