The Patient Assassin, Reviewed

On 28 April 1864 in the green hills of County Tipperary, John and Margaret O’Dwyer had their sixth child, Michael Francis O’Dwyer.

The O’Dwyers were farmer-landlords who could trace their heritage, as Michael would describe it later, to the birth of Ireland. The family even had their own coat of arms with a Latin motif, Virtus Sola Noblitas, or virtue alone enobles.

“The O’Dwyers emerged from the Celtic twilight of tribal conflicts and struggles against the Danes at the Battle of Clontarf, AD 1014”, as Anita Anand puts it in her new book The Patient Assassin.

Michael O’Dwyer loved his hometown, describing Barronstown as “the heart of the Golden Vale” and “under the shadow of the Galtees” a land of “blue mountain and rushing river”. He would go on to study at St Stanislaus College, County Offaly and then at Balliol College, Oxford, before passing the exams for, and being posted as, an Indian Civil Service officer in colonial India.

This career path would take him to Punjab, where his actions would lead to a massacre, one of the darkest chapters of the Raj. He paid for it with his life.

In her coldly analytical book, Anand, an author and BBC journalist, tells the story of the man who assassinated O’Dwyer in revenge – just in time for the 100th anniversary of the massacre.

It’s a dispassionate account of the story of Udham Singh, of the centrality of the massacre to his life, and then the globe-trotting, espionage-ridden story of determination of Singh himself, in astonishing and brutal detail.

Brought up in an orphanage in Punjab, Singh’s life up to the massacre was quite mundane. The global rollercoaster began just after, with a job on the Ugandan Railway. But he returned to Punjab earlier than expected and with inexplicable wealth. Anand’s investigation led her to the “Ghadars”, a shadowy international group of Indians networking their way across the world in an effort to mobilise domestic Indians into a rebellion, and an armed one if need be.

Singh would continue his suspicious behaviour – with trips to or through countries that were well beyond financial means: to Russia, Europe and the United States. He built a vast network of contacts and friends, many of whom were known to various intelligence agencies, some of whom were on watch lists and being actively tracked.

Somehow, through either smart spy craft on Singh’s part – with multiple name changes, disappearing from docks and using different passports – or perhaps sheer stupidity on the part of British intelligence, Singh managed to stay off their radar until it was too late.

His pseudonyms, activities, travels, women and passports were known. But for reasons unknown, the British spymasters never stitched it all together.

Anand doesn’t reflect much on the web of empire or the colonial project. The book is more a straightforward narration of facts, many of them detailed and new.

In unearthing Singh’s turbulent and erratic story, Anand offers up a mystery for the reader to solve, thanks in part to incomplete disclosure by British intelligence even till this day. Are they hiding darker secrets or do they just not know who Singh really was or what he was up to?

Was he a Ghadar freedom fighter? A Russian stooge? An unwitting German spy? A cold and calculating revenge killer, driven by the pain of the massacre? Did he just strike lucky after a series of bizarre, half-hearted adventures?

Whatever the gaps, Anand’s book is a must-read for those who want to understand what happened at Jallianwala Bagh and how Michael O’Dwyer paid the highest price for it. For any student of British colonialism, The Patient Assassin will now be an unmissable part of the narrative.

The event itself is still a festering wound in the psyche of many Indians, particularly Sikhs. Led by a stereotypical stiff-upper-lip British Army officer, Brigadier Reginald “Rex” Dyer, 90 soldiers marched into Jallianwala Bagh – a public park, a short walk from Sikhism’s most sacred shrine, the Golden Temple – on 13 April 1919 to deal with what Dyer believed to be a gathering of Indian rebels who had defied his order not to assemble.

The gathering was, in fact, 15,000 to 20,000 people who had come for the most part to celebrate the joint harvest festival and New Year, Baisakhi. They were, it seems, unaware of Dyer’s diktat not to gather.

Dyer’s column included two armoured cars with mounted machine guns. But they couldn’t fit into the narrow passage leading to the park. The soldiers marched in, knelt into firing positions, and at Dyer’s command, without any warning, opened fire on the unarmed crowd.

Dyer and his officers directed fire at the crowd – not above or near so as to disperse them. They ordered the soldiers to turn and aim their rifles at those huddled in corners, running for gates and scrambling over the walls.

Dyer told his soldiers to keep firing until they had run out of ammunition. Later – 1,650 bullets later, to be precise – colonial British estimates put the number of dead at “337 men, 41 boys and a 6-week-old baby”. Indian investigators at the time estimated the dead to number around 1,500.

At the subsequent inquiry, Dyer was asked if he would have taken the machine guns in, had he been able to. His response was as blunt as it was clear: “I think probably, yes.”

He was asked if the result of that would have been many more casualties. “Yes,” he answered.

He was asked why his troops stood up and marched away without providing, or making arrangements for, medical aid. “It was not my job,” he said.

Sealing Dyer’s fate would be a chorus of condemnation from the likes of Winston Churchill, who called the massacre “monstrous”, and the former British Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, who said, “It is one of the worst outrages in the whole of our history.”

Asquith’s direct descendant happens to be the current British high commissioner to India, Sir Dominic Asquith. He will likely have to deal with growing calls for an official apology.

O’Dwyer wasn’t spared either. As lieutenant governor of Punjab, he played a pivotal role in the events leading up to the massacre and had given civilian authority for Dyer’s military action.

Benjamin Spoor, a Labour MP, called O’Dwyer a “menace”. The secretary of state for India, Edwin Montague, said in parliament, with O’Dwyer sitting in the gallery, that his actions equated to “terrorism”.

Dyer, broken by the lack of support from his government, retired into seclusion and was haunted by his actions until his dying day.

O’Dwyer, on the other hand, remained adamant: “India does not want self-government. She does not understand it …”

Writing later in a booklet, O’Dwyer revealed his inner self: “The British Empire in India is the greatest achievement of our race. It has been built by the blood, brains and the energy of our ancestors.”

It was this belligerence which maintained his position as one of the top targets for revenge by the Sikhs. On a bitterly cold day, 13 March 1940, after giving a speech at Caxton Hall, Westminster, O’Dwyer was mingling with other speakers when Udham Singh walked up to him and shot him twice, killing O’Dwyer.

Singh had been at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and had sworn he would take revenge. Twenty years later, he did.

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Anthony Khatchaturian: Anthony Khatchaturian is a freelance writer. He's written for The Wire, The Times of India, Ei Samay, and DailyO among other publications.

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