Read the previous part of The Untold Story of Savarkar here – Like Hidden Fire.
Vinayak Savarkar was India House hostels’ director. He had come to London in 1906, ostensibly to study law, but in fact to learn the art of bomb-making and revolutionary warfare. Ever since, he had devoted his life to revolutionary activities, and to recruiting and training others for the task ahead. He would spend long hours in the bomb-making workshop, experimenting and teaching – emerging, one fellow conspirator recalled, ‘with the tell-tale yellow stains of picric acid on his hands’. He would also regularly travel down to a pistol range off Tottenham Court Road where he and other young revolutionaries from India House rehearsed the assassinations they planned to carry out, though they were careful not to let the British proprietor realize this.
Savarkar had also written a highly inflammatory account of the Indian Mutiny as seen through Indian eyes. Called The Indian War of Independence, this was originally written in the Marathi language and intended for publication and widespread distribution in India. However, the British authorities there got wind of it and somehow managed to obtain part of the text. Its publication, even before it was completed, was banned as seditious, and no printers in India were prepared to take the risk, however sympathetic they might be towards its viewpoint. An English translation was prepared, nut British publishers and printers were warned by the Home Office that the book, which called upon Indians to rise once more against their British oppressors, was considered highly seditious.
Finally, after pressure had been put on the French government by the British Foreign Office to prevent it from being produced in Paris, in 1909 a Dutch printer agreed to handle it, the British not discovering until it was too late. Printed with false dust-wrappers, and purporting to be copies of Pickwick Papers and other literary classics, the forbidden work was smuggled into India in large quantities. It was very soon to become the bible of political extremist in India. Valentine Chirol, Foreign Editor of The Times, who managed to obtain an early copy of it, described it as ‘a very remarkable history of the Mutiny’. It combined, he observed, ‘considerable research with the grossest perversion of facts, and great literary power with the most savage hatred’. Indeed, so inflammatory was it considered by the authorities that the British Museum Library’s copy of it was excluded from the catalogue to prevent Indian students in London from reading it. In India the book was to remain banned until the British finally left nearly forty years later. Such notoriety naturally made the work highly sought after, even among Europeans in India, and copies quickly began to change hands at many times the original price, the proceeds going towards the revolutionary cause. As funds swelled, from this and other sources, scholarships were set up for young Indians to come to London to study revolutionary warfare, and named in memory of those who had been hanged by the British.
In view of all this, it may be asked, how it was possible for the authorities in London not to be aware of the dangerous deeds being plotted against them behind the walls of India House? The principal reason for this failure was the almost total lack of liaison at that time between Sir Charles Cleveland’s organization, based in Shimla, and Scotland Yard, then largely unused to the idea of political crime. Indeed, in the summer of 1907, the Under-Secretary of State for India, Sir William Lee-Warner, had complained of the ‘utter uselessness’ of Scotland yard in gathering information on the activities Indian revolutionaries in Britain. The following year, while on a visit to London, the Viceroy’s private secretary wrote to warn his chief of the growing hostility of Indian students there towards British rule. As a result, in 1909 it was agreed between the British and Indian governments that a retired Indian Police officer with wide political experience should be employed in London to keep a close if discreet watch on the activities and movements of extremist groups. By this time India House was beginning to come under suspicion, and efforts were made to penetrate what the Press now called ‘the House of Secrets’, using paid Indian informers. But all this had come too late to save Sir William Curzon Wyllie from the assassin’s pistol – handed personally to Dhingra, it later transpired, by Savarkar himself.
Although the police had insufficient evidence to charge him with being an accessory to the shooting, for he had been careful to leave town that day, Savarkar could see that London was rapidly becoming too hot for him. It was only a question of time before the authorities swooped. In early January 1910, therefore, he slipped quietly over to Paris, determined to make it his new revolutionary headquarters, away from the prying eyes of the British authorities. Following his flight, detectives in London and in India had been making up for lost time, however. They had managed to obtain evidence linking him with the smuggling of firearms into India, one of which had been used to kill a British official. Unknown to Savarkar, a warrant was issued for his arrest in the event of his setting foot again in Britain, while orders were given for extradition proceedings to be commenced against him for trial in India.
In the spring of 1910, despite the urgent warnings of his friends, Savarkar decided to return briefly to London – lured, it has been said, by a female decoy (more on this in later parts). As he stepped off the boat-train at Victoria Station, he was met and arrested by Scotland Yard officers. Among other charges, he was accused of ‘waging war, or abetting the waging of war, against His Majesty the King Emperor of India’, and ‘conspiring to deprive His Majesty the King of the Sovereignty of British India’. More specifically, he was charged with procuring and distributing arms, inciting people to murder, and delivering seditious speeches. In India, men who had obeyed his exhortations had been hanged for less than that.
After an order had been obtained from the Bow Street magistrate for his extradition, Savarkar was put aboard a vessel, together with an armed police escort, bound for Bombay. But on reaching Marseilles he managed to squeeze through a port-hole while his escort’s back was turned and dive into the harbor. He struck out for the shore, where it had been secretly arranged that friends would pick him up in a car. Unfortunately, though they had lingered too long in a café and were not there to meet him. By this time his escort had caught up with him, and he was dragged back to the ship in handcuffs. Because this occurred in French soil, an international row blew up over the affair, but by then he was safely in Bombay. To hang him, the British authorities knew, would merely make a martyr of him. Instead, the man described by the Governor of Bombay as ‘one of the most dangerous men that India has produced’ was sentenced to transportation for life to the Andaman Islands, at time known as Britain’s ‘Devil’s isle’.
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