Saint-soldier, freedom fighter and the lost revolutionary of Indian history

Saint-soldier, freedom fighter and the lost revolutionary of Indian history

By KARTHIK VENKATESH | | 7 May, 2016
Bhai Bhagwan Singh.
Initiator of the Komagata Maru incident, Bhai Bhagwan Singh had a major role to play in the Ghadar Mutiny of 1915. But for all his contributions to the freedom struggle, the great figure is barely given his due in our history books.
In August 1914, a booklet known as the Ailan-i-Jung was widely circulated among Punjabis living on America’s West Coast. As suggested by the title, it was a call to arms, an exhortation to Indians in the United States and Canada to head back to their motherland and wage war against the British. An extraordinary set of events had now been set in motion which later came to be known as the Ghadar movement. The author of the booklet was a 30-year-old man who hailed from village Waring near Sarhali in district Amritsar — Bhai Bhagwan Singh.

Born in 1884, Bhai Bhagwan Singh received a religious education at the Updeshak College in Gujranwala. The college, which had come into existence as a result of the Singh Sabha movement in Punjab in the late 19th century, prepared Bhagwan Singh for a career as a religious preacher. Starting his career as a lecturer in the college, Bhagwan Singh travelled in and around north and north-western India. It was politically a time of great unrest in Punjab. In November 1906, a drastic increase in the rate of canal water was announced by the colonial government. Then the Punjab Colonisation of Land Bill of 1907 abrogated the terms and conditions of the Punjab Colonisation of Land Act of 1893 by disallowing transfer of property by will and only permitting primogeniture. Farmers in the canal colonies were incensed by these moves. A series of protests were organised. Among the leaders of these protests were Lala Lajpat Rai and Sardar Ajit Singh, the uncle of Bhagat Singh. At one such meeting in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad in Pakistan), Prabh Dayal, editor of the Jhang Sayal, recited the poem “Pagri Sambhal Jatta”. This instantly became popular. As an educated young man, Bhagwan Singh could not but respond to the highly political climate around him. These agrarian agitations of 1907-08 that had pulverised Punjab turned Bhagwan Singh into a nationalist and into a foot-soldier of the nascent freedom struggle. His life’s course had been set.

Bhagwan Singh’s political activities necessitated his leaving India in 1909. Travelling from Calcutta through Burma, Siam, Indonesia, Singapore, Bhagwan Singh preached nationalism to the soldiers of the Indian Army stationed there. For a while, he served as a granthi at gurdwaras in Malaya. Reaching Hong Kong in March 1910, he intended to proceed to the US. But impressed by his lectures, the managing committee of the Hong Kong gurdwara offered him a position as a granthi, which he accepted. He was soon lecturing widely on Indian nationalism to the Indian population. The local units of the Indian Army were radicalised and prepared to join the cause of Indian independence. Perturbed by Bhagwan Singh’s actions, the British authorities in Hong Kong jailed him twice, once in 1911 and once again in 1912.

In May 1913, after sending his wife and three children back to India, Bhai Bhagwan Singh left for Canada. He was not to see his family again till 1958. Detailing the course of events, Dr Harish Puri, in his book, The Ghadar Movement writes that Bhai Bhagwan Singh disembarked at Vancouver under the name of Natha Singh, who was already a resident there. This was arranged by a spy in British employ, Bela Singh. Bela Singh calculated that his helping Bhagwan Singh would ensure  a steady source of information about Indian activities. In other words, Bhagwan Singh would consent to becoming a spy. That, however, was not to be.

On the contrary, Bhagwan Singh provided a huge boost to the activities of the Khalsa Diwan leadership of the gurdwara. Using his powerful oratory skills and reciting his poetry, Bhagwan Singh politicised further the Indian population in Canada. His calls for Indian unity to challenge the might of the British Empire struck a chord. Soon, he was planning a move to the US after establishing contact with Indian activists there. A month before this could happen, he was arrested on 18 November 1913, bundled into a ship and deported back to Hong Kong.

In the meantime, the Ghadar movement was gaining speed in the US during the first six months of 1914. The Ghadar newspaper was circulated far and wide. Copies found their way to India too, but were seized by the British authorities, who were now alive to the threat posed by the Ghadarites. From the ship back to Hong Kong, Bhagwan Singh had, at great personal risk, managed to alight at Japan and was now living with Maulvi Barkatullah. In March 1914, he left for Germany in a bid to secure arms for the movement, but was discovered by the British at Shanghai, arrested and sent back to Hong Kong. Escaping once again, Bhagwan Singh was soon back in Japan.

As expected, passengers on board the Komagata Maru were not allowed to disembark. Frantic negotiations were conducted, all to no avail. The ship turned back for Hong Kong on 23 July. During the time the Komagata Maru had been docked at Vancouver, war clouds had gathered over Europe. The Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia. The assassination led to a month of diplomatic manoeuvring between Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France and Britain, at the end of which Europe was split into two hostile camps—the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and later, Ottoman Turkey) and the Allied Powers (Britain, France, Russia and later, the US). World War I was underway. This was the moment that the Ghadarites had been waiting for. While it had come much earlier than anticipated, it wasn’t something they could ignore.In the meantime, Lala Har Dayal was arrested on 25 March for preaching anarchism. Released on bail, he slipped out of the US to make his way to Germany in the fear that the American authorities might deport him back to India. Almost at the same time in April 1914, the ship Komagata Maru was chartered by Gurdit Singh in Hong Kong and proceeded to Canada. This was a journey fraught with risk. Canadian rules would not permit the ship’s passengers to disembark. To discourage Indian immigration, the Canadian authorities had stipulated that no one who did not make a “direct journey” to Canada from their country of origin would be allowed to disembark at Canada. Since there were no ships plying between India and Canada at that time, Indians were effectively barred from going to Canada. The Komagata Maru stopped at Shanghai and at Yokohama to pick up more passengers. At Yokohoma, Bhagwan Singh and Barkatullah addressed the passengers. Soon, they too left for the US. The day of their arrival in San Francisco—23 May 1914—was also the day the Komagata Maru arrived at Vancouver.

Ghadar leaders including Bhagwan Singh fanned out to different parts of the US, asking Indians to leave their jobs, wind up businesses and return to India. By the end of October, eight ships left the US and Canada towards India. Among the returnees was Kartar Singh Sarabha.

The Ghadar movement faltered for many reasons, inadequate preparation being one. The Ghadarites had not expected the outbreak of war before 1920. But once the war was underway, they could not stand aside. It was too crucial an opportunity to be missed. Support from the local population was also lacking as were funds and arms. The promised German help did not materialise. Leaders like Sohan Singh Bhakna were arrested soon after arrival. Others were kept under close police watch. Kartar Singh Sarabha escaped the police and attempted to get Indian Army soldier ranks to mutiny. The Bengali revolutionary, Rash Behari Bose and the Maharashtrian revolutionary, Vishnu Ganesh Pingley were with him. The date was set for 21 February 1915. This was leaked to the British authorities, after which the date was changed to 19 February. News of this change did not reach all concerned. Meanwhile, the British reacted swiftly and arrested a number of revolutionaries. Both Pingley and Sarabha were arrested and later, executed. Rash Behari Bose escaped to Japan never to return to India again.

Bhagwan Singh who was still in the US and was now president of the Ghadar Party, had reached Manila in November 1914. From his base in South-East Asia, he watched the Ghadar efforts fail to achieve their objective. In 1915, he wrote the book Jung aur Azadi. This book was circulated widely. He also met Rash Behari Bose in Japan. In October 1916, he returned to the US to a very different set of circumstances. The US was contemplating joining World War I on the side of the British and did not take very kindly at the activities of the Ghadarites. Bhagwan Singh got arrested and imprisoned for two years. Deportation proceedings began, to be later dropped in 1920.

In his later years, Bhagwan Singh began a career as a speaker and writer on Indian philosophy. His wife died in 1950 without ever meeting her husband again after 1913. At the urging of the then Punjab Chief Minister, Pratap Singh Kairon, Bhagwan Singh retuned to India in 1958. His death in 1962 brought an end to a life spent almost entirely in the service of the nation.

There are 5 Comments

karthik the article is very well written and also informative , sad to know that he is not known as a freedom fighter and there is no mention of him any where , thanks for making him a hero at least now a few people like me know of this great freedom fighter

Fascinating story of Bhai Bhagwan Singh told with utmost objectivity and lucidity.

Fascinating story of Bhai Bhagwan Singh told with utmost objectivity and lucidity.

As always, excellent article Karthik. Something that many of us were unaware of. Hope you write a follow up piece on this Ghadar party

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