“Bhagwan Singh is a man around 28 or 29 years of age. He is fluent in Gurmukhi and Urdu and also a bit of English. He has a somewhat shifty expression, narrow eyes, and his beard is slight and straggling.”

On 17 June 1914, the police superintendent of Hong Kong, Captain Messer, wrote these lines in a letter of caution to his counterparts in the Punjab government. In the letter, he raised questions about the supposed whereabouts of Bhagwan Singh, who had been under surveillance for some years, and detailed Singh’s movements over the last few months.

In 1910, Singh had been a granthi (Sikh priest) at Perak in the Federated Malay States. He had subsequently moved on to Hong Kong as a preacher. He was known to be argumentative, and quarrelsome, and he had been in trouble for preaching sedition. The letter stated that he was from Tarn Taran in Amritsar; apparently, his grandfather had first lived in Kashmir, and it was Bhagwan Singh’s father who had made the move to Punjab.

The report went on to make more salacious accusations: that while Bhagwan Singh had been forced to leave Punjab because of his preaching, he was also in trouble over “abducting” another man’s wife.

Singh was also reported as being in trouble often in Hong Kong for being in the company of “loose women”. Singh’s “puggaries” (turbans), as the report’s last sentence had it, were also always very “carelessly tied”, a fact that is of some significance to this story.

What the police had found out was that from Hong Kong, Bhagwan had gone on to Canada and the west coast of the US on the Empress of Japan. He was in Vancouver in August 1913, and by November 1913, following a court case...that had drawn a lot of attention and raised hackles among the Indian community, Bhagwan Singh had been forcibly deported.

Though deported on a technicality – since 1908, Canada had begun to tighten immigration regulations to keep out Asians, and Bhagwan Singh had, a police inspector claimed, used a false name and documents to enter Canada – his case soon became one that highlighted Canada’s discriminatory and racist policies towards immigrants and people travelling from Asia. But soon enough, to the police on his trail, Bhagwan Singh’s actual whereabouts after his deportation in November 1913, effectively became a mystery. Evidently, with his use of false names (again!), and ability to evade detection, he had managed to throw the police off his track.

Like other “revolutionaries” and “troublemakers” from India who had, since the early 20th century, spread their base outside India, Bhagwan Singh too had for some time been on the police radar. He too was suspected of spreading the message of rebellion against the “Empire” using the gurudwara as a base.

Sikh religious and cultural institutions, especially the reform-oriented Singh Sabhas formed in the 1870s, allowed free food and lodging for some days to wandering preachers. This made possible a network of support for travellers across India and elsewhere, in Malay, Singapore and Hong Kong – all part of the British Empire then – and from 1907 onwards, even in some cities of the West like Vancouver and San Francisco.1

Thus, from the end of 1913 onwards, the trail on Bhagwan Singh had gone cold. In the summer of 1914, only months after Singh’s deportation from Vancouver, there followed events when anti- immigration hysteria against Asians reached its peak in Canada with the standoff caused by the arrival of the ship, Komagata Maru, carrying South Asian immigrants (mainly from Punjab). The ship was ‘refused’ permission to dock in Vancouver, in deference to Canadian law. After two months, it sailed back.

Almost simultaneously, around 1912-13, the Ghadar Party (Ghadar is an Urdu word meaning “revolution”) began to make its presence felt on the west coast of the US. It was a party with revolutionary aspirations that provided a sense of community to the South Asian immigrants residing on the west coast.

Despite its name, it was still a rough, patchy organisation at this time, mainly responsible for fiery newspapers articles and anti-British pamphlets. The British, via intelligence agents, kept a careful eye on these developments, seeking to draw their American counterparts in on the surveillance as well. Barely a year later, some Punjabi farmers, students, and other Indians, returning to India to rebel as per the Ghadar’s instructions, would be arrested and tried in the Lahore Conspiracy Case of 1915.

Bhagwan Singh’s life was tied to these and other developments occurring in British India, across the Empire, and on either side of the Pacific. One might even say that his life aptly mirrored, and was, a response to the momentous events of his time.

Like many others from the Punjab born around the same time (early and mid-1880s), Bhagwan Singh moved peripatetically across a wide region, helped – as we shall see – by connections built from being part of the Empire, and propelled by difficult conditions in one’s own homeland and the rising tide of anti-imperialist sentiment in the colonies. From the late 1890s onward, greater numbers arrived from the Punjab (that included areas in present-day Pakistan as well) to the west coast of the US and Canada.

This was related to events in the state of Punjab itself – famines in the 1890s and legislative measures like the Colonisation Bill that regulated to whom land could be sold – which led to unrest in the region around 1905-07. There were also events associated with the Empire, such as celebrations to mark the reigning British monarch, Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1898.

Soldiers of different regiments travelled across the empire to London for a ceremony marking the occasion. From Punjab, soldiers sailed across the Pacific and moved through Canada (another part of the British Empire) to reach Britain in time for the celebrations. Many of them saw first-hand the “freedoms and greater opportunities” available in Canada.

They also witnessed the consequences of economic development on the American west coast that had created a demand for labour drawing in the Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos and others. For many of those travelling, it became evident that in this new world, movement was fluid, but equally important, so were identities.

Among people from British India who moved towards east Asia, and then to Canada and the US west coast, the most common last name – since most migrants happened to be from the Punjab – was Singh. These early migrants were from regions then in British India, and because there were also migrants from elsewhere such as Bengal and Bombay Presidency, I use the more generic term for them here: South Asian. The popular term then prevalent in America – the US and Canada – for migrants from South Asia was the generic “Hindu”, applied regardless of the travellers’ beliefs, place of origin, or ethnicity.

In this initial story of movement, lies Bhagwan Singh’s too. The way he fashioned his life, the turns he took, the causes he championed that changed over time, were all based on developments of his time, and he took strategic advantage of them.

Alongside his “disillusionment” with the idea of the Empire and its attendant racism and discrimination – matters that made him suspect in British eyes – he was also adaptive. He moulded a life out of every constraint: by using different names on occasion, and at crucial times, changing the trajectory of his life altogether, and assuming other identities.

In 1912, a year before his deportation from Canada, it was as Natha Singh22 that he had travelled to San Francisco and had moved up north to Canada. Though deported in November 1913, he was, as the police rightly suspected, back in the west coast again within a few months, and incorrigibly, with yet another name. Again, as part of the Ghadar Party, he assumed various names, to elude detection and, as we shall see, also for some mysterious motives of his own. Later in life, he would frequently exchange roles with a near namesake, Bhogwan Singh, who had travelled to America around the same time as Bhagwan Singh, and in circumstances as nebulous.

One Man, Many Lives: Bhagwan Singh and the Early South Asians in America

Excerpted with permission from One Man, Many Lives: Bhagwan Singh and the Early South Asians in America, Anuradha Kumar, Simon & Schuster & Yoda Press.