By Amandeep Singh Madra | PEOPLE | US |
It’s easy to be mistaken by this picture of a gentle, stooped, grandfatherly 95 year-old. He was in fact one of the most feared and dangerous men in British India. So feared was he by the British that, shackled in irons, he was held for 16 years in near solitary confinement 1000kms off the shore of India for fear of the revolution he tried to spark.
This is Sohan Singh Bhakna, founder of the revolutionary Ghadr Party. When India joined WW1, every young Punjabi man was vigorously encouraged to join the Indian Army; British officials, Indian nobility, Indian district bureaucrats, even the Indian National Congress and Mahatma Gandhi joined forces to promote recruitment. Opposing that consensus was a vociferous, violent energetic group, operating from North America called the Ghadrs, or revolutionaries.
Sohan Singh Bhakna became active in the early nationalist movement before he joined the small pioneering stream of men who moved out of Punjab to the Pacific Northwest in the early 1900s where he worked in lumber mills. America wasn’t colonising India but there was no lack of racism and discrimination toward the ‘Hindoo’ labourers and Bhakna rapidly joined the early Indian labour movement.
He founded the Ghadr party with other North American Indians who agitated for the overthrow British colonial authority in India by means of an armed revolution. The Ghadrs viewed the Congress-led Independence movement as soft and unambitious so adopted a harder stance with their principal strategy to entice Indian soldiers into armed revolt against the British taking particular advantage of the vulnerability of the First World War.
Their revolutionary plans included smuggling arms to the passengers of the Komagatu Maru on their return to India, making overtures to the German Embassy in the US, pumping out revolutionary messages to Indian soldiers via their prolific pamphleteering. Their most seditious and dangerous plot was to coordinate violent armed revolutionary activity with Indian soldiers in SE Asia. Alarmed, the British promptly arrested Sohan Singh as he tried to enter India in 1914 and tried for conspiracy.
Found guilty, he was sentenced to death. A sentence later commuted to life imprisonment in The Andaman Islands, 1000kms off the shore of India. There Sohan Singh settled into a period of revolt and activism with repeated hunger strikes to improve the conditions for his fellow prisoners. Both in the Andamans and back in India where he was imprisoned until 1930 he carried out hunger strikes for Sikh prisoner’s religious rights, the rights of lower caste Indian prisoners and in support of Bhagat Singh.
By the outbreak of the Second world war, Sohan Singh had been released 10 years and was an active and fearsome political voice for the Communist Party. War brought new rules, and the Indian Government arrested and interred the now 70-year-old Sohan Singh for 3 more years in an Indian jail lest he revive his violent tendencies during a time of wartime vulnerability.
He lived another 20 years after Indian Independence and the Partition, a constant and prolific voice in early Indian politics. He died in 1968, ending a phenomenal life of 98 years, in his home district of Amritsar.
Amandeep Singh Madra, an independent historian and co-author of a number of books on Sikhs, is also the co-foundee of United Kingdom Punjab Heritage Association (UKPHA) which organised the much-acclaimed Empire of the Sikhs exhibition