Shaheed Udham Singh (26 December 1899 – 31 July 1940), was a revolutionary belonging to the Ghadar Party best known for his assassination in London of Michael O'Dwyer, the former lieutenant governor of the Punjab in India, on 13 March 1940 . The assassination was in revenge for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar in 1919 for which O'Dwyer was responsible. Singh was subsequently tried and convicted of murder and hanged in July 1940. While in custody, he used the name Ram Mohammad Singh Azad, which represents the three major religions of Punjab and his anti-colonial sentiment.
Shaheed Sardar Udham Singh is a well-known figure of the Indian independence movement. He is also referred to as Shaheed-i-Azam Sardar Udham Singh (the expression "Shaheed-i-Azam", means "the great martyr"). A district (Udham Singh Nagar) of Uttarakhand was named after him to pay homage in October 1995 by the then Mayawati government.
Early lifeUdham Singh was born as Sher Singh on 26 December 1899, at Sunam in the Sangrur district of Punjab, India. His father, Sardar Tehal Singh Jammu, was a railway crossing watchman in the village of Upalli.
After his father's death, Singh and his elder brother, Mukta Singh, were taken in by the Central Khalsa Orphanage Putlighar in Amritsar. At the orphanage, Singh was administered the Sikh initiatory rites and received the name of Udham Singh. He passed his matriculation examination in 1918 and left the orphanage in 1919.
Massacre at Jallianwala BaghOn 10 April 1919, a number of local leaders allied to the Indian National Congress including Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew were arrested under the Rowlatt Act. Protestors against the arrests were fired on by British troops, precipitating a riot. On 13 April, over twenty thousand unarmed People were assembled in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar to protest against the act. Udham Singh and his friends from the orphanage were serving water to the crowd.
Udham Singh became involved in revolutionary politics and was deeply influenced by Bhagat Singh and his revolutionary group. In 1924, Udham Singh became involved with the Ghadar Party, organising Indians overseas towards overthrowing colonial rule. In 1927, he returned to India on orders from Bhagat Singh, bringing 25 associates as well as revolvers and ammunition. Soon after, he was arrested for possession of unlicensed arms. Revolvers, ammunition, and copies of a prohibited Ghadar Party paper called "Ghadr-i-Gunj" ("Voice of Revolt") were confiscated. He was prosecuted and sentenced to five years in prison.
Upon his release from prison in 1931, Singh's movements were under constant surveillance by the Punjab police. He made his way to Kashmir, where he was able to evade the police and escape to Germany. In 1934, he reached London, where he found employment as an engineer. Privately, he formed plans to assassinate Michael O'Dwyer. In Singh's diaries for 1939 and 1940, he occasionally misspells O'Dwyer's surname as "O'Dyer", leaving a possibility he may have confused O'Dwyer with General Dyer.
Shooting in Caxton HallOn 13 March 1940, Michael O'Dwyer was scheduled to speak at a joint meeting of the East India Association and the Central Asian Society (now Royal Society for Asian Affairs) at Caxton Hall, London. Singh concealed inside his jacket pocket a revolver he had earlier purchased from a soldier in a pub, then entered the hall and found an open seat. As the meeting concluded, Singh shot O'Dwyer twice as he moved towards the speaking platform. One of these bullets passed through O'Dwyer's heart and right lung, killing him almost instantly. Others injured in the shooting included Sir Louis Dane, Lawrence Dundas, 2nd Marquess of Zetland, and Charles Cochrane-Baillie, 2nd Baron Lamington. Singh was arrested immediately and tried for the killing.
Murder trial and executionOn 1 April 1940, Udham Singh was formally charged with the murder of Michael O'Dwyer, and remanded in custody at Brixton Prison. Initially asked to explain his motivations, Singh stated: I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it. I don't belong to society or anything else. I don't care. I don't mind dying. What is the use of waiting until you get old? ... Is Zetland dead? He ought to be. I put two into him? I bought the revolver from a soldier in a public house. My parents died when I was three or four. ... Only one dead? I thought I could get more.
While in custody, he called himself "Ram Mohammad Singh Azad": the first three words of the name reflect the three major religious communities of Punjab (Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh); the last word "azad" (literally "free") reflects his anti-colonial sentiment.
While awaiting his trial, Singh went on a 42-day hunger strike and was force fed. On 4 June 1940, his trial commenced at the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, before Justice Atkinson, with V.K. Krishna Menon and St John Hutchinson representing him. G. B. McClure was the prosecuting barrister. When asked about his motivation, Singh explained:
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 seek 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 greater honour could be bestowed on me than death for the sake of my motherland?
Singh was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. On 31 July 1940, Singh was hanged at Pentonville Prison. His remains are preserved at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, Punjab. On every 31 July, marches are held in Sunam by various organisations and every statue of Singh in the city is paid tribute with flower garlands.
Singh's speechFollowing his conviction, he made a speech which the judge directed should not be released to the press. However, political activists who had set up the Shaheed Udham Singh Trust and working with the Indian Workers Association (GB), ran a campaign to have the court record of his statement published along with other material. This proved successful in 1996, when his speech was published along with three further files covering the trial, and the Ghadar Directory, a document compiled by British intelligence in 1934 detailing 792 people regarded as a threat including Udham Singh.
He started the speech with a denunciation of British Imperialism:
:"I say down with British Imperialism. You say India do not have peace. We have only slavery Generations of so called civilisation has brought us everything filthy and degenerating. known to the human race. All you have to do is read your own history. If you have any human decency about you, you should die with shame. The brutality and blood thirsty way in which the so called intellectuals who call themselves rulers of civilisation in the world are bastard blood . . ."
At this point he was interrupted by the judge, but after some discussion he continued:
:"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.’ Thumping the rail of the dock, he exclaimed, ‘We are suffering from the British Empire.’ Udham Singh continued more quietly. ‘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."
At this point the judge refused to hear any more, but Singh continued:
:"You ask me what I have to say. I am saying it. Because you people are dirty. You do not want to hear from us what you are doing in India.
He then thrust his glasses back into his pocket, and exclaimed three words in Hindustani and then shouted:
:'Down with British Imperialism! Down with British dirty dogs!"
He turned to leave the dock, spitting across the solicitor’s table.
When this material was published, it was reported in both British and Asian press, the statement was translated into Gurmukhi script and distributed at the Sikh Vaisaki Festival in Birmingham, April 1997. John Major, the prime Minister at that time remarked: "The Amritsar Massacre was an unhappy episode in Indo-British relations which was controversial in both countries. Today [8 October 1996] I am glad to say, our relationship is excellent. India is an important partner and a close friend of this country."
ReactionsAlthough many Indians regarded Singh's actions as a response to some brutal aspects of British colonial rule, officially, his actions were deplored and condemned in India, with Mahatma Gandhi referring to Singh's actions as "an act of insanity", stating: "The outrage has caused me deep pain. I regard it as an act of insanity ... I hope this will not be allowed to affect political judgement." The Hindustan Socialist Republican Army condemned Mahatma Gandhi's statement, considering this to be a challenge to the Indian Youths. Pt Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in The National Herald, "[The] assassination is regretted but it is earnestly hoped that it will not have far-reaching repercussions on [the] political future of India."
In its 18 March 1940 issue, Amrita Bazar Patrika wrote, "O'Dwyer's name is connected with Punjab incidents which India will never forget". The Punjab section of Congress in the Punjab Assembly led by Dewan Chaman Lal refused to vote for the Premier's motion to condemn the assassination. In April 1940, at the Annual Session of the All India Congress Committee held in commemoration of 21st anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, the youth wing of the Indian National Congress Party displayed revolutionary slogans in support of Singh, applauding his action as patriotic and heroic.
Singh had some support from the international press. The Times of London called him a "fighter for freedom", his actions "an expression of the pent-up fury of the downtrodden Indian people." Bergeret from Rome praised Singh's action as courageous. In March 1940, Indian National Congress leader Jawahar Lal Nehru, condemned the action of Singh as senseless, however, in 1962, Nehru reversed his stance and applauded Singh with the following published statement: "I salute Shaheed-i-Azam Udham Singh with reverence who had kissed the noose so that we may be free."