Highgate's assassin: the student hostel where a murder was planned

 65 Cromwell Avenue in Highgate

65 Cromwell Avenue in Highgate - Credit: Andrew Whitehead

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was caught up during his long life in two controversies surrounding high profile assassinations.

There's no mention of that on the blue plaque celebrating his association with 65 Cromwell Avenue, an imposing detached corner house in south Highgate.

He's described as an "Indian Patriot and Philosopher", which is true but perhaps not the full story.

Savarkar was one of the architects of Hindutva or Hindu nationalism, the political approach of what is now India's governing party, the BJP.

He combined forceful opposition to British colonial rule in India with an argument that India's national identity and cultural values are defined by its majority religion, Hinduism.

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar - Credit: User Jayantanth Wikimedia

Veer Savarkar, as he's often known - who died at the age of 82 in 1966 - was for decades a neglected figure in Indian history but has come back to prominence with the rise to power of a party which shares some of his ideological approach.

The building which bears the blue plaque was for a few years from 1905 a hostel for Indian students in London. "India House", as it became known, was set up by a barrister, Shyamji Krishna Varma, to promote nationalist sentiment among young Indians in London.

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Varma established the Indian Home Rule Society and published a political journal, the Indian Sociologist - but felt it necessary to flee to Paris in 1907 when some of his more intemperate remarks attracted official attention. 

Many of the leading British left-wingers of the time and sympathisers with India's cause came to India House for meetings and to talk to its residents, and lively discussions flared up among those who lived there about how best to evict the colonial power from India and whether violence was justified to hasten an end to British rule.

The full story is told in Adam Yamey's book Ideas, Bombs and Bullets: Indian patriots in London's Highgate.

65 Cromwell Avenue in Highgate

65 Cromwell Avenue in Highgate - Credit: Andrew Whitehead

Among those staying at 65 Cromwell Avenue was a young Punjabi man, Madan Lal Dhingra, who was studying mechanical engineering at University College.

On July 1 1909, Dhingra fired seven shots at Sir William Curzon Wyllie, the political aide-de-camp of the British Secretary of State for India, on the steps of the Imperial Institute in South Kensington.

Wyllie was killed - as was a Parsee doctor, Cawas Lalcaca, who sought to come to his aid. It was one of the most notorious assassinations of agents of British rule in India.

Dhingra was tried at the Old Bailey and, within seven weeks of the killing, was hanged in the grounds of Pentonville jail.

A memorial plaque to his victim stands in St Paul's Cathedral. The outrage at the killing, along with the attention of the police, led to the closure of India House. 

Veer Savarkar seems to have lived in India House for three years but was not in London on the day of the assassination.

He was known to be friendly with Dhingra and visited him in jail before the execution.

Savarkar came under suspicion of complicity in the murder and the British authorities in India also framed charges of "waging war against His Majesty the King Emperor of India" relating to his activity before coming to London.

He was arrested and held in Brixton prison and it was decided he should be returned to India to stand trial there. 

While the ship taking him back was docked at Marseilles, Savarkar managed to evade his guards and swim to shore.

British officials pursued him, he was detained by local gendarmes and handed back into British custody - which created quite an incident, as no extradition formalities were undertaken. 

He was convicted by a court in Bombay and spent ten years in the notorious cellular jail in the remote Andaman islands, where many Indian political prisoners were held.

Mahatma Gandhi was among Indian nationalist leaders demanding his release.

And the second assassination in which Savarkar was alleged to have been implicated?

Well, in January 1948 - just five months after Indian gained independence - Gandhi, the "father of the nation", was gunned down while making his way to a prayer meeting in Delhi.

The man who pulled the trigger was Nathuram Godse, a hardline Hindu chauvinist who believed that Gandhi had been too indulgent to Muslims during the Partition which carved the nation of Pakistan out of part of British India.

Savarkar had - according to a witness - met and given his personal blessing to Godse a few days ahead of the assassination. He was charged with murder, conspiracy to murder and abetment to murder. But there was no corroboration of the key evidence, and Savarkar was acquitted and released.

Fenner Brockway - a peace campaigner, veteran of the Labour left and champion of liberation movements - unveiled the blue plaque at Cromwell Road in 1985. But you do wonder how much he knew about the man he was honouring.

Andrew Whitehead is a local resident and historian.