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Udham Singh: Jallianwala’s Avenger

Udham Singh: Jallianwala’s Avenger

Twenty-one years after British troops slaughtered more than a thousand unarmed civilians and injured even more at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, Sardar Udham Singh shot dead Sir Michael O’Dwyer in crowded London’s Caxton Hall. O’Dwyer was the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab when the massacre took place.

On the ground that day, on 13th April 1919, was Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, who ordered his troops to fire into the peaceful crowd assembled in the open ground to celebrate the festival of Baisakhi, New Year’s Day, and protest the Rowlatt Acts and the arrest of two freedom fighters from Amritsar.

Udham Singh, a revolutionary freedom fighter, was driven by a burning rage to avenge the savage killing of innocent Indians in Amritsar. He was only 19 when the massacre took place. On 13th March 1940, at age 40, he assassinated O’Dwyer.

“He took a handful of blood-soaked earth in his hand… and he swore a terrible vow… No matter how long it took, no matter how far it took him… he would track down the dogs who did this to his people and kill them.”

These evocative lines read like a passage from a historical thriller. They are from Anita Anand’s book, Udham Singh: The Revenge of Jallianwala Bagh (originally published as The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj in 2019. But was Udham Singh present at Jallianwala Bagh on the 13th of April 1919? No one knows. But Anand’s words sum up the fire that consumed the man until he achieved retribution for his fellow Indians.

After a trial that lasted barely two days, Udham Singh was hanged to death at Pentonville Prison in the UK on 31st July 1940. The British Raj kept the matter under wraps. In colonial India, which was in the last lap of the freedom struggle, his hanging did not create a stir.

Thirty four years later, in 1974, Udham Singh’s remains were brought back to India, where his coffin was received with state honours. It was taken to his village, Sunam, in Sangrur district of Punjab, for cremation.

After decades of clamour, a statue of Udham Singh was installed at the gate of the Jallianwala Bagh in 2018. 

Anita Anand, broadcaster and author, acquaints us with Udham Singh in a narrative that is riveting and meticulously researched. The colourful Sikh, who came from a humble family, lived a very adventurous life. He was raised in an orphanage and went on to become a revolutionary with the Ghadar Party. He lived on different continents and even landed blink-and-miss roles in a couple of British films.

Udham Singh lived by his own rules and is remembered as he wanted to be – a revolutionary, a martyr and a legend. Excerpted here is The Return, the final chapter of Anand’s book, on the repatriation of Udham Singh’s remains to India.

In 1946, a year after armistice, the Labour government in Britain found itself economically crippled by the cost of war. It neither had the domestic mandate to plough fresh resources into the Raj, nor the loyalty of an increasingly restive native population in India itself. The ‘jewel in the crown’ was slipping from Britain’s grasp, and all that remained was to determine the manner in which it would let go. 

Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy, was cast as mid-wife both to a post-colonial India and a newly created Pakistan. Liberation from British rule would come at a terrible price, involving the division of three separate provinces – Assam, Bengal and Punjab. The divide, cutting through districts based on their religious majorities, came to be known as the Radcliffe Line, named after Cyril Radcliffe. 

Radcliffe, a boundary commissioner who famously had never been east of Paris, was given just five weeks to create two new countries. His line ploughed through cities, towns, villages, friends and families. It left an ocean of blood in its wake. Some fifteen million people were displaced by partition, and two million were killed. 

Punjab, the province that had given birth to Udham Singh and which he had hoped to unite as Mohammed Singh Azad, was left with a scar running through its heart. Lahore went to Pakistan, Amritsar remained in India. Punjabis scattered from their ancestral lands in an unprecedented refugee crisis, the like of which has never been seen in the world before or since. 

Through it all, and despite the concerted British effort to bury Udham Singh’s name and legacy, somehow his story managed to live on. As India began to build its new identity, it found stories of anti-colonial defiance served as a foundation for a new sense of national pride. Punjab had never stopped being proud of the avenger of Jallianwala Bagh, but in the decades following independence, his reputation grew throughout the country. In the 1970s, an Indian mass movement demanded the return of Udham Singh. Eventually, it got its wish. 

New Delhi, 19 July 1974
Shravan Amavasya 

For Hindus, with their lunar calendar, there are certain moonless nights that belong primarily to the dead. Ancestors are honoured, little clay lamps are lit in their memory, and prayers are said for their souls. One such, the Shravan Amavasya, happened to fall on 19 July 1974. 

The coincidence was lost on the hordes of bureaucrats sweating anxiously on the tarmac of New Delhi’s airport. Religion was far from their minds, though they had performed nothing short of a miracle. Working for months behind the scenes, pushing against initial resistance from their counterparts in Whitehall, Indian civil servants had fulfilled a seemingly impossible brief. They had managed to bring Udham Singh home. 

When the wheels of the specially chartered flight carrying Udham’s body touched down on Indian soil on 19 July, the roar of the plane’s jets was matched by that of the crowds. They had fought so hard and waited so long to bring him home. The chief minister of Punjab, a Congress politician named Giani Zail Singh, along with Shankar Dayal Sharma, the president of the Congress Party, stood on the tarmac to receive his casket, as if they were welcoming a visiting head of state. Heads bowed, the two men, both of whom would go on to become presidents of their country, placed garlands on Udham’s coffin. A company of soldiers then gently lifted Udham, shoulder high, and placed him reverentially in a waiting hearse. 

A long procession of police and ministerial cars formed an escort around Udham’s vehicle as it pulled out of the airport at walking pace, to allow crowds outside to catch a glimpse of the cortege as it went by in the darkness. Undeterred by the heavy monsoon rains, thousands had come. The rain mixed with their tears as they threw flowers at Udham as he passed. A thick carpet of wet petals guided his way to the capital. 

Nehru’s daughter, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was waiting for him, standing at the entrance of Kapurthala House, the former residence of the maharajah of Kapurthala. The distinctive brush of white in her jet-black hair streaked like lightning from her temple to her nape as she stepped forward in the relentless rain to place a large floral wreath on his coffin. In the morning he would start his final journey, an eleven-day tour of the north, but for one night the Kamboj orphan would rest under the roof of a king. 

There had been such unprecedented excitement at the prospect of his homecoming that Indira Gandhi had decreed Udham’s remains should tour all Punjab, taking in every major city in the state. Udham would finally come to rest in Sunam, the town where he was born. There he could be cremated in the Sikh tradition. 

A reporter from the New York Times, Bernard Weinraub, had been despatched to follow Udham on his final journey. Weinraub was struck by the depth of feeling that greeted the cortege wherever it went: ‘The coffin of Udham Singh, draped in garlands and carnations, moves slowly along the flat, wet roads of the Punjab. Thousands of Sikhs, bearded and turbaned as always, line the road and surge around the van carrying the coffin of their martyr, who was hanged by the British colonial rulers in 1940, on its final pilgrimage through this north-western state. Raising their fists the Sikhs shout in Punjabi: “Udham Singh forever!” and “Long live Udham Singh!”’ 

Critics of Indira Gandhi accused her of using Udham for her own political ends, to distract from bigger economic problems faced by her people at the time. It was an accusation angrily brushed aside by Zail Singh, her chief minister of Punjab: ‘Why have we done it now?…We felt it was the correct thing…Udham Singh avenged our national humiliation…He played a role in our liberation. He vindicated our self-respect and honour.’ 

Though Udham died an atheist, all religions scrambled to honour him, the Sikhs in particular: ‘“In some ways Udham Singh was a true Sikh,” [Zail Singh] said in Punjabi. “The Sikh gurus taught us to be fearless of death. We don’t want to die in bed, but on the battlefield, for the nation. We are patriotic. We are fearless. Sikhs don’t hate anyone because of caste or creed or sex. Everyone is equal. Udham Singh was a true Sikh.”’ 

On 31 July 1974, Udham Singh arrived in Sunam and the small town was filled to bursting point: ‘My father was part of the welcoming committee and a civic leader in the town,’ remembered Gagandeep Singh, who still lives in Sunam today. ‘He used to tell me that Sunam sat like a bride, waiting for her groom the day he came back to us. She was decorated with lights and flowers, and the guests came from miles to pay their respects. All Punjab loved him. All Punjab wept for him.’ 

Giani Zail Singh lit the pyre, and kept watch while it burned. The symbolism was powerful and clear, the orphan Udham was the son of all Punjab. The fire burned out, the embers turned from red to grey, and finally, on 2 August, Udham’s ashes were collected and divided into seven separate urns. 

In his speech to the court, Udham had talked about a united India and embodied that ideal in the name under which he chose to murder Michael O’Dwyer. To honour his message, it was decided that one urn of his ashes should be sent to Haridwar, an ancient city sacred to the Hindus, where ashes are submerged in the River Ganges; one urn was sent to Kiratpur Sahib, where traditionally Sikhs take the ashes of their dead; and the third urn was sent to Rauza Sharif, the dargah or shrine of a Sufi Muslim saint, Ahmad al-Fārūqī al-Sirhindī. 

Two urns were kept in the library of the Shaheed Udham Singh Arts College in Sunam, where they were meant to wait for the construction of a memorial museum bearing Udham’s name. Forty-five years later, they are waiting there still. 

One urn was buried under the foundation of a 27-foot-high minaret constructed in the town in honour of its famous son. The town is also dotted with numerous statues of him and memorial plaques bearing his name. Tehal Singh’s humble one-room house has become a place of pilgrimage. 

The last of the seven urns was taken to Jallianwala Bagh, the site of the 1919 massacre. In 2018, a statue of Udham Singh was unveiled outside the gardens. It depicts him standing with his arm outstretched, palm up, holding a clod of blood-soaked earth in his hand. A reminder of a promise that took twenty-one years to fulfil.

Excerpted with permission from the book Udham Singh: The Revenge of Jallianwala Bagh, published by Simon & Schuster. The first edition of the book was published as The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj in 2019. You can buy the book here.

Watch Anita Anand in conversation with Mini Menon, as they discuss more on the fascinating story of Udham Singh-

This article is part of our special series the ‘Making of Modern India’ through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India’s exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.

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