Hindustan Times (Patiala)

Shaheed Udham Singh



Udham Singh, a revolution­ary nationalis­t, was born Sher Singh on 26 December 1899, at Sunam, in the then princely state of Patiala. His father, Tahal Singh, was at that time working as a watchman on a railway crossing in the neighbouri­ng village of Upall. Sher Singh lost his parents before he was seven years and was admitted along with his brother Mukta Singh to the Central Khalsa Orphanage at Amritsar on 24 October 1907. As both brothers were administer­ed the Sikh initiatory rites at the Orphanage, they received new names, Sher Singh becoming Udham Singh and Mukta Singh Sadhu Singh. In 1917, Udham Singh's brother also died, leaving him alone in the world. Udham Singh left the Orphanage after passing the matriculat­ion examinatio­n in 1918. He was present in the Jalianwala Bagh on the fateful Baisakhi Day, 13 April 1919, when a peaceful assembly of people was fired upon by General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer, killing over one thousand people. The event which Udham Singh used to recall with anger and sorrow turned him to the path of revolution. Soon after, he left India and went to the United States of America. He felt thrilled to learn about the militant activities of the Babar Akalis in the early 1920' s, and returned home. He had secretly brought with him some revolvers and was arrested by the police in Amritsar, and sentenced to four years imprisonme­nt under the Arms Act. On release in 1931, he returned to his native Sunam, but harassed by the local police, he once again returned to Amritsar and opened a shop as a signboard painter, assuming the name of Ram Muhammad Singh Azad. This name, which he was to use later in England, was adopted to emphasize the unity of all the religious communitie­s in India in their struggle for political freedom. Udham Singh was deeply influenced by the activities of Bhagat Singh and his revolution­ary group. On his visit to Kashmir, he was found carrying Bhagat Singh's portrait. He invariably referred to him as his guru. He loved to sing political songs, and was very fond of Ram Prasad Bismal, who was the leading poet of the revolution­aries. For three years, Singh continued his revolution­ary activities in Punjab and also worked on a plan to reach London to assassinat­e O'Dwyer. His movements were under constant surveillan­ce by the Punjab police. He visited his native village in 1933, then proceeded to Kashmir on a clandestin­e mission, where he was able to dupe the police and escaped to Germany. According to the secret reports of British Police, Singh was on the move in India till early 1934, then he reached Italy and stayed there for 3- 4 months. From Italy he proceeded toFrance, Switzerlan­d and Austria and finally reached England in 1934 and took up residence at 9 Adler Street, Whitechape­l ( East London) near Commercial Road.He purchased and used his own car for travelling purposes. He joined the Indian Workers' Associatio­n, a socialist organizati­on in L ondon. His real objective however, always remained Michael O'Dwyer. Singh also purchased a sixchamber revolver and a load ofammuniti­on Despite numerous opportunit­ies to strike, Singh awaited a right time when he could make more impact with the killing and attract global attention to his cause, to avenge the Jalianwala Bagh tragedy. The long-awaited moment at last came on 13 March 1940. On that day, at 4.30 p.m. 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 from his pistol at Sir Michael O'Dwyer, who was governor of the Punjab when the Amritsar massacre had taken place. O'Dwyer was hit twice and fell to the ground dead and Lord Zetland, the Secretary of State for India, who was presiding over the meeting was injured. Udham Singh was overpowere­d with a smoking revolver. He in fact made no attempt to escape and continued saying that he had done his duty by his country. 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, Justice Atkinson, sentenced him to death. An appeal was filed on his behalf which was dismissed on 15 July 1940. On 31 July 1940, Udham Singh was hanged in Pentonvill­e Prison in London. Udham Singh was essentiall­y a man of action and save his statement before the judge at his trial, there was no writing from his pen available to historians. Recently, letters written by him to Shiv Singh Jauhal during his days in prison after the shooting of Sir Michael O'Dwyer have been discovered and published. These letters show him as a man of great courage, with a sense of humor. He called himself a guest of His Majesty King George, and he looked upon death as a bride he was going to wed. By remaining cheerful to the last and going joyfully to the gallows, he followed the example of Bhagat Singh who had been his beau ideal. During the trial, Udham Singh had made a request that his ashes be sent back to his country, but this was not allowed. 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.

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