Udham Singh was born on 28th December, 1899 at Sanam, Sangrur District, Punjab. His real name was Sher Singh. His father, Tehl Singh, was born into a poor peasant family and worked as a Railway Gate Keeper at the railway level crossing at Village Uppali. Sher Singh lost his parents at the age of 7 and as a result, he along with his elder brother Mukta Singh was admitted in the Central Khalsa Orphanage in Amritsar. There, Sher Singh became Udham Singh and Mukta Singh as Sadhu Singh. Both brothers studied there but in 1917 tragedy struck again and Sadhu Singh died. Udham Singh was now all alone in the world.
After completing matriculation in 1918, Udham Singh left the orphanage. In 1919, on the day of Vaisakhi, Udham Singh was present at Jallianwala bagh when general Reginald Edward Harry Dyer ordered to shoot a peaceful gathering of pro-independence people. More than 1000 people died but Udham Singh was somehow survived.
The massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919 was deeply engraved in the mind of the future martyr. Over the course of the next decade, Udham Singh led an existence that was at once peripatetic and revolutionary. Subsequently Udham Singh travelled abroad in Africa, the United States and Europe. Over the years he met Lala Lajpat Rai, Kishen Singh and Bhagat Singh, whom he considered his guru and ‘his best friend’.
In 1924 he returned back to India and reached US in the same year. In the US, Udham Singh came into contact with Gadar party and Lala Hardayal. He spent three years there while mobilising Indians for the cause of revolution. There he learnt about the new weapons from Indian migrants.
According to Prof Sikander Singh, a research scholar on Shaheed Udham Singh’s life and works, has written that while in Claremont in California (USA) in February 1922, Udham Singh became acquainted with an American girl, Lloope, with whom he solemnised marriage in 1923 at Long Beach (USA) where he had found a job in the Aero-plane Department of a company. Udham Singh had said in a statement that he had two sons from his American wife, Lloope, with whom he stayed at Lexington Avenue in New York up to 1927. Prof Sikander Singh, who visited the USA from December 2006 to February 2007 for research on Shaheed Udham Singh and locate the whereabouts of the sons of the martyr, told this reporter that he had come to know from a Claremont resident, Leo, who claimed to be a classfellow of the sons of Shaheed Udham Singh in 1932 at Claremont’s Sacramento School, that in those days Udham Singh’s sons had been called “Indian’s sons”. As per Leo’s statement, Lloope, the mother of the “Indian’s sons” was very beautiful and talented with big eyes, who died before 1935. After that Lloope’s sons left for Arizona (USA) with a relative of their mother, he added
In 1927 Udham Singh returned to India on orders of Bhagat Singh. Udham Singh on his way back to India, smuggled some guns as well as brought some prohibited political literature, but was arrested in Amritsar under the Arms Act. While in court, he claimed that the guns were meant to kill British imperialists. Because of this statement, he was sentenced to four years of rigorous imprisonment under the Arms act.
Udham Singh was released from jail in 1931, after which he went to his native place in Sunam. He was constantly harassed by the police because of his alleged anti-British actions. He then shifted to Amritsar and started a shop of signboard painting. He also changed his name, but in Amritsar too, he was constantly under the surveillance of the police and had to go to Kashmir on a revolutionary mission. There he was able to dupe the police and escaped to Europe.
He finally arrived in England in 1934 and took a residence in London, where he bought a car, a revolver and loads of ammunition. He had long nursed the desire to avenge the death of his fellow Indians for whom he held Michael O’Dwyer at least as much responsible as General Dyer himself. His aim always remained Michael O’Dwyer and despite several chances of eliminating him, he waited for a big chance, from where he wanted the world to hear the gunshot that would cut the lifeline of Michael O’Dwyer.
On 13 March 1940, O’Dwyer was one of the scheduled speakers at a joint meeting of the East India Association and the Royal Central Asian Society. As O’Dwyer was conversing with Lord Zetland, the Secretary of State for India, Udham Singh took out a concealed revolver and fired a number of shots: two bullets struck O’Dwyer, who died instantly, and another bullet wounded Zetland. Udham Singh made no attempt to escape and was at once apprehended.
Udham Singh was charged with the murder of Michael O’Dwyer on 1 April 1940 and his trial commenced on 4 June 1940 at “Old Bailey”, London, before Justice Atkinson. He gave his name as Ram Mohammad Singh Azad – an attempt on his part, three decades before Amar Akbar Anthony, to prove his secular credentials and to suggest, perhaps, that it remained for individuals to show how they could move beyond the communal outlook. To an India where communalism was assuming overwhelming importance, Udham Singh sought to demonstrate through his personal example that considerations of religion, creed, and caste ought to be no consequence to a genuine patriot.
The outcome of the trial was a foregone conclusion: Udham Singh had shot O’Dwyer before witnesses, and he never denied that he was responsible for the assassination. The trial lasted a mere two days; the proceedings were but a formality. Justice Atkinson sentenced him to death by hanging, and Court of Criminal Appeal dismissed his appeal and confirmed the death sentence. The order was carried out on July 31 at Pentonville Prison, also famous as the site for the execution of the Irish revolutionary Roger Casement. O’Dwyer was buried in the prison grounds and it is not until much later, at the request of the Indian government, that his remains were exhumed and repatriated back to India. Though a lesser-known figure than Bhagat Singh, he continues to be lionized in the Punjab and especially in Amritsar, and Punjabis have carried the memory of his name to other parts of India.