On the night of July 27 or on the early morning of July 28, 1970, a former anticolonial freedom fighter was killed by police in post-independent India.
Comrade Bujha Singh deserved state honours for participating in the struggle to rid India of the British occupation. Instead, he got a police bullet. The reason? He joined the ultra-leftist Naxalite movement, an uprising of landless tillers who've been revolting against the rich and the elites in India since the 1960s.
This year is the centenary of the founding of the Ghadar Party, a militant group of Indian immigrants who settled on the Pacific Coast of North America. They believed in an armed rebellion against the British occupation of India. As this centenary is being celebrated, Bujha Singh’s story stands as an ugly reminder of how Ghadar activists continued their struggle for social justice even after India gained independence in 1947.
The party was launched in 1913 by Indian immigrants who lived in B.C., Washington, Oregon, and California. Later, it spread its wings and those who lived in faraway places siuch as South America also established branches.
Bujha Singh, who worked in Argentina, was instrumental in creating a chapter in that country. Formally known as Hindi Pacific Association, it came to be known as the Ghadar Party after the launching of its official newspaper called Ghadar, which means "mutiny" in Urdu.
These immigrants had mostly migrated to this hemisphere as British subjects as India was under British occupation. Canada, too, was a British colony back then. Systemic racism and discriminatory immigration policies disillusioned most of these people because British consuls rarely intervened to help these immigrants whenever there was a racial violence against them in the U.S. or Canada.
It soon dawned upon these people that the root cause of their suffering was slavery back home. This whole experience encouraged them to organize and form a pressure group. They resolved to continue their fight against discrimination in their foreign land and against colonialism in India.
The Ghadar Party believed in social justice and equality. Its members desired to establish a democratic, secular, and socialistic republic that provided equal opportunities to everyone with no discrimination against the poor or marginalized.
Many Ghadar activists returned to India hoping to stage an armed uprising, only to face the gallows or life imprisonment. They did not get the desired support from the public as the popular leadership of the independence movement was in the hands of moderates, who denounced political violence.
Those who survived carried on their struggle even in post-independent India after the British left in 1947. Among them was Bujha Singh, who became a die-hard Communist.
Following an uprising in the Naxalbari village of West Bengal by poor farmers, who claimed a right to the land, there was a campaign of police repression. People like Bujha Singh parted ways with the mainstream Communist parties to join the radicals. All reports indicate that the 82-year-old revolutionary died in a staged shootout by Punjab police. From his perspective, India's independence was merely symbolic and was really just transfer of power between the ruling classes of Britain and India.
Whereas Bujha Singh’s death can easily be brushed aside by the Indian mainstream because of his extreme left-wing politics, there were others who continued their struggle for social justice under different banners. Some joined the moderate Congress party; others became moderate Communists or actively supported the militant struggle for the liberation of historic Sikh temples under the control of corrupt priests often patronized by the British Empire.
Sohan Singh Bhakna, who was the founding president of the Ghadar Party, continued to organize farmers and workers after independence. He was thrown in jail for defying the law. He used to complain that his back was bent due to hardships he suffered while serving time in post-independent India.
He resorted to a hunger strike in reponse to the poor conditions in jail—this, even after India had become free. He did not even accept government accommodations and benefits, and died in 1968.
In a very powerful public speech on the 50th anniversary of the Ghadar Party, another party activist, Gurmukh Singh Lalton, said that the social injustice continues even in independent India.
The struggle for a fair and just society in post-India was also articulated by Vaisakha Singh Dadehar, a towering Ghadar leader, during an address he delivered in 1955.
And 23 years after the independence, Harjap Singh, a prominent Ghadar activist, made an entry in his diary that revealed his pain over unfulfilled dreams in post-independent India. Yet another Ghadar hero, Niranjan Singh Pandori, actually passed away in Canada in 1971. He was brought back to Vancouver by his relatives because he could not get proper medical attention in "free" India. He continued his fight against the system until the end of his life.
Meanwhile, Hari Singh Soond continued to participate in the working-class struggles after 1947. Soond was involved in the murder of Bela Singh, a British spy who had assassinated a famous Ghadar Party leader, Bhag Singh, in 1914
Bhag Singh and Badan Singh died after a shootout in the Vancouver Sikh temple. Bela Singh went back to India after being acquitted by the Canadian courts, and was murdered by supporters of the Ghadar Party in Punjab.
Manguram Muggowal, a former Ghadar Party member, later joined the Dalit [the proper term for so-called untouchables] emancipation movement. Being a Dalit himself, he had endured caste-based discrimination. He raised his voice against untouchability and other discriminatory practices against Dalits in Punjab.
Pandurang Khankhoje, a Ghadar Party member who was an agricultural scientist, tried to educate farmers in free India and had also opposed the caste-based discrimination. He showed his solidarity to street sweepers and also volunteered for military services when India and Pakistan first went to war in 1965, despite his old age.
These are just a few stories of many many that clearly belie claims that the Ghadar Party failed in its mission. While it's technically and pragmatically true that Ghadar Party members did not receive mass support when they returned to India to stage a coup against the British, the movement continued to struggle for a just society—a struggle that still goes on both in India and elsewhere.
Freedom of India from the British occupation is one thing, but liberation from socioeconomic inequality is still a far cry from being achieved. The yawning gap between the rich and the poor—and the ongoing exploitation of the indigenous peoples and Dalits in India—still pose a challenge to a society that needs to focus on unfinished task of the Ghadar heroes instead of holding symbolic and tokenistic celebrations.
In Canada where racism and discriminatory immigration policies are still a reality and the assault on the indigenous peoples and their rights continue shamelessly, Ghadar history provides us with a guiding light.
Gurpreet Singh is a talk-show host on Radio India and a Georgia Straight contributor. At 1 p.m. on Sunday (July 28), his new book Why Mewa Singh Killed William Hopkinson: Revisiting the Murder of a Canadian Immigration Inspector, will be released at the Firehall Centre for the Arts (11489 84 Avenue, Delta).