Amritsar seemed to contract after the massacre, seized by a convulsion of anger and fear. Local politicians were either arrested or went into hiding. The civilian population, rudderless without them, shied away from the streets. The soldiers had their city now and their uniforms represented subjugation, humiliation and summary execution. Many, who just days before had been happy to march in Gandhi’s non- violent parades, now vowed to take up arms against the Raj.
Ramji Dass Sunami, one of Udham’s friends from his father’s hometown, described seeing him driven mad with grief and rage shortly after the declaration of martial law: ‘[He] went to the Golden Temple and immersed himself in the holy pool of nectar [the expanse of water surrounding the Temple] and took a solemn oath to avenge it with the blood of O’Dwyer.’1 Another of his friends, Manjit Singh Kassid, was worried that the young man’s untrammelled rage would devour him.
Udham was talking of vengeance and murder without caring about the consequences.
In the days after the massacre, talk alone could have landed him and maybe those who listened to him in jail. As for Brigadier General Dyer, Udham could barely bring himself to say his name: ‘He was deeply moved whenever he talked of the incidents of 13 April 1919. When he talked of General Dyer and his action, his eyes became bloodshot with rage.’
Udham was desperate to act, to spill British blood, but he did not know where to begin. He lurked around the bookshops of Hall bazaar, places where boys had once collected seditious pamphlets and distributed them around the province, hoping to be gathered up by some militant group. Nobody came for him.
What made things worse was that Punjabis around him seemed to be conflating the identities of Dyer and O’Dwyer, merging them into one ‘rakshas’ or demon. ‘Brigadier O’Dwyer’ became a composite villain, as omnipotent and terrifying as the devils in ancient scripture. If his fellow Indians did not recognise their enemies, how would any of them be able to punish them?
Udham Singh was not the only one who would see an atrocity that needed to be avenged. Jallianwala Bagh, after the lifting of martial law on 11 June 1919, became a place of pilgrimage. One of those said to have made the journey was a twelve- year- old boy from Lahore named Bhagat Singh. According to his biographers, young Bhagat travelled the 30 miles between the cities unaccompanied, determined to see for himself what the British had done.
Though it may seem implausible that such a young boy could make the journey alone, but Bhagat Singh was no ordinary boy. His father had been in jail the day he was born on 27 September 1907, serving a sentence along with two of Bhagat’s uncles, convicted of organising a peasant revolt against the Land Colonisation Bill. A much- detested piece of legislation, it forced the transfer of property to the government if a farmer died without a son and heir. The bill gave the British the right to sell this confiscated land to developers, zamindars, who were rich, indigenous landowners loyal to the Raj.
Leading the farmers, by Bhagat’s family pushed back, and as a result found themselves in and out of prison throughout his formative years. Bhagat grew up hating the British occupation of his country as much as the absence of the men he loved. If he did indeed make the apocryphal pilgrimage to the Bagh, the bullet holes in the walls gave the twelve- year- old hundreds more reason to fight them.
Bhagat Singh would grow to become one of India’s most wanted men and the most important influence in Udham Singh’s life. However, in 1919, when Udham was desperately looking for a mentor, their paths never crossed. Even if they had, what would an angry twelve- year- old boy have been able to do for a chaotic Kamboj orphan?
Within months of the massacre, Udham Singh was out of money, having run through what was left of his army pay. Revenge would have to wait; he needed to eat. Udham desperately needed to find a job – not an easy task in post- war India.
The war led to a dramatic increase in defence expenditure, which in turn led to increased tax demands from the masses in British India. Though the economy stagnated, trains still managed to run, and where there were railways, there was work. The British hired senior staff from their own kind, drivers and engineers from the bi- racial ‘Anglo- Indian’ community and manual labour from indigenous Indians. Jobs for natives were usually to be found in the ditches or cuttings by the side of the tracks, but some skilled workers found work in the repair sheds – long hours for low pay. Udham Singh had carpentry skills from his time at the orphanage and a knowledge of engine repairs from his time in the army, but even with these he seemed unable to find work in Amritsar. He was forced to try his luck further afield.
Lahore Junction, John Lawrence’s legacy to his compatriots, was still one of the busiest railway stations in all of Asia. It was here that Udham Singh finally found some employment late in 1919, but it was barely enough to keep him from destitution.
Things got so bad that, by his own admission, he was forced to sleep by the water tanks outside the station, waking to find casual jobs by day.
Such a hand- to- mouth existence would have been depressing and debilitating for any man in the prime of his life. For a man who now felt he had a higher purpose, it must have been unbearable. Casting his net wider still, Udham moved from city to city, lurching from crisis to crisis, taking jobs that lasted no more than a few weeks at a time.
By the end of 1919, he found himself back in Lahore, but by that time his enemy, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, was gone, retired and back in England, where he had received a hero’s welcome. Sir Michael was always meant to move on from Punjab in April 1919, and some historians have speculated whether he meant to leave his province in the hands of the army at the end of his tenure.
Nigel Collett, in his excellent book on Dyer, The Butcher of Amritsar, points out that Sir Michael engaged in a ‘bitter and unsuccessful fight’ to wrest control of Punjab’s administration before he had to leave: ‘Inconceivable as it may seem, it really does appear that he thought he could bring down marital law on his province, yet still remain in charge. The viceroy, compliant in all else, would not yield on this.’
The new lieutenant governor of Punjab was Sir Edward Douglas MacLagan, more academic than autocrat. MacLagan had written extensively on the history and people of India, and his work on the census of Punjab, in 1891, betrayed something close to affection for the natives. Punjab’s pain seemed to lessen with the new appointment, but Udham’s life got no easier. By February 1920 he had sunk to new lows, sleeping rough near the railway station again, relying almost entirely on the charity of a local gurdwara for his meals.
Every Sikh gurdwara has a langar (dining hall), where people from every background are welcome to come and sit together as equals, eating meals prepared by volunteers. It is more than likely that while sitting cross- legged on the floor of the langar Udham first heard of jobs in Africa. Contract work overseas paid considerably better than the piecemeal labouring work he was getting in Punjab. Companies provided billets for workers, and allowances for food. Some even paid for passage, offset against future earnings.
A man named Andrews ran the office on Lahore’s Mall Road and, after asking him a few questions, signed Udham up. He was told to expect 240 rupees per month, if, and only if, he committed to an employment period of no less than three years. His new employer was the British- owned Ugandan Railway Company. With few other options, Udham headed for east Africa.
Excerpted with the permission of Simon and Schuster India from the book The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj by Anita Anand. You can buy the book here.