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Srdar Udam Singh

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 Written by Hardial Singh Bains 

Who was Udham Singh?


A patriot from the Punjab, Udham Singh came to London in the 1930s as a fighter against foreign colonial rule in India. British rule was one of the darkest eras in the history of our people. Many crimes and atrocities were committed, but one that stood out in particular was the massacre of innocent, unarmed civilians at Jallianwalla Bagh in Amritsar in 1919. The British ruling circles, then as now the self proclaimed upholders of civilisation, refused to punish those guilty of this heinous crime, and in fact heaped public honours upon them. Accounted for by nobody, Jallianwalla Bagh remained a blot upon the dignity of the oppressed people of India.

It was Udham Singh who made a pact with death and undertook to execute Michael O'Dwyer, former Governor of Punjab and one of the main perpetrators of the massacre at Jallianwalla Bagh. On 13 March 1940, he shot O'Dwyer at a public meeting in London. On 31 July, he was hanged in Pentonville prison. He made the ultimate sacrifice in defence of the dignity and honour of the Indian people, irrespective of their regional or religious backgrounds, and for this he is remembered as a Shaheed or martyr, immortal in the memory of all freedom-loving peoples of South Asia.
 
Why we are celebrating the memory of Shaheed Udham Singh?

Shaheed Udham Singh represented the best traditions of the people of the South Asian sub-continent: courage and the spirit of self sacrifice in the fight against oppression, and unity in struggle irrespective of religious, communal or ethnic background. Today, when all over the sub-continent the political situation is in ferment, the age-old conflict between the exploiters and the exploited and between enlightenment and backwardness is once again reaching its climax.

The struggle is also being waged for our true traditions. The rulers of Delhi and Islamabad are following in the footsteps of the British colonialists like O'Dwyer. Half a century after Shaheed Udham Singh's martyrdom, our "lords" and "masters" are continuing in Kashmir, Punjab and countless other places what O'Dwyer began in Jallianwalla Bagh. Just like O'Dwyer, they label anybody opposing their repression as a terrorist, while they themselves carry out mass terror against the people. Behind every act of defiance by the people, the rulers of India and Pakistan see a foreign hand. Yet it is they themselves who gladly sell the sovereignty of the people for a few coins thrown to them by foreign banks and multinational companies. On top of all this, the rulers of our countries are expanding their armies and making noises about starting a war in the region.

Those who have inherited the mantle of British colonialism and O'Dwyer do their utmost to make the people forget about the real message of their heroes, be it the Bhaktas or the Sufis, or early patriots like Tipu Sultan, or the fighters of the First War of Indian Independence (1857), or the Ghadarites, or, indeed, martyrs like Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh. The people, on the other hand, must uphold the names and work of these patriots.

In Britain the state is pressurising immigrants to abandon their traditions and to "assimilate". Although these suggestions may sound harmless to some, their real implications are revealed when well-known apologists for racism use these views to whip up chauvinism against our communities. This was done when Mr. Norman Tebbit demanded that immigrant and national minority communities forget about their countries of origin. Since last year in particular, when there was a storm of protest over Salman Rushdie's book, an unprecendented campaign has been launched by the ruling circles against the Asian communities in Britain.

Everything connected with the sub-continent is portrayed as barbaric and medieval. The true progressive traditions of the people are obscured, while backward practices are promoted as the real manifestations of Asian culture. The youth in particular is singled out for this barrage.

A people oblivious of their own past are like a ship without bearings - drifting aimlessly till it runs aground. The people from the South Asian region living in Britain must unite with all the working people and democratic forces here. But this does not mean that they should forget about their own history and culture. It is necessary to defy those who would have us give up our traditions by boldly proclaiming our best traditions, such as those personified by Shaheed Udham Singh.

These are some of the reasons why we think it important to celebrate the anniversary of Shaheed Udham Singh's martyrdom in a spirit that is in keeping with his spirit of devotion to the cause of freedom.
 
Life and work of Udham Singh

Udham Singh was born in 1899 in a village called Sunam in Punjab.  His father, Sardar Tehl Singh was a small farmer.  Udham Singh lost his mother at the early age of three, and his father died when he was only five years old.  He was brought up by the Khalsa Orphanage in Amritsar.

Udham Singh was an apprentice carpenter in Amritsar in 1919, at the time of the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre.  He was present at the meeting and, according to some accounts, was engaged as a helper, carrying drinking water to the participants.  The brutality of the massacre left an indelible impression on his mind.  He turned to revolutionary politics and dedicated his whole life to the cause of the people. Around that time he left India and traveled to the U.S. where he linked up with the Ghadarites and began working for them.  His duties included driving new arrivals from India to secure destinations and making arrangements for their stays abroad.  He then received a message e from his comrade-in-arms, Bhagat Singh, who instructed him to return to India with a consignment of weapons.

Udham Singh returned to India in 1927 with some firearms, but he was betrayed and arrested soon after his arrival.  He was sentenced to four years in prison.  This was the period of the violent campaign in the Punjab against the colonial government, led by the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association of Bhagat Singh and Chandarshehkar Azad.  The campaign ended following the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru in 1931.

Udham Singh was still in prison at that time.  When he was released, he vowed to follow in the footsteps of his comrade and hero Bhagat Singh and avenge the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.  He was fond of singing the famous ghazal by Bismal:
 

"Sarfaroshi ki tamana ab hamare dil men hai
Dekhna hai zor kitna baazoo-e-qatil men hai"

(Now that we are happy and willing to lay down our lives,
Does the enemy have enough strength in his sword-arm?)


Udham Singh managed to give the police a slip and fled abroad for a second time.  He traveled widely, visiting Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Germany and Russia, making contact with Indian revolutionaries abroad wherever he went.  Finally, in 1933, he arrived in Britain using the name Ram Mohammed Singh Azad.  He established links with the then tiny Indian community in London, as well as other freedom-fighters, including Irish patriots.

Udham Singh had planned to execute Michael O'Dwyer in order to restore the dignity of the Indian people which had been sullied by their slavery to British imperialism.  Jallianwalla Bagh was a most sordid chapter in the colonial history of our land, and Udham Singh believed that the Indian people must have the final word before closing this chapter once and for all.

He worked as a handyman and driver in O'Dwyer's hometown in Devon.  In the course of this, he had many opportunities to execute O'Dwyer and escape unnoticed.  He was not, however, interested in taking any action that could have been interpreted as the work of a lone assassin, devoid of its political implications.  Instead, he waited patiently for seven years until an opportunity presented itself when he could make a public statement by his action.
On 13 March 1940, a meeting was held in Caxton Hall in London by an association of retired and serving British colonial officials in India.  The chief guest was Michael O'Dwyer, and other speakers included men from the highest echelons of British colonial power in India.  At the end of the meeting Udham Singh shot O'Dwyer and five other colonial "dignitaries", killing O'Dwyer and wounding the others.
 
Ram Mohammed Singh Azad

Udham Singh gave himself up and publicly stated his motives for the attack.  Under interrogation he consistently used the name of Ram Mohammed Singh Azad.  Even after the police had established the true facts about him including his real name, he did not abandon the use of this alias.  This caused some irritation to his captors who could not understand Udham Singh's reason for sticking to an alias when it had been exposed as false.  What they failed to appreciate was that this brave freedom-fighter, instead of being unnerved in the face of a death penalty, was making a final gesture for the unity of the Indian people against colonial slavery.  By making such a gesture, Udham Singh proclaimed to the whole world that his sacrifice was in the name of the Indian people, regardless of their religious or other differences. On 31 July 1940, Udham Singh joined the proud ranks of his comrade Shaheed Bhagat Singh and the countless others before him who did not flinch from making the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom of their homeland and the rights of the people.  They occupy a place of honour in the hearts of the freedom-loving peoples of the South Asian sub-continent.
 

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