BABA SOHAN SINGH BHAKNA- A GREAT REVOLUTIONARY
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Roosevelt once wrote: "No man is worth his salt who is not ready at all
times to risk his body, to risk his well-being, to risk his life in great cause."
And what could be greater than the cause of emancipation of one's motherland
from bondages of all sorts - political, social, religious or economic? Baba
Sohan Singh, the well-known leader of the Ghadar Party, was indeed true to his
salt. He was a prince among patriots, a revolutionary par-excellence, who lived
to see the rise, and, by his precept and example, helped to bring the fall of
the mighty British Imperialism. In so doing, he spent the best period of his
life, 26 years, in some of the worst jails of the country.
As the prevalent custom would require, being the first child of his parents, he was born (in January 1870) in his maternal village, Khotre Khurd, not far from his ancestral home, Bhakna, District Amritsar. No record of his exact date of birth is available. His father, Karam Singh Shergill, was a sturdy farmer and an orthodox Sikh, who was ever ready to mitigate the sufferings of others around him. His mother, Ram Kaur, was a quiet woman. But the greatest debt of gratitude that he openly acknowledged, was to his loving step-mother, Har Kaur. For him, she was the mother about whom Fredric Hantz Adams has said:
She was good as goodness is
Her acts and all her words were kind,
And high above all memories
I hold the beauty of her mind.
He was a married boy at the early age of 15, when he finished his primary education in the village school. Being the only and somewhat spoilt child in his affluent family, and without the protecting influence of his father, he soon fell in bad company (as he himself told me), and would have proved to be a great curse for the family, had Baba Kesar, the Namdari saint, by his living example and psychological treatment, not channelize his thoughts and actions, along constructive direction. This was a real turning point in his life. Young Sohan Singh developed a deeply moral and religious attitude, which, shorn of formalism, remained a part of his very nature till his death. Seeds of self-denial, service to the community and love for the motherland had been sown deep in his soul. By his long association with the Namdhari Sangat, he came to be highly revered.
Financial difficulties now followed. Farming proved to be too hard for him. Like hundreds of adventure-loving Indians, most of whom were illiterate or semiliterate middle class Panjabi peasants, he left for the United States of America in 1909, in search of employment. There, like others, he enrolled himself as an ordinary laborer in sawmills and other factories. The work was very tough and the environments were not congenial. In the free society of the U.S., Indians were looked down upon and ridiculed with epithets such as 'Hindoo Slaves', 'running dogs of British Imperialism', 'thirty crores black sheep'. These insults proved to be a blessing in disguise. Constant contacts with the Indian students and the enlightened exiled patriots like L. Hardyal, Bhai Parmanand, Tarak Nath Dass, who were then in America, inspired the working Indians to organize themselves to fight for their honor and for the freedom of their country.
In 1913, in Portland, a representative and dynamic organization 'Indian Association of the Pacific Coast', with Headquarters at Yugantar Ashram, came into being with the avowed object of liberating India by means of an armed revolt. Baba Sohan Singh was elected its first President. He showed organizing skill of a high order. To propagate its ideals, a multi-lingual paper 'Ghadar' with L. Hardyal, the General Secretary as its Editor, was started for free distribution among Indians in all countries under the British rule. The 'inflammatory material' of this paper proved to be so popular that the organization itself came to be known as Ghadar Party. Selfless service, supreme sacrifice and anti-British sentiments were the catch-words of the Ghadar Party.
In 1914, the party expanded its activities and made hurried preparations to collect and send arms, ammunitions and volunteers to India, in order to ferment an armed uprising. "We are quite satisfied that the out-break of war with Germany was regarded as the psychological moment for a revolution in India, in which it was expected Germany would participate", opined judges trying Ghadar Party leaders, later on.
Kamagatamaru affair in Canada added fuel to the fire.
Baba Sohan Singh, now President for the second year, was directed by the Party to set sail for India with a consignment of arms. Spreading his message of "do or die" among the Indians in Nagasaki, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Penong, (with the British secret service agents all around) and under assumed names, he reached Calcutta Port, on his way to Panjab to organize the revolt; but was immediately taken into custody along with some other associates. Thus in October, 1914, his direct connection with the activities of the Ghadar Party was suddenly snapped.
How and why this movement later on failed, is a different tale of treachery and tears. One of the reasons is the detention of seasoned leaders like Baba Sohan Singh, before the fuse of revolution could be ignited.
In police custody, every pressure was exerted on him including threats of firing squad, harassment of his mothers and wife and lure of new canal lands, to make him an approver; but he was made of a sterner stuff. Ultimately, in 1915, he was tried in the First Lahore Conspiracy Case. Twenty four persons in this case were awarded capital punishment for waging war against the crown. Their properties were also ordered to be confiscated to the state. Baba Ji was one of them. He did not flinch and refused to petition for mercy.
However, on a technical flaw in the prosecution story, pointed out by the eminent Jurist, Pandit Moti Lal Nehru that they were arrested from ships and had not set foot on the Indian soil, and on intervention by the nominated members of the Viceroy's Council, the death sentence of 17 of the 24 accused was commuted to life-imprisonment. Providence, thus, saved Baba Sohan Singh from the gallows, but worse fate awaited him in the form of the Andeman Jail, which was, as he stated "a living hell let loose on earth." Here, scant regard was shown for human dignity. The prisoners were treated worse than animals. Their most elementary demands were haughtily ignored. To protest against such high-handedness on the part of authorities, the fellow-prisoners, led by Baba Ji, went on hunger strike thrice. The Government was ultimately compelled to appoint an Enquiry Commission, and then, in 1920, prohibited the use of this Jail for political prisoners. For other categories of prisoners, serving life-terms, many reforms were introduced. Baba Sohan Singh considered it a unique achievement of the Ghadar Party Leaders. But, for this, seven patriots had to lose their lives.
Such hunger strikes and fasts-unto-death did not end with the Andemans. The process continued, in his case, in other jails, for half a dozen times - always against injustice, ill-treatment and tyranny. He firmly believed in perseverance, which, they say, is the master influence of the firmest souls and the discipline of the noblest virtues. That is why, perhaps, he had acquired great self-discipline. This is also evident from the fact that, earlier, under the influence of Baba Kesar, he had given up the use of such an essential commodity as common salt for twelve long years. Then again, while undergoing prison-terms, he renounced the use of sugar for a similar period. Some may find in these acts, traces of fanaticism, but all great men are known for their unflinching faith in self-control, in one form or another.
From Andeman, he was transferred to the Coimbatore, Yarvada and Lahore Central Jails, where he spent the remaining years of his prison term. It was in Lahore Central jail that he met S. Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries, who were highly impressed by his quiet dignity, magnetic personality and a spirit of spontaneous service and sacrifice. After undergoing a sentence of 16 years, he was released in 1930 after a prolonged hunger strike. But he was yet to spend a decade behind the bars.
A rousing reception and cordial welcome followed. However, his restless spirit did not let him sit idle. Early 1931 saw him plunge into the Civil Disobedience Movement launched by the Congress Party. For this, he had to serve a six-month jail term. But soon, sharp differences with the party bosses on the question of his active participation in the revolutionary activities of the Kisan Sabha, forced him to quit the Congress. Since then he had been the moving spirit behind the Peasants and Workers' Movement of the Country. He was elected President of the All India Kisan Sabha, for the first time, in 1934. This association landed him in jail on a number of occasions.
Wedded to the ideals of socialism till the end, he had marked sympathies with communism. But he was never dogmatic in his approach. He emphatically maintained that those who looked upon other countries for leadership, were themselves misled. "We must bring national regeneration, keeping in view our own needs and peculiar circumstances obtaining in the country. Peasantry and the labor force and the backbone of a nation. Any government or any party which is not slave to a handful of persons representing vested interests, but cares for the well-being of the workers and that of the man in the street, is the best for us," he declared.
The partition of the country in 1947, resulting in loot, arson, abductions and killings gave a rude shock to his sensitive mind. He saw to it that not a single Muslim life was lost in the area under his influence.
For him, work, constructive work - was real worship. After release, he, along with Baba Jawala Singh, first set up a 'Kirti Kisan Ashram', by donating 17 acres of land to educate and help the destitute children of the deceased patriots. Later on, he donated land and money and started a high school in his village.
The last few years of his eventful life he spent in his humble cottage surrounded by green fields. His wife had died earlier and he had no child, but even then, he felt contented.
I had the privilege of spending two days with him in May, 1966. He was 96 then. Although bent like an aged lion with uneasy steps and failing eyesight, I found him quite young in spirit. During my long interview with him covering many facets of his busy life, he did not even once show signs of fatigue, irritation or confusion. A born optimist, he told me, "The future of our country and the mankind is safe with the enlightened youth. Let them stop not, till the goal is reached."
On December 21, 1968, full of years (99), wit and wisdom, he breathed his last, after a brief illness.
A public figure, paying glowing tribute to him, aptly said: "Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna was not only a great revolutionary, but a leader of revolutionaries; was not only a great patriot, but the father of patriotism in Punjab; was not only a great hero of the country, but the torch-bearer of the new heroism in Indian nationalism."
His whole life exemplifies what Hugh Walpole has said:
'Tisn't the life that matters!
It's the courage you bring to it.
Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna - a great revolutionary. Prem Singh Bajaj, M.A.