Udham Singh: The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre avenger

There are many unknown heroes of the Indian freedom struggle who sacrificed their  lives  to free our country from the British rule.

One such great son of India was Udham Singh whose only aim in life was to take the revenge of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, which exposed the brutality of British Raj. He fulfilled his aim finally in London when he killed Michael O’Dwyer, former Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, who had approved actions of Brigadier General Dyer for the Jallianwala Bagh carnage.

Early life

Udham Singh was born as Sher Singh on 26 December 1899 in a city called Sunam in Punjab's Sangrur district. His father, Sardar Tehal Singh was a railway crossing watchman. Udham Singh had to face the vicissitudes of life right from the beginning as both his father and mother died when he was just a child. After the death of his father, Udham Singh was admitted to Central Khalsa Orphanage in Amritsar, where he was rechristened Udham Singh and admitted into the Sikh fold. He passed his High School examination in 1918.

 Jallianwala Bagh massacre
An artist impression of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Photo courtesy: Indialatest

Jallianwala Bagh Massacre

The turning point in his life came when he witnessed the brutality unleashed at Jallianwala Bagh, Amristar where Udham Singh and his mates from the orphanage were serving water to the crowd. About twenty thousand unarmed Indians had assembled there on April 13, 1919 to protest against the arrest and deportation of Dr. Satya Pal, Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew, and a few others under the unpopular Rowlatt Act. However, as the clock ticked 5:15 pm, a group of 90 soldiers armed with rifles entered the park. They were accompanied with two armoured cars on which machine guns were mounted.

Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer was leading the troops. Without giving any warning, he ordered the soldiers to open fire concentrating on the areas where the crowd was thickest to maximise causalities. The ground had only one entry. That too was closed by the soldiers. People tried to climb the walls to escape but were unsuccessful and fell prey to the bullets. Some jumped into the well inside the Bagh to escape bullets.

Bodies lay piled over one another drenched in blood. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands injured. Children cried and old people shrieked as they were unable to comprehend what was happening. Official estimates put the figures at 379 killed (337 men, 41 boys and a six week old baby) and 200 injured, but other reports estimated the deaths well over 1,000 and possibly 1,300. According to Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya and Lala Girdhari Lal, both freedom fighters themselves, the deaths were more than 1,000. The numbers would have been even higher if the armoured vehicles, which were unable to enter the park due to narrow entrance, were put into action.

Later it was known that the massacre occurred with the Lieutenant-Governor Michael O’Dwyer’s full connivance, “to teach the Indians a lesson, to make a wide impression and to strike terror through-out Punjab”.

The brutal incident of Jallianwala Bagh massacre made an indelible impression on the young Udham Singh’s mind as he was witness to the gory incident. He was immensely moved by this event and held Dwyer responsible.

He went to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, bathed in the holy sarovar (pool of nectar) and took pledge that he would avenge and restore India's honour. He felt humiliated due to the incident.

Revolutionary Udham Singh travels the world, takes up the alias Frank Brazil from Puerto Rico, to seek revenge

The fire to take revenge of Jallianwala Bagh Massacre burned intensely inside Udham Singh. He left the orphanage and wandered from one country to another with only aim of reaching his prey at London. He became a dedicated revolutionary.

The tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh being showcased at Udham Singh memorial in Amritsar.
The tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh being showcased at Udham Singh memorial in Amritsar. Photo courtesy: Central Khalsa Orphanage

His wanderings started in early 1920s with East Africa where he worked as a labourer during the construction of railway lines. After that, he went to USA where he met Ghadar members in San Francisco and had initiations in revolutionary activities. It was here that he developed fondness for using aliases. He used various names like Ude Singh, Sher Singh, Ram Muhammad Singh Azad and even Frank Brazil (adopting a Puerto Rican identity) to dupe the police and intelligence officers.

He lived for five years in various cities of USA including Chicago and New York and traveled to Europe intermittently posing as Frank Brazil. In 1927, he returned to India on a ship where he worked as a carpenter.

He reached his native state Punjab where he was arrested in Amritsar for possession of unlicensed arms on August 30, 1927 and was prosecuted under Section 20 of the Arms Act. As a result, he was sentenced to five years’ of rigorous imprisonment.

After his release from jail on 23 October, 1931, he returned to Sunam, but constant harassment from the local police on account of his revolutionary activities led him back to Amritsar. There he opened a shop as a signboard painter, assuming the name of Mohammed Singh Azad.

For three years, Udham Singh continued his revolutionary activities in Punjab. He visited his native village in 1933, then proceeded to Kashmir on a clandestine revolutionary mission, where he was able to dupe the police and escaped to Germany.

Reaching London in 1934, he took up residence at 9 Adler Street, Commercial Road. According to the secret reports of British Police, Singh was on the move in India till early 1934, he was next reported in Italy where he stayed for 3-4 months. From Italy he proceeded to France, Switzerland and Austria and finally reached England in 1934.

Udham Singh-Elephant Boy
Udham Singh also worked in the film ' Elephant Boy' in the year 1937.

Adept in different professions

Udham Singh tried his hand at various professions in London. He worked as a signboard painter and also as a mechanic. However, the most amazing fact was that he also acted in the movies of that time, albeit as an extra.

He appeared as an extra in Sir Alexander Korda’s (Hungarian born Britisher) movies-Elephant Boy (1937) and Four Feathers (1939). Elephant Boy was based on Rudyard Kipling’s famous Toomai and the Elephants from the Jungle Book. The film ‘Four Feathers’ was adopted from the novel of AEW Mason that was set in Sudan. The name of the films find mention in the book ‘The Amritsar Legacy: From Golden Temple to Caxton Hall’ written by Roger Perkins, which beautifully portrays the life of Udham Singh.

Final Revenge at Caxton Hall

Though Udham Singh tried his hands at various professions, his ultimate objective remained Michael O’Dwyer. The scene of Jallianwala Bagh made him restless and reminded about the vow. He purchased a six-chamber revolver and a load of ammunition. He waited for the right occasion when the killing would have the most impact and spread the news around the world and that unique time arrived in March, 1940.

Caxton Hall
Caxton Hall of London where Udham Singh shot dead Michael O' Dwyer. Photo courtesy: shaheedudhamsingh.com

Michael O’Dwyer was going to speak at a programme scheduled at Caxton Hall. It was jointly organised by East India Association and Royal Central Asian Society. Udham Singh managed to enter the Caxton Hall while concealing a revolver in a book specially cut for the purpose.

As the meeting ended people stood up and O’Dwyer moved towards the platform, Singh pulled his revolver and fired two shots. O’Dwyer fell on the ground and died immediately. Then he fired at Lord Zetland, the Secretary of State for India who got injured. Udham Singh did not try to escape and was arrested from the spot.

Udham Singh being arrested by police at Caxton Hall.
Udham Singh being arrested by police at Caxton Hall.

Udham Singh's trial started at the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, before Justice Atkinson. He was formally charged with the murder of Michael O’Dwyer on April 1, 1940 and the trial started on June 4, 1940. When the Judge asked the reason for killing O'Dwyer, Udham Singh explained his actions in these words, “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?”

Judge Atkinson presiding on the case sentenced Udham Singh to death. On 31 July 1940, he was hung to death in the Pentonville Prison, UK and buried within the prison grounds.

Posthumous repatriation

The remains of this great martyr were brought back in July, 1974 with the efforts of S Sadhu Singh Thind, an MLA from Sultanpur Lodhi at that time. He asked then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to pressurise British government to give Udham Singh’s remains to India.

Sadhu Singh Thind went to England as a special envoy of the Indian Government and brought back the remains of Udham Singh. 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 who went on to become president 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 Ganges.

Shaheed Udham Singh's revolver
Udham Singh's revolver

The gun used by Udham Singh, his diary, a knife and the bullets fired at the time of the assassination are still kept at the Black Museum, New Scotland Yard in London.

One room museum at Central Khalsa Orphanage, Amritsar

There is just a one-room museum that has been set up at Central Khalsa Orphanage (CKO) in Amritsar in memory of its illustrious inmate Udham Singh.

A small museum has been set up at Central Khalsa Orphanage
A small museum has been set up at Central Khalsa Orphanage housing some of the articles used by Udham Singh. Photo courtesy: Central Khalsa Orphanage.

This single room museum recreates the environment of the period from 1907 to 1918 during which the martyr stayed at the orphanage. It has some of his belongings, which include his own pictures and those of other popular freedom fighters. It is being run by the Chief Khalsa Diwan, the oldest Sikh institution located at:

Central Khalsa Orphanage, Putlighar,

Opposite Central Workshop,

G T Road, Amritsar, Punjab, India

Shaheed Udham Singh Memorial Senior Secondary School
Shaheed Udham Singh Memorial Senior Secondary School is being run by the Orphanage to impart education to children. Photo courtesy: Central Khalsa Orphange.

The orphanage also runs Shaheed Udham Singh Memorial Senior Secondary School named in the honour of the martyr and a Shaheed Udham Singh library.

It is sad that even after passing of 69 years of India's independence, there is nothing more than a single room museum in the name of the great martyr. Captain Amrinder Singh, Punjab's Chief Minister on July 31, 2004 had announced that Udham Singh's house will be converted into a full-fledged museum housing a picture art gallery and his diary and revolver brought back.

Prakash Singh Badal, Akali Dal chief minister of Punjab also made announcement on 31 July, 2008 of making Sunam a model city and redevelopment of ancestral house of Udham Singh. However, only announcements have been made and with no follow-up actions.

Thanks to the efforts of Central Khalsa Orphanage there is a one-room museum in the memory of the great, selfless freedom fighter.

In 2015, on Udham Singh’s 75th death anniversary, the Indian band Ska Vengers released the animated music video “Frank Brazil”, in which details of Singh’s life appear in graphic comic form.

Ashraf Jamal
Ashraf Jamal – Senior Writer

Ashraf Jamal brings a rare depth to writing equipped with a degree in journalism, a postgraduate degree in political science, and a degree in law from the Allahabad University. His experience includes editing and publishing the Northern India Patrika and writing for Times of India for almost a decade covering just about any topic under the sun including NRIs and Indian diaspora.


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