Udham Singh and the Walled Garden:  The Mobile and the Immobile

Part III of 3 parts of Udham Singh:  A Colonial Massacre and the Birth of a ‘Revolutionary’

Sardar Udham is not, then, a film without its insights.  Anti-colonial cinema in India has been prone to cast English officials such as O’Dwyer, or the officials who appear in Lagaan, as wooden characters.  It is immaterial that, even in a film claiming to be based on ‘true events’, Udham is shown—in the absence of supportive historical evidence—as having ingratiated himself into O’Dwyer’s good graces and found employment at his home, but this artistic license permits the viewer to be privy to exchanges between the two which furnish a few clues to some peculiarities of the colonial sensibility.  The British in India saw themselves as a transcendent force for the good, as custodians of law and order and firm adherents of the rule of law, and as exemplars of the idea of fair play whose keen sense of justice won them the goodwill of ordinary Indians.  The highly placed colonial official Major-General John Malcolm, one-time Governor of Bombay and a prolific author, was speaking for every one of his ilk when in 1823 he wrote that ‘almost all who from knowledge and experience have been capable of forming any judgment upon the question, are agreed that our power in India rests on the general opinion of the Natives of our comparative superiority in good faith, wisdom, and strength, to their own rulers’ (A Memoir of Central India, Vol 2, Appendix 18). And that was putting it in mild and even polite language, considering that James Mill thought of India as being in a ‘rude’ (primitive) stage of civilization and others wrote of the ‘savagery’ of Indians.  To the end of his life, O’Dwyer—a more critical character than the immediate perpetrator of the massacre since as the administrator of the Punjab he was responsible for shaping the policy in that province—persisted in holding to the view that it was the educated who had instigated the common folk of the Punjab to rebellion and that the yeomen peasantry could not be aroused to political consciousness except through the machinations of the Indian political elite.  Both O’Dwyer and Dyer remained wholly unrepentant, firm in their belief that the Amritsar shooting was a military necessity and a deterrent that alone could prevent India from erupting into rebellion as in 1857.  If, at the end of it all, there is not much else that one can divine from the filmmaker’s attempt to enter into O’Dwyer’s frame of mind, it is largely because Michael O’Dwyer, as his memoir amply demonstrates, was a man of singular mediocrity.

Statue of Udham Singh, Amritsar, 1990.
Statue of Udham Singh, Amrtisar, 2018.

Amidst the humdrum life of Michael O’Dwyer and the peregrinations of Udham Singh, there are two moments of cinematic illumination which set up what is the fundamental story of modern times, that is the dialectic of motion and stillness, the mobile and the immobile.  When Udham walked into Caxton Hall on 13 March 1940 with the intention of eliminating O’Dwyer, he carried with him an identity card that bore the name of ‘Mohamed Singh Azad’.  Popular tradition has improved upon historical fact and rendered the name, as does Sardar Udham, as ‘Ram Mohamed Singh Azad’.  What does this signify, asks a senior British official, to which Inspector John Swain somewhat haltingly replies:  ‘Sir, this name signifies the religious unity of India’. Udham’s acolytes hold this up, quite reasonably, as an illustration of their shaheed’s secular credentials, but this gesture, even as it anticipates the theatrics of Amar Akbar Anthony by a generation, is somewhat predictable.  Far more arresting is the fact that Udham assumed multiple aliases, traveling incognito with passports in the names of Sher Singh, Ude Singh, Udham Singh, and Frank Brazil.  We moderns like to think of ourselves as living in a (to use that dreadful cliché) global village, but ours is an era not only of passport control but draconian surveillance regimes.  The passport itself is a relatively modern invention just as the nation-state is the ghetto from which we cannot escape. What is most remarkable is just how mobile Udham could be, transgressing borders with relative ease.  Against this mobility is the indubitable fact of the immobility of the thousands who were trapped in the walled enclosure known as Jallianwala Bagh.  Some could run, but only a few metres before running into the bagh’s outer wall or being mowed down by the deadly hail of fire. Many others could not run at all; hundreds were trampled over in the ensuing stampede. In what is the film’s darkest and chilling moment, Udham crawls over the wall of the bagh later in the evening and stumbles upon mounds of the dead and the wounded.   In an extended sequence lasting over fifteen minutes, he leaves with the wounded and repeatedly returns to take them to safety: in the stillness of the night, there are at most the faint moans of the wounded.  It is Ghalib, writing on Delhi as a desolate city of the dead after the British had reduced Hindustan’s first city to abject submission, that comes to mind:  1857 redux, precisely what the two henchmen of the Raj thought they were averting.

*****

The Jallianwala Bagh Memorial has been mired in controversy since the present government sought to transform it over the last several years into what they call a ‘world-class’ tourist site. Though Amritsar has a statue of Udham Singh that was installed in 1990, a large new statue of Udham Singh, which though sponsored by the Kamboj community to which he belonged can also be seen as part of the renovation initiative, was put up in 2018 just outside the memorial complex.  The statue from 1990 shows Udham as a turbaned and bearded Sikh, holding a revolver in his right hand.  The sculptor was, one could say, attempting to capture a likeness of the man in the act of shooting Michael O’Dwyer; on the other hand, Udham was neither bearded nor turbaned when he carried out the fateful act.  Indeed, in the preceding six years that he lived in England, he abjured the external signs that identify the Sikh male.  The new statue has been mired in controversy: some have objected to the loose and ill-fitting turban that sits atop Udham’s head, while others cavil that his outstretched right hand is sans revolver.  The Government of India is said to have objected to a revolver in one hand, saying that it would ‘send a wrong message’, especially to the young; the clod of earth in the palm of his right hand is supposed to represent the soil of Jallianwala Bagh now sanctified by the blood of the hundreds who were martyred.  However, to understand what is at the heart of the controversy, one can do no better than to turn to Sunam, Udham Singh’s birthplace, where the viewer is confronted with the bizarre fact of two statues of him, installed in the same year of him, that stand cheek by jowl.  One depicts him as a Khalsa Sikh, with unshorn hair and a beard; the other shows a clean-shaven man, recognizable from most of the pictures of Udham Singh that circulated in the public realm in the immediate aftermath of the assassination and in the following two to three decades.

Close-up of the outstretched arm of Udham Singh holding a lump of earth in his right hand, from a statue of him in Amritsar, 2018

There is little if anything to suggest that Udham Singh was an observant Sikh, much less someone who swore by a Khalsa Sikh identity.  Many contemporary public commentators have expressed alarm at the propensity of the present government to appropriate the most renowned figures of the freedom struggle, including figures such as Bhagat Singh who was an avowed atheist, but the apotheosis of Udham Singh (and Bhagat Singh, for that matter) into a Khalsa Sikh is not any less troubling. It is unlikely that these controversies will die down anytime soon.  The functionaries of the state and the middle class in India have agreed upon a solution that deflects some of the fundamental questions and promises to satisfy the nation’s ego. This solution is captured in some of the scripted lines that appear on a dark blank screen at the end of Sircar’s film where it is solemnly declared that ‘more than 100 years later, India is yet to receive an official apology from the British government for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.’  An apology that has to be forced, as seems to be the case, from the British is no apology at all; an apology that may arrive when India is in the position of being a world power, if that day should arrive at all, would be nothing else but a demonstration of the coercive power of the strong and an instantiation of the maxim that ‘might makes right’. Little do those who would like an apology know that we are in the midst of an epidemic of apologies. Some would like an apology to be accompanied by substantial financial compensation, to put some teeth into it and make it hurt.  Perhaps we should think of an apology, unthinkable for the foreseeable future, which would entail the British erecting, of their own free will, a statue of Udham Singh alongside the one of Mohandas Gandhi that stands in Westminster. The pigeons, at least, will have a field day.

(concluded)

See also Part I:  The Making of Sardar Udham:  A Massacre, A Young Man, and the Burden of Revenge, here.

Part II:  The Peregrinations of a Supposed Revolutionary:  The Many Guises of Udham Singh, here.

The 3 parts together were first published in marginally shorter form as “The Enigma of Udham Singh: Jallianwala Bagh and the Solitude of Revenge” in Open magazine (print and digital, 5 November 2021), available here.

3 thoughts on “Udham Singh and the Walled Garden:  The Mobile and the Immobile

  1. Hi Professor Vinay Lal,

    I haven’t had much of an education. I have had to piece together what I could from websites and youtube channels such as yours. I was born in New Delhi in October of 1988 to a family from Lucknow. We migrated to Singapore in 1990 where my humanity was taken from me in Ahmad Ibrahim Primary School, the principal at the time was Mrs Chan Kwai Foong. My family suffered a cultural genocide, which seems now to be strikingly similar to the violence being inflicted on Tibet. We have never recovered from till this day. My IIM Ahmedabad graduate father Ajay Bhatnagar, university graduate mother’s brother Amit Bhatnagar of Singapore, and my IIMA professor nana and naniji have not uttered a syllable against Singapore, and instead have told their son to “keep quiet” through all of his dehumanization and suffering. They have been ardent players/spectators of politics, having accumulated thousands of hours of BBC/CNN/etc. consumption. It was always easier for them to practice self-hatred rather than self-love.

    We migrated to Ontario, Canada in 2005. I never received even the slightest acknowledgement of the abuse and trauma that I suffered in Singapore. Canada and its death-prevention system (I am careful not to describe it as a health care system, cattle on a farm receive better love/care/concern than human beings here) failed to acknowledge or treat our dehumanization/trauma/genocide. Canada, with the complicity of every institution, medical, educational, legal or otherwise, has inflicted a further genocide upon us.

    My entire life has been one massive, two-stage genocide.

    Of what worth is this supposed “developed nation” when the immigrants are traumatized, dehumanized and have barriers placed between us and our humanity. There is ZERO help or support for people who receive violence or trauma anywhere. EVERY attempt to hold violent people/institutions accountable/responsible is met with further violence and trauma. Backwards politics infects everything, nobody listens or cares about any true suffering. The non-whites which we see playing their assigned roles in these political parties have no connection or relation to us or our suffering. They may as well be pet dogs for their chosen political parties.

    Is it not a genocide when so many of our brothers and sisters, so intelligent, kind, loving and compassionate are prevented from studying, working and living while we have to rely on these useless whites, these stupid cronies for every part of our lives? There is no meritocracy in Canada, it is entirely engineered and violently forced through politics.

    The “successful” immigrant population here exists as a collection of thoroughly sunken people, traumatized and genocided into fitting perfectly within the delusional reality raped into existence by whites. They are the ones paraded about while those of us who suffer the violence of the whites and their surrogates have further violence inflicted upon us for speaking the truth of our suffering.

    The true suffering of the people is ignored every single day while our supposed “leaders” prance about in front of the world advertising the palace of lies that they built in the sky on top of a mountain range of genocide.

    There is a genocide going on in Ontario, it is being inflicted by Ontario, EVERY SINGLE ACADEMIC INSTITUTION IS FILLED WITH WHITE SUPREMACISTS, how is everything proceeding as normal? Has the academic world not heard one suffering students voice from Ontario?

    What sort of politics are Indians playing when their own son is dehumanized in primary school and has to suffer for three decades and a second genocide before being able to recover his humanity in some part?

    I understand this message is irrelevant to this post, I have no qualms with this message never being posted publicly. If not for the content which you have generously shared, I would be every bit as stupid as the chinese and whites wanted me to be. I have no contact with my family due to the stupidity induced from a diet of pure Singaporean lies for decades. I have been ostracized by both countries that I have lived in.

    I have studied at University of Waterloo, without achieving any degree. That was/is a Christian-funded genocide masquerading as an educational institution. I have worked with open source software projects and received violence. I have worked as a Senior Systems Engineer at Vipre in Burnaby and received violence. I have worked as a Senior Site Reliability Engineer at Nylas and received violence that was so horrendous that I no longer have any confidence in anything or anyone, my only plan now is to renounce this backwards reality and pursue Buddhism. I was earning in excess of 100K per annum in jobs that I competed fairly for and won. Canadian govt is giving me less than a tenth of that under their “ODSP”. At least black people were 3/5ths human beings, Canada is unable to recognize even a tenth of mine. I have no means of having anyone held accountable or responsible for any of my trauma without further trauma, there is no doctor to visit when my health gets bad. I am not a human being here in Canada.

    What kind of politics or culture is it when parents are forced into situations where they can’t care for their child and the child isn’t allowed to even speak? I struggle to call any of what I’ve experienced as Indian Culture or even as any meaningful kind of politics.

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    • Hello Manas,
      As you point out, your lengthy comment doesn’t address the subject of the blog essay. Unless a comment uses obscenities, I almost never censor it and have therefore let your comment stand. I don’t know what was inflicted on you during your childhood in Singapore and, aside from your general observations about racism in Canada and the like, I cannot say what led you to the views that you so candidly and forcefully have expressed in your comments. I can say that racism is certainly pervasive in Canada in its own way, though the country appears as benign to many in the world, and especially to liberals in the US who are fearful of the direction in which the US is moving. As I have only visited Canada but never lived there, I cannot comment, to take one illustration, on the health care system, but the reports I have heard are contrary to what you describe. If it were as much of a disaster as you report, I doubt very much that we would see (at least in the conventional sense) the standard of living that is commonly encountered there. I think fault should be assigned where it is due, as for instance in the horrendous treatment of First Nations people in Canada, all of which is yet coming to light again with the recent literature on residential schools. But you should ask yourself if you have perhaps allowed rhetorical excess to get the better of your judgement.

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  2. It would be good if more films were made on the experience of a normal working class or peasant Indian in the freedom struggle instead of focusing only on famous names. Your critical analysis of this film is brilliant.

    Like

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