Shahid-i-Azam Sardar Udham Singh: resurrecting the spirit of the revolutionary son of Punjab, hero of the Indian struggle for Independence

When Udham Singh was asked, in 1940, during his trial for the killing of Michael O’Dwyer, the ex-Governor of the Punjab province, which holy book he wanted to take his oath on, he made a strange request. He mentioned a book that he said was ‘holy’ not just to one religion or people but to the whole of Punjab. The book was ‘Heer Ranjha’ a retelling of the legend of the two ‘star-crossed’ lovers and their doomed love, written by Waaris Shah, an 18th Century Sufi mystic from western Punjab.

The book was arranged from the local Gurudwara, where the serving priest was an old friend of Udham Singh.

Udham Singh had killed Michael O’Dwyer at a public meeting in Caxton Hall in March, 1940 by shooting him. When asked, during interrogation, he gave his name as Ram Mohammad Singh Azad. The name evoked all the major religions of Punjab – Hindu, Muslim and Sikh – and the surname Azad, meaning free. Why did Udham Singh become Ram Mohammad Singh Azad?

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The legend of his life has it, that Udham Singh, still a teenager, had either been present at the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Amritsar in 1919, serving water to the gathering, or visited it later to retrieve a body of someone he knew. The massacre occurred in April, 1919 when British Indian soldiers of the Gurkha Regiment led by General Reginald Dyer shot at a congregation of Punjabis commemorating the Baisakhi festival within an enclosed public park near the Harmandir Sahib Gurudwara, popularly known as the Golden Temple. General Dyer’s men killed over 1000, men, women and children within minutes. Since the only exit from the park was blocked by the soldiers, the massacre only stopped when the soldiers ran out of bullets. Later, General Dyer said, if he had more bullets, he would have continued the massacre for longer. It was what the natives deserved for their disobedience.

After he witnessed, directly or indirectly, the gruesome brutality inflicted by the Imperialist Regime, Udham Singh is said to have taken a vow, after taking a dip in the Sarovar, the pool, that surrounds the Harmandir Sahib. He vowed to take revenge for the massacre.

Had he fulfilled this vow by shooting Michael O’Dyer who had been the Governor of Punjab when the massacre occured? Or after almost a decade and a half of his purported vow, had Udham Singh – as an otherwise credible British historian put it – killed the wrong man? Now, the reason some historians claim that the purportedly ignorant, village simpleton might have killed the wrong man is that Udham Singh had spelled Michael O’Dwyer’s name as Dyer in his diaries – (On such absurd claims rests the work of great historians – sometimes).

In this article, I will discuss how both the slander of Udham Singh by British (and some Indian) historians is grossly biased; and that the popular image of the ‘shahid’ or martyr as a gun toting avenger is severely reductionist.

Udham Singh, in fact, was a revolutionary with a vision. Exemplified most of all by his grand, symbolic gesture of taking a holy vow on an epic romantic poem that symbolised the spirit of a people, as a whole, and not individual religions, which already did and in the near future would even more tragically, divide them.

When Udham Singh shot Michael O’Dwyer, I say, he didn’t kill him just to avenge the one great tragedy, of Jallianwala Bagh, that had affected him so deeply – he killed Michael O’Dwyer as the man who was the representative of the imperialist regime that inflicted a multitude of other brutalities on the people of his land every day. He killed the Imperialist Agent, as a Representative of his people, his land, his culture – all that the British had ruined and brutalised. He was not just Sardar Udham Singh, born as Sher Singh, in Sunam village in Sangrur, Punjab, raised in an orphanage run by the Gurudwara. He consciously erased his own identity, one he no doubt cherished, and took up the mantle of Ram Mohammad Singh : this was his first sacrifice. The sacrifice of the self, becoming a vessel for a greater cause – a martyr, a Shahid.

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Udham Singh was 19 years old when the Jallianwala Bagh massacre happened. The massacre was perhaps the one single event that galvanised Indian youth across the land and to give up their lives and join the freedom struggle. The brutality of the violence sent another message: this one regarding the methods through which Independence would be achieved. The most prominent vehicle of the Indian independence movement at the time was the Indian National Congress, led by Mohandas Gandhi. The Congress’ methods for attaining freedom were primarily defined by its origins as a sort of pressure group that believed that negotiations and bargaining within the Constitutional framework of the British Indian Government could garner greater rights for Indians. Gradually, the Congress had become more aggressive in its demands. At this stage it was a mass political movement, which used methods of non-violent civil disobedience to force the government to sit at the negotiating table. These methods were primarily influenced by Gandhi’s unofficial leadership. They had brought an unparalleled number of people, especially women, into the freedom movement.

For the Congress movement, it was ultimately clear that the British departure from India would come from some kind of negotiated settlement. Gandhian methods could only force the British to enter negotiations.

There was another school of thought in the freedom movement. Rather than looking at the British departure as a choice they, the British, would make, the revolutionary school of thought wanted to create conditions in India where it was the only choice they had. As Udham Singh said in his testimony during his trial, their intention was to drive the British out of India, not request them to leave.

This second school of thought, the revolutionaries, had grown out of early anti-British groups, chiefly in Bengal and Punjab. In Punjab, the first steps had been taken by the Ghadar Party, formed by, among others, Sardar Sohan Singh Bhakana, Lala Har Dayal, and the young Kartar Singh Sarabha, in 1913.

Beginning from their diaspora communities in North America, the Ghadaris began to spread their revolutionary message in India, taking some help from the German government during the First World War. With few resources, a small membership and the problem of geographic distance, no Ghadari would have reasonably expected to defeat the British Empire. Their goals were to begin a revolution. In this they succeeded. Or, at least they planted the seeds in the soil of Punjab. The seeds sprouted soon – when the British themselves drenched the soil of Punjab with the blood of the innocents of Jallianwala Bagh.

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Udham Singh formally joined the Ghadar Party in 1924. At this time, the Ghadar movement phase of revolution was leading into a more organised revolutionary phase, exemplified by the legendary Bhagat Singh. Bhagat Singh was 7 years younger than Udham Singh. Unlike Udham Singh who was born in a poor family and grew up in an orphanage, getting little education, he was born in a family of prosperous farmers, who had been involved in the germinating independence movement for many years. His father and uncle, Kishen Singh and Ajit Singh, had been active members of farmers rights movements since the mid 1900s. Ajit Singh had gradually become a dissident publisher and vocal proponent of independence. After a brief imprisonment, he was forced to flee India in 1911, returning only in 1946 at the invitation of Jawaharlal Nehru. He had continued revolutionary activities – becoming associated with the Ghadar Party in 1918, and then Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army during the Second World War.

Bhagat Singh too became a prolific writer, especially after joining the National College Lahore in 1923. He became so widely known through his writings in many newspapers and association of various organisations that he was arrested on false pretext in 1927.

It is now, in 1927, that the life stories of our two revolutionaries converge in time and space. They finally meet.

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Now, first of all, where was Udham Singh all these years? In the 1920’s he had been in East Africa working as a railway mechanic. From East Africa, he made his way to North America, where he first began to get in touch with diaspora revolutionaries. In San Francisco, New York and Chicago, groups of Ghadaris continued their publications of revolutionary literature. Udham Singh got more and more involved. It was probably during his stays in one of these cities that he first heard of Bhagat Singh. And he was inspired. Udham Singh and Bhagat Singh probably began communicating with each other during this period. In 1927, possibly days before his arrest, Bhagat Singh asked Udham Singh to return to India. He did so. With 25 men and guns!

By the late 1920’s revolutionary activities in Punjab and India, again, especially in Bengal, were at their peak – with press after press churning out revolutionary dissident literature, student protests all around, and even bombings and robberies. Bhagat Singh was arrested on the false pretext of being involved in a bombing which had happened in 1926. The real reason was most probably to get the most prominent leaders out of the picture. Policing and intelligence circles were aggressive in their pursuit of dissidents. Udham Singh and his group of 25 were arrested within days if their arriving in India.

While Bhagat Singh’s stay in prison was short, Udham Singh was sentenced to five years. Later in his life, Udham Singh would call Bhagat Singh his dearest friend, hoping to be sent to the gallows on the 10th anniversary of Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom (in 1931). This friendship could only have developed if they personally met. Udham Singh was released from prison in 1931 too, but before Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom. Bhagat Singh’s second and final imprisonment began in 1929 – after the murder of the police officer Saunders, and then bombing the Central Assembly. Bhagat Singh and his comrades were briefly imprisoned in Delhi and then transferred to Punjab. During this period, Bhagat Singh was a much more high profile prisoner. His actions, and the reporting of his trial, during which he defended himself and severity criticised British Imperialism, made him a national hero. After his sentencing, Bhagat Singh and his comrades went on a hunger strike demanding rights for Indian prisoners. This further enhanced his stature. It was during the late stages of Bhagat Singh’s incarceration that Udham Singh was released.

He had most obviously followed every word and deed of dear friend closely. Whether they met again during this period is a matter that needs more research. (I will try to answer this question in a subsequent essay.)

Under constant surveillance after his release, Udham Singh did what needed to be done – he escaped from India. From Punjab, via Kashmir, he slipped into Afghanistan, and from there, through the heart of Eurasia he made his way to, ironically, London. What was the purpose of this visit? General Dyer, the Butcher of Amritsar, had died in 1927. Udham Singh’s vow of vengeance would not be fulfilled by killing him. He would find another to sacrifice at the altar of his vow.

But was that his only purpose in life? In his travels over the past decade, and the imprisonment in India, Udham Singh had probably begun to see a larger picture. There were strong, deep currents – forces that were shaping a new world, yet only seen by a few visionaries like his dear friend Bhagat Singh, who, while Udham Singh was probably in the wilderness of Afghanistan, had been killed. He realised perhaps that this something great was on the horizon, a new era was taking shape – what would be his role in it: an orphan boy, with not too much education, rootless, alone, stranded in the home country of his oppressors. Udham Singh made the best choice he could – he chose the travel more, to wander the earth, to make sense of it.

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For five years more Udham Singh traveled across Europe. He went to Holland, Germany, Austria, Poland and the Soviet Union. Then, to Italy. In 1937 he made a fatal decision and returned to England. Perhaps he had found his purpose in life. For two years he prepared – taking odd jobs, including a brief stunt as an extra in two movies, The Elephant Boy (1937), based on a Rudyard Kipling story, and a war film, The Four Feathers (1939).

On March 13, 1940, dressed in a blue suit and a hat, he walked into Caxton Hall in London and shot Michael O’Dwyer.

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It was a sensation in London. Who had killed the respectable Sir O’Dwyer? The man who had given himself up to the police after shooting the victim gave his name as Ram Mohammad Singh Azad. The German Press was the first to – publicly – make the connection between the killing of O’Dwyer and the Amritsar Massacre. Perhaps someone in Germany knew what Udham Singh was going to do?

And he had done it. His life’s purpose was accomplished. There was one more thing to do – go out with a bang like his dear friend Bhagat Singh.

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There is a picture of Udham Singh – his last before Caxton Hall – in which he, smiling in unbridled joy, is cleaning utensils at a Gurudwara in London. The picture is of a man who has come to terms with his destiny. The cleaning of utensils at a Gurudwara is part of the Sikh practice of seva (service) – in which the community (sangat) gets together, after singing devotional hymns (shabads), partake of a community meal (langar), prepared by all, eaten together by all members of the community regardless of caste or class, sitting on the floor.

This is something Udham Singh would have been used to since birth. In his travels across the world, it is reasonable to assume he stopped at Gurudwaras, meeting and sharing meals with Sikh and Indian sangats. The Sikh Sangat was a foundational idea for the development of Sikh, and later Punjabi, politics. Founded in the philosophy of equality of Guru Nanak, it grew into the army of spiritual revolution under Guru Gobind Singh, and finally into a uniquely syncretic and prosperous Kingdom of Punjab, under the Lahore Durbar. The Sikh Empire of the Lahore Durbar had been conquered by the East India Company in the 1850s. The last prince of the Durbar, Maharaja Duleep Singh, had died in exile in 1893 – after briefly attempting to garner international support for the freedom of Punjab. Duleep Singh had also been in on and off contact with the revolutionaries who would form the Ghadar Party, in their early years.

His upbringing and globe trotting career, would have made Udham Singh more than aware that he he was a descendant, or even, an inheritor of these legacies. Through his association with the Ghadaris, with Bhagat Singh, and experiences in Britain, Africa and across Europe he would also have learned that his struggle was but a part of a larger fight against a much larger beast – global imperialism. The beast had its tentacles across the world. And its victims were not just Punjabis, or Indians, or Africans, but even the poor and the dispossessed across Europe, and even in London itself.

So when he shot those fatal rounds in Caxton Hall, he wasn’t merely fulfilling the vow he had taken at Harmandir Sahib, he was striking a blow at the heart of the beast, the Imperialist ‘dirty dog’, as he called the oppressors in his testimony in court.

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Now, as we close the essay, let us allow Udham Singh to speak for himself for a while.

After, he was sentenced to death, Udham Singh was asked if he wanted to make a statement. He did, this is what he said:

‘I do not care about sentence of death. It means nothing at all. I do not care about dying or anything. I do not worry about it at all. I am dying for a purpose.

‘We are suffering from the British Empire. I am not afraid to die. I am proud to die, to have to free my native land and I hope that when I am gone, I hope that in my place will come thousands of my countrymen to drive you dirty dogs out; to free my country.

‘I am standing before an English jury. I am in an English court. You people go to India and when you come back you are given a prize and put in the House of Commons. We come to England and we are sentenced to death.

‘I never meant anything; but I will take it. I do not care anything about it, but when you dirty dogs come to India there comes a time when you will be cleaned out of India. All your British Imperialism will be smashed.

‘Machine guns on the streets of India mow down thousands of poor women and children wherever your so-called flag of democracy and Christianity flies.

‘Your conduct, your conduct – I am talking about the British government. I have nothing against the English people at all. I have more English friends living in England than I have in India. I have great sympathy with the workers of England. I am against the Imperialist Government.

‘You people are suffering – workers. Everyone are suffering through these dirty dogs; these mad beasts. India is only slavery. Killing, mutilating and destroying – British Imperialism. People do not read about it in the papers. We know what is going on in India.’

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A boy in Amritsar had vowed to avenge the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh. That boy had grown into much more than an agent of vengeance. General Reginald Dyer had died saying he would be answerable to his actions to god. What happened at that trial we cannot know.

But when Ram Mohammad Singh Azad killed Michael O’Dwyer, he was more than one man called Udham Singh. He was a vessel – for the spirit of a land ruined by the beast of British Imperialism. Michael O’Dwyer too was more than an old man. He was an agent, the anti-vessel; a symbol of the dark spirit of death, plunder and devastation. Those shots fired in the heart of London were the justice of Punjab, delivered by an orphaned Sikh boy with no other family than his people.

When they arrested Udham Singh, they asked him why he had done it. He said – ‘I have seen people starving In India under British Imperialism. I done it, the pistol went off three or four times. I am not sorry for protesting. It was my duty to do so. Put some more.’ Remember what General Dyer had said – if I had some more bullets, I would have killed more. ‘Put some more’ – he laughed.

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‘I never afraid of dying so soon I will be getting married with execution. I am not sorry as I am a soldier of my country it is since 10 years when my friend has left me behind and I am sure after my death I will see him as he is waiting for me it was 23rd and I hope they will hang me on the same date as he was.’

Thus spake Udham Singh, evoking the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh. Let us honour his wish. The two legends should be remembered together. They were Shahids in the same war.

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