Balwant Singh, Granthi (priest) and Ghadr Party martyr (1882-1917)

Balwant Singh was a leader and an activist in Vancouver who was hanged in India as a revolutionary and who has been remembered among Sikhs in India and abroad as a martyr. He was born on 14 September 1882 in the village of Khurdpur in the Jullunder District of Punjab to a prosperous village family. He was still in middle school at the time of his arranged boyhood marriage—not uncommon for the time—and he was thirteen when his formal schooling ended. When he matured he joined the army and, during five years of service, he achieved the humble rank of lance-naik (lance-corporal). He was not the kind of soldier that superior officers rewarded with rapid promotion. When he was twenty-three he left the army and the next year he emigrated to Canada. His young first wife had died two years earlier; he had remarried but, like nearly all of his fellow emigrants, he left his wife behind. During his army years he had come under the influence of a Sikh holy man, Sant Karam Singh, and in Canada he took an immediate lead in organizing worship for the pioneering community of Sikh workers. B.A. McKelvie, a twenty-four year old journalist in Vancouver at the time of the Komagata Maru, described Balwant Singh as a handsome, big man with a fine flowing black beard who spoke good English and who was a man of some erudition.

Within a month of Balwant Singh’s arrival in Vancouver in June 1906, Sikhs were renting a house in Vancouver as a gurdawa (Sikh temple) for worship. Two years later, with the completion of a gurdwara building, he became the first granthi or priest. He was at the forefront of community activity for the next eight years, but his politics and activism meant that he was absent from Vancouver much of the time from 1910 on. He tackled the immigration barrier directly, first going back to India to collect his wife and then to make well-publicized effort to get her with their two small children landed in Canada. His companion in this effort was Bhag Singh who brought his wife back from India at the same time. In this effort they were successful in landing their own wives and children in but not in opening the way for anyone else. This effort involved a two-year absence from Vancouver—all of 1910 and 1911. 

In March of 1913 he left Vancouver for England as one member of a three-person delegation from the Indian community in Canada to the imperial authorities, protesting Canada’s immigration rules. His movements from this point on are worth tracking in detail because they eventually put him on the deck of the Komagata Maru, and ultimately led to his hanging in Lahore (on contradicted evidence that did not warrant the penalty imposed).

The evidence presented at his 1917 trial in Lahore, taken from his own statements and from other witnesses, is clear about where he was and whom he met, but conflicting about what he said and what he did. His delegation met the colonial office under-secretary in London on May 13 1914, and then proceeded to India. They were in Lahore in August 1914 and at a big meeting in Bradlagh Hall, Lahore, on August 18. What Balwant Singh said at this meeting was reported to the police by a Punjabi in the audience, a senior reader in the Government Press, and brought to the attention of the British Governor of Punjab, who remembered it years later when he wrote his memoirs. There was a lot of emotion at this meeting. Balwant Singh spoke in Punjabi (not every speaker did and in the atmosphere of that meeting Punjabi was not conducive to restraint). The allegation against him (which he denied) was that he had declared that the way to deal with a snake coiled round you was to rub its head against the thorns. The police and the authorities right up to the governor thought the meaning of the metaphor, in the context of the meeting, was unmistakable—that the speaker was advocating forcible resistance to British rule. He succeeded in attracting attention from the authorities and he subsequently gained an audience with the governor of Punjab and also the Viceroy when he told them face to face that Canadian policy was an injustice.

In the spring of 1914 Balwant Singh headed back for Canada. He traveled to Calcutta with five men (four from his village). He later claimed that he knew nothing about the Komagata Maru until he got to Japan, but the Lahore tribunal, looking for collusion between Ghadr supporters like himself and Gurdit Singh, did not believe him. He reached Hong Kong on April 9, a week after the Komagata Maru left, and he arrived at Moji in Japan while the Komagata was still there. He later testified that he heard about the ship from passengers in the bazaar in Moji and went on board out of curiosity, missing the sailing of his own ship, the Japanese liner Shidzuoka Mau, in the meantime. He said that all he did on board the Komagata Maru was to talk to Gurdit Singh about the terms of the charter and that sort of thing, and that he said nothing against the Government. But two passengers, Sundar Singh and Dr. Raghunath Singh, testified he had come on board twice and had spoken to the effect that he had been to England and India and found his countrymen there opposed to the British Government and that they were waiting in India until the time arose to strike a blow for Indians in Canada.  Balwant Singh then traveled by train with Gurdit Singh to Kobe and proceeded on to Yokohama. Dr. Raghunath Singh says he came on board at Yokohama with the Ghadr activist Bhagwan Singh who spoke to the passengers about throwing the British out of India. On that occasion they distributed Ghadr literature, which had also been brought onto the ship at previous ports. Balwant Singh caught up to his own ship and his five travelling companions at Yokohama and sailed with them. He arrived at Victoria on May 19 and at Vancouver on May 21 just ahead of the Komagata Maru. Not surprisingly, both Canadian and Indian authorities thought that these movements were coordinated.

Balwant Singh was on the Shore Committee and at the centre of the activity surrounding the Komagata Maru that summer. He was arrested and charged in Vancouver after Hopkinson’s murder, and then released after Sohan Lal’s acquittal. In December 1914 he left Canada for Asia, bringing his family with him as far as Shanghai. There they parted, with his wife and children continuing on to India and, while he occupied himself heavily in Ghadr activities, promoting action against the British in the Indian community in the Far East. In Thailand in July 1915 he joined a Ghadr group that had arrived from California and who saw Burma as the potential locus of an anti-British rising. While in Thailand he got sick and was hospitalized and, while he was in hospital, Thai authorities arrested him at the request of the British. From Thailand, British authorities transferred him to India and Punjab and he was tried in the third of a series of conspiracy trials featuring Ghadr party members, found guilty of sedition, and executed by hanging at the Central Jail in Lahore on March 30, 1917.

Sources: Harban Singh ed., The Encyclopedia of Sikhism (Patiala: Panjabi University, 4th edition 2002);  Sohan Singh Pooni, Keneda de Gadri Yodhe (Amritsar: Singh Brothers, 2009); The Ghadr Directory, 1934, Compiled by the Director, Intelligence Bureau, Home Department, Government of India (Published, Patiala: Punjabi University, 1997); Struggle for Free Hindustan: Ghadr Directory, Punjab Section, 1915 (published Mehrauli, New Delhi: Gobind Sadan Institute for Advanced Studies in Comparative Religion, 1996); James Campbell Ker, Director of Criminal Intelligence, Political Troubles in India, 1907-17 (Published, Delhi: Oriental Publisher, 1973); National Archives of India, Lahore Conspiracy Case III (Second Supplementary Case, Judgement dated 4 Jan., 1917); Library and Archives Canada, Immigration Files, 1912-14, RG 76.