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Assassination at a Lecture


Time, Mar. 25, 1940

Photo: Udham Singh Bawa, center, leaving Caxton Hall after his arrest, March 14, 1940

In April 1919, Indian nationalist agitation racked Amritsar, in the Punjab of northern India. When British officials arrested two nationalist leaders, British agents were murdered, a bank was plundered, the city hall and a church burned. Europeans were attacked in the streets. On April 13, Brigadier General Reginald E.H. Dyer arrived with 600 troops, sent a drum crier through the streets shouting an edict which forbade meetings of more than three people.

That day in the Jallianwala Bagh, a walled enclosure about the size of Manhattan's Times Square, upwards of 5,000 Indians, who may or may not have heard of General Dyer's edict, assembled peaceably and passed resolutions condemning the rioting. General Dyer chose to see deliberate defiance of his orders in the meeting, decided to make it an example. Posting 50 tough Gurkha troopers with rifles at all the gates of the Bagh, he ordered them to fire into the trapped crowd of men, women and children, and to keep on firing until their ammunition was exhausted.

It lasted for ten terrible minutes. 'The targets,' remarked General Dyer, 'were good.' The official casualty list was 379 killed, 1,200 wounded. From Sir Michael Francis O'Dwyer, fire-eating Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, next day came the message: 'Your action correct. Lieutenant Governor approves.' Other Britons and most Indians decidedly did not approve the massacre of Amritsar.

For six months word of Amritsar was kept from British Parliament and public. Then the news got about and there was an investigation. General Dyer was censured and pensioned out of the Army. He died in 1927. Sir Michael O'Dwyer resigned under fire to become the most hated man in India and the bitterest opponent of Indian reforms in Great Britain.

Last week, 21 years less one month after the massacre of Amritsar, an elderly audience of 200 men and women, mostly retired Indian civil servants and their wives, attended at London's Caxton Hall a staid lecture by Sir Percy Sykes of the Royal Central Asian Society. Subject: Afghanistan: The Present Situation.

Sir Michael O'Dwyer followed Sir Percy with an impromptu 15-minute speech. Now mellowed into a famed raconteur, he turned his sarcastic Irish wit on the Indian nationalists, whom he still despised. He delighted his dignified (and conservative) audience with anecdotes.

All the while, in the shadows at the back of the hall, sat a swart, beady-eyed Indian Sikh who neither laughed at Sir Michael's jests nor applauded his jibes. Udham Singh Bawa had left India seven years ago, reaching Europe by way of California and Brazil. For five years he had lived a hermitic existence in England, his one thought to avenge a brother killed at Amritsar.

The meeting broke up. Singh thrust his way forward, aiming a heavy military revolver at the front-row seats. Singh's targets, like General Dyer's, were good. One of two point-blank shots got Sir Michael in the heart and killed him instantly. Four other bullets, discharged into the group of bigwigs assembled before the speakers' platform, winged Britain's Secretary of State for India, Lawrence John Lumley Dundas, Marquess of Zetland, and two aging British aristocrats. One, Sir Louis Dane, was Sir Michael O'Dwyer's predecessor in the Punjab; the other, Baron Lamington, a onetime Governor of the Bombay Presidency. It was Britain's first major political assassination since 1922, when Irish terrorists shot and killed Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson on the doorstep of his London home for somewhat kindred reasons.

Assassin Singh, captured through the combined efforts of a woman ambulance driver and an R.A.F. officer, smiled as he was charged with murder, remarked placidly: 'I didn't mean to kill him. I only wanted to protest.'

To non-violent Mohandas K. Gandhi, whose Indian National Congress Party was at that time in momentous session and about to decide whether to renew the campaign of civil disobedience against British rule, this piece of violence was 'an act of insanity.' But it made a fine story for Lord Haw-Haw, the German broadcaster who so frequently reminds Britons of the shortcomings of their colonial policies.

As for Sir Michael, long ago he gave his opinion of the Mahatma: 'The biggest impostor that ever fooled the credulity of a people or frightened a cowardly Government.'