November,14,2015: On the eve of Narendra Modi’s much publicised visit to the United Kingdom, Shyamji Krishna Varma, one of the first Indians to be called to the British Bar in 1884, has been posthumously reinstated by London’s Honourable Society for the Inner Temple. Over a century ago he was disbarred from the Inner Temple for advocating Indian independence.
The Inner Temple is one of the four Inns of Court which are unincorporated associations, existing since the 14th century and which “hold exclusive rights to call candidates to practice law at the Bar of England and Wales”. The Inn’s governing council held this week that Varma suffered a miscarriage of justice as he was not afforded a fair hearing for the charges levelled against him. In an announcement on November 11, 2015, the council said that that they would, “…reinstate as a member Shyamji Krishna Varma, a scholar and prominent Indian nationalist, who was peremptorily disbarred in 1909 for conduct unbecoming a barrister”.
Mahatama Gandhi was also reinstated in 1998, after being expelled in 1922 following his conviction for sedition in the wake of protests he organized.
Varma was born on October 4, 1857. After completing his schooling in Mumbai, he studied at Balliol College, Oxford. He founded India House, a hostel for Indian students in London, after encountering racism while trying to find accommodation in the capital. Among the eminent persons who visited the establishment were Gandhi, Lenin, Lala Lajpat Rai and Gopalkrishna Gokhale. India House was a hotbed for discussions that supported the Indian freedom movement. Around 1905, Varma founded the Indian Home Rule Society and The Indian Sociologist, the former a rival organisation to the British Committee of the Indian National Congress and the latter an anti-colonialist newspaper.
Earlier this year, it was communicated to the Inner Temple that the public ignominy suffered by Varma was in stark contrast to Mahatma Gandhi’s retrospective rehabilitation at the behest of the Inn in 1998. The inn had expelled Gandhi in 1922 after he was convicted for sedition by the British government due to the organisation of protests against the British Raj.
The Inner Temple has acknowledged that through his letters Varma “protested the right of his countrymen to free themselves from British rule and insisted on his right to erect within India House a memorial to those whom he described as Indian martyrs.” To escape further persecution in the United Kingdom, Varma moved to Paris in 1907, and despite several attempts by British authorities to have him extradited, he gathered the support of many powerful politicians in France. In 1914, he moved to Switzerland and lived there till his death in 1930.
His ashes, along with those of his wife, were preserved in Geneva until August 2003, when Narendra Modi, as chief minister of Gujarat, traveled there to retrieve them per Varma’s wishes. Modi has been vocal in his admiration for Varma and even inaugurated the Kranti Teerth Memorial near Mandvi, the birthplace of Varma, in 2010. This memorial includes a replica of India House that Varma had set up over a century ago.
In 2003, the Gujarat government also renamed Kachchh University in Bhuj after Varma. Modi has lauded Varma every year on his birth anniversary – October 4 – but during the 2014 election campaign he mixed up Jana Sangh founder Shyama Prasad Mukherjee’s name with Varma’s, saying:
“When the country got freedom in 1947, the first thing Nehru should have done is to send a representative and get back the ashes of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee who had fought his whole life for the country. He did not do it. This was not done till 2003. He died in 1930 and for 73 years – 50 years after Independence – the ashes were waiting to be brought here. Mr PM, your party never took up this work. Efforts were made to suppress history.”
Shailesh Vara, the UK’s junior justice minister, praised the Inner Temple’s reparative decision. “I am delighted that Shyamji Krishna Varma has been posthumously reinstated to the Bar. He was from the Indian state of Gujarat, and as Britain’s first Gujarati minister, and a lawyer myself; I am particularly pleased at his reinstatement. My team and I have worked closely with the Inner Temple, and it is fitting that we can make this presentation as part of Prime Minister Modi’s historic visit to Britain,” he told The Guardian.
While Modi, who is on a three-day state visit to UK beginning November 12, has helped remind a new generation of Indians about Varma and his contributions to the freedom struggle, his critics in Gujarat accuse him of using Varma to build up a vote-bank in the Kachch region of the state.
Concerns have also been raised by Surendra Dholakia, former chairman of Mandvi-based Shyamji Krishna Verma Social Centre, who accused Modi in 2003 of trying to “monopolise Varma and projecting him as a militant Hindu, although he was a socialist with a secular and broader outlook.’’
‘‘They are hoodwinking the people of Gujarat by not telling them that Comrade Shyamji stood for a secular, democratic and non-fascist India. The Sangh Parivar desperately seeks to expropriate militant freedom fighters to cover up its negative role during the anti-colonial struggle,’’ a statement released by Dholakia at a press conference said. ‘‘Varma was neither a narrow nationalist, nor a Hindu militant, ‘yet, they are trying to make a political capital of the great revolutionary.’’