Victor Mukherjee‘s essay: Reinterpreting ‘Mohamed Singh Azad’: The Politics of Resistance and Religious Syncretism in Shaheed Udham Singh

New religion…. for the whole world… firmly founded on a behalf

on the One God, the same in the Vedas, the same in the Old, the

same in the New Testament, the same in Koran, the same also in

the hearts of those who have no longer any Vedas or Upanishads or

any Sacred Book whatever between themselves and their God. (81)

Max Muller, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion (1884)

The reconciliation of the spirit of freedom with the spirit of religious devotion or commitment had been a crucial ideological construction in India, especially during the significant phase of India’s freedom struggle between the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 to Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919, leading up to Independence of India in 1947. The historical sense of ‘syncretism’ in religious discourse can be located in the plural nature of Shaheed Udham Singh’s political ideology and spiritual belief. Udham Singh (1899-1940) was an Indian Ghadar Party, Hindustan Socialist, Republican Association, innovative and freedom pugilist. Although he does not share the same type of India-wide prominence associated with Indian nationalists and patriots such as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose (1897-1945), Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958), Lala Lajpat Rai (1865-1928) or Bhagat Singh (1907-1931), to name a few, he is particularly well-known figure in the Punjab generally and in Amritsar in particular. The incident of mass slaughter at Jallianwala Bagh on 13th April 1919 had left a deep scar in him during the formative years of his life. To avenge the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Udham Singh – ‘the patient assassin’ – plotted for over twenty years and on March, 1940, he shot dead the former Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer (1864-1940), at Caxton Hall.

Singh did not ty to escape. On July 31, 1940, he was hanged in prison at Benton. Udham Singh got interested in the ideology of the Ghadar Party and in the beginning of 1924 he went to America and became an active member of the Ghadar Party. His spirit of resistance was inspired by the atrocity at Jallianwala Bagh massacre and his political belief and nationalistic fervour was a long-term consequence of his engagement with the revolutionary politics of the Ghadar movement: a militant, anti-colonial socialist organisation, operating predominantly from the Indian diaspora in the U.S. He was distraught at Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom on March 23, 1931. Later he wrote about his thoughts on the same in letters from Brixton prison, London, in 1940 where he suggested that the revolutionary movement had failed after Bhagat Singh’s untimely death. In the last months of 1931 he was released from the prison. He obtained a passport from Lahore in the name of Udham Singh and reached England by the end of 1933. In the previous passport his name was given as Sher Singh. It was only in 1937 that the police found that Sher Singh of the Ghadar Party had renamed himself as Udham Singh. In England he came in contact with some Punjabis in the gurdwara of London; among whom Shiv Singh Touhl became his close friend. During 1934 to 1938 he visited many European countries. During his stay in England he worked in various capacities. Though he was under police surveillance after 1937, he did not stay at one place for long and normally sought lodgings in the houses of the Europeans.

It is important to note that Jallianwala Bagh massacre and martial law repression were conducted during the regime of Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab. After the Second World War had begun, the Ghadar party took the view that the time had come for a revolt and for overthrowing of British rule from India. Udham Singh was in search of such an opportunity. On March 13, 1940 at Caxton Hall there was a meeting of British imperialists who were making suggestions to the government how to maintain its control over the colonies such as India. After the meeting, Udham Singh shot dead O’Dwyer and wounded Zetland, Lamington and Dane. Lamington and Dane were supporters of O’Dwyer’s anti-Indian ideology. In fact, Udham Singh wanted to target some Britishers connected with Indian affairs in order to begin the revolt and these officials had already earned his wrath very sincerely. However, the Imperial structure did not spare Udham Singh, who, on July 31, 1940 was martyred.

It is necessary to mention that during Udham Singh’s long revolutionary tenure he was called by many names including Sher Singh, Ude Singh, US Sidhu Singh and Mohamed Singh Azad. ‘Mohamed Singh Azad’ can be interpreted as the expression representing India’s religious harmony and cultural diversity. Udham Singh’s liberationist political ideology inspired a syncretic approach to his religious belief. Although this contention has been problematised by historian Anita Anand (2019). She believes that Udham Singh was an atheist like his comrade Bhagat Singh. While analysing his liberal approach, she notes that in his correspondence with Shiv Singh in March 1940, Udham Singh wrote, ‘I don’t want your religious books, as I do not believe them’ (157). These seemingly contradictory approaches problematize any possible presumption about Singh’s spiritual belief. Significantly, Mohamed Singh Azad’s inclusive nomenclature underscored a political ideal – the unity of the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities in the freedom struggle while portraying a sense of brotherhood animated by the spirit of azaadi. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was a great incentive to Indian nationalism and led to the complete loss of trust in the British Raj among the Indian population.

It was to be another twenty-eight years before Independence was gained in 1947. However, Indian academia in general and the history text books in particular have failed to highlight the importance of the martyrdom of Shaheed Udham Singh to the young Indians. Perhaps we acknowledge socio-political reality only when it gets projected through structured political discourses or institutionalised religiosity. Our present times can truly witness the greater need for honouring cultural diversity and religious syncretism for restoring the peace and harmony of our nation.


Anand, Anita. The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj. London: Simon and Schuster UK Scribner, 2019. Print.
Muller, Max. Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1880. Print.

Victor Mukherjee is a state-aided college teacher in New Alipore College, Kolkata. Apart from being a research scholar in Rabindrabharati University, he loves writing essays in international journals and recite poems.

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