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.


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.

The Peregrinations of a Supposed Revolutionary:  The Many Guises of Udham Singh

Part II of Udham Singh:  A Colonial Massacre and the Birth of a ‘Revolutionary’

Sardar Udham is curiously both an ambitious film that is lured by the idea of the epic and at the same time marred by a profound unself-reflexivity and insularity that also characterized Udham’s own life.  To say this much is already to invite the wrath of those who have canonized Udham as a great shaheed, a worthy addition to the country’s gallery of martyrs, but the film inadvertently furnishes grounds for taking the view that however courageous Udham may have been, he worked with a very limited if not impoverished conception of ‘revolution’.  The film does not purport to be a full-length biography, but it is tempted into being one.  The viewer acquires no knowledge of his life before the massacre, except for the fleeting remarks shared between police officers about his childhood at an orphanage after the loss of both his parents at an early age.  Attempts to claim Udham as a Khalsa Sikh doubtless also have something to do with the fact that he was raised at the Central Khalsa Orphanage from 1907 onwards.  The film commences in 1931, when Udham was released after four years in jail after being caught with a cache of arms and prohibited political literature which led to his conviction under the Arms Act.  We see Udham moving from one country to another, assuming aliases, taking up jobs in which he had little interest but which apparently allowed him time to foment his plan to assassinate O’Dwyer. Udham worked in various factories, as a peddler, carpenter, and engineer, and even as a lingerie salesman and as an extra on a film set. Throughout his adult life, the film suggests, Udham remained laser-focused on his objective just as Bhagat Singh remained his idol.  Whatever the vicissitudes and setbacks of life, Udham never lost sight of the objective he had set for himself, and similarly it is the teachings and memory of Bhagat Singh that animated him.  Just why it took him more than twenty years after the massacre, and some seven years after his arrival in England, to snuff out O’Dwyer’s life remains something of a mystery.  But what is even more striking is that Udham does not appear to grow very much in these years:  he was never a very lettered man to begin with, and where Bhagat Singh was to the end of his young life—he was sent to the gallows at the age of 23 in 1931—a keen if not voracious reader, Udham does not seem to have had any attachment to books.  The only book that left an impression on him was Heer Ranjha, perhaps in the rendering of Waris Shah, and it on this book that he chose to take an oath when he was put on trial for the murder of O’Dwyer.

It may be that, in Sircar’s own view, some of Udham’s movements do not quite add up to the main narrative, but their omission from his film point perhaps to Udham’s provincialism and certainly to the filmmaker’s own inability to comprehend the place of the wider Indian diaspora in the making of Udham Singh.  The film is silent on Udham’s intriguing years in Africa—according to some accounts, in Nairobi, and more likely in Uganda, where Indian labour was the backbone of the railways—where the young political rebel could conceivably have developed a sharper sense of the solidarity of the working class.  Even more tellingly, Udham’s first long trip to the US in 1924, resulting in a long stay of three years, is omitted from the narrative.  Udham is said to have become involved with the Ghadar movement in the US, but the American sojourn also netted him a wife—a Mexican woman, no less, if only because the Johnson-Reed (Immigration) Act of 1924 and other anti-Asian legislation shut out virtually all Asians from the US and compelled Indian men already in the US to take Hispanic women for their brides.  The only half-decent biography of Udham by Anita Anand, The Patient Assassin, furnishes more details than we have ever had of Udham’s life with Lupe Hernandez, whom he deserted, along with their two children, when he left the US in 1927.  Apparently Udham’s many supporters seem to have swallowed whole the notion that revolutionaries can be forgiven not only their excesses but such derelictions of family duty and parental responsibility if for no other reason than that making “revolution” is a forbidding task and that revolutionaries must not be subjected to the standards of bourgeois society.  In the US, in any case, Udham would for some time have been part of the Punjabi-Mexican community, though we can also locate him in the vortex of what the scholar Vivek Bald has charmingly described as ‘Bengali Harlem’, a network of Indians who merged into Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and African American communities where present-day Global South solidarities were anticipated in their own fashion.  These already elusive histories do not even leave a trace in Sircar’s film.

Udham Singh’s comings and goings may suggest to some that he was a man of cosmopolitan interests, or a theorist of revolution who was inspired by the idea of contributing to a worldwide upheaval of the working class, but this would be a very charitable interpretation of a peripatetic existence that remains something of an enigma.  To be sure, the film hints that Udham was aware of some of the immense footprint of the British empire, and he would have come to know that the Irish were among those who had withered under English oppression.  He was at one time even a gunrunner for the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and in one scene he tells an IRA man, ‘We had our Bloody Sunday’, a reference of course both to the Amritsar massacre and to the killings of civilians by British troops at a football match in Dublin in 1920 during the Irish War of Independence. In his broken English, Udham explains to the Irishman, ‘Your revolution and mine are the same.  You lamb, I lamb:  the butcher the same.’ But there is no hint that, in twenty years of this itinerant living, Udham derived a keener understanding of the struggle in India, or that he arrived at fresh insights after his interactions with the working class and communist political activists in Africa, Europe, and the United States.  Udham’s links to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA) were largely through Bhagat Singh, though the precise historical record of their association is tenuous at best, and even Udham’s activities as a HSRA member were quite limited.  He seems in the film to go in and out of shadowy meetings with self-styled revolutionaries in Moscow and London, and there is much talk of ‘revolution’, but slogans do not make a revolution.  Indians, V S Naipaul would have said with his characteristic cynicism, are exceedingly good at shouting and sometimes coining slogans; but what is the more surprising thing is how many academics have been taken in by stories of the gallantry of the HSRA, which was as much of a slogan-making factory as it was a bomb-making workshop.

‘Let the world know’, Udham says to detective inspector John Swain at their last meeting before he goes to the gallows, ‘that I was a revolutionary.’  We are no wiser at the end of this film than we were at the beginning as to what is a revolutionary. Udham was in the vicinity of the massacre and, the film strongly avers, arrived at the blood-soaked Jallianwala Bagh later in the evening; and he then took an oath that he would avenge the massacre.  He nursed this grudge for twenty-one years before felling O’Dwyer with shots from his revolver and thereby demonstrating his patriotism, but what is “revolutionary” about such a practice of politics?  It is doubtful that Udham knew, but the one man who had reflected for decades on these matters, on political upheaval, violence, and the radical transformation of society, was Mohandas Gandhi.  We do not need the life of Udham Singh to write about Gandhi; however, it is impossible to engage with either Bhagat Singh or Udham Singh except in the backdrop of Gandhi, who absolutely dominated the political scene and whose presence was inescapable to anyone who sought to enter into politics.  One would not know this from watching the film, where Gandhi is mentioned but once, and from which the innocent viewer might walk away with the impression that freedom from colonial rule was wrought by a bunch of young boys and some girls wielding country-made guns and shouting themselves hoarse with the slogan, ‘Inquilab zindabad’ (‘Long Live Revolution’).  The martyr’s supporters, no doubt, have little time to spare for Gandhi, who was as usual forthright and uncompromising in his denunciation of the assassination of O’Dwyer and the injuries inflicted on Lord Zetland (Secretary of State for India) and two other English politicians as an act of ‘insanity’ which had caused him ‘deep pain’. While expressing his condolences to ‘the deceased’s family’, Gandhi noted that ‘such acts have been proved to be injurious to the causes for which they are committed’ (Statement to the Press, 14 March 1940).  Unlike the enterprising and brilliant if self-serving V. K. Krishna Menon, who at first unequivocally repudiated Udham’s act as ‘abhorrent’ but then engineered his appointment as junior counsel for the defence of Udham once he saw the enthusiasm with which expatriate Indians as well as Indians at home were willing to embrace the assassin, Gandhi remained consistent in adhering to the view that his differences with O’Dwyer and Zetland alike did not permit him to condone murder or an act of insanity. Writing a few days after the death of O’Dwyer, Gandhi described it as incumbent on the exponent of nonviolence to ‘make every Englishman feel that he is as safe in our midst as he is in his own home.  It fills me with shame and sorrow that for some time at least every Indian face in London will be suspect’ (Harijan, 23 March 1940).

What Sardar Udham misses, in common with nearly every film that has ever been made on Bhagat Singh, the HSRA, and Udham Singh, is the opportunity to cast the relationship between these revolutionaries and Gandhi as something other than purely adversarial.  It is Gandhi who was the principal author of the Congress Committee Report on the Punjab Disturbances, an extraordinary retort to the official Hunter Commission and a devastating indictment not only of the colonial machinery of repression but specifically of the culture of violence bred by both O’Dwyer and Dyer.  O’Dwyer knew of Gandhi’s role in the making of the Congress report, and there is a point in the film where O’Dwyer, shown promoting his book, The India That I Knew (1928), critiques Gandhi for suggesting that he, O’Dwyer, had sought to suppress political consciousness among Indians. Whether Udham—and the HSRA revolutionaries—knew or even cared is an interesting consideration.  But there is another point of intersection, one which often escapes the attention of commentators.  Whatever his distaste for violence, and his principled repudiation of acts of political sabotage and assassination, Gandhi was adamant that the colonial state was never to be permitted to cast political acts as common crimes.  Gandhi abjured the methods adopted by the HSRA, and even more so the rank opportunism of someone such as Vinayak Savarkar, but he recognized the political nature of their acts.  It is this outlook which shaped even his relationship to Savarkar, whose tendency to political chicanery and encouragement of violence among others Gandhi deplored even as he saw it fit to state that Savarkar deserved attention as a political offender.  Udham, one hopes, would have seen in Gandhi a supporter of his own adamant repudiation of the colonial attempt to cast him as a common criminal, as this exchange in the film between the prosecutor and Udham shows:

            Udham:  I was in jail for four years [1927-31].  But not for a crime.

            Prosecutor:  Why on earth would anyone be in prison for four years if they

                        had not committed a crime?

            Udham:  No, no, no crime.  I was fighting – fighting for freedom . . .

(to be continued)

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