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Udham Singh, The Patient Assassin

April 13, 2022
by the gentle author

A few tickets are left for my tours this weekend:

Udham Singh

On this day, we remember the victims of the mass shooting of 13th April 1919 at Jallianwala Bagh, known as the Amritsar Massacre, in which between four hundred (low estimate) and fifteen hundred (high estimate) were shot by British soldiers at the instruction of Sir Michael O’Dwyer, Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab.

Although this event of a century ago might appear remote, there is a direct connection with Spitalfields because Udham Singh, who survived the massacre as a child, came to London in the thirties and lodged in Artillery Passage before taking action in 1940 to avenge the atrocity.

Udham Singh is widely remembered in his home country but in here in Spitalfields, and indeed throughout Britain, he almost unknown. In common with many figures of such renown, myths have grown up around Udham Singh, fuelled by multiple films and representations in popular culture, yet his story is real and this is how I understand it.

During World War I, a significant number of Indian soldiers fought for Britain. Yet British rulers were increasingly concerned by anti-colonial activities, in particular by the pro-independence Ghadar party, and they recognised a need to suppress them.

On 13th April 1919, over twenty thousand unarmed people were assembled at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, to celebrate the sikh festival of Baisakhi. At the instruction of Sir Michael O’Dwyer, Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, soldiers were sent under the command of Brigadier General Reginald Dyer and they shot the crowd of men, women and children, indiscriminately.

Udham Singh was an orphan of seven years old and he claimed to have been present serving water to the picnicking crowd, witnessing the massacre and receiving a bullet wound in his arm. Although this was contested by the British authorities for lack of proof, what is certain is that he joined Ghadar party in response to the events of that day and made it his life’s purpose to seek revenge.

The Amritsar Massacre was a turning point that led moderate Indians to turn against British rule and was one of the darkest moments in the history of the British in India, but Rudyard Kipling justified it. In 1927, at the death of Brigadier General Reginald Dyer – known as the Butcher of Amritsar – who ordered the soldiers to shoot at the crowd in the park, Kipling wrote, ‘He did his duty as he saw it.’

Udham Singh came to London in 1934, aged twenty-two, and led a transient existence. He told Scotland Yard he lived at Nayyar’s warehouse, 30 Back Church Lane, Whitechapel, and 4 Duke St, Spitalfields, yet he was registered on the electoral roll at 4 Crispin St where he shared with thirteen pedlars. Another pedlar believed he lived with them in Adler St, Aldgate, as well as at 15 Artillery Passage.

On 13th March 1940, Sir Michael O’Dwyer gave a speech at the Caxton Hall to a meeting of the East India Association and the Central Asian Society. Udham Singh attended, carrying a book in which he had cut out the pages to conceal a gun and, at the end of the meeting, he shot O’Dwyer twice, killing him.

After a hunger strike and force-feeding at Brixton Prison, Udham Singh came to trial on 4th June at the Old Bailey where he explained his motive eloquently, ‘I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it. He was the real culprit. He wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him. For full twenty-one years, I have been trying to seek vengeance. I am happy that I have done the job. I am not scared of death. I am dying for my country. I have seen my people starving in India under the British rule. I have protested against this, it was my duty.’

After being declared guilty, Udham Singh made a speech which the judge ruled could not be made public and that was not published until 1996, in which Singh declared, ‘I say down with British Imperialism. You say India do not have peace. We have only slavery. Generations of so-called civilisation has brought us everything filthy and degenerating known to the human race. All you have to do is read your own history.’

On 31st July, Udham Singh was executed by hanging at Pentonville Prison. In 1974, his remains were exhumed and repatriated to India where they were received by Indira Gandhi and today he is revered as a martyr in his homeland.

I learnt of the presence of Udham Singh in Spitalfields from Parkash Kaur who lives on the Holland Estate beside Petticoat Lane. Suresh Singh, author of A Modest Living, Memoirs of a Cockney Sikh, introduced me to Parkash who told me how she ran the first sikh grocers in the East End with her late husband Jarnail Singh at 5 Artillery Passage.

She recalled Suresh’s father Joginder who came to London in 1947 and became a close friend of her husband, saying ‘They often spoke of the assassin Udham Singh who lodged in 15 Artillery Passage in the thirties.’

Udham Singh lodged on the first floor at 15 Artillery Passage in the thirties

Jarnail Singh outside his grocery shop at 5 Artillery Passage

Portrait of Parkash Kaur by Sarah Ainslie

You may also like to read about

Parkash Kaur, Shopkeeper

Joginder Singh, Shoemaker

5 Responses leave one →
  1. April 13, 2022

    Thank you for reminding us of the Amritsar Massacre, dear G.A. All nations have a strong tendency to forget shameful episodes of their history.

  2. Adele Lester permalink
    April 13, 2022

    I admit to never having heard of this atrocity. Hopefully it is now included in the British history books.

  3. Russell Metz permalink
    April 13, 2022

    Excellent history lesson. Thank you.

  4. Mary permalink
    April 13, 2022

    Speaking as a white British woman I hang my head in shame and revulsion at British colonial history.
    Udham Singh is a hero in my opinion, but until I read this blog I had never heard of him. Thankfully this week the Secretary of State for Education has stated that there will be far more education in global history in the school curriculum. Perhaps Udham Singh will finally get the recognition he deserves.

  5. Giuseppe Marini permalink
    April 14, 2022

    Nessun popolo al mondo (nemmeno il mio) è esente da atrocità commesse. Ma un popolo è grande quando le riconosce e promette di non ripeterle. Anche per questo amo il vostro Paese. Grazie al Gentile Autore per averci fatto tutti riflettere, e grazie a Maria che ci ricorda quanto l’istruzione e la Scuola siano fondamentali.

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