Where has Mohammad Singh Azad Gone?

Chaman Lal

Our society is a ritual oriented one. Those who hold political and economic power create cultural hegemony and in their efforts to have a hold over people's minds they make use of the revolutionary martyrs in order to absorb them in the 'mainstream'. In this process they consciously suppress the revolutionary content of the ideas and actions of these martyrs for the nation and the people. The Jan Sangh tried to absorb Bhagat Singh by reducing him to a brave patriot as opposed to a revolutionary thinker and organiser, who, of course was more of a patriot than any of the so-called national leaders of the time. But when the real force of Bhagat Singh's ideas and action become clear through the publication of his writings then the Jan Sangh had to drop him like a live charcoal and the state, particularly the state of Punjab tried to absorb him by observing 23rd March or 28th September as a ritualistic day, when the Prime Minister goes to the Samadhi (memorial) of the martyr to pay 'homage' while paying no attention to what Bhagat Singh said or wrote on various issues facing the nation and its people. Rather the state which is the successor to British colonialism has been killing hundreds of followers of Bhagat Singh throughout the country, without going through the farce of court proceedings, as the British had done. Today the state straight away kills revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh through 'encounters'.

The case of martyr Udham Singh falls in the same category as that of Bhagat Singh. Udham Singh was himself an ardent admirer and follower of Bhagat Singh. Giani Zail Singh when Chief Minister of Punjab staged a total mockery of bringing the remains of Udham Singh from England, displaying these in all parts of Punjab and then 'cremating 'the body at his home town of Sunam. The only motive behind this grotesque farce was to exploit the feelings of common people towards national martyrs and also to suppress the real content of Udham Singh's martyrdom for the nation and make him an icon to be placed in a temple.

Udham Singh liked to call himself Mohammad Singh Azad and not Ram Mohammad Singh Azad, as is propagated by the so-called secularists of the country. He was born in a dalit Hindu family which had converted to Sikhism after his birth, because of the oppressive structure of Hinduism. So he could not use 'Ram' as prefix to make himself a secular hero. There have been a few books published about Udham Singh, some biographical, some centred on his letters, some of these have been good preliminary studies. Indian authors now have started befooling the Indian readers by making such claims as being the 'first and only authentic study of Udham Singh' as has been made by Sikander Singh in his recent book. Worse still the film actor Raj Babbar has made the film 'Shaheed Udham Singh' which is a typical Bollywood pot boiler and claims that it presents an authentic picture of the revolutionary martyr.

Two books recently have used the occasion of the birth centenary of Udham Singh in 1999 to make tall claims about their biographies of Udham Singh's life and action. One is by Sikander Singh and the other by Dr. Navtej Singh, published by Panjabi University, Patiala.

Both of the authors have presented their books as the life story of Udham Singh. So far as the trial proceedings of Udham Singh in England are concerned, since that is on record, the only labour involved in that was to put it in some perspective, which, of course is very important for a nationalist historian to do. But the more difficult task lies in constructing the life story of Udham Singh particularly to reconstruct his early life from his birth to his going to England. This part of his life demanded painstaking, patient and objective research which unfortunately seems to be lacking in both of the books. Both have presented a fictional reconstruction of Udham Singh's early life.

Sikander Singh has divided his book into fifteen chapters, while Dr. Navtej Singh has five chapters apart from the introduction and the conclusion, 'Challenge to Imperial Hegemony'. Both have given appendices of nearly one hundred pages, literally reproducing the confidential record of the trial received through the Indian Workers Association, Birmingham which was procured from the Public Records Office, London by the Shaheed Udham Singh Trust. While Sikander Singh has reproduced thirty four photographs, Navtej Singh has thirty photographs most of these in colour and technically better produced. Most of the photographs are also common. Sikander Singh had his first chapter as 'Saga of the Freedom Movement' in 80 pages, Navtej Singh has given 'The Backdrop' to the nationalist movement in 32 pages. Then both come to the life of Udham Singh.

Sikander Singh starts his chapter 'Early life' of Udham Singh in these words: 'A Sworn enemy of British Imperialism, a great revolutionary Sher Singh alias Ude Singh alias Ram Mohammad Singh Azad alias Frank Brazil of Proto Rice (sic) alias Udham Singh Azad alias Mohammad Singh Azad alias M.S. Azad alias Bawa Sahib, was the son of Tehal Singh and belonged to caste Kamboh'. He has mentioned 26th December 1899 as his date of birth. Sikander Singh has given a list of all the names which Udham Singh used through his revolutionary life. However here Navtej Singh seemed to have done some research and had given some analytical picture of Udham Singh's date of birth, though he also did not mention any conclusive date. Apart from 26th December 1899, he had refered to other dates as 23rd August 1901, March 1903 (stated by Udham Singh himself), 23rd October 1905 (again stated by Udham Singh in his 'National Registration Card', Central Khalsa Orphanage, Amritsar recorded Udham Singh's age as five years on 24 October 1907, and his death certification showed him as 37 years on 31st July 1940. Now everybody has just accepted 26th December 1899, though there is no authentic record about this.

Navtej Singh further has something more to say about Udham Singh's parents. He has given their names as Chuhar Ram and Niraini, from Jammu Gotra (subcaste) of Kambojs. They had two sons, Sadhu Singh and Sher Singh. They were converted to Sikhism later and got the names of Tehl Singh and Harnam Kaur. Sikander Singh has refered to Udham Singh's childhood name as Udey but Navtej Singh as Sher Singh, both of them have refered to an incident in Udham Singh's early childhood in which he beat off a wolf with an axe.

Udham Singh's mother died when he was yet an infant of 3 years. His father took both his children to Amritsar in 1907, where he died of some illness and one person from his village got the children admitted in to the Central Khalsa Orphanage, which was founded in 1904.

Navtej Singh's contention is that Udham Singh used his childhood name Sher Singh till 20th March 1933. In that year he got a passport issued in the name of Udham Singh as he had a record of being arrested and sentenced in 1927. Udham Singh claimed before the British court that on reaching England, he had married a Mohammedan woman and changed his name to Mohammed Singh Azad. Anyway, for revolutionaries name changing is a very common phenomenon throughout the world for reasons of security.

Again there is difference in describing the events. Sikander Singh claims that Udham Singh's elder brother Sadhu Singh, to whom he was much attached, died of pneumonia in 1913, Whereas Navtej Singh refers to this event as taking place in 1917. Sikander Singh belives that Udham Singh passed his matriculation in 1917 and left the orphanage for his native place Sunam, whereas Navtej Singh has given this year as 1917 or 1918, but he adds that Udham Singh probably received his education at Baijnath High School Amritsar, with the help of a philanthropist.

According to Navtej Singh, Udham Singh worked in the North Western Railway from 1917 to 1922 as a trainee driver, fireman or guard. He received the 'India General Service' medal for the Wazirstan compaign of 1919-21.

The most disputed event in the life of Udham Singh is whether he himself was present at the Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, when the massacre took place on 13th April 1919, under the command of General Dyer and under instructions from Lieutenent Governor Michael O' Dwyer. While Sikander Singh believes that Udham Singh was present on that occasion. Navtej Singh argues that he was not likely to have been present and that he was working abroad at that time–while it is not necessary to have been present in the Bagh to avenge the brutal massacre of Indian people at British hands. Raj Babbar's film also presents Udham Singh as being present in Jallianwala Bagh, offering water to the dying and wounded that bitter night. This is crucial in the sense that if one believes that Udham Singh was so upset at seeing the massacre in the Bagh, that he decided to take revenge by killing General O'Dwyer as General Dyer had died after his return to England. But that belittles Udham Singh's revolutionary consciousness. One may be not present at a ghastly event yet one can be affected at the level of consciousness by such events. It is not yet conclusively proved by either of the two scholars whether Udham Singh was present in Jallianwala Bagh Amritsar on 13th April 1919 or not.

Whether Udham Singh was present at the time of Jallianwala Bagh massacre or not, this incident had a deep impact on his consciousness and he became a radical nationalist. Later he came into contact with the Babbar Akalis, according to Navtej Singh and he came into touch with Bhagat Singh and the revolutionary movement. This was the movement which shaped his personality. First he had the impact of Ghadar movement, then Jallianwala Bagh, later Babbar Akali movement and finally he became a follower of the socialist revolutionary movement of Bhagat Singh. In fact his trial and his conduct during the trial was to follow Bhagat Singh's example as much as possible and the British Government was equally determined not to allow the repetition of another Bhagat Singh in London during the court trial. Thus they had made all arrangements to effectively keep the revolutionary voice of Udham Singh shut during his trial in court and also in the media. The trial of Bhagat Singh in India and the trial of Udham Singh in England exposed the so-called democratic judicial system of British imperialism which at every point tried to make out as if they were the only civilised society in the world. In fact these two trials show British colonialism in its truly and unashamed barbaric form.

Udham Singh had moved around various parts of the globe during his life time and Navtej Singh has rightly called him a 'globetrotter'. He had certainly visited Africa, England, America etc. There is a reference that at one time he opened a shop in Amritsar by the name of Ram Mohammad Singh Azad. But I think 'Ram' is an interpolation of later nationalist historians, even Ghadrite Baba Bhagat Singh Bilga (President of Desh Bhagat Yaadgar Hall, Jallandhar, aged 93 years, hale and hearty) subscribes to this view, but there is nothing on the record to substantiate this. On the contrary, Udham Singh's own chosen name was Mohammed Singh Azad, the name which he signed many times as M.S. Azad. In the court proceedings also, he prefered this name. I do not know how 'Udham Singh' has become standardised historically, as on record only two names stand–Sher Singh the childhood name till 1933 or Mohammad Singh Azad, his chosen name. All other names he had used for the convenience of underground political life. 'Udham Singh' he used only for the purpose of getting a passport, otherwise he had no attachment to this name. So why his chosen name Mohammed Singh Azad has been dumped by later writers needs probing.

Anyway both the scholars have substantiated very little about Udham Singh's activities in India till 1933, except that he was arrested in August 1927 at Amritsar and sentenced to five years imprisonment for having a revolver. He was released on 23rd October 1931 from Lahore Jail. Bhagat Singh, Raj Guru and Sukhdev were hanged in Lahore Jail on 23rd Match and it made him very sad. After his release from jail, he met various nationalist leaders and finally decided to leave the country. He procured a passport in the name of Udham Singh in 1933 and arrived in England sometime in 1934. During his stay in England, he visited various countries of the world including the Soviet Union. In England, he usually named himself as Mohammed Singh Azad, he was in touch with the Ghadarites of U.S.A. and finally he assassinated Michael O' Dwyer on 13th March 1940 at a public meeting in Caxton Hall. He was arrested on the spot, sent to trial and was sentenced to death. He was hanged on 31st July 1940 and was buried in England, from where his remains were brought to India in 1974 and made a fanfare of by the then Chief Minister of Punjab, Giani Zail Singh.

From 13th March 1940 to 31st July 1940, the British Government has the record of the four and half month trial and execution of Udham Singh. There are a lot of details given in the books which need not be summarised here. Here again one finds the account given by Sikander Singh sentimental and without ideological perception, whereas Navtej Singh has attempted to understand the activity of Udham Singh as a radical nationalist's struggle against colonialism and imperialism.

Both authors have taken more than one hundred pages to describe the details of the trial, imprisonment and the execution of Udham Singh. Sikander Singh has again put more emphasis on the so-called religious fervour of Udham Singh during his last days, his demand for 'Gutka'. Udham Singh had no religious feelings, particularly when he was a committed follower of Bhagat Singh, a confirmed atheist.

The worst part of Sikander Singh's book is his description of the bringing of the remains of Udham Singh to India, a drama staged by the then Chief Minister of Punjab Giani Zail Singh, his 'funeral' procession throughout the state and his 'cremation' with full 'religious rituals' etc. Sikander Singh has eulogised this grotesque insult to the great martyr Udham Singh's ideas and actions. Mercifully Navtej Singh has not indulged in such 'historical writing'. The body of Madan Lal Dhingra, an earlier Indian martyr was also buried in London in 1909 after he was executed for killing Curzon Wyle. If the remains of Dhingra were not brought, there was no point in bringing Udham Singh's remains or at least not making such a show of demonstrating the remains to exploit people's genuine emotions towards a national martyr.

But in spite of weaknesses, Navtej Singh has tried to present Udham Singh in an historical setting as a national revolutionary, whereas Sikander Singh has just written a sentimental book. Raj Babbar and his team has understandably used Sikander Singh's book to make a film in in true Hindi filmi style on Udham Singh.

It is certainly difficult to write an intellectual biography like that of Davidson on Gramsci, unless, of course the author has a deep understanding of the ideas and motives of such a revolutionary. Sikander Singh or Raj Babbar have no sympathy or understanding of the revolutionary ideas or tradition of Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh. For these people a revolutionary presents a good saleable product in the age of the a liberal economy. In the west the image of Che Guevara is being used to sell vodka.

Raj Babbar has declared that he will make a film on the Ghadarite revolutionaries. One dreads to think what he would make of our Ghadarite tradition. One must feel perturbed at those people among the democratic sections in Punjab and abroad who are honouring Raj Babbar for making a film on Udham Singh and also in the same way honouring Sikander Singh for writing a book lacking in objective or revolutionary historical perspective.

* Sikander Singh, 'Udham Singh', Chatter Singh, Jiwan Singh Amritsar, Ist edition April 1998, 391 pp., Price Rs. 350 and U.S. $ 17.

* Navtej Singh, 'Challenge to Imperial Hegemony Udham Singh,' Panjabi University, Patiala, 1st edition 1998, 320 pp.+ xxxiv, Price Rs. 350.

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