While the nation was celebrating the Independence Day on 15th August, 1969, yet another, perhaps the oldest-living veteran freedom-fighter was breathing his last, almost unknown, unlamented and unsung, like so many of his comrades-in-arms. His long life was a saga of struggles and sacrifices.
After serving in the British Indian Army for a short spell, Baba Hari Singh, then a young man of 27, along with thousands of Indians went to the U.S.A. in 1907 to earn his livelihood. Being a sturdy peasant, he could have earned a lot there, through sheer hard labor, but instead, found the atmosphere choking, because the slave Indian coolies were an object of contempt and ridicule in a free society. This aroused feelings of patriotism and national pride in him and he plunged heart and soul in the Ghadar Party Movement launched by Lala Hardyal, Baba Sohan Singh and other revolutionaries. In 1914, taking advantage of the weakness of the British power, caused by their involvement in a global war with Germany, the Ghadar Party was planning an armed uprising in India. Baba Hari Singh was entrusted with the delicate but dangerous task of accompanying a shipload of arms and ammunition, procured with German assistance, to centers of rebellion in India.
But the British Naval Intelligence got scent of the adventure, and after hot pursuit forced Babaji and his compatriots to consign the ill-fated cargo to the sea and take refuge in Jawa (Indonesia) after the assassination of his comrades on the ship. Babaji, somehow escaped their fate. He retired deep into the Jungle and mountainous territory of Jawa and with the active assistance of an Indian settler, he assumed the name and acquired the passport of a pathan servant, Usman Khan, who had recently died.
The gates of his return to India having been sealed, under Govt. directions to shoot at sight, he was obliged to settle down in Indonesia, till opportune time. There, he married a local beauty of Sandanish race and Muslim faith, and again with the co-operation of the German Bonsul to Indonesia, got jobs in Tea, Rubber and Coffee plantations. The years that followed made substantial additions to his fortune and family.
But the patriotic fever kept burning in deep recesses of his soul. The Second World War provided Indians another opportunity to break the shackles of slavery. He readily offered his services to the Japanese, who were then giving tough time to the British. In liaison with their secret service, he started working among the Indian forces in South East Asia to arouse their patriotic feelings against the British Imperialism. "He played a very significant role in the foundation of the Indian Independence league and the Indian National Army and became Secretary in the Overseas Recruiting Department in the League Headquarters, which role brought him in close contact with Netaji Subash Chandra Bose." Here, on the South-Eastern Front, his elder son Mr. Hira Singh Handry, who was born and brought up in Indonesia, laid down his life, fighting for the freedom of his 'Fatherland.'
A friend and admirer of the Japanese for their valor and valuable assistance, Baba Usman openly criticized them for their imperialistic designs towards India and alleged rape of Indian womanhood at the hands of their soldiers in the occupied territories of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. For this outspokenness, he had to pay dearly with insults and injuries
In 1945, because of the atom bomb attacks, Japan was compelled to lie low and surrender. The British being victors, most of the Indian patriots, fighting against them, were forced to flee for their lives and limbs. Baba Hari Singh Usman, therefore, went back to Indonesia, but his restless spirit gave him no peace. The Indonesian struggle for Independence was in full swing and his sympathies were naturally, with the native population. This earned him the wrath of the ruling Dutch. On the charge of helping the rebels, he was captured, mercilessly beaten and put behind the bars along with other Indonesian patriots. On another occasion, a group of religious fanatics nearly cut his like short. But he was yet to live another quarter-century to see and taste the fruit of freedom!
With the help of some Indian merchant friends in Jakarta, he secured his release from the prison, and in October 1948, set foot on the soil of free India, after an absence of 41 years, to spend the rest of his days in his ancestral village, Baddowal, near Ludhiana. One of his daughters and her husband, who are Indonesian citizens, helped their aged parent build a small beautiful house, outside the village, in the lap of nature, near the High School, where he took keen interest in the welfare of the students. There, in seclusion, he expired on the Independence Day, 1969, after a brief illness.
In May last, I called on him to hear at first-hand his thrilling experiences and to know his opinions about men and matters. The interview lasted two days. He struck me as a wonderful man, very agile, erect and alert for his ninety years. Behind his path an like unsophisticated exterior, he seemed to possess a gracious and hospitable heart and a keen zest for life. He narrated dozens of anecdotes from his childhood onwards with relish, but sometimes with biting satire. One thing, he said, he shunned most, was hypocrisy - be in religious, social or political spheres. He appeared to me to be a deeply religious man, having firm faith in God, but without formalism. "Death", he declared "is not at all awesome for me. I have seen it face to face at least five times in my life. Let it come, when it pleases, for I am now enjoying overtime." And there was a twinkle in his eyes.
Only a few of his close friends know that thought without a formal higher education, he was a man of letters in his own right. In 1914, after Kartar Singh Sarabha left U.S.A. for home, Baba Hari Singh took up the editorship of the Punjabi section of the party organ 'The Hindustan Ghadar' for some time. A few of his poems were then published under pen-name 'Faqir'. His poetic narration of the events of the Second World War in 757 stanzas of 4-lines each running into 127 closely written pages, is the only writing of its kind in Punjabi. Besides, he wrote five Qissas and about 50 short poems on varied topics in Punjabi and Urdu, making the best use of is well-earned rest. In Urdu prose, he wrote some essays concerning the youth, the character and the country. Also in Urdu, he feelingly narrated some incidents form the book of his life in diary-style. All these works were written, under pen-name 'Gumnam' - the unknown - and remained unpublished.
Displayed on the walls of his living room, till his last day were two cloth banners - one in English and Punjabi with the inscription:
Hari Singh Usman
Na Hindu Na Musalman
The other banner read in Hindi and Punjabi:
"Subash Chander Zinda Hain To HamZinda Hain.
Ham Zinda Hain To Subash ChanderZinda Hain."
For all the labors of a life-time, the grateful nation granted him a pension of Rupees Twenty-five per month, which he needs no more.
(By courtesy, The Tribune, Chandigarh)