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Indian Freedom Fighter Dies at 102

India West, News Report, Ashfaque Swapan Posted: Jun 01, 2009

Bhagat Singh Bilga, the last surviving member of the pre-Independence Gadar Party founded in San Francisco, died May 22 in Birmingham, England, at his sons residence. He was 102.

The Hindustan Gadar Party was founded in 1913 by U.S.-based Indians to join in the struggle for Indias independence. The freedom fighters of the party published a weekly paper called "Gadar" to propagate the cause of Indian independence. In August 1914, when the party called on overseas Indians to return to India to fight for its freedom, most living in North America heeded the call and no fewer than 8,000 of them were said to have returned to India to take part in the revolution. Bilga signed up for the movement much later, in 1931. He was 24 then, and had just reached the Argentina in search of a job.

Till his death, he remained alert, informed and engaged in the issues of the day, people who had met him told India-West.

Meeting Bhagat Singh Bilga at the age of 96 was like reliving the revolutionary history of the Gadar Movement, recalled poet, folklorist and Gadar scholar Ved Prakash Vatuk.

With his sharp memory and his deep conviction . . . his description of the events of twentieth century was like watching a real drama on the stage.

The Gadar revolutionaries are celebrated for their battle for Indias freedom, but they also had a passionately held and deeply non-sectarian, egalitarian agenda.

Bilga remained committed to the broad goals of the left in terms of economic emancipation of the downtrodden, but he kept away from the divisive ideological squabbles.

During the Khalistan agitation, he was one of very few Sikh leaders who was openly and unreservedly against what he considered a sectarian movement.

Sukirat Anand, who edits Bilgas favorite Punjabi daily newspaper, the Jalandhar-based Nawa Zamana (New Age), had met Bilga many times. The thing which struck me always about Bilga was he always kept himself abreast of whatever was happening around him, Anand recalled. I think for the last 10 or even 15 years he knew about everything that was happening he would be very coherent, he would never ramble.

Vatuk recalled Bilgas fearless stance for what he thought was right. During the agitation for Khalistan, Bilga fearlessly went from village to village in Punjab where he could have been killed anytime, he said.

In addition to his role in the Gadar Party, Bilgas lasting legacy is the Desh Bhagat Yadgar Hall, the facility he built with public donations in Jalandhar.

Anand said Bilga was held in enormously high regard in Punjab across the political spectrum. Former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral called him a legend.

Bilga was the oldest person left (from the Gadar Party), and he was also the president of the Desh Bhagat Yadgar Committee, Anand said.

Bhagat Singh Bilga was born April 2, 1907, in the village Bilga in Punjabs Jalandhar district. His father died when he was one. His maternal aunt took him to her village, but soon she died of plague. Her husband and Bilgas grandmother raised him.

Bilga went to Kolkata in search of a job, and from there he went to Rangoon, Singapore, Hong Kong and Chile. In Argentina, he met Ajit Singh, the uncle of martyr Bhagat Singh, Ajit Singh. He joined the Gadar Party in 1930, eventually becoming the general secretary of the Argentina chapter.

The money he earned as a clerk in a railway store went to fund revolutionary outfits like Naujawan Bharat Sabha and Kirti Party. Gaye the kamai karne ke liye, leke aye inqalab (We went to earn a living, and brought back revolution), Bilga once said.

Bilga was sent to Moscow by the Gadar Party with 60 other Gadaris to learn politics, economics, military techniques and guerrilla warfare. In 1933, he received his orders to return to Punjab.

The Desh Bhagat Yadgar Memorial Hall, which he has helped establish, is a treasure trove for researchers, safekeeping over 17,000 books about Indias revolutionary history. There are handwritten statements of Gadaris, a British directory containing sketches and whereabouts of Gadaris, original copies of the movements handwritten newspaper, Gadar (in Punjabi and Urdu), which was published from San Francisco in 1913, and 2,000 rare pictures of revolutionaries.

I have dedicated myself to this museum which has 35 other freedom fighters as its members, Bilga once said. It traces the life of each and every Gadari along with their photographs. We have collected them from their villages, relatives and friends, in India and abroad. And all this to tell the world that Englishmen didnt leave India because a handful of Indians threw salt into their eyes. They left because we sent them packing.

Every October, a five-day festival called Gadari Mela is hosted at the Yadgar Hall to celebrate the contributions of revolutionaries. It is attended mostly by families of martyrs of the Gadar Movement 400 revolutionaries were hanged and 5,000 were sent to Kala Pani for life imprisonment; most of them never returned.

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