An Indian hunger striker in 1940

Parallels were often drawn between the Irish and Indian experiences of colonialism and imperialism in the early twentieth century. The Irish drive for independence was seen as a source of inspiration by many India nationalists. It may even have provided a significant influence on Udham Singh, one of the iconic figures of India’s anti-colonial struggles. Singh was reputedly in touch with the IRA in England in the early 1930s and was also believed to have been influenced by the IRA’s sabotage campaign in England in 1939. Ultimately, though, Singh’s formative political experience was the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar [1].

Udham Singh in 1937 film Elephant Boy
Udham Singh (as a film extra in ‘Elephant Boy).

On 13 April 1919, British troops had opened fire there on Indian civilians, killing maybe 400 people and injuring 1,000 more. Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab at the time of the massacre, was held by many to be ultimately responsible (you can read a more detailed post on O’Dwyer by Sean Gannon here). The President of the Indian National Congress, Lala Lajpat Rai, condemned O’Dwyer saying “No man in the whole history of British rule in India has done such great disservice to the British Empire and has brought such disgrace on the good name of the British nation.” Udham Singh was deeply scarred by the massacre, where his brother and sister were among the dead. In 1940 he shot O’Dwyer dead at a public meeting of the East India Association and Royal Central Asian Society in Caxton Hall, London.

Michael O'Dwyer ILNews 23.3.40
Michael O’Dwyer, Illustrated London News 23/3/1940

Some of the Indian press, such as the Lahore Tribune (16/3/1940), believed that Singh was attempting to instigate a campaign similar to the IRA’s sabotage campaign of 1939. The New Statesman also noted the parallels between the execution of IRA activists and Singh’s likely fate and the impact that would have on anti-colonial sentiment.[2]

Different writers have presented contrasting versions of the subsequent events. Sikander Singh claims that the experience of political prisoner trials in India meant that it was likely both that Udham Singh would use court proceedings as a platform for anti-colonial political messages [3]. While the officials debated how to conduct his trial and how to limit publicity, on 2 April the Director of Intelligence Bureau of India warned the authorities that censorship was needed as Singh would seek to present himself as a martyr in the cause of Indian Freedom. On being held on remand in Brixton, Udham Singh made various attempts to link up with his contacts on the outside and arrange for a revolver or hacksaw blades to be smuggled in to him for an escape attempt.

Singh after his arrest ILNews 23.3.40
Singh after his arrest in 1940, Illustrated London News, 23.3.1940

Sikander Singh’s sympathetic biography of Udham Singh explores this prison experience in some detail, drawing heavily on contemporary sources. The most recent biographical treatment of Singh, Anita Anand’s The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj, though, barely explores that prison experience and seems to assume Singh wanted a hacksaw blade to cut his wrists rather than for an escape.

By the time Udham Singh was brought to trial on 4 June 1940 he was reported to have been on hunger strike for 42 days (the authorities also documented his weight loss over this period). His hunger strike began on 26 April 1940. Hunger strikes as a political weapon in India had often taken their cue from examples in Ireland, particularly that of Terence MacSwiney in 1920, which received global press coverage. In the week before Udham Singh began his hunger strike, two members of the IRA, Tony D’Arcy and Jack McNeela, had died on a hunger strike in Dublin. In the days before Udham Singh embarked on his hunger strike, their deaths were widely reported in the press in Britain including the verdict of the inquest jury that criminal status should not be accorded to political prisoners.

The prison authorities, as was standard in the case of hunger strikes in prisons in Britain, ordered that Singh be force-fed. Anand portrays this as an attempt by the Prison Medical Officer, Dr Grierson, to keep him alive as long as his hanging but the same policy was applied to Irish republican prisoners on hunger strike in England (and also to David Fleming in Crumlin Road in 1946). Singh was force-fed ninety-three times. The process for force-feeding, involving restraints, a clamp for the mouth and feeding-tube was gruesome. Anand present’s Singh’s hunger strike only as an attempt “…to starve himself to death” rather than a political act.

Representation of force-feeding (Republican News)


Singh’s apparent revenge for Jallianwala Bagh and subsequent execution on 31 July 1940 transformed him from a relatively unknown figure in Indian politics into a legend. In the years after Jallianwala Bagh Singh had travelled widely through Britain and the United States where he came in contact with the left wing Indian nationalist Ghadar Party. Singh returned to India in 1927 but was arrested for gun smuggling and spent five years in prison. On his release he returned to England.

According to Alfred Draper, on arriving in England, Singh was in contact with the IRA and stayed with one of its leaders in the Isle of Wight [4]. While Singh meeting an IRA figure in England might seem implausible, in the early 1930s Indian nationalist leaders like Krishna Deonarine had been feted by senior Irish republicans like Peadar O’Donnell and Sean McBride at various events in Ireland. Public messages of solidarity and support had been sent by Irish republicans to the Indian anti-colonial movements. In that regard, Singh connecting with contacts from the IRA is entirely plausible although the IRA, in the early 1930s, was struggling to decide on its own purpose and was not in position to provide much in the way of help to Singh.

If Singh was influenced by the actions of Irish republicans it doesn’t appear to have been reciprocated. The surviving republican newspapers from that time and likes of Irish Freedom and Irish Workers Weekly did not make any mention of Singh’s arrest, trial, imprisonment or death. Oddly, though, all clearly identify with India’s struggles against British colonialism. India even features in articles while Singh was imprisoned but without reference to Singh. Further research might shed more light on the level of awareness of Singh’s case amongst Irish republicans.

After being hung in Pentonville Prison, Udham Singh was also buried there. In 1974, his body was repatriated to India and cremated in his home village of Sunam.


[1] There are various legends around Singh’s early life so it is hard to now which is true. One story (in Kulwant Singh Kooner and Gurpreet Singh Sindhra’s 2013 book Some Hidden Facts: Martyrdom of Shaheed Bhagat) claims Singh had been installing a water tap for protestors to drink from at Jallianwala Bagh on the suggestion of a British agent who was trying to get militants to assemble so they could be shot down.

[2] Peter Barnes and James McCormack had been hung in Winston Green prison on 7 February 1940 for an IRA bombing that had killed five people in Coventry the previous year.

[3] Sikander Singh, A Great Patriot and Martyr Udham Singh.

[4] In his book Amritsar: The Massacre That Ended the Raj.

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