Udham Singh: An icon of inspiration and idealism

sardar udham singh

‘Sardar Udham’: a new film by Shoojit Sircar, a sensitive, brilliant and offbeat filmmaker, has been released on October 16, 2021. A totally unconventional, mysterious and fascinating subject, the character of Udham Singh has yet to be fully understood and deciphered so as to meaningfully portray and depict him in full glory with its inner life, contradictions, incredible journeys and infinite passion. Hence, the film is a brave move by a group of committed and progressive group of creative people with their roots in the National School of Drama in Delhi and the independent and progressive theatre movement of the past.

The film thereby enters a fantastic terrain of a dark and colourful life dedicated to the freedom of his country from the yoke of British colonialism – the protracted struggles, the ideals and magic of an irrepressible revolutionary who kept digging against all odds for two decades, and waited and strategized, to achieve his singular aim: revenge and justice for a massacre which shocked the entire nation in the early years of the freedom movement.

Sher Singh, Udham Singh, Frank Brazil, Ude Singh, Mohammad Singh Azad: Udham Singh lived a kaleidoscopic life camouflaged with multiple names and identities, imagined homelands and unknown geographies, celebrated rainbows and tragic tales. All his adult life he was chasing the relentless dream of freedom from British slavery and colonialism, with his steadfast belief in stoic revolutionary ideals, a committed secular and pluralist consciousness, with a vast network of committed and permanent comrades, even if many of them were ephemeral or just passing by. He travelled the world as a revolutionary with the Ghadar party, suffered and struggled, moved from abject and homeless poverty as a small boy to a sudden life of flamboyance, assumed new identities and changed names, camouflaged his face and character, smuggled revolutionaries across the American-Mexican and other borders, distributed arms and ammunition in India, spread propaganda in remote villages with leaflets and insurgent politics, and wowed to end the British rule in India.  

However, amidst a colourful, secretive and hard life, and long journeys to distant countries, engaged with multiple tasks for the revolution, for 21 years he was chasing only one singular dream, single-mindedly and with a stoic passion unimaginable to an ordinary human being: to avenge the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh at Amritsar on April 13, 1919. And to kill the ruthless, racist and remorseless man who ordered and presided over the massacre – Lieutenant Governor Michael ‘O Dwyer, the dictator and ruler of British Punjab.

On April 13, 1919, a huge and peaceful protest meeting was being held at Jallianwala Bagh. There were earlier announcements that all protests and meetings are banned. However, the organisers were sure that their peaceful protest, as a part of the non-violent freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi, will face no difficulty from the administration. No one had even remotely imagined what followed next and shook India and changed the course of its history.

Brigadier General Reginald ‘Rex’ Dyer was the man chosen by Michael O’Dwyer to execute his unprecedented orders. Dyer blocked the narrow exit as the peaceful protesters, unaware of what was to arrive, prepared for the meeting. There was also many ordinary folks who were simply spending their time, resting, eating, meeting, in the Bagh like most days. The firing was ordered almost immediately.

For the next few minutes, there was a hail of bullets and people fell, dead and injured, hit by the bullets. Children too were shot. Bodies piled up, the dead, the dying and the alive and wounded trapped in the catastrophe. The people groaned, screamed and cried but no one even got a drop of water to drink. All through the night those who were still breathing lived with the dead, slowly dying. No medical or other relief was allowed. No one was allowed to move out or move in. The injured waited in pain to die. This was a genocide which India will never forget – nor will the British.

Anita Anand has written a meticulously researched book on the life and times of Udham Singh, perhaps the only such book written on the revolutionary tracing his entire life from birth to death, from a small village in British Punjab to Amritsar, Basra, Baghdad, the Ugandan Railway Company, London, Mexico, America, Europe, and finally back to London for the final act of revenge: ‘The  Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj (Simon and Schuster, 2019, pages: 373).  Indeed, Anita Anand’s own grandfather was at the Jallianwala Bagh moments before the killings started.

Indeed, in an era whereby history is being subverted, distorted and degraded by the forces of Hindutva and the ruling dispensation in Delhi who did not participate in the freedom movement and backed Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust, this book should be a prescribed text for students in colleges and university campuses across the country. The resurrection of Udham Singh is the resurrection of the very idea of revolution, and the infinite quest for freedom and justice.

Writes Anita Anand: ‘‘It happened so fast it did not feel real. Dyer gave the order. His second in command, a man named Captain Crampton, repeated it, shouting out for all to hear. Whistles rang out from the line of uniformed men. They took aim, squeezed their triggers and fired… Sergeant Andrews, who was standing right at the side of Dyer, described the scene as if it formed before him in slow motion:

The whole crowd seemed to sink to the ground, a flutter of white garments… I saw no sign for a rush towards the troops… After a bit, I noticed that Captain Briggs was drawing up his face as if in pain and was plucking at the General’s elbow… Dyer seemed quite calm and rational. Personally, I wasn’t afraid. I saw nothing to be afraid about. I’d no fear that the crowd would come at us.’’

Anita Anand writes, “Men and children fell clutching their faces and chests, tearing flesh and ripped organs, creating a red mist over the place where they lay. The sight of children having their limps shattered by bullets and their eyes shot out before him was too much for Amritsar’s superintendent of police, John Rehill, who had been asked to show Dyer’s men the shortest route to the garden. After a few moments witnessing the scene he could stand it no more and walked out of the Bagh as the soldiers continued to swivel and fire. He would be so traumatized by what he had seen that he would never be able to speak of it. He would become a rampant alcoholic in the years that followed.’’

‘‘No discrimination was made between targets. The son of the local doctor, a 13-year-old boy named Madan Mouhau, used to visit the garden every day to play with his friends. A bullet, aimed at his head, found its mark and shattered his skull.’’

The children who were later identified included: Sohan Lal, 9, Gian Chand, 15, Mohammed Shariff, 12, Abdulla Baksh, 15, Nand Lala, 12, Mohan Lal, 12, Harnam Singh, 15, Guru Brahman, 15, Nikmu Mal Girdhari, 14, Sunder Singh, 15, Sohan Singh, 15, Tara Singh, 15, Labhu Ram, 14, and Murli Mal, 12. There were at least 20,000 people at the Jallianwala Bagh that day, including many who were just hanging out, eating and resting, while scores of vendors sold Amritsari street food.

No one knows if Udham Singh was at the spot on that tragic day or not. No one really knows his whereabouts on that day. Like many aspects of his mysterious life, a huge expanse lies in twilight zones, hidden in strange shadows. Was he among the injured that day and did he survive the massacre – the answer remains shrouded in mystery.

Even Anita Anand, who painstakingly separates myth from the reality in this voluminous book, looking for both the shadows and the clarity of light, says that according to legend, Udham Singh was among the injured that day. He picked up a handful of blood-soaked earth and he vowed to avenge the massacre.

Indeed, more than 20 years later, he achieved his dream, as he waited, strategized, schemed, and worked for the liberation of his country. He killed Michael O’Dwyer, 70, even then an influential proponent of the colonial and racist apparatus, right on the dias, on March 13, 1940, in a packed meeting organized by the East India Association in London. Udham Singh had taken his revenge.

The British went into a tizzy. A big section of the ruling dispensation and its followers in the British society had felt no remorse or guilt at the massacre. No one was punished. It was therefore a shock coming after two decades.

British interrogators were also completely fooled by Udham Singh. He gave his name as Mohammad Singh Azad, a significant mix of multiple religious identities signifying both secularism and the spirit of revolutionary freedom. He gave the British multiple versions including one story that he had no intention to kill the man, it was merely an accident. The British just could not find out the micro details of his shadowy past, or his links with well-known revolutionaries, including inside the Ghadar party. He kept them going round and round with multiple, cooked up stories.

The assassination of Michael O’Dwyer created mass ripples across the British empire including in the freedom movement in India. The revolutionaries in India, especially, were thrilled and filled with a new fire of struggle. Even the non-violent movement led by Gandhi received a fillip. Udham Singh, suddenly, became a household name all over India, much like another legend from Punjab, Bhagat Singh.

Significantly, Udham Singh reportedly met or saw Bhagat Singh at the Mianwali Jail in Lahore. The man who eluded the police in several countries despite major intelligence tip-offs about his movement and underground activities across the globe, was finally caught by the police in Amritsar earlier, even while he dressed and posed as a well-off gentleman dressed in western clothes. The cops had no clue about his identity even then. They followed him across the lanes and grabbed him from behind. He was reportedly tortured and asked to confess.

Apparently, even then, he led the cops through multiple narratives, neither disclosing his real identity or his connections with the revolutionary underground movement. The cops just could not figure out who he really was or his real connections with revolutionaries in England, Europe, Mexico and America, or his other adventures. Finally, chasing a clue, they found a suitcase full of arms and ammunition.

Udham Singh landed in jail. Even in the jail he started his revolutionary campaign among the prisoners. He was beaten up brutally and sent into solitary confinement. However, he would return and continue to do what he wanted to do: anti-British propaganda and campaign to overthrow the British.

He was thereby sent to Mianwali Jail in Lahore where he reportedly met a man much younger to him, an intellectual, thinker, atheist and Marxist, who was soon after hanged: Bhagat Singh.

Bhagat Singh was reading Lenin moments before he was hanged, according to legend. Udham Singh was an illiterate who perhaps had never read Lenin or Marx, though he was actively engaged with the communists and Ghadar party in America and elsewhere. The hanging of young Bhagat Singh shook Udham Singh deep inside. Henceforth, the much older revolutionary would call the young martyr his one, only and ultimate Guru.

Udham Singh was born in a very poor family. His ailing mother died very young. His name was Sher Singh as a child. His brother was Sadhu Singh. His father, a poor worker, lived in abject poverty. Looking for work, he trekked with his little sons to Amritsar. Tired, hungry and weary, he died on the way.

Some wandering priests found the two little boys. They were taken to a distant relative. The relative took care of them despite his own economically weak condition. He then found a benevolent Sikh who ran an orphanage, and the big-hearted man happily adopted the two orphan children.

From an orphan, an unemployed young carpenter trying to work in the army and the Ugandan Railway Company in the Middle-East in the lowliest of ranks,  to a globe-trotter, smuggling arms, revolutionaries and anti-British literature, Udham Singh travelled across Europe and America with his connections with the international Ghadar movement. He did several jobs in America, lived both overground and underground, apparently married a woman with whom he travelled to multiple places changing jobs, while continuing with his revolutionary work. She would really never know that this man was destined for an obsessive goal which had driven him with one-dimensional zeal for so many years: Revenge. And justice for Jallianwala Bagh.

Udham Singh left his wife and comrades to come back to London to fulfill his mission. He made the supreme sacrifice in revenge of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. He was quickly hanged on July 31, 1940, at Bradbury in England.

He was quickly hanged because the British did not want a huge public trial whereby the gruesome narratives of the massacre would yet again be resurrected with meticulous details in the public domain. Nor did they want Udham Singh, alias, Mohammad Singh Azad, to spread his anti-British tirade in the trial, because by then he had already become an icon, a role model and a hero for the revolutionaries and freedom fighters in India and abroad. Hence, they hanged him without even a proper trial.

Earlier, on June 5, 1940, the jury gave unanimous verdict. Udham Singh was found guilty of murder.

According to Anita Anand, when asked by the judge if had anything to say, Udham Singh came out with a sheaf of papers, his last testimony. Predictably, the media did not report it.

He had written in those bundle of papers:

I am not afraid to die. I am proud to die. I want to help my native land, and I hope when I have gone that in my place will come others of my countrymen to drive the dirty dogs – when I am free of the country. I am standing before an English jury in an English court. You people go to India and when you come back you are given prizes and put into the House of Commons, when we come to England, we are put to death. In any case I do not care anything about it, but when you dirty dogs come to India –the intellectuals they call themselves, the rulers – they are of bastard blood caste, and they order machine guns to fire on the Indian students without hesitation. I have nothing against the public at all. I have more English friends in England than I have in India. I have nothing against the public. I have great sympathy with the workers of England, but I am against the dirty British government. Your people are suffering the same as I am suffering through those dirty dogs and mad beasts – killing, mutilating and destroying. We know what is going on in India… hundreds of thousands of people being killed by your dirty dogs….

‘‘The judge ordered prison officers to drag him from the dock. As he was pulled away, Udham was heard to scream: ‘You people are dirty. You don’t want to hear from us what you are doing in India, Beasts. Beasts. Beasts. England, England, down with imperialism, down with the dirty dogs…’ His distant voice was heard shouting: Inquilab! Inquilab! Inquilab! Revolution! Revolution! Revolution!…’’

Udham Singh’s remains are buried in Jallianwala Bagh at Amritsar. His statue holding a fistful of blood-soaked earth has been erected outside the site of the massacre. His relentless quest for justice and revenge thereby remains etched across time and space in the history of resistance, struggle and liberation. He was truly one of the greatest and bravest of revolutionaries and martyrs in the history of all revolutions. Contemporary India needs not only the resurrection of his memory and life and times as a tribute to his greatness, it needs him as an eternal icon of inspiration and idealism.



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