Who Was Udham Singh?
Udham Singh, a revolutionary nationalist, was born Sher Singh on 26 December 1899, at Sunam, in the then 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 Sadhu Singh. In 1917, Udham Singh’s brother also died, leaving him alone in the world.
Udham Singh left the Orphanage after passing the matriculation examination in 1918. He was present in the Jallianvala Bag on the fateful Baisakhi day, 13 April 1919, when a peaceful assembly of people was fired upon by General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer, killing over one thousand people. The event which Udham Singh used to recall with anger and sorrow, turned him to the path of revolution. Soon after, he left India and went to the United States of America. He felt thrilled to learn about the militant activities of the Babar Akalis in the early 1920’s, and returned home. He had secretly brought 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.
Udham Singh was deeply influenced by the activities of Bhagat Singh and his revolutionary group. In 1935, when he was on a visit to Kashmlr, he was found carrying Bhagat Singh’s portrait. He invariably referred to him as his guru. He loved to sing political songs, and was very fond of Ram Prasad Bismal, who was the leading poet of the revolutionaries. After staying for some months in Kashmlr, Udham Singh left India. He wandered about the continent for some time, and reached England by the mid-thirties. He was on the lookout for an opportunity to avenge the Jalliavala Bagh tragedy. The long-waited moment at last came on 13 March 1940. On that day, at 4.30 p.m. in the Caxton Hall, London, where a meeting of the East India Association was being held in conjunction with the Royal Central Asian Society, Udham Singh fired five to six shots from his pistol at Sir Michael O’Dwyer, who was governor of the Punjab when the Amritsar massacre had taken place. O’Dwyer was hit twice and fell to the ground dead and Lord Zetland, the Secretary of State for India, who was presiding over the meeting was injured. Udham Singh was overpowered with a smoking revolver. He in fact made no attempt to escape and continued saying that he had done his duty by his country.
On 1 April 1940, Udham Singh was formally charged with the murder of Sir Michael O’Dwyer. 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 humor. 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. Lakhs of people gathered on the occasion to pay homage to his memory.
The Last Words of Udham Singh
On the 31st July, 1940, Udham Singh was hanged at Pentonville jail, London. On the 4th of June in the same year he had been arraigned before Mr. Justice Atkinson at the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey. Udham Singh was charged with the murder of Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the former Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab who had approved of the action of Brigadier-General R.E.H. Dyer at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar on April 13, 1919, which had resulted in the massacre of hundreds of men, women and children and left over 1,000 wounded during the course of a peaceful political meeting. The assassination of O’Dwyer took place at the Caxton Hall, Westminster. The trial of Udham Singh lasted for two days, he was found guilty and was given the death sentence. On the 15th July, 1940, the Court of Criminal Appeal heard and dismissed the appeal of Udham Singh against the death sentence.
Prior to passing the sentence Mr. Justice Atkinson asked Udham Singh whether he had anything to say. Replying in the affirmative he began to read from prepared notes. The judge repeatedly interrupted Udham Singh and ordered the press not to report the statement. Both in Britain and India the government made strenuous efforts to ensure that the minimum publicity was given to the trial. Reuters were approached for this purpose.
The father of Udham Singh, Tehl Singh, was born into a poor peasant family and worked as a Railway Gate Keeper at the railway level crossing at Village Uppali. Udham Singh was born on 28th December, 1899 at Sanam, Sangrur District, Punjab. After the death of his father Udham Singh was brought up in a Sikh orphanage in Amritsar. The massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919 was deeply engraved in the mind of the future martyr. At the age of 16 years Udham Singh defied the curfew and was wounded in the course of retrieving the body of the husband of one Rattan Devi in the aftermath of the slaughter. Subsequently Udham Singh travelled abroad in Africa, the United States and Europe. Over the years he met Lala Lajpat Rai, Kishen Singh and Bhagat Singh, whom he considered his guru and ‘his best friend’. In 1927 Udham Singh was arrested in Amritsar under the Arms Act. The impact of the Russian revolution on him is indicated by the fact that amongst the revolutionary tracts found by the raiding party was Rusi Ghaddar Gian Samachar. After serving his sentence and visiting his home town, Udham Singh resumed, his travels abroad. If it was the Jallianwala Bagh massacre which provided the turning point of his life which led him to avenge the dead, it was Bhagat Singh who provided him with the inspiration to pursue the path of revolutionary struggle.
Echoes of Kartar Singh Sarabha and Bhagat Singh may be found in the words of Udham Singh in the wake of the assassination of O’Dwyer.
‘I don’t care, I don’t mind dying. What Is the use of waiting till you get old? This Is no good. You want to die when you are young. That is good, that Is what I am doing’.
After a pause he added:
‘I am dying for my country’.
In a statement given on March 13th, 1940 be said:
‘I just shot to make protest. I have seen people starving In India under British Imperialism. I done it, the pistol went off three or four times. I am not sorry for protesting. It was my duty to do so. Put some more. Just for the sake of my country to protest. I do not mind my sentence. Ten, twenty, or fifty years or to be hanged. I done my duty.’
In a letter from Brixton Prison of 30th March, 1940, Udham Singh refers to Bhagat Singh in the following terms:
‘I never afraid of dying so soon I will be getting married with execution. I am not sorry as I am a soldier of my country it is since 10 years when my friend has left me behind and I am sure after my death I will see him as he is waiting for me it was 23rd and I hope they will hang me on the same date as he was.’
The British courts were able to silence for long the last words of Udham Singh. At last the speech has been released from the British Public Records Office.
Shorthand notes of the Statement made by Udham Singh after the Judge had asked him if he had anything to say as to why sentence should not be passed upon him according to Law.
Facing the Judge, he exclaimed, ‘I say down with British Imperialism. You say India do not have peace. We have only slavery. Generations of so called civilization has brought for 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 bloodthirsty way in which the so called intellectuals who call themselves rulers of civilization in the world are of bastard blood…’
MR. JUSTICE ATKINSON: I am not going to listen to a political speech. If you have anything relevant to say about this case say it.
UDHAM SINGH: I have to say this. I wanted to protest.
The accused brandished the sheaf of papers from which he had been reading.
THE JUDGE: Is it in English?
UDHAM SINGH: You can understand what I am reading now.
THE JUDGE: I will understand much more if you give it to me to read.
UDHAM SINGH: I want the jury, I want the whole lot to hear it.
Mr. G.B. McClure (Prosecuting) reminded the Judge that under Section 6 of the Emergency Powers Act he could direct that Udham Singh’s speech be not reported or that it could be heard in camera.
THE JUDGE (to the accused): You may take it that nothing will be published of what you say. You must speak to the point. Now go on.
UDHAM SINGH: I am protesting. This is what I mean. I am quite innocent about that address. The jury were misled about that address. I am going to read this now.
THE JUDGE: Well, go on.
While the accused was perusing the papers, the Judge reminded him ‘You are only to say why sentence should not be passed according to law.’
UDHAM SINGH (shouting): ‘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.’
MR. JUSTICE ATKINSON: I am not going to hear any more.
UDHAM SINGH: You do not want to listen to any more because you are tired of my speech, eh? I have a lot to say yet.
THE JUDGE: I am not going to hear any more of that statement.
UDHAM SINGH: 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.
Thrusting his glasses back into his pocket, Udham Singh exclaimed three words in Hindustani and then shouted, Down with British Imperialism! Down with British dirty dogs!’
As he turned to leave the dock, the accused spat across the solicitor’s table.
After Singh had left the dock, the Judge turned to the Press and said:
‘I give a direction to the Press not to report any of the statement made by the accused in the dock. You understand, members of the press?’