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The Saga of Mewa Singh





On Sunday, January 11, 2015, hundreds of people gathered in downtown New Westminster (British Columbia, Canada) to commemorate the sacrifice of Bhai Mewa Singh.

It was 100 years ago on that day that Mewa Singh approached the gallows singing "har jas re manaa gae lae / jo sangee hai tero" (O my mind, sing the praises of the One, who alone is your true companion).

Hearing the same words being sung on the same streets while symbolically retracing the steps of the original funeral procession 100 years ago, was a moving experience.

A century later, it's time to let go of the sensational murder vs. martyr rhetoric that we have surrounded Mewa Singh with. Perhaps that was understandable when the assassination (or as Satnam Singh Sangra writes, "tyrannicide") of William C. Hopkinson was still fresh in the minds of the citizens of Vancouver, but now it's time to take a step back and analyze the facts.

If we don't start talking about Mewa Singh seriously, the issue of contextualizing his place in history will become harder and harder as time goes on. We live in a time where a vast majority of Sikhs, leave alone other Canadians, living in Vancouver don't even recognize his name. If we start forming the base of their knowledge on Mewa Singh around this polarizing argument, we may never see  Mewa Singh seriously discussed in our history books.

There are so many factors to take into consideration when looking at the shooting of William C. Hopkinson such as the government's infiltration into the Sikh-Canadian community, the social and institutionalized discrimination that immigrants faced at that time, the amount of violence that was taking place in Vancouver, the cause of Mewa Singh's perspective and the effect; the list goes on and on.

One thing that needs to be examined is Mewa Singh's character; that is, what kind of person Mewa Singh was.

Leading up to the Centennial Commemoration on the 11th of January this year, a few of us were visiting elementary and high school classrooms across the Lower Mainland to educate students on the closing chapter of the Komagata Maru story and Mewa Singh.

One morning, while I was taking the students in a Social Justice 12 class at Panorama Ridge through the story, the class (which was very culturally diverse) erupted in shock when I got to Mewa Singh shooting Hopkinson. No one in the class who was not already familiar with the story had expected that kind of action from Mewa Singh.

It sparked a heated debate through the class on why Mewa Singh would do this, and whether this action was just or not. Ultimately, the class was largely in agreement that if Mewa Singh had not acted, the violence and discrimination that was being perpetrated through Hopkinson would have escalated.

Mewa Singh's character and behaviour is a prominent story throughout the reporting of the shooting and consequent trial. While each report has its own unique way of framing it, there seems to be a consensus that Mewa Singh's behaviour was definitely peculiar - from turning himself over almost immediately, to pacing up and down his cell singing shabads, to refusing to defend himself in court, to approaching the gallows with his meditative chanting.

Time and time again, Sikhs have used these indicators to say that these are examples of Mewa Singh's state of chardi kalaa.

A few weeks earlier, while browsing on, I came across an amazing document which I would like to share with you all. It is a primary source from June 18, 1914; a statement made by Bela Singh and Babu Singh to Inspector William C. Hopkinson in regards to a recent meeting they had had with Mewa Singh. [Please see images on right.]

Here’s the text from the document. [Caveat: please note: the term ‘Hindu’ or ‘Hindoo’ was then used by mainstream Canadians as a derogatory epithet for all hailing from the subcontinent, including Sikhs.]

*   *   *   *   *

Statement made by Bela Singh at the Immigration Office, in the presence of:  Detective Crewe, Dominion Immigration Agent Reid, Inspector Hopkinson and Assist. Imm. Agent, Howard, - on the 18th day of June, A.D.1914, at the hour of 4.15 o'clock in the afternoon:

"I saw the man near the Post Office at 1 o'clock today: the man's name is Mewa Singh. Mr. Reid also saw the man several times; Mewa Singh says: "Better for you and Babu Singh leave the Immigration Department. If you want some money, I can give you real estate; if you do not want that I will give you a ticket to go to India and will also give you $500.00. Otherwise if you do not leave there, the Hindus will shoot you and shoot the whole Immigration Department because all the Hindus are very mad since Bhagwan Singh was deported."

He also said, "Do you get any money from the Department?" and I told him I had not got anything. He said, "If you do not get any money, why do you go there?" I told him I went there for my own business, and when he asked me what my business was I told him, "That is nothing to you."

He said, "You have good respect in this country for five or six years, but you will lose your respect. Since Bhagwan Singh was deported you have lost money and your respect; you will never get respect from the British Government. If you will come to the Temple and tell to the Hindus, 'I will never go to the Immigration Office,' all the Hindus will be glad. I give you this notice because you were a good friend before to me. All the Hindus are very mad. They are sure they will fight. You will see what they are going to do in the future."

He also said they would hold a big meeting in the Dominion Hall next Sunday. He said, "If you come there and tell all the Hindus, all the Hindus will give you good help."

All the Hindus are trying to buy revolvers secretly.

He asked if I knew anything about the letter sent by the temple men by the Captain to Gurdit Singh. I said I did not know anything about that letter. The Captain said the letter was given to the Immigration man.

He asked, "Did you write read that letter?" I said I did not read it at all. He asked, "Who reads the letters?" but I said I did not know.

I do not know where they are buying the revolvers but they are trying to buy them secretly. They certainly said they were going to fight immigration in the future."


(Statement made by Babu Singh):

I saw Mewa Singh today at noon. He was speaking to Bela Singh at the corner of Howe and Hastings Streets this afternoon about half past two. I came up to Bela Singh while another Hindu was talking to him. The other Hindu was Mewa Singh. Mewa Singh said if these people try to send the boat back, they would stop it. They would not let Japanese officers move the boat. He said he would turn over real estate in his (Bela Singh's) name if he would stop coming to the Immigration office. He said he would turn over the property to another name. He was a friend of Bela Singh before.

He would make over the real estate because he claimed Bela Singh and I came down to the Immigration Office and gave information. He said he would go with us if we would go to a private meeting of Belwant Singh and Bhag Singh. He mentioned those two names to come up to the meeting and we said we would not go.

*   *   *   *   *

These two short pages hold a great deal of information, but I would like to focus on two small details below, and Mewa Singh's character.


June 18, 1914 - This is one month before Mewa Singh's first arrest in Sumas. This means that up until now, Mewa Singh doesn't have any recorded communication with the police. I have not read reports from Bela Singh extensively, but all the discussion about revolvers may indicate that the reason Bela Singh was talking to Mewa Singh to begin with was to find out about where the revolvers in question were coming from. This could have been a step to arresting Mewa Singh, Bhag Singh, and Harnam Singh in Sumas.


Mewa Singh is always written about as a simple, practicing Sikh. I myself have insisted that we can see Mewa Singh as not so much a revolutionary leader, but more a passionate member of the community. Mewa Singh has always seemed to be a kind of person to count on by the leaders of the Ghadar Party. Hence, why would Hopkinson want Mewa Singh to give testimony to indict Bhag Singh after the Sumas arrest, and perhaps why would Mewa Singh offer to accompany Bela to a meeting with leaders Bhag Singh and Balwant Singh in the above document.


The 'Continuous Passage Act’ is notorious not just for making the journey to Canada physically impossible for aspiring non-European immigrants, but also fiscally with the attached $200 tax. According to an article on real estate prices titled ‘Land of Destiny’ in “The Dependent Magazine“, the average wage in Vancouver at that time was approximately 50 cents an hour. $200 at 50 cents an hour is an enormous amount of money.

Considering this, Mewa Singh in the above statement offers $500 and a ticket to India, or a piece of real estate to Bela and Babu. All in exchange for them to stop visiting the Immigration Office to report the goings-on of the community. Mewa Singh says this not just to stop the reports, but he also highlights that Bela's safety is at risk. Perhaps Mewa Singh is saying this simply as another point to strengthen his argument, but at the very least it shows that armed action is certainly not his predisposition.

This is what hit me the hardest. The purpose of coming to Canada at this time was almost exclusively to earn a greater livelihood. The fact that Mewa Singh was willing to give away hundreds of dollars in cash, and sign over thousands in assets speaks volumes about his character.

Since I personally started researching Mewa Singh's story, new artifacts and documents have been coming into light on a regular basis. There is so much more of this story to be discovered. We are at a time where we need to look at our history, and begin the process of reconciliation.

If we treat history like it does not affect our present and future, then we will not learn from it. If we resign ourselves to a "what's done is done" mentality, then we are allowing our previously misinformed views to inform the next generation.

I'm not telling Canadians to blindly declare Mewa Singh a national hero.

I'm simply asking that we crack open our history books and examine our national history with a discerning eye.

[The author is a Vancouver-based writer and filmmaker. As a graduate of The Vancouver Film School, he currently teaches acting and drama to young children and youth. Despite switching over from studying history to film in university, Paneet continues to take a keen interest in Sikh and world history.]

[Courtesy: "There’s Gum on The Bottom of Your Shoe.” Edited for]

January 15, 2015

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