The making of a maverick martyr

At 9 a.m. sharp, on July 31, 1940, Udham Singh was hanged to death from a 15-foot wooden beam stretched across a room in Pentonville Prison in north London. The body fell through the trapdoors into an open basement below from where it was taken in a handcart for the regulation medical examination. Within a couple of hours, he had been interred in a small burial ground within the prison’s premises. Though there was no outward mark, the exact position of the coffin in the grave that contained others, separated by a foot of earth and a layer of charcoal, was meticulously entered into a register; this fact would prove crucial in its exhumation. Madan Lal Dhingra, another committed Indian revolutionary, had also been hanged and buried in Pentonville way back in 1909. On the day I visited Pentonville in 2016, the grass grew thick on the burial patch and a row of rose bushes waved gently in the summer sunshine giving the lie to dark history of the place; only a coil of barbed wire over the high wall brought one back to reality.


Murder most fair?

Udham Singh had been convicted for the murder of Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the iron-fisted Lieutenant Governor of Punjab from 1913 to 1919. Walking into a meeting on Afghanistan organised by the East India Association in Caxton Hall in central London on March 13, 1940, Udham Singh had fired all six slightly mismatched .44 bullets from an old .455 Smith and Wesson revolver. O’Dwyer, hit by two bullets at point blank range, died on the spot; the Secretary of State for India, Lord Zetland was more fortunate: two bullets, probably losing force, left only superficial wounds; the other two bullets wounded two other speakers — Lord Lamington and Sir Louis Dane.


For Udham Singh, at least, this brought to an end of the saga that had begun with the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh on Baisakhi day in 1919. Photographs of Udham Singh being escorted from Caxton Hall by police detectives show a man in hat and pinstriped blue suit, smiling broadly, as if from the satisfaction of a mission accomplished.


O’Dwyer’s misdeeds

Michael O’Dwyer, not to be confused with Brigadier General Reginald Dyer who actually carried out the massacre, was a dyed-in-the-wool imperialist and had much to answer for during his Punjab tenure.


In fact, the Congress Punjab inquiry report, a counter to the Hunter Commission inquiry appointed by London, on the Punjab events of 1919 and drafted largely by Mahatma Gandhi himself, devotes an entire chapter to the ills of O’Dwyer’s administration. Arbitrary arrests and detentions under the Defence of India Act during the War, the defence of the indefensible Rowlatt Act, gagging of the vernacular and the free press, and the vicious crackdown on the Ghadar ‘conspirators’ were some of the things that marked him out as a tyrant in the eyes of the Punjab citizenry.


His coercive method of recruitment from Punjab for the World War I, encouraging over-zealous local officials to use all tactics to fulfil the quotas set for districts, resulted in widespread resentment and fear. Similar coercion was employed for contributions to the War Loan from a population already reeling under wartime shortages, rising prices and epidemics of plague, influenza and cholera.


He talked up a non-existent threat of widespread conspiracy, anarchy and open rebellion, in fact another 1857, and used that as a justification for his crackdown. Political leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, and ultimately even Gandhi, were prohibited from entering the province; popular local leaders Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr Satyapal were deported, leading to disturbances that in turn led to tougher action, including the firing at people gathered in Jallianwala Bagh and the imposition of Martial Law.


Damning inquiry report

The Congress inquiry report concluded that Sir Michael O’Dwyer was “determined to crush all political consciousness by any means he could think of.” Perhaps most incriminating, in the minds of men such as Udham Singh, was the fact that O’Dwyer had approved ex post facto Dyer’s action at Jallianwala Bagh and defended Dyer vigorously afterwards, not only before the Hunter Commission but also later in England.

Whether Udham Singh and O’Dwyer were acquainted with each other in the immediate months before the shooting remains a moot point. During the trial, Udham Singh put forward an unlikely story of meeting O’Dwyer outside the Kensington Gardens, being invited by him to his house and even driving him around, all to show that if he really wanted to kill him then there had been other opportunities earlier. O’Dwyer’s family denied any such acquaintance.


It is also not clear if Udham Singh knew that O’Dwyer would be present at that particular meeting on March 13; it would seem so from the fact that he celebrated with his London friends at one of their usual haunts, Punjab restaurant in Soho, the day before, saying that he would do something big. Nevertheless, he came prepared: a loaded revolver, several loose bullets in one pocket and a box with more bullets in another, as well as a knife.


Conflicting testimony

But then Udham Singh was the ultimate unreliable narrator: the transcript of his trial at the Old Bailey on June 4-5, 1940, is a fascinating record of feints and counter-feints, red herrings and contradictions. For instance, the detective sergeant who watched over him in the initial hours after the shooting testified that Udham Singh had admitted to firing all six bullets, expressed surprise that only one person had died, that Zetland had escaped death despite getting two bullets in the stomach and so on. He then denied these statements during the trial saying that he had gone to the meeting merely to protest against British atrocities in India and his difficulties in getting a passport. He had intended only to fire in the air but someone had pushed his arm down, resulting in the casualties. It was only after the jury returned a unanimous verdict of guilty, and the judge asked him if had anything to say before sentence was passed, that Udham Singh tore off his mask. He pulled out a sheaf of papers from his pocket, written in a mix of English, Gurmukhi and Urdu. These consisted of a tirade against British tyranny, snippets of revolutionary poetry, diary entries and so on. The judge prevented him from delivering it in full and also ordered that the press should publish nothing. Udham Singh, however, did manage to vent his anger against British rule and declare that he was not afraid of dying; thousands more would come to take his place. He tore the pages into shreds (these were put together later), shouted Inquilab Zindabad and spat into the court before being led away.


Living life the hard way

It is not just in those final months that it is difficult to pin down Udham Singh: his entire life defies easy telling. Born at the turn of the nineteenth century in Sunam, Sangrur district, he spent his childhood in the Central Khalsa Orphanage in Amritsar along with his brother. He served as a carpenter with the Pioneer unit of the British army in Mesopotamia during World War I and then in the railways in British East Africa. He reached California through Mexico and came in close contact with the Ghadar revolutionaries, becoming an avid read of Ghadar literature. In fact, he was arrested in Amritsar in 1927 with a cache of this literature and unlicenced arms, and was sentenced to five years’ rigorous imprisonment. He travelled widely in Europe and ended up in England around 1934, becoming a familiar face among the community of Sikh peddlers and at the Shephard’s Bush gurdwara in London.


Occasionally, he is said to have worked as a film extra. He changed addresses often and had few confidantes. He also changed names often: born Sher Singh, he was known at various times as Ude Singh, Frank Brazil, Bawa Sahib and improbably as Ram Mohammed Singh Azad. In fact, in 1940 he was first charged with O’Dwyer’s murder as Mohammad Singh Azad; subsequently his name was changed in the court papers to Udham Singh, since a passport had been issued to him in that name in 1933. In one of his first letters to the Superintendent of Police at Brixton prison after his arrest he adds a postscript that says: “all over the world I am called Mohammed Singh Azad.” Several other letters are signed simply as M.S. Azad or Bawa.


The most intriguing question, of course, on which the jury of scholars is still out is whether or not Udham Singh was physically present at Jallianwala Bagh during the shooting on April 13, 1919; if affirmed, this would, of course, provide direct motive for his shooting of O’Dwyer. Popular legend has him serving water to the wounded and the dying in the Bagh. During the trial, however, he clearly told the Court that at the time of the massacre, he was not in India but in East Africa. To W.E.S. Holland, a sympathetic priest who used to visit him in prison and later sought to intercede for commutation of the death sentence, Udham Singh said that his brother and sister had been killed during the shooting; a hasty inquiry by the Government of India brought up nothing. In the final analysis, his personal presence at the Bagh appears only of academic interest. His anger was deep and his commitment for India’s freedom total. He was unafraid of death, hero-worshipped Bhagat Singh, calling him his best friend, and longed for a similar death. Something about him is also revealed by the fact that he had wanted to take oath in court on a copy of Waris Shah’s Heer.


Homecoming of the hero

It was only in 1973 that the Government of India took up the matter of exhumation and return of Udham Singh’s remains to India, the process being set into motion by a letter from the then Chief Minister of Punjab, Giani Zail Singh, to the then Foreign Minister, Sardar Swaran Singh. When our High Commission put in the request the first responses were predictable: Udham Singh’s act had been condemned in India in 1940, with Mahatma Gandhi calling it “an act of insanity”. How come now this sudden interest? How would this request for an assassin’s remains sit with the rising tide of terrorism? Who should claim the remains — the Government or the relatives of Udham Singh? And there was no guarantee that the remains could be identified and located.


In the event, things moved relatively smoothly. The Pentonville prison authorities confirmed that they could locate and exhume the remains; an application was sent in supported by one Aas Kaur, Udham Singh’s first cousin, and a licence for exhumation obtained. The British Government sought utmost discretion and no publicity attached to matter, not even the presence of a small community contingent to bid farewell at the airport. The Punjab CM, who had intended to be personally present at the exhumation, was persuaded not to go in the overall interest of letting the process go ahead smoothly. J.H. Kenyon Ltd, a professional firm of funeral directors, took in hand the task of exhumation and preparation of the remains for transfer to India. Finally, accompanied by Education Minister of Punjab Sardar Umrao Singh, Chief Secretary R.S. Talwar and MLA Sadhu Singh, the remains of Udham Singh were brought back by Air India to Palam airport in the early hours of July 19, 1974 to a hero’s welcome.


A high-powered reception committee led by Dr Shankar Dyal Sharma received the casket, draped in the Tricolor. Thousands filed past the casket as it lay for public viewing for three days at Kapurthala House in Delhi and thousands more paid their homage as it toured several towns of Haryana and Punjab. Exactly 34 years after he was hanged, the remains of Udham Singh were cremated as per traditional rites in his hometown of Sunam on July 31, 1974. The maverick martyr could finally rest in peace.