‘The Letters of Bhai Udham Singh’ by J.S. Grewal and H. K. Puri

udham singh

In remembrance of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, in May 2019 the Sikhi Book Club discussed ‘The Letters of Bhai Udham Singh’. This book aimed to publicize some significant facts about Udham Singh’s life and foster appreciation for his personality. The book used oral evidence from those who knew him, as well as archived material and a personal collection of documents from Shiv Singh Johal who was a close personal friend of Bhai Udham Singh when he was in the UK.

The members began by discussing Bhai Udham Singh’s life, which was narrated briefly in this book. He was born as Sher Singh around 1899 and lived part of his childhood life in an orphanage. Whilst staying for a period in America, he linked with the Ghararites before returning to India. He was a close admirer of Bhagat Singh whom he regarded as a teacher. After spending some time in jail he travelled around India before being arrested again. His character was evident in this book as being passionate regarding revolution and Indian independence, as well as being confident, charming and well versed in English. Many of the members had never heard any substantiated information about Bhai Udham Singh’s life and so this part of the book was highly informative.

We also discussed the summary of modern Indian and Punjabi history which this book contained. For anyone looking for a contemporary account of how the Arya Samaj, Singh Sabha and independence movements developed the first part of this book contains a detailed and highly useful summary of the chronology of events in this period.

Bhai Udham Singh killed one of the individuals responsible for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in March 1940 in England. Subsequently the British authorities made a specific effort to prevent his actions from being reported in order to avoid his being hailed as a hero in the eyes of independence advocates in India. Bhai Udham Singh was incarcerated until his own murder. His ashes were eventually returned to India after much difficulty and these were received with a hero’s welcome. It wasn’t until 2018 that a statue of his was erected at the site of the massacre in Amritsar.

The latter part of the book contains Bhai Udham Singh’s own letters which have been scanned in and then transcribed for ease of reading. These letters are accompanied with commentary for the reader. There are many who regard Bhai Udham Singh as having renounced his faith or heritage during this time in prison. The reality however is that he showed his sense of humour through these letters, talking about the chaplain trying to convert him and referring to the Lord Chamberlain as Mrs Chamberlain. He protected his close friends by indicating that he didn’t know them well, and signs himself as Mohammed Singh Azad, despite everyone involved knowing full well his real identity. His requests for a Sikh chaplain were repeatedly denied. The book club members found these letters invaluable in providing a closer insight into Bhai Udham Singh’s thoughts and feelings at the time of his incarceration.

In summary this book contains a good summary of events in the lead up to India’s independence, and contains valuable information about Bhai Udham Singh’s life and writings. Any individual looking to learn more about this period in history would be advised to read this book.

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