Udham Singh, the unknown freedom fighter with an interesting name

Mumbai, first published March 24, 2022, 1:40 PM IST

Born on December 26, 1899 in Sunam village in Sangrur district of Punjab, Udham Singh was the little-known freedom fighter in the history books who avenged the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

Singh lost both parents early and was taken to an orphanage with his older brother in Amritsar. Punjab was experiencing intense political turmoil and Singh grew up witnessing it.

When Mahatma Gandhi called on the national hartal to oppose the Rowlatt Act (a law that essentially extended and strengthened repressive measures in times of war) was widely supported, mainly in Punjab, on April 6 and April 9 . Lieutenant Governor Michael O’Dwyer headed the British administration of Amritsar and was panicked by the actions.

Revolt against the British ruled for independent India was every Indian’s dream. Singh, from childhood to adolescence, noticed every action. The significant impact was the Jallianwala Bagh incident. He saw Brigadier General Dyer arrive with his troops and open fire on unarmed civilians, killing over a hundred and wounding 1,400. However, unofficial records put the count much higher. Singh, then 20 years old, was deeply scarred by the event and soon became involved in liberation movements inside and outside India.

Singh therefore continued to travel abroad to gain support from his fellow Indians for their movement. In 1927 he returned to Punjab (Bhagat Singh asked him to) as a carpenter working on a ship returning to India. The same year he was detained and imprisoned for four years until 1931, the charges were possession of illegal weapons and running the radical Ghadr party publication, Ghadr di Gunj.

In 1931 Singh was released but could not escape British police surveillance as he was closely associated with the Republican Socialist Hindu Association of Bhagat Singh. Singh reached Kashmir and then fled to Germany.

Singh landed in England in 1933 with the aim of eliminating Michael O’Dwyer. Singh bore O’Dwyer is responsible for the brutality of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Eventually, O’Dwyer called the event “correct action.” On March 13, 1940, Singh learned that Michael O’Dwyer was planning to speak at the Caxton Hall meeting in London. Singh hid a gun in his overcoat the day of the conference and snuck into Caxton’s lobby. After the meeting ends

O’Dwyer was walking away from the platform, which is when Singh shot O’Dwyer twice. Singh did not resist arrest or flee, he was immediately taken into custody.

While on trial, Udam Singh announced his name as Ram Mohammad Singh Azad, it was tattooed on his arm, symbolizing all religions in India that oppose British rule. Singh was convicted and sentenced to death. On July 31, 1940, Singh was hanged at Pentonville Prison, UK, buried within the prison grounds.

Later in 1974, Singh’s remains were dug up and repatriated to India before being cremated in his hometown of Sunam village in Punjab. His ashes were then scattered in the Sutlej River.

The most exciting part was that Singh was also mentioned in Salman Rushdie’s novel Shalimar the Clown. As Zainab Azam’s character (from the book) puts it: “For every O’Dwyer there is a Shaheed Udham Singh, and for every Trotsky a Mercador awaits.”

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Last updated Mar 24, 2022 1:43 PM IST

Thelma J. Longworth