At his trial, Udham Singh told the court ‘What a greater honour could be bestowed on me than death for the sake of my motherland?’
Dr Rajagopal Soondron
If a whole country had been galvanized by the Amritsar massacre of 1919 there was, however, someone who had taken that horrible event to heart and promised to take revenge on the British Raj.
Udham Singh was a teenager in April 1919; he was caught in the maelstrom of Jallianwala Bagh massacre and had sustained gunshot injuries. He laid there among the hundreds of dead people the whole night, hearing and witnessing the moanings and sufferings of the wounded. No medical help came to him, so after Colonel Dyer had finished his planned massacre by having his troops shoot at thousands of people, it is said that Udham smeared his body with soiled blood and earth, and there and then promised to take revenge. Later he managed to go out to seek help.
The story of Udham Singh is told in the recent book by British writer Anita Anand ‘The Patient Assassin’. Anita’s interest might have been sharpened by the fact that her own paternal grandfather escaped that massacre on Sunday 13th April 1919, as he had to go out of the garden for a late business meeting with a scrap metal dealer.
Udham Singh: “I am not scared of death. I am dying for my country. I have seen my people starving in India under the British rule. I have protested against this, it was my duty”
In the review of the book in the Daily Telegraph of 28th April last, Anita Anand recounts how Udham Singh got involved in politics and in the Indian independence movement, and thereafter joined forces with the more radical groups opposed to the British raj. He later went to Uganda to work in the railways – on the “Lunatic Lines” set up by the British, where anti-colonialist movements had already started agitating against them. It is in Kenya that he learned the tricks of militant activism.
Back in India he went deeper into militant actions, got married, and had children. He would later abandon his family to pursue the task he had promised himself – eliminate Colonel Dyer. The latter’s boss was the lieutenant Governor of Punjab Sir Michael O’Dwyer, – who had given Colonel Reginald Dyer the green light to move against the Indian protesters at the Jallianwala Bagh. It was the same governor who congratulated and supported Dyer after his horrible deed. That created further bad blood amongst the Indians and Udham Singh.
Later he would leave India and proceed to Mexico and California – where again he joined an extremist group called the Indian Ghadhars; revolt had been simmering in many places against the British Empire.
Meanwhile, fate would play Udham an unexpected turn; Colonel Dyer – his arch enemy – died in 1927 of natural causes, eight years after his Indian tour of duty. But in no way did this deter him from his goal – taking revenge. So he transferred his hate against the ex-governor of Punjab, Dyer’s superior Sir Michael O’Dwyer. Finally he managed to land in Great Britain, and embedded himself in a network of peddlers who perhaps helped him to plot his revenge. Anita Anand was surprised by her own husband who told her that one of his great uncles had worked in that network in London in the 1930s.
The unperturbed Singh worked in the background, preparing his deed. On 13th March 1940, 21 years after the Amritsar event, he eproceeded to Caxton Hall in Westminster where O’Dwyer was present at a joint meeting of the East India Association and the Central Asian Society (now Royal Society for Asian Affairs). He walked quietly towards him and fired.
O’Dwyer was hit by two bullets and died instantly. Lord Zetland, the Secretary of State for India, was presiding over the meeting and was wounded. Zetland, recovering from his injuries, later opted for early retirement from his position of Secretary of State for India. Udham Singh had his vengeance. He made no attempt to escape and was quickly apprehended.
At his trial, Singh told the court:
“I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it. He was the real culprit. He wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him. For full 21 years, I have been trying to wreak vengeance. I am happy that I have done the job. I am not scared of death. I am dying for my country. I have seen my people starving in India under the British rule. I have protested against this, it was my duty. What a greater honour could be bestowed on me than death for the sake of my motherland?”
He was convicted and on 31st July 1940 and was executed at the Pentonville Prison; his body was sent for burial in an unmarked grave in the shrubs outside the prison.
In 1974 the Indian government made the necessary move to identify the bones of Udham Singh and sent them back home to give him a national hero’s burial.
Many memorials have been set up to honour Udham Singh – be they the names given to streets and other government or council places, and even a stamp was taken out in his name.
To dramatize her plot, Anita Anand recounts how one day she succeeded to get the phone number of Colonel Dyer’s great granddaughter. Beatrice Dyer. It took Anita weeks before she decided to phone that lady. Finally they met and Beatrice was sure that her grandfather had done the duty set to him. It is probable that many might have adopted the same stand, for living with the guilt of one one’s own ancestors would amount to incriminating oneself indirectly. But Anita succeeded to convince her to come along to Amritsar and visit the place where there had been so much historical drama. And then, at a given instant, we are told, both ladies sat and wept together. There are times when we come to realize that it is difficult to understand or to do away with the past.
This reminds some of us of the documentary which showed the grandchildren of the Jews gassed in the furnaces by the Nazis during the Second World War meeting with the grandchildren of the SS guards who had humiliated and directed the victims to the gas chambers. The youngsters talked and wanted to understand the past and come to terms with it. But finally they also wept together. The only thing left was tears.
The sense of guilt could be too heavy a burden for the children.
But Udham Singh had lived through that past — and felt no guilt, which motivated him to avenge.
* Published in print edition on 26 April 2019