The story of Udham Singh’s life makes for a most intriguing quiz question. What would your answer be to “Who was Udham Singh?” A) Revolutionary terrorist who assassinated British administrator Michael O’Dwyer in 1940 B) Motor mechanic C) Bit-part actor in British films D) All of the above.
The fact that D is the right answer testifies to the variety of roles that Udham Singh assumed with chameleon-like ease throughout his short life.
His fame, or rather infamy, rests on his killing Michael O’Dwyer, the governor of Punjab at the time of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, but the rest of Singh’s life is equally fascinating. He was a man of many parts and occupations, including appearing as a movie extra in at least two Alexander Korda productions. Udham Singh’s story is easy to piece together, yet his motivations remain as intriguing as ever.
Udham Singh was born in 1899 in Sunam in undivided Punjab. Having lost his parents early, he was brought up in an orphanage at a time when Punjab was witness to intense political ferment.
Early in the 20th century, immigrants from Punjab in the west coast of the United States of America formed the Ghadar movement to work for an armed revolution against British rule in India. Resentment and anger in Punjab, as in the rest of India, reached a peak on April 13, 1919, when troops led by Brigadier Reginald Dyer fired on unarmed protesters at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. Michael O’Dwyer was Punjab governor at the time.
The massacre galvanised a generation of youth into anti-colonial resistance. Bhagat Singh leads the roster of names, but there was Udham Singh too. He was 20 at the time, and deeply scarred by the event. A story goes that Udham Singh was serving water to thirsty crowds that very day, and the scar on his arm came from injuries he had sustained during the melee.
Singh’s involvement with armed resistance took its time to unfold. He travelled abroad for the first time in the early 1920s. He worked in East Africa as a labourer for the railway lines, and then made his way as far onto the USA. In San Francisco, he first came in contact with Ghadar members. It was here that he developed his penchant for using aliases. As British authorities later noted, he used the names Ude Singh, Sher Singh and even Frank Brazil (giving himself a Puerto Rican identity) apart from his own.
Udham Singh lived five years in various cities, including Chicago and New York City. As Frank Brazil, he intermittently travelled to Europe. It was with this pseudonym that he worked as a carpenter on a ship returning to India and made his way back to Punjab in 1927.
The movies beckon
That year, Singh was arrested for the possession of illegal weapons and the radical newspaper, Ghadr di Gunj. He was jailed for four years till 1931. Even after his release, Singh remained subject to police harassment. They suspected him of links with the Irish Republican Army and the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association of Bhagat Singh. The surveillance forced him to leave for England in 1933, using ironically, a false passport again.
Udham Singh would never return from his next trip abroad. His travels from London took him to Poland, Germany, Holland, Italy, Austria and the Soviet Union.
In London, Singh worked variously as a peddler and a carpenter, and fell in with different socialist groups. He was accused in 1938 of extortion and threat by one Syed Fazal Ali, who ran an employment agency in London. After a while, Singh found employment briefly as a signboard painter and a mechanic again. It was in London that he began appearing as an extra in Alexander Korda’s movies.
Roger Perkins, in his 1989 book, The Amritsar Legacy: From Golden Temple to Caxton Hall mentions these titles. There was Elephant Boy (1937), based on Rudyard Kipling’s Toomai and the Elephants from The Jungle Book. The film also starred Sabu, who would go on to make a name for himself in Hollywood movies of the Oriental fantasy genre. Elephant Boy was never released in India.
It was a blink-and-miss role, as was the other Korda film in which Singh played an extra. The Four Feathers (1939) is adapted from AEW Mason’s 1902 novel of the same name and set in Sudan in the late 1880s during the time of the Mahdi insurrection. British officer Harry Faversham, in repentance for an earlier cowardly act, disguises himself as a native, and heroically fights to rescue his friends.
A year later, on March 13, 1940, Udham Singh, dressed in a trilby and blue lounge suit (as per historian Yasmin Khan’s account) carried out his assassination of Michael O’Dwyer in London. The place was Caxton Hall, where O’Dwyer was a participant in a discussion on Afghanistan. O’Dwyer was killed on the spot.
During his trial, Udham Singh gave his name as Mohammad Singh Azad. He had used the alias the previous year when working as a carpenter at a military camp outside London. He was hanged in July 1940 at London’s Pentonville prison.
For a short, crowded life as Udham Singh had, some mysteries still linger. He waited for six years before he carried out his assassination – a fact commented upon in Salman Rushdie’s novel Shalimar the Clown. In the words of movie star Zainab Azam: “For every O’Dwyer there is a Shaheed Udham Singh, and for every Trotsky, a Mercador awaits.”
Nevertheless, Udham Singh’s legend has only grown. A sustained political effort was made to have his remains repatriated in the 1960s. In 1974, after a campaign by the Congress party legislator from Kapurthala, Sadhu Singh Thind, Udham Singh’s remains were exhumed from their London prison and flown to Delhi. They lay in state at Delhi’s Kapurthala house before it was driven to Sunam in Punjab, from where Singh originated.
In 1998, the Asian Dub Foundation recorded the track Assassin, based on Udham Singh, in the album Conscious Party.
In time, movies were made on him. The Punjabi film Sarfarosh: The Story of Shaheed Udham Singh appeared in 1976. In 1977 came Jallianwala Bagh, written by Gulzar and starring Parikshit Sahni as Singh. More recently in 2000, there was Shaheed Udham Singh, Alias Ram Mohammad Singh Azad, with the title role enacted by Raj Babbar. Tom Alter plays Brigadier Reginald Dyer, and Juhi Chawla and Charlene Carswell appear as a courtesan and an IRA activist respectively, who save and influence Udham Singh at different stages in his life.
In 2015, on Udham Singh’s 75th death anniversary, the Indian band Ska Vengers released the animated music video Frank Brazil, in which details of Singh’s life appear in graphic comic form.
Udham Singh’s life encapsulates, just as Bhagat Singh’s does in another way, how much a seminal event left an impressionable impact on a young man, and how reactions to such events become legends in their own way.