Born in 1882 in Kurdhpur, Jalandhar, during the British Raj in India, Bhai Balwant Singh earned the rank of Lance Naik in the 36th Infantry of the Queen's Army before emigrating to Canada in 1906 at the age of 24. In his new home, he would play a key role in fighting for the rights of Indians in Canada and become a revolutionary in the struggle to free India from British rule.
It wasn't long after his arrival in April 1906 that 24-year-old Balwant Singh became integrally involved with the small Sikh community's struggles against the Canadian government.
On July 22, along with a handful of other Sikhs, Balwant Singh helped open a gurdwara, a rented house in Port Moody, and formed a committee to raise money to build a proper Sikh temple in Vancouver.
The land was purchased and the foundation stone was laid in 1907. On January 19, 1908, Canada's first gurdwara was inaugurated at 1866 West 2nd Avenue in Vancouver. Bhai Balwant Singh was unanimously appointed as its **granthi.**
The Sikhs at the time were facing hardships under an intolerant government. In fact, 11 days prior to the opening of the gurdwara, an order in council had been passed restricting immigration from India by requiring a continuous journey from India to Canada - something only one steamship company was authorized to do, yet was told to refrain from bringing Indians to North America.
The gurdwara served not only as a place of worship, but a centre for political discussion, and Balwant Singh became both priest and activist.
In June the Canadian government dealt the community a further blow by requiring Indian passengers to have $200 in their possession on arrival.
With immigration all but halted, the government's agents now moved to rid Canada of the Indians who remained by asking them to voluntarily relocate to the British Hondurus.
Seeking help for his fellow Sikhs, Balwant Singh sent an urgent invitation to Professor Teja Singh of New York, a devout Sikh who had gained attention for his lectures on Sikhism. Teja Singh set out for Vancouver with his family on October 17, 1908.
The next day Interior Minister, J. B. Harken met with Bhag Singh, the secretary of the Khalsa Diwan Society and Balwant Singh, pressuring them to send two Sikh men to accompany him to the British Honduras to assess the suitability of relocating there. Upon their return, the two Sikhs reported the dismal conditions of the Honduras to a congregation of more than 600 Indians gathered at the gurdwara, adding they were offered $3000 to report in favour of settling in British Hondurus.
With no Indian willing to relocate, the governor of British Honduras, Col. E. John Swayne, was invited to come to entice the Indians directly. But even after offering $20 a month and a pension of $10 a month after 10 years of service, he couldn't find a single Indian willing to go back with him. In December, the government of Canada abandoned the scheme.
The Continuous Journey
While avoiding relocation was a significant victory, the Indians still had no way to bring their families to Canada. Balwant Singh, Teja Singh and other leaders decided a delegation should appeal to Ottawa while Balwant Singh and Bhag Singh should put the continuous journey law to a test by going to India and returning with their families.
On October 28, 1909, the two men set out for India, where they would discover the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company, the only company authorized to run ships between Calcutta and Vancouver, had been ordered by the office of the Viceroy of India not to issue tickets to East Indians for any North American port. Stranded in Calcutta for three months with their families, they finally made their way to Hong Kong. But even in Hong Kong steamship companies, fearing the wrath of the British government, refused to sell them tickets to Canada. Eventually, they managed to get tickets to San Francisco, but upon their arrival were turned back when U.S. immigration officials decided that those undesirable to Canada were equally undesirable in the United States.
Balwant Singh, Bhag Singh and their families found themselves back in Hong Kong and it would be another three months before they finally managed to board the S.S. Monteagle, which arrived in Vancouver on January 21, 1912.
But the struggle wasn't over. Being residents of Vancouver, the two men were allowed to land but their wives and children were held in custody and ordered deported back to India.
Balwant Singh and Bhag Singh applied to the Minister of Interior and furnished a bond of 6000 rupees ($2000) pending a court hearing of February 6, 1912.
It was only after litigation spanning three months that the women and children were permitted to remain in Canada and even then it was ruled as "an act of grace" and a decision that should not be considered as establishing a precedent. The continuous journey rule remained intact.
Appeal to England and India
While the community continued to struggle with the laws, Balwant Singh's wife, Bibi Kartar Kaur, gave birth to their son, Hardial Singh, on August 28, 1912. He was the first Sikh born in Canada.
But it wouldn't be long before Balwant Singh would be on his way back to India. On February 22, 1913, the Khalsa Diwan Society and United India league held a special meeting in which Balwant Singh, Narain Singh and Nand Singh were selected to form a delegation to plead the Indians' case to the Minister of Colonies in England.
The three men arrived in London on March 29, 1913, and on May 14, met with the minister's aid, Sir Dunlop Smith, who commented afterwards:
"Bhai Balwant Singh and Bhai Narain Singh were very respectable persons and their grievances were genuine but they were told he [Minister of Colonies] could not do anything because proper authorities to redress the grievances were the government of Canada and the government of India."
Having failed to move the British to take action, the men headed for India, arriving in Lahore on July 6, 1913. For the next few months they travelled throughout Punjab, publicizing the plight of Indians in Canada and speaking increasingly openly about the need for India to free itself from British rule.
The delegation met with the governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O'Dwyer, who in his book, India as I Knew It, wrote:
" In the summer of 1913, three Sikh delegates came from Canada to the Punjab. They were really advance agents - although we didn't know it at the time - of the Ghadr party.
"Their ostensible object was to arouse public opinion in India to the hardships of the Canadian immigration laws.... But after a time the tone of these meetings changed. Instead of reasonable criticisms of the immigration laws, the speeches became menacing and inflammatory....
"The delegates asked for a meeting with me. I had a long talk with them and repeated my warning. Two of them were oily and specious; the manner of the third [Balwant Singh] seemed to be that of a dangerous revolutionary."
Balwant Singh and the two others met briefly with the viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge of Penshurst, and presented him a charter of demands on December 20, 1913, to which the viceroy's office responded on January 21, 1914:
"We have been corresponding with the British Minister of India but because of the anti-Indian public opinion in Canada our efforts are not bearing the desired fruit. I regret that I am not in a position to assure you of sure success. We shall continue making all possible efforts."
The Komagata Maru
During his time in India Balwant Singh spoke of the need of an Indian Steamship company to carry passengers directly from Calcutta to Canada. Balwant Singh received word that Gurdit Singh had taken up this mission and had formed The Guru Nanak Steamship Company and chartered the steamship Komagata Maru, which was on its way to Hong Kong. Balwant Singh caught up with the ship at the port of Moji and met with the passengers, informing them of the attitudes of the Canadian government.
Balwant Singh himself was taking a faster ship back to Canada and urged Gurdit Singh to join him but Gurdit Singh decided to remain with the Komagata Maru.
Balwant Singh took a passenger list and landed in Victoria on May 20, ahead of the Komagata Maru, and informed the Sikhs in Vancouver of the imminent arrival of the famed ship.
When the ship arrived and the passengers were refused entry, a meeting was called that drew more than 500 Indians and about 20 whites - William Hopkinson, the Canadian government's agent who had infiltrated the Indian community with spies and had been at the core of the movement to keep Indians out of Canada, was among them.
Balwant Singh gave the principal address and, even with Hopkinson present, was daring, emphasizing the rights of Indians were not to be trifled with. He deplored the Indian government for its lack of strenght in demanding the rights of Indians to travel to other British colonies. Going further, he spoke of the new unity he had seen in India against the British and said if India didn't get independence in the next few years there would be a revolution. Asking the group to help the passengers of the Komagata maru he referred to the history of Sikh warriors, emphasizing that now was not the time to submit to tyranny.
In The Voyage of the Komagata Maru, historian Hugh Johnston writes:
"The hall was full of men who never banked but carried their savings in their pockets or turbans, and, as this money spilled out, a pile of five-ten-, and even one-hundred dollar bills rose on a table in front of the speakers. The largest contribution was $2000. When the contributions slackened, another speaker, Bhag Singh or some other member of the committee, would rise to stoke the fire of religious and patriotic fervour, and as the meeting ended, $5000 in cash lay on the table with another $6000 in pledges."
While the court proceedings over the fate of the passengers continued, Balwant Singh and a few others crossed the border to the United States with the aim of purchasing guns and ammunition and smuggling them onto the Komagata Maru. But as the entry of Indians into Canada was prohibited Balwant Singh was arrested in Sumas and held for three weeks before he was permitted to return to Canada.
On July 23, the Komagata Maru was turned back to Hong Kong. On October 21, 1914, Mewa Singh, seeking retribution, shot Hopkinson. Balwant Singh was arrested in relation to the murder but on December 4, 1914, charges against him were dropped.
The Ultimate Sacrifice
It was time, he decided to go back to India to join the fight for freedom. Sending his family back to his village in India, Balwant Singh himself joined other revolutionaries in Bangkok in July, 1915. British spies were keeping a close watch on him as he prepared other freedom fighters and he was ordered deported and sent to Singapore. There he was arrested and taken to Lahore to be tried as part of the Canadian group in the Second Supplementary Lahore Conspiracy trial. He, along with four other co-accused, were found guilty and sentenced to death on January 5, 1917. On March 29, 1917, Bhai Balwant Singh was hanged in Lahore jail.
Like so many Sikh martyrs before him, Bhai Balwant Singh dedicated his life to defending the rights of others to enjoy a life free of tyranny and oppression. His potrait hangs today, along with 211 other Ghadr heroes, at the Desh Bhagat Yaadgar (Ghadr Party Memorial Hall) in Jalandhar.