Shaheed Udham Singh (26 December 1899 – 31 July 1940) was an Indian revolutionary best known for assassinating Michael O’Dwyer on 13 March 1940 in what has been described as an avenging of the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre. Singh is a prominent figure of the Indian independence struggle. He is sometimes referred to as Shaheed-i-Azam Sardar Udham Singh Kamboj (the expression “Shaheed-i-Azam,” Urdu. A district (Udham Singh Nagar) of Uttarakhand is named after him.
Singh was born Sher Singh on 26 December 1899, at Sunam in the Sangrur district of Punjab, India, to a sikh family. His father, Sardar Tehal Singh Jammu (known as Chuhar Singh before taking the Amrit), was a railway crossing watchman in the village of Upalli. His mother died in 1901, and his father in 1907.
After his father’s death, Singh and his elder brother, Mukta Singh, were taken in by the Central Khalsa Orphanage Putlighar in Amritsar. At the orphanage, Singh was administered the Sikh initiatory rites and received the name of Udham Singh. He passed his matriculation examination in 1918 and left the orphanage in 1919.
Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh
On 10 April 1919, a number of local leaders allied to the Indian National Congress including Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew were arrested under the Rowlatt Act. Protestors against the arrests were fired on by British troops, precipitating a riot during which British banks were burned and four Europeans were killed. On 13 April, over twenty thousand unarmed protestors were assembled in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar. Singh and his friends from the orphanage were serving water to the crowd.
Singh became involved in revolutionary politics and was deeply influenced by Bhagat Singh and his revolutionary group. In 1924, Singh became involved with the Ghadar Party, organizing Indians overseas towards overthrowing colonial rule. In 1927, he returned to India on orders from Bhagat Singh, bringing 25 associates as well as revolvers and ammunition. Soon after, he was arrested for possession of unlicensed arms. Revolvers, ammunition, and copies of a prohibited Ghadar Party paper called “Ghadr-i-Gunj” were confiscated. He was prosecuted and sentenced to five years in prison.
Shooting in Caxton Hall
On 13 March 1940, Michael O’Dwyer was scheduled to speak at a joint meeting of the East India Association and the Central Asian Society (now Royal Society for Asian Affairs) at Caxton Hall. Singh concealed his revolver in his jacket pocket (which he received from Puran Singh Boughan from Malsian, Punjab), entered the hall, and found an open seat. As the meeting concluded, Singh shot O’Dwyer twice as he moved towards the speaking platform, killing him immediately. Others hurt in the shooting include Luis Dane, Lawrence Dundas, 2nd Marquess of Zetland, and Charles Cochrane-Baillie, 2nd Baron Lamington. Singh did not attempt to flee and was arrested on site.
Trial and execution
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. On 4 June 1940, his trial commenced at the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, before Justice Atkinson. When asked about his motivation, Singh explained:
I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it. He was the real culprit. He wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him. For full 21 years, I have been trying to wreak vengeance. I am happy that I have done the job. I am not scared of death. I am dying for my country. I have seen my people starving in India under the British rule. I have protested against this, it was my duty. What a greater honour could be bestowed on me than death for the sake of my motherland?
Many Indians regarded Singh’s action as justified and an important step in India’s struggle to end British colonial rule.
In press statements, Mahatma Gandhi condemned the 10 Caxton Hall shooting saying, “the outrage has caused me deep pain. I regard it as an act of insanity…I hope this will not be allowed to affect political judgement.” The Hindustan Socialist Republican Army condemned Mahatma Gandhi’s statement, considering it to be a challenge to the Indian Youths.
In 1974, Singh’s remains were exhumed and repatriated to India at the request of MLA Sadhu Singh Thind. Singh Thind accompanied the remains back to India, where the casket was received by Indira Gandhi, Shankar Dayal Sharma and Zail Singh. Udham Singh was later cremated in his birthplace of Sunam in Punjab and his ashes were scattered in the Sutlej river.
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