Indians began migrating in small numbers to the Philippine Archipelago as early as the 2nd century CE, when Hinduism and Indian influence reached the farthest corners of Southeast Asia. With every small, irregular wave of migration, Indians assimilated into the local society, resulting in millions of Filipinos having varying degrees of Indian ancestry. One prominent member of the Filipino-Indian community to emerge from these waves was Ramon Bagatsing, the son of an immigrant who became a war hero and a key political figure.

Bagatsing’s father, Mataram Singh Banga, migrated to Hong Kong from Banga, Punjab, and then moved to the Philippines in early 20th century. Taking inspiration from Indian freedom fighter Bhagat Singh, Banga changed his surname to Bagatsing (a localised spelling of the name). Banga was also connected with the Ghadar Movement in the Philippines. Bagatsing’s mother Ramona was a Filipina who was born in 1916 in the Negros Occidental Province and moved to Manila in the late 1930s in search of a livelihood.

The first major chapter in Bagatsing’s life unfolded during the Second World War. He was a policeman in Manila when, in December 1941, Japan launched a full-scale invasion of the Philippines from Formosa (Taiwan). The American and Philippine armies fiercely resisted the invasion. As a young man in his 20s, Bagatsing enlisted as a first sergeant with the US Armed Forces in the Far East, which comprised of 100,000 Filipinos and 20,000 Americans.

He was a combatant in the Battle of Bataan, which began in January 1942 and lasted more than three months. It turned out to be the last stand of the American and Philippine forces before the archipelago fell to the Japanese. Bagatsing’s unit was forced to surrender on April 9, 1942, and the Japanese occupied the archipelago by May. The army of Imperial Japan, which was brutal with its prisoners of war, forced around 60,000 American and Filipino prisoners to march 112 kilometres to a camp, with no food, water, medical care or shelter being provided on the way.

Bagatsing was one of the survivors of what is now called the Bataan Death March, which killed anywhere between 5,000 and 19,000 captured servicemen. Eyewitness accounts mention random beatings and killings by the Imperial Japanese Army throughout the march. Unlike many of his fellow combatants who were led to the prisoner camp, Bagatsing managed to escape and joined the guerrillas fighting Japanese occupation of the Philippines until the archipelago was liberated by the Allied Forces in 1945. By the time the war was over, Bagatsing was promoted to the rank of captain and would later be made major. For his efforts, he was awarded the American Defence Ribbon and several military honours by the Philippines.

Public life

Bagatsing went back to university after the Second World War, completing a law degree and working for a private firm. He would continue his education a few decades later, obtaining a master’s in law in 1971 and a doctorate in civil law in 1977. He also sat as a panellist in civil law doctorate dissertations in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Bagatsing first entered public life in 1957 when he successfully ran for the Philippine Congress from Manila. Finding favour with Ferdinand Marcos, the president of the country from 1965 to 1986, he served as the head of an anti-corruption body. It was his work at this governmental body that earned him the moniker “incorruptible”.

His stint as a congressman gave him the political push to run for one of the most prestigious and powerful public offices in the Philippines – the mayorship of Manila. Little did he know, though, that tragedy was lurking on the campaign trail. On August 21, 1971, he was at a rally at the Plaza Miranda, a famous public square, when someone from the crowd of 4,000 hurled two grenades at the politicians. Nine lives were lost in the bombing, for which the perpetrators have still not been identified. Bagatsing suffered serious injuries and was clinically dead for a brief while before being revived. Even though one of his legs was amputated, he decided to continue his campaign, earning a huge amount of sympathy from the electorate.

“Bagatsing, one of those most seriously injured, appeared on a wheelchair as he had lost a leg,” Lourdes M Fernandez wrote for the Philippine daily Business Mirror. “He won by a landslide over the incumbent, the very popular and experienced mayor Antonio Villegas.” It was the first time an amputee using a prosthetic limb had become a mayor in the Philippines.

Chequered legacy

He took charge of the mayor’s office on January 1, 1972, and held it for a record 14 years. All through his term, he was known for his tough stance against corruption. When he filed charges against his deputy mayor and 15 other city officials for “unlawfully appropriating public funds” in August 1974, The New York Times too took notice.

Bagatsing was also responsible for several administrative reforms, such as introducing the “barangay” system, under which small socio-political units were created in Manila to manage the city. The system was later adopted across the Philippines.

Critics, however, point out that Bagatsing was close to the dictator and kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos and often helped him consolidate his hold on power. A January 1986 Associated Press dispatch from Manila mentions bar girls and prostitutes from the city’s red-light district chanting slogans supporting Marcos in the presidential elections. According to the dispatch, “Several bar operators and employees said couriers sent by Mayor Ramon Bagatsing went to dozens of bars in Manila’s Ermita tourist quarter Tuesday night with veiled threats that their licenses would not be renewed if they did not participate in the march.”

Bagatsing was also accused by his detractors of starting a political clan, with two of his sons becoming members of the Congress. Several members of his family are still actively involved in politics and have served in various legislatures.

Despite the criticism, the first Indian-origin person to become a mayor in the Philippines is best remembered for effective governance and charitable initiatives, including the creation of the Ramon D. Bagatsing Scholarship Foundation, which has awarded more than 1,300 scholarships since 1958.

Although he was mocked and called a “Bumbay”, a derogatory term for Indians derived from the word Bombay, there is little information in the public domain about any efforts to reconnect with his Indian roots. Bagatsing was instrumental in setting up the Mahaveer Philippine Foundation in 1985. The foundation, which is a humanitarian cooperation programme between India and the Philippines, provides Indian-made Jaipur Foot prosthetic legs to Philippine amputees.

Bagatsing, who survived active combat in the Second World War and a bombing in Manila, passed away in his sleep due to cardiac arrest in 2006. He was 89.

“Over 500 awards and citations proved his prowess not only in politics but also in social services, the military, and business,” The Varsitarian, the student publication of the University of Santo Tomas, Manila wrote in a tribute.

The Bagatsing family is extremely influential in the Philippines, with its members making a mark in areas beyond politics. Ramon Bagatsing’s grandsons Raymond and Ramon Khino are well-known actors, while another grandson, Hyram, is a professional basketball player. Ramon Bagatsing’s son, Ramon Bagatsing Jr, is the current Philippine Ambassador to India.

This Filipino family with Punjabi roots remains an important link between India and the Philippines.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.