Remembering the great Shyamji Krishna Verma

Whilst celebrating India’s Independence Day and revering those that fought for freedom from the British, there are often some great personalities that are forgotten. One of those great advocates of freedom was Shyamji Krishna Verma.

Pandit Shyamaji Krishna Verma

Verma was born in 1857 in the Kutch province and studied in Mumbai where he developed a love for the Sanskrit language. In 1877, Verma gave a public speech on Vedic philosophy and religion on the lines of his guru Swami Dayananda Saraswati. He soon became highly regarded due to his knowledge and passion and was given the title of Pandit by the Pandits of Kashi.

His deep knowledge of the Sanskrit language caught the attention of Monier Williams, a professor of the subject in Oxford University where Verma then went on to study. He became a member of the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple in 1884 and was the first ever Indian to be called to the Bar. Additionally, Verma was also the first ever person from India to have a house in London known as “India House” which soon became a political hub. As many Indian students faced barriers to finding accommodation at that time, Verma ensured that India House would serve as a hostel for Indian students. India House soon became a base for all political leaders of India and was visited by Lala Lajpat Rai, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Gandhi and Lenin, who all met with Verma to discuss the Indian Independence Movement.

Around the same time, Verma also founded the Indian Home Rule Society and The Indian Socialist in London. The Indian Home Rule Society sought to promote the cause of self-rule in British India and was intended to be a rival organisation to the British Committee of the Indian National Congress, which was the main avenue of the loyalist opinion at the time. The Indian Socialist was an anti-colonialist newspaper.

On 20 February 1909, The Times published a letter from Verma responding to an attack made by another correspondent on India House, the Indian Socialist and on Verma himself. In his letter, Verma pointed out that John Milton and George Washington, both of whom had advocated the violent overthrow of tyrannical governments were honoured in England. He went on to say that during his 17 year residence in England, he warned his friends and “all their countrymen against the risks they run of losing their kith and kin by allowing them to go to India in these troubled times, since every Englishman who goes there for exploiting that country directly or indirectly is regarded as a potential enemy by the Indian Nationalist party and its supporters.”

This letter reached the Inner Temple via the Bar Council and on 23 April 1909, Master Earl of Halsbury moved at a Bench Table that Verma be disbarred from the Inn on the ground that his conduct in publishing the letter was “unworthy of a barrister”. Verma wrote to the Inn asking to be informed on what exactly it was in his letter that caused offence and set out the case for Indian independence. He asked, “Whether an Indian is not entitled to plead for the independence of his own country just like an Englishman, supposing Germany or France conquers England and governs is despotically”. Verma also gave examples of barristers who advocated India’s independence such as Dr. Robert Wallace who stated that Indians “will never be civilized men, or men at all, until they pick up courage, and kick you (Englishmen) out of doors”. No such disbarments however, were given to these barristers. With regards to resisting the British rule in India, Verma believed that “resistance to aggression is not simply justifiable but imperative…Because England has robbed Indians not only of their freedom but of their national wealth and driven to death millions of their countrymen for these hundred and fifty years, does that fact entitle England to continue this murder and robber? May not its victims effectively contend on ethical grounds that self-defence is not only justified but is a duty at all times?”

Verma’s reasoning however fell on deaf ears and on 30th April 1909, Verma was removed from the list of members of Inner Temple. By then, Verma was living in Paris to avoid prosecution as The Indian Socialist had begun to incur police surveillance. Due to its patriotic and outspoken articles, the House of Commons debated the paper and banned the import and sale of The Indian Socialist in India from 19 September 1907. Whilst the printing of the paper hadn’t been banned, two of the printers were arrested for sedition for printing it in 1909. The British government tried to have Verma extradited from France but were unsuccessful, as he had gained the support of many top French politicians.

In 1914 Verma moved to Switzerland where he made attempts to endow a lectureship for the discourse on the best means of acquiring and safe guarding national independence consistently with freedom, justice, and the right of asylum accorded to political refugees. Unfortunately his offer to the League of Nations and the Swiss Government were turned down.

Verma passed away in Switzerland in 1930 and had made prepaid arrangements with the Swiss government and cemetery that his and his wife’s ashes be preserved at the cemetery for 100 years and sent to India whenever it became independent. After India obtained independence in 1947, Verma’s ashes remained in Switzerland despite his last wishes.

It was in August 2003, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, went to Switzerland and personally brought back the ashes of Shyamji Krishna Verma and his wife. In order to keep Verma’s memory alive and to pay tribute to his revolutionary work in India’s independence struggle, the Chief Minister commissioned a memorial called Kranti Teerth. The memorial was built near Verma’s birthplace in Mandvi, and was inaugurated in 2010. It includes a full size replica of India House and is home to many memorial exhibits paying tributes to the heroes of India’s freedom struggle.

At the time of writing, the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple is considering posthumously reinstating Verma. A precedent has been set for posthumous reinstatement in the Inn’s readmission of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was disbarred and expelled in 1922 following his conviction, upon pleas of guilty, on three charges of sedition. As it is debatable whether Shyamji Krishna Verma had proper notice of the case against him and whether his letter in The Times rendered him unfit to be a barrister, it is hopeful that he is reinstated.

by Prerna Lau Sian (Twitter @PrernaSian)

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