The other India House
No, this isn't India House on Aldwych - completed in 1930 and from 1947 the Indian government's High Commission in London. This is a smaller, older, more anonymous building on Cromwell Avenue in north London, in that limbo land between Archway and Highgate.
The building bears a rather generously worded GLC blue plaque for Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. He was a founding ideologue of Hindutva or Hindu nationalism and is something of an intellectual hero to the more cerebral supporters of Narendra Modi's BJP.
Savarkar was and remains a deeply controversial figure. He was tried as a co-conspirator in the Gandhi murder trial and was acquitted. In the photo below of the accused, he's the older man with glasses on the front row. To his right as we are looking at the photo is Nathuram Godse who fired the shots that killed Gandhi and who was executed for his murder in November 1949.
Savarkar had another brush with the law - again alleged complicity in a political assassination - during his sojourn on Cromwell Avenue forty years earlier. We'll get to that in a moment. But this building was much more than Savarkar's temporary home.
65 Cromwell Avenue became, in 1905, a hostel for Indian students in London, taking the name India House. It was more than simply a place to live. There was a political purpose to India House. It was intended to be a nurturing place for a new and more assertive generation of Indian nationalists. It certainly was where Indian revolutionaries of different hues got to meet and organise. Ironically, perhaps, Gandhi visited here while in London in 1906.
India House was opened on 1 July 1905 by H.M. Hyndman, a veteran socialist (and founder in the 1880s of the SDF) with a longstanding interest in India. Also present at the opening ceremony were Dadabhai Naoroji, who a decade earlier had been the first Indian elected to the House of Commons, a radical Liberal and constitutional nationalist, and two much more revolutionary-minded women activists, Charlotte Despard, suffragist and Irish republican, and Madame Cama, a Paris-based Parsee who was at the centre of the web of militant Indian nationalists and socialists in Europe.
The founder of India House was Shyamji Krishna Varma, a scholar and barrister who founded the India Home Rule Society. He published the curiously named Indian Sociologist - and fled London for Paris in 1907 after some of his more intemperate remarks and articles attracted official attention. The journal continued to appear - the maverick anarchist Guy Aldred took over as publisher and was sentenced at the Old Bailey to twelve months hard labour for his troubles.
India House provided a base for an array of political activists of different hues. The communist and anarchist M.P.T. Acharya was among those associated with the building on Cromwell Avenue. So too was Madan Lal Dhingra, who came to London from Punjab to study mechanical engineering at University College.
On 1 July 1909, Dhingra fired seven shots at Sir William Curzon Wyllie, the political aide-de-camp of the British government's Secretary of State for India (at that time John Morley), on the steps of the Imperial Institute in London. Wyllie was killed, as was a Parsee doctor, Cawas Lalcaca, who sought to come to his aid. It was one of the most renowned political assassinations in London of agents of British rule in India - the most notorious being Udham Singh's killing of Sir Michael O'Dwyer more than thirty years later.
Dhingra was tried at the Old Bailey and, within seven weeks of the killing, was hanged in the grounds of Pentonville jail. A memorial tablet for Wyllie stands in the crypt of St Paul's cathedral.
There were suggestions that Savarkar had supplied Dhingra with the gun used in the killing and he certainly declined to criticise the assassination. Savarkar was eventually arrested and it was decided that he should stand trial in India.
While on board ship moored near Marseilles, Savarkar escaped - which doesn't say much for the competence of the Imperial authorities. When he eventually turned up in Bombay he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent ten years in the cellular jail on the Andaman islands and many subsequent years in prison and internment.
By the time Savarkar was released in 1937, he had written his commanding work, Hindutva: what is a Hindu? He became the head of the right-wing Hindu Mahasabha and died in Bombay in 1966.
And what of India House? Well, after Wyllie's assassination the hostel was closed and the property sold. 65 Cromwell Avenue reverted to being an ordinary suburban home - but what a back story it has!
The plaque to Savarkar was unveiled by the Labour left-winger Fenner Brockway in 1985 - a staunch opponent of Empire and advocate of colonial freedom.
Ten years ago came a remarkable footnote to the India House story. A full-size replica of 65 Cromwell Avenue was built in the town of Mandvi in Gujarat, the birthplace of Shyamji Krishna Varma, as a memorial to the man who established the students' hostel. A little bit of Highgate in western India!
'The Lure of the Coloured Man'
This lurid article about the dangers of romances with suave Indian students at British universities appeared in the magazine 'Answers' in December 1936. You can see from the close-up below the tone of the article. 'The man was a particularly handsome, velvet-eyed Indian, with that melodious, high bred speaking voice which is peculiar to better-class Hindus. ...'
The cutting is in the Indian Office Records at the British Library. The paragraph marked in heavy blue crayon mentions a department in the India Office 'only too anxious to be of service to you of you wish to make inquiries about your prospective [Indian] son-in-law'.
The India Office did indeed get a steady trickle of letters from English women who had married Indian students in the UK and been deserted - or some canny ones wanting to understand what would be the legal status of their marriage in India - and a few from family members, or lawyers, making enquiries.
English brides, once in India, could find that their marriage was not recognised - and that under Hindu or Muslim personal law, their husbands had already married or could take additional wives. And if they were deserted in the UK - waiting for the money to pay their passage out which somehow never came - it was very difficult to get a divorce.
One of those on whose behalf an enquiry was made had given birth to a boy in Leeds, apparently fathered by a student who was a member of the Hyderabad royal family
The Lord Chancellor's office proposed setting up what was called a 'polygamy committee' to deal with the issue. By the mid-1930s there were well over a thousand Indians studying in Britain - almost all of them men, and more than two-thirds in London. It's difficult to know how many married while they were here - but certainly a significant number.
Some wit at the Indian Office wrote on this file that Jane Doe, the pseudonymous author of this alarmist and thoroughly disreputable piece of journalism, 'seems to be an admirable person!' It would be nice to think he was joking.
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