On 5 June 1940, in Court 3 at the Old Bailey, Mr Justice Atkinson sentenced Udham Singh to death. In researching the two-day trial for Counsel, I came across a file of the Director of Public Prosecutions which only became public in 2016 under the British archives system. The file contains handwritten opening speech notes, the brief to counsel, two original exhibits not apparent in previous historical literature on Singh and telegrams between the Secretary of State and the equivalent offices in India. Throughout the file there are notes of surveillance conducted, on who was funding Singh’s defence, which counsel was to be instructed, and even what defence strategies were considered. This, in combination with the already published trial transcripts, and letters sent by Singh while in custody, provide a fascinating insight into the trial machinations.
Context: the Amritsar massacre
Seventy years ago, India obtained her independence, on 15 August 1947. The road to freedom was littered with untold blood and horrors, both in the struggle for freedom and the ensuing partition. One haunting episode was the Jallianwalah Bagh Massacre in 1919 which took place on 13 April, on Baisakhi, the holiest day of the Sikh calendar, minutes away from the Harmandir Sahib (known as the ‘Golden Temple’).
General Dyer ordered troops to fire into the crowd of 20,000 of all faiths. No warnings were given. The main exit had been blocked off by the troops, before ten minutes of unabated shooting. For many their ‘escape’ from gunfire was to jump to their deaths down a well. Estimates of deaths vary from 379 to 1,000. Winston Churchill described the episode as sinister, the ‘crowd neither armed nor attacking… pinned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square, with hardly any exits, and packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies.’
The supervising officer was Sir Michael O’Dwyer, Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, who termed the massacre a ‘correct action’. The Hunter Inquiry, set up in the aftermath, concluded that: ‘General Dyer thought he had crushed the rebellion and Sir Michael O’Dwyer was of the same view, but there was no rebellion which required to be crushed.’
Singh was brought up under the care of the Khalsa Orphanage in Amritsar. Indian history recounts he tended to individuals dying at the scene in Amritsar. On 13 March 1940 O’Dwyer was assassinated.
The events of Caxton Hall
Leading counsel for the prosecution was Mr McClure, his junior Christmas Humphries. Defence counsel was Mr Hutchinson, leading Krishna V Menon. In his opening speech, McClure set out: ‘The prisoner is charged with the murder of Sir Michael O’Dwyer on the 13th March (1940). On that afternoon a meeting had been held of the East India Association in conjunction with a society named the royal central Asian society, at Caxton Hall. Sir Percy Sykes delivered a lecture on the subject of Afghanistan.’
Six shots were fired from a Smith and Wesson revolver after the meeting came to a close at 4.30pm: ‘Although you are only enquiring into the question as to whether this man assassinated Sir Michael O’Dwyer, you will have evidence for the reason that relates to the wounding of 3 other persons.’
The Crown in opening outlined: ‘There are no political aspects of this case, these are matters which are said and produced in evidence only to indicate to you whether or not this was a deliberate act.’
What’s in a name, even if the name is ‘Azad?’
Once arrested, Singh provided his full name as ‘Mohamed Singh Azad’. This was a name tattooed on his forearm and shown to police. On 16 March 1940, Singh wrote to the investigating superintendent requesting Indian shoes, trousers, a shirt and a turban. Within the letter he requested: ‘One thing, do not try to change my name whatsoever I have given to you my name is Mahamed Singh Azad. I do not care if anyone say any thing let them go to hell but I want to keep my name.’ ‘Azad’, the name Singh sought to be tried in, means ‘freedom’ in Hindi/Urdu, demonstrating that independence from the British Empire could only take place if all faiths stood together.
Handwritten notes within the DPP file contain an application for leave to amend the indictment, stating that: ‘A good deal of public attention, more particularly from the Indian community has been directed to the prefix Mohammed to the name in which the Defendant was originally charged and this has tended to considerable misapprehension as to the defendant’s religion and race.’ In another letter to the investigating officer, Singh cheekily explains he was ‘just waiting to see your nice looking faces again in the court. There’s always seat for you and Mr Sands I keep room for both of you. Now I want to remember to Mr Sands on 23rd to have good hot chicken curry and pan parathas.’
Unfit to plead and stand trial?
An opinion was raised by the DPP as to whether this was the act of an individual who was insane. Letters from Hugh Grierson, Senior Medical Officer at HMP Brixton, on 19 April 1940 highlighted: ‘At times [Singh] has shown resentment of discipline, but has always been respectful in manner to me. Conversation has taken place in English, which he speaks quite well. Although he holds strong political views, I have found nothing at interviews to indicate insanity. In conclusion I am of the opinion that he is sane, and fit to plead to the indictment and to stand his trial.’
Further letters from HMP Brixton, dated 24 May 1940 to the DPP, reveal that Singh was on hunger strike: ‘Since the last session this man has been refusing food and since May 1st has had to be fed artificially. His conduct has been wilful, and not arising from any mental disease.’ On the second day of trial in the witness box, Singh was suffering physically from the impact of that hunger strike.
Exhibit 23: O’Dwyer’s handwriting
Special Branch noted his arrival into the UK two years prior to the death of O’Dwyer, as shown in an unused witness statement. Singh, it would appear, kept a careful eye on O’Dwyer and others. Within the DPP file, is the original exhibit 23, a letter from O’Dwyer to a Mool Chand, which was found in Singh’s possessions and contained O’Dwyer’s home address.
Exhibit 24: DS Jones’ notebook
Also within the archives is original exhibit 24, DS Sidney Jones’ notebook. The entries were written in pencil with no time recordings. Historical accounts of Singh, and indeed the trial process itself, are heavily reliant upon the contents of this notebook. In his letters from prison Singh alleged elements of falsification by the police.
In the transcripts, Mr Justice Atkinson’s line of questioning to the officer appears more incisive than any counsel: ‘I suggest there are 3 different thicknesses of pencil indicating that at any rate there were at least 3 writings.’ Despite other officers being present at times, DS Jones was the only officer who heard Singh’s comments. Of further note is that Sir Philip Game, a police officer conversant in Hindi, spoke to Singh for 15 minutes, and recorded nothing as per Jones. Game was not called as witness. Singh asked Jones: ‘Is Zetland dead? Only one dead eh? I thought I could got more.’ Zetland at that date was the Secretary of State for India. Despite the woundings of others not indicted, the address of Zetland (who had been the Governor of Bengal) for some reason was in the diary of Singh, thus widening the protest beyond simply targeting O’Dwyer and 1919.
Singh’s final words
After being convicted and pre-sentence, Singh said: ‘I have a statement. I say down with British imperialism in India and let us have peace.’ Atkinson said he was not going to listen to a political speech, and after being reminded of his powers to hear the matter in camera by the Crown, directed that nothing be published under the Emergency Powers Act.
Singh went on to explain: ‘I am not afraid to die. I am proud to die. I want to help my native land… when you dirty dogs come to India… they are bastard blood caste and they order machine guns to fire on the Indian students without hesitation. I have nothing against the public at all. I have more English friends in England than I have in India. I have nothing against the public. I have great sympathy with the workers of England, but I am against the dirty British Government.’ The judge directed that he was ‘not going to hear any more of that’, and passed the sentence of death.
The final words of Singh are missed off the official court transcript but noted in the DPP summary notes of trial: ‘Inquilab,’ said Singh three times before being led away. ‘Inquilab,’ meaning ‘revolution’.