Long Live Udham Singh’s Revolution
“I do not care about sentence of death, it means nothing at all
I do not care about dying or anything
We are suffering from the British Empire
I am not afraid to die, I am proud to die.
I want to help my native land”
The following is an excerpt from Shaheed Udham Singh’s statement on June 5, 1940, at the time of his death sentence. This statement speaks volumes of not only the depth of his persona but the very fact that he signified selflessness armed with complete devotion to India. How he stared at death fearlessly can inspire generations to come. July 31 marks Udham Singh’s death anniversary.
Indian culture has a plethora of examples which have time and again echoed of selfless work and how to accept death fearlessly. For a seeker, death is nothing but a change of garb, states the Bhagavad Gita in the legendary verse, vasamsi jirnani yatha vihaya navani grhnati naro parani tatha sarirani vihaya jirnany anyani samyati navani Dehi
However, today, Udham Singh may not occupy every tabletop. May also not find vociferous exhibition in walls spanning spectra or mentions in speeches of leaders. Yet for those who have even had a hindsight view of this dynamic Sardar’s life, can relate with the relentless contribution he made to India’s freedom movement.
The general trend thus far has been that the narrative of the Indian freedom struggle taught or read is generally seen with an ideological perspective. Historians have perhaps not done enough justice to the role played by our subaltern heroes in the Indian Freedom movement. The voices of resistance to the colonial domination rose from varied quarters, not just socially but also geographically across India. And Udham Singh’s voice was a force to reckon with. The freedom to express and live fully today is a product of the sustained struggle of underrated heroes like Udham Singh. Born as Sher Singh at Mohalla Pilbad, Sunam in a poor Kambo family in Punjab, he received his early education in an orphanage as his parents died early.
Documented evidence and available history on the martyr suggest that after getting trained in elementary skills, he worked as a Carpenter in Mombasa, Africa.
It was in Africa during his days as a carpenter that Udham Singh came in touch with the Ghadr party. What interested Udham Singh was the literature of the party. This prompted him to go to America in 1924 and become an active member of the party. It is through the Ghadar party that Udham Singh probably got in touch with Bhagat Singh who he revered as his Guru. Udham Singh was an eternal internationalist. He travelled from countries like US, France, Germany, Poland, Italy, Afghanistan, Panama, Mexico, Canada, Malaysia, Burma, Singapore etc. just to establish contact with the Ghadar party revolutionaries. This impressed Bhagat Singh and both revolutionaries, who went on to leave an indelible mark in the Indian freedom movement, began to work in cohesion.
One of the several tragedies which shook Udham Singh was Bhagat Singh’s death. It is after this that Udham Singh undertook the long journey to avenge the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The unfortunate killings of scores of innocent civilians, which included pregnant women, and children at Jallianwala Bagh was ordered and executed under the governorship of Michael O’Dwyer. Michael O’Dwyer was so ruthless that even after such a massacre, he wanted to rule over India with what he referred to as an “Iron Hand”. The long-awaited moment came on March 13, 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 Punjab when the Amritsar massacre had taken place. O’Dwyer 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 unto his country. His statement justifying the action recorded like this: “I took my revolver from home with me to protest. I did not take the revolver to kill but just to protest. I just shot to make the protest. I have seen people starving in India under British imperialism. I am not sorry for protesting. It was my duty to protest just for the sake of my country. I do not mind sentence. Ten, twenty, fifty or even to be hanged. I have done my duty”.
Such was his love for the motherland. Through Udham Singh, it is time to rekindle the memories of the Indian Freedom movement and elucidate more such inspirational figures that are forgotten by the aspirational India. It is time we move beyond the rhetoric on caste and take pride in the forgotten contributions of heroes from the subaltern community.
As we know, Punjab is a state with the highest proportion of Scheduled Caste population in India. Thus, it becomes all the more imperative to perpetuate the legacy of Udham Singh who belonged to this class. In all probability, he can be glorified as a subaltern hero who avenged the deaths of hundreds in Jallianwala Bagh, which shook the national conscience. As members of civil society, it is our primary duty to pay due respect and reverence to the great soul who in spite of social origin rose to become a hero and is lost in the pages of history.
In spite of this, there have been several figures who have consistently fought for the rights of the oppressed. One such fabulous writer was Mahashweta Devi who always located a marginalised figure in the center of popular imagination. The nation is still to come to terms with the demise of Mahashweta Devi, a doyen of post-modern literature who brought the discourse of the marginalised, especially the tribal, to the centre stage. Her writings are a stern reminder of the conscious effort one has to put to bring the subaltern community in the mainstream.
(The writers are research fellows at India Foundation. The views expressed are strictly personal.)