A century ago Udham Singh had vowed to shoot General Dyer following the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and eventually assassinated Sir Michael O'Dwyer who had praised and supported the British attack. Today, Anita Anand, documents the series of events as they happened and vows to build an understanding between societies, in her efforts of bringing closure to the monstrosity of the British Raj's attack. But as the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh approaches why and how is Udham Singh's story still relevant today?
“I call him [Udham Singh] the 'Patient Assassin' because he waited for 21 years to fulfil a vow that he made of killing General Dyer after the brutal slayings of civilians at the Jallianwala Bagh,” says Anita, a journalist by profession, and an author by passion.
13th April 2019 marks the centenary of the massacre where Udham Singh was one of the hundred other victims who was injured but fortunate to have survived. The number of protestors, caught unarmed when General Dyer had opened fire in the walled garden, injured and dead are disputed. British sources suggest that 379 people were killed with 1,200 injured but Indian sources indicate that the victims are more. Having survived the attack, Singh had pledged to kill General Dyer but he died of natural circumstances and so, Singh re-directed his revenge in his plans to assassinate Michael O'Dwyer. In her latest book, Anand chronicles Singh's journey to the UK through years of research where she traces his footprints across countries in Nazi Germany, Bolshevik Russia, and, also in California.
A contemporary story of radicalisation
“I ended up in countries that I never assumed I would go. But in that journey, I learnt about the number of chances Singh had had to lead a happy life but he jettisoned them in order to keep coming back to this promise that he had made to himself,” she reveals.
Today, Singh is a great nationalist hero in the Punjab, but until now not much has been written about him. Through this book Anand hopes to “explain the circumstances” that moulded his intentions and his character. The same circumstances that she believes led to the assassination of Michael O'Dwyer. But additionally, she intends to sketch the characters of the British military men as well who were at the heart of this event.
“I have produced quite a contemporary story of a young man who was very little, and while living in his own country felt oppressed and eventually became radicalised. This is a story of radicalisation in my view which has resonated with community even today. But ultimately, I allow the readers to make their own mind and decide for themselves if his actions were justified,” she said.
In the process of trawling through piles of academic research, Anand bumped into interesting nuggets of information wherein she discovered that she had her own family connections with Singh through a distant great uncle, after years of being married to her husband. Udham Singh it was later known used to have connections with members of the pedlar communities in the Great Britain.
Distant family connections and meeting Caroline Dyer
“This showed me that there is a fifth string that I could follow and there were people who exist in this country who either are the repositories of memories or have their own stories. One of them is Lord Indarjit Singh in the House of Parliament who used to play with Udham Singh as a child,” she discloses.
Anand goes back to Udham's childhood and in reconstructing his story, and in the process she speaks about the emotional journey she had to undertake especially while dissociating herself from the characters.
“I found that I had to keep walking away from it. The difficult part was trying to humanize these people who were either portrayed as evil or heroic.
"Every time I was trying to humanise Dyer or O'Dwyer, I felt like a part of me was betraying my family and the only way that I was able to do that was by uncoupling them with their names. So, I started calling Dyer “Rex” which gave me a portal into his childhood. Whereas for O'Dwyer, I called him Michael, visualising him as a grieving boy from Tipperary, Ireland who then becomes Sir Michael,” she explains.
But aside from relying on academic papers, Anand also attempted to trace his Mexican wife Lupe and then his children, who she says “disappear out of the picture after his interrogation, when he had spoken about his two boys”.
But interestingly, the author also happened to meet Caroline Dyer the great grand-daughter of General Dyer and they made plans to together visit Amritsar, in her attempt of explaining the intensity of the massacre.
Empty words don't help, an acknowledgment and acceptance does
“I met a woman who was brave enough to meet and talk to me considering the complexity surrounding the issue and we are poles apart. She is very loyal to her family and thinks that Dyer did nothing wrong and I believe the exact opposite. I just wanted her to understand"
“I would like understanding and acceptance of what the colonial rule meant. I am born and brought up in this country. I have studied history at school and I have become very tired of this rose-tinted view of empire. It is all about Maharajas and Princesses and the sheer monstrousness that was used to keep the larger population under the thumb are not really talked about,” concludes Anand.
The Patient Assassin is available here: