Vinay Lal

[See also the companion piece, Udham Singh, Avenger of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre]

Udham Singh, the assassin of Sir Michael O’Dwyer – or, in Indian historiography at least, the avenger of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre – overnight became a much talked-about figure in India. O’Dwyer had been well known as the iron man of the Punjab, a province which the British believed was characterized at once by an honest rural peasantry and men with martial qualities. In the sociology of knowledge created by the British, nationalist fervor in the Punjab was not “natural” to the province, and men such as O’Dwyer were keen to attribute the disturbances to outside influences as well as to the pervasive presence of the educated in the comparatively urban centers. If Punjab, the most loyal of the provinces, was lost to sedition and nationalist sentiments, other parts of India were even less likely to retain sentiments of loyalty to the crown.

Thus, when Udham Singh pulled the trigger on O’Dwyer on 13 March 1940, memories of what had transpired in the Punjab were revived. The “Amrit Bazaar Patrika” put it simply and plainly in its issue, “O’Dwyer’s name is connected with Punjab incidents which India will never forget” (18 March 1940). British intelligence and local administration reports now in the National Archives of India suggest that Udham Singh’s actions had excited the public and there was a wave of sympathy for him; as one local leader put it, “It is true that we had no love lost for Michael O’Dwyer. The indignities he heaped upon our countrymen in Punjab have not been forgotten.” Congress leaders, however, were much more circumspect, and even though privately many might have thought of Udham Singh as a great patriot, the Congress policy of adherence to nonviolence did not permit any open expressions of appreciation for Udham Singh. Gandhi, as one might expect, stood by the views he had long held about the inefficacy not to speak of immorality of violence, and he was characteristically forthright when, in the “Harijan” of March 15th, he released a statement stating that he had been outraged by the assassination. On March 23rd, in an elaboration of his views, he wrote in the “Harijan”: “We had our differences with Michael O’Dwyer but that should not prevent us from being grieved over his assassination. We have our grievances against Lord Zetland. We must fight his reactionary policies, but there should be no malice or vindictiveness in our resistance. The accused is intoxicated with thought of bravery.”

Two considerations, then, come to mind. One indisputable fact, amidst numerous uncertainties about his life, is that the British government made strenuous attempts to muzzle news about Udham Singh, and that long after his death the records of his trial and execution were not open for public scrutiny. The statement he read at his trial was not released to the public, and as late as 1989, when I visited the Public Records Office in Kew, the files pertaining to his trial and execution were still closed to the pubic by official order. Indeed, it is not until the mid-1990s that the British government finally made public the transcript of his trial and other associated documents, though many other files on him still remain closed.

Secondly, no such views as were expressed by Gandhi have been heard in India since independence, where efforts have from time to time have been made to keep alive the public memory of Udham Singh’s deed. Films, statues, popular literature, and public acts of commemoration testify to Udham Singh’s place in the public sphere. “Shaheed Udham Singh” (2000), directed by Iqbal Dhillon with Raj Babbar in the star role, is one of two feature films made on Udham Singh, though the film “Jallianwala Bagh”, made in 1977, also featured Udham Singh in a minor role, played by the famous actor Balraj Sahni. Raj Babbar has described himself as animated both by the desire to take Punjabi cinema to an “international level” and in bringing to the attention of the Indian public the role, which Babbar claims has been inadequately recognized, of Punjabi nationalists and martyrs in the freedom struggle. That a film such as this one has official approbation is signified by the fact that the Chief Ministers of Punjab and Haryana, Parkash Singh Badal and Om Prakash Chautala, respectively, were present at the film’s release.

It is in the mid-1960s that Udham Singh’s name began to be circulated widely in the public domain. The Punjabi Suba had been formed in 1966 and Sikh politics was about to enter a more aggressive phase. Though the enterprising role of Zail Singh in Punjab and Sikh politics cannot be discussed here at length, there is no question that he was among those who realized that Udham Singh’s name carried much cultural capital. Udham Singh had been buried in Pentonville Prison, and Zail Singh supported the demand, aired among others by S. Sadhu Singh Thind, then a MLA from Sultanpur Lodhi, that his remains be exhumed and brought back to India. Pressure was exerted upon Indira Gandhi to intercede on behalf of the Punjab government with the British government, and in 1975 Udham Singh was brought back, so to speak, to his final resting place.

His casket at Delhi airport was received by Zail Singh, then Chief Minister of Punjab (and later President of India), and Shankar Dayal Sharma, then President of the Congress and later President of India, and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi laid a wreath when his body was put on display in Delhi at Kapurthala House. The casket was then taken in a huge procession through the major urban centers of the Punjab, from Chandigarh, Ludhiana, Jullunder, and Pathankot to Bhatinda. At Jallianwala Bagh, in Amritsar, the processionists were met with much excitement. On 31 July 1975, the 35th anniversary of his martyrdom, the casket was brought to Udham Singh’s birthplace, Sunam, where Zail Singh presided over the cremation rites. Udham Singh had given out his name as Ram Mohammed Singh Azad, and his secular or pluralistic sentiments were to be honored when a Brahmin pandit, a Maulvi, and a Sikh granthi together administered the final rites on August 2nd.

Among the numerous statues of Udham Singh to be found in India, the most prominent one, perhaps, is installed before the Gandhi Gate in Amritsar. Ironically, or perhaps intentionally, this puts Udham Singh into conversation with Gandhi – a conversation that, judging from the approbation with which those in India who took to revolution by arms are received, will continue for some time to come. Though Udham Singh, like Bhagat Singh, was clean shaven and had shorn his hair, the statue portrays a bearded and turbaned Sikh; the right arm is bent at an angle slightly less than 90 degrees – rather improbably so, considering that the hand is stretched outwards and holds a pistol. That a statue of a man, clearly a civilian rather than a soldier, holding a pistol could hold center stage speaks volumes for the ease with which Udham Singh’s action has been effortlessly assimilated into the stream of action associated with martyrs.

The Amritsar statue of Udham Singh calls to mind another statue of him in Udham Singh Nagar – a district in the Terai region of Uttar Pradesh to which Punjabis were attracted in the 1950s by the prospect of farming. The history of Udham Singh Nagar, with a mixed population of Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus, echoes in its own way Udham Singh’s own unquestionable commitment to a pluralistic and secular worldview. Here Udham Singh, slightly mustached, is dressed in a blue suit – and in his right hand he holds a pistol. The plaque in Hindi narrates furnishes a short account of his life, and describes Udham Singh, in his own words, as beholden to no religion – viewing the service and protection of his motherland, Bharat, as his only dharma (duty; religion).

Placed along the main street in Udham Nagar, the statue of Udham Singh is surrounded by fruit vendors. Everyone around me seemed puzzled at my interest in the statue; one man was taking shelter by its side, as the roof over the statue gave shade from the searing heat. The statue had evidently not been cleaned in a long time. I suspect that few people had paused to read the inscription. During the few minutes that I had paused to read the inscription and snap some photographs, a couple of pigeons were resting on the martyr’s head. Perhaps the pigeons have their own way of signifying what is common to statues – whether of Gandhi, Udham Singh, or anyone else.

Copyright: Vinay Lal, May 2008