How Shall We Remember Madal Lal Dhingra?

March 23, 2010

Madan Lal Dhingra (1883-1909)

Madan Lal Dhingra was born on February 18, 1883 to an affluent Hindu-Khatri family of Amritsar, Punjab. As a college student in Lahore, he was closely associated with the extremist political activities of Lala Lajpat Rai and Ajit Singh. In 1906 he moved to London for higher studies where he came into contact with a group of militant nationalist Indians and joined India House, the hub of Indian independence activities in London. During this period, Dhingra, V D Savarkar and other members of the group were enraged by the execution of militant leaders such as Khudiram Bose in India. In reaction to this, on 1st July 1909 Dhingra killed Curzon Wyllie in London, the political assistant to the secretary of state for India. Dhingra was arrested and after a brief trial he was hanged in England on August 17,1909.

The political actions and beliefs of Madan Lal Dhingra were representative of the early phase of revolutionary nationalism in India. This stream of anti-colonial struggle grew in reaction to the mendicant and moderate politics of the Indian National Congress. The alternate anti-imperialist militant movement intensified after the partition of Bengal in 1905 and became particularly strong in Bengal and Punjab, while emigre nationalists organised Indian students in Britain and the United States. Although this early revolutionary nationalism in both India and England was informed by Hindu religiosity, its contribution to the later radical Indian politics cannot be underestimated. This stream articulated the economic and political exploitation of India under an oppressive colonial rule and struggled to gain complete independence, a demand that the Indian National Congress could raise only by 1930. The heroism and martyrdom of leaders such as Madan Lal Dhingra and Kartar Singh Sarabha became an inspiration for Bhagat Singh and his comrades, who critically engaged with this revolutionary tradition. – Ed.

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How Shall We Remember Madal Lal?

By Radha D’Souza. May 2009.

Madan Lal has been dead for one hundred years. In this centenary year of his martyrdom different people give different reasons to remember him. Vast majority of the people in independent India feel grateful to the freedom fighters. If asked: ‘why should we remember Madan Lal?’ vast majority of Indians today will reply: ‘because of people like Madal Lal who made the supreme sacrifice of their lives we live free from colonial rule today.’ Their feelings of gratitude are exploited by various political parties.

The political parties in India today like to see the freedom fighters as founders of the Delhi takht. They wish to justify their claims to succeed to the Delhi takht by invoking memories of martyrs like Madan Lal. Each party emphasises a different aspect of Madan Lal’s life. The BJP clings to the fact that Madan Lal shouted ‘Vande Mataram’ before he went to the gallows, and therefore they want us to assume that Madan Lal wanted a free India to be a Hindu India. The Congress claims that he began the fight for India’s freedom, a task which they, the Congress, completed. The Communist parties claim he was anti-imperialist, and it was the support of socialist movements for anti-colonial struggles that won freedom in the end. Thus, like the Hindus and Muslims who fought to claim Kabir’s body after his death, the political parties argue about Madan Lal’s martyrdom to justify their own claims to the Delhi takht. Just as Kabir’s main message to rise above being Hindus and Muslims was lost on his followers, the message of Madan Lal’s martyrdom is lost on those who inherited the mantle of independence.

Why do people remember those who have been dead for a hundred, five hundred, thousand, two-thousand years? It cannot be because they did or said things that remain true for all times. Time changes everything. We do not dress or speak or live like our grandparent’s generation did. Madan Lal spoke and acted for his generation of Indians: Indians who lived under colonial rule, taxed and bled by economic and military oppression of British rule. Indians continue to be taxed and bled by economic and military oppression, but not of the colonial type. The question invites us to consider why some individuals transcend time and continue to inspire successive generations of human beings; why some remain with us, timeless as it were, as our heroes, gurus, teachers, or whatever?

Madan Lal lived at a time when the world was in turmoil, much like today. The fires of the First War of Independence in 1857 continued to smoulder but it was the partition of Bengal in 1905 that ignited the embers and started the second war for independence. India was never the same after 1905. Elsewhere, in China, Sun Yat Sen wrote the manifesto for Chinese freedom, revolutionary movements for socialism raged in Germany, Russia, and other parts of Europe, banks collapsed, capitalism was in serious trouble, and capitalist/colonial states were desperate to find ways out of the economic and political crisis. The turmoil in Madan Lal’s world is easy for us to imagine today as we live through economic collapse, wars, political opportunism. Everywhere people are looking for new answers.

People respond to upheavals in different ways. In the main, throughout human history, we can find three types of responses to any crisis. The first type of response is to appeal to reason and expedience. This type of response asks us to be ‘sensible’, to be ‘practical’, and reason urges us to negotiate, to settle disputes amicably. During times of upheaval, they urge us to renounce passions and be guided by reason alone. If reason was more powerful than passions would the upheavals have occurred in the first place?

The second type of response is withdrawal and renunciation. In this type of response people understand the rights and wrongs of the situation but they argue that inaction is the best response. They are afraid that to right a wrong we may commit another wrong. If we commit violence against a violator, if we torment our tormentors, are we not behaving exactly like them? By being pacifists we neither endorse what is wrong, nor do we do anything wrong or inconsistent, so they argue. When a house is on fire, if everyone abstains from doing anything because the house might be abused in the future by thieves or misused in someway, then the house will burn down and will not be there for the poor or the rich, for rightful or wrongful uses.

The third type of response appeals to our hearts and invites us to act by extending ourselves. This type of appeal appears unreasonable and passionate and it is often described as insurgency or rebellion. Madan Lal’s response was of the third type.

Throughout human history the last type of response, the appeal to passion and action, has invited the strongest criticism from societies. Most martyrs became martyrs because their societies opposed their actions; otherwise they would not be martyrs. At the same time it is only the third type of response, it is the martyrs who are remembered a hundred, two hundred, two thousand years later. In remembering Madan Lal it is important to understand why this is so. Why is it that the people who opt for reason and negotiations are popular during their lifetime but soon forgotten, those who opt for abstention and detachment are at best respected but kept at a distance, but the third type, those who appeal to emotion and action live and inspire successive generations? For example Jesus Christ was crucified by his society but remembered two thousand years later.

Change rarely occurs by appealing to the mind and the intellect. If good arguments and intellectual soundness could change things the world would be a different place. Few scholars have changed the world, and those who changed the world were rarely scholars. There is no dearth of good scholarship or excellent intellectual reasoning. Change occurs through action, and action is never based on reason alone. Action demands that understanding translates to feelings; that the head speaks to the heart. Action demands that we feel for the injustices around us and the conditions of people; that we extend ourselves beyond understanding the causes of the turmoil and feel for the debasement of humanity.

Action always involves taking a leap from the known into the unknown. It involves transcending ourselves, extending ourselves beyond our individual self, our societies and social interests to grasp the threats and dangers to the human spirit in a specific time-place context. Through our actions we reach out to humanity. The martyrs seem to say to us through their actions: ‘we know today is dreadful and unbearable; we do not know what tomorrow will be like, we have not seen tomorrow, but let us give it our best shot.’. Thus, they grasp humanity’s strivings for freedom and dignity which is eternal, but nonetheless, their actions are grounded firmly in the specifics of their contexts and situations. For this reason successive generations of people find the human spirit that guided the actions of martyrs inspiring even though the context is different from their own.

Sometimes fake leaders appeal to the hearts of people and appeal for action but without grasping the human condition and the human aspirations in their specific contexts. Such fake heroes become responsible for so much destruction that far from being martyrs they are vilified and demonised. Hitler appealed to German hearts and exhorted them to action but he could not grasp the wider human spirit and did not appeal to the humanity that is in every person. People like Madan Lal appealed, through their actions, to the sense of injustice and humanity that is in every human being. He grasped the human longing for freedom and dignity which is eternal. His actions were guided by universal human aspirations for dignity and freedom but based on the specific political and social context of Indian people living under colonial rule.

Madan Lal grew up in a context when many prominent Indians tried to make peace with the colonisers. They learnt English, joined the civil service, they were knighted and included in the corridors of power. They understood intellectually that any benefits British rule had could only be limited. They understood capitalism thrived on colonial loot, nevertheless they thought by being realistic they could improve the situation. Dadabhai Naoroji for example wrote about how wealth from India was siphoned off to shore up the British Empire, but nevertheless he thought by participating in parliamentary politics he could improve the conditions for Indians. By 1905 it was clear to the vast majority of Indians that seats in parliaments would never bring dignity and freedom.

When Madan Lal was young the great religious revivalisms were offering another type of solution. Dayanand Saraswati’s Arya Samaj, Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Pramahuans, Sri Arobindo, amongst others hoped to restore the dignity of the people of India by appealing to scriptures and scholars from pre-colonial times. Their efforts did not take Indian aspirations for freedom and dignity very far. Madan Lal grasped that dignity and freedom in the specific context in which he found himself could not be achieved through appeal to ancient texts nor to reasonableness of the colonisers. Instead of appealing to reasonableness of the colonisers, or to pre-colonial sources for dignity, Madan Lal appealed to hearts of Indians and their aspiration for freedom and to the sense of injustice and humanity that is in everyone.

How shall we remember Madan Lal a hundred years later? The best tribute we can pay to Madan Lal today is to ask: ‘what is freedom and dignity in today’s context? What are the chains that shackle the vast majority of people today? What can we do to free the human spirit? How can we act to realise our humanity?

The Delhi takht pays tributes to Madan Lal but at the same time chains the vast majority of Indians through economic, military and political oppression. They use their seats in Delhi to play the same imperialist games in South Asia, they act like the regional big brother for imperialists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, behaving in the same way, doing the same things that the Indian princes and merchants and industrialists did during British rule. Jyotiba Phule one of anti-died when Madan Lal was born, called the leadership of the Indian freedom movement an alliance of ‘shetjis and bhatjis’, in other words as an alliance of merchants (shet) and Brahmins (bhat). A hundred and twenty years since Jyotiba, we can see the truth of this statement unfolding each day before our eyes. Neither waking past religious ghosts nor making deals with the present devils grasps the aspirations for freedom that is in the hearts of people today.

Madan Lal understood that in responding to the human condition in a specific time-place context it is important to appeal to the humanity in all. Can we, following Madan Lal’s example, reach out to the human aspirations for freedom and dignity in our own time-place context?

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