SURREY, BC, Canada—In 1915, the Canadian government executed Mewa Singh, solidifying his legacy for generations to come. For BC Sikhs, Mewa Singh is a folk hero and a symbol of standing against oppression. He has been honoured and commemorated in the community, but now the NGO SAF International is adding another chapter to his story by taking his story back to his ancestral village: Lopoke, Amritsar.
The story of Mewa Singh begins with the birth of the Ghadar Party, a group formed to overthrow the British occupation of India through armed resistance. When the Ghadar Party was created in 1913, BC quickly became a major base of operations. Some Ghadar Party leaders were also members of the Khalsa Diwan Society (KDS) including KDS president Bhai Bhag Singh Bhikhiwind and granthi Balwant Singh Khurdpur. The concern for a revolt against the crown prompted the government to employ Anglo-Indian interpreter William Hopkinson to monitor political activity in the Indian community.
Hopkinson used his position to create divisions and chaos. He recruited some Sikhs to be informants and even used them to intimidate others through violence. The most notable informant was Bela Singh Jian. On September 5, 1914, Bela Singh entered Khalsa Diwan Society Gurdwara on West 2nd avenue in Vancouver, and assassinated Bhag Singh and one more member of the congregation, along with injuring several bystanders. Mewa Singh was in the Gurdwara that day and was a witness to these crimes.
Local Ghadar leaders realized that Hopkinson, the source of all the violence, had to be stopped. Thus, on October 21, 1914, at Bela Singh’s trial at the Vancouver Provincial Courthouse (present-day Vancouver Art Gallery), where Mewa Singh walked up to Hopkinson and shot and killed him on the spot. Mewa Singh was apprehended and quickly dropped his weapons, willfully allowing the police to arrest him.
At trial, Mewa Singh stated that my religion teaches him to not have enmity towards others and that he had no enmity towards Hopkinson, but he had to kill him because he was oppressing poor people.
On January 11, 1915, Bhai Mewa Singh was executed in New Westminster.
Although a folk hero in BC, Mewa Singh’s story has lost prominence in his ancestral village of Lopoke. Though Shaheed Mewa Singh stadium stands in the village, the annual sports competition in his name which at one time took place there no longer continues. In 2015, the 100th anniversary of Bhai Mewa Singh’s martyrdom was commemorated after many years at one of the village’s local Gurdwaras. Thanks to SAF International, a local NGO that has been supporting poverty alleviation in Punjab since 2014, this slow revival of awareness will be greatly accelerated. SAF will honour Bhai Mewa Singh in launching its new initiative to improve rural primary schools. The improvements will include creating a better facility and providing educational resources to give children a better learning environment.
Quality public education is vital for both economic and social development. However, in India, middle and high-income class families are sending their children to private schools given the poor quality of public education. This trend has resulted in great reliance on the private education system and the stigma that public schools are only for the poor. Moreover, many parents are raising concerns of private schools continually raising fees and gouging families.
The SAF school development project can exemplify the benefits of investing in public education, and make children feel proud – not shame – in attending their village school.
The SAF team decided the first school project to be in honour of Bhai Mewa Singh in his ancestral village of Lopoke. The Lopoke village primary school will be rebuilt and renamed Shaheed Mewa Singh Primary School and will include a plaque telling his story. This school project will be funded with the support of Gurdwara Sahib Sukh Sagar in New Westminster.
SAF International’s first school is not only meant to honour Mewa Singh but also help the children appreciate their connection to history, and the struggles and sacrifices made before them. As Maya Angelou said, “if you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’re going.”
Mewa Singh was not among the prominent Ghadar leaders but instead a simple and humble man. He offered to sacrifice himself because he had no wife and no children. But now, the children of Lopoke can say Mewa Singh is ours, and we are his children.