The Patient Assassin
By Anita Anand, Simon and Schuster, 384 pages, £20,
The early Thirties. A photographer’s finger hovers over the shutter for a shot of Indian notaries. Udham Singh leaps in uninvited: “I might do great things one day.” Anonymous then, today he is the picture’s only person of interest. In March 1940, now under the multifaith name Mohammed Singh Azad, he shot Sir Michael O’Dwyer through the heart at point-blank range in Westminster, fulfilling a 20-year-old vow to avenge the dead of the 1919 Amritsar massacre.
The BBC political broadcaster Anita Anand wrote an impressive biography of the previously unsung Punjabi Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, vacuous socialite-turned-revolutionary suffragette. This was followed by the story of Koh-i-Noor, the world’s most infamous diamond, co-written with William Dalrymple. Now Anand turns her talents to a patient assassin with a blood vendetta — “the person who was never meant to be in the picture.”
Sir Michael O’Dwyer, former lieutenant governor of the Punjab and xenophobe ideologue of the Raj, instigated the massacre of April 13, 1919 — one of the British Empire’s most shameful aggressions. Son of Tipperary, Balliol and the Indian Civil Service, with a fervent schoolboy passion for Lawrence of Arabia, for 20 years O’Dwyer persisted in justifying the bloodbath.
Amid the growth of global Indian nationalism supported by radicals, progressives and trade unions, the effectiveness of Gandhi’s campaign of non-violent civil disobedience — satyagraha — terrified O’Dwyer. He deployed Brigadier General Reginald Dyer to unleash troops on the peaceful political mass meeting in the walled Jallianwala Bagh, the garden located adjacent to the Golden Temple.
Without allowing the 20,000 unarmed men, women and children to disperse, Dyer ordered firing into the heart of the crowd, many of whom were picnicking. The gunfire persisted for 10 minutes and 1,650 rounds. An estimated 1,000 died, and three times that number lay injured. The colonial administration disputed the numbers, deepening the wounds inflicted on later generations.
Undisputed is that the British authorities allowed no medical aid into the Jallianwala Bagh during that horror and that family, friends and medics were prohibited from treating the injured and recovering their dead. Also undisputed is that if he could have driven his armoured vehicles through the narrow garden entrance, Dyer would have used machine guns.
Dyer died of a guilty conscience 14 years after the massacre. Unencumbered by remorse, Sir Michael puffed himself up into a provocative target overflowing with self-justification and bigotry. Anita Anand “grew up knowing the names of Reginald Dyer and Sir Michael O’Dwyer, but Udham Singh loomed larger still”. As a child, she was told how on the night of the massacre the Punjabi orphan promised to kill the men responsible. “We, like many Punjabis, were told how Udham, grabbing a piece of blood-soaked earth, squeezed it in his fist, vowing to avenge the dead.” It took him two decades to fulfil his vow. Anand has turned her meticulous investigative journalism to tracking the life of the formerly shadowy Singh. Unfazed by the challenge, she industriously substitutes accuracy for phantom historical fictions.
Singh trailed the unpunished butchers of Amritsar. Getting near them required limitless reserves of fortitude and ingenuity. With a dispassionate eye for all his foibles and contradictions, Anand lures us into an irresistible narrative.
Starting as penniless itinerant who had to find passage from India to Britain, Singh embarked on a quest that took him through military convoys to Basra, British Sikh communities, the radical Ghadar underground in the US, to Bolshevik handlers in Eastern Europe and later into organisations like the British-based Indian Workers’ Association (IWA).
Anand gamely follows Singh’s peripatetic adventures on convoys, trains, steamboats, motorbikes and camels. He criss-crossed continents, reinventing aliases more frequently than he changed the expensive socks no one knew how he afforded. Anand pursues the pursuer with equal tenacity. In her determination to pin him to his rightful place in history, the patient assassin has found his match.
It is an engaging story that reads satisfyingly more like a shadow world conspiracy thriller than the exhaustively researched piece of reconstruction that it is. The price of this pleasure is perhaps the obscuring of coherent radical history. The decisive role of Leftist progressive political movements in the overthrow of imperialism does not get its due. But that perhaps is the nature of biography. Anand adeptly leans on the self-image Udham Singh constructed. She illuminates his personal life. Her mastery of all things Udham is evident on every page.
Anand demonstrates that histories of oppression and liberation are deeply personal and an intergenerational family matter. Ishwar Das Anand, the author’s grandfather, was in Jallianwala Bagh on the day of the massacre. By chance, the youngster left the garden minutes before the firing started. Dyer’s convoy passed him on the street. He returned to find friends dead or dying and suffered survivor’s guilt for the rest of his shortened life.
Today, Udham Singh, for many, embodies liberation: “simply a hero, destined to right a terrible wrong”. To others, he is an inveterate opportunistic fantasist blundering his way into the dubious shadowlands of Indian militant nationalism, international Bolshevism and any organisation he could lie his way through that was committed to bringing down the Empire.
Anand finds him to be neither “idealistic saint nor accidental avenger”, but something far more interesting. Furthermore, she releases her grandfather’s descendants from the undeserved burden of survivor guilt.
–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019
Rachel Holmes is author of Eleanor Marx: A Life.