Interesting Story

Her Ghadar Grandfather

Rani Johnson, who traced her roots back to an Indian revolutionary talks about her journey to Arthur J. Pais

Rani Johnson, daughter of an American couple, grew up hearing only a few things about her maternal grandfather.

But this much she knew: he was a famed Indian revolutionary whose fight against the British took him across the world - to Hong Kong, the Philippines, China, Japan, America and Panama. His exploits included escaping from a British warrant issued in China by hiding in a San Francisco-bound ship laden with cow-hides. He was a master of disguise: he had even fooled a few British officers into thinking he was a Japanese traveler.

One nugget of information was ingrained in her memory.

"I am an avid equestrian," she says, "and one of the stories that caught my attention was of him losing an eye on a tree limb as he was riding a horse across who knows where." Her grandmother, whose ancestors had roots in Germany and France, hardly spoke of him. But from her mother, Rani Johnson had a few glimpses into her seemingly mysterious grandfather.

She knew, for instance, her grandfather Bhai Bhagwan Singh, a Sikh preacher, poet and sometime priest at a Hong Kong gurdwara, practiced yoga. "I believe he began the day with a headstand to increase the flow of blood to the head," she says. "Apart from a few bits of information I knew nothing about my Indian side," she continues. "Of course, I was given an Indian name as an acknowledgement of my Indian connections but that was all."

Now that she has located a cousin and met him a few weeks ago, she feels like a fuller person, she says.

Soon after graduation from Brown University about three years ago, Johnson took one or two history classes at a Rhode Island college, and that's where she began dwelling on her Indian grandfather. "I was taking classes be-cause I have always been interested in history," she says with a laugh. But she feels she was mysteriously being directed towards something more interesting.

"I asked a couple of professors where I could get information on the Gadaris who had started a revolutionary movement in North America to fight for India's independence in the early part of the last century," she recalls. "I wanted to know more about my grandfather - and more important, to trace his family in India." She had a very strong urge to connect with her Indian family, she says. The professors directed Johnson to history department at Stanford and University of California at Berkeley, where a lot of material on the Gadar movement exists. [Editor note: Professor actually directed her to Dr. Karen Leonard, professor at the University of California, Irvine, who has done lots of work on Punjabi Pioneers.]

Johnson was not alone in the quest.

Unknown to her, Bhagwan Singh's family in India - he had left behind a wife and three children - was also trying to find out about his American daughter Bebe and her family. For many years Surinder Pal Singh, one of Bhagwan Singh's Indian grandsons who had migrated to America in the mid-1970s and settled in Atlanta, was searching for the other branch of the family. He had contacted academics and community leaders to gather more information about his grandfather's 'American wife.'

Finally, he came across Ted Sibia, a librarian who maintains a terrific website on Punjabis in America and the Gadarites (

"The contacts I made through this site led me finally to my cousin Rani," Surinder says. "Suddenly, I discovered we were not worlds apart." For Johnson, her mother Bebe and Surinder Singh, May 31 was a stirring day as they met for the first time in Santa Clara, California, at the 90th anniversary celebration of the Gadar movement.

The next day Johnson read a paper about her search and narrated how the two families had discovered each other a few weeks before the May 31 event. Surinder Singh, who is working on a biography of her grandfather, reminisced about Bhagwan Singh who had become the second president of the Gadar Party in 1914 and had inspired hundreds of rebels. Like some of the more prominent Gadarites, Bhagwan Singh too had served time in an American jail because of his subversive activities.

"There are a few people like me who want to keep the legacy of these selfless and brave people alive," he says. "And discovering family members in American will also help in doing that." He says there were reasons why the two families knew very little of each other. "My grandfather's American marriage was very short lived," he says with a sigh. He does not want to speak more about it, he adds, but it wasn't a very happy union.

What kind of marriage was it? Didn't Bhagwan Singh leave behind his wife and three children in India? "You know how things were in those years with the revolutionaries," Surinder Singh says. When Bhagwan Singh returned to India for good in 1958, his wife had died.

"My grandmother and the immediate members of the family had been hunted and even physically tortured by the British who wanted to find out which part of the world Grandfather was," the grandson says, "because he often went underground to avoid being arrested." Johnson says she had always thought her maternal cousins and uncles would be in India.

"I was stunned, and I was surprised to know at least one member of the family has been living in America for nearly three decades," she says. Through Surinder, Johnson hopes to learn more about her grandfather and the Gadar movement. "I have started reading some of my grandfather's writings," she says, "and I find an eerie familiarity with his thinking, even though I never met him. I now feel I am spiritually connected with him."

"It almost seems surreal at times," she says with a chuckle. "But all things must happen for a reason."


Link to more information on Dr. Bhagwain Singh Gyanee Pritam

Source: "Her Gadar Grandfather". India Abroad, July 18, 2003, pp. M9. Permission being sought. 

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