A carefully reconstructed story of political murder that began to unfold a century ago.
The mass killing of protestors in Amritsar on April 13, 1919, is a central moment in Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi. It is also a moment enshrined in Indian memory—and, in many ways, the beginning of the end of British rule. The officer who ordered the killings, Gen. Reginald Dyer, was forever haunted by his act, writes British journalist and BBC presenter Anand (Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, 2015, etc.): “His family would always believe that he died of a broken heart” and not the cerebral hemorrhage on the death certificate. While no one can quite agree on how many died there, hundreds or thousands, one man vowed to do something to avenge them, traveling to Britain and laying a careful trap for the colonial governor who had not only authorized the killings, but spent the rest of his days defending them. It took 20 years to enact that vengeance, but, as the author writes, when Udham Singh shot Sir Michael O’Dwyer in central London, he “became the most hated man in Britain, a hero to his countrymen in India and a pawn in international politics”—lauded, among other champions, by Joseph Goebbels as a hero of the anti-British struggle. Anand painstakingly follows Singh’s long path from the killing fields of India to the Houses of Parliament and that climactic moment, which might have resulted in the deaths of many other officials had he used the right caliber for the bullets he fired. Singh was executed for his act, though supporters tried to give him the means to kill himself while in prison—and his jailers therefore even took away Singh’s glasses lest he “break one of the lenses and slit his wrists.” A memorial in Amritsar now commemorates Singh’s act, which, as Anand suggests, was far more nuanced than the simple act of assassination it was made out to be.
A footnote to Anglo-Indian history, to be sure, but a telling one, and very well done.