Shaheed Udham Singh is best known for assassinating Michael O’Dwyer, the former lieutenant governor of Punjab in India, on 13 March 1940 in London.
He is also referred to as Shaheed-i-Azam (“the great martyr”) Sardar Udham Singh.
He was born as Sher Singh on 26 December 1899 into a Kamboj Sikh family at Sunam, Sangrur district of Punjab, India.
After his father’s death, Singh and his elder brother, Mukta Singh, were taken in by the Central Khalsa Orphanage Putlighar in Amritsar. At the orphanage, Singh was administered the Sikh initiatory rites and received the name of Udham Singh.
On 13 April, at Jallianwala Bagh, Udham Singh and his friends from the orphanage were serving water to the crowd. He escaped, but there were deep emotional scars left in his heart that could only heal from revenge.
Udham Singh was deeply influenced by Bhagat Singh and his revolutionary group. In 1924, he became involved with the Ghadar Party in search of more comrades.
In 1927, he returned to India on orders from Bhagat Singh, bringing 25 associates as well as revolvers and ammunition. However, he was arrested and jailed for four years for possession of illegal arms and running the Ghadr Party’s publication, Ghadr di Gunj.
After he was released from prison in 1931, he made his way to Kashmir and escaped to Germany. In 1934, he reached London, where he found employment as an engineer. Privately, he formed plans to assassinate Michael O’Dwyer.
On 13 March 1940, Michael O’Dwyer was scheduled to speak at a joint meeting of the East India Association and the Central Asian Society at Caxton Hall, London.
As the meeting concluded, Singh shot O’Dwyer twice as he moved towards the speaking platform. One of these bullets passed through O’Dwyer’s heart and right lung, killing him almost instantly
He was arrested immediately and tried for the killing. While in custody, he called himself “Ram Mohammad Singh Azad”: the first three words of the name reflect the three major religious communities of Punjab (Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh), the last word “azad” (literally “free”) reflects his anti-colonial sentiment.
At his trial, Singh told the court:
“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 21 years, I have been trying to wreak 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. What a greater honour could be bestowed on me than death for the sake of my motherland?”
While awaiting his trial, Singh went on a 42-day hunger strike and was force fed. On 31 July 1940, he was hanged at Pentonville Prison.
Gandhi had famously decried Singh’s revenge as an “act of insanity”.
In March 1940, Jawahar Lal Nehru, condemned the action of Singh as senseless, however, in 1962, Nehru reversed his stance and applauded Singh with the following published statement: “I salute Shaheed-i-Azam Udham Singh with reverence who had kissed the noose so that we may be free.”
Singh’s defence lawyer was the V.K. Krishna Menon, who later became defence minister of independent India, but he too did little to save him.
Singh’s weapon, a knife, a diary and a bullet from shooting are kept in Black Museum, Scotland Yard. The remains of Udham Singh are preserved at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar.
Shaheed Udham Singh’s ashes reunited with that of fellow martyrs Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev as their too were scattered in the Sutlej River.
A district (Udham Singh Nagar) of Uttarakhand was named after him to pay homage in October 1995 by the then Mayawati government.