In the summer of 1911, the head of the British Indian Secret Service, Sir Charles Cleveland, warned the government that his men had uncovered a mysterious and dangerous conspiracy aimed at overthrowing British rule in India. ‘Like some hidden fire’ he told a gathering of defence chiefs in Shimla, this seditious movement was spreading across the country. If extinguished in one place, it immediately flared up in another. The conspirators, he said, were not the usual agitators and hotheads, who were well known to the authorities and carefully watched. These men were highly intelligent and well organized. While maintaining absolute secrecy, they carried out assassinations, bombings and armed robberies – to obtain funds – the length and breadth of India. It all appeared to be part of a skillfully orchestrated overall strategy directed against the British Raj. As to who was behind it, he was unable to say. ‘My own impression’, he told his audience. ‘is that it is directed and controlled by one great intellect – but whose?’
As those present were aware, Cleveland’s reputation for uncovering native conspiracies, and sending the plotters to the gallows, was legendary. ‘His flair’, a colleague once observed, ‘was amazing. His genius for solving problems was almost uncanny.’ Yet this time the Balliol-educated Secret Service chief frankly admitted that he, and the best brains in his organization, were baffled. Among his listeners that morning was Lieutenant Norman Bray, a young British Indian Army intelligence officer, who jotted down Cleveland’s words. If the latter’s organization – ‘perhaps the most efficient of its kind in the world’ – was unable to discover who was behind the conspiracy, he wrote later, then there could only be one explanation. Those directing it must be doing so from outside India’s frontiers – behind the reach of Cleveland’s men.
Fears of an enemy within, directed and funded from outside, were nothing new in a country where a handful of Britons controlled the lives and destinies of one-fifth of the entire human race. Ever since the Indian War of Independence, only half a century earlier, Europeans living in India had shuddered at the thought of another such bloodbath, this time properly planned and possibly assisted by a hostile foreign power or other agency. After all, there were still men and women living who could remember the bloody horror of the 1857 uprising. The fear of being murdered in one’s sleep by one’s servants was for many a real one, while for the service chiefs the ultimate nightmare was an armed mutiny in the ranks of the Indian Army, with the disgruntled sepoys turning their weapons against their British officers.
Cleveland’s somber warning came at a time of rapidly worsening violence throughout India, especially in Bengal, most of it directed against the British. In the winter of 1907, two attempts had been made to blow up the official train of Sir Andrew Fraser, the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal, both of which had failed, although the second left a crater five feet wide on the track. The following year an Indian student had tried to assassinate Fraser with a revolver at close range, though this too had failed due to the weapon misfiring. In November 1909, two bombs were thrown at the open carriage of the Viceroy, Lord Minto, as he and his wife drove through the streets of Ahmedabad, but both fell short. However, two Englishwomen were killed when a bomb was tossed into their carriage in the belief that it contained a British official who had recently survived a parcel-bomb attack.
Following the shooting of a British district magistrate by a priest, the murder weapon, a modern Browning automatic pistol, was discovered to have been smuggled into the country, together with others, in the false bottom of a suitcase. This suggested that the murder was not an isolated act, but part of something bigger, organized from outside India. Confirmation of this was soon provided by further discoveries, including that of a sophisticated, sixty-page bomb-making manual, likewise smuggled into the country. This not only explained in detail, with diagrams, how to manufacture bombs and explosives, but also how best to use these against individuals, public buildings, banks police stations, barracks, railways and other key targets. Before long further copies of the work, together with quantities of the chemicals it recommended for explosive-making, began to come to light during police raids. However, it contained no clues as to its author or country of origin.
Although arrests were made, and some of those convicted were hanged, or jailed for long terms, the real brains behind these crimes always managed to avoid capture, giving rise to British fears that they were facing a well-organized conspiracy. For despite the introduction of new emergency laws designed to combat what Sir Charles Cleveland called ‘politico-criminal activity’, and increasing numbers of arrests, the outrages continued to spread and to multiply. They now included armed raids on trains known to be carrying bullion, and to the homes of wealthy Indians. At the same time arsenals were plundered and weapons seized from isolated police stations. Statue of Queen Victoria and other Raj heroes were tarred or mutilated, and British clubs and churches attacked, while violent riots and other disturbances broke out in a number of major cities. But so far there was no evidence to connect any of this with any foreign power. Nor had the mysterious conspirators succeeded in killing any senior British official, though not for want of trying. Almost all their victims, up to that time, had been Indians – policemen, magistrates, police informers and minor Raj officials.
But then, in the summer of 1909 in the very heart of London, a young Indian assassin shot dead Sir William Curzon Wyllie, ADC to the Secretary of State for India. At his trial at the Old Bailey, the assassin – the Punjabi revolutionary Madan Lal Dhingra – made no attempt to defend himself, merely insisting that his action was morally justified. ‘Just as the Germans have no right to occupy your country,’ he declared, ‘so you have no right to occupy mine.’ If an Englishman killed Germans who occupied Britain, Dhingra went on, then he would be hailed as a hero and a patriot. Found guilty, he was sentenced to death and hanged at Pentonville Prison. His last request – that his body should not be touched by a non-Indian, and that his clothes should be sold to raise money for the anti-British cause – was refused. He was buried within the prison grounds, where his remains lay until returned to India in 1976.
The assassination of Curzon Wyllie naturally sent a shockwave through the British Establishment. But even now it did not dawn on anyone quite what else might be going on in London under the very noses of the authorities. At the heart of it was India House, officially a hostel for Indian students living in London. Situated at 65 Cromwell Avenue, Highgate, it was a large Victorian house with accommodation for thirty students. In fact, unknown to the authorities, it was a large Victorian house with secret headquarters of the Indian revolutionary movement in Britain. Here lectures were given to carefully chosen audiences on topics ranging from revolutionary philosophy and strategy to bomb-making and assassination techniques. In a small outhouse at the back, known as the ‘war workshop’, Indian chemistry students conducted bomb-making experiments, while elsewhere in the building seditious literature was produced for smuggling into India. This included bomb-making manuals, and pamphlets preaching violence against the British in India, some aimed at inciting sepoy units to mutiny and murder their European officers. In addition, hidden on the premises, was a small arsenal of weapons awaiting dispatch to India by some discreet means.
The genius behind these nefarious activities was a 27-year-old Indian intellectual named Vinayak Savarkar.
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