Bela Singh (1883-1934)

Bela Singh was an informant for the immigration department in Vancouver. He was the son of Sunder Singh and from Jian village, near Basi Kalan in the Hoshiapur tahsil (subdivision) of the Hoshiapur district. During his second stay in Vancouver he worked for the immigration department and for inspector W.C. Hopkinson. In this role he was the leading figure in a faction of twenty-five or thirty of his compatriots, members of a minority who were antagonistic to the revolutionary party which had the support of a majority of the community. He became infamous for a shooting in the Khalsa Diwan Society Gurdwara on September 5 1914 when he killed Bhag Singh and Battan Singh and wounded five others—an outrage for which he was tried twice, with a hung jury the first time and then an acquittal (he pleaded self-defence). In March 1915, he escaped with a bullet through his coat in an encounter with a member of the revolutionary party; and he was fortunately absent when someone dynamited the house in which he was living that April. A few days later police arrested him for assault when they came upon him while he was physically beating another Sikh. For this he served twelve months in B.C. at a Burnaby prison farm. In 1916 he returned to India and that fall he was questioned in Hoshiarpur by Inspector Ibrahim-ul-Hak—to whom he gave information against members of the revolutionary party in Vancouver. In May 1934 Bela Singh was murdered outside his village of Jian.

Bela Singh had been a signaller in a Sikh regiment for five years and he spoke fluent English when he first came to Canada in 1906. After a year’s absence from Canada, he returned via Hong Kong in June 1913 on the same ship (the Empress of Russia) as the Ghadar activist Bhagwan Singh. Five months later, when Bhagwan Singh was forcibly deported by immigration officials, his friends were convinced that Bela Singh was the informant who had given him away (Natha Singh, whose papers Bhagwan Singh had passed off as his own, was a relative of Bela Singh). 

Bela Singh’s work for the immigration department was widely known in Vancouver in his community and by journalists. An article in the Province, on December 11, 1914, described him as an immigration official and went on to say that he lived up to his reputation of being the smartest dressed East Indian in Vancouver by appearing in court with a snow white turban and linen collar and well-pressed serge suit with very fashionable brown boots.

When Bela Singh testified at Sohan Lal’s trial for the murder of inspector Hopkinson, he said that one of his tasks in the immigration office was to translate copies of the Gadhr into English for Hopkinson and that his translations were sent to Ottawa and England. When the prosecuting lawyers asked him, “What were your duties at the immigration office?” he replied, “I am a secret serviceman.” In defining what he meant the lawyer asked if he might be called a detective or a spy, and Bela Singh accepted both terms.

At his own trial for the shooting in the gurdwara, Bela Singh said he had been a signaller in the 30th Punjabis in India and that he was still on reserve. He said he had been in British Columbia since 1906 and had been doing special duty with the immigration department since November 1913.  All the trouble, he said, had started with the deportation of Bhagwan Singh and since then his life had been threatened. Before that he used to go to the temple every week, but the “Hindus” (meaning South Asians) started talking against him and he stopped. Dr. Raghunath Singh, the ship’s doctor on the Komagata Maru, testified at the trial of Bela Singh in saying that Gurdit Singh had read a letter on board the Komagata Maru from the Hindu Colony in Vancouver that summer saying Bela Singh should not be allowed aboard the Komagata Maru, and that if he attempted it he should be bound and held or thrown overboard.

One of the side stories involving Bela Singh in the summer of 1914, concerns Stephen E. Raymer, a German-speaking former citizen of Zagreb, Croatia. Raymer was an interpreter for the Vancouver immigration agency from 1912. In conversations with the recently appointed, honorary Austro-Hungarian consul in Vancouver, Egon Ulrich, he gathered that Ulrich had advance knowledge of the Komagata Maru, and that the ship was really a German plot to employ discontented criminals and “riff-raff from Calcutta” as saboteurs. Malcolm Reid assigned Raymer to work with Bela Singh to watch Ulrich’s contacts with local Indians. Shortly after the war broke out Ulrich was ordered out of the country, then paroled, and then arrested and interned in Vernon, B.C.

Jaswant Singh, the author of a biography of Gurdit Singh, says that once Bela Singh got back to India, the Punjab government rewarded him with a piece of land [4 murabaas] in the Montgomery District and that, with the income he got from this land, he lived a very loose life. He used to move from place to place and all of the patriots at the time considered him a “pain in the neck” because they knew him to be an informant. During the times of the radical Babbar Akali movement in the 1920s he would hide in the houses of the government officials. In the end in the month of May 1934 in the evening when he was coming from Hoshiarpur to his own village of Jaina he was trapped by some Babbars and died at the hands of one of them, Sardar Hari Singh.

Sources: Jaswant Singh. Baba Gurdit Singh: Komagata Maru  (Jallundhur: New Book Company, 1965); Library and Archives Canada, Immigration Files, 1913-15, RG 76; Vancouver Daily Province, 1, 4, 10 Sept., 1914; Vancouver Sun, 6 and 18 Nov., 1914; Vancouver News Advertiser, 6 and 8 Sept. and 10 Nov., 1914 and 14 April 1915.