In 1919, British troops led by Reginald Dyer opened fire on unarmed Indian civilians at Jallianwala Bagh gardens in Amritsar, leaving hundreds dead. The lieutenant governor of Punjab at the time, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, defended the actions of his troops as necessary to prevent rebellion. More than 20 years later, in 1940, an Indian nationalist named Udham Singh shot O’Dwyer in London – citing the massacre as his motivation. After a trial, he was hanged at Pentonville prison. Anita Anand’s latest book tells the story of Singh’s quest for vengeance.
How did you first come across this globe-spanning story of murder and revenge?
My grandfather was in Amritsar on the day of the massacre, in the Jallianwala Bagh gardens. In a quirk of fate, he left minutes before the firing started, but friends of his were killed. It would be much more romantic if I said my grandfather was some great freedom fighter. But he was just a 17-year-old kid who had been sent by his dad to do a deal for some second-hand sewing machines.
Nevertheless, what happened that day destroyed my grandfather’s life in many ways – he lived with survivor’s guilt for the rest of his days. He went blind very early in life and whenever anyone tried to sympathise with him, he would say: “Don’t. God granted me my life that day, so it’s only right that he should take the light from my eyes.” That has been woven into my DNA. I was brought up to fear the names Dyer and O’Dwyer down to my bone marrow: they were like bogeymen to me.
According to legend, another young man, just a little older than my grandfather, was also in the garden that day – a man called Udham Singh. Some stories say that he was forced to stay in that garden all night as people bled out around him. He is said to have grabbed a clod of blood-soaked earth and vowed that, no matter how long it took, he was going to kill those responsible. Singh was a barely educated low-caste orphan, so this was a really big vow for him to make. As it transpired, it would take him 20 years before, one day in 1940, he would swagger into a hall in Westminster and shoot the former lieutenant-governor of Punjab through the heart at point-blank range.
Tell us more about the massacre that triggered Singh’s quest for vengeance.
The witnesses’ accounts are hideous. They report how General Reginald Dyer ordered his men to walk in and immediately open fire. There was no cover in the garden, and Dyer told his men to aim into the crowds where they were thickest. This meant that bodies piled up near the perimeter wall, as people desperately tried to escape, but couldn’t because the walls were too high. Witnesses described watching their friends and neighbours being shot like fish in a barrel. They had to endure 10 minutes of firing. Just imagine that: 10 whole minutes of sustained firing at unarmed civilians. Witnesses report that the youngest victim was six months old, one of the oldest was 80.
The incident itself was absolutely horrendous, but what happened during the long night and the days that followed was arguably just as damaging. A curfew was declared that night, and no medical aid was allowed in to those who’d been shot. Dyer also introduced restrictions intended to punish the population by humiliation. He placed a crawling order over one lane in Amritsar, meaning that everyone who needed to pass through was forced to do so on their bellies, crawling like insects.
How did the massacre impact on calls for Indian independence?
The British had fears of another mutiny like 1857, where Europeans were killed in great numbers. So at first, the official line that went out from Punjab was that Dyer had done a really important thing – he had quelled a rebellion, and stopped terrible violence from spiralling out of control.
But when stories of the massacre and the terrible humiliations that followed began to spread, it turned Indians against the British, and demands for freedom grew ever louder. This was the point when Gandhi accepted there was no chance of sharing power with the British. After Amritsar, the independence movement gathered an inexorable momentum – it simply could not be stopped.
Much of Udham Singh’s life story is shrouded in mystery and legend, but what do we know about him for sure?
Yes, even the fact of whether he was actually at the massacre is up for debate. Some insist that he was. Other accounts argue that he wasn’t there at all and have written him off as a Walter Mitty-type character who just fastened himself on to a noble cause. And it was this noble intention that eventually led him to do something which is ignoble – to murder an old man in cold blood.
But I believe in something between those two ideas. We do know that by the time of the massacre in 1919, Udham Singh was involved with the independence movement as a low-level pamphleteer. He was spreading leaflets for the non-violent resistance, extolling people to stand up for their rights, but not to hurt people. So the most banal explanation – which probably means it’s the most credible – is that he wasn’t at the massacre himself, but had probably handed out pamphlets encouraging people to turn up that day, and was haunted by guilt about having sent people to die in the garden. It was probably this that drove him to become obsessed with revenge.
Reconstructing Singh’s life after the massacre was one of the most difficult bits of investigative journalism I’ve ever taken on. We know that he worked on the east African railways, on what was called the Lunatic Line. It was here that Singh met many more disaffected Indians and got plugged into the Ghadar movement [a violent Indian revolutionary organisation]. Back home, he was just one of many faceless orphans, but in east Africa, the pool was smaller and he rose to the top.
He later headed to California, the Ghadar headquarters, where he worked as a driver and married a Mexican woman. Indian men were not allowed to own property in California, so there was a trend of Indian men marrying Mexican women, buying property in their name and then abandoning them, which is what Udham seems to have done. I always think of him as a Talented Mr Ripley sort of character. He would take anything and everything from people along the way and discard them when they were no longer useful to him.
His ultimate aim was to get to England and lie in situ as a sleeper assassin. And how did he manage that? By falling in with the Soviet Comintern organisation, which had talked openly about using Indians to spread revolution.
In many ways, Singh’s life is a classic story of radicalisation. He was a dispossessed, angry young man, and angry young men are fodder for those with greater designs. There was a great deal of international Machiavellianism going on which enabled Singh to work his way from India, through America, eastern Europe and Russia to end up committing an assassination in the heart of Westminster. I think he did it on his own cognisance, but who put the gun in his hand and who gave him the motivation to shoot? Those are interesting questions which I think are still relevant today.
Did the assassination fuel the independence movement or was it simply the fulfilment of a personal vendetta?
I don’t believe Singh was a fantasist, but he certainly had an extraordinary belief in his own importance. He hoped he would be the catalyst for a revolution; by striking at the very heart of the British establishment he wanted to inspire other Indians to rise up. The moniker he chose when he was arrested – Mohammed Singh Azad – is really important. Mohammed is a Muslim name, Singh is Sikh, and Azad means freedom. His message was crystal clear: “Just read my name and know why I did this.”
However, his actions were massively out of step with the Indian Congress leadership. Gandhi and Nehru were taking great pains to argue that Indians were not savages and could be trusted to govern themselves. So they completely washed their hands of him. But while Singh may not have sparked a revolution, the sentiment of what he did that day percolated down through Indian society, making it even more untenable for the British to stay.
How is Singh remembered in India?
After the British left India, it was almost as if there was now permission to celebrate those who used violence in the fight for freedom. Udham Singh is one of that pantheon of heroes – seen as the avenging angel for a massacre that is still pretty much an open wound in the north Indian psyche.
In the 1970s, with some unbelievably agile diplomatic footwork, Indira Gandhi got Singh disinterred from Pentonville and had him returned to India with a hero’s welcome. His body was toured around Punjab, and people lined the streets, weeping and crying out his name. His ashes were even symbolically dispersed among Hindu, Muslim and Sikh shrines. There were stamps with his face on, and there are streets in Punjab that carry his name. On Martyrs’ Day, people light candles in front of his image garlanded with marigolds. There are even Bollywood movies about him.
There have been calls for Britain to officially apologise for the Amritsar massacre. What’s your view on that?
Let me give you two distinct answers. From a dispassionate political standpoint, post-Brexit Britain will be looking to forge closer ties with places like India. The massacre remains an open wound in India’s psyche, and it would undoubtedly be helpful to make that wound less painful. David Cameron referred to what happened as “monstrous” when he visited the site back in 2013, so it’s not a great reach to say we’re sorry. It’s a small thing which I think could ease a lot of pain.
Personally however, my answer would be different. I recently met with a descendant of General Dyer. She came to my house, we talked for hours and I liked her very much. She actually asked me whether I wanted her to apologise. But I found that, when sat face-to-face with her, I didn’t, because it wasn’t for her to apologise. However it is for her to understand – and to grieve, as I do, for the innocent. Right now she feels he just did his duty. That’s hard for me to hear. To me, understanding and acceptance are more important than apologies and revenge.
A political journalist and broadcaster, Anita Anand has presented various BBC programmes including Radio 4’s Any Answers?. She is the author of Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary and Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond (with William Dalrymple). The Patient Assassin by Anita Anand (Simon & Schuster, 384 pages, £20) is on sale now
This article was first published in the May 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine