Jallianwala Bagh and the solitude of revenge
A scene from Sardar Udham
WHAT’S IN A STATUE? Everything, I said to myself, as I chanced upon a road sign pointing to “Udham Singh Nagar” as I was making my way down to Delhi from Jim Corbett National Park one winter afternoon in 2009. My instinct told me that Udham Singh Nagar was almost certainly named after Udham Singh and that a statue of the revolutionary, best known for carrying out the political assassination of a retired British administrator in 1940, was very likely going to be found in the town centre. Indeed, asking the driver to take the slight diversion, we came upon the statue of Udham Singh soon enough. It was surrounded by fruit vendors; upon my asking some of them, and the customers, if they knew whose statue it was, I was met with blank stares. People seemed puzzled at my interest in it; one man was snoozing by its base, while others took refuge under the roof top over the statue from the glaring sun. One cheeky fellow remarked that I seemed educated and I had only to read the plaque to become enlightened.
The Austrian essayist and crafter of the modernist novel, Robert Musil, wrote rather presciently that “the most striking feature of monuments is that you do not notice them. There is nothing in the world as invisible as a monument. Like a drop of water on an oilskin, attention runs down them without stopping for a moment.” It is extraordinary that statues are everywhere around us and we are generally quite oblivious of them, except perhaps to remember them as landmarks or when giving directions. Around the statue of Udham Singh, in a town named after him, no one appeared to know who he was. Yet it was unmistakably him, even if there had been no plaque identifying him: cleanshaven, suited and booted, a pistol in his extended right hand. Someone not familiar with the iconography of India’s modern martyrs may have mistaken him perhaps for Bhagat Singh, but the younger revolutionary who was Udham Singh’s idol sports a trilby that sits at a slight angle on his head and he is never shown with a revolver. As is true of most statues, it was evidently in need of a thorough washing; in the few minutes that I was there, a few pigeons landed on it and dropped their poop. Whether the statues are of Gandhi or Bhagat Singh, Lenin or Lincoln, war criminals or generals, swindlers or saints, pigeons treat them all alike. So, perhaps, there is nothing to statues. But nevertheless there is, as shall be seen, many a tale that hangs on an Udham Singh statue.
Sardar Udham is curiously both an ambitious film that is lured by the idea of the epic and at the same time marred by a profound unself-reflexivity and insularity that also characterised Udham’s own life. To say this much is already to invite the wrath of those who have canonised Udham as a great shaheed, but the film inadvertently furnishes grounds for taking the view that however courageous Udham may have been, he worked with a very limited if not impoverished conception of ‘revolution’
IT WAS THE late afternoon of April 13th, 1919. Spring was in the air; so too was dissent. Amritsar had for the last few days been seething with unrest as the nationalist agitation gathered strength and on April 11th, an elderly Englishwoman, Miss Marcella Sherwood, was badly beaten before being taken to safety by some Indians. As EM Forster once astutely remarked, the phrase “women and children” makes the Englishman feel sanctimonious and is enough warrant to provoke him to righteous fury. Amritsar and most of the Punjab were placed under martial law and the commanding officer at Amritsar, Brigadier-General Reginald EH Dyer, imposed Section 144 which prohibited unlawful assemblies. People from neighbouring towns and villages were still pouring into the city and the 13th was the first day of Baisakhi. Perhaps as many as 20,000 people had gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh, in adamant defiance, as Dyer was to explain later, of his orders. Commanding a regiment of 50 Gurkha and Baluchi riflemen, Dyer appeared at the walled enclosure of the bagh and ordered firing without warning upon the unarmed crowd. Dyer was not constrained by any conception of “the innocents”: men, women and children were all fair game. The firing stopped only when the troops ran out of ammunition. At least 379 people died that day; another 1,000 or more were wounded.
Udham Singh, born in Sunam in the Sangrur district of Punjab on December 26th, 1899, was not all of 20 when the Amritsar massacre took place. Sardar Udham, Shoojit Sircar’s just released lengthy biopic, tells his tale, or rather the story of his singleminded resolve to avenge the massacre. The film is but one of many recent attempts to install the “revolutionary” who carried out the assassination of Sir Michael O’Dwyer 21 years after the massacre and paid for it with his life at the centre of our political imagination, but it also invites our attention with the claim that “it is based on true events”.Udham Singh was in Amritsar that fateful night, according to the film, but had fortuitously skipped the meeting at the bagh. Though the film naturally does not confuse Dyer with O’Dwyer, a common enough confusion on the part of many, there appears to be some evidence that Udham did confuse the two Irishmen at least on some occasions. O’Dwyer was then the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab and, as the film makes amply clear, he was consistently supportive of the action that Dyer took that day. Udham was poorly educated and it is not clear what he knew of O’Dwyer; strikingly, neither the film nor any scholar who has worked on Udham Singh has put forward an explanation as to why he from the outset planned to kill O’Dwyer rather than Dyer. It may be said that the choice had serendipitously been made for Udham: the butcher of Amritsar, as Dyer came to be known, died of arteriosclerosis in 1927 after a long illness. Now there remained O’Dwyer, perhaps the more malignant architect of an “episode” that Winston Churchill denounced, not without some pomposity, as “without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire… an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.”
It may be that, in Shoojit Sircar’s own view, some of Udham’s movements do not quite add up to the main narrative, but their omission from his film points perhaps to Udham’s provincialism and certainly to the filmmaker’s own inability to comprehend the place of the wider Indian diaspora in the making of Udham Singh. The film is silent on Udham’s intriguing years in Africa where the young political rebel could conceivably have developed a keener sense of the solidarity of the working class
Sardar Udham is curiously both an ambitious film that is lured by the idea of the epic and at the same time marred by a profound unself-reflexivity and insularity that also characterised Udham’s own life. To say this much is already to invite the wrath of those who have canonised Udham as a great shaheed, a worthy addition to the country’s gallery of martyrs, but the film inadvertently furnishes grounds for taking the view that however courageous Udham may have been, he worked with a very limited if not impoverished conception of “revolution”. The film does not purport to be a full-length biography, but it is tempted into being one. The viewer acquires no knowledge of his life before the massacre, except for the fleeting remarks shared between police officers about his childhood at an orphanage after the loss of both his parents at an early age. The film commences in 1931, when Udham was released after four years in jail after being caught with a cache of arms and prohibited political literature which led to his conviction under the Arms Act. We see Udham moving from one country to another, assuming aliases, taking up jobs in which he had little interest but which apparently allowed him time to foment his plan to assassinate O’Dwyer. Udham worked in various factories, as a peddler and as a lingerie salesman, and even as an extra on a film set. Throughout his adult life, the film suggests, Udham remained laser-focused on his objective just as Bhagat Singh remained his idol. Whatever the vicissitudes and setbacks of life, Udham never lost sight of the objective he had set for himself, and similarly it is the teachings and memory of Bhagat Singh that animated him. Just why it took him more than 20 years after the massacre, and some seven years after his arrival in England, to snuff out O’Dwyer’s life remains something of a mystery. But what is even more striking is that Udham does not appear to grow very much in these years: he was never a very lettered man to begin with, and where Bhagat Singh was to the end of his young life—he was sent to the gallows at the age of 23 in 1931—a voracious reader, Udham does not seem to have had any attachment to books. The only book that left an impression on him was Heer Ranjha, perhaps in the rendering of Waris Shah, and it is on this book that he chose to take an oath when he was put on trial for the murder of O’Dwyer.
It may be that, in Sircar’s own view, some of Udham’s movements do not quite add up to the main narrative, but their omission from his film points perhaps to Udham’s provincialism and certainly to the filmmaker’s own inability to comprehend the place of the wider Indian diaspora in the making of Udham Singh. The film is silent on Udham’s intriguing years in Africa—according to some accounts, in Nairobi, and more likely in Uganda, where Indian labour was the backbone of the railways—where the young political rebel could conceivably have developed a keener sense of the solidarity of the working class. Even more tellingly, Udham’s first long trip to the US in 1924, resulting in a long stay of three years, is omitted from the narrative. Udham is said to have become involved with the Ghadar movement in the US, but the American sojourn also netted him a wife—a Mexican woman, no less, if only because the Johnson-Reed (Immigration) Act of 1924 and other anti-Asian legislation shut out virtually all Asians from the US and compelled Indian men already in the US to take Hispanic women for their brides. The only half-decent biography of Udham by Anita Anand, The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj, furnishes more details than we have ever had of Udham’s life with Lupe Hernandez, whom he deserted, along with their two children, when he left the US in 1927. But for some time Udham would have been part of the Punjabi-Mexican community, though we can also locate him in the vortex of what the media scholar Vivek Bald has charmingly described as “Bengali Harlem”, a network of Indians who merged into Puerto Rican, Hispanic and African American communities where present-day Global South solidarities were anticipated in their own fashion. These already elusive histories do not even leave a trace in Sircar’s film.
Udham Singh’s comings and goings may suggest to some that he was a man of cosmopolitan interests or a theorist of revolution who was inspired by the idea of contributing to a worldwide upheaval of the working class, but this would be a very charitable interpretation of a peripatetic existence that remains something of an enigma. To be sure, the film hints that Udham was aware of some of the immense footprint of the British empire, and that the Irish were among those who had withered under English oppression. He was at one time even a gunrunner for the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and in one scene he tells an IRA man, “We had our Bloody Sunday”, a reference both to the Amritsar massacre and to the killings of civilians by British troops at a football match in Dublin in 1920 during the Irish War of Independence. In his broken English, Udham explains to the Irishman, “Your revolution and mine are the same. You lamb, I lamb: the butcher the same.” But there is no hint that, in 20 years of this itinerant living, Udham derived a keener understanding of the struggle in India, or that he arrived at fresh insights after his interactions with the working class and communist political activists in Africa, Europe and the US. Udham’s links to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) were largely through Bhagat Singh, though the precise historical record of their association is tenuous at best, and even Udham’s activities as an HSRA member were quite limited. He seems in the film to go in and out of shadowy meetings with self-styled revolutionaries in Moscow and London, and there is much talk of “revolution”, but slogans do not make a revolution. Indians, VS Naipaul would have said with his characteristic cynicism, are exceedingly good at shouting and sometimes coining slogans; but what is the more surprising thing is how many academics have been taken in by stories of the gallantry of HSRA, which was as much of a sloganmaking factory as it was a bombmaking workshop.
When Udham walked into Caxton Hall on March 13th, 1940 with the intention of eliminating O’Dwyer, he carried with him an identity card that bore the name ‘Mohamed Singh Azad’. Popular tradition has improved upon historical fact and rendered the name, as does Sardar Udham, as ‘Ram Mohamed Singh Azad’
“Let the world know,” Udham says to Detective Inspector John Swain at their last meeting before he goes to the gallows, “that I was a revolutionary.” We are no wiser at the end of this film than we were at the beginning as to what is a revolutionary. It is doubtful that Udham knew, but the one man who had reflected for decades on these matters, on political upheaval, violence and the radical transformation of society, was Mohandas Gandhi. We do not need the life of Udham Singh to write about Gandhi; however, it is impossible to engage with either Bhagat Singh or Udham Singh except against the backdrop of Gandhi, who absolutely dominated the political scene and whose presence was inescapable to anyone who sought to enter politics. One would not know this from watching the film, where Gandhi is mentioned but once, and from which the innocent viewer might walk away with the impression that freedom from colonial rule was wrought by a bunch of young boys and some girls wielding countrymade guns and shouting themselves hoarse with the slogan “Inquilab zindabad” (Long Live Revolution). The martyr’s supporters, no doubt, have little time to spare for Gandhi, who was as usual forthright and uncompromising in his denunciation of the assassination of O’Dwyer and the injuries inflicted on Lord Zetland (Secretary of State for India) and two other English politicians as an act of “insanity” which had caused him “deep pain”. While expressing his condolences to “the deceased’s family’,” Gandhi noted that “such acts have been proved to be injurious to the causes for which they are committed” (Statement to the Press, March 14th, 1940). Unlike the enterprising and brilliant if self-serving VK Krishna Menon, who at first unequivocally repudiated Udham’s act as “abhorrent” but then engineered his appointment as junior counsel for the defence of Udham once he saw the enthusiasm with which expatriate Indians as well as Indians at home were willing to embrace the assassin, Gandhi remained consistent in adhering to the view that his differences with O’Dwyer and Zetland alike did not permit him to condone murder or an act of insanity. Writing a few days after the death of O’Dwyer, Gandhi described it as incumbent on the exponent of nonviolence to “make every Englishman feel that he is as safe in our midst as he is in his own home. It fills me with shame and sorrow that for some time at least every Indian face in London will be suspect” (Harijan, March 23rd, 1940).
What Sardar Udham misses, in common with nearly every film that has ever been made on Bhagat Singh, HSRA and Udham Singh, is the opportunity to cast the relationship between these revolutionaries and Gandhi as something other than purely adversarial. It is Gandhi who was the principal author of the Congress Committee Report on the Punjab Disturbances, an extraordinary retort to the official Hunter Commission and a devastating indictment not only of the colonial machinery of repression but specifically of the culture of violence bred by both O’Dwyer and Dyer. O’Dwyer knew of Gandhi’s role in the making of the Congress report, and there is a point in the film where O’Dwyer, shown promoting his book, The India That I Knew (1928), critiques Gandhi for suggesting that he, O’Dwyer, had sought to suppress political consciousness among Indians. Whether Udham—and the HSRA revolutionaries—knew or even cared is an interesting consideration. But there is another point of intersection, one which often escapes the attention of commentators. Whatever his distaste for violence, and his principled repudiation of acts of political sabotage and assassination, Gandhi was adamant that the colonial state was never to be permitted to cast political acts as common crimes. Gandhi abjured the methods adopted by HSRA, and even more so the rank opportunism of someone such as Vinayak Savarkar, but he recognised the political nature of their acts. It is this outlook which shaped even his relationship with Savarkar, whose tendency to political chicanery and encouragement of violence among others Gandhi deplored even as he saw it fit to state that Savarkar deserved attention as a political offender. Udham, one hopes, would have seen in Gandhi a supporter of his own adamant repudiation of the colonial attempt to cast him as a common criminal, as this exchange in the film between the prosecutor and Udham shows:
Udham: I was in jail for four years [1927-31]. But not for a crime.
Prosecutor: Why on earth would anyone be in prison for four years if they had not committed a crime?
Udham: No, no, no crime. I was fighting—fighting for freedom…
What is most remarkable is just how mobile Udham could be, transgressing borders with relative ease. Against this mobility is the indubitable fact of the immobility of the thousands who were trapped in the walled enclosure known as Jallianwala Bagh. In what is the film’s darkest and chilling moment, Udham crawls over the wall of the Bagh later in the evening and stumbles upon mounds of the dead and the wounded
Sardar Udham is not, then, a film without its insights. Anti-colonial cinema in India has been prone to cast English officials such as O’Dwyer, or the officials who appear in Lagaan: Once upon a Time in India (2001), as wooden characters. It is immaterial that, even in a film claiming to be based on “true events”, Udham is shown—in the absence of supportive historical evidence—as having ingratiated himself into O’Dwyer’s good graces and found employment at his home, but this licence permits the viewer to be privy to exchanges between the two which furnish a few clues to some peculiarities of the colonial sensibility. The British in India saw themselves as a transcendent force for the good, custodians of law and order, firm adherents of the rule of law, and as exemplars of the idea of fair play whose keen sense of justice won them the goodwill of ordinary Indians. To the end of his life, O’Dwyer—a more critical character than the immediate perpetrator of the massacre since as the administrator of the Punjab he was responsible for shaping the policy in that province—persisted in holding to the view that it was the educated who had instigated the common folk of the Punjab to rebellion and that the yeomen peasantry could not be aroused to political consciousness except through the machinations of the Indian political elite. Both O’Dwyer and Dyer remained wholly unrepentant, firm in their belief that the Amritsar shooting was a military necessity and a deterrent that alone could prevent India from erupting into rebellion as in 1857. If, at the end of it all, there is not much else that one can divine from the filmmaker’s attempt to enter into O’Dwyer’s frame of mind, it is largely because Michael O’Dwyer, as his memoir amply demonstrates, was a man of singular mediocrity.
Amidst the humdrum life of Michael O’Dwyer and the peregrinations of Udham Singh, there are two moments of cinematic illumination which set up what is the fundamental story of modern times, that is, the dialectic of motion and stillness, the mobile and the immobile. When Udham walked into Caxton Hall on March 13th, 1940 with the intention of eliminating O’Dwyer, he carried with him an identity card that bore the name “Mohamed Singh Azad”. Popular tradition has improved upon historical fact and rendered the name, as does Sardar Udham, as “Ram Mohamed Singh Azad”. What does this signify, asks a senior British official, to which Inspector John Swain somewhat haltingly replies: “Sir, this name signifies the religious unity of India.” Udham’s acolytes hold this up, quite reasonably, as an illustration of their shaheed’s secular credentials, but this gesture, even as it anticipates the theatrics of Amar Akbar Anthony by a generation, is somewhat predictable. Far more arresting is the fact that Udham assumed multiple aliases, traveling incognito with passports in the names of Sher Singh, Ude Singh, Udham Singh and Frank Brazil. We moderns like to think of ourselves as living in a (to use that dreadful cliché) global village, but ours is an era not only of passport control but draconian surveillance regimes. The passport itself is a relatively modern invention just as the nation-state is the ghetto from which we cannot escape. What is most remarkable is just how mobile Udham could be, transgressing borders with relative ease. Against this mobility is the indubitable fact of the immobility of the thousands who were trapped in the walled enclosure known as Jallianwala Bagh. Some could run, but only a few metres before running into the bagh’s outer wall or being mowed down by the deadly hail of fire. Many others could not run at all; hundreds were trampled under in the ensuing stampede. In what is the film’s darkest and chilling moment, Udham crawls over the wall of the bagh later in the evening and stumbles upon mounds of the dead and the wounded. In an extended sequence lasting over 15 minutes, he leaves with the wounded and repeatedly returns to take them to safety: in the stillness of the night, there are at most the faint moans of the wounded. It is Ghalib, writing on Delhi as a desolate city of the dead after the British had reduced Hindustan’s first city to abject submission, that comes to mind: 1857 redux, precisely what the two henchmen of the Raj thought they were averting.
In Sunam, Udham Singh’s birthplace, the viewer is confronted with the bizarre fact of two statues of him, installed in the same year, that stand cheek by jowl. One depicts him as a Khalsa Sikh, with unshorn hair and a beard; the other shows a cleanshaven man, recognisable from most of the pictures of Udham Singh that circulated in the public realm in the immediate aftermath of the assassination and in the following two to three decades
THE JALLIANWALA BAGH Memorial has been mired in controversy since the present Government sought to transform it over the last several years into what they call a “world-class” tourist site. Though Amritsar has a statue of Udham Singh that was installed in 1990, a large new statue of Udham Singh, which though sponsored by the Kamboj community to which he belonged can also be seen as part of the renovation initiative, was put up in 2018 just outside the memorial complex. The statue from 1990 shows Udham as a turbaned and bearded Sikh, holding a revolver in his right hand. The sculptor was, one could say, attempting to capture a likeness of the man in the act of shooting Michael O’Dwyer; on the other hand, Udham was neither bearded nor turbaned when he carried out the fateful act. Indeed, in the preceding six years that he lived in England, he abjured the external signs that identify the Sikh male. The new statue has been mired in controversy: some have objected to the loose and ill-fitting turban that sits atop Udham’s head, while others cavil that his outstretched right hand is sans revolver. The Government of India is said to have objected to a revolver in one hand, saying that it would “send a wrong message”, especially to the young; the clod of earth in the palm of his right hand is supposed to represent the soil of Jallianwala Bagh now sanctified by the blood of the hundreds who were martyred. However, to understand what is at the heart of the controversy, one can do no better than to turn to Sunam, Udham Singh’s birthplace, where the viewer is confronted with the bizarre fact of two statues of him, installed in the same year, that stand cheek by jowl. One depicts him as a Khalsa Sikh, with unshorn hair and a beard; the other shows a cleanshaven man, recognisable from most of the pictures of Udham Singh that circulated in the public realm in the immediate aftermath of the assassination and in the following two to three decades.
Though the film naturally does not confuse Reginald Dyer (right) with Michael O’Dwyer, a common enough confusion on the part of many, there appears to be some evidence that Udham did confuse the two Irishmen at least on some occasions. Udham was poorly educated and it is not clear what he knew of O’Dwyer; strikingly, neither the film nor any scholar who has worked on Udham Singh has put forward an explanation as to why he from the outset planned to kill O’Dwyer rather than Dyer. It may be said that the choice had serendipitously been made for Udham: the butcher of Amritsar, as Dyer came to be known, died of arteriosclerosis in 1927 after a long illness
There is little if anything to suggest that Udham Singh was an observant Sikh, much less someone who swore by a Khalsa Sikh identity. Many contemporary public commentators have expressed alarm at the propensity of the present Government to appropriate the most renowned figures of the freedom struggle, including figures such as Bhagat Singh who was an avowed atheist, but the apotheosis of Udham Singh (and Bhagat Singh, for that matter) into a Khalsa Sikh is not any less troubling. It is unlikely that these controversies will die down anytime soon. The functionaries of the state and the middle class in India have agreed upon a solution that deflects some of the fundamental questions and promises to satisfy the nation’s ego. This solution is captured in some of the scripted lines that appear on a dark blank screen at the end of Sircar’s film where it is solemnly declared that “More than 100 years later, India is yet to receive an official apology from the British Government for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.” An apology that has to be forced, as seems to be the case, from the British is no apology at all; an apology that may arrive when India is in the position of being a world power, if that day should arrive at all, would be nothing but a demonstration of the coercive power of the strong and an instantiation of the maxim that “might makes right”. Little do those who would like an apology know that we are in the midst of an epidemic of apologies. Some would like an apology to be accompanied by substantial financial compensation, to put some teeth into it and make it hurt. Perhaps we should think of an apology, unthinkable for the foreseeable future, which would entail the British erecting, of their own free will, a statue of Udham Singh alongside the one of Mohandas Gandhi that stands in Westminster. The pigeons, at least, will have a field day.