Mewa Singh’s legacy still relevant
On January 11, 2015, hundreds of Sikhs gathered to mark the centennial commemoration of Mewa Singh. For many in the South Asian community, Mewa Singh is respected as a political activist and a martyr in the struggle against the violent racism that saturated BC colonial politics in the early decades of the 20th century. Despite being a controversial figure, there has been a recent effort by Sikh organizations and individuals to have Mewa Singh recognized as a Canadian hero, especially in the wake of the Conservative Government’s apology for the Komagata Maru incident. Like Louis Riel and many others, those the state punishes as criminals can be recognized by the people as important actors in the ongoing struggle for justice and equality. – EDITORS
This year marks 100 years since the hanging of Mewa Singh – the first Indian political activist to be executed in Canada.
Associated with the Ghadar Party, a radical group of the South Asian immigrants in North America, Mewa Singh was given the death sentence on January 11, 1915 for assassinating a controversial Immigration Inspector William Hopkinson.
Mewa Singh came to Canada as a British subject like most Indian immigrants for better livelihood. Both India and Canada were British colonies back then. Many Indian immigrants at that time believed in the fairness of the British Empire. However, they were disillusioned to find that the British officials never came to their rescue in an event of racial violence or to challenge the discriminatory immigration policies. To discourage the permanent settlement of Indians in Canada, they were not allowed to bring their families. To add insult to the injury, the continuous journey law was passed in 1908. The legislation forced immigrants to come to Canada through direct passage from the country of their birth. The Komagata Maru ship was forced to return in 1914 under this draconian rule. The Japanese vessel carrying over 300 Indian passengers was forced to return under the shadow of guns after two months standoff in Vancouver.
Men like Mewa Singh soon realized that the root cause behind their humiliation abroad was the foreign occupation back home. As a result they started getting organized against racism and colonialism. Since most immigrants were predominantly from the Sikh community, a Sikh temple was established in Vancouver in 1908. The temple became a center of social justice activism. Public meetings to denounce discriminatory policies were frequently held in the temple and non-Sikhs also freely participated in these activities. Across the border in the U.S., the Ghadar Party was formed in 1913. The party believed in an armed rebellion against foreign rule in India and desired to establish a secular and democratic Indian republic. The party had a big following in Vancouver, where Mewa Singh was one of its supporters.
Hopkinson kept an eye on the activities of the Ghadar Party through his moles in the community. This had created frictions between the pro establishment and radical factions of the community. Following the Komagata Maru episode, one of his agents Bela Singh went inside the temple and fatally shot two community leaders, Bhaag Singh and Badan Singh. This incident had enraged Mewa Singh, who held Hopkinson responsible for the bloodshed and murdered him in October, 1914. In his powerful testimony he took sole responsibility for the action and mentioned the mistreatment of the immigrants at the hands of officials and their spies.
Mewa Singh’s action was an act of resistance against racism and one hundred years later, his legacy remains relevant as racism and anti immigrant attitudes continue to prevail in this country. The systemic racism against the Indigenous peoples of Canada in particular refuses to die, even as immigrants’ rights are under constant attack. Mewa Singh will therefore remain a hero of the oppressed groups and racialized communities.
Gurpreet Singh is a founder and editor of the South Asian publication Radical Desi.