Sohan Singh Bhakna : His struggle is against slavery and injustice

M Venkaiah Naidu

Sohan Singh Bhakna

Sohan Singh Bhakna

For a true revolutionary the struggle never ends, whether he is in jail or outside. His struggle is against slavery and injustice.—Sohan Singh Bhakna

As I move ahead with my Facebook series on the freedom fighters who were incarcerated in the infamous Cellular Jail, in my Facebook post today, I would like to share with you the story of the inspirational freedom fighter, Sohan Singh Bhakna who was also one of the founders of GhadarParty.

Born in January 1870, Sohan Singh was the only son of Sardar Karam Singh and Mata Ram Kaur. Sohan Singh was barely a year old when his father passed away. Even though Sohan Singh belonged to a well-to-do landowning family, his father being a kind-hearted man by nature, had no savings worth the name. Charitable by disposition, his father used to help the lesser privileged around him by distributing the produce from his land.

Sohan Singh in his book JiwanSangram writes—”Despite owning a large piece of land my father had not saved much in cash because he was a devout Sikh and spent a lot on good causes.”

Back then, the British government did not encourage education among Indians. Therefore, it was easier for them to mislead the uneducated people and exercise control over them. Sohan Singh’s mother was keen on getting him educated, but there were very few schools close by. He was initially sent to a gurudwara to study and was later admitted to an Urdu school which had started functioning in their area. He studied till the fifth standard there and in the year 1907, Sohan Singh emigrated to the United States to work and earn a livelihood.

Life in the raw in the US affected him and his associates deeply. They experienced for themselves the unfair and unequal treatment meted out to Indians there. It became clear to them that it was because their country was under colonial rule that they were treated differently. Therefore, Sohan Singh, Lala Hardayal and Kanshi Ram founded the Pacific Coast Hindi Association, which later became Ghadar Party. Sohan Singh was the first President of the association.

The association published a paper called Ghadar and pamphlets like Ghadar-di-Gunj, which gave expression to the feelings of nationalists and called for a revolution against the British rule in India. They were successful in kindling the feeling of nationalism among the Indians living there and planned a mutiny against the British rule by inciting Indian soldiers.

Many Ghadarites left their well-established life in America and returned to their motherland. As fate would have it, the British got wind of their plan and arrested many Ghadarites as soon as their ship entered India—Sohan Singh was among those who were apprehended.

Sohan Singh was tried in what the British termed the ‘Lahore Conspiracy Case’ and was sentenced to death—his property was also seized by the authorities. His death sentence was later changed to life imprisonment in the Cellular Jail of Andaman.

Sohan Singh and other Ghadarites were subjected to brutal treatment like many other prisoners. The prisoners were treated ruthlessly and were assigned tasks that were humanly impossible to accomplish. If they failed to complete the assigned task in the designated time, they would get harsh punishments like fetters, bar-fetters, handcuffs, gunny bag clothes to wear in humid climate and flogging.

The prisoners in Cellular jail were not given enough food, and sometimes their already insufficient ration was cut, forcing them into a state of starvation. The living conditions were unimaginable—some prisoners lost their sanity, while others succumbed to the brutality.

Sohan Singh was an example of exceptional fortitude under severe adversity. He used to raise his voice against the inhuman treatment of the prisoners and organised a number of hunger strikes along with his fellow Ghadarites and other inmates. The prisoners would protest against denial of basic things such as decent food, clean clothes or better treatment by the jail authorities. Their unrelenting efforts eventually paid off, and the British had to concede to some of their demands. In 1921, Sohan Singh and some other inmates were sent to jails in Madras. SohanSingh was moved from one jail to another—he had to face fresh challenges and difficulties wherever he was moved, but his spirit remained indomitable.

In 1929 when he joined Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries in their hunger strike, keeping his old age in mind, they requested Sohan Singh not to participate in the protest as he had already undergone many hardships and another hunger strike would have taken a toll on his health. Undaunted, Sohan Singh replied, “What if the body looks old, the revolutionary in me is not old.” Such was the spirit of the great man, unshaken and determined. Sohan Singh spent close to 16 years in prisons before he was finally released in 1930.

Our great freedom fighters were sent from one jail to another, beaten black and blue, starved and made to work beyond human capacity and were treated worse than galley-slaves, but nothing ever stopped them from fighting for the freedom of their motherland. We remain indebted to our freedomfighters forever, for their valour, determination, self-sacrifice and devotion to the cause of a free India. It is because of them that our country could be liberated from the oppressive yoke of British rule.

I would urge youngsters to visit the CellularJail and other such places which are a chilling reminder of the ruthlessness of colonial rule, but also bear testimony to the countless sacrifices our freedom fighters made in their attempt to liberate our motherland. Their immortal words fill our hearts and minds with the spirit of nationalism and their lives embody sacrifice of the noblest kind. I, therefore, feel that the stories of these great men and women should be included in school textbooks so that our children get to know about them and their heroism.

Jai Hind!