San Francisco: Several Indian American community members and others gathered at the Gadar Memorial Hall here July 31 for the annual celebration honoring Udham Singh, the Punjabi freedom fighter best known for the March 13, 1940, assassination of Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the former governor of Punjab. The 76th Martyrdom Day of Udham Singh, organized by the nonprofit Shaheed Udham Singh Foundation of North America, included a diverse series of speakers who described Singh’s life and legacy as an instrumental figure in ending British colonial rule in India. Beginning with the lighting of a lamp, the event featured a Kavi Durbar (recitation of poems by poets) and the singing of patriotic songs aside from speeches.As a young man, Singh was deeply affected by the incident known as the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre, or Amritsar massacre. In April 1919, violence and rioting broke out in Amritsar; O’Dwyer, fearing an uprising, supported the implementation of martial law. On April 13th, 1919, British troops opened fire on a group of several thousand unarmed civilians—including pilgrims and attendees of a local festival—as a punishment for gathering in such large numbers. An official British inquiry into the massacre claimed that 379 people were killed; the Indian National Congress estimated 1,000. In court records, Singh claimed to have held a “grudge” against O’Dwyer ever since.
In 1924, Singh became involved with the Gadar Party, a group dedicated to organizing Indians in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere abroad in order to overthrow British colonial rule. The party was established when 5,000 Indians gathered in Sacramento to swear an oath to fight for Indian independence.
The Gadar Memorial Hall, where the celebration took place, functioned as the party’s headquarters and printing press for magazines, newspapers, and press releases.
Janak Sidhra, a member of the Shaheed Udham Singh Foundation and event organizer, described the impact of the Gadar Party on the fight for Indian freedom.
“A lot of history is right here. All the people did a lot of struggling to free India. At that time, looking at all that they were doing, the British government asked the United States to arrest these people, saying ‘we are cousins.’ The United States government replied, ‘we took freedom from you; they have the right to take freedom from you also.”
Udham Singh eventually returned to India and was arrested for smuggling revolvers and ammunition. Upon his release, he evaded police surveillance and traveled to London with plans to assassinate Michael O’Dwyer.
On March 13, 1940, Singh attended a joint meeting of the East India Association and Central Asian Society, where O’Dwyer was scheduled to speak. He shot and killed O’Dwyer, and wounded the former secretary of state for India and the former governor of Bombay.
Udham Singh did not attempt to avoid arrest, and was hanged on July 31, 1940 at Pentonville Prison. According to court records from his trial, Singh said, “What greater honor could be bestowed on me than death for the sake of my motherland?”
Harshanjit Singh, a speaker at the celebration, observed, “If you enjoy the freedom in India, you must remember who got you there.”
“He gave his life for us. We salute him,” said guest Balinder Singh.
Prominent agriculture scientist Dr. Gudev Singh Khush said that the unfulfilled dreams of the martyrs need to be addressed. He also said that besides the basic human needs of subsistence (food, shelter and clothing), it is important to have national self-respect.