The revolutionary movement, and all Indian progressives and patriots, lost the last living link with one of the most glorious pages of India’s anti-imperialist history when Comrade Baba Bhagat Singh Bilga, popularly known as Baba Bilga, passed away on 22 May in Birmingham at the age of 102.
Baba Bilga was the last surviving member of the Ghadar Party, a revolutionary party of Indians overseas, founded in California, USA, in 1913, pledged to the liberation of India from British colonial rule by means of armed struggle.
He was born on either 1 or 2 April 1907, the same year as the great revolutionary martyr, Shaheed Bhagat Singh, in the village of Bilga in Punjab’s Jalandhar district. His village was known as a baghi (rebel) one by the British rulers and several of its young men were to join the Ghadar Party.
Not untypically, his early life was hard. His father, Hira Singh Sanghera, died when he was one year old. As he recalled in later years: “My maternal aunt took me to her village, Ajitwal in Moga district. She soon died of plague. Her husband and my maternal grandmother brought me up.”
Seeking work, Baba Bilga went to Kolkata and from there to Burma, Singapore, Hong Kong, Chile and finally to Argentina in 1931 at the age of 24. It was there that he met Ajit Singh, the uncle of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, who won him to the cause of revolution. He worked as a clerk in a railway store and became the General Secretary of the Ghadar Party in Argentina.
Revolutionary history of the Ghadar Party
The Ghadar Party’s roots lay in the struggle against discrimination faced by Indian immigrants to Canada and the USA, but its focus was on freeing India from British colonial rule. The first issue of the party paper, published in November 1913, wrote:
“Today there begins in foreign lands, but in our country’s tongue, a war against the British Raj… What is our name? Revolution. What is our work? Revolution. Where will the revolution be? In India. The time will soon come when rifles and blood will take the place of pens and ink.”
The party was strongly secular. Sohan Singh Bhakna, one of its first leaders, recalled: “We were not Sikhs or Punjabis. Our religion was patriotism.” In this, the Ghadar Party echoed the maxim of Theobald Wolfe Tone, founder of the United Irishmen, who declared the need to substitute the names of “Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter with the common name of Irishman”. The eighth point of the Ghadar Party’s first manifesto was:
“No discussion or debate was to take place on religion within the organisation. Religion was considered a personal matter and it had no place in the organisation.”
The party developed strong organisation in numerous countries, including Mexico, Japan, China, Malaya, Thailand, Philippines, Indochina, and eastern and southern Africa. Very significantly, point nine of the party manifesto said:
“Every member was duty bound to participate in the liberation struggle of that country in which they were resident.”
Accordingly, the party built strong ties with the revolutionaries of many countries, including China and Ireland, and with such figures as Agnes Smedley, later to become a legendary chronicler of the Chinese revolution.
Like James Connolly and his comrades in Ireland, the Ghadarites saw the inter-imperialist war of 1914-18 as a golden opportunity to make a strike for freedom. In an open letter to the people of India, the party wrote:
“Another world war is approaching. We must take advantage of this opportunity. England is sure to get involved in the coming war. Political wisdom demands that we utilise this rare opportunity for our good. We must put forward our demand for complete independence when our enemy, British imperialism, is engaged in a life and death struggle.”
The Ghadarites also instantly grasped the significance of the Great October Socialist Revolution, which, in 1917, overthrew the tsarist autocracy in Russia and ushered in rule by the working class. A party statement of that year declared:
“The immediate object of the revolutionary party in the domain of politics is to establish a Federal Republic of the United States of India by an organised armed revolution…The basic principles of this Republic shall be universal suffrage and the abolition of all systems which make the exploitation of man by man possible…
“The Revolutionary Party is not national but international in the sense that its ultimate object is to bring harmony in the world by respecting and guaranteeing the diverse interests of the different nations; it aims not at competition but at cooperation between the different nations and states, and in this respect it follows the footsteps of the great Indian rishis [sages] and of Bolshevik Russia in the modern age. Good for humanity is no vain and empty word for Indian revolutionaries.”
Struggle before and after Independence
Baba Bilga therefore joined the Indian revolutionary movement at a time when the most advanced patriots had fused their struggle for national emancipation with that of the proletariat for its social emancipation on a world-wide scale. He was one of some 60 members of the Ghadar Party who were sent to Moscow to study at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East.
In 1933, he received orders to return to India. Trailed by British agents, his return journey took him a year. Travelling on a false passport, and using the name Milky Singh, his route took him through Paris, Berlin and Colombo, and then Kanyakumari, Nagpur and Kolkata, before arriving to Kanpur.
Baba Bilga plunged himself into underground work and had many close shaves with the authorities. He organised strikes in the textile mills in Bengal and established underground presses in Kanpur and Lahore.
He joined the Congress Socialist Party and was elected a member of the All India Congress Committee. In the 1938 Congress meeting, he sided with Subhash Chandra Bose, who called for an armed struggle. Throughout his life, he remained a member of the Communist Party of India or of revolutionary communist organisations and never wavered in his ideology.
He kept up his struggle after independence, about which, he once said: “It was merely a compromise between the British government and the leaders, who took the country through a change of power and not freedom struggle…The India of our dreams is yet to arrive.”
As one of the country’s most respected veteran revolutionaries, he remained loyal to Ghadarite secular values, when the reactionary communal demand for ‘Khalistan’ was raised, and spread by vicious terrorism, in Punjab in the 1980s. Bilga recalled those times: “We recruited more than 200 young intellectuals to pacify the fanatics. Most of them were gunned down…I once went to a condolence meeting of a slain Hindu and addressed Sikh mourners there against the movement. After coming back home, I sat in the courtyard awaiting my death. I desperately wanted to be a martyr.”
In latter years, Bilga devoted himself to maintaining and running the Desh Bhagat Yadgar Memorial Hall. Honouring the revolutionaries of the Ghadar Party, it is a treasure trove of the revolutionary movement, with 17,000 books and countless original documents, including 2,000 rare photographs of underground revolutionaries. Bilga recalled:
“I have dedicated myself to this museum which has 35 other freedom fighters as its members. It traces the life of each and every Ghadari along with their photograph. We have collected them from their villages, relatives and friends, in India and abroad. And all this to tell the world that Englishmen didn’t leave India because a handful of Indians threw salt into their eyes. They left because we sent them packing.”
As late as his 102nd birthday, on 1 April this year, his political clarity was still razor sharp. On this occasion, he told Indian newspapers in telephone interviews:
“Governments came and went but the issues of development of society still lie unaddressed. The picture of India is not the same as conceived by the freedom fighters.
“We had never dreamt during our days of struggle that a situation shall arrive where a Prime Minister like Manmohan Singh just weaves the magic of a few numerals to falsely claim that the country is doing well…
“Today the country needs another Bhagat Singh to save it from corrupt leaders. Shaheed can return in the form of our youth if they follow his ideology.”
Baba Bilga spent the last year of his life in Birmingham, where he had come to stay with family and to have prostrate gland treatment. He had planned a return to India in September. Living each day to the full, in Britain as in India, he was always at the service of the revolutionary movement, making time particularly for the youth, who he firmly believed were the future.
A Birmingham memorial meeting was held for Baba Bhagat Singh Bilga on 30 May, attended by some 600 people, who heard speakers from the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), Indian Workers’ Association (GB) and other revolutionary, progressive and community organisations, pay tribute to an outstanding patriot, communist and internationalist, whose revolutionary life was truly one “with the century”.
Baba Bhagat Singh Bilga – Lal Salaam!