Sohan Lal, Aulakh (1883- )

Sohan Lal was a member of the Shore Committee at the time of the Komagata Maru. Before he emigrated, he was a Middle School teacher in the government school in Nakodar near his home village of Aulakh in the Jullunder District. He left for North America in 1907 with his brothers Dev Lal and Sham Lal, and happened to arrive in Vancouver in March of 1908, right at the moment that the Canadian government implemented the continuous journey regulation to halt to immigration from India. His ship was the Canadian Pacific steamer Monteagle from Hong Kong which had among its passengers 183 immigrants from India. The immigration agent at the time (Malcolm Reid’s predecessor) was prepared to land everyone who passed the medical exam and who had the required minimum amount of money (just as he had in the past), but he received a wire from Ottawa instructing him to refuse entry to all those who had taken extended stop-overs in Hong Kong. Many had been there more than a month between their passage from Calcutta and their departure for Vancouver. Sohan Lal, however, had come directly from Calcutta with only four days in Hong Kong. He was ultimately landed, but not before spending some time in the immigration department’s detention shed, which a correspondent for the Times of London described as not fit for animals. To make sure that there would be no further cases like his, the Canadian government quietly instructed shipping companies like the CPR not to let their agents sell through tickets from Calcutta.

Sohan Lal enrolled as a student in Seattle in 1909, but he came back to Canada in 1910 and was active in the Vancouver Indian community from then on. He was Secretary of the United India League, an umbrella organization for all Indian nationals in British Columbia, and he was a correspondent with the revolutionary Ghadr party leadership in San Francisco. The Indian police had evidence that he was mailing Ghadr literature back to India. At one point the police in India gained possession of a letter mentioning him as a possible recruit for Ghadr party work among Indians living in China. In the summer of 1914, he was a leading member of the Shore Committee organized by local Indians to help the Komagata Maru; he was an animated speaker (in Punjabi) at one of the great public meetings held that summer; and the chief link between the Shore Committee and the lawyer they hired (J. Edward Bird) to act on behalf of the Komagata Maru passengers. 

A month and a half after the Komagata Maru left Vancouver, Sohan Singh was one of nine men wounded by the immigration informant, Bela Singh, when Bela Singh discharged two revolvers into a crowd in the Vancouver gurdwara. This shooting with its two fatalities led directly to Mewa Singh’s assassination of W.C. Hopkinson in October 1914. In November Sohan Singh was committed for trial on the charge of inciting Mewa Singh to murder Hopkinson, but he was acquitted in December. 

He was a continuing presence in Vancouver for some years after the Komagata Maru. In 1920 he was on a committee raising funds to support the families of Ghadr martyrs; and he was visible in overseas organizations like United India Home Rule League, the Canadian-American Doaba Press Association (Doaba being the part of Punjab from which he came), and the Ghadr party, which by then had established links with Soviet Russia.  Around 1933 he returned to Punjab and his home village. The Indian police were watching him but reported that he was staying out of politics.

When he appeared in a Canadian court in 1914, Sohan Lal made a good impression, at least for the reporter for The Province who described him as “very plausible and voluble” in the witness box. When he was being sworn in, Sohan Lal obligingly offered to swear on the Christian Bible. “All Bibles are binding on my conscience.” But the crown prosecutor was prepared for difficulty and produced a small brass image of a Hindu goddess for Sohan Lal’s swearing in.

During his testimony he told the court that he was a strict vegetarian, who did not eat eggs or meat, and that he did not smoke or drink or harm any living thing, “even a bird” and that he was a man of peace. 

Sources: Struggle for Free Hindustan: Ghadr Directory, Punjab Section, 1915 (published Mehrauli, New Delhi: Gobind Sadan Institute for Advanced Studies in Comparative Religion, 1996); The Ghadr Directory, 1934, Compiled by the Director, Intelligence Bureau, Home Department, Government of India (Published, Patiala: Punjabi University, 1997); I.M. Muthanna, People of India in North America. Part First (Bangalore: Printed at Lutus Printers, 1975).HH