Udham Singh (December 26, 1899 – July 31, 1940) was an Indian revolutionary socialist, best known for assassinating Michael O’Dwyer in March 1940 in what has been described as an avenging of the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre.
Singh changed his name to Ram Mohammad Singh Azad, symbolizing the unification of the three major religions of India: Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism. Singh is considered one of the best-known revolutionaries of the Indian independence struggle; he is also sometimes referred to as Shaheed-i-Azam Sardar Udham Singh (the expression “Shaheed-i-Azam” means “the great martyr”). Bhagat Singh and Singh along with Chandrasekhar Azad, Rajguru and Sukhdev, were among the most famous revolutionaries in the first half of 20th-century India. For their actions, the British government labelled these men as “India’s earliest Marxists”.
Singh was born in Shahpur Kalan village in Sunam Tehsil in Sangrur district of Punjab, India to a Sikh farming family headed by Sardar Tehal Singh Jammu (known as Chuhar Singh before taking the Amrit). Sardar Tehal Singh was at that time working as a watchman on a railway crossing in the village of Upalli. Sher Singh’s mother died in 1901. His father followed in 1907.
With the help of Bhai Kishan Singh Ragi, both Sher Singh and his elder brother, Mukta Singh, were taken in by the Central Khalsa Orphanage Putlighar in Amritsar on October 24, 1907. They were administered the Sikh initiatory rites at the orphanage and received new names: Sher Singh became Udham Singh, and Mukta Singh became Sadhu Singh. Sadhu Singh died in 1917, which came as a great shock to his brother. While at orphanage, Singh was trained in various arts and crafts. He passed his matriculation examination in 1918 and left the orphanage in 1919.
Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh
On April 13, 1919, over twenty thousand unarmed Indians (Sikhs & Hindus), peacefully assembled in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, to listen to several prominent local leaders speak out against British colonial rule in India and against the arrest and deportation of Dr. Satya Pal, Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew, and few others under the unpopular Rowlatt Act. Singh and his friends from the orphanage were serving water to the crowd.
Not much later, a band of 90 soldiers armed with rifles and khukris (Gurkha short swords) marched to the park accompanied by two armoured cars with mounted machine guns. The vehicles were unable to enter the Bagh owing to the narrow entrance. Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer was in command. The troops had entered the Bagh by about 5:15 PM. With no warning to the crowd to disperse, Dyer ordered his troops to open fire. The attack lasted ten minutes. Since the only exit was barred by soldiers, people tried to climb the walls of the park. Some also jumped into a well inside the compound to escape the bullets. A plaque in the monument says that 120 bodies were plucked out of the well alone.
Singh mainly held Michael O’Dwyer responsible for what came to be known as the Amritsar Massacre. New research supporting this fact reveal the massacre to have occurred with the Governor’s full connivance “to teach the Indians a lesson, to make a wide impression and to strike terror throughout Punjab”. The incident had greatly shaken young Singh and proved a turning point in his life. After bathing in the holy sarovar (pool of nectar), Singh took a silent vow and solemn pledge in front of the Golden Temple to wreak a vengeance on the perpetrators of the crime and to restore honour to what he saw as a humiliated nation.
Trial and execution
While in Police custody, Singh remarked: “Is Zetland dead? He ought to be. I put two into him right there”, indicating with his hand the pit of his stomach on the left side. Singh remained quiet for several minutes and then again said: “Only one dead, eh? I thought I could get more. I must have been too slow. There were a lot of women about, you know”.
On 1 April 1940, Singh was formally charged with the murder of Michael O’Dwyer. While awaiting trial in Brixton Prison Singh went on a 42-day hunger strike and had to be forcibly fed daily. On 4 June 1940, he was committed to trial, at the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, before Justice Atkinson. When the court asked about his name, he replied “Ram Mohammad Singh Azad”, (Ram as a Hindu name, Mohammad as a Muslim name and Singh as a Sikh name). Azad means to be free. This demonstrated the four things that were dear to him and his transcendence of race, caste, creed, and religion. Singh explained: “I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it.”
Singh was convicted, and Atkinson sentenced him to death. On 31 July 1940, Singh was hanged at Pentonville Prison. As with other executed prisoners, he was buried later that afternoon within the prison grounds. In March 1940, Indian National Congress leader Jawahar Lal Nehru, condemned the action of Singh as senseless, but in 1962, Nehru reversed his stance and applauded Singh with the following statement in the daily Partap: “I salute Shaheed-i-Azam Udham Singh with reverence who had kissed the noose so that we may be free.”
The Hindustan Socialist Republican Army condemned Mahatama Gandhi’s statement referring to Bhagat Singh as well as also to the capital punishment of Singh, which it considered to be a challenge to the Indian Youths.
In July 1974, Singh’s remains were exhumed and repatriated to India at the request of S. Sadhu Singh Thind, an MLA from Sultanpur Lodhi at that time. He asked Indira Gandhi to request that the then-British Government hand over Singh’s remains to India. Sadhu Singh Thind himself went to England as a special envoy of the Indian Government and brought back the remains of the Shaheed. He was given a martyr’s reception. Among those who received his casket at Delhi airport were Shankar Dayal Sharma, then president of the Congress Party, and Zail Singh, then chief minister of Punjab, both of whom later went on to become Presidents of India. Indira Gandhi, the prime minister, also laid a wreath. He was later cremated in his birthplace of Sunam in Punjab and his ashes were immersed in the Sutlej river.