Jawala Singh, a Unique Ghadri Baba
Baba Jawala Singh, also known as Santa Singh, was a unique personality. Known as the Potato King, he founded scholarships at the University of Calfornia at Berkeley, he was granthi of the Stockton gurdwara, first vice president of the Hindustan Ghadar Party for independent India, and president of the Kisan Sabha of Punjab, a peasant union.
Jawala Singh was born in 1866 to a kumhar, or potter, family in village Thathian of Amritsar District. His father, Ghanaia Singh, was a small farmer. Under the British rule, Punjabi farmers were treated as lease holders of the land they had owned during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s regime. They had to pay exorbitant lease charges, in cash, which they had to borrow from moneylenders who charged high interest rates. This economic hardship forced many Punjabis to go abroad to earn a living.
Jawala Singh left his village, in 1905. He worked his way through many countries, including Panama and Mexico, before reaching San Francisco in 1908.
There he met Visakha Singh Dadehar, who also reached San Francisco in 1908. Originally was from Amritsar, he served as a granthi in the Indian cavalry. In 1907 he left home and reached Shanghai, where he served as a policeman for nine months before leaving for California.
Together, Jawala Singh and Visakha Singh leased a 500-acre ranch in Holtsville, near Stockton. Visakha Singh spent all his time on the farm, while Jawala Singh attended to outside duties, including public relations. They became successful potato growers. And Jawala Singh became known as the Potato King.
Jawala Singh was a very foresighted nationalist who understood the value of education. He built good relations with UC Berkeley and, incredibly, founded scholarships for Indian scholars within four years of his arrival to the United States.
Echoes of Freedom, a 2001 publication of the UC Berkeley library, published the notification of the scholarships issued on Jan.1, 1912, with his signature, and included his picture. The scholarships were to cover the cost of two-way transportation from India and meet all expenses here, including room and board at 1731 Allston Way, Berkeley.
This home, purchased by the Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Society, was called ‘Guru Nanak Dev Vidyarthi Ashram’. Smoking and drinking were prohibited.
Jawala Singh enlisted support of his friends Santokh Singh, Sohan Singh and Wisakha Singh, to underwrite the scholarships. Though underwritten by Sikhs and named Sri Guru Govind Singh Educational Scholarships, the scholarships were open to men and women of all communities hailing from anywhere in India.
The 1912 awardees of the scholarships included a Christian, a Sikh, a Muslim and three Hindus. They were the first and only awardees. The scholarship project ended because of financial problems. The sponsors had to assume increased responsibility for the Sikh Temple in Stockton and for the Ghadar Party.
The Holtsville farm had one room reserved for Sri Guru Granth Sahib. A vast majority of the East Indians in California were Sikhs. In the beginning, they held congregational prayers at different farms, by rotation. The first Sikh congregational prayer in the United States, in presence of the Guru Granth, was held on November 1, 1911, almost 100 years ago, at Sardar Nand Singh camp near Stockton.
Soon, congregation formed the Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Society with Sant Teja Singh as its founding president. The society was incorporated on May 27, 1912, and functioned from Berkeley until October 1, 1917. The society purchased the 1930 South Grant Street residential lot in Stockton in September 1912.
Hundreds of American people protested the hoisting of the Nishan Sahib but they were pacified and satisfied when Teja Singh explained its religious importance for the Sikhs. The first prayer was held there on October 24, 1912, in a small pre-existing frame building.
This first Gurdwara in the United States is now a historical landmark of California. Jawala Singh and Visakha Singh served as its first Granthis.
A new wooden structure, including a prayer hall and a langar hall, was completed in 1915. Its dedication was held on 426th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, on November 21, 1915. Both Jawala Singh and Visakha Singh had left for India to carry out the mission of the Ghadar Party. Professor Arthur U. Pope, of the philosophy department, delivered the keynote address and spoke of Sikhism’s pure and lofty monotheism, strong opposition to idol worship, rejection of the caste system, equality of all, sharing and tolerance of other religions.
In 1929, the wooden building of 1915 was moved for use as a library, and a new brick building of the Gurdwara was built in its place. It had an elevated seat for Sri Guru Granth Sahib. With permission from the Shiromani Gurdwar Parbandhak Committee, the western system of sitting on chairs, wearing shoes and leaving heads uncovered, was adopted. This system was also adopted when a Japanese Church in El Centro was converted into a gurdwara in 1948, and at the Tierra Buena Road Gurdwara, in Yuba City, built in 1973.
However, now-a-days with the arrival of large numbers of Sikh immigrants from India since mid 1980s, all California Gurdwaras have switched to the Indian tradition of removing shoes and covering heads before entering the prayer hall, and sitting on the carpet. But many Gurdwaras do have a few benches or chairs on the side or in the back, for the physically challenged.
Jawala Singh’s patriotic spirit made him very popular and he was elected president of the California branch of the Indian Association, an organization set up by the Indian pioneers to guard their interests. Discriminatory treatment meted out to them by the locals and the unsympathetic attitude of the representatives of the British-Indian government created a strong desire to overthrow the British government in India at the earliest. This led to Jawala Singh playing an important role in the Ghadar Movement.
The Holtville farm became the center of activities of the Ghadar Party. Jawala Singh played a key role in organizing a conference of the Ghadar Party in Sacramento on Dec. 31, 1913, which was attended by thousands. Here, he was elected first vice president of the party.
Soon after the start of the World War I on July 28, 1914, the Ghadar Party decided that its members must go to India to fight against the British government in India. Jawala Singh and Sohan Singh Bhakna, the president of the Ghadar Party, toured the Western states to recruit volunteers to go to India. His farm served as a camp for training revolutionaries on their way to India. Eventually, he and his partner, Visakha Singh, donated their entire property to the Ghadar Party. Jawala Singh was one of the leaders of the first large group that sailed for India on August 29, 1914, aboard the S.S. Korea. From Hong Kong, he went on another ship, Tosha Mans, which reached Kolkata on Oct. 29, 1914.
On the way, in Singapore, Jawala Singh tried unsuccessfully to win over the loyalty of Indian regiments and to incite them for a national revolt against the British. On arrival at Kolkata, he was arrested from the ship and taken to Ludhiana by train, where was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Jawala Singh served 18 years in Montgomery Jail. On his release in 1933, he identified himself with farmers and workers and voiced their grievances through a newspaper called ‘Kirti’. He worked for the Desh Bhagat Pariwar Sahaik Committee, which collected funds and helped the families of freedom fighters. He also became the first president of the Punjab Kisan Sabha, a peasants’ union, formed to negotiate with the colonial government regarding farming practices and land revenue.
For his new activities he was rearrested in 1935 and sentenced to another year in prison. After his release, he led the tenant movement of Nili Bar, an area of Montgomery district, now the Sahiwal district of Pakistan, commanded by the lower Bari Doab canal.
During his travel to the attend the All-India Kisan Conference, a conference of representatives of farmers of all states of India, at Comilla in Bengal, his bus met with an accident, resulting in serious injuries. He died on May 8, 1938.
Onkar Singh Bindra