Pentonville Prison, North London: Eighty years after his execution on July 31, 1940, there is no trace that Udham Singh, a man who occupies an iconic status in the panoply of India’s shaheed, was ever hanged and buried here.
Perhaps this is symbolic. In a country still wrestling with the myths of the Empire’s civilising mission, rebellion is a truth best not remembered.
In India, of course, Udham Singh’s story is national folklore. To avenge the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, Singh – the “patient assassin” – plotted for over twenty years and on March 13, 1940, he shot dead the former Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, at Caxton Hall.
Indeed, Singh has been sacralised as the holy custodian of Bharat’s national honour. In 1952, Jawaharlal Nehru saluted Singh as Shaheed-e-Azam, expressing gratitude for him having “kissed the noose so that we may be free.” Both before and after Independence, hero-worship has been fundamental to making and re-making the Indian nation. The rich calendar of Jayanti and Memorial Days immortalise the ethic of balidan or sacrifice in the psyche of the Indian public.
Rituals of remembrance are also a prime opportunity for the state to instrumentalise historical memory. By claiming the mantle of heroes, political legitimacy is won. As historian Irfan Habib puts it, from Sardar Patel to Ambedkar, and Subhas Chandra Bose to Bhagat Singh, “the RSS have been appropriating icons since forever”. No doubt, one goal of this revisionist project is to give a saffron hue to those who championed cosmopolitan emancipation.
Udham Singh’s memory is especially vulnerable to these depredations. In popular imagination, Singh is a zealous warrior of retribution, as opposed to an activist of philosophical conviction. On this Balidan Diwas, therefore, history compels us to remember Udham Singh as the universalist radical he truly was, rather than the nationalist idol today’s Sangh Parivar wishes him to be.
Udham Singh, the Ghadarite
Whilst his spirit of resistance was inspired by the atrocity at Jallianwala Bagh, Udham Singh’s political outlook was a long-term consequence of his engagement with the revolutionary politics of the Ghadar movement: a militant anti-colonial socialist organisation, operating predominantly from the Indian diaspora in the US.
Singh’s insurrectionary impulse was apparent from an early stage. After joining the Ghadar in 1924, he was first arrested in Amritsar in 1927 for attempting to smuggle weapons. Revealing his ideology to his captors, Singh was found with copies of the prohibited anti-British paper, Ghadar-di-Duri, and a collection of seditious poetry called Ghadar-di-Gunj (Echoes of Mutiny). According to the Indian Political Intelligence, “he had intended to murder Europeans who were ruling over India and…he fully sympathized with the Bolshevics [sic], as their object was to liberate India from foreign control”.
Thereafter, following his release from Multan gaol in October 1931, Singh soon departed India before reaching Britain in 1934 where he worked as a textile trader and carpenter. His revolutionary credentials brought him to the attention of the British authorities. Indeed, since 1936, Singh had been kept under surveillance by MI5, following a furtive escapade to Soviet Russia. With fortune favouring the brave, however, he astutely navigated interceptions at crucial junctures, episodically adopting new personae.
Yet he was not impregnable. For instance, in July 1939, the Metropolitan Police became aware that Singh had written to an Indian political organisation in London requesting an “Indian National Badge”. The missive was inscribed in Urdu with “Inquilab” (Revolution) and the name “Azad Singh”. Singh’s reputation as a dissident was further polished in August 1939 when, during his stay in Bournemouth, the Hampshire Police Constabulary described him as having “strong Communistic views”. Whilst notorious for his act of militancy, it is pertinent that Singh also participated in Indian community organising, including for a nascent trade union known as the Indian Workers Association.
Shrouded in mystery is whether Singh ever revealed to his contemporaries his plan to assassinate O’Dwyer. Of note was his proximity to Dr Diwan Singh and Shiv Singh Johal, who were respectively the President and General Secretary of the Khalsa Jatha Gurdwara in London’s Shepherd’s Bush. Both men were Akalis who had migrated to Britain after their own anti-colonial agitations across 1920s Punjab.
Indeed, following his arrest in 1940, Udham Singh entered into secretive correspondence with Johal, which testifies to their nexus of trust. These connections curiously reveal how, even in the diaspora, religious institutions functioned as covert hubs of Indian resistance and Sikh baradari.
The trial of Udham Singh
The clearest expression of Singh’s anti-imperial principles may be found in his final declaration at trial at London’s Old Bailey, on June 5, 1940. Although physically diminished by 42 days of hunger-strike and forced feeding, Singh was defiant. Reading from notes he prepared in Brixton Prison, Singh castigated the evils of Britain’s “so-called civilisation”.
The British, he exclaimed, had brought “slavery” and “filth” to India. It was Singh’s “duty”, therefore, to free his “native land…and drive you [sic] dirty dogs out”. Despite Justice Atkinson condescendingly reminding Singh that emergency laws would preclude publication of his “political speech”, he tenaciously persisted in condemning the Empire.
Indeed, prior to Singh’s trial, the British authorities had assiduously sought to control the media narrative by separating O’Dwyer’s killing from the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Sir Philip Vickery, from Indian Political Intelligence, sent a memo to his Director in Delhi, Denys Pilditch, expressing his determination to prevent Singh from making the court room a “platform for objectionable political propaganda”. The press was tightly muzzled.
A key theme in Singh’s critique was the dissonance between the proclaimed civility of Britain’s imperial mission and the violence of its governing practices. The “brutal and bloodthirsty” reality of British degeneracy, Singh opined, stood in hypocritical contrast to the lofty flight of Britain’s “so-called flag of democracy and Christianity”. Yet British violence, as Singh noted, was met with dastardly reward: “You people go to India and when you come back you are given prizes and put into the House of Commons, but when we come to England, we are put to death.”
Singh’s prison notes also reveal his creative dynamism. His papers are littered with poetic Urdu refrains, bemoaning God for the hardships which had befallen India, and expressing shame at the oppression “our guests have begun to exercise…over us.” As an onlooking bureaucrat from the India Office remarked, “national poetry” was an effective medium for “influencing the ignorant and semi-ignorant.”
In a stanza of a Gurmukhi poem dedicated to India’s martyrs, moreover, Singh wrote the names of various luminary freedom fighters, including Bhagat Singh, Batukeshwar Dutt, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai. We may infer that Singh saw himself as belonging to this revolutionary fold. In a reverie of dramatic irony – given Gandhi dismissed his travail as an “act of insanity” – Singh further proclaimed, “Long Live Mahatma Gandhi VIVA INDIA and Subhas Bose.” This latter juxtaposition is politically curious given Gandhiji’s and Netaji’s profound disagreements on the merits of violence.
Of all these individuals, however, it was Bhagat Singh whom Udham Singh most idealised – unsurprisingly so, given their extended friendship and imprisonment together during the 1920s. As Singh wrote in a letter, dated March 30, 1940, he hoped to be “married with execution” on the same date his glorious comrade had been hanged almost ten years prior in 1931.
Indeed, much like his idol, Udham Singh was radically committed to the solidarity of the international working class. At trial, he alluded to the idea that imperialism was a structure of domination, whose oppression also had a domestic face: “I have great sympathy with the workers of England. I am against the Imperialist Government.” This was personally salient given Singh himself was the low-caste son of a peasant farmer.
Presumably to eschew criticism that he was an inward-looking nationalist, he also boldly informed the court that he had “more English friends living in England than…in India.” Despite these connections, however, it was a Gurdwara in Stockton, California – an outspoken wing of the Ghadar party – that took the initiative in funding Singh’s legal defence.
Then, in summation – facing the judge, jury and press corps – Singh raised his right arm and thrice exhorted: “Inquilab Zindabad!” – a slogan popularised by Bhagat Singh, though coined by the Muslim communist, Maulana Hasrat Mohani.
Udham Singh’s hybrid religious identity
Central to Singh’s liberationist political ideology was a syncretic approach to his religious identity. After assassinating O’Dwyer, Singh explained to the Divisional Detective Inspector John Swain that “when I was seven, I call myself Mohamed Singh. I like Mohamedan religion and I try to mix with Mohamedans”. It is impossible to verify Singh’s story about the childhood origin of his legendary alias. Nevertheless, his statement reveals his fondness for symbolism.
Thereafter, on March 16, 1940, Singh wrote to the investigating superintendent to request Indian clothing including a turban. This was despite Singh himself being a clean-shaven Sikh. In that letter, he was adamant that the authorities should preserve his given name as “Mohamed Singh Azad”, even urging critics of his chosen appellation to “go to hell”. Having deciphered his identity, the British did not oblige.
In a historically contested re-telling, the American scholar Farina Mir has further claimed that at trial, Singh swore his court oath upon the Heer-Ranjha – an 18th century Punjabi epic by Waris Shah – rather than the Holy Guru Granth Sahib. The significance of this claim being that Singh affirmed his moral integrity upon an emblem of Punjabi identity, rather than the sanctity of his personal faith.
Whatever the truth may be, we know that following the pronouncement of his death sentence, Singh requested the Chaplain of Pentonville Prison to source him a Gutka (Sikh Prayer Book). This would indicate his theistic inclinations.
Contrastingly, the historian Anita Anand contends Singh was, in fact, an atheist like his comrade Bhagat Singh. In addition to detailing Singh’s liberal lifestyle, she notes that in his correspondence with Shiv Singh Johal, in March 1940, Singh wrote: “I don’t want your Religious Books as I do not beleve [sic] them nor Mohamedenis.” These seemingly contradictory messages raise a host of questions about Singh’s personal spirituality. One possible interpretation is that Singh attached increasing weight to religious belief in the months preceding his death. At the very least, however, we may infer that Udham Singh was idiosyncratic in his piety.
Personal belief aside, Singh’s inclusive nomenclature underscored a political ideal. Though he does not appear to have signed any political or prison correspondence with the forename “Ram”, it is reported that in 1931 Udham Singh printed “Ram Mohamed Singh Azad” on the signboard of his painting shop in Amritsar. The traditional narrative dictates that Singh sought to emphasise the unity of the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities in the freedom struggle.
It is equally possible, however, that he aimed to construct a novel Punjabi identity altogether – a plural vision of Indian peoplehood animated by the spirit of azaadi. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that following his conviction, over half of the Indian signatures on Singh’s “Petition of Reprieve” were Muslim, with Punjabi Muslims constituting a plurality.
Remembering Singh as an Indian and Sikh Shaheed
Thus, it is through the prism of Punjabi solidarity that Singh’s memorialisation is best refracted. In September 1940, the Hindustan Ghadr published an editorial declaring that “The 31st July 1940 will ever be remembered in Indian history. On this day Comrade Udham Singh Ji achieved martyrdom.” The framing of Singh as an “Indian martyr” is significant insofar as it nationalises his popular memory.
This may be contrasted with the depiction of Singh as a “Sikh martyr” – decades later – in 1970s Punjab. Partly in a bid to bolster his image in factional struggles against the Akali Dal, the Chief Minister of the Punjab, Giani Zail Singh, petitioned Indira Gandhi to request Britain to return Singh’s remains. During the funeral procession through Chandigarh in August 1974, banners bore slogans such as “anakh da rakha: sahid udham singh amar rahe!” (“The Protector of Self-Respect: Long Live Shahid Udham Singh!”)
As the historian Louis Fenech has argued, this posthumous representation of Singh as the saviour of “Sikh self-respect” aimed to situate Singh within the historic genre of Sikh martyrology – a tradition which was reinvented by the advent of Sikh religious nationalism. Contemporary depictions of Singh as a bearded Khalsa Sikh, whilst historically unfounded, additionally constitute an example of what the scholar David Lowenthal described as “history co-opted by heritage”.
Nevertheless, it is critical to emphasise that hagiographical efforts (for example by Sikander Singh) to resurrect Singh as a Khalsa warrior did not always come at the expense of preserving his universal memory. As Fenech opines, Singh’s “mélange of names made the appropriation of his martyrdom by the state all the more likely.”
And so, together, a Brahmin Pandit, a Maulvi and a Sikh Granthi administered the final rites on August 2. Some of his ashes were then distributed to sacred sites associated with each faith. As socially poignant as this ceremony was, it was also a performance of national theatre to showcase the secular credentials of the ruling Congress Party.
Udham Singh and the contemporary Indian state
The history of Singh’s memorialisation is a source of tragic irony. Whereas the Indian Republic once recruited Udham Singh’s memory in the service of a multicultural project, the contemporary Indian state now besmirches as “Muslim appeasement” the paradigm in which his legacy rests. Is there still a place for Mohamed Singh Azad in today’s India?
With cynical poise, the BJP invites the Indian public to disremember the past and swear loyalty to the present. Indeed, what is memory if not a truce between the past and the present? But when the present wages war on the past, myth is the only victor. In the feuds to come, the Indian people must struggle to preserve the self-respect our Shaheed-E-Azam gave his life to protect.
Sapan Maini-Thompson is training to become a barrister in the UK. He tweets @SapanMaini.