Monthly Archives: July 2013

Shaheed-i-Azam Udham Singh

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He was the real culprit. He deserved it. He wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him.

– Shaheed Udham Singh, telling the trial court why he killed former Punjab Lieutenant-Governor Michael O’Dwyer.

Udham Singh, the great freedom fighter from Punjab, was born Sher Singh, on 26 December 1899, at Sunam, in the princely state of Patiala. His father, Tahal Singh, was at that time working as a watchman on a railway crossing in the neighbouring village of Upall . Sher Singh lost his parents before he was seven years and was admitted along with his brother Mukta Singh to the Central Khalsa Orphanage at Amritsar on 24 October 1907.

As both brothers were administered the Sikh initiatory rites at the Orphanage, they received new names, Sher Singh becoming Udham Singh and Mukta Singh became Sadhu Singh. In 1917, Udham Singh’s brother also died, leaving him alone in the world. Here at the orphangae, he received education and training in crafts.

Udham Singh left the Orphanage after passing the matriculation examination in 1918. He set up a painters shop with the signboard of Ram Mahammad Singh Azaad, a name he would later use during his trial in London.

In the spring of 1919, Punjab was at a crossroads of history. The First World War was over, and soldiers were returning to discover an India more impoverished and less free than it was when they left. News of that tumultuous event, the Russian Revolution, had fired the imagination of thousands of young people. Memories of the failed Punjab ghadar (revolt) of 1914-1915, led by Sikh emigrants to North America who returned to India embittered by racial discrimination, were fresh. The trial and martyrdom of the Ghadar Party leadership in the Lahore Conspiracy trial, and the internment of some 1,500 of the emigrants in India, proved an abiding symbol for a younger generation of radicals.
It was during this time that the British administration tried to push through the Rowlatt Act. This law would allow the colonial government to keep those accused of dissent imprisoned without any evidence or a trial. Pan-India reaction was furious, and the Congress’ call for non-violent protest was widely endorsed.
By April 6, the anti-Rowlatt Act movement was at its peak in Punjab. Practically the whole of Lahore was on the streets. On April 10, 1919, the Empire tried to hit back. Two key Punjab Congress leaders, the Cambridge-educated allopath Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew and his colleague Dr. Satyapal, were arrested as pre-meditative measure. News of Gandhi’s arrest the previous day soon reached Amritsar. The city exploded. Over 15,000 people gathered at the Carriage Bridge and demanded to know the whereabouts of Satyapal and Kitchlew. The police in return ordered a firing. 25 people were left for dead.
When Brigadier General Dyer arrived in Amritsar from Jalandhar at 9 p.m. the next day, the situation was tense and anger amongst the people was rife. On the morning of April 13, Vaisakhi day, Dyer’s troops marched through Amritsar, proclaiming that all assemblies would be “dispersed by force of arms if necessary.” Shortly afterwards, two people walked through the city banging tin cans to announce a rally at 4-30 p.m. at Jallianwala Bagh. By afternoon, a peace gathering of over 20,000 people was in place, hearing a succession of speeches condemning the Rowlatt Act and the recent arrests and firings. (Many of those who had gathered at the maidan, however, were villagers, who were on a visit to Amritsar on the occasion of the Vaisakhi fair, and were probably unaware of the morning’s drama.)
No effort, Dyer later admitted, had been made to prevent the gathering from taking place, a fact which, coupled with rally organiser Hans Raj’s somewhat murky background, led some contemporary observers to speculate that the dusty field had been deliberately chosen as a killing field. Dyer arrived at Jallianwala Bagh, along with two young officers, Briggs and Anderson, 50 Indian and British riflemen, 40 Gurkhas, and two armoured cars. The armoured cars were left on the road outside the maidan, for the sole entrance was too narrow to accommodate them.
A few minutes before sunset, the first of 1,650 rounds were fired into the crowd. Congress leader Durga Das at first believed the shots were fired into the air, but soon realised bodies were falling all around him. No warning was given to disperse before Dyer opened fire. Many died when they jumped into the well at the left-hand side of the field, only to be crushed by others who desperately dived on top of them.

The wounded cried for help, but there was no aid at hand. “I fired and continued to fire until the crowd dispersed,” Dyer told the official Lord William Hunter Committee of Inquiry set up to probe the violence, “and I consider this is the least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral and widespread effect it was my duty to produce, if I was to justify my action.” “It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd,” he added, “but one of producing a sufficient moral effect, from a military point of view, not only on those who were present but more specifically throughout the Punjab. There could be no question of undue severity.”
Udham Singh who was present at the Jalianwala Bagh on that fateful day, would later recall on the massacre with anger and sorrow. On this day, General Dyer changed the course of Sardar Udham Singh’s life.

He resolved to wreck vengeance on the perpetrators of this heinous crime, General Dyer,  Sir Michael O’Dwyer the Lieutenant Governor, Punjab and Lord Zetland Secretary of State of India. Sardar Udham Singh moved from one country to another country to shoot the murderers of his countrymen..

He felt thrilled to learn about the militant activities of the Babar Akalis, in the early 1920’s, and secretly kept with him, some revolvers and was arrested by the police in Amritsar, and sentenced to four years imprisonment under the Arms Act.

On release in 1931, he returned to his native Sunam, but harassed by the local police, he once again returned to Amritsar and opened a shop as a signboard painter, assuming the name of Ram Muhammad Singh Azad. This name, which he was to use later in England , was adopted to emphasize the unity of all the religious communities in India in their struggle for political freedom..

He reached London through Germany where he joined a training course to hoodwink his activities to trace General Dyer, Sir Michael O’ Dwyer and Lord Zetland. It took him twenty years to meet Sir Michael O’Dwyer and Lord Zetland. The third culprit General Dyer had already expired. After 21 years, it was on the 13th March. 1940 when Sir Michael O’ Dwyer and Lord Zetland had come to attend a meeting in the Caxton Hall in London, that Sardar Udham Singh entered there with his revolver hidden inside a book. Sardar Udham Singh gunned Sir Michael O’Dwyer down with his revolver. There was great panic and pandemonium in the Hall. He in fact made no attempt to escape and continued saying that he had done his duty by his country. Sardar Udham Singh stood firm and he was chained.

On 1 April 1940, Udham Singh was formally charged with the murder of Sir Michael O’Dwyer. When produced before the Magistrate, he said ‘I did the deed because Sir Michael O’Dwyer wanted to crush all our aspirations for freedom. I had been after him for full 21 years. I am happy that I have fulfilled my job. I am not afraid of death’.

On 4 June 1940, he was committed to trial, at the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, before Justice Atkinson, who sentenced him to death. An appeal was filed on his behalf which was dismissed on 15 July 1940. On 31 July 1940, Udham Singh was hanged in Pentonville Prison in London .

Udham Singh was essentially a man of action and save his statement before the judge at his trial, there was no writing from his pen available to historians. Recently, letters written by him to Shiv Singh Jauhal during his days in prison after the shooting of Sir Michael O’Dwyer have been discovered and published. These letters show him as a man of great courage, with a sense of humour. He called himself a ‘guest of His Majesty King George’, and he looked upon death as a bride he was going to wed. By remaining cheerful to the last and going joyfully to the gallows, he followed the example of Bhagat Singh who had been his beau ideal. During the trial, Udham Singh had made a request that his ashes be sent back to his country, but this was not allowed. In 1975, however, the Government of India, at the instance of the Punjab Government, finally succeeded in bringing his ashes home. Thousands of people gathered on the occasion to pay homage to his memory.

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