13/04/2019 10:26 AM IST

Hero In India, Hated In Britain: How Udham Singh Avenged Jallianwala Bagh Massacre

In 'The Patient Assassin', Anita Anand writes that the story of Udham Singh, who killed Michael O'Dwyer, is surprisingly contemporary.

NARINDER NANU via Getty Images
A portrait of Udham Singh. 

My grandfather, Ishwar Das Anand, was in the garden that day in 1919. By a quirk of fate, he left Jallianwala Bagh on an errand minutes before the firing started. He remembered Brigadier General Dyer’s convoy passing him in the street. When he returned, my grandfather found his friends, young men like him in their late teens, had been killed.

According to his children, Ishwar Das Anand suffered survivor’s guilt for the rest of his relatively short life. In his late forties, he would lose his sight, but tell his sons never to pity him: ‘God spared my life that day. It is only right that he take the light from my eyes.’ He never managed to reconcile why he had lived while so many others had not. He found it excruciatingly painful to talk about that day. He died too young. I never got the chance to know him.

The story of Jallianwala Bagh is tightly wound round my family’s DNA. Ironically, it is also woven into my husband’s family history, a fact we only realised years into our marriage. His forebears were pedlars from Punjab who came to settle in Britain in the 1930s. Bizarrely, one of them found himself living with a man named Udham Singh. The happy-go-lucky Punjabi would turn out to be the ‘Patient Assassin’ of this book, deified in India, the land of my ancestors, but largely unknown in Great Britain, the land of my birth.

Speaking to descendants of the pedlar community, which came to Britain in the early 1920s, helped me to understand their experience. They also helped to bring Udham Singh to life.

Thanks to my parents, I grew up knowing the names of Reginald Dyer and Sir Michael O’Dwyer, but of course Udham Singh loomed larger still. According to legend, he, like Ishwar Das Anand, was in the garden on the day of the massacre. Unlike my grandfather, he was not crushed by survivor’s guilt, but rather consumed by violent rage. We, like many Punjabis, were told how Udham, grabbing a clod of blood-soaked earth, squeezed it in his fist, vowing to avenge the dead. No matter how long it took him, no matter how far he would have to go, Udham would kill the men responsible for the carnage.

Twenty years later, Udham Singh would fulfil at least part of that bloody promise. He would shoot Sir Michael O’Dwyer through the heart at point-blank range in London, just a stone’s throw away from the Houses of Parliament.

The moment he pulled the trigger, he became the most hated man in Britain, a hero to his countrymen in India, and a pawn in international politics. Joseph Goebbels himself would leap upon Udham’s story and use it for Nazi propaganda at the height of the Second World War.

In India today, Udham Singh is for many simply a hero, destined to right a terrible wrong. At the other extreme, there are those who traduce him as a Walter Mitty-type fantasist, blundering his way into the history books. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between; Udham was neither a saint, nor an accidental avenger. His story is far more interesting than that.

Like a real-life Tom Ripley, Udham, a low-caste, barely literate orphan, spent the majority of his life becoming the ‘Patient Assassin’. Obsessed with avenging his countrymen and throwing out the British from his homeland, he inveigled his way into the shadowy worlds of Indian militant nationalism, Russian Bolshevism
and even found himself flirting with the Germans in the run-up to the Second World War. Anybody dedicated to the downfall of the British Empire had something to teach him, and he was hungry to learn.

Ambitious, tenacious and brave, Udham was also vain, careless and callous to those who loved him most. His footsteps have led me on a much longer, more convoluted journey than I ever anticipated. The diversity of sources and need to cross-reference hearsay has been challenging, but not the hardest thing about writing this book. I have also had to consciously distance myself from my own family history. For a while, the very names O’Dwyer and Dyer paralysed me. We had been brought up fearing them. 

Only when I thought of O’Dwyer as ‘Michael’, the ardent Irish child growing up in Tipperary, or Dyer as ‘Rex’, the sensitive boy who cried over a dead monkey he once shot by accident, could I free myself to think about them as men, and even start to understand why they did the things they did. It was the only way I could empathise with the situation they faced in 1919 and the years that followed.

The same goes for Udham Singh. He had always been one of the pantheon of freedom fighters who had fought against tyranny. I blocked out the statues and stamps dedicated to his memory in India and refused to watch any representations of his legend in popular culture till my own work was complete. I needed to find the man beneath the myth and marble, and I knew I would not be able to do that if I became dazzled. Thousands of original documents guided my way, and my search for the real Udham Singh led me to people who either had first-hand knowledge of him, or were repositories of stories from their parents and grandparents.

I found myself left with a surprisingly contemporary story, which resonates with the news I cover today. Udham’s is a story of dispossession and radicalisation, of ‘Russian interference’ and a realigning of world powers. It speaks of failures in the seemingly infallible security services. It is also the story of buried facts and ‘fake news’. I was left with a picture of one man’s very personal obsession wrongfooting some of the world’s most powerful players.

Excerpted with permission from The Patient Assassin, Anita Anand, Simon & Schuster.