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Reinterpreting Shaheed Udham Singh

This essay tells the story of the martyr Udham Singh, revolutionary and member of the Ghadr Party.


Reinterpreting Shaheed Udham Singh

Navtej Singh

This essay tells the story of the martyr Udham Singh, revolutionary and member of the Ghadr Party.

uch has been written about Udham Singh both at the popular and academic level. Both types of writings about him so far present him as a hero who had avenged the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. To prove this the writers mention that he himself was present in the Bagh or had come there after the shooting as a volunteer from a Sikh orphanage to look after the dead and wounded, and that he was deeply disturbed by the ugly scenes and had taken a vow to take revenge on O’Dwyer. These writings which establish his presence at the scene are made on the basis of one statement in one book. But they suffer from distortion.

The above thesis fails to provide answers to a lot of questions. Firstly, if Udham Singh wanted to take revenge only on O’Dwyer, why did he shoot at Zetland, Lamington and Louis Dane? Secondly, after his arrest at Caxton Hall the police recovered from his pocket a diary from 1940 and another dated for the year 1939 from his room. Both the diaries had addresses of Zetland and Wellington besides O’Dwyer, why? Thirdly, why did he wait for so long to kill O’Dwyer, though he was in England continuously from the end of 1933 onward or even before that during 1920 to 1927 when he had travelled the world over? Fourthly, when in July 1927 he arrived in India from the US with ammunition and revolvers to raise a revolt against the British and was arrested the next month, was there a plan to assassinate O’Dwyer? Besides these questions the writers have also misstated some facts and

Economic & Political Weekly december 1, 2007


events especially about his name, date and place of his birth, etc. Many published writings have created confusion and have lacked perspective. An English writer has gone even to the extent of claiming that Udham Singh was a double agent of both the British and the German secret services. Therefore, it is desirable to reach for the truth.

Udham Singh was born on December 26, 1899 at Mohalla Pilbad, Sunam, in a poor Kambo family. His childhood name was Sher Singh. His father’s name was Tehal Singh and mother’s Harnam Kaur. He had an elder brother, Sadhu Singh. Tehal Singh performed odd jobs of selling vegetables, worked as a domestic servant or a chowkidar, as Harnam Kaur died leaving behind her husband and two infant children. After some time Tehal Singh decided to quit the odd jobs and took the children to Amritsar in order to inculcate them with religious education. On the way he became seriously ill and died at Amritsar. At this time the orphaned brothers were only eight and six years old. The children were admitted in the central Sikh orphanage, Putligarh in 1907. In the register Udham Singh’s name was mentioned as Sher Singh.


In the orphanage Udham Singh and his brother were given lessons in Sikh religion and history. This was the initial influence on them. The children learnt handicraft and had elementary education. Unfortunately, the elder brother died after some years. Tragedy after tragedy resulted in Udham Singh becoming a serious but thoughtful and helpful person. There is no evidence to show when Udham Singh left the orphanage but it is on record that in 1918 he was working as a carpenter or motor-mechanic in Mombasa or Mesopotamia. He came back to India in June 1919 and after staying for some time went to British East Africa to work in railway workshops in Uganda. He returned in 1922 and opened a shop in Amritsar. It appears that he came in contact with the revolutionaries of the Ghadr Party at Nairobi. This shop had become the centre for revolutionary activities.

Before leaving for Africa he had met nationalists and revolutionaries such as Saifuddin Kitchlew, Sardar Ajit Singh, Sardar Basant Singh, Baba Bhag Singh and Master Mota Singh. He knew fully about the Ghadr Party of Kartar Singh Sarabha, the Jallianwala Bagh episode, ‘siropa’ given to Dyer and the Nankana Sahib tragedy had affected him deeply. He worked also for some time among the Babbar Akalis. He got interested in the literature of the Ghadr Party and in the beginning of 1924 he went to America and became an active member of the Ghadr Party. He helped illegal Punjabi migrants to reach America from Mexico and thus brought them under the influence of the Ghadr Party. It appears that with the help of the Ghadr Party he established his link with Bhagat Singh. In America, besides serving in San Francisco, Udham Singh worked for some time in Chicago and Detroit. He also organised his separate ‘Azad Party’, an offshoot of the Ghadr Party.

From the Us he visited France, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, Lithuania, Hungary and Italy. He established contacts with Ghadr Party revolutionaries in Iran, Italy, Afghanistan, Germany, Panama, Mexico, Canada, US, Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Burma and Singapore. Bhagat Singh knew about his activities and was impressed by him. In July 1927 Udham Singh delivered revolvers, ammunition and currency to Bhagat Singh and members of the Ghadr Party. It appears that the workers of the Ghadr Party were under the influence of Bhagat Singh’s ideology and both were working together.

Udham Singh was arrested by the police in August 1927 at Amritsar, who recovered two revolvers from his possession. At the time of his arrest Udham Singh announced that he had come from America with ammunition to overthrow the British in India. He showed sympathy with the Bolsheviks. In the police FIR his name is given as Sher Singh. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment on charges of revolt and conspiracy. In prison he was active in influencing other prisoners, for which he was not only shifted from time to time to various prisons but was flogged many times.

He was distraught at Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom on March 23, 1931. Later he wrote about his thoughts on the same in letters from Brixton prison, London, in 1940 where he suggested that the revolutionary movement had failed after Bhagat Singh’s

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december 1, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly


untimely death. In the last months of 1931 he was released from the prison. He obtained a passport from Lahore in the name of Udham Singh and reached England by the end of 1933. In the previous passport his name was Sher Singh. In the Ghadr Directory of 1934 prepared by the police, his name was given as Sher Singh. It was only in 1937 that the police found that Sher Singh of the Ghadr Party had renamed himself as Udham Singh. In England he came in contact with some Punjabis in the gurdwara of London; among whom Shiv Singh Touhl became his close friend. During 1934 to 1938 he visited many European countries. During his stay in England he worked in various capa cities. Though he was under police surveillance after 1937, he did not stay at one place for long and normally sought lodgings in the houses of the Europeans.

After the second world war had begun, the Ghadr Party took the view that the time had come for a revolt and for overthrowing of British rule from India. Udham Singh was in search of such an opportunity. On March 13, 1940 at Caxton Hall there was a meeting of British imperialists who were making suggestions to the govern ment how to maintain its control over the colonies such as India. After the meeting Udham Singh shot dead O’Dwyer and wounded Zetland, Lamington and Dane. The address of Wellington (along with the addresses of O’Dwyer and Zetland) in both the diaries of 1939 and 1940 proved that he wanted to kill Wellington because he was the viceroy at the time of martyrdom of Bhagat Singh. Zetland was the secretary of state for India at that time and the Ghadr Party was of the view that India was pushed to the war against her wishes.

Tracking O’Dwyer

As far as O’Dwyer was concerned, Udham Singh was keeping an eye on him for the previous 20 years. He was not only responsible for the deaths of many Ghadr Party revolutionaries but also for their torture and long imprisonment in far-off places. O’Dwyer was also held responsible for forcible recruitment of people from rural Punjab into the British army, many of whom were used as cannon fodder in the first world war. Udham Singh held

Economic & Political Weekly december 1, 2007

O’Dwyer responsible for the repression of Punjabi village society. Jallianwala Bagh shooting, martial law repression were also events which were O’Dwyer directed. O’Dwyer had not stopped there but he remained committed to the policy of ruling India with an “iron hand”. In the meeting at Caxton Hall he had made fun of the Indian people and thus had become a noto rious tyrant in the eyes of Udham Singh. Dane and Lamington were supporters of O’Dwyer’s thinking. In fact, Udham Singh wanted to target some Britishers connected with Indian affairs in order to begin the revolt and these officials had already earned his wrath very sincerely. Udham Singh was smiling at the time of arrest and he made a statement justifying his action:

I took my revolver from home with me to protest. In the beginning of the meeting I was standing up. I did not take the revolver to kill but just to protest. Well then when the meeting was already finished I took the revolver from my pocket and I shoot like... I think at the wall. I just shot to make the protest. I have seen people starving in India under British imperialism. I did it, the pistol went off three or four times. I am not sorry for protesting. It was my duty to do so. Just for the sake of my country to protest. I do not mind … sentence. Ten, 20 or 50 years or to be hanged. I done my duty. Actually I did not mean to take a person’s life, do you understand. I just mean protesting, you know.

Some Punjabis and a few Englishmen led by Shiv Singh assisted Udham Singh in his trial. From the prison Udham Singh wrote 14 letters to Shiv Singh, the Ghadr Party in America and to some others. He conceived a plan for his escape. The letters reflect his fearless personality, his sense of making any sort of sacrifice for the freedom of the country and his devotion to Bhagat Singh. He also undertook a hunger strike for 42 days in order to inspire the countrymen.

On June 5, 1940 at the time of his death sentence Udham Singh made a written statement in which he criticised the exploitative and violent policy of British imperialists. It ran:

I do not care about sentence of death. It means nothing at all. I do not care about dying or anything. We are suffering from the British empire. I am not afraid to die. I am proud to die. I want to help my native land, and I hope when I have gone, that, in my place will come others of my countrymen to drive the dirty dogs…You people go to India and when you come back you are given prizes and put into the House of Commons, but when we come to England we are put to death. In any case I do not care anything about it, but when you dirty dogs come to India – the intellectuals they call themselves, the rulers – they are bastard-blood caste, and they order machine guns to fire on Indian students without hesitation…I have more English friends than I have in India. I have nothing against the public. I have great sympathy with the workers of England, but I am against the dirty British government. You people are suffering the same as I am suffering through those dirty dogs and mad beasts. India is only slavery... Killing, mutilating and destroying. We know what is going on in India, people do not read about it in the papers. Hundreds of thousands of people being killed by your dirty dogs…

But the imperial structure did not spare Udham Singh, who on July 31, 1940 was martyred. Udham Singh was an active member of the Ghadr Party and a supporter of its ideology. This has been proved from the reports of the British secret service, the Ghadr Directory of 1934, the police FIR of 1927 and the inquiries of 1940. His statement in the court cited above was deeply influenced by the Ghadr ideology. The secret service reports and reports of the home ministry proved that he was not a member of any secret service of any country but a Ghadr Party worker who felt it was time to revolt against the British. The act of Udham Singh was the beginning of the revolt. It is necessary to mention that during his long revolutionary tenure Udham Singh was called by many names including Ude Singh, Udham Singh, Frank Brajil, U S Sidhu Singh, his highness prince U S Sidhu and Mohamed Singh Azad. But he was certainly not Ram Mohamed Singh Azad.

Mohamed Singh Azad was tattooed on one of his arms and it was his last name. He was not only against slavery, exploitation and repression but he had the ability to challenge such inhuman activities. It was because of his character that he could raise his arm in the British court to say: “Long Live Revolution”, “Down with British Imperialism”, and “Long Live India” and in doing so he not only carried forward the revolutionary tradition of Punjab but became immortal in the history of humanity.

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