The Patient Assassin: A true tale of massacre, revenge and the Raj

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Read 15/10/2020-28/10/2020

Rating 5 stars

From start to finish, The Patient Assassin is a gripping read, bringing to life a complex man and the Indian history he is part of.

Anita Anand’s biography of Udham Singh is an investigation of the facts behind the legend of this venerated figure in Indian history. On 13 March 1940, at Caxton Hall in Westminster, Singh assassinated Sir Michael O’Dwyer, who had been Lieutenant Governor of Punjab at the time of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre on 13 April 1919. Singh was seeking revenge for the massacre.

Anand has a personal interest in his story; her grandfather, Ishwar Das Anand, left Jallianwala Bagh in the moments before the arrival of Brigadier General Rex Dyer and his troops, and avoided being caught up in the massacre that ensued. The friends he had been with were all killed. He suffered survivor’s guilt for the rest of his life. Anand’s family brought her up to remember this event, the two British officers responsible for it, and the man who avenged the murders. As well as this personal connection, an ancestor of her husband’s moved from Punjab to Britain in the 1930s and shared living accommodation with Udham Singh.

Anand is a journalist and broadcaster and had to call on her journalism skills to separate herself from these family stories in order to present a balanced portrait of Singh and the events that lay between the massacre and the assassination.

In India today, Udham Singh is for many simply a hero, destined to right a terrible wrong. At the other extreme, there are those who traduce him as a Walter Mitty-type fantasist, blundering his way into the history books. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between; Udham was neither a saint, nor an accidental avenger. His story is far more interesting than that.

Anand has written an accessible account of the main characters in this story, encompassing the lead up to the massacre and the events between the massacre and the assassination, drawing on memoirs, biographies, social and political histories, parliamentary papers and official archive records at the UK and Indian National Archives. Her style is conversational, with the air of a BBC documentary, making this a very easy read, details of brutality on both sides in the Raj notwithstanding. Fully sourced, the book presents the facts Anand has deemed pertinent to the story she wanted to tell, while giving the reader the option to go to the original sources if they want to know more. She’s also honest in the endnotes about the reliability of family sources, those in her own family and those in Udham Singh’s, because of the generational distance that now lies between the people who knew Singh and the people still alive to bear family witness to his story. I found her explanations of Hindi words and phrases interesting, learning the meaning behind words that are familiar in British culture, not always for positive reasons.

The book includes sketch portraits of Sir Michael O’Dwyer and Brigadier General Rex Dyer, the background to the political upheaval in India in the first half of the 20th century, and a more detailed examination of Udham Singh’s life. The sketch portraits are Anand’s attempt to separate the men from the feared figures she grew up hearing about, and an attempt to demonstrate why and how they became the hard liners who oversaw the brutal suppression of the independence movement in India. She doesn’t do it to forgive but to show that they were human rather than bogeymen. Much of what she describes about their lives is typical of the officer class in the British army at the time.

In contrast, Singh had the difficult life of someone from one of the lowest castes. Given that few records of India’s poor exist, even within the context of the Victorian era, where record keeping went into overdrive, Anand has done well to piece together Singh’s early life. Orphaned young, Anand presents his caregivers at the Sikh-run Central Khalsa Orphanage in Amritsar as Singh’s stability. He received their support and care into early adulthood.

Singh joined the Indian army during the First World War in response to the promises made by the British government that land had been set aside as a reward for all those in India who volunteered to fight for the Empire. At the end of the war, having experienced just how much Indian soldiers were expendable, Singh and others returned home to discover that the promise of land was a lie. He quickly joined a radical movement calling for an end to the British Raj, distributing leaflets for the Ghadars, or Revolutionaries. Anand suggests that, although there is no evidence to confirm it, Singh was probably also involved in Gandhi’s satyagraha movement in the days leading up to the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh.

Anand condenses the build up of Indian resistance to British rule well, maintaining a sense of tension while getting across the opposing views of the situation fairly. She leaves the reader to form their own judgement of the events by reporting viewpoints from both sides. For me, the British come across as having decided a plan of action and then fitting the surrounding events to it as justifiable cause for their position.

As I read Anand’s balanced summary of the unrest in Amritsar in 1919, it struck me that the British reaction to reports of the massacre was understandable in the context of the time; the ruling Brits othered the Indian population so successfully that they were able to see them as alien, and to assume that all Indians were the same. It’s easy to mete out hard justice, I suppose, when you don’t know the people around you and don’t think of them as being like you, with the same hopes and concerns about life as you. The racist world view heavily favoured during Empire was hard to challenge, as it was the accepted view among white Britons. I’m not excusing anything, I’m acknowledging that you can hold wrong ideas quite easily if you only associate with people like you and don’t hear anyone else’s viewpoint. The same is true today. This difference in perspective is evident in the findings of the Hunter Committee which investigated the massacre; the British jurists believed O’Dwyer had been justified in assuming Punjab was about to explode into rebellion, while the Indian jurists did not.

The first part of the book is a companion to Kim Wagner’s more detailed history of the Amritsar massacre, which I read last year. Anand’s take is more personal, and does more to get across the fact that the events in Punjab in 1919 were happening to people, not statistics. It’s a counterpoint to Wagner’s book.

In the second part of the book, Anand focuses in on Udham Singh, his response to the massacre and the life he led between the deaths at Jallianwala Bagh and his assassination of O’Dwyer in 1940.

His life is a window on Empire, from the difficulties of finding work as low caste in India and the wholesale movement of brown bodies around the Empire to complete building and infrastructure projects at speed and with a high mortality rate, to the life of a colonial immigrant in Britain.

Udham Singh struggled to find work in Punjab, so he left to work on the construction of the Ugandan Railway in East Africa. Here, Anand reveals the desperate conditions under which workers on the railway lived and worked. It’s another aspect of the British attitude to the inhabitants of the countries Britain occupied and it has echoes of the slave trade. People were paid, but, “Wages were often so paltry that many lived on the point of starvation. Workers were made dependent on their employers, and since quitting a job would have meant overnight starvation, few could afford to object to conditions or to leave.”

Through Singh’s experience in Uganda, Anand reveals the network of Indian revolutionaries pushing for independence that spread across the countries of Empire where Indian people lived and worked. While working on the railway, Singh encountered a branch of the Ghadar movement and quickly became involved, gaining a new passport and leaving behind his indentured life.

Although his motivations were different, Singh’s desire to relocate to the USA is a useful peg for Anand to hang the interesting history of Punjabi economic migration to North America, via colonial links to Canada, experience of working on the railways, and the traditional agrarian skills that many Punjabis settling in California put to good use. The influx of immigrant workers generated opposition in the form of the Asiatic Exclusion League, formed in 1913 to keep Asians out of Canada and the US. Alongside this, the California Alien Land Law of the same year meant that, “Overnight, Indians, Chinese and Japanese migrants were lumped in the same ‘alien’ bracket and stripped of rights and property.”

Singh’s passage into and life in America is full of intrigue and false identities. Anand makes the most of the limited source material to weave a gripping tale of a chameleonic man, intimately involved in the Ghadar movement, slipping through the grasp of the immigration authorities for as long as possible. Singh built a life in California, with a wife and a series of well paid jobs, but was also quick to walk away from a location and change his identity in order to maintain his tenure as a Ghadar fixer.

Cutting in between her biography of Singh, Anand keeps an eye on what Sir Michael O’Dwyer was doing in the years following his retirement as lieutenant governor of Punjab. I found him less interesting, because his is a well worn path, but I understand why Anand wanted to maintain the contrast between the lives of Udham Singh and O’Dwyer.

The glimpses of the decline of Rex Dyer following his expulsion from India and the army in the aftermath of the massacre are sympathetic, told in a way that humanises the caricature. Dyer truly was a broken man, his view of himself shattered by the realisation that his action at Jallianwala Bagh was not universally supported. Anand seems to see him as a contradiction, repeatedly referring to an incident in his boyhood when he cried after accidentally shot and killed a monkey. There’s a strange sentimental tone to the way Anand writes about Dyer that’s absent from her sketching of O’Dwyer. Perhaps it’s because, although neither man expressed regret for the events in Amritsar in 1919, O’Dwyer was vocally and litigiously vehement about his self-justification, whereas Dyer largely faded into the background due to his ill health.

The politics of the Indian independence movement interested me. As with some of the Black civil rights organisations in the US, there was a Marxist element to the fight to bring an end to the British Raj. The Soviet Union made use of the Ghadars to promulgate Communist ideologies. The Communist Party of Great Britain worked with Trade Unions in India. Indians who emigrated to Britain formed their own Trade Union in an attempt to challenge colour bars in the workplace, and branches of this organisation were often the loci of Ghadar and Communist Party recruitment. The threat of workers organising to claim their rights has always been Capitalism’s enemy. It’s why activist groups are still accused by capitalist regimes of being Marxist, whether they are or not, as though that’s the worst thing anyone could be. If you’re a politician of the left and chance to become leader of the UK Labour Party, even the faintest hint of eau de Marx will have the popular press and politicians of the right vilifying you.

The investigation into Singh and the ensuing trial after he assassinated O’Dwyer was monumentally hushed up, with the Government seeking to expunge the Amritsar massacre from Singh’s story and sealing official files about Singh for 100 years. The few files that Anand has accessed at The National Archives were only released as a result of Freedom of Information requests. The Raj ended seven years after Singh shot O’Dwyer. What can there possibly be to cover up now?

The acknowledgements shed more light on Anand’s sources, and the many people who helped her piece together Singh’s life story. She acknowledges the frustrations involved in archival research, with elusive documents quoted by previous researchers occasionally misplaced, and secret government files glimmering tantalisingly around the edges of declassified information.

Having enjoyed Kim Wagner’s book, I was delighted to read Anand’s tribute to his scholarly friendship: “Though we were ploughing overlapping fields, Kim was always an amazing support and generously helpful. In Kim I know I have found a dear friend for life.” I think it’s the archivist’s drive to help researchers unlock historical evidence that makes a friendship like this one warm my heart.

If you’re interested in the history of Britain’s occupation of India and the journey towards that nation’s independence and partition, then this is a good introduction to one aspect of that story.

6 thoughts on “The Patient Assassin: A true tale of massacre, revenge and the Raj

  1. This seems like a ‘must-read’. The broad sweep of material covered, in an apparently exhaustive and sympathetic way sounds illuminating, and I already know I enjoy Anand’s writing. I’ll definitely hunt this out – thanks for this detailed review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a really great read, Margaret. I learned so much about the Indian diasporic experience in the early 20th century, particularly how communities developed and supported each other.

      I haven’t read anything else by Anand, but I’ll be looking her other books out.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That is a brilliant book, but you’re thinking of Aminatta Forna – reminding me that I need to read more by her, too! I’ve found another Anand book on the library catalogue – Sophia, about the suffragette daughter of a Sikh maharaja. I’m going to give that a go.

        Liked by 1 person

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