After going over various accounts of Udham Singh, I formed two opinions of him: One, he was a revolutionary, more zestful than Bhagat Singh; two, he was an emblem of Indian secularism, which Jawahar Lal Nehru professed so zealously.
These two characteristics of Singh contradict each other. But, to me, the very essence of life lies in contradictions. I’m not a big supporter of revolutionary figures because of their disregard for historical context. In all forms of revolutions, from French to Russians or Chinese to Iranian, the present and the future was conceived, imagined and built by obviating the past, which, in my opinion, is problematic. What fascinates me about Singh is the eclectic and pluralist ethos of the Punjabis he represented when he opted to take oath on Heer Warris Shah, a larger-than-life epic in Punjabi language, instead of Guru Granth Sahib. His name, Ram Muhammad Singh Azad, as well defied his affiliation with any one religion. He represented multiple socio-cultural strands identified with the people like Asoka, Akbar and Nehru, the three icons of Indian secular values that Narendra Modi is out to sabotage in the absolute sense.
Singh’s construction of an Indian/Punjabi identity, which stands in total contrast to the colonial state, makes him stand tall among his peers and contemporaries. Unlike Bhagat Singh, who represented the Punjabi bourgeoise, Udham Singh belonged to the lower strata of the working class, whose bereavement and anger over the atrocities of the British raj were typical of proletariat. However, like Bhagat Singh, he drew his anti-colonial inspiration from the Jallianwala incident that took place in Amritsar in 1919. One source reveals that Udham Singh was serving water to the people gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh as a volunteer when the massacre took place but he was lucky to walk away unscathed. That experience changed him entirely.
Udham Singh was born on December 26, 1899 in Sunam in the then princely state of Patiala. He was the second son born to Tehal Singh and Harnam Kaur and was named Sher Singh at birth. His father was a small holder who worked as a guard on a railway crossing in the neighbouring village of Upalli. Both his parents died when he was barely seven. Thus he was admitted, along with his brother Mukta Singh, to the Central Khalsa Orphanage in Amritsar on October 24, 1907. As both brothers were administered the Sikh initiatory rites at the orphanage, they were given new names — Sher Singh became Udham Singh and Mukta Singh was named Sadhu Singh. As the luck would have it, Sadhu Sigh passed away in 1917, leaving Udham Singh alone in the world.
Udham Singh left the orphanage after passing the matriculation examination in 1918. Next year the Jallianwala Bagh incident happened which left a profound impact on him.
Soon after that the tragic occurrence, Udham Singh left for the United States of America. There he worked as a labourer in Detroit and Chicago for some time. He was particularly thrilled to learn about the militant activities of Babar Akalis in the early 1920s.
While in America, he also visited California which was the headquarters of Ghadar Party, and where he probably received instruction in the use of arms, where the revolutionary ideology permeated his inner being. After some time, he came back to India.
On arrival in Amritsar, the police arrested Singh for carrying revolvers illegally. He was sentenced to four years in jail under the Arms Act. The information available on his life in jail is very sketchy but we know that on release from jail in 1931 he returned to Sunam where the local police harassed him. The circumstances compelled him to move to Amritsar and open a shop as a signboard painter. It was then that he assumed the name of Ram Muhammad Singh Azad. This name, which he was to use later in England, was adopted to represent unity among the religious communities in India in their struggle for political freedom.
Singh’s movements were under constant surveillance by the Punjab police. Still, he was able to make his way to Kashmir from where he escaped to Germany and then to England in 1934. Amandeep Singh Madra reveals, “His appearance in London was typical of a 1930s Sikh immigrant moving to the East End to find work around the docks. His revolutionary ideals and boasts of direct action brought suspicion from the Sikh community, but he remained wedded to his politics. For six years he did little other than eke out a living in depression-hit London.”
Privately he planned to assassinate Michael O’Dwyer. Finally, on March 13, 1940 at 4.30pm 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 at Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the governor of the Punjab at the time of the Amritsar massacre.
O’Dwyer was hit twice before falling to the ground dead and Lord Zetland, the Secretary of State for India, who was presiding over the meeting, was injured.
Udham Singh made no attempt to escape or even put up a resistance. He kept repeating he had discharged his duty. On April 1, 1940, Udham Singh was formally charged with the murder of former governor of the Punjab.
The prosecution case was not that complicated. The defence was utterly chaotic. Udham Singh’s revenge came at a heavy price. On June 5, 1940, he was sentenced to death. There was no appeal hearing. On July 31, 1940, he was sent to the gallows and “his body buried in the unconsecrated grounds of Pentonville prison”.
A select group of Punjabis celebrated Udham Singh as a great freedom fighter, while the ruling élite castigated him as “a revengeful killer”. The Indian political parties initially turned a blind eye to him but after 1947 the Indian politicians “clamoured for the reflected glory of Udham Singh” and demanded his body be returned.
His body was finally brought to India in 1974. He was cremated on July 31, 1974 at his birthplace of Sunam.
The question however remains, why is Udham Singh not as celebrated as Bhagat Singh?