1909: Madanlal Dhingra, Indian revolutionary

A century ago today, the first Indian revolutionary martyr to be hanged in England was put to death at Pentonville Prison.

Madanlal Dhingra (or Madan Lal Dhingra) was a bright young scion of a loyalist Indian family that disowned him when he took to radical politics.

As an engineering student in London, Dhingra quaffed the martyr’s cup by assassinating Sir William Curzon Wyllie, a career imperial official spending his golden years keeping tabs on nationalist types among England’s Indian students. (Evidently, he could have been doing his job better.)

Dhingra rejected the legitimacy of the British court, disdained a defense, and was sentenced to death on the first day of trial. His martyrdom being the shared object of both the prosecutors and the offender, he was not long for the world — supposedly checking out with the well-turned last words,

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.

Dhingra is a noteworthy martyr to the cause of Indian independence now, but like anything else things weren’t so black and white at the time. Gandhi was not down with Dhingra — Gandhi’s own differences with Hindu extremists would eventually cost him his life — and plenty of Indian liberal types shared his abhorrence.

On the other hand, a subversive Brit like poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt filled his blog-like diary with admiration for the assassin during the weeks of his celebrity — writing of this date, for instance:

They have done me the honour of choosing [my birthday] for Dingra’s execution, thus making of it an anniversary which will be regarded as one of martyrdom in India for generations.

And reflecting later, after the hanging:

People talk about political assassination as defeating its own end, but that is nonsense; it is just the shock needed to convince selfish rulers that selfishness has its limits of imprudence.

Other subjects of the Empire were inclined to agree.

From the Aug. 19, 1909 London Times.

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