Socialist Worker

Udham Singh—revolutionary who took revenge for empire

Issue No. 2724

Udham Singh after the assassination of Sir Michael ODwyer

Udham Singh after the assassination of Sir Michael O'Dwyer


As Sir Michael O’Dwyer left the speakers’ table after his lecture for the East India Association in London 80 years ago, an Asian man rushed from the audience as if to greet him.

O’Dwyer, a former Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab, was used to making such acquaintances. 

But in the man’s hand was a heavy revolver, and within seconds he had shot and killed the distinguished guest.

The man with the gun was Udham Singh, and his attack was an act of revenge 20 years in the making.

The son of poor farmers, Singh had grown up in an orphanage in the Punjabi city of Amritsar. 

Amritsar—A very British massacre
Amritsar—A very British massacre
  Read More

On 13 April 1919, he and his teenage friends had spent a Sunday afternoon in a park known as Jallianwala Bagh.

There they joined thousands of others who defied British orders against public gatherings. In one corner some people were protesting against British rule, but in others there were games and picnics.

Unknown to all, at the far end of the scrubland, troops were following the orders of their British officer and blocking all the exits. 

Without warning they opened fire. The shooting lasted for more than ten minutes and more than 1,650 rounds of ammunition were spent. At the end of it all, hundreds were dead or dying—and the British insisted the Punjabis had been taught a “moral lesson”.

It was a scene that never left Singh—and was the reason he became a revolutionary. He joined the Ghadar Party, a group that espoused radical nationalist politics but was inspired by Russia’s socialist revolution in 1917.

It was dedicated to overthrowing the British by violent means, but also against control of a future free India by the rich.

British spies reported on Singh, saying he “fully sympathised with the Bolsheviks, as their object was to liberate India from foreign control”.

In 1927 a gang led by Singh was captured in Amritsar with weapons, copies of Ghadar’s banned newspaper, The Voice of Revolt, and a book of revolutionary poems. 

He was sentenced to five years in prison, and while there vengeance was never far from his mind. 

Gripped 

After his sentence, Singh was released into an India gripped by strikes and protests against the British. 

He was under constant police surveillance but nevertheless made his way to Britain in 1934, where he worked as textile trader and carpenter. Although a staunch atheist, Singh joined Sikh religious organisations in London to help him cover his tracks. 

Many such groups became a home to the Indian resistance on British soil.

O’Dwyer, who would soon be in Singh’s sights, was an obvious target.

As the top ranking military official for the Punjab, he had wholeheartedly backed the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. 

He was scathing about the Indian independence movement, believing, “there was no such thing as an Indian nation”. After the assassination, Singh turned his Old Bailey murder hearing into a trial of British “civilisation”.

Although wracked by 42 days of hunger strike, he castigated British imperialism. 

“Machine guns on the streets of India mow down thousands of poor women and children wherever your so-called flag of democracy and Christianity flies,” he said. 

Found guilty by the jury, Singh was hung on 31 July 1940 at Pentonville Prison in London. But within a few short years India would be free of the British—and Singh would be a hero of its liberation.

This is part of a series about radical black lives Go to bit.ly/SWBlackLives

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