Author Tags: Indo-Canadian
According to the on-line Academy of the Punjab of North America, Giani Kesar Singh was a freedom fighter and novelist who wrote approximately 25 historical novels in Punjabi, particularly related to the Ghadar Movement that fought for the independence of India.
The on-line site states he served as a Civil Administrator of the Indian National Army (from 1943 to 1945), as secretary to Shiromani Akali Dal (1948 to 1957) and as a guide at the Golden Temple for two years. After publishing ‘Jangi Kaidi’ (Prisoners of War), he was reputedly hailed as "the Leo Tolstoy of Punjabi literature."
Having worked for the Alberta government, Kesar Singh moved to Surrey, B.C. and later wrote Canadian Sikhs and the Komagata Maru Massacre (Surrey: Self-Published, 1989) in English. It was republished in a second edition in 1997.
He has also written a historical novel arising from the Komagata Maru Incident about a Sikh living in Vancouver during the second decade of the 20th century entitled Mewa Singh Lopoke. The protagonist was hanged in a Canadian jail on January 12, 1915; his day of martyrdom is celebrated all over Canada to this day.
Giani Singh Kesar died in Canada on September 21 at the age of 95.
Amar Shahid Mewa Singh Lopoke (Amritsar: Khalsa Bros, 1978). Punjabi.
Canadian Sikhs and the Komagata Maru Massacre (Surrey: Self-Published, 1989)
[BCBW 2012] "Indo-Canadian" "Sikh"
Mewa Singh, Lopoke
THE FOLLOWING INFORMATION IS FROM THE SIMON FRASER UNIVERSITY WEBSITE ABOUT THE KOMAGATA MARU INCIDENT.
Mewa Singh, Lopoke (c1881 - 1915)
The anniversary of Mewa Singh’s death has been commemorated by Sikhs in British Columbia and California ever since his execution by hanging in Vancouver in January 1915. Surprisingly, very few details of his life have survived to the present. We know that he was not married, that he came to Canada in 1906, that he worked in sawmills, that he was initiated as a Khalsa Sikh in Vancouver in 1908, and that he served as a reader (granthi) in the Vancouver Sikh temple. We have the standard information kept in immigration files—he was the son of Nand Singh, and from the village of Lopoke near Tarn Tarn in the Majha district of Amritsar. From his own testimony at trial we know could not read or speak English well, although he was obviously literate in Punjabi. A short entry in “The Encyclopedia of Sikhism” says he was “a simple but religious-minded peasant” and that description fits the accounts of both his countrymen and the immigration officials who knew him.
In the small Indian community of Vancouver, Mewa Singh inevitably was acquainted with people on both sides of the political barrier dividing his community—both the militant leadership and the handful of informants reporting to the immigration department. In June 1914, he was a messenger from the militants to one of the informants, Bela Singh, offering him real estate or money to stop going to the immigration office with his tales. At any rate this was the story that Bela Singh immediately told to the immigration officials. More significantly, Mewa Singh was in the party of four Sikhs–three leading militants and himself–who crossed the border at Sumas to enter the United States; they met Bengali activist Taraknath Das as well as purchased revolvers and ammunition. Of the four, he was the first one who came back into Canada, crossing through the woods to avoid the border checkpoint only to be arrested by the provincial police who found a revolver and 500 rounds of ammunition on his body. The other three were immediately arrested on the American side, but released with no charges after two weeks.
Mewa Singh was the only one guilty of punishable crimes, smuggling a weapon and possessing a concealed weapon. He found himself in a real wringer, facing a possible ten-year prison sentence and under pressure from Hopkinson and Reid to give evidence against the militant leadership. At his first trial appearance, Hopkinson and Reid were not satisfied with his story and obtained a one-week sentencing adjournment from the court after an indication from Mewa Singh that he would tell a “correct” story. In the meantime, his legal expenses were being paid by the Sikh temple, including $50 fine, which is what he ultimately received. The militants who had gone with him shopping in the US for revolvers were leaders in the gurdwara, so one can appreciate the difficult path he was negotiating with the gurdwara leadership on one side and the immigration department on the other.
Hopkinson and Reid were not satisfied with the statement that Mewa Singh gave, but thought that they could get more out of him in time. In the following weeks Hopkinson sought to cultivate Mewa Singh as an informant, establishing a relationship that ended with his death at Mewa Singh’s hands.
In the statement that Mewa Singh did give Hopkinson and Reid, he declared the following: (1) he had never been in the full confidence of the other men, but just went along with them on the cross-border trip by chance; (2) they bought three revolvers; (3) Balwant Singh, the granthi or priest in the group, paid for them; (4) and that as far as he knew the revolvers were intended for the Komagata Maru.
Mewa Singh had been arrested while the Komagata Maru was still anchored in Burrard Inlet, and he was released two weeks after it had gone. He shot Hopkinson two-and-a-half months after that and was rushed to trial ten days later. Mewa Singh did not want to make a defence and his lawyer, whom he hesitantly accepted, followed his wishes and called no witnesses and had no questions in cross-examination of the crown witnesses. What Mewa Singh wanted to do was explain his actions. He had a lengthy written statement his lawyer had taken before to the court interpreter, a Mrs. Dalton, to get it translated. There was a brief discussion during the trial about who should read the statement: the court register, the interpreter, or Mewa Singh’s lawyer, E.M.N. Woods. The crown attorney suggested Woods should read it and he did.
In his statement, Mewa Singh focused on three related events of that summer. Interestingly, he did not mention the Komagata Maru yet tried to explain how he saw Hopkinson as the source of the troubles of his community and of his own. In explaining this, he wanted the jury to know about his own arrest with a revolver and about Hopkinson’s efforts to turn him into an informant, the terrible shooting in the Vancouver Sikh temple by Bela Singh, and, finally, the threatening pressure he felt from Hopkinson to testify on Bela Singh’s behalf at Bela Singh’s trial. The desecration of the temple through Bela Singh’s act of extreme violence was what he stressed. He summed up his feelings in these words: “You, as Christians, would you think there was any more good left in your church if you saw people shot down, and killed in it, and you would not put up with it, because it would be bringing yourselves to a Nation that is dead, to tolerate such conduct, and it is better for a Sikh to die than to bring such disgrace and ill-treatment in the temple. It is far better to die than to live.”
Mewa Singh also said that he did not expect justice and then went on to say, “I know I have shot Hopkinson and will have to die.” He meant that his action was a righteous action, but not one that his judge and jurors would recognize it as such.
Sources: Harban Singh ed., The Encyclopedia of Sikhism (Patiala: Panjabi University, 4th edition 2002); Hugh Johnston, “The Surveillance of Indian Nationalists in North America,” BC Studies, no. 78, Summer, 1988, pp. 3-26; Sohan Singh Pooni, Keneda de Gadri Yodhe (Amritsar: Singh Brothers, 2009); Mahinder Singh Dhillon, A History Book of the Sikhs in Canada and California (Vancouver: Shiromani Akali Dal Association of Canada, 1981); Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol, XIV; Library and Archives Canada, Statement by Mewa Singh at his trial of 30 October 1914, Department of Justice, RG 13, Vol. 1467; Immigration Files, RG 76.
ACCORDING TO THE ACADEMY OF THE PUNJAB OF NORTH AMERICA:
Giani Kesar Singh was born in Mughal Khalsa village of Rawalpindi, now in Pakistan. He was orphaned at the age of three and had to spend his childhood in Amritsar’s Dera Sant Gulab Singh and orphanage. He got his Post-graduate degree from Khalsa College, earning it through hard labour. Then he came in contact with Netaji Subhash Chander Bose and senior commanders of the Indian National Army and went to Malaysia, where he developed his passion for writing. His first book was in English ‘Indian Independence Movement in East Asia’, published by Singh Brothers, Lahore, few months before the Independence. The foreword of the book was written by Sriyut Sarat Chandra Bose, brother of Netaji with his autographs. Sarat Bose, wrote, “Very little is known to the younger generation about the great Indian revolutionaries who left India in the early years of this century and went to Japan, China, Siam, Malaya and other lands and started their revolutionary activities there with the object to liberate India from foreign yoke. Sardar Kesar Singh has done well in giving to young India a short account of the activities of those great revolutionaries who dreamt dreams of India’s freedom and worked for their realisation. The greater part of his book is devoted to the Indians National Army — its formation, its dissolution, its reformation under the leadership of its supreme commander Netaji Subhash Chander Bose and the fight it launched for the achievement of Indian Independence.”
After the death of his first wife, Giani Kesar Singh moved to England and then settled in Canada in 1963. He also served in the Education department of Canada for 14 years.
His last master piece ‘Hathiarband Inqlab’ (Armed Revolution) was published by Singh Brothers, Amritsar, in 1998. He was honoured with the ‘Shiromani Sahitkar’ by the Punjab Government last year. Mr Kuljit Singh of Singh Brothers was one of the last ones from Amritsar to meet ‘Gianiji’ when he was on his deathbed. Most books by Giani Kesar Singh were published by Singh Brothers.
Many historical novels authored by Giani Kesar Singh gave authentic information about the great martyrs associated with Amritsar, including Shaheed Udham Singh, Madan Lal Dhingra, the first Indian to be hanged in a foreign country and Pandit Sohan Lal Pathak (Patti).
Many hidden aspects of this multifarious personality, whose intellectual range was truly impressive, come out in his autobiography. It cinematically recaptures his past and days of underground life. It is a rich and evocative memoir of the author, who grew up in an orphanage of Amritsar like Shaheed Udham Singh. While the epic historical novel ‘War and Peace’ by Leo Tolstoy originally published as Voyna i mir in 1865-69 is panoramic study of early 19th-century Russian society, noted for its mastery of realistic detail and variety of psychological analysis is generally regarded as one of the world’s greatest novels, Giani Kesar Singh’s ‘Jangi Kaidi’ has vividly captured the atrocities committed on Indian freedom fighters by the Japanese. The novel also offered a new kind of fiction, with many characters. It is described as one of his two major masterpieces, the other being ‘Hathiarband Inqlab’, which is one of the longest pieces of fiction in Punjabi literature, running into 728 pages.
Few would dispute the claim of ‘Jangi Kaidi’ to be regarded as one of the greatest novel in any language. This massive chronicle, to which he was devoted, portrays the struggle of freedom fighters. His piercing insight lends universality to the work. In his Autobiography ‘Aatam Katha’, Giani Kesar Singh has not just written about the patriots, but also about his own contributions to the freedom struggle.
‘Gadar’ means revolt or rebellion. The Gadar Party was a revolt against the British rule in India and it was started and organised by Indian immigrants to Canada and the USA. Giani Kesar Singh was one of the heroes of this struggle. The movement was the result of general and natural reaction to the political, social, and economic conditions that prevailed in India in the year 1904, and on the minds of the brave and courageous of Punjabis. They were hard pressed by the adverse economic conditions prevailing in the Punjab at that time to earn their livelihood.
The former Vice-Chancellor of Guru Nanak Dev University, Dr S.P. Singh, says the canvas of Giani Kesar Singh’s novel was vast that covered freedom movement, INA activities in South Asian countries. ‘Lehar Vadhdi Gai’, used to be read like a ‘text book’ by the Communists. He documented the contribution of gurdwaras in Canada and other countries to further the Gadar movement. He collected historical documents. His personal library has rare documents and pictures of the freedom fighters. Giani Kesar Singh took pains to collect information on Shaheed Madan Lal Dhingra, the first Indian who attained martyrdom in a foreign country, with the help of renowned Punjab poet Balwant Bawa and wrote a beautiful novel.
Giani Kesar Singh also wrote a biographical novel on Baba Hari Singh Usman, who was born in 1880 at Baddowal, Ludhiana district. He served the British Indian Army for a short spell. At the age of 27 he went to the USA but found the atmosphere choking because the Indians were given a shabby treatment. He then joined the Gadar Movement.
Baba Hari Singh was entrusted with the delicate and dangerous task of accompanying the ship laden with arms and ammunition, procured with German assistance, to centers of rebellion in India.
There is also marvelous description of one Mewa Singh Gill, a revolutionary from border village of Lopoke (Amritsar). He was responsible for the assassination of Hopkinson, a Canadian officer who was disliked by the ‘rebels’. He was born in India (English father, Indian mother), and could speak Indian languages fluently. He had established a ring of informers who used to report to him about the activities of the Sikh community. He played an active part in refusing admission of Sikhs who arrived at Vancouver in the Kamagata Maru.
The flash point, leading to his murder was the false evidence which he was to give to save one of his stooges who had murdered two Sikhs in cold blood. Mewa Singh Lopoke, a devout Sikh and known revolutionary, shot Hopkinson on October 21, 1914, on the court premises before he could give fabricated evidence. After the killing, Mewa Singh surrendered to the police. He was hanged in a Canadian jail on January 12, 1915; his day of martyrdom is celebrated all over Canada to this day.
‘Janj Laryan Di’ is based on the supreme sacrifice of seven Gadri Babas. He has also penned novel on Shaheed Udham Singh. He made emotional reference to Pandit Sohan Lal Pathak , another freedom fighter of Amritsar district, who was born on January 7, 1883, in the house of Pt Chanda Ram, a poor Brahmin of Patti, Amritsar.
Pathak had resigned his job as protest against the Headmaster’s ordering him to break off contacts with Lala Lajpat Rai and other national leaders. Thereafter, he became the Joint Editor of the Urdu journal ‘Bande Matram’ working under Lajpat Rai. Giani Kesar Singh writes that he was shocked to learn that the ‘near and dear ones’ of Pathak made his statue, showing him wearing ‘dhoti’ to project him as a leader of a particular religious class.
The fact remained that Pathak used to keep two revolvers with him and hence was a secular and great revolutionary.
Sohan Lal Pathak shifted the field of his activities to Burma. Immediately, a search was started for the arrest of this dangerous revolutionary. It was not easy to lay hands upon him, as he knew the local language and moved freely in the country in the dress of the native people.
At last the government succeeded in arresting him in August 1915 at Memyo (Burma). He was detained in the fort of Mandlay during his trial. The court declared him guilty and sentenced to death. He died on the gallows on February 10, 1916.