Talking about a revolution: Bhagat Singh Bilga

Bhagat S Bilga. 2006. Pic Ajay BhardwajBhagat Singh Bilga, 2006. Photo by Ajay Bhardwaj

Bhagat Singh Bilga, the last survivor of the Gadar Movement, tells Teena Baruah about his many adventures (2005)

The man former prime minister I K Gujral calls “a legend” is not a scholar or a man of many words. Ninety-eight-year-old Bhagat Singh Bilga is a revolutionary, the last survivor of the Gadar (revolution) Movement, a struggle launched by expatriate Punjabis in the US and Canada to overthrow the British in India.

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, reclining on a narrow bed in a room at Desh Bhagat Yadgar Memorial Hall in Jalandhar. The hall was inaugurated by him and his comrades in the Gadar Movement.

The movement had its roots in 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 collecting other passengers at Shanghai, Kobe and Yokohama, arrived at Vancouver on May 23, 1914, with 376 Indians – all Punjabis, with 340 Sikhs, 12 Muslims and 24 Muslims – on board. Canadian immigration authorities refused all but 22 passengers permission to land. 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. 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 arrested the moment they touched home 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.

Bilga is preparing to travel again. “Today, I have a valid passport,” he says with a smile. He is going to Birmingham in the UK to stay with his two sons, Kulbir, 76, and Prem, 56, and consult doctors about his prostate problem. “When you travel after 90, you should travel light,” he adds, packing his age-old grey overcoat in a tiny suitcase. It’s also hard for him to find things in his small, cluttered room at the memorial hall.

Bilga’s home, the 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.

The debility has also robbed him of his habit of reading his favourite Punjabi daily Naya Zamana. But Bilga regularly listens to TV news bulletins and receives a steady stream of visitors. His comrades’ family members often drop in for a glass of tea. And then there’s 52-year-old Gurmit Singh, a former journalist and student communist who has dedicated his life to keep alive the memories of the Gadaris. Gurmit spends 12 hours with Bilga every day and is family now – Bilga’s wife Jannat died 35 years ago. “I talk to him about everything from family problems to pressures at work,” says Gurmit. “He listens carefully and his advice is in sync with the times. Sometimes, it seems he is 20 years old.”

Bilga’s daughter Kranti died of typhoid after he was arrested for his anti-Partition protest after Independence. His two sons live in Birmingham and are active leftists – elder son Kulbir is currently the president of the Indian Worker’s Association in Birmingham. “It’s in their genes,” he says with pride. “And they love fussing over their father, sending money and arranging expensive medical treatment for me.”

His family aside, Bilga has many well-wishers. CPI (M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, 90, has known him for 30 years. “His village Bilga is about 8 km away from my village Bundala,” he says. “Also, we have worked together as comrades for the Communist Party. I have rarely seen a more dedicated father, a finer freedom fighter and a more grounded politician in my lifetime.” And Balwant Singh Ramoowalia, 60, former union minister and former secretary general of the Akali Dal, calls him a “true patriot”. Ramoowalia was introduced to Bilga a quarter of a century ago while he was settling pension cases of freedom fighters as an MP in 1998. He adds, “Bilga’s commitment to the nation is so strong that he could never get along with any political party completely. In fact, he earned the reputation of being ziddi (stubborn) by standing to his personal ideology.”

Bilga continues 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!”

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.

As the memories come flooding back, Bilga becomes animated again, belying the fact that he’s 98. He has only recently allowed his body certain concessions. “Earlier, I used to wake up at 6 am,” he says. “Now, my body revolts. It tells me to go back to bed. And I listen to it. Sometimes.”

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Featured in Harmony Magazine April 2005