[See also ‘Jallianwala Bagh Massacre’, and companion piece: ‘The Public Memory of Udham Singh in India’]
In the annals of anti-colonial revolutionary activity in India, the name of Udham Singh shines bright. He is remembered chiefly as the assassin of Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, often confused with Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, the perpetrator of the infamous Jallianwala Bagh Massacre at Amritsar in 1919. O’Dwyer was then the ruler of the Punjab, and O’Dwyer, though he did not order the massacre, not only did not issue any reprimand but was also clearly of the opinion that Dyer had taken appropriate action to stem a lawless mob from taking the law into its own hands. It was necessary, as O’Dwyer and Dyer were to state on subsequent occasions, to strike terror among the people and create the necessary ‘effect’. In nationalist historiography, particularly of the variety that celebrates patriots who embraced armed resistance, Udham Singh is viewed as among the more notable patriots, along with the likes of Bhagat Singh, Chandrasekhar Azad, Rajguru, and Sukhdev, who had a burning desire to liberate the motherland from colonial rule.
Sher Singh, the name by which Udham Singh was known at birth and in his early years, was born on 26 December 1899 in Sunam in the Sangrur district of Punjab. [Colonial records list his date of birth as 23 August 1901.] Family members tilled the land though Sher Singh’s father served as a watchman at a railway crossing. Sher Singh lost both his parents when he was still a very young boy and he was sent to Amritsar’s Central Khalsa Orphanage in 1907, where he was initiated into the Sikh faith and named Udham Singh. The Orphanage is known as an institution which imparted instruction in Sikh history, religion and culture to its wards, transforming them eventually into fit recipients of the faith so that they might all the more serve as its future guardians.
The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre
It is in Amritsar, on 13 April 1919, that General Dyer entered the Jallianwala Bagh, where thousands of people had gathered for a political meeting, and ordered his troops to commence firing without giving people a chance to disperse. The official death toll stood at 379, though the Congress, which initiated an inquiry into the “Punjab Disturbances”, including the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, estimated that as many as 1,000 people may have died in the firing. Whatever the exact number of fatalities, which will never be ascertained with certainty, the young Udham Singh, then 20 years of age, is described as having been deeply hurt, and doubtless enraged, by O’Dwyer’s actions, and he is thought to have taken a vow to avenge the death of hundreds of fellow Indians – women, men, and children. The film “Shaheed Bhagat Singh” (2000) depicts Udham Singh as taking a pledge at Harmandar Sahib that the blood of Indians shall not have been shed in vain.
Interregnum: The Itinerant Revolutionary
Over the course of the next decade, Udham Singh led an existence that was at once peripatetic and revolutionary. He traveled to Africa – according to some accounts, to Nairobi; and more likely to Uganda, where Indian labor force helped to build the railways -- and eventually made his way to the United States. By the early 1920s, Udham Singh had joined forces with those waging armed struggle against British rule in India, and in the US he became an active supporter of the Ghadr movement. He came under the influence of Lala Lajpat Rai, but the dominant intellectual figure in his life was clearly Bhagat Singh, whose own turn towards revolutionary Marxism or Bolshevism was emulated by Udham Singh. In the mid-1920s, Udham Singh also traveled to France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Poland and a number of other countries before, apparently, making his way back to the US sometime around 1923-24.
Udham Singh returned to India in July 1927 with a cache of arms as well as prohibited political literature but was caught by the police in Amritsar, convicted under the Arms Act, and sentenced to a jail term which lasted four years. Upon his release in October 1931, Udham Singh returned to his hometown of Sunam, but constant harassment by the police forced him to depart for Amritsar. Here, according to some of his biographers, he opened up a business as a signboard painter. In 1933, Udham Singh made his way to London, and over the course of the next three years he traveled widely in Europe; he also appears to have been a motorcycle enthusiast. Late in the 1930s, according to British police records, he is said to have stated that by was a carpenter by profession, and he listed his name as Azad Singh.
The Assassination of O’Dwyer
Udham Singh, if the account of the pledge he had taken after the Amritsar pledge has any veracity, had long nursed the desire to avenge the death of his fellow Indians for whom he held O’Dwyer at least as much responsible as General Dyer himself. Dyer was relieved of his position in the army, though he had received the approbation of thousands of private citizens in Britain who hailed him as the savior of the British empire, but he succumbed to an illness a few years after the shooting at Jallianwala Bagh. O’Dwyer, meanwhile, had returned to England after retirement, and like many a celebrated ‘old India hand’ he occasionally attended public meetings. On 13 March 1940, O’Dwyer was one of the scheduled speakers at a joint meeting of the East India Association and the Royal Central Asian Society. As O’Dwyer was conversing with Lord Zetland, the Secretary of State for India, Udham Singh took out a concealed revolver and fired a number of shots: two bullets struck O’Dwyer, who died instantly, and another bullet wounded Zetland. Udham Singh made no attempt to escape and was at once apprehended.
Trial, Conviction, and Death of Udham Singh
Udham Singh was charged with the murder of Michael O’Dwyer on 1 April 1940 and his trial commenced on 4 June 1940 at “Old Bailey”, London, before Justice Atkinson. He gave his name as Ram Mohammad Singh Azad – an attempt on his part, three decades before Amar Akbar Anthony, to prove his secular credentials and to suggest, perhaps, that it remained for individuals to show how they could move beyond the communal outlook. To an India where communalism was assuming overwhelming importance, Udham Singh sought to demonstrate through his personal example that considerations of religion, creed, and caste ought to be no consequence to a genuine patriot.
The outcome of the trial was a foregone conclusion: Udham Singh had shot O’Dwyer before witnesses, and he never denied that he was responsible for the assassination. The trial lasted a mere two days; the proceedings were but a formality. Justice Atkinson sentenced him to death by hanging, and Court of Criminal Appeal dismissed his appeal and confirmed the death sentence. The order was carried out on July 31 at Pentonville Prison, also famous as the site for the execution of the Irish revolutionary Roger Casement. O’Dwyer was buried in the prison grounds and it is not until much later, at the request of the Indian government, that his remains were exhumed and repatriated back to India. Though a lesser-known figure than Bhagat Singh, he continues to be lionized in the Punjab and especially in Amritsar, and Punjabis have carried the memory of his name to other parts of India.
[For some brief notes on the public memory of Udham Singh, see the companion piece on him at MANAS.]
Copyright: Vinay Lal, May 2008