HARKING BACK: Forgotten freedom fighters who died true to their soil

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn July 24, 2016

The prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, has formally apologised to Punjabis, more specifically Sikhs, for the treatment meted out to them 102 years ago in the Komagata Maru incident. In modern-day communal Pakistan our sub-continental collective freedom struggle is not studied, hence pride in it does not exist.

In the long movement for freedom from colonialism in the sub-continent, which eventually took a communal twist, two sets of revolutionaries stood apart. They were the Bengalis and the Punjabis. Sadly both Bengal and the Punjab were partitioned in 1947 resulting in the greatest exodus in human history. Even this terrible event we officially ignore, let alone studied impartially. Our elders we can safely accuse of keeping us in the dark about the truth of what happened in 1947. That will stand against them always.

However, young post-Partition academicians of late are now beginning to record stories of those who suffered. Hopefully research into this exodus will, it is hoped, help us to understand the communal twist the sub-continent took, much to its continual peril. But the role of the Punjabi revolutionaries in the long struggle for independence from British rule is the one we have ignored, and deliberately at that. Such is the power of the communal mind set.

The Canadian premier made the apology on the 102nd anniversary of the May 1914 incident in which 376 Punjabi were refused entry of their ship on arrival at Vancouver harbour because of the racist laws of the time. The Japanese ship ‘Komagata Maru’ ultimately was forced towards Calcutta, where the 376 revolutionaries of the Ghadar Party were hunted down and killed. Of the 376 Ghadarites seven were arrested from their Lahore head office just off Shahalami Bazaar. That famous heritage site was among hundreds of other historical houses that have, over the years, been demolished only to be replaced by brick and concrete warehouses.


Last week I visited Five Wood Street, San Francisco, where now is housed the ‘Ghadar Museum’. Nearby is Hills Street from where the original newspaper titled ‘Ghadar’ was printed, which was dedicated to the independence of the sub-continent. It brings to light the amazing manner in which the history of the fight for independence has been distorted beyond belief. Today, officially, these freedom fighters do not exist, at least not in Pakistan. The off-shoots of that incident were men like Bhagat Singh, whose uncle was involved in the Komagata Maru affair.

Virtually no research exists on people from Lahore, and Punjab, running away to far-off countries after the British in 1849 annexed Punjab. They spread to the East and the West. The problem was that in those day the British Empire’s reach was to almost every corner. These soldiers of the Lahore Darbar Army were, in a lot of cases, marked men. Their pride, one assumes, did not allow them to accept British rule. Hence we learn of Punjabis in Japan, in the Philippines, in Indonesia, in Java and Sumatra, even in far-off Australia. A lot of them, mostly Punjabi farmers, headed to the USA, where, initially they were classified as Mexican-Indians, and, therefore, ineligible to own land.

But the hardy Punjabis worked as farm labourers mostly in the western state of California. Their success soon saw them being sought-after by rich land-owners. The best thing was that all of them got their children educated. Even today some of the finest tomato farms in California are owned by the children of those Punjabis. But it was in San Francisco that a few of them, mostly students in their famous universities, collected and from 1914 onwards started planning on how to liberate their country from colonial rule.

Today their efforts might seem foolhardy, but an effort it was all the same. They formed the Ghadar Party in San Francisco, launched a newspaper and, ultimately, collected arms and hired the Komagata Maru to sail to British India, and then they planned to move towards Punjab, where in Lahore they had set up their secret head office. News of such an office reached the British when a Sikh of Mochi Gate was arrested on a petty theft charge. He was given the ‘Punjab police’ treatment and he informed of such an office. As police tactics go he was made a spy and ended up getting his own brother arrested.

Men off-loaded at Calcutta, more specifically at Hoogly harbour, were arrested. A number of them resisted and were shot dead on the ship. The rest were shot on a bridge in Calcutta, while a few managed to jump ship and escape across British India to their homes in Punjab. A lot of them lived in villages around Lyallpur, Lahore and Amritsar, as did a few near Rawalpindi and Attock. These were farmer-soldier territory then, as they are today. But all of them were eventually arrested, a few jailed and some hanged for treason. The men were dead, but their spirit lived on as the revolutionaries of Punjab soon reappeared in the form of figures likes Bhagat Singh.

But that is another story. Let me talk a bit about the Bhagat Singh of San Francisco. His full name was Bhagat Singh Thind, a Kamboj Jatt who live in villages spreading from Amritsar across Lahore and Sheikhupura. Thind was born in 1892 at Taragarh village of Amritsar district. His father owned land in Sheikhupura and had a business in Lahore’s Akbari Mandi. After studying at Khalsa College, Amritsar, he was inspired by his relatives in San Francisco and went for higher education there. Here he joined the Ghadar Party and was instrumental in the production of the newspaper ‘Ghadar’.

However, he decided not to board the Komagata Maru and as the First World War had broken out he joined the US Army and ended his military career as an Acting Sergeant in 1918. He was the first American Sikh to be allowed to wear a turban. His career then took two roads. One to study for a PhD in metaphysics and the other to get his citizenship. In both he took the fight to the end, a long lonely fight to victory. One account tells of him saying that this was his “Ghadar fight”. Bhagat Singh Thind died in September 1967, a celebrated Sikh writer, scientist and a professor of ‘spiritual studies’. His book ‘Divine Wisdom’ in three volumes is standard reading in US universities.

The question for all of us to think about is that if in faraway Canada their prime minister can honour our collective freedom struggle by apologising for past racial laws and acts, should not our scholars and rulers also think about passing on undeniable facts about our true freedom struggle to our children. It is worth a thought.


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