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Nation remembers Shaheed Udham Singh on his 73rd martyrdom anniversary
HARISH DIDO | 31 Jul 2013

Freedom fighter Shaheed Udham Singh (December 26, 1899 – July 31, 1940), whose 73rd martyrdom anniversary is on today,  was best known for assassinating Michael O'Dwyer in March 1940 in what has been described as an avenging of the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre.

Udham Singh changed his name to Ram Mohammad Singh Azad, symbolizing the unification of the three major religions of India: Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism. Singh is considered one of the best-known of the more heroic revolutionaries of the Indian freedom struggle; he is also sometimes referred to as Shaheed-e-Azam Sardar Udham Singh (the expression "Shaheed-e-Azam, in Urdu, means "the great martyr"). 

Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh along with Chandrasekhar Azad, Rajguru and Sukhdev, were the more famous names out of scores of young firebrand freedom fighters in the early part of 20th-century India. These young men believed their motherland would win her freedom only through the jolting up the sleeping British rulers. For their strong belief in display of courage to achieve India's freedom, a nervous England labelledthese men as "India's earliest Marxists".

In 1940, almost 21 years after the Amritsar Massacre of 1919 in Punjab province of India, Singh shot the unsuspecting 75-year-old Michael O'Dwyer while he was attending a lecture meet at Caxton Hall in London.O'Dwyer had been Governor of the Punjab in 1919, when Brigadier General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer mercilessly ordered British troops to fire on a congregation of unarmed Indian who had gathered at the JallianwallaBagh on the holy day of Baisakhi, who included Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and Christians.

At various stages in his life, Singh went by the following names: Sher Singh, Udham Singh, Udhan Singh, UdeSingh, Uday Singh, Frank Brazil (American alias) and Ram Mohammed Singh Azad.

Sher Singh Jammu was born in Sunam in the Sangrurdistrict of Punjab to a Sikh farming family headed bySardar Tehal Singh (known as Chuhar Singh before taking the Amrit). Udham Singh belonged to Kamboj lineage.  Sardar Tehal Singh was at that time working as a watchman on a railway crossing in the neighbouring village of Upall. Sher Singh's mother died in 1901. His father followed in 1907.

With the help of Bhai Kishan SinghRagi, both Sher Singh and his elder brother, Mukta Singh, were taken in by the Central Khalsa Orphanage Putlighar in Amritsar on October 24, 1907.They were administered the Sikh initiatory rites at the orphanage and received new names: Sher Singh became Udham Singh, and Mukta Singh became Sadhu Singh. Sadhu Singh died in 1917, which came as a great shock to his brother. While at orphanage,Udham Singh was trained in various arts and crafts. He passed his matriculation examination in 1918 and left the orphanage in 1919.

Singh plunged into active politics and became a dedicated revolutionary. He left the orphanage and moved from one country to another to achieve his secret objective, aimingultimately to reach his prey in London. He reached Africa in 1920, moving to Nairobi in 1921. Singh tried for the United States but was unsuccessful. He returned to India in 1924, reaching the U.S. that same year.

There Singh became actively involved with freedom fighters of theGhadar Party, an Indian group known for its revolutionary politics and its legendary founder, Sohan Singh Bhakna. Singh spent three years in revolutionary activities in the U.S. and organised Overseas Indians for the freedom struggle. He returned to India in July 1927 on orders fromBhagat Singh. He was accompanied by 25 associates from the U.S. and brought a consignment of revolvers and ammunition.

On 30 August 1927 Udham Singh was arrested at Amritsar for possession of unlicensed arms. Some revolvers, a quantity of ammunition, and copies of a prohibited GhadarParty paper called "Ghadr-i-Gunj" ("Voice of Revolt") were confiscated. He was prosecuted under section 20 of the Arms Act.

Singh was sentenced to five years rigorous imprisonment. He stayed in jail for four years, missing the peak of India's revolutionary period and the actions of men like Bhagat Singh and Chandrasekhar Azad. Bhagat Singh was executed at the gallows with his fellow revolutionaries Rajguru and Sukhdev on March 23, 1931 for the murder of Deputy Superintendent of the Police J. P. Saunders, while Udham Singh was still in jail.

Udham Singh was released from jail on 23 October 1931. He returned to his native 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 and also worked on a plan to reach London to assassinate O'Dwyer and reached London in 1934. 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.

At last, the opportunity came on 13 March 1940, almost 21 years after the Jallianwala Bagh killings: A joint meeting of the East India Association and the Royal Central Asian Society was scheduled at Caxton Hall, and among the speakers was Michael O'Dwyer. Singh concealed his revolver in a book specially cut for the purpose and managed to enter Caxton Hall. He took up his position against the wall. At the end of the meeting, the gathering stood up, and O'Dwyer moved towards the platform to talk to Zetland. Singh pulled his revolver and fired. O'Dwyerwas hit twice and died immediately. Udham Singh did not intend to escape. He was arrested on the spot.

Back in India, there was a strong reaction to this assassination. While the Congress-controlled English speaking press of India condemned Singh's action in general terms, independents like Amrit Bazar Patrika and New Statesman took different views. In its March 18, 1940 issue, Amrit Bazar Patrika wrote, "O'Dwyer's name is connected with Punjab incidents which India will never forget".

Indians, all over regarded Singh's action, as justified and an important step in India's struggle, to end British colonial rule, in India. On 1 April 1940, Udham Singh was formally charged with the murder of Michael O'Dwyer. While awaiting trial in Brixton Prison Udham 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", which demonstrated his transcendence of race, caste, creed, and religion. Singh explained: "I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it." Singh was convicted, and Atkinson sentenced him to death. On 31 July 1940, Udham Singh was hanged at Pentonville Prison.

As with other executed prisoners, he was buried later that afternoon within the prison grounds. In March 1940, Indian National Congress leader Jawahar Lal Nehru, condemned the action of Udham as senseless, but in 1962, Nehru did an about turn and applauded Singh with the following statement in the daily Partap: "I salute Shaheed-i-AzamUdham Singh with reverence who had kissed the noose so that we may be free.”

In July 1974, Udham 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 was later cremated in his birthplace of Sunam in Punjab and his ashes were immersed in the Sutlej  river.

The people should always remember the martyrs, who laid down their lives to let us breathe in free air and give respect and social support to their families. The politicians were facing crisis of confidence and credibility and the spirit of service and sacrifice had vanished. They are en-cashing the ‘martyrs’ to nurse their own interests and not to serve the people and the nation.