The Patient Assassin
In February 2013, David Cameron became the first serving British prime minister to visit Jallianwala Bagh, a stone’s throw from the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The dusty walled garden was the site of a brutal massacre on April 13, 1919, and for Indians at least, it has come to represent the worst excesses of the Raj. On that day a British officer, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, hearing that an illegal political meeting was due to take place, ordered his men to open fire on around twenty thousand innocent and unarmed men, women, and children. The youngest victim was a six-month-old baby, the oldest was in his eighties.
The lieutenant governor of Punjab, a man named Sir Michael O’Dwyer, not only approved of the shootings, but spent much of the rest of his life praising the action and fortitude of his brigadier general. Sir Michael’s attitude, coupled with the behavior of British soldiers in the weeks that followed, created a suppurating wound in the Indian psyche. The scar is still livid in the north of India to this day.
The number of people killed at Jallianwala Bagh has always been in dispute, with British estimates putting the dead at 379 with 1,100 wounded and Indian sources insisting that around 1,000 people were killed and more than 1,500 wounded. By Dyer’s own admission, no order to disperse was given and his soldiers fired 1,650 rounds in Jallianwala Bagh that day. He instructed them to aim into the thickest parts of the crowd, which happened to be by
the perimeter, where desperate people were trying to scale walls to escape the bullets. The configuration of the garden and the position of the troops meant civilians were trapped, much like fish in a barrel.
The bloodbath, though appalling, could have been so much worse. Dyer later admitted that he would have used machine guns too if he had been able to drive his armored cars through the narrow entrance to the Bagh. He was seeking to teach the restive province a lesson. Punctuated by bullets, his message was clear. The Raj reigned supreme. Dissent would not be tolerated. The empire crushed those who defied it.
Ninety-four years later, laying a wreath of white gerberas at the foot of the towering red stone Martyr’s Memorial in Amritsar, David Cameron bowed solemnly as India watched. In the visitors’ condolence book he wrote the following message: “This was a deeply shameful event in British history—one that Winston Churchill rightly described at the time as ‘monstrous.’ We must never forget what happened here. And in remembering we must ensure that the United Kingdom stands up for the right of peaceful protest around the world.”
Though sympathetic, Cameron’s words fell short of the apology many Indians had been hoping for. The massacre was indeed monstrous, and I have grown up with its legacy. My grandfather, Lala 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 realized years into our marriage. His forebears were peddlers 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 peddler community, which came to Britain in the early 1920s, helped me to understand the experience of living in Britain for those early Indian immigrants. For me, 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 fulfill 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 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 the British out of 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 paralyzed 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 empathize with the situation they faced in 1919 and the years that followed.
The same goes for Udham Singh. He had always been to me one of the pantheon of freedom fighters who had fought against tyranny. I had to block 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 firsthand 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 radicalization; 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 wrong-footing some of the world’s most powerful players.
As to whether Udham really was in the garden the day of the massacre, a source of fierce contention in some quarters, only he knew for sure. What I can say with absolute certainty is that the British authorities were desperate to separate Udham’s assassination of Sir Michael O’Dwyer from the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The attendant propaganda surrounding a “revenge killing” was the last thing they needed with so many Indian troops engaged on the side of the allies in the war.
Whether he was there when the bullets started to fly or not, the massacre in Jallianwala Bagh was transformative for Udham Singh. He was both forged and destroyed by the events of April 13, 1919. The massacre became the catalyst turning him from a hopeless, faceless member of India’s oppressed masses into a man who would strike one of the most dramatic blows against the empire. Udham Singh dedicated his life to becoming a somebody to his people, to seeing his country free of the British.
He would go to the gallows thinking he would lie forever forgotten in an unmarked grave in a foreign land. Though he would never know it, seven years after he was hanged India would be free and his countrymen would declare him one of their greatest sons. They would fight to have his remains returned to them.
In 2018 a statue of Udham Singh was unveiled outside Jallianwala Bagh. It shows a man with a clod of presumably blood-heavy earth in his outstretched palm. Udham will forever stand watch over the garden. All who come to pay their respects in the garden will be forced to look up to him, and remember what he did in their name.