By Kartar Dhillon |
AUGUST 20, 2013
My brother, Bud Dillon, was 12 years old, a freshman in high school, when he volunteered for a freedom for India mission. Bud (also known as Budh Singh and Shamsher Singh) was born in Upland, California in the United States of America on January 28, 1912. He was the second of eight children of Bakhshish Singh and Rattan Kaur, who had migrated to the U.S. from Punjab.
One might wonder how a boy so young, not even Indian by birth, could love India so much that he would be willing to risk his life for it. This account is being told from a review of his conversations with his family over the years.
Bud died July 23, 1998. He left a legacy of love and compassion for the working class that will never be forgotten. He was a kind and gentle man, modest to a fault, and full of hope for a better society for all humanity.
To understand how he could have volunteered for the mission (jatha as it is known in Punjabi), one has to cast a glance backward at the lives of his parents. His mother, Rattan Kaur, was descended from the Kukas, the soldiers who mutinied against the British army during the revolt of the 1850s. She had immense pride in her ancestors. In her home she displayed a picture of the Kuka Sikhs, lashed to the mouths of cannons by smartly uniformed British soldiers. They were blown to bits for their rebellion.
Bud's father, Bakhshish Singh, was descended from the fighting forces of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, renowned for his militancy against the colonialists. His father understood Bud's determination to take such a bold action. He himself had left his home in Sursingh while still in his teens to earn money to keep the family's land from being taken over by the British government through taxation.
In the 1870s, the decade in which Bakhshish Singh was born, Punjab was being ravaged by the British government through the levying of exorbitant taxes, taxes as high as forty and fifty percent. To further enslave the agricultural community, the government demanded these taxes in cash. Who could have money enough to meet such inhumane requirements? Farmers became victims of money lenders or ended up losing what little land they possessed. The crowning injury was that the only employment available in Punjab was offered by the British army.
That is how Bakhshish Singh, a youth of less than 20 years of age, became a soldier in the British army. He was a tall and very strong man, 6'4" in height. He was hired for an artillery division in China because strength was required to handle the heavy equipment. He served until the end of his term of duty and left as quickly as possible. He had saved a little from the paychecks he sent home to enable him to leave his odious servitude.
The details of the next part of his life are not well known to his family. It is known, however, that he sailed on ships going to North and South America, perhaps as a deckhand. He made history (recorded by C. R. Das in "Hindustani Workers on the West Coast") as having been employed in the United States in the 1890s.
He made three trips back to Punjab and on his final trip married Rattan Kaur and brought her to the U.S. They lived first in California, then in Astoria, Oregon for six years, where he worked in a lumber mill, and then returned to California to farm.
Astoria is the site of the founding convention of the Gadar Party, the organization created by Indians for one purpose: to free India from foreign rule. It could be said that every Indian worker of the U.S. was a member, if not a founder, of the Gadar Party. Only the names of a few educated people who were able to articulate the goals of the Party appear in the history books. But it is the several thousand Punjabis who gave so much that also need to be remembered.
Books have been written about the martyrs, the men who returned to India to join the revolutionary forces there. The stories of their heroism, their suffering, have been recorded. Many were killed upon arrival in India and many others were imprisoned for life. Their property in India was impounded by the British government to punish the families of the revolutionaries, as well as the men themselves.
The heroism of the martyrs must be enshrined for posterity, for later generations of Indians to know who they were and what they sacrificed for the country. But the unsung heroes of the Gadar Party were the workers in fields and lumber camps who gave the money that kept the presses rolling and the movement alive.
These men were the workers who spent 10 to 12 hours a day to earn $1.50 to $1.75 for the day. When the agrahi people (fund raisers) came to the mills and camps, these men gave more generously than millionaires. They had to send money home to their families in Punjab, they had to maintain their own lives—wretched as they were—yet when it came to the cause of freedom for India, no sacrifice of their meager earnings was too great.
Bakhshish Singh used his command of fluent English to help his comrades from Punjab, most of whom were illiterate, victims of the British destruction of India's education system. He wrote their letters home for them, helped them get money orders to enclose with the letters, and read the letters that came from Punjab.
A greater service than this clerical work was the reading and translation of newspapers. He read and interpreted both English and Punjabi papers. It goes without saying that he read the eagerly awaited news from the Gadar Party first, before anything else. Although he took a leading part in the activities of both the Gadar Party and the Sikh Temple, the first to be established in the U.S. (in 1912)—he was not a man to give speeches.
He met with workers after the evening meal, sometimes with one man, sometimes thirty or more, and read for them the news from India in Punjabi papers, and news of the world in English papers. It was a nightly event wherever he worked, in a lumber mill in Astoria, or a farm workers' camp in California. He had been deeply moved by the statement of one of his friends who said to him: "I have eyes, but I am blind; I cannot read." He became the eyes for his Punjabi comrades.
Older than most of the later arrivals, Bakhshish Singh had been politicized by his military service for the colonial army and by his extensive travels. He was the first Indian to join the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW), a union that welcomed all workers, not just white Americans, as the other unions did. It was through his understanding of unionism that he was able to convince the Indians to join the strikers in the lumber mill where a strike had been called by the IWW. It was a great leap forward in the awareness of class struggle for these Punjabis who had known only an agricultural life.
Generosity of spirit and dedication to the cause of freedom was a hallmark of the Punjabis in the U.S. at that time, but none could have been more generous and more dedicated than Bakhshish Singh and Rattan Kaur. An example of this: one year, a camp of about thirty farm workers in California found itself without a cook. The Sikh foreman begged Rattan Kaur to cook for them. She refused at first because it shamed her to work when her husband was able to provide for the family, but the plight of the cookless crew of Punjabis finally got her to agree.
The foreman insisted on paying her full wages. She took this money and turned the entire amount over to the Gadar Party and to the Gurudwara to send to the committee in Punjab that provided for the families of martyrs. She did not protest when Bakhshish Singh gave $500 to Bhagwan Singh, a Gadar Party functionary, who made a personal appeal for the money. They never hesitated to contribute in spite of the needs of their large family. It was the big-hearted spirit of Punjabi workers who felt that their contribution for India's freedom was never great enough.
To get back to Bud's story, it's small wonder then that his parents did not object to Bud's decision to join the jatha. When Rattan Kaur broke down and cried, Bakhshish Singh reminded her of the story of Guru Gobind Singh, who had sacrificed his sons for the cause of freedom. They were devout Sikhs who kept the Guru Granth Sahib in an honored space in whatever abode they lived in, no matter how tiny or humble it might be.
The day Bud made his decision known, he and his father were working in the Sacramento delta, hoeing beans. Bud had started working three summers ago, during vacation from school, when he was nine years old. He was now twelve. They were working with a crew of Punjabis, among whom were several students from the University of California in Berkeley.
Father and son were soaked with perspiration in the hot California sun, their bodies ached from being bent over the hoes for hours on end.
"If you go with the jatha," Bakhshish Singh said, "your life is bound to be hard, but it can't be much worse than it is here."
Bud told his father that the students were saying he should change his name to Shamsher, that it would be more suited to a revolutionary. "They say people might call me Budhoo (simpleton)."
His father protested that Budh had been a great and wise man. His very name stood for wisdom. "But the students say people might call me the Budhoo of a Budhoo if you don't change it..."
The name was changed. Budh became Shamsher.
Before continuing with the story of their experience, you should first know the names of the entire jatha:
Daswanda Singh, village Dhada Kalan, Hoshiarpur;
Genda Singh, village Khera;
Dula Singh, village Khera;
Charan Singh Dhuleta. Jullundur;
Inder Singh, village Tuto Mazara, Hoshiarpur;
Bishan Singh Burj, Majja;
and Bud Dillon, descended from Sursingh and Gumti.
A photograph of the jatha was taken at the Gadar Ashram at 5 Wood Street, San Francisco, on the eve of their departure. In the center of the photograph is Mahendra Pratap, the man who had called for volunteers for the jatha. This man was a former rajah, deposed from his throne in Nepal by the British. He looks vaguely military, a belt across his chest, ribboned buttons on his lapel, hinting at past campaigns.
This rajah came to the Gadar Party in 1924 to ask for money and volunteers to carry out a plan he had for delivering arms to the revolutionaries in India. The only credentials he had, besides his patriotism, was the setting up of a "provisional government of India" in Afghanistan. After leaving Nepal he had traveled about in Asia, meeting with other Indian patriots and had set up this government, with himself as president. When he came to San Francisco with his aura of nobility and patriotism and proposed his plan to the Gadar Party, the simple working people saw him as someone heroic, willing to join forces with them for achieving their common goal.
Briefly told, the Party collected $30,000, the amount he requested, and seven men volunteered for his jatha. The jatha boarded a Japanese ship in San Francisco in January 1924 bound for Hong Kong.
At the very outset, the rajah created a schism between himself and the volunteers, "the leader and the led," as Bud put it. He had control of all the money. He booked himself into tourist class and stuck the volunteers in steerage.
In telling the story, Bud said, "We deserved to be put in steerage for being such fools as to trust a man because he was of the nobility." The rajah's version of patriotism was quite different from that of the working men who had volunteered.
Bud: The food in steerage was rice and fish. The men of the jatha, all Punjabis, were not accustomed to such a diet. Their fellow passengers in steerage were mostly Japanese who didn't object to the food, but even they suffered from seasickness, and the whole place was a hell.The twelve-year-old Bud had private thoughts, which he expressed later with some bitter analysis;
Q: What about the rajah? Wasn't he in touch with you?
Bud: Oh yes! He came down every day and regaled us with accounts of the splendid service upstairs.
Steerage had one advantage. It offered us the companionship of a Filipino revolutionary who was on his way to the Philippines. We discovered that we had a common bond. We, too, were fighting imperialism.
The original destination of the jatha was Hong Kong, but they disembarked at Tokyo.
Bud: I'm sure it was the decision of Rash Behari Bose. We were traveling without passports.
Q: Without passports?
Bud: We never had passports. I was the only one who was a U.S. citizen. We didn't plan to come back once we got to India, so why bother?
The rajah may have had a passport, but it was from Afghanistan. He had been made an honorary citizen of Afghanistan by friends of the provisional government.
The rajah made his real mission known to us when he told us about his plan for a new world religion. It was a "religion of love."
We were dyed-in-the-wool Sikhs--at least I was--and I think the others were too, so the idea of him comparing himself to Guru Gobind Singh or to Guru Nanak... that just didn't sit well with us.
Some quarrels began springing up between the rajah and the jatha at this stage of the game. First, there had been the business of the volunteers being forced to travel in steerage, the very people from whom the contributions had come, and then he tried to convert us to this so-called religion of love.
In Tokyo the men were left to wait while the rajah went on a round of socializing with prominent people. One of these was Rash Behari Bose. He had escaped to Japan after he had thrown a bomb at the British viceroy in India. He was befriended by the Japanese for his anti-British views. He had become a resident of Japan and married a Japanese woman who was the daughter of the mayor of Tokyo—or perhaps he was the chief of police.
That's how Bose was able to help us.
The Japanese were working on a Greater Asia Society. They treated us kindly, saw us as possible friends in their future expansion plans.
Q: Did the rajah ever discuss his plans with you?
Bud: He never talked with us. We were just sitting around waiting, put up in people's homes, while the rajah was going around to banquets and pursuing his own purposes, whatever they were. Nothing political was ever discussed.
Upon arrival in Tokyo he had given some of the money to Bose, a thousand dollars or so, and the rest he kept to himself. It is interesting to note that our fares had been about sixty dollars each.
I found Bose to be a very arrogant man. He never talked to us as individuals, always lectured to us.
Bud: They were rogues and scoundrels, professional revolutionaries. I remember thinking that if either of these men had to spend a single day doing the hard labor of the fields that we had done, they couldn't last a day. And then to consider whether they would ever give away their earnings as we had done... It was out of the question.Finally the jatha was relieved from its boredom of waiting and bitter thoughts, and the next step of the journey began.
Bud: From Tokyo we went to Korea. We waited a week until clearance came through with the help of Bose. He used his association with the promoters of the Greater Asia Society, who exerted some influence to get us admitted to Korea.This was 1925. Bud describes the beginning of a new life for him in Moscow. He was thirteen years old and now enrolled in a university.
Then we went to North Manchuria. We were allowed to pass through Manchuria because we had the friendship of Japan. We reached China.
In Peking (now Beijing) the rajah stayed in the most expensive hotel and the rest of us were put up in someone's house. We slept on makeshift board beds.
After some socializing in Peking, the rajah got in touch with the Christian general, Feng Yu Hsiang. This was the person whom the rajah had said would supply us with guns and ammunition that we would then smuggle into Nepal for the Indian revolutionaries. Our task was to establish a route through Tibet to reach Nepal.
This general controlled the next warlord territory. He actually supplied us with some rifles and ammunition, and gave us a couple of horses with their mounts to help us. It turned out that these soldiers were a couple of dope addicts. One of them was very good to me. He let me ride his horse so that he could ride in the cart the horse pulled. In this way he was able to lie back and enjoy his dope.
We walked along the Great Wall of China. The guides the general provided us accompanied us only to the end of the general's territory. The rifles he had given us proved to be worthless when we attempted to use them to hunt wild game: the bullets didn't fit.
We continued on foot along the Great Wall for close to eight months. We walked about one thousand miles. We went past villages where we saw corpses hung from trees, men killed by rival warlord armies. We walked on along the Great Wall through the Gobi Desert to the headwaters of the Yellow River. We had walked from Kalgan in North China to Lanchou.
That is where I became ill with a severe case of dysentery. We were in bandit-ridden country. There was a sort of war going on between different factions of warlords. Fortunately for me there was a military hospital nearby and I was taken to it.
The rajah said he could not wait for me to get well, that he would have to leave me there. He would have gone on and left me alone to fend for myself, but two members of the jatha, Charan Singh and Bishan Singh, refused to leave me all alone. The rajah said he was going on, and, because he had all the money, he did give us a little cash. He also wrote a check to be cashed in Tokyo, but that too turned out to be as useless as the ammunition. It was a bogus check.
So that was the end of my journey with Mahendra Pratap. The rest of the group went on for another ten or thirteen days, but they too broke up because of dissensions that had simmered from the very start. The men realized that this was just a big adventure for the rajah, that he was actually thinking only of promoting his religion, and that they had been sorely misused.
One incident that may well have been the straw that broke the camel's back was told to us by the rajah himself when we met up in Tokyo later. A horse that one of the men was leading began to slip off the side of a narrow mountain path they were traversing. The man, Genda Singh, shouted for help. He was trying to hold on to the horse's bridle and was in danger of being dragged off the mountain along with the horse.
The rajah decided that was a great time to take a picture of the action, undoubtedly for books about this adventure that he planned to write in the future. Instead of helping Genda Singh, he went for his camera. By the time he returned, Genda Singh had been forced to let go of the horse to save his own life. The horse, of course, was lost.
When Mahendra Pratap returned with the camera, Genda Singh attacked him with both fists. A general melee ensued in which the other members of the jatha joined in and landed a few blows on the rajah too. The rajah was a man of small stature and an uneven match for his adversaries, but he used his wits to free himself: he clenched his teeth on Genda Singh's nose and held on like a bulldog until the fight ended.
There had been personality clashes prior to that time, but this complete lack of concern for the endangered life of a man was the final insult. They had joined him because they wanted to work for India's freedom but it was clear to them now that his entire plan was a farce. They learned that there was no way supplies could have been delivered to Nepal because Tibet would never have given the jatha permission to proceed through its territory. Tibet, or certain of its provinces, were under British control. They were not about to allow the jatha to come there and smuggle arms through their territory into another colony of theirs.
As for myself and Bishan Singh and Charan Singh, we came back to Japan, a much easier trip this time because, with the little money we had, we negotiated a ride on a raft which was transporting wool down the Yellow River. We didn't suffer the physical rigor of our earlier trip, but we paid for our ease by becoming infested by lice.
In Tokyo we discovered that the checks the rajah had given us could not be cashed. Not only did he not give us any money, he notified Bose not to help us in any way.
I looked up a professor I had met earlier in Tokyo and he proved to be a kindly and gracious host. He gave the three of us shelter and arranged for me to give lessons in English to his children and two or three students from the university. In this way I was able to pay for the keep of the three of us and also learned Japanese in the process. This took care of us for the year that we waited for word from the Gadar Party as to our next step.
The Gadar Party did send us little dribbles of money now and then, but it was never reliable and never enough. Bishan Singh and Charan Singh left at some point and went to China, where I heard they joined up with the Indian revolutionaries who were trying to get the Indian soldiers in the British armies to rebel. I think one of the men eventually went to Panama.
In Japan we marked time, for different periods of time, for different reasons. I continued to teach conversational English to students—not that I was any great grammarian—but they did learn English and I learned Japanese to a considerable degree of fluency. The Party must have told Bose to help me because he started taking me to some meetings which he attended. He was a lecturer and a writer. He contributed articles to—I forget the name of the magazine—it was read all over the United States at that time, something about Eastern affairs.
Q: Did he lecture in English?
Bud: No, Japanese. He spoke beautiful Japanese. The little bit I understood was that he told them I was an Indian boy revolutionary. I made a lot of friends because I could speak to people in Japanese and they liked my reason for being there.
I marked time in Japan until the Gadar Party offered me two choices: I was to go either to Canton in China and study in a military academy or go to Turkey to a military academy there. The orientation of the Party at that time was military. "Mail fist...take over the garrison," that kind of mentality. They imagined armies charging down—no preparation—well, I don't know, I'm not sure, maybe they had some preparations.
The academy in Canton was under Chiang Kai Shek in conjunction with the Communist Party. Later, he turned on them, but at this time they were together. The Turkey thing was thanks to Teja Singh Azad. He had studied there and this is what he was pushing for.
And for some reason which is not quite clear to me, I decided to go to Turkey. Some sort of papers were secured for me from the German consulate to establish my identity. Bose, who knew people there, got me something, maybe a letter, not a passport or visa, which stated that I could travel there.
When I went to the railway station to start on my journey, first to Vladivostok and then to Moscow to the Turkish embassy, a big crowd was gathered at the station. I wondered who the crowd was for, and then discovered that it was for me! It seemed a thousand people had come to see me off! I must indeed have made a lot of friends...
I went to Vladivostok, then took the trans-Siberian train to get to Moscow, a trip of thirteen days. Once in Moscow, I asked directions to the Turkish embassy. A man who had been on the train, someone who could speak English, offered to take me there because he had a car and could drive me.
When I arrived at the embassy (or maybe it was a consulate), they wouldn't let me in the door. The political situation in Turkey had changed. Also, they assumed I was a communist because I was in Moscow, and they said they didn't want this dirty communist in their country. I had no idea what communism was and why they were objecting to me, but it was clear that they would not let me enter Turkey.
So there I was, very little money left, no knowledge of Russia or its language, and no place to go. Then, out of the blue, someone approached me, a man who could have been with the Russian secret service.
"Why do you want to go to Turkey?" he asked in English.
I told him I was going to Turkey to study in a military academy, that I was a member of the Gadar Party, that I was a revolutionary, an Indian revolutionary.
The man said, "Why don't you go to KUTV?" He explained that it was a university, the University of the East, where Asian people came to study. He said there were some Indians studying there.
I told him I had no money. He said, "It's free."
Since I had no money, no place to go, I had nothing to lose. I enrolled in KUTV, the University of the East.
Bud: I don't remember all the details, but I do know that I was given room and board, and a small monthly stipend. I was given warm clothing. I remember my first pair of Russian boots with the greatest of pleasure. They were made of the softest leather, soft, warm, and beautiful.Ayesha is important because two women in Bud's family have been named after her: first, the daughter of this writer, and later, Bud's own daughter. The name, of course, was for Bud, to honor his friendship with the original Ayesha.
Once there, I met up with an Indian from the Gadar Party. More came later, actually. There was a whole bunch sent from here (the U.S.) to go to study in the Soviet Union. At that time there were Pritam Singh and Harjap Singh. Pritam Singh had taught English in China and then migrated to the U.S. and from the U.S. had gone to the Soviet Union. Harjap Singh was literate only in Punjabi.
Q: What were your accommodations? Did you have a room to yourself?
Bud: First year, no. No room. Senior students got rooms. Even then, the seniors doubled up in rooms. I remember that in my last year I had a room to myself.
That first year, there was a huge hall in which there were about sixty of us. Then later I got into a smaller place where there were maybe ten, fifteen.
This was an old palace. It was quite beautiful. The floors were that wood, you know, parquet, and it was beautiful. Married couples got their own room.
The conditions for studying couldn't have been better. Three meals a day. To give you an example: one choice for breakfast was caviar. I didn't like caviar at the time, but for Russians it was a delicacy. We were also served yogurt, a boiled egg, a hot roll, tea. The economy was really suffering at that time, but we were treated royally. We went to a hall with a tray to pick up the food, but on occasion it was served to us. It was all Russian food. Some of the Central Asian students complained. They were given groceries and allowed to prepare their food themselves. I started eating with them. That's where I became very fond of rice and meat cooked together. It was their particular dish.
The Americans were always bitching.
Q: Really? Our...
Bud: No. Not the Indians. The American Americans.
Q: Oh, there were American Americans?
Bud: Yeah, Bill Hayward, or something like that, the "Black Bolshevik." There's a book named that. He was there with his brother.
Q: What were they complaining about?
Bud: That the food was not up to their expectations—Americans are always complaining. They're like in Italy: In Genoa, when Genovese sign up on a ship, they get it written down that "we have the right to complain." It's part of their modus operandi--or something. It was a good right, you know, because if they did complain, they could be put in jail for mutiny, but if they had it in writing that they could complain, well...
I learned to enjoy every food that was served. I remembered that before I left home, Mother told me to be sure to say my prayers every day, and Dad said, "Just be sure to fill your stomach." I even trained myself to like caviar, to be grateful for whatever kind of food was available.
Q: What was your education like there? What were the subjects you were taught?
Bud: The subjects were political economy, trade unionism, dialectical materialism, the peasant question, economic geography. We had to learn the language. There were people who could translate our languages in the beginning, but we were taught Russian very rapidly.
For six months we studied and after six months we went into military training. It was in a summer camp. We all went out in the summer. It was a place about fifty miles from the university.
We were organized into regiments and squads. We slept in camps, we dug trenches, and we practiced shooting, and, you know, we did basic training.
At the end of the summer, in the fall, I am still very proud to say, I was able to attend classes in Russian.
So I was separated from the others. In the very beginning, at KUTV, for the first six months or so, we had had a translator who went with us from class to class. I had been placed in a group of Japanese students because I spoke fluent Japanese. But that fluency gradually was lost because I was trying to learn Russian.
Q: So when you came back to the university from the summer camp you were able to understand that complicated new language?
Bud: Yes, by this time I could read it and understand it.
Q: Probably a lot of words you couldn't understand, but you could look them up in a dictionary...
Bud: Some words I imagine I had to look up, I don't remember the details, but I was studying in Russian. Really Russian.
One person who had helped me during my study of Russian was our translator in the first six months, an American Jew, Liefschitz. He's the one guy about whom I could say: If I had a father away from Dad, he's it. A little old hunchbacked person. Oh yeah. He went and fought the professors if I didn't get a good grade. (Laughter)
Q: You have told us about a classmate named Ayesha. When did you meet her?
Bud: The very first year.
Q: Was she there for all of the time?
Bud: Yes, for all the time, all the three years. I think the girls had a longer course of study. She was a Tartar.
As a further honor to Bud, his daughter has named her son Shamsher.
Q: Did you finish the whole course?Finally, Bud was home. He stayed in San Francisco at the Gadar Party ashram for a brief time and then was sent back to the Soviet Union by the Party. He was sent to make arrangements for other Indian students to enter the university, KUTV.
Bud: Yes. In my last year, Rattan Singh, a traveling revolutionary for the Gadar Party, was sent to Moscow to check me out. I remember the interview. The Russians who were present liked my answers better than his understanding of politics. At the end, they suggested that perhaps I should be let go to do the revolutionary work and he should stay and go to school. He was a self-educated man to a degree. He had nationalistic revolutionary ideas.
The Third International was in existence at that time. We studied the development of Marxism to Leninism. Zinoviev was the secretary at that time. Bukharin was there, in very good standing, and Kamenev was also there.
Stalin and Trotsky sometimes came to the school and stood around the halls and talked to anyone who came up to them.
The Russians wanted me to go to the University of Red Professors but, to my regret, I didn't. At that time, I was tired of studying. I wanted to get on with the work of making revolution in India. But first I had to go back to the Gadar Party in San Francisco.
The Russians put me on a ship going from Leningrad to Hamburg, Germany. There, the German Communist Party kept me out of sight by, first, hiding me behind a curtain in a shoemaker's shop, then in a beautiful home. I have vivid memories of the kindness shown to me.
Then I was smuggled aboard a German ship to get me back to the U.S. You must remember that I had no passport. I got on board the ship with the help of a crewman. He had me climb up the rope ladder on the side of the ship in the middle of the night and hid me inside a reserve oil tank.
When the German ship docked at Brussels, I knew something was wrong when they turned everything off. I knew enough about sea lore to know that there is always an auxiliary motor going, that there should always be a motor going, at least to maintain the electricity of the ship. I couldn't hear a thing. That's when I decided the ship was sinking.
But I couldn't do a thing about it because I was locked in from the outside. Only my friend, the sailor who had smuggled me on, could come and let me out.
Q: Was he on the ship?
Bud: He was, but he didn't know that I was in a panic. This was a reserve oil tank I was hiding in, you know. The only thing that could have happened was that if the other tank had gone haywire, they could have pumped oil into this one. Which would have been a mess too.
Q: So you just stayed there and panicked?
Bud: I remember the scene to this day. I scratched at the door. I tried to break it down. I tried to get out. Finally, I sat down and started to philosophize: So, when you gotta go, you gotta go. Be a man. What the hell else can you do?
Q: How did they discover you?
Bud: Inspection! Routine inspection! The captain and bo'sun came around, flashing their lights, "Let's check this out."
Something that rarely happened. I guess my comrade had thought I would be safe in there. So they opened it up and said, "Ah! Look at this Communist bastard. Just smuggled on. Get out!"
It was good that they thought that, because I would have been up for more serious charges otherwise. If they had known I got on board at an earlier port, my comrade would have been in trouble.
Q: Did you see him again?
Bud: Yeah. I saw him on the port and I waved to him. I gave him all the money I had, about $140 and told him to give it to the Gadar Party when he docked at San Francisco. I gave the money to this German comrade because I didn't know what was going to happen to me.
Q: Did he give the money to them?
Bud: Yes. He gave it to them. They couldn't figure it out. Why was this bearded German sailor giving them money? He couldn't speak any English.
Q: Once again you are penniless and in a foreign country. What did you do then?
Bud: I was talking to a longshoreman working at the port. He said, "Well, look, you're an American. Go to the consulate. Tell them you got drunk and missed your ship. They gotta take care of you." This was in the olden days.
I asked, "How do I get to the consulate?"
"You go sit in a park, and after awhile you'll get arrested for loitering. Then they will take you to whomever you belong to. You're a foreigner."
So I did that. I sat in a park, and I got arrested, and I got taken to the American authorities. The bastard in the office wouldn't talk to me.
"Take your cap off." was the first thing I heard after twenty minutes of standing there and waiting. What're you going to do? I took it off. But, anyhow, they put me on a ship then, the Shenandoah.
They put me on the Shenandoah, and the ship's crew went on strike. They were an all white crew. They said they weren't going to work with a nigger.
Q: How was the strike resolved?
Bud: Well, the ship did have to sail, and this was the settlement: They would have to feed me along with the rest of the crew, but I couldn't sleep in their quarters. I was put on as a seaman without pay and I worked my way back.
Q: Where did you sleep?
Bud: I slept in the hospital. On the ship they had a section in the forecastle which is called the hospital, where anyone who got sick would go. Here was a place with about twenty bunks in it, nice clean sheets and everything. I could have slept in a different bunk each night if I had wanted to. I had the place to myself.
Q: And eating with the crew? What kind of an experience was that?
Bud: It was an experience in hatred and prejudice. They bragged about all the blacks they would rape, they said things about my mother and my grandmother, and so forth. But I got even with them in one way.
The first job I was given was one week after we got to Southampton. You know, when a ship passes through a narrow space, a really narrow space, you have these big things that swing along on the side of the ship, so that the ship won't scrape the wharf or the pier. I was supposed to be a sailor, you know, this was the lie I had told them.
I stood there merrily with it (the thing that was slung over the side) and the ship did get scratched, and some plates were damaged, I guess. I didn't know what the hell to do with the damned thing. But of course I should have known because I was a "sailor."
It was remarkable what the captain did, when we got back to the United States. He testified in my behalf to the American authorities. They didn't want to let me in, and, if they don't let me in, he's got to take me back. He's testifying to my good character and my citizenship, and swearing that he even knows my mother and father.
He commented on my good English, American English. What can they say? It's a known fact that America has all creeds and colors. They couldn't say, "He's the wrong color." That wouldn't work. Also, I told them a credible story, about where my mother and father lived, that they lived in California. "Check it out," I said. How could I go wrong?
Finally, the immigration people let me enter the U.S. That was in Port Arthur, Texas. It had been a seventeen-day voyage, and I still wasn't home. I found work on a ranch in Texas to raise money for the trip to California. It turned out to be a very hard life. I had to ride fence, and I couldn't do it after one day. I had thought it would be like horseback riding in the Gobi Desert, but this was very different.
Then I got work in a dairy. Get up at three in the morning, bring in the cows from the pasture, milk them, feed them, then clean the stables. During the hours between the morning and evening milking, I gathered hay and stored it in the barn. The family was friendly. They had me eat at their table with them. I slept in a nice warm barn.
Just one problem: I was always hungry. Not enough to eat. When I had accumulated enough for my fare home, I left. It wasn't fair to the farmer: he had been looking for a permanent employee, and I had misled him, I suppose. For that I felt sorry.
Bud: For this trip, I worked on the George Washington, an American ship. I jumped ship in Germany because it was the cheapest way to travel. I didn't earn any money, and I didn't pay them any fare.Once again, Bud Dillon went to work in the fields, doing farm work on other people's farms, to support the family. Graduate of a university in the Soviet Union, fluent in several languages, Punjabi, English, Russian, Japanese, he now bent over a hoe, again sweating in the California sun to earn a pittance of a wage.
I returned to San Francisco in 1929 and asked the Gadar Party to send me to India to work in an industrial area. The Party refused. They said I had to go to Punjab, nowhere else. I wouldn't agree to that curtailment, and because of that, the Party wouldn't give me the money to go.
In 1926, Bud's father, Bakhshish Singh, had died of a heart attack. He had always been in robust health, but one day, after having pushed a car through the mud of a road for almost a mile, he suffered pains in his chest. The doctor who was summoned asked him what he had eaten at dinner the night before. Told that he had had vegetables and dal and roti, the doctor said, "No curry?"
"Of course," Rattan Kaur told the doctor. "Of course, I used curry. That's one of the spices I use."
"Aha!" said the doctor. "That's the problem. No more spices. Cut out the curry." So saying, the doctor left.
Before the end of the day, Bakhshish Singh was dead. He died of a heart attack, undiagnosed by the doctor.
Now, with his father gone, and his mother keeping her children alive by running a dairy, Bud decided to stay in the U.S. to help his mother. It was a happy return to home, to the mother he had known for only twelve years of his life. It was to be a brief happiness, however: Rattan Kaur died too, in 1932, three years after his return.
Her death left the four youngest children, all under the age of eleven, orphaned.
This writer, his sister, married Surat Singh Gill, who had been a student of political science at the University of California and also a resident worker for the Gadar Party. He had edited the Gadar paper, written articles, and given speeches at Party meetings. Now the two men, no longer Party workers, leased land on a share-crop basis and provided a home for the children. The writer's own children and her little brothers and sister grew up as one family. In spite of the poverty of depression-era U.S.A., the youthfulness of the adults kept the combined families in good cheer.
Bud desperately wanted to fight in Spain with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade but could not leave the care of the family. He believed that if the fascists could have been defeated in Spain, there might not have been a second world war. He saw the war in Spain as a dress rehearsal for World War II.
World War II broke out when the youngest child, Hari, turned eighteen. Bud and his three younger brothers joined the armed forces of the United States to fight in the war against fascism. Bud was the only one of the four brothers sent to the European theater. He served as a sergeant in the Combat Engineers Division. As the leader of a squad in this division, he was cited for courage over and above the call of duty. He earned three bronze stars during the war.
His youngest brother, Hari, who had joined the Marine Corps, was killed in action as he landed on a beach in Okinawa. He was still just eighteen. Chapters could be written on the war experiences of the four brothers, but this is a report on the life of one person, Bud Dillon.
In 1947, two years after the war ended, Bud married an Irish American woman, Joan Stuart, in Lordsburg, New Mexico. New Mexico was only one of three states that permitted marriage between a white person and a person of color. The rest had miscegenation laws prohibiting such marriages.
Bud and Joan attended university together, while working and raising their family. After receiving their degrees, Bud worked with the California Department of Agriculture and Joan became a librarian and a librarians' union leader in San Francisco.
We need to return to Bud and the Gadar Party because this account is also written to keep the memory of Gadar alive. One is amazed that so many of the Indians who migrated to the U.S. in the years since the freedom of India from British rule have not even heard of the Gadar Party. It is an amazement and a shame.
Another great shame is the Indian government's destruction of the original Gadar Party ashram at 5 Wood Street. After India's independence, the Gadar Party deeded the building to the Indian government. A memorial hall has been erected at this site but it is a far cry from the original ashram.
The ashram was a three story "Victorian" building. On the ground level, a basement housed the printing press from which poured forth the calls for India's freedom. The university students who took time away from their studies to write and publish the Gadar paper lived on the upper two floors. There were still rooms enough to put up overnight visitors.
A dining room and kitchen were kept well stocked with dals and whole wheat flour. Haldi and masala were never out of stock. Visitors from the central and Imperial valleys brought crates of fruit and vegetables. This kitchen open to anyone who was spending the night at the ashram was maintained in the tradition of Punjab.
Rattan Kaur had often talked about the hospitality in India, that a traveler on a long journey in Punjab would stop at any house in a village and be provided food and shelter for the night.
The Punjabis who lived on the West Coast honored that tradition. A person traveling from one part of the state to another did not think of going to a restaurant or a hotel. There would be a welcome at the home of the nearest Punjabi. No matter what time of the day or night, a long distance traveler was given food and drink, the host even getting out of bed. if need be, to cook a meal. Bud remembered that Rattan Kaur had always cooked extra food on the chance that a "rahi" (a traveler) might happen to come by. The open kitchen at the Gadar Ashram offered the same hospitality.
A library opened off the main hall which held in its shelves books that had been studied by the earliest scholars and convenors of the Gadar Party. Bud told how he had come across notes in these books made by the editors of the first Gadar papers. So the loss of these books was a tragic one for historians of the Party.
The main hall displayed photographs of the heroes in India who had fought for their country's freedom. The martyrs who had gone from the West Coast were immortalized on the walls of this room. Their pictures shared space with a map of an undivided India (before partition and the creation of Pakistan).
When the Indian government demolished the original building at 5 Wood Street, it destroyed a shrine to India's freedom, a living shrine that had been a vital center of learning and teaching, a forum for debate and discussion.
It was in the main hall of the Gadar Ashram that the first representative of India to the United States, Ambassador Asaf Ali, and his wife, Aruna Asaf Ali, were feted with a Punjabi dinner.
This was the site also where the jatha was photographed on the eve of its departure. Bud Dillon did not know when he boarded the ship the next day that he would never reach India. He also didn't know that he would accidentally receive the gift of an education that would transcend his immediate goal.
This education brought him an understanding of the value of labor, of why there were rich and poor in the world.
Bakhshish Singh had started a tradition of spreading knowledge through the gifts of books. When he returned to California from Oregon in 1922, he gave all the books that he and Rattan Kaur had purchased for their children's education to a small library.
Bud remembered walking miles through farmlands with his father to disseminate information on Robert LaFollete's campaign for president of the United States. His father supported LaFollette because he was the most progressive candidate for that office. The irony of that situation was that Bakhshish Singh himself was not permitted to vote because of anti-Asian laws.
Bud must have had poignant memories of his parent's lives as he sat in a classroom in a Moscow University. Poring over books and listening to lectures, he learned why his father had never had enough money although he spent his entire life in labor.
That little boy who had sweated in the California sun, his bones aching, his hands blistered from the hoe, that little boy became a man when he gained the knowledge that whoever owned the means of production owned his labor.
In later years, Bud took his family (which now included two daughters) on a trip across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, then from Europe through the near Eastern countries to India. Driving a motor van which they purchased in Germany, Bud drove to the scenes of his days as a soldier in Germany and France and to the scenes of his student days in the Soviet Union.
On this trip they slept in the van and cooked their meals at campsites. Reaching India, he drove the van to the villages, Sursingh and Gumti, from which his parents had come.
On a second trip to fulfill his desire to see the country of his origin, he took a train trip from the north to the southernmost tip of India. In Punjab and New Delhi, he established communication with comrades of earlier days and sought out the most politically advanced publications of the time.
On a second trip to Europe, he spent some time in Italy to practice speaking Italian, a language he had begun to study. He was soon reading books about Italian revolutionaries in the original Italian.
This study of language was a lifetime pursuit. Past his eighty-sixth birthday, he was still enrolled in San Francisco State University to study Italian, Russian, and political philosophy. He studied only for knowledge, never for grades, but took the examinations along with the other students to test his progress. Only a month before he died, he was attending three classes a week.
Education was not his only preoccupation. He loved the challenge of chess, which he played since his student days in Moscow. This writer remembers learning the game from him in 1929. Once, when the oil had burned completely out of the lamp by which they were playing, they moved outside the house to finish the game by moonlight.
Besides teaching chess to several generations of the family, Bud provided them with a political understanding, an analysis as natural and necessary to him as breathing.
Lest one get the impression that he set himself up as a teacher, it must be pointed out that he always listened more than he talked. He never wanted to be a "leader." In that, he must have been like the Zuni Indians whom he once described as people who do not want to be above the others. They refuse the role of leader. That description so aptly describes Bud that one might think he himself was a Zuni.
Bud kept himself in top physical condition by going for a run every morning. After his eighty-second birthday, he slowed that to a walk. He played handball, a vigorous and demanding sport, all his life. That was the reason everyone who knew him was shocked at his death. They couldn't believe that this tall, stately man, with the youthful stride, had suddenly ceased to exist.
He expressed his love of life and concern for human beings in everything he did. Always the kindest, most considerate person in any situation, he would be the first to rise and offer a chair in a room or a seat on a bus. To a guest in his home, he immediately offered refreshments: "You must try some of Joanie's pastries. She baked them just this morning." Or: "Have some saag and piratha," which they often prepared together.
He spoke with love and pride of the members of the jatha who had gone on to take revolutionary action in China. There they dissuaded Punjabi soldiers from attacking the poor people of China, under orders of the British imperialists. He remembered with affection the Filipino freedom fighter who was returning to his country for the same reasons Bud was headed to India. Perhaps Bud was reminded of Bakhshish Singh's work for Americans in the Philippines during a six-month hiatus on his last trip to the United States. He must have recalled his father's descriptions of his experience there with mixed pride and regret: Pride that his father had learned to speak Tagalog, but regret that he had been employed by colonialists.
Typical of Bud's personal integrity and identity as a worker was this incident: On land that he had leased on a share-crop basis, a worm infestation at harvest time caused the entire crop to be condemned. Thus he had no money for the workers who had agreed to be paid at the sale of the crop. Bud went to work as a farm hand for others, and out of his wages paid every penny owed to the men. No one understood better than Bud the value of one's labor, and no one could have honored it more.
If this account appears to be overly emotional, the writer begs to be excused. Her loss is great because Bud was more than a brother: He was her mentor and her comrade. He brought her the vision of a better society.
The Indian patriots of the Gadar Party had looked upon the freedom of India from the British as a first step to social justice. The visionaries among them, such as Bud Dillon, saw that the necessary next step was the struggle for social and economic equality.
After the departure of the British, however, Bud saw that the poor were still poor and that the rich kept getting richer. He saw that a renewed spirit of Gadar was needed to reach that true freedom.
by Kartar Dhillon, copyright 1998
ਕਰਤਾਰ ਢਿੱਲੋਂ ਦੁਆਰਾ ਲਿਖੀ "ਬਡ ਢਿੱਲੋਂ" ਪੰਜਾਬੀ ਵਿਚ ਪੜ੍ਹਨ ਲਈ ਏਥੇ ਕਲਿੱਕ ਕਰੋ