Baba Bilga has died while on a visit to Birmingham at the age of 102, I was invited to speak in tribute as an executive member of the Socialist Labour Party. Like his namesake and contemporary Shaheed (Martyr) Bhagat Singh I found his life as a socialist was exemplary and this was a unique opportunity to learn about his extraordinary life which took him around the world in a struggle against imperialism, in particular his association with the Ghadar (Revolution) Party of which he was the last remaing survivor. In his recent words he was critical of the Indian government’s programme. This was his recent comment:
“Governments came and went but the issues of the development of society still lie unaddressed. The picture of India is not the same as conceived by the freedom fighters… Mulk di halat bigad gayi hai. Mehangayi te bekari ne aam admi di kamar tod ditti hai…Government policies are also biased. They are drafted for the elite and the middle class and the poor people are bearing the brunt.”
Such words could as easily be addressed to leaders of the Tory. Liberal-Democrat and Labour parties in Britain who all believe in bailing out the wealthy elite leaving a huge burden for the poorest.
I am grateful to Bharat Bhushan of the Shaheed Udham Singh Community Centre for the following biography of Baba Bilga.
Baba Bhagat Singh Bilga
( 02-04-1907—22-05-2009 )
Bhagat Singh Bilga, popularly known as “Baba Bilga”, was the last of the surviving Ghadari Babas — a torchbearer of the Ghadar Movement, after Kartar Singh Sarabha and Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna. He was the last of the surviving members from the movement that was started in 1913 by Indian immigrants in the United States who launched an armed uprising against the British in India.
He used to proudly tell anyone that his village, Bilga, was declared a Baghi village (rebel village) as several young men of this village had become active Ghadarites.
Born in Jalandhar’s Bilga village, which was called baghi (rebel) village by the Britishers,the old man of Punjab’s biggest freedom movement was born in the same year as the martyr Shaheed Bhagat Singh and bears testimony to a century of people’s struggle.
Baba Bilga says that in his horoscope, April 1, 1907, is the date of birth. “But the officially registered birthday is April 2.”
His father Nambardar Hira Singh Sanghera passed away when he was a year old. “My maternal aunt took me to her village, Ajitwal in Moga district. She soon died of plague. Her husband and my maternal grandmother brought me up,” he added.
In search of a job, Baba Bilga said he went to Kolkata and from there he went to Yangoon (Rangoon), Singapore, Hong Kong, and Chile. In Argentina, he met Ajit Singh uncle of Shaheed Bhagat Singh. It was there that the spirit of fighting for his motherland was instilled. He then spent his time mobilising Indians all over the world to be part of the freedom movement. ”The climate of Argentina was like India and its people too were like residents of Punjab. That prompted a number of Punjabis to settle there from where they joined the Ghadar movement. Soon, Argentina became a hotbed for anti-British activities.”
Bilga still remembers the heady days when he signed up for the movement. It was 1931 and he, then 24, had just reached the Republic of Argentina in search of a job. The first person he met was revolutionary and freedom fighter Bhagat Singh’s exiled uncle Ajit Singh. Soon, Bilga was won over by the cause. The money he earned by working as a clerk in a railway store went into the kitty that funded revolutionary outfits like Naujawan Bharat Sabha and Kirti Party, and he became a key member of the Gadar Movement in South America. “Gaye the kamai karne ke liye, leke aye inqalab (We went to earn a living, and brought back revolution),” says Bilga. Though he never met Bhagat Singh, he spent a lot of time with his uncle, Ajit Singh, and received three letters from Bhagat Singh in which the latter had said that he was more of a “socialist than a communist”
He became General Secretary of the Ghadar Party in Argentina.
The Ghadar Party was founded in the United States and Canada by patriot Indians in 1913 to help the freedom movement in India. It was founded by freedom fighter Lala Hardayal.
The movement had its roots in their fight against discrimination against Indian immigrants in Canada and the US. In April 1914, Gurdit Singh, a prosperous Punjabi contractor from Singapore, chartered a Japanese ship, the Komagata Maru, to take a party of Indians over to Canada. The ship sailed from Hong Kong and, after embarkation of other passengers at Shanghai, Kobe and Yokohama, arrived at Vancouver on May 23, 1914, with 376 Indians – all Punjabis – on board. Canadian immigration authorities refused all but 22 passengers permission to disembark. The ship eventually headed back to India. As it approached Calcutta on September 26, 1914, a European gunboat corralled the ship and held the passengers prisoner. The Komagata Maru was then taken to a place called Budge Budge, about 17 miles away from Calcutta and the passengers were told that they were being sent to Punjab on a special train. Many of them were reluctant, preferring to remain in Calcutta and seek employment there. In the scuffle that resulted, the policemen opened fire and 20 people died. It was the spark that lit the torch of the Gadar Movement. And the Soviet revolution in 1917 fanned the flames; the ‘Gadaris’- as the followers of the movement came to be known – looked to Moscow for financial support and revolutionary training, their ultimate aim to establish a communist state in India.
Bilga too was sent to Moscow by the Gadar Party with 60 other Gadaris to learn the Russian language, Marxism, politics, economics, military techniques and guerrilla warfare.
Struggle in Pre Independence India
In 1933, he received his orders to return to Punjab. Sikhs in those days were followed by the British all over the world on their journey back home, and were arrested the moment they touched homeland ground. Travelling on a fake passport under the pseudonym ‘Milky Singh’, Bilga took an impossible route, crossing Paris, Berlin, and Colombo, before reaching Kanyakumari. He crossed Nagpur and Calcutta before coming to Kanpur. It took him a year.
He had to go underground when he returned to Punjab. Baba Bilga played an important part in the Ghadar Party’s activities. Bilga has had many close calls. Once, he travelled from Colombo to Kanyakumari with a British spy in tow. He posed as a Tamilian and exchanged his ticket with a co-passenger. But the spy wasn’t fooled. Finally, Bilga had to jump out of the train at Nagpur. He reached Kolkata, worked as a trade union leader and played an important role in bringing the shutters down on Juggi Lal Kamlapat cloth mill – the strike was called because the mill owners had beaten a worker to death. He also established two underground presses, one in Kanpur and another in Lahore. The great patriot recalled his participation in the Swadeshi andolan when Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi, along with freedom fighters, had visited his village. Reminiscing that day he had said: “We celebrated Lohri that day as women gathered in large numbers to burn foreign items”.
Struggle in Post-Independence India
But for the past many years, Bilga felt the freedom fighters’ struggle was betrayed at the time of Independence. “It was merely a compromise between the British government and the leaders, who took the country through a change of power and not freedom struggle,” he says. Though unable to see clearly due to weak eyesight, he was still a keen observer of the changes around him. He anticipated hope among youths. “The India of our dreams is yet to arrive.”Baba Bhagat Singh Bilga was one of the most respected revolutionaries of pre and post-Independence era. Bilga continued to act stubbornly on his beliefs. His emphatic belief in pluralism led him to take on Sikh extremists during the Khalistan separatist movement in the late 1970s and 1980s.
“In 1978, it was impossible to challenge Punjabi terrorists if you were a Sikh,” recalls journalist Kuldip Nayar, 79. “While covering the Punjab unrest, I heard of Bilga. He stood alone and spread his pluralistic ideas. The fact that he had no weapons to defend himself didn’t bother him either.” Bilga agrees that it was impossible to speak against Khalistani mobs in the emotionally charged villages of Punjab in the early 1980s. “We recruited more than 200 young intellectuals to pacify the fanatics,” he remembers. “Most of them were gunned down.” Bilga went from one village to another on his cycle, requesting Hindus not to give in to communal hatred. “I once went to a condolence meeting of a slain Hindu and addressed Sikh mourners there against the movement. After coming back home, I sat in the courtyard awaiting my death. I desperately wanted to be a martyr!”
Desh Bhagat Yadgar Hall
Desh Bhagat Yadgar Memorial Hall, is a treasure trove for researchers, safekeeping over 17,000 books about India’s revolutionary history. There are handwritten statements of Gadaris, a British directory containing sketches and whereabouts of Gadaris, original copies of the movement’s handwritten newspaper Gadar (in Punjabi and Urdu) which was published from San Francisco in 1913, and 2,000 rare pictures of revolutionaries, who usually took great pains to conceal their faces and identities.
“I have dedicated myself to this museum which has 35 other freedom fighters as its members,” he says. “It traces the life of each and every Gadari along with their photographs. We have collected them from their villages, relatives and friends, in India and abroad. And all this to tell the world that Englishmen didn’t leave India because a handful of Indians threw salt into their eyes. They left because we sent them packing.”
Over the past 46 years, the museum has received financial help from NRIs, as well as information about their revolutionary relatives and friends. “They know these pieces of history will be safe with us,” says Bilga. Every October, a five-day festival called Gadari Mela is hosted at the Yadgar Hall to celebrate the contributions of revolutionaries. It is attended mostly by families of martyrs of the Gadar Movement – 400 revolutionaries were hanged and 5,000 were sent to Kala Pani for life imprisonment; most of them never returned – who often come from abroad to be a part of it. Last year, a BBC reporter who filmed a documentary on Bilga sent him some cash and a rare picture of Gadaris in Singapore taken on February 15, 1915. Unfortunately, Bilga can’t enjoy viewing his collection as he used to, having lost his eyesight three years ago. As president of the Desh Bhagat Yadgaar Hall Trust, Jalandhar, he had been celebrating the annual Ghadari Mela since 1992 with his fellow comrades. Author of five books, he had, with great effort, procured rare photographs of the Komagata Maru incident for the museum.
Reflections on the current situation
“Governments came and went but the issues of the development of society still lie unaddressed. The picture of India is not the same as conceived by the freedom fighters… Mulk di halat bigad gayi hai. Mehangayi te bekari ne aam admi di kamar tod ditti hai…Government policies are also biased. They are drafted for the elite and the middle class and the poor people are bearing the brunt.” Bilga’s words, quoted in The Tribune on April 1 this year, showed the man had a fairly good grasp of what a mess India’s rulers had made of an idea for which men like him worked for a lifetime. Of late, for many years now, Bilga’s health was failing, but rarely did anyone come back after meeting him without being deeply touched and inspired. He would work himself into anger and rage talking about the ruling elite.
“We had never dreamt during our days of struggle that a situation shall arrive where a Prime Minister like Manmohan Singh just weaves the magic of a few numerals to falsely claim that the country is doing well.”
However, before leaving India for the UK last year, in various interviews Baba Bilga had openly expressed his disappointment with the state of affairs, especially with the rampant corruption eating into the vitals of the Indian Nation.
He was often quoted as saying that the freedom fighters had not struggled for an India as it stood now.
Baba Bilga had moved to the UK for a prostate gland problem about a year ago from here where he remained centre of various social and literary movements for several decades. The champion of the freedom movement died at around 10.45 am ( Friday 22 May 2009 GMT). Baba ji was expected to go back to India in September this year. The great old man of the freedom struggle was 102. His sons Kulbir and Prem Singh Sanghera and 5 grandchildren survive him. Despite his ailing age, the visionary Ghadarite enjoyed a sharp memory. Jagjit Singh Lyallpuri, a Left leader and close friend of Baba Bilga, recently went to England to meet him and said: “He was a born Ghadarite and an institution in himself. It was his charismatic persona, which fascinated not only us the Ghadarites, but the youth as well”.
Two years back when a correspondent met him at his native village Bilga for an interview, he virtually brought the bygone days of the freedom struggle back to life. Baba Bilga echoed the thoughts of revolutionary Ghadarites who changed the course of time. His vigorous husky voice said: “Utho naujawano, badal do zamana”.
Even recently when a correspondent spoke to Baba Bilga over the phone on his birthday on April 1, he was able to recall the fading memories of his previous interview and asked: “Mere desh da ki haal hai Biba”.
“I have seen corruption and poverty in this country since independence and I believe the youth should be given a chance to run the country. India of today breaks my heart,” Baba Bilga had said in his last interview to The Indian Express on his birthday on April 1 this year. “Today the country needs another Bhagat Singh to save it from corrupt leaders. Shaheed can return in the form of our youth if they (youth) follow his ideology”,he said. A great admirer of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, he added, “Oh di soch hi nirali si”. He lamented the humanistic degeneration of Indians worldwide. “Politicians remember Bhagat Singh on his martyrdom day and in turn are overlooking his ideals which hold true even today,” said Baba Bilga.
At one hundred and two years, Baba Bhagat Singh Bilga simply could not relax. He was unwell, was in Birmingham and knew any day could be his last day, but considered it very necessary to take the call from a newspaper correspondent from Jalandhar to underline an important aspect of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
“Youth holds the key to development and the future of the nation lies with them… Politicians have failed the people for so long, so it is up to the people now to relive the dreams of the freedom fighters…My appeal is vote for development, solidarity and secularism of the nation.”
Today, as Baba Bilga is no more, one wonders if he did not know that his hopes and dreams lay shattered all around him. And one wonders where he found the strength from within to keep goading us into making sense of the idea that India could have been. Perhaps deep within, he knew the rot was too deep.
Bilga was the main inspiration behind a sort of rekindling of the movement both in India and abroad and many memorials sprung up in the villages of Punjab. Ghadri Babian de Mele are organised every year in India, US, Canada and UK and Punjabi NRIs make it a point to visit the Desh Bhagat Yadgar Hall.
Bilga fought for freedom of the country, and he fought for freedom of the people. Not just from the British, but from those whose vested interests kept teeming millions marginalized. His fight simply did not get over. No wonder, Bilga died in the trenches, still giving a message to his people to vote sensibly, still pinning hopes on the next generation.
Author of five books, Baba Bilga successfully endured to procure some of the rare photographs related to Komagata Maru incident of 1914.
He championed the cause of getting “freedom fighter” status for those who were martyred in the episode.
Indian Workers Association Great Britain and Shaheed Udham Singh Welfare Trust (Birmingham) pay patriotic and revolutionary tribute to Baba Bhagat Singh Bilga ji.
Note: For more information on the Ghadar Party visit: http://www.ghadarmemorial.net/