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)

*The End of Empire: The Meanings of Jallianwala Bagh

I:  The “Event” and its Political Backdrop

(in multiple parts)

It has often been said that Britain lost its empire the day when, one hundred years ago, 55-year old Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, commanding a regiment of 50 Gurkha and Baluchi riflemen, ordered firing without warning upon an unarmed crowd of over 15,000 and perhaps as many as 20,000 Indians gathered at an enclosure called the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, a stone’s throw from the Golden Temple.  The entrance to the Bagh was too narrow to admit two armoured cars with mounted machine guns that Dyer had brought with him; perhaps, to compensate for that shortcoming, Dyer directed his troops to fire wherever the crowd was densest.  Dyer was not constrained by any conception of “the innocents”:  women, men, and children were all legitimate targets, and at Dyer’s directions the troops deliberately aimed at those desperately seeking to clamber over the walls to safety.  Some people doubtless jumped into a deep well, and thus to their death, located at the northern end of the Bagh, on the other side of the Bazar Lakar Mandi. The firing ended only when the troops ran out of ammunition; most of the 1650 rounds met their target, judging from the official tally of 379 dead and some 1,200 wounded.  As the narrator Saleem in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children recalls, Dyer told his men:  “Good shooting.”  The Sunday picnic was over, and the men could take pride in their training:  “We have done a jolly good thing.”

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Colonel Reginald Dyer (acting Brigadier-General), a veteran of Frontier warfare.

 

Spring was in the air:  April 13 was Baisakhi, and crowds from the city and adjoining countryside were milling around the Golden Temple and the vicinity.  But the days immediately preceding had been taxing, ridden with uncertainty and violence.  The end of World War I, to which ironically subjugated Indians had contributed with their own blood, brought forth not intimations of greater freedom but repression.  A Declaration by Secretary of State Edwin Montagu in August 1917 had provided more than a ray of hope to those Indians were still inclined to believe in the goodwill of the British.  It promised, in its most famous line, “Increasing association of Indians in every branch of administration, and the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire.”  Montagu had just assumed office, and the British were still in need of India’s men and material wealth in support of the war.  Some might thus attribute the seemingly generous statement of intent on the part of the British to make Indians capable of self-government as resulting in equal parts from the naivety of a British politician who did not sufficiently appreciate the British resolve to hold India and from a stratagem to keep India involved in a war not at all of its making and in which it had no stakes as such.  The Montagu Declaration would be followed, in mid-1918, by the “Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms” which led to a minimal increase in Indian franchise and similarly a limited devolution of power to the central and provincial legislative councils.  Though British conservatives predictably railed against these concessions, the so-called liberal element in Indian politics grumbled that the reforms amounted to very little.  One might say that, as soon as the war was over, the British lion bared its fangs.  A committee appointed to inquire into alleged revolutionary conspiracies headed by Justice Rowlatt recommended the suspension of civil liberties, and repressive legislation followed in quick succession.  The British resort to preventive detention in an attempt to squelch nationalist agitation was captured in the headlines of one Lahore newspaper with the phrase, “no dalil, no vakeel, no appeal.”

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A rendering of the massacre by the German artist Eduard Thony from the German magazine Simplicissimus, January 21, 1920 issue (p. 615). From the Heidelberg Digital Library.

Mohandas Gandhi, who had returned to India from his twenty-year sojourn in South Africa four years ago, responded to the Rowlatt Acts with a call to the nation to observe a general hartal and so launched himself into national politics.  “The whole of India from one end to the other, towns as well as villages,” wrote Gandhi in his autobiography, “observed a hartal on that day.  It was a most wonderful spectacle.”  In the Punjab, however, Lieutenant-Governor Sir Michael O’Dwyer did not take kindly to the slightest expression of defiance of colonial authority and saw the “spectacle” as anything but “wonderful”.  He fancied himself a great upholder of the ‘Punjab tradition’, or the idea that ordinary Punjabis were simple folk without any interest in politics who had reposed their trust in the government and therefore deserved protection from corrupt urban-based nationalist Indians.  The iron hand of the colonial state had saved the Punjab from the “mutiny” of 1857-58 and its corrosive effects and the peasantry of this state, according the adherents of the ‘Punjab tradition’, expected the government to preserve “law and order.”  At a meeting of the Legislative Council in Lahore, O’Dwyer ridiculed the “recent puerile demonstrations against the Rowlatt Acts”, describing them as indicative of “how easily the ignorant and credulous people, not one in a thousand of whom knows anything of the measure, can be misled.”  The agitators, he ominously warned, “have a day of reckoning in store for them.”

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Amritsar, April 1913.

What transpired in the days just before the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh need not be recounted at length.  Deputy Commissioner Miles Irving betrayed the fact that truly stoked the anxiety of the British when, in a telegram to O’Dwyer on April 9, he described the Muslims and Hindus of Amritsar as having “united.”  The British responded to this wholly unwelcome show of solidarity with the arrest and expulsion of two local leaders, Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew, precipitating large demonstrations.  Twenty Indians died in police firings; British-owned banks were attacked by crowds.  Nothing infuriated the British more, however, than the assault on an Englishwoman, Marcia Sherwood:  she was badly beaten but saved by other Indians.  The white woman was nothing short of sacred, inviolable, ‘untouchable’ to the Indian.  The men of the ruling colonial elite perceived the loss of her dignity as an affront to them.  Their humiliation had to be avenged, and so it was:  the street where Miss Sherwood had been assaulted was sealed off and Indians had to crawl if they wished to make their way in or out of the lane.  A flogging post was set up to whip sense and discipline into those Indians who might think otherwise.

AmritsarIncidentsUnknownPhotographer

“The spot where Miss Sherwood was assaulted”, reads the caption on a photograph from that time. The photographer remains unidentified.

(to be continued)