Twenty Years After a Brutal Massacre, It’s Payback Time
THE PATIENT ASSASSIN
A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge, and India’s Quest for Independence
By Anita Anand
On April 13, 1919, a column of British troops marched into the Jallianwala Bagh, a public garden in Amritsar, a city in Punjab, where more than 15,000 Indians had gathered for a peaceful protest against the increasingly restrictive policies of the British government, and in particular the deportation of two followers of Gandhi. At the orders of Brig. Gen. Reginald Dyer, the soldiers began firing into the crowd without warning. When screaming men, women and children rushed toward the exits, Dyer ordered his troops to aim at them. Many who were attempting to climb over the high perimeter wall were gunned down, their bloodied bodies falling in heaps. The firing went on for 10 minutes, killing an estimated 500 to 600 people and wounding many more.
While Dyer was the one to order the killings, another man was also responsible for the massacre: Michael O’Dwyer, the lieutenant governor of Punjab, who justified the carnage and defended Dyer’s actions. At the core of Anita Anand’s “The Patient Assassin” is the story of Udham Singh, an Indian who sought to avenge the murders of his fellow countrymen by shooting O’Dwyer to death in London in March 1940. In recounting the lives of these three main characters — Singh, O’Dwyer and Dyer — Anand, a British-Indian biographer and broadcast journalist, provides a revealing look at the brutality and oppression of British rule, and how it seeded the desire for retribution in the hearts of so many Indians. Anand’s account of the movement for Indian independence draws a contrast between the extremist path chosen by Singh and the nonviolent struggle led by Gandhi, posing a question that hangs over the pages of the book without being asked explicitly: When is violence morally legitimate in a people’s fight against a tyrannical regime?
Born into a low-caste Hindu family in 1899, Singh had lost both his parents by the time he was 7 and was subsequently raised in a Sikh orphanage in Amritsar. When he was 18, he enlisted in the British Army, serving as a carpenter in Mesopotamia during World War I before returning to Punjab in early 1919. Whether he was in Jallianwala Bagh to witness the massacre is not known, but Anand says it is possible that “he knew some of the dead intimately and cared for them deeply,” which inspired his transformation into a radical. Moving to East Africa for a job with the Uganda Railway, Singh became associated with the Ghadars, an organization of Indian revolutionaries that had been founded in San Francisco. He later traveled to the United States, serving briefly as a driver for the group before working in other jobs and marrying a Mexican woman.
Upon his return to India in 1927, Singh was jailed for five years for having smuggled several guns into the country. In 1934, he moved to London, where he supported himself by selling hosiery and other goods for much of the next six years — until the fateful day when he took O’Dwyer’s life at a public lecture.
Anand does a stellar job of sketching Singh’s trajectory from orphanage to hangman’s noose, and from obscurity into the pantheon of Indian heroes. But the lack of available details about his activities, including the precise nature of his relationship with the Ghadars, forces her to tell the story at a remove that at times feels unsatisfying. In contrast, the book offers a crisp portrait of O’Dwyer, providing a clear sense of the attitudes he shared with his fellow administrators in the Raj. In their eyes, Anand writes, “Indian men, women and children were lesser humans.” Singh’s character and motivations, on the other hand, are rendered in such broad and sometimes speculative brush strokes that readers are likely to be left wondering what really drove him. Yet the book more than makes up for this shortcoming by reconstructing its key events in compelling, vivid prose.
Gandhi denounced O’Dwyer’s assassination as an act of insanity. To most Indians, however, it was an act of justice, especially because, unlike Dyer, O’Dwyer had never shown any remorse. Someone had to do it, even if it took more than 20 years. The British Empire delivered its own justice to Singh a lot more quickly. He was executed on July 31, 1940, four months after he killed O’Dwyer.