On Careful Violence: The Story of Udham Singh

Statue of Udham Singh in Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, India. Photograph by Bernard Gagnon – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75894648.

By Comrade Redbeard

There is nothing romantic about violence. The bourgeoisie and the imperialists never grow tired of portraying radicals and revolutionaries, and communists in particular, as vicious sadists, jonesing for an excuse to kill and steal, even as they steal and kill at inconceivable scales. They turn projection into an art form! But we must know the truth. At its best, violence is a tool, ugly but necessary in certain conditions. At its worst, it is a wild flood, uncontrolled and indiscriminate in its destruction, with unforeseen consequences even when used for a noble and righteous cause. In war, the most total, all-encompassing form of violence, there are rarely any winners, but always a vast collection of greater and lesser losers. Here I use the word loser not as an insult, but simply to describe those of us who have experienced loss: of their well-being, their loved ones, their belongings, their dignity, or their humanity. More often than not, the suffering handed out to victims of war is inversely proportional to their culpability for the bloodshed.

But there isn’t anything romantic about peace for peace’s sake either. This is a liberal lullaby, a sweet song of hypocrisy whispered into our ears over and over. The peace desired by the imperialist, the colonizer, the capitalist, and the oppressor is a false one, a one-sided treaty imposed by supposed masters on supposed slaves. It is submission as peace, humiliation as peace, degradation and perpetual victimhood as peace. To strike back at the perpetrators of these crimes, let alone overturn the entire situation and achieve liberation, requires violence. This is a scientific fact. As communists and revolutionaries, we must understand that our approach to violence should be based on our love for the masses. For this reason, it must be patient, strategic, and designed to minimize their suffering. When we have to deploy it, we must do so with intelligence, skill, and care.

The following account is an example of how three men used violence: the first two against the masses, and the third on behalf of them.

The man on the left is Michael O’Dwyer, and the man on the right is Reginald Dwyer. In 1919, O’Dwyer was the Irish Lieutenant Governor of Punjab in British-ruled India. As one of the highest colonial officials in the Raj, he presided over the Jallianwala Bagh/Amritsar Massacre of April 13, 1919, when British colonial troops shot repeatedly into a crowd of peaceful protestors, who had gathered in an historic city garden as part of a mass anti-British rebellion in the area. The troops were commanded by General Reginald Dyer, known as Rex to his friends and the Butcher of Amritsar to Indians. On his orders, with no warning to the protestors to disperse, anywhere from hundreds to over a thousand people were killed. Thousands more were wounded. The carnage would’ve been even worse if Dyer was able to bring machine guns, as he originally planned. As a boy, Dyer once grieved over a monkey he accidentally shot, but he didn’t extend such sentiment towards “the natives.”

An artist’s depiction of the massacre. Date and artist unknown.

The youngest victim in the massacre was a six month old baby, and the oldest was a man in his eighties. According to eyewitness accounts, the soldiers shot many people in the back as they ran and as they tried to scale the garden walls to escape. Being a good and faithful servant of Empire rather than a credit to his Irish sisters and brothers, Lieutenant Governor O’Dwyer backed the massacre, even when international revulsion forced even the likes of Churchill to fake outrage. He supported it publicly for the rest of his life.

Udham Singh. Photograph courtesy of the Punjab Martyr’s Museum.

The man pictured above is Indian revolutionary Udham Singh, born Sher Singh into one of the poorest and most oppressed castes in India. At the time of the massacre, he was a rank-and-file activist for the militant Ghadar movement. After Amritsar, he worked with legendary revolutionary communist leader Bhagat Singh, organizing Indians abroad in the West for the anti-colonial struggle. When he returned to India, he was arrested and jailed for five years for possession of firearms. When he was released, he escaped the watchful eye of the Punjabi police to go to Kashmir, Germany, and finally London. He started planning to assassinate O’Dwyer, who he finally tracked down in 1940. On March 13, he ambushed O’Dwyer at a speaking engagement in Caxton Hall, shooting him dead on the spot. The soldiers at Amritsar fired over 1,600 rounds into the crowd; Udham Singh needed only two. He also wounded three British aristocrats who had served as colonial administrators in the Raj, notably the Marquess of Zetland, who had been the governor of Bengal at the time of the massacre and Secretary of State for India in the 1930s. Singh made no attempt to escape, and was immediately arrested. He was a flawed man, but indisputably brave.

Coverage of Singh’s blow against empire in the British press.

During his time in Brixton Prison, Singh began a 42 day hunger strike. In response, the enlightened British authorities tortured him, force-feeding him no less than 93 times in the three weeks leading up to his hanging. While in custody, Singh adopted the name Ram Mohammad Singh Azad. This name unified the three major religious communities of India (Hindu, Muslim and Sikh) with Singh’s anti-colonial politics. In English, “azad” translates to “freedom.”

During his trial, the presiding judge asked Singh why he did it. Singh said, “I did it because I had a grudge against him [O’Dwyer]. 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 seek 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.” The rest of the speech he gave after his conviction was a damning indictment of imperialism and British tyranny in India. There are two slightly different versions of the speech, both of which I reproduce here. 

Version 1: “I say down with British Imperialism. You say India does not have peace. We have only slavery. Generations of so called civilisation has brought for us everything filthy and degrading known to the human race. All you have to do is read your own history. If you have any human decency about you, you should die with shame. The brutality and blood thirsty way in which the so called intellectuals, who call themselves the rulers of civilisation in the world are of bastard blood…

Here the judge interrupted Singh at length to silence his political address, but Singh continued. 
” I do not care about the sentence of death. It means nothing at all. I do not care about dying or anything. We are suffering from the British Empire.  I am not afraid to die. I am proud to die. I want to help my native land, and I hope when I have gone, that in my place will come others of my countrymen to drive the dirty dogs. I am standing before an English jury in an English court. You people go to India and when you come back you are given prizes and put into the House of Commons, but when we come to England we are put to death. In my case I do not care about it, but when you dirty dogs come to India – the intellectuals they call themselves, the rulers – they are of bastard blood caste, and they order machine guns to fire on Indian students without hesitation… Machine guns on the streets of India now down thousands of poor women and children wherever your so-called flag of democracy and Christianity flies. I have nothing against the public at all. I have more English friends in England than I do in India. I have nothing against the public. I have great sympathy with the workers of England, but I am against the dirty British Government. You people are suffering the same as I am suffering through those dirty dogs and mad beasts. India is only slavery. Killing, mutilating and destroying. We know what is going on in India, people do not read about it in the press. Hundreds of thousands of people being killed by your dirty dogs…

“I am not afraid to die. I am proud to die. I want to help my native land, and I hope when I have gone that in my place will come others of my countrymen to drive out the dirty dogs…. I am standing before an English jury in an English court. You people go to India and when you come back you are given prizes and put into the House of Commons, but when you dirty dogs come to India-the intellectuals they call themselves, the rulers-they are of bastard blood caste, and they order machine guns to fire on the Indian students without hesitation. I have nothing against the public at all. I have more English friends in England than I have in India. I have nothing against the public. I have great sympathy for the workers of England, but I am against the dirty British government. Your people are suffering the same as I am suffering, through those dirty dogs and mad beasts-killing, mutilating and destroying. We know what is going on in India: hundreds of thousands of people being killed by your dirty dogs.”

As prison officers dragged him from the dock, Singh screamed, “You people are dirty. You don’t want to hear from us what you are doing in India. Beasts, beasts, beasts…England, England, down with imperialism! Down with the dirty dogs!”  Singh spat at the barristers as he was hauled out of the room, tearing up his papers and scattering them in the air. The last words anyone in the courtroom heard from Udham Singh were “Inquilab! Inquilab! Inquilab!” Revolution, revolution, revolution! The judge ordered that Singh’s speech be kept out of the press, a command which the British media dutifully obeyed. The notes of his speech wouldn’t be released by the British Public Records Office until the 1990s, after decades of pressure.

The British state executed Udham Singh on July 31, 1940, in the middle of a war supposedly fought between the forces of freedom and democracy and fascism and tyranny, and dumped his remains in the ground of Brixton Prison. Singh’s ashes were not repatriated to his homeland until 1974. To this day, Udham Singh is honored in India as a hero and martyr, a champion of Indian independence and the downtrodden and impoverished.

*Much of this information comes courtesy of Anita Anand, author of the book “The Patient Assassin.” For more details on Udham Singh and the other subjects of this article, readers should start there.

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