Mewa Singh, Lopoke (c. 1881-1915)

The anniversary of Mewa Singh’s death has been commemorated by Sikhs in British Columbia and California ever since his execution by hanging in New Westminster, B.C., 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—that 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 his trial we know that he could not read English or speak it 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 of 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. This, at any rate, was the story that Bela Singh immediately told to 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 to meet the Bengali activist Taraknath Das as well as to purchase revolvers and ammunition. Of the four, he was the one who came back into Canada first, 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 immigration inspector W.C. Hopkinson and immigration agent Malcolm Reid to give evidence against the militant leadership to avoid a severe sentence. 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, which also paid his $50 fine, which is what he ultimately received. The militants who had gone with him shopping in the U.S. 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, hence the fine and no prison 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) that 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) that they bought three revolvers; (3) that Balwant Singh, the granthi (priest) who was in the group, paid for the revolvers; (4) and that as far as he, Mewa Singh, knew the revolvers were intended for the passengers of 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 departed. He shot Hopkinson three 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 accepted hesitantly, 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 to explain his actions and he had a lengthy written statement that 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 the 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 but tried to explain how he saw Hopkinson as the source of the troubles of his community and of his own troubles. In explaining this, he wanted the jury to know about his own arrest while in possession of a revolver and about Hopkinson’s efforts to turn him into an informant; and about the terrible shooting in the Vancouver Sikh temple by Bela Singh; and finally about 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 emphasized. 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 declare “I know I have shot Hopkinson and will have to die.” He meant that his action was a righteous action, even if his judge and jurors did not 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,” B.C. 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.