Udham Singh: The forgotten freedom fighter – Atul Sethi

Shaheed Udham SinghSeventy-one years after his brief moment in the spotlight of history, it may be time to reprise Udham Singh’s role in the nationalist movement. If they know the name at all, many people wrongly insist he shot Brigadier General Reginald Dyer dead. If they know a little bit more about Udham Singh, they say that he wrongly shot dead Michael O’Dwyer, former governor of Punjab in the belief that he was Brigadier Dyer, whose name is synonymous with the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919.

Both perceptions are inaccurate. Udham Singh shot dead a man he believed was as guilty as Dyer for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, when British troops commanded by Dyer opened fire at an unarmed gathering and killed thousands. By the time Singh shot dead O’Dwyer, Dyer had already died a natural death.

On a London evening 71 years ago, Udham Singh attended a joint meeting of the East India Association and Royal Central Asian Society at Caxton Hall. As it ended, Udham Singh pulled a revolver out of his overcoat and fired at one of the speakers — O’Dwyer. Two shots hit him and he died on the spot. Singh was arrested and put on trial. He said O’Dwyer deserved what he got. Popular perception offers various theories about why he shot O’Dwyer. One story goes that Singh killed the wrong man, mistaking O’Dwyer for Dyer. Another suggests he was at Jallianwala Bagh on the day of the massacre, tended the injured and later vowed at the Golden Temple to avenge the killings. Confusion remains about Udham Singh’s real name because he had a penchant for switching identities. Some have romanticized him as a man with a mission, a lone crusader. “The truth is a little different,” says Navtej Singh, reader in history at Patiala’s Punjabi University. He has written a book on Udham Singh, titled “Challenge to Imperial Hegemony”. He points out that “Udham Singh was not an assassin, simply propelled by the desire for revenge. He was a political revolutionary — a member of the Ghadar Party — who was aware of his actions and wanted to make a point against British imperialism.”

Sir Michael O'Dwyer Reginald Edward Harry DyerThis may chime with reports about the shooting at Caxton Hall on that long ago March evening. Udham Singh also shot at Lord Zetland, then Secretary of State for India and other notables such as Sir Louis Dane and Lord Lamington. Historian Navtej Singh says that “O’Dwyer was targeted because of his role in Jallianwala Bagh. As governor of Punjab at that time, he was widely held responsible for the massacre. But the others were not connected with the event. So, why did Udham Singh shoot at them?” The answer, he says, may lie in the timing of the shooting. “World War II had begun. The revolutionaries of the Ghadar Party sensed a good opportunity to strike against the British who appeared to be on a weak wicket. There was also resentment against Indians being pushed by the British to fight in the war. And finally, there was no large-scale national uprising at the time. The act was intended to rouse national feelings and speed up the freedom movement.”

Pacifists may disagree with the use of violence in a freedom struggle. But in retrospect, was Udham Singh’s role in the independence movement broader than has been acknowledged? Certainly, all these years later, his life might well be seen to offer inspiration for both nationalists and secularists. Author Chaman Lal says that of the many names Udham Singh went by, he liked Mohammed Singh Azad the best. He had it tattooed on one arm as he wanted it to symbolize the unified might of major Indian religions against British rule. Times of India, Chennai, March 13, 2011

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