Udham Singh, born on December 26th, 1899, was an Indian Nationalist and revolutionary. He
belonged to Ghadar Party and was a firm believer of Socialist principles— the same
philosophy that influenced Bhagat Singh. He believed in a united India without religious
animosity, and at one time, he went by the name of Ram Mohammed Singh Azad, a name
representing amalgamation of three major religions in India: Sikhism, Hinduism and Islam.
He was born in a family that belonged to Jammu clan of Kamboj lineage, though at the time
of his birth, the family was settled in Sangrur district of Punjab. His family-given name was
Sher Singh. His father, Sardar Tehal Singh, was a watchman at a nearby railway crossing in the
adjacent village. Udham lost his mother when he was only 2 years old, and lost his father too
just six years later. Udham was then left with his brother, Mukta Singh. With the help of Bhai
Krishan Singh, they were both admitted to Central Khalsa Orphanage Putlighar, Amritsar.
At the orphanage, both brothers were initiated into Sikhism and were given new names. Sher
Singh took the name of Udham Singh while his brother took the name of Sadhu Singh. For a
child who has already lost much of his family, the death of his brother Sadhu in 1917 came as
a great shock. But despite the challenges the life threw at him, he persevered. Whist at the
orphanage, he received an education and passed his Matriculation. In the year 1919, he left
the orphanage to start a new life.
And then came one of the blackest days in Indian history that changed the course of Udham’s
life and left an indelible mark on British India’s legacy. On Vaisakhi Day (13th April 1919),
Udham witnessed the barbarous act of British troops opening fire on peacefully gathered
men, women or children. Many were there to peacefully protest against British colonial rule
and to object to the arrest and deportation of Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew among
others who were incarcerated under the draconian Rowlatt Act. It is believed that Udham was
there with his friends and he was serving water to the crowd. By some estimates, more than
1000 people perished, including children.
The event had a deep impact on Udham. As a consequence, he dived deep into active politics,
emerging as a dedicated revolutionary. In 1924, he went to the US and became involved with
the fighters of the Ghadar party under the patronage of Lala Hardyal. He organised overseas
Indians to actively participate in the freedom struggle. He returned to India three years later
in July 1927. In the same year, he was arrested in Amritsar for the possession of unlicensed
arms. Prohibited copies of Ghadar party’s paper “Ghadr-i-gunj” were also confiscated from
his possession. In the court hearing, he was unapologetic for his desire to oust British from
India, and was sentenced to five years of rigorous imprisonment.
He stayed in the jail for four years and missed some major events of Indian Freedom Struggle.
Soon after his release, he began to formulate a plan to reach London and kill Michael
O’Dwyer, who was governor of Punjab at the time of Jallianwala Massacre. For his
revolutionary activities, he was under constant surveillance by the Punjab Police. Little
concrete is known about his travel from India to London. Along the way, he passed through
and stayed in many countries such as Germany, Italy, Austria, France and Switzerland. He
purchased a revolved and ammunition. He then waited for the right opportunity so that the
killing can have the maximum impact.
Finally, on 13th March, 1940, twenty-one years after the Jallianwala tragedy, an opportunity
presented itself. Michael O’Dwyer was named as one of the speakers in a joint meeting of
East India Association and Royal Central Asian Society. The meeting was due to be held at
Caxton Hall. He concealed his revolver in a book, which was cut specifically to hide the
revolver within its pages. At the end of the meeting, he took out his revolver and shot O’Dwyer
twice, killing him immediately. He also fired on Secretary of State for India, Lord Zetland, but
he wasn’t seriously injured. Udham had no intention of escaping and he was arrested on the
spot. In the court trial that followed, he was sentenced to death. On July 31st, 1940, he was
hanged at Pentonville prison and was buried later at the prison grounds. His remains were
repatriated by the Indian government and exhumed in July 1974.
At the time, the reaction in the Indian press to the assassination was mixed. Many condemned
the killing as senseless, but many more praised the act as heroic. Today, we have to remember
the trauma that young Udham must have felt at the senseless murder of his countrymen.
Despite obstacles at every step, he went onto avenge their deaths and thus, we have rightly
immortalised as Shaheed-e-Azam.