On March 13, 1940, at Caxton Hall in London, Sir Michael O’Dwyer was addressing a joint meeting of the East Indian Association and the Royal Central Asiatic Society. At the end of his speech, a man approached the podium and fired off six shots into a crowd. Four shots went harmlessly astray, but two struck O’Dwyer in the back, killing him instantly.
As the murderer fled, a woman threw herself in his path. The man was apprehended and identified as Udham Singh.
In 1919, during the bloody Amritsar riots, O’Dwyer had been the governor of Punjab. Singh as a teenager witnessed the riots in the Sikh region of northwest India. Singh and others held O’Dwyer responsible for the massacre by British and Gurkha troops on April 13, 1919, which claimed the lives of several hundred Indian men, women and children, most of whom were holding a peaceful protest.
Deserted in Calcutta
Later, Singh served three years in the Indian army then traveled via London to Mexico and the United States. Posing as a Puerto Rican, he joined the U.S. Navy but deserted in Calcutta, India, in 1931.
A month later, he was arrested in Amritsar for possession of illegal weapons and a banned newspaper. He admitted that the weapons were to be used against the British, and was sentenced to five years in prison. After his release, he went first to the Soviet Union and in 1939 to London.
Singh’s trial began on June 4, 1940. He testified that he killed O’Dwyer because he had a grudge against him, that he did it for his country. Singh was convicted of the murder and hanged at Pentonville on July 31, 1940.
The Amritsar massacre aroused nationalist sentiment across India and had a deep effect on Mohandas Gandhi, During World War I, Gandhi had actively supported the British in the hope of winning partial autonomy for India, but after the Amritsar action, he became convinced that India should accept nothing less than full independence.
To that end, Gandhi began organizing his first campaign of mass civil disobedience against British rule. After a long struggle, India was partitioned into India and Pakistan, and became an independent dominion in 1947.