SHAHEED-E-AZAM UDHAM SINGH
On the Birth Centenary of Udham Singh
Udham Singh and the Death of Michael O’dwyer
At 10 p.m. on 13 March 1940 Udham Singh was charged with the murder of Sir Michael O’dwyer, who was responsible for the Amritsar (Jallianwala Bagh) massacre of 13 April 1919, which claimed the lives of several hundred innocent Indian men, women and children, whose only crime was to hold a peaceful protest meeting. The charge stated that Mohamed Singh Azad, the name he gave on his arrest, ‘Did feloniously murder Michael Francis O’dwyer, at Caxton Street, Westminster, on 13 March, 1940’.
The circumstances leading to the killing of Sir Michael O’dwyer, Udham Singh’s arrest and his being charged with O’dwyer’s murder are described in a Metropolitan Police report, file MEPO 3/1743 written by Divisional Detective Inspector John Swain. We reproduce here the relevant sections of this report:
‘At 3 p.m. on Wednesday, 13 March, 1940, a meeting of the East India Association was held in conjunction with the Royal Central Asian Society at the Tudor Room, Caxton Hall, Caxton Street, Westminster, and a lecture on ‘Afghanistan: The Present Position’ was delivered by Brigadier General Sir Percy Sykes.
‘The Chair was occupied by the Marquess of Zetland, P.C., and included amongst the speakers were Lord Lemington, Sir Louis Dane and Sir Michael O’Dwyer (deceased).
‘The meeting commenced at 3 p.m. and terminated at approximately 4.30 p.m. Admission was by ticket and it appears that at least 150 people attended. The seating accommodation is 130, but in view of the number that turned up the side passages were occupied by people standing, and the prisoner was one of these having taken up a position in the right hand passage and quite near to the front row of seats.
‘When the meeting closed and people were preparing to leave, a number of shots were fired by the prisoner at those gentlemen who had been speaking, with the result that Sir Michael O’Dwyer received wounds which proved fatal: Lord Lemington received a wound in the right hand; the Marquess of Zetland was hit on the left side of his body, and Sir Louis Dane was shot in the right forearm. The injuries to the last three named gentlemen are not serious, but Sir Louis Dane, who is over 80 years of age, is being detained for a few days in Westminster Hospital for a minor operation to the hand.
‘The actual shooting was seen by quite a number of persons and the selected statements will be dealt with later.
‘Immediately the shooting took place there was considerable commotion and the prisoner was seen to make an effort to rush for the exit. He was intercepted by Bertha HERRING who placed herself in his path and caught hold of his shoulders. At that moment Mr Wyndham Harry RICHES jumped on AZAD’s shoulders and threw him to the ground causing the revolver to fall from his grasp. Mr RICHES flicked the revolver away and it was picked up by Major Reginald Alfred SLEE and passed to Sir Percy SYKES, who eventually handed it to P.S. 51 "A" McWILLIAM.
‘Inspector Robert William STEVENS (a Barrister), Metropolitan Special Constabulary, was in the building at the time of the shooting as there is a Special Constabulary Office in that building. He heard six shots fired and hurried to the Tudor Room where he assisted to hold the prisoner until the arrival of P.S. 51 "A" John McWILLIAM
‘On the arrival of P.S. McWILLIAM this Officer noticed that the doors of the Tudor Room were open, a number of people standing about and there was a strong smell of burnt powder. He also saw a blue haze of smoke in the room. The Sergeant then searched the prisoner and in the left hand pocket of his overcoat he found a ‘linoleum’ knife. In the right hand pocket of his jacket he found a box containing 17 rounds of revolver ammunition, and in the right hand trousers pocket he found 8 similar rounds loose
‘Inspector DEIGHTON asked the prisoner if he could understand English and he said he could. He was cautioned and told he would be detained pending enquiries and said, ‘It no use. It all over’ and nodded his head in the direction of the dead body of Sir Michael O’Dwyer, at the same time saying, ‘It is there’. AZAD was then removed to another room and left in the custody of Detective Sergeant Sidney JONES.
‘At 5.30 p.m. I [John Swain] arrived at Caxton Hall and saw the dead body of Sir Michael O’Dwyer and made certain enquiries.
‘Statements were taken from everyone present in the Tudor Room when the shooting occurred. Amongst those selected is one from Brigadier General Sir Percy Molesworth SYKES (retired), of 26, St George’s Court, Gloucester Road, who delivered the lecture at Caxton Hall on ‘Afghanistan: The Present Position’. He states that at the conclusion of the lecture Lord Zetland made a speech lasting about ten minutes, followed by Sir Michael O’Dwyer, Mrs Audrey MALAM, and finally Sir Louis DANE spoke for ten minutes.
‘Lord Zetland then asked Lord Lemington to close the meeting and he did so, the speech lasting a few minutes . This was about 4.30 p.m. Sir Percy says that Lord Zetland stood up to bid him (Sir Percy) Goodbye, when, just at that moment, he saw flashes in quick succession being fired from a revolver by a man who had been leaning against the wall of the hall. He saw Sir Michael fall to the ground, and then noticed Mr RICHES detain the assassin. Sir Percy then took possession of the revolver from Mr RICHES and handed it to Police (Inspector Stevens).
‘The body of the deceased was removed to Westminster Mortuary, Horseferry Road, SWI.
‘At 8.50 p.m. the same day I saw the prisoner in a room at Caxton Hall. I told him who I was, cautioned him and said, ‘I am going to take you to Cannon Row Police Station where you will be charged with the murder of Sir Michael O’Dwyer’. He said, ‘I will tell you how I made a protest.’ He was conveyed to Cannon Row Police Station where, under caution, he made a statement, which I took down in writing at his request. He read it himself and signed it.
‘At 10 p.m. on 13th March, 1940, the prisoner was charged with the murder of Michael Francis O’Dwyer. The charge was read over to him and he was cautioned. He replied, ‘I did not mean to kill. I just did it to protest. I did not mean to kill anybody.’
On 14 March, 1940, Udham Singh appeared at Bow Street Police Court and was remanded until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 21 March.
Detective Inspector Richard Deighton, who on arrival at the Tudor Room in Caxton Hall at 4.50 p.m. on 13 March, found Udham Singh ‘composed and smiling’ said to the latter: ‘Do you understand English?’ and received the reply ‘Yes’ Inspector Deighton then cautioned him saying: ‘You will be detained pending further enquiries’ to which Udham Singh replied: ‘It no use. It all over’ then nodding his head in the direction of the deceased O’Dwyer he said: ‘It is there’.
Udham Singh was then removed to another room in the building and searched by Detective Sergeant Jones who found, and handed over to Inspector Deighton, a 1940 diary containing many significant entries. The date 13 March carries the entry: ‘3 p.m. Caxton Hall, SWI Meeting.’ Other entries bear the following words and phrases: ‘Action’ ‘only the way to open the door’ ‘My last month’ ‘I have seen the world. The only ambition have left. I like to see India free.’ The diary also contained the addresses of Lord Willingdon, former viceroy of India (1931-34), and the Marquess of Zetland, the then Secretary of State for India.
At 7:20 p.m. on 13 March, Udham Singh’s room at number 8 Mornington Terrace, Regent’s Park, was searched by Inspector Deighton, accompanied by Detective Inspector Whitehead, Special Branch, and a 1939 diary was found containing, among others, the address of Sir Michael O’Dwyer in South Devon.
After Udham Singh’s search, as Sergeant Jones was preparing a list of the property taken by the police from him, Udham Singh now and then made several remarks. The police report again:
‘.pointing to the ‘linoleum’ knife ‘I had that knife with me because I was set about in Camden Town a few nights ago’. Sergeant Jones told AZAD that he had already been cautioned by Detective Inspector Deighton and advised him to keep quiet. AZAD then said ‘I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it. I do not belong to any society or anything else’. Just then Inspector Deighton placed four empty cartridge cases on the table and AZAD pointed to them and said ‘No. No. All the lot, six’. at the same time holding up six fingers. Later AZAD said ‘I don’t care. I don’t mind dying. What is the use of waiting till you get old. That’s no good. You want to die when you’re young, that is good. That’s what I am doing.’ These remarks were short outbursts. Sergeant Jones then drew AZAD’s attention to the fact that what he was saying would be given in evidence at a Court. AZAD then said ‘I am dying for my country. Can I have a newspaper?’
‘Shortly afterwards AZAD said, ‘Is Zetland dead? He ought to be. I put two into him right there’, indicating with his hand the pit of his stomach in the left side. A little later he said ‘I bought the revolver from a soldier in a public house at Bournemouth. I bought him some drinks you know’. After another short pause AZAD said ‘My parents died when I was four or five. I had property which I sold. I had over £200 when I came to England.’
‘AZAD remained quiet for several minutes and then said, ‘Only one dead eh. I thought I could get more. I must have been too slow. There was a lot of womans about, you know.’
‘Sergeant Jones then accompanied me to Cannon Row Police Station with the prisoner.’
At 1:15 p.m. on the 15th of March John Swain, in the company of Chief Inspector Rawlings, went to see Udham Singh at Brixton Prison in an effort to clear up the question of what was his real name. The police were keen that Udham Singh should not be allowed ‘to turn his villainy into a political affair’, that the whole thing be treated as a case of simple and mindless murder. In the words of the C.C. (CID): ‘In this clear-cut murder case in which the ordinary evidence is very strong, it will be a pity if all the ‘rubbish’ which came from the lips of the prisoner is to come out in Court, and then in the newspapers.’
Udham Singh for his part quite correctly wished to stress, first, that his action in Caxton Hall was motivated by the highest of political considerations, namely, his ardent desire to see India free from British imperialist occupation and, second, that even the name he chose for himself had a political significance, namely his passionate love of secularism and his irreconcilable opposition to, and hatred of, every type of communalism and religious bigotry. After a number of exchanges in Brixton Prison with Inspector Swain who had insisted that the name Udham Singh would be substituted for the name on the chargesheet for that of Mohamed Singh Azad, he said: ‘It makes no difference to me whatever. Do what you like, but I still say I am Mohamed Singh.’ (John Swain’s report, 16 March 1940).
In his letter of 16 March, written from Brixton Prison to Mr Sands, Superintendent of Police, Udham Singh stresses that his name is Mohamed Singh Azad:
‘.like to tell you one thing do not try to change my name whatsoever I have given to you my name is Mohamed Singh Azad I do not care if anyone say anything let then go to hell. But I want to keep my name I have told your man they came to see me. That is so’.
In his statement to the police, Udham Singh spoke of the reasons which caused him to take the action that he did in these words:
‘I thought it was time to go to this afternoon meeting to protest. I take my revolver from home with me to protest. In the beginning of the meeting I was standing up. I did not take the revolver to kill but just to protest. Well then when the meeting was already finished I took the revolver from my pocket and I shoot like I think at the wall. I just shot just to make the protest. I have seen people starving in India under British Imperialism. I done it, the pistol went off three of four times. I am not sorry for protesting. It was my duty to do so. Put some more. Just for the sake of my country to protest, I do not mind what sentence. Ten, twenty, or fifty years, or to be hanged. I done my duty. Actually I did not mean to take a person’s life do you understand. I just mean protesting you know.’
On 4 June, 1940, Udham Singh was arraigned before Mr. Justice Atkinson at the Central Criminal Court, the indictment charging him with the murder of Sir Michael O’Dwyer. He pleaded not guilty. The trial lasted for two days at the end of which he was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Throughout the trial the defence had maintained that Udham Singh’s intention at Caxton Hall had been to shoot into the air and not to shoot at anyone. However, someone near him, seeing Udham Singh draw the revolver, knocked it down, with the result that bullets wounded Sir Michael O’Dwyer fatally and injured three other persons seriously. On 15 July, 1940, the appeal by Udham Singh against the death sentence was heard at the Court of Criminal Appeal and dismissed. And Udham Singh was hanged at Pentonville Prison on 31 July 1940.
Prior to passing sentence, Mr. Justice Atkinson asked Udham Singh if he had anything to say, to which the latter replied in the affirmative and began reading from prepared notes. Throughout he was repeatedly interrupted by the judge who ordered the press not to report Udham Singh’s statement.