Part I of 3 parts of Udham Singh: A Colonial Massacre and the Birth of a ‘Revolutionary’
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.
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.
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.’
(to be continued)