Book Launch – ‘A Journey With The Endless Eye’ – Ajmer Rode & Jarnail Singh

Uddari congratulates Ajmer Rode, Jarnail Singh Artist, NAAD Foundation and Ekstasis Editions for creating this book of images and words on the historic incident of Komagata Maru.

Naad Foundation
Proudly invites you

to the launch of
(stories of Komagata Maru incident)
21 February 2016, 2:00 pm
Crossroads United Church, 7655, 120 St, Delta, BC
Free Event, Refreshments

Tabla by Amarjit Singh
Songs by Gagandeep Singh
Flute by Dr. Bruce Harding
A Play by Gurdip Arts Academy
Painting exhibition by Jarnail Singh

Written by
Ajmer Rode and Jarnail Singh Artist
Published by
Richard Olafson of Ekstasis Editions

More information – 778-565-4005
Ajmer Rode – 604-526-2342
Jarnail Singh Artist – 604-825-4659

Supported by: TMG Logistics, Basant Motors, Komagatamaru Foundation, RED FM, MY FM, Jassal Signs, Gurdeep Arts Academy, Jarnail Arts, Crossroads United Church.

Contact Uddari

Ruptures in Arrival: Art in the Wake of Komagata Maru


Written by Randeep Singh

Surrey Art Gallery is hosting “Ruptures in Arrival,” an exhibition marking the Komagata Maru centenary.

What’s refreshing about this exhibition becomes apparent from its introduction. The Komagata Maru is not just the story of one religious or cultural group. It is the story of all peoples who have migrated to Canada, only to be deemed illegal, or unfit for entry and sent away.

The exhibition contextualizes the Komagata Maru in time through Ali Kazimi’s short-film presenting vignettes on the lives of South Asians in B.C. in 1914. The journey of the Komagata Maru is also represented in space by Avantika Bawa who traces the routes taken by the ship on a cascading fabric.

There is a video presentation of “Mass Arrival,” a live enactment by five Toronto artists of the expulsion of a cargo ship of Tamil refugees featuring (white) residents of Toronto. The video presentation is surrounded by walls of tabloid print-outs; headlines illustrate Canada’s phobia towards refugees and migrants, including acrid political cartoons on the never-ending Yellow Peril. The introduction to the exhibit reminds us not only of the Chinese refugees from Fujian who were turned away in 1999 but of the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying 937 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany whom Canada turned away in 1939.

I end with “Four Boats Stranded,” a model exhibition of Ken Lam’s work. In 2001, Lam constructed and had positioned four ships facing four directions atop the Vancouver Art Gallery of which one was the Komagata Maru. Looking at those ships, with all the exhibits in the gallery, one remembers the journeys that made Canada and the continuous journey of defining oneself in an ever migrating world.

White Canada Forever

chinese head tax

This year marks the centenary of the Komagata Maru incident. The celebration of that centenary has been marked by some as a historic episode in the story of Indians and Punjabi Sikhs in Canada.

The Komagata Maru however is not the history of any one ethnic or religious group: it is the history of Canada. It is a page in a chapter of Canada’s history whereby English-speaking Canadians sought to create a Canada of English values, traditions, language, law and institutions from sea to sea, a “White Canada Forever.”

There had been earlier attempts to exclude, marginalize or assimilate the aboriginal communities and the French in Canada. The Indian, like the Chinese and Japanese however, was considered an alien and unassimilable breed. His arrival on the west coast moreover threatened to bring hordes of Orientals to the shores of British Columbia.

What followed was the advent of exclusion towards Asian immigrants in British Columbia: the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 and the Chinese Head Tax; the Komagata Maru incident; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 which completely banned Chinese migration to Canada until 1947, and the internment of Canadians of Japanese heritage in 1942 to name a few. The exclusion of undesirables was not limited to Asians. It included denying entry to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany and the internment of Italian-Canadians during the second world war.

H.G. Wells once said that history more and more becomes a race between education and catastrophe. Our history demonstrates that we have never been a multicultural utopia. We have our tragedies, follies and regrets like any country. Let’s open our eyes to the Komagata Maru, the Chinese Head Tax, the Indian Residential Schools, so we don’t close them again. Let’s remember them as the history of Canada, our reminder as how to best move forward.

Further Reading: Peter Ward, White Canada Forever (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990).

‘My Journey with Tagore’ by Ashok Bhargava

Presented at the 150 Years of Tagore celebrations organized by World Poetry, City of Richmond and Vancouver Tagore Society on September 10, 2011.

As in any traditional gathering especially a family reunion, we normally greet everyone either with a kiss or an embrace or both as a sign of our 1ove, respect, unity, and solidarity with one another. So, in the spirit of this celebration, and camaraderie in the name of Tagore, may I request you to please rise up to shake hand with your seatmate, your spouse-partner, friends or strangers around your seat?

Now, to submerge ourselves into the celebrations, kindly embrace each other and reach out to others in a warm, tender, and loving way. And to top up such feelings of affection for each other, I ask you to clap your hands and deliver resounding rounds of applause to Tagore.

I am going to make you walk with me and become a traveller along with me as I tell you about Tagore’s trips around the world.

Popularly known as “Gurudev”, Tagore was a Poet, Philosopher, playwright, novelist, essayist, painter, composer, dramatist, choreographer, educator, social reformer and Nobel Laureate.

Rabindranath Tagore was born 150 years ago on May 7, 1861. He was the youngest son of Debendranath Tagore, a leader of the Brahmo Samaj – a new religious sect in nineteenth-century Bengal which attempted to revive monistic basis of Hinduism as laid down in the Upanishads. He was educated at home; and at an age of seventeen he was sent to England for formal schooling, he did not finish his studies there.

During the first 51 years of his life he was a relatively unknown artist. He had some success and recognition in Calcutta and surrounding areas of where he was born and raised. His short stories were published monthly in a friend’s magazine, and he played the lead roles in some of his plays. Other than that, he was little known outside of Calcutta, and not known at all outside of India.

His destiny changed in 1912 when he returned to England for the first time since his failed attempt at law school as a teenager. Now a man of 51, he was accompanied by his son. On the way over to England he began translating into English his latest selections of poems called Gitanjali. He decided to do this just to have something to do, with no expectation that his first time translation efforts would be any good. He made the handwritten translations in a little notebook he carried around with him and worked on during the long sea voyage from India. Upon arrival, his son left his father’s brief case with this notebook in the London subway. Fortunately, an honest person turned in the briefcase and it was recovered the next day.

Tagore’s friend in England, Mr. Rothenstein, a famous painter whom he had met in India, learned of the translation, and asked to see it. Reluctantly, with much persuasion, Tagore let him have the notebook. His friend was amazed at the beauty and intricacies of his poems. He found Tagore’s poetry simply incredible. He called his friend, W.B. Yeats, and talked him into looking at the hand scrawled notebook.

Yeats was captivated. He later wrote the introduction to Gitanjali when it was published in September 1912 in a limited edition by the India Society in London. Thereafter, both the poetry and the man were an instant sensation, first in London literary circles, and soon thereafter in the entire world. His spiritual presence was awesome. His words evoked great beauty. Nobody had ever read anything like it. A glimpse of the mysticism and sentimental beauty of Indian culture were revealed to the West for the first time. Less than a year later, in 1913, Tagore received the Nobel Prize for literature. He was the first Asian and the first non-westerner to be so honoured.

In 1915 he was knighted by King George V of Britain.

His fame took him across continents on lecture tours promoting inter-cultural harmony and understanding. For the world he became the voice of India’s spiritual heritage; and for India, especially for Bengal, he became a great living institution.

In 1919, following the Amritsar massacre of almost 400 innocent Indian demonstrators by British troops, Sir Tagore renounced his Knighthood. From time to time he participated in the Indian nationalist movement, though in his own non-sentimental and visionary way but most of the time he stayed out of politics. He was opposed to nationalism and militarism as a matter of principle, and instead promoted spiritual values and the creation of a new world culture founded in multiculturalism, diversity and tolerance.

Although Tagore wrote successfully in all literary genres, he was first of all a poet. Among his fifty and odd volumes of poetry are Manasi (1890) [The Ideal One], Sonar Tari (1894) [The Golden Boat], Gitanjali (1910) [Song Offerings], Gitimalya (1914) [Wreath of Songs], and Balaka (1916) [The Flight of Cranes]. The English renderings of his poetry, which include The Gardener (1913), Fruit-Gathering (1916), and The Fugitive (1921), do not generally correspond to particular volumes in the original Bengali; and in spite of its title, Gitanjali: Song Offerings (1912), the most acclaimed of them, contains poems from other works besides its namesake.

Tagore’s major plays are Raja (1910) [The King of the Dark Chamber], Dakghar (1912) [The Post Office], Achalayatan (1912) [The Immovable], Muktadhara (1922) [The Waterfall], and Raktakaravi (1926) [Red Oleanders].

He is the author of several volumes of short stories and a number of novels, among them Gora (1910), Ghare-Baire (1916) [The Home and the World], and Yogayog (1929) [Crosscurrents]. Besides these, he wrote musical dramas, and dance dramas of all types.

Tagore was a creative genius and a renaissance man. He wrote over one thousand poems; eight volumes of short stories; almost two dozen plays and play-lets; eight novels; and many books and essays on philosophy, religion, education and social issues. Aside from words and drama, his other great love was music, Bengali style. He composed more than two thousand songs, both the music and lyrics.

Two of them became the national anthems of India and Bangladesh.

In 1929 he even began painting. Many of his paintings can be found in museums today.
He authored travel diaries and two autobiographies, one in his middle years and the other shortly before his death in 1941.

Tagore inspired such leaders as Mahatma Gandhi, his contemporary and later Aung San Suu Kyi. As Myanmar’s Peace laureate wrote in 2001, her “most precious lesson” had been from Tagore: “If no one answers your call, walk alone.”

If no one answers your call
Make a stride and walk alone.
When you see everyone closed
Open your mind and speak alone.

If they turn away and desert
And the wild path obstacles exert
Trample thorns no matter the hurt
Alone on the blood-stained track you traverse.

If no one holds up the light
And a fierce storm shakes the night
With its thunderbolt flame ignite
Your heart, alone, and let it burn bright.

Few Canadians know of Tagore today but thousands of Canadians did 80 years ago, turning out in droves to see and hear him. He visited Vancouver in 1929 after having declined several invitations in protest against the Komagata Maru incident of 1914, when 376 Indian immigrants were denied entry to Canada.

Tagore arrived Vancouver on the afternoon of April 7, 1929 by a steamer. He was a guest of the National Council of Education to address its triennial conference, the Vancouver Sun reported: “On Monday night thousands sought to see and hear Tagore . . . They stood in long lines for hours outside to gain admission . . . Before 8.30 PM line of those who waited for admission extended up Granville Street, down Georgia, past the Hotel Vancouver so far as the Court house … even after he had commenced speaking, they were reluctant to leave. More than any other delegate he had seized their imagination.”

On April 11, 1929, Tagore visited the local Sikh temple on 2nd Avenue. The Vancouver Sun reported that, “the welcome ceremony was impressive and enthusiastic. Tagore was accompanied by his companions – Major Fred Ney and Reverend C.F. Andrews”. Before departing for Los Angles by train, Tagore met Governor General of Canada Lord Willingdon at the Canadian National Railway Depot on Main Street on April 16, 1929.

Tagore drew a huge following wherever he went: China, Japan, Latin America, Europe and the United States. In China, Tagore remains the most widely translated foreign author after Shakespeare.

Tagore was one of the strongest critics of war and colonialism, fascism, and the dangers of narrow-minded nationalism. To inspire Koreans to get rid of Japanese colonial rulers, he wrote the following verses:

In the golden age of Asia
Korea was one of its lamp-bearers
And that lamp is waiting to be lighted again
For the illumination of the East.

To the West, however, Tagore remained the “Eastern mystic,” acclaimed during his lifetime and then forgotten. But more than a mystic, Tagore was a visionary who articulated ideals of humanism, equality and freedom long before the League of Nations or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Disproving the claim that such ideas must necessarily come from the “West,” Tagore showed how the ideas of democracy, freedom, co-existence, equality and human rights existed in the folk philosophies of the East and in different religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. This was the theme of his Oxford University lectures in 1930.

Tagore rejected the notion that knowledge (and civilization) must flow from the West to the East. The West and the East had much to learn from each other, he contended.

In 1921 Tagore established the “world university,” called Visva Bharati to bring East and West together as equals. Its opening ceremony was attended by scholars, artists and students from Europe, China, Japan, Java, Burma, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Palestine. Today a true exchange of ideas, knowledge and cultures prospers at Visva Bharati where Tagore’s poem “Mind Without Fear” has a special meaning:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

The world has yet to fully appreciate Tagore’s vision. Our youth, if they knew him, would deeply value his message of freeing creativity from every form of domination. This year’s celebrations offer wonderful opportunities to know Tagore.

Ashok K. Bhargava is a Vancouver based author, poet and a cultural activist.
Contact Ashok at

More on Tagore

Book Launch: ‘Chanting Denied Shores’ by Tariq Malik, Vancouver Jan 16/2011

‘Chanting Denied Shores – The Komagata Maru Narratives’

Book Launch, Vancouver
Sunday 16 January, 2011
2:30 – 4:30pm
Book launch with introduction by
Mr. Ujjal Dosanjh
Historical Kogawa House
1450 West 64th Avenue,
Vancouver, BC V6P 2N4
Phone 604-263-6586

Book launch, Surrey
Sunday, January 23, 2011
1:30 – 4:30pm
Surrey Public Library
Strawberry Hill Branch
7399 – 122nd Street, Surrey BC

Author Reading, Abbottsford
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Author book reading
Ehsaas Readers and Writers Festival
University of Fraser Valley
Abbottsford, BC

More information

‘With the world pre-occupied with rumours of an imminent war, Vancouver’s boys of summer 1914 are at it again – the waterfront is already ringing with their verses of ‘White Canada Forever’. As hundreds of Punjabi Indians quietly sail into the harbour clamouring for their rights as equal subjects to relocate to any part of the British Empire, their chartered ship – the Komagata Maru – now lies rusting at anchor inside the Burrard Inlet on Canada’s Pacific Coast. The hopeful, would-be-immigrants find the host city distracted in its exuberant Victoria Day celebrations, and by the final visit of Buffalo Bill’s Best Show On Earth.

The arrival of the rogue ship into Canadian waters is seized by an immigration inspector as an opportunity to redress personal frustrations and regain lost stature. Meanwhile, a Punjabi mill worker, whose plight in seeking gainful employment is challenged through his community’s daily humiliations and frustrations by the belligerent exclusionist policies, watches the ship’s passengers thwarted in their every attempt at landing.

A gifted undercover operator whose intricate web of informants, intimidation, intrigue and murder has infiltrated the Pacific coast, warns that the new arrivals are a part of an emerging sinister insurgency to free India from its occupying British forces; and his seven-year-old daughter watches a favourite uncle worship the first crocuses and revel in the return of seasonal salmon by swimming with them in a shallow stream.

These are some of the narrative threads of a disillusioned and dislocated passenger on the Komagata Maru. He is ostensibly here to take up the Canadian offer of ‘Free Land’ in the Last Best West and his explorations of the possibilities and limits of hope and endurance spans two continents during the tumultuous decade from 1914 to 1924. It includes the startling revelation of how some of the deported passengers walked the railway tracks from Calgary to Vancouver barely ahead of the onset of winter.

Set against the racially charged background of discordant voices from an unshakeable past, this wrenching and inspiring first novel illuminates a watershed incident of Canadian history largely forgotten outside the South Asian community. The Komagata Maru debacle would eventually radicalize the Indian freedom movement on the American soil, giving fresh impetus to the claim of Indian freedom fighters that there was no justice for them within the British Empire, and the only recourse open to them was to forcefully seek complete independence for India.’
from the book cover

Komagata Maru historical timeline
First Punjabi settlement in Canada at Golden, Vancouver Island, B.C.
Columbia River Lumber Mill Temple built in Golden, Vancouver Island, B.C.
Sikhs soldiers returning from Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee travel through Canada and carry with them news of Canada’s vast farmlands.
Anti-Asian Riots in Vancouver, B.C. Canada and Bellingham, Washington, USA.
Canadian Government severely restricts immigration from India.
Canadian Government passes 2 orders-in-council: the first declares that all Asians were now obliged to have $200 on their person when they land. The second order-in-council, the ‘Continuous Journey’ regulation, stipulates that East Indian immigrants had to have travelled directly to Canada from India. However, there were no shipping lines operating between the two countries at the time.
May 23, Komagata Maru arrives in Vancouver harbour with 376 passengers (340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims and 12 Hindus) to challenge the extant exclusionist laws.
23 July, Komagata Maru departs with 352 of its passengers still onboard.
29 September, Komagata Maru reaches Indian shores at Budge Budge near Calcutta. 20 passengers die in the ensuing riots.
Canadian Immigration regulations loosened slightly to allow some Indian family reunification.
Canadian Citizenship Act opens the gates for immigration from the Indian subcontinent.
75th Komagata Maru anniversary plaque placed at Vancouver’s Portal Park.
Vancouver City Hall declares 23 May as Komagata Maru Day.
Filmmaker Deepa Mehta (Director: Water, Earth and Fire) announces plans for a Canadian film based on the Komagata Maru events. Related issues of federal apology, financial compensation to descendants and anniversary commemorations keep the Komagata Maru incident of 1914 alive in the press.
Canadian federal government announces plans for a permanent memorial at the Komagata Maru site in the Burrard Inlet.

‘Chanting Denied Shores’ is published by Calgary’s Bayeux Arts in November 2010.

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.”

To know more about the Gadar movement, log on to

Featured in Harmony Magazine April 2005