The Making of Sardar Udham:  A Massacre, A Young Man, and the Burden of Revenge

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

Udham Singh after his arrest by the police, 13 March 1940.

What’s in a statue?  Everything, I said to myself, as I chanced upon a road sign pointing to ‘Udham Singh Nagar’ as I was making my way down to Delhi from Corbet National Park one winter afternoon in 2009.  My instinct told me that Udham Singh Nagar was almost certainly named after Udham Singh and that a statue of the revolutionary, best known for carrying out a political assassination of a retired British administrator in 1940, was very likely going to be found in the town centre.  Indeed, asking the driver to take the slight diversion, we came upon the statue of Udham Singh soon enough.  It was surrounded by fruit vendors; upon my asking some of them, and the customers, if they knew whose statue it was, I was met with blank stares.  People seemed puzzled at my interest in it; one man was snoozing by its base, while others took refuge under the roof top over the statue from the glaring sun.  One cheeky fellow remarked that I seemed educated and I had only to read the plaque to become enlightened.  Just what makes a person speaking in the ‘vernacular’ rather than in English still look ‘educated’ in India—the person’s deportment, a certain bearing, his or her apparel, a SLR camera in hand—is an interesting question in itself.

Statue of Udham Singh, Udham Singh Nagar, Uttarakhand. Photo: Vinay Lal, 2008.

The Austrian essayist and crafter of the modernist novel, Robert Musil, wrote rather presciently that ‘the most striking feature of monuments is that you do not notice them.  There is nothing in the world as invisible as a monument. Like a drop of water on an oilskin, attention runs down them without stopping for a moment.’  It is extraordinary that statues are everywhere around us and we are generally quite oblivious of them, except perhaps to remember them as landmarks or when giving directions. Whoever thinks that a statue is meant to jog the memory, or call to mind the achievements or merits of a ‘great person’, knows little about signification.  Around the statue of Udham Singh, in a town named after him, no one appeared to know who he was.  Yet it was unmistakably him, even if there had been no plaque identifying him:  clean-shaven, suited and booted, a pistol in his extended right hand.  Someone not familiar with the iconography of India’s modern martyrs may have mistaken him perhaps for Bhagat Singh, but the younger revolutionary who was Udham Singh’s idol sports a trilby that sits at a slight angle on his head and he is never, almost never, shown with a revolver.  As is true of most statues, it was evidently in need of a thorough washing; in the few minutes that I was there, a few pigeons landed on it and dropped their poop.  Whether the statues are of Gandhi or Bhagat Singh, Lenin or Lincoln, war criminals or generals, swindlers or altruists, pigeons treat them all alike.  So, perhaps, there is nothing to statues.  But nevertheless there is, as shall be seen, many a tale that hangs on an Udham Singh statue.

*****

It was the late afternoon of April 13, 1919.  Spring was in the air; so too was dissent.  Amritsar had for the last few days been seething with unrest as the nationalist agitation gathered strength and on April 11 an elderly Englishwoman, Miss Marcella Sherwood, was badly beaten before being taken to safety by some Indians.  As E. M. Forster once astutely remarked, the phrase ‘women and children’ makes the Englishman feel sanctimonious and is enough warrant to provoke him to righteous fury.  Amritsar and most of the Punjab were placed under martial law and the commanding officer at Amritsar, Brigadier-General Reginald E. H. Dyer, imposed Section 144 which prohibited unlawful assemblies.  People from neighbouring towns and villages were still pouring into the city and the 13th was the first day of Baisakhi.  Perhaps as many as 20,000 people had gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh, in adamant defiance, as Dyer was to explain later, of his orders.  Commanding a regiment of 50 Gurkha and Baluchi riflemen, Dyer appeared at the walled enclosure of the bagh and ordered firing without warning upon the unarmed crowd.  Dyer was not constrained by any conception of ‘the innocents’:  men, women, and children were all fair game. The firing stopped only when the troops ran out of ammunition.  At least 379 people died that day; another 1000 or more were wounded.  Testifying later before an inquiry committee known after its chairman as the Hunter Commission, appointed by the British to inquire into the ‘Punjab Disturbances’, Dyer was candid enough to admit that had the sole entrance to the enclosure not been so narrow as to prevent the armored car which was trailing him from being brought into the bagh, he would almost certainly have used the machine gun with which the vehicle was equipped to mow down the crowd.

Jallianwala Bagh, Amrtisar, 1919. Photograph: Photograph: Zeutschel Omniscan. Source: Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

Udham Singh, born in Sunam in the Sangrur district of Punjab on 26 December 1899, was not all of twenty when the Amritsar massacre took place. Sardar Udham, Shoojit Sircar’s just released lengthy biopic, tells his tale, or rather the story of his single-minded resolve to avenge the massacre.  The film is but one of many recent attempts to install the ‘revolutionary’ who carried out the assassination of Sir Michael O’Dwyer twenty-one years after the massacre and paid for it with his life at the center of our political imagination, but it also invites our attention with the claim that ‘it is based on true events’.  Udham Singh was in Amritsar that fateful night, according to the film, but had fortuitously skipped the meeting at the bagh.  Though the film naturally does not confuse Dyer with O’Dwyer, a common enough confusion on the part of many, there appears to be some evidence that Udham did confuse the two Irishmen at least on some occasions.  It would not have been the first time that the self-proclaimed nationalist revolutionaries had erred in this fashion:  some may remember that, in a case of mistaken identity, Bhagat Singh and his comrades shot dead Assistant Superintendent of Police John Saunders when they were intending to assassinate Superintendent of Police James Scott. O’Dwyer was then the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab and, as the film makes amply clear, he was consistently supportive of the action that Dyer took that day.  Udham was poorly educated and it is not clear what he knew of O’Dwyer; strikingly, neither the film, nor any scholar who has worked on Udham Singh, has put forward an explanation as to why he from the outset planned to kill O’Dwyer rather than Dyer. It may be said that the choice had serendipitously been made for Udham:  the butcher of Amritsar, as Dyer came to be known, died of arteriosclerosis in 1927 after a long illness.  Now there remained O’Dwyer, perhaps the more malignant architect of an ‘episode’ that Winston Churchill denounced, not without some pomposity, as ‘without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire . . . an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.’

A news item from The Manchester Guardian, 13 December 1919. The news of the massacre was suppressed in the British press and it was not until eight months later that it was reported at some length in British newspapers.

(to be continued)

Terence MacSwiney, Hunger-Striking, and the Intertwined Histories of India & Ireland

No one in India today remembers the name of Terence MacSwiney, but in his own day his name reverberated throughout the country.  He was such a legend that, when the Bengali revolutionary Jatin Das, a key figure in the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army and a comrade of Bhagat Singh, died from a prolonged hunger-strike in September 1929, he was canonized as ‘India’s own Terence MacSwiney’.

Terence MacSwiney died this day, October 25th, in 1920.  Ireland, in the common imagination, is a land of poetry, anguished lovers, political rebels, verdant greenery—and drunkards. All of this may be true; one can certainly spend far too many evenings in an Irish pub, downing a pint of Guinness or Harp.  MacSwiney was a poet, playwright, pamphleteer, and a political revolutionary who got himself elected as Lord Mayor of Cork, in south-west Ireland, during the Irish War of Independence. Indian nationalists followed events in Ireland closely, for though people of Irish extraction may have played an outsized role in the brutalization of India during the British Raj, the Irish themselves were dehumanized by the English and waged a heroic anti-colonial resistance.  In India, the Irish were called upon to suppress such resistance.  One has only to call to mind Reginald Dyer, the perpetrator of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, who though born in Murree (now in Pakistan) was educated at Middleton College in County Cork and subsequently at Dublin’s Royal College of Surgeons, and Michael O’Dwyer, the Limerick-born Irishman who as Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab gave Dyer a free hand and even valorized the mass murder of Indians as a ‘military necessity’.

England did little in India that they had not previously done in Ireland, pauperizing the country and treating the Irish as a sub-human species.  The Irish were ridiculed as gullible Catholics who gave their allegiance to the Pope.  They were no better, from the English standpoint, than the superstitious Hindus.  MacSwiney, born in 1879, came to political activism in his late 20s, and by 1913-14 he had assumed a position of some importance both in the Irish Volunteers, an organization founded ‘to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland’, and the Sinn Fein, a political party that advocated for the independence of the Irish.  He was active during the ill-fated Easter Rebellion of April 1916, an armed insurrection that lasted all of six days before the British Army suppressed it with artillery and a massive military force.  Much of Dublin was reduced to rubble. It is unlikely that the uprising would have disappeared into the mists of history, but in any case William Butler Yeats was there to immortalize ‘Easter 1916’:  ‘All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.’  For the following four years, MacSwiney was in and out of British prisons, interned as a political detainee.

It is, however, the hunger-strike that MacSwiney undertook in August 1920 that would bring him to the attention of India and the rest of the world.  He was arrested on August 12 on charges of being in possession of ‘seditious articles and documents’—an all too familiar scenario in present-day India—and was within days convicted by a court that sentenced him to a two-year sentence to be served out at Brixton Prison in England.  MacSwiney declared before the tribunal, ‘I have decided the term of my imprisonment.  Whatever your government may do, I shall be free, alive or dead, within a month.’  He at once started on a hunger-strike, protesting that the military court which had tried him had no jurisdiction over him, and eleven other Republican prisoners joined him.  It was one thing for the large Irish diasporic population in the United States, whose predilection for Irish Republicanism was pronounced, to support him; but far more arresting was the fact that from Madrid to Rome, from Buenos Aires to New York and beyond to South Australia, the demand for MacSwiney’s release was voiced not only by the working class, but by political figures as different as Mussolini and the black nationalist Marcus Garvey.  The days stretched on, and his supporters pleaded with him to give up his hunger-strike; meanwhile, in prison, the British attempted to force-feed him.  On October 20, MacSwiney fell into a coma; seventy-four days into his hunger-strike, on October 25, he succumbed.

The funeral procession for Terence MacSwiney at Euston, London, October 1920. A still from the Gaumont documentary, ‘Funeral of the Lord Mayor of Cork’, on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qU16rhRHP7M
The funeral procession for Terence MacSwiney at Cork, October 1920. A still from the Gaumont documentary, ‘Funeral of the Lord Mayor of Cork’, on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qU16rhRHP7M

In India, MacSwiney’s travails had similarly taken the country by storm.  It is assumed by many, as a matter of course, that Gandhi was greatly ‘influenced’ by MacSwiney, but though he was doubtless moved by his resolve, patriotism, and endurance, Gandhi distinguished between the ‘fast’ and the ‘hunger-strike’.  Nevertheless, MacSwiney was a hero to armed revolutionaries—and to Jawaharlal Nehru.  Writing some years after MacSwiney’s death to his daughter Indira, Nehru noted that the Irishman’s hunger-strike ‘thrilled Ireland’ and indeed the world:  ‘When put in gaol he declared that he would come out, alive or dead, and gave up taking food.  After he had fasted for seventy-five days his dead body was carried out of the gaol.’  It is unquestionably MacSwiney’s example, rather than that of Gandhi, that Bhagat Singh, Bhatukeshwar Dutt, and others implicated in the Lahore Conspiracy Case had in mind when in mid-1929 they commenced a hunger-strike to be recognized as ‘political prisoners’.  That hunger-strike was joined by the Bengali political activist and bomb-maker, Jatindranath Das, in protest against the deplorable conditions in jail and in defence of the rights of political prisoners.  Jatin died after 63 days on 13 September 1929.  The nation grieved:  as Nehru would record in his autobiography, ‘Jatin Das’s death created a sensation all over the country.’  Das would receive virtually a state funeral in Calcutta and Subhas Bose was among the pallbearers.

A nationalist print from around 1930 called ‘Bharat Ke MacSwiney’ (‘India’s MacSwiney’).  It shows Jatindranath Das, who died on the 63rd day of his hunger-strike on 13 September 1929, in the lap of Bharat Mata, reposing in ‘eternal sleep’ having done his duty to the nation.  Image:  Courtesy of Vinay Lal.

Though Gandhi was the master of the fast, the modern history of hunger-striking begins with Terence MacSwiney. It is quite likely that Gandhi recognized, more particularly after MacSwiney’s martyrdom, how the hunger-strike as a form of political theatre could galvanize not just a nation but world opinion.  However, the life story of MacSwiney should resonate in India for many other reasons besides the singularity of MacSwiney’s admirable defence of the rights of his own people.  As I have suggested, England under-developed Ireland before laying India to waste, and Ireland was in many respects as much a laboratory as India for British policies with regard to land settlement, taxation, famine relief, the suppression of dissent, and much else. It is equally a highly disconcerting fact that the story of the Irish in India suggests that those who have been brutalized will in turn brutalize others.  The precise role of the Irish in the colonization of India requires much further study.  On the other hand, the legend of Terence MacSwiney points to the exhilarating if complicated history, which in recent years has begun to be explored by some scholars, of the solidarity of the Irish and the Indians.  Indians have long been familiar, for instance, with the figure of the Irishwoman Annie Beasant, but transnational expressions of such solidarity took many forms.  At a time when the world seems convulsed by insularity and xenophobic nationalism, the story of MacSwiney points to the critical importance of sympathy across borders.

Georgian translation by Ana Mirilashvili available here.

The Phenomenon of Bhagat Singh

(September 28th marks the 112th birth anniversary of Bhagat Singh.)

 

“This is the story of a phenomenon.”  So begins Christopher Isherwood’s famous and mesmerizing biography of Sri Ramakrishna.

Bhagat Singh is not just the name of a famous revolutionary whose flame flickered briefly before burning out.  Bhagat Singh is the name of a phenomenon.

It was the late 1920s and the name of Bhagat Singh was everywhere.  Gandhi burst upon the national scene in 1919 and had soon taken the country by storm.  He transformed the Congress into a mass organization, galvanized the country through the non-cooperation movement, and even, in some places in northern India, paralyzed the British administration. The Anglicized Jawaharlal Nehru, taken in as was everyone else by Gandhi, thought he had seen everything.  The Gandhi era of Indian history was well under way.

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