Mohan Singh, the Enigma

The first Indian airman – Licensed to fly in 1912

It is not often that a story grips you, and this was one. We had all been brought up on reports that JRD Tata was the first Indian pilot, that he possessed the #1 license, and so on. But in reality, there was another pioneer from India who was licensed some 17 years before JRD! As you will see, Mohan Singh, that pilot, was an incredible character, his life every bit adventurous. Now you may wonder why I used the word enigma, and soon you will see that not only did he arrive into the limelight unannounced, but just like his arrival, his departure was abrupt, he simply vanished one fine day. Along the way, he recreated himself so many times, he was a daredevil pilot, doing stints as a butler and chauffeur, dabbling in real estate, and ending up as a Yogi. In between, he spent years fighting the US administration who had granted him citizenship but stripped him off it, reasoning that he was not a white man. What follows, is his remarkable story.

I am reasonably sure that many a quizmaster would expect the answer JRD Tata to the question about India’s first pilot, but from now on, state vehemently that it was Mohan Singh, licensed in 1912, just 9 years after the Wright brothers flew their aircraft and that this Mohan Singh, was a pioneer and a famous barnstormer of that period. Barnstorming was a form of entertainment in which stunt pilots from flying circuses flew throughout the US selling airplane rides and performing stunts. Now how on earth did a Punjabi Sardar end up in that mix?

Mohan Singh, born March 13, 1885, hailed from Himmatpura in the Moga district of Punjab province, British India. Just as the 20th century dawned, the agricultural revolution in Punjab which had started before Mohan was born, had taken shape and the region had suddenly become a huge and profitable agricultural colony. However, it was not very good for the rural Punjabi farmer, who ended up heavily indebted, especially after a number of famines and bouts of plague. New taxes and tough British acts alienated the common man. Thus, a huge emigration took place, towards US and Canada, and between 1903-08 some 3,000 Punjabis had landed up in the US (plus about 6,000 in Canada).

Though there was general unrest around this time in Punjab, perhaps poverty (Nihal Singh mentions – After taking a discharge from the Indian army, having heard from an American settled there, a rosy account of the wealth awaiting any man who had the enterprise to go there) must have been the reason for this young 18-year-old teenager to boarding a ship bound for the West. As we can gather, Mohan arrived in Cuba in 1903 and then boarded a vessel named Oratava bound for the mainland, arriving in the US in Feb 1904. He settled first in Chicago, where he worked as a domestic servant. Life was not so good for these early Punjabi’s and they faced a good amount of racism and discrimination. As the vast majority of them worked in California, most of them drifted towards CA (Sacramento and Imperial Valley) where other Sikhs had congregated. Sometime in 1910, Mohan Singh finally arrived in California with his meager savings. The tall, grim-looking, gaunt Sikh, now 25 years old, it appears, saw an advertisement in the newspapers that changed his life.

Act 1 – Taming the skies

Powered flight in America was pioneered by the Wright Brothers in North Carolina, and by the end of the first decade, they had brought flying to the mainstream. Glen Curtiss, who had been toying around with bicycles and motorcycles (dubbed the fastest man on earth – driving a bike at 236kmph!), got into the act and started making engines for planes. On June 8, 1911, Curtiss received U.S. Pilot's License #1 and commenced airplane manufacture, though regularly involved in litigations with the Wright brothers. Curtiss arrived in San Diego on January 1911, searching for a site for a training school to teach Army and Navy flyers. It was here that he developed his biplane, later the hydroplane, to become the father of naval aviation. He supplemented his income with a flight training school on North Island, near San Diego.

The Curtiss School of Aviation at North Island remained open for three short but fruitful years. During that brief period, Curtiss conducted remarkable experiments and produced equally remarkable students. Graduates, flying his reliable biplanes, set world records and became some of the most illustrious flyers in the world. Capitalizing on this success, Curtiss embarked on an advertising campaign to ensure a larger enrollment at the San Diego winter facilities. Curtiss charged $600 for the hydro aeroplane course and $500 for the regular class, which could be adjusted towards a purchase of a plane. In addition to military aspirants, civilian applicants were welcomed. And it was to one of these classes that our man Mohan Singh applied and got selected. The tall, brooding pilot to be, never smiled, talked little, and hardly ate or drank, making him stand apart. 

The 1911-12 season attracted a few foreign students. Among them were Mohan Singh from India, Motohisa Kondo and Kono Takeishi from Japan, and George Capistini of the Greek army. The third lady pilot to be, “Bird Girl” Julia Clark also enrolled, so also two married couples. Attired in leather caps and goggles, these fifteen students went out to the flat fields of North Island to learn the science of flying. Unfortunately for the instructors, teaching foreigners was not as easy, they had to give lessons in sign language which, as you can imagine was a hairy situation, high up in the air!

After nearly eight months of instruction, catching seagulls, and practicing flying, the winter training camp came to a close. In May, the Class of 1912 received their pilots’ licenses and became professional aviators. Mohan Singh, the “Flying Hindu” with license # 123 dated May 8th, 1912, of British Indian nationality, was one among them. That incidentally, was 17 years before Tata got his license in Feb 1929, and by that time, Mohan Singh was already into his final act!

During his stay in San Diego, he spoke sparingly, avoided meat and alcohol, but the newspapers tracking the ‘Hindoo pilot’ spun tales of his being a Hindu prince, a lieutenant, major or Captain from the Indian army on furlough and hailing from Bombay or Delhi. The aura of mystique, as well as his arresting personality, resulted in a number of press reports about the ‘World’s first Hindoo Pilot’.  

One news article said -The list of new aviators who have within the past week taken their licenses at the Curtiss Aviation Camp, here, reads like an Oriental city directory. They are: M. Kondo, Tokyo; J. Kaminski, Poland; Mohan Singh, Bombay, India; K. Takeishi, Yokohama. These are the newest flock of fledglings who have preened their wings at the San Diego aviary and who will return home to show their respective peoples the latest thing in the "Beachey flipflap" and the "Madman's Whirl," as practiced in America. Kondo has the distinction of being the first licensed aviator of his nationality, while Mohan Singh can make a similar boast as the only qualified flying man in all India. The San Diego Camp is the most cosmopolitan gathering of flyers and pupils ever assembled in this or any other country. Kondo and Takeishi will take Curtiss aeroplanes home with them, and Singh expects to do likewise. Kaminski likes America and will remain to thrill the county fair crowds in exhibitions.

In those early years, many of Curtiss’s students suffered crashes and a few died, including Julia Clark, the Bird Girl. The San Diego School of Aviation continued for one more winter until Curtiss’ lease expired in 1913. The U.S. Government then took over the hangars and landing field and established the Rockwell Field. Curtiss moved on to Florida. In fact, Mohan Singh was also injured and during one of his interviews with the press clarified that he was not deputed by the British Indian government, but was on his own and that he planned to fly a Curtiss machine to Ceylon and train some of his countrymen.

But contrary to that report, Mohan Singh did not return to India with his biplane, he moved to New York in January 1914, where he worked for Curtiss’s unit. He took to flying biplanes, participating as a daredevil barnstorming stunt pilot, in flying circuses and even accompanying Curtiss to Europe in 1914 to conduct hydroplane demonstrations. We also see that he was employed in Chicago briefly, by ER Hibbard who had purchased a flying boat and had employed Mohan Singh, one of the few licensed to fly it, as his pilot, to race about the Lake Michigan! In 1916, he was listed as a flier available during the war, but of Chinese nationality!!

A news article in 1913 states - Glenn H. Curtiss is sailing again for Europe, and expects to be there for several months, His immediate destination is the Paris show, but most of the winter probably will be spent in Italy. With Mr. Curtiss will be Mohan Singh, a Hindu from the Punjaub. Singh has been in America for the past three years. He became interested in aviation in 1910, joined the Curtiss training camp at San Diego, and few a Curtiss land machine for a year or more. With the development of the hydro aeroplane he took up water-flying and in due course qualified as a flying boat pilot. He is one of the few licensed pilots operating three types of machines. Singh's present intention is to make his way to India by easy stages. There he hopes to take some part in the development of aviation in his country. En route he will make a short stop in London. Singh's real ambition is to find among the wealthy Indian visitors of the metropolis some multimillionaire rajah who would like to navigate the Indus at a speed of a mile a minute in a Curtiss flying boat. Well, nothing came out of it as far as I know and Mohan did not go to India.

Act 2 – Taking on the Constitution

The money was perhaps not very good or Mohan was bored, by 1916, he settled down in Los Angeles to work again, as a butler and chauffeur for a wealthy family.  He also decided to settle down for good in the US and applied for naturalization, but in those days when color was paramount, his application was turned down with the notation ‘not a white man’. He appealed together with his lawyer SG Pandit, citing the cases of the Parsi Balsara and a Sardar Bhagwat Singh, and the federal court judge reversed the decision two years later, on the conviction that high caste Hindus of Aryan stock, were Caucasians! The judgment from District Judge Bledsoe mentions - In the absence of an authoritative declaration or requirement to that effect, it would seem a travesty of justice that a refined and enlightened high caste Hindu should be denied admission on the ground that his skin is dark, and therefore he is not a 'white person’….

Mohan Singh decided to change his name in March 1922 to Harry Mohan (His full name was apparently Hari Mohan Singh) and dropped the Singh since it was often confused with the Chinese surname Sing. Seven years passed by, Harry Mohan was still in California but embroiled in some sleazy land dealings (buying plots of land in burial grounds) and as we note, was swindled out of his savings.

Making matters worse, the Thind case outcome in 1923, hounded him. One Bhagat Singh Thind was denied citizenship in a landmark case, also affecting others who had previously attained US citizenship. Harry Mohan was one of them, his citizenship was canceled in 1924. Ironically the judge who decided this was the very same judge who had granted him citizenship earlier!! The definition of Caucasian had been modified and Hindus would not any longer qualify as Caucasians.

In Feb 1924, Bledsoe ruled, based on the fact that Mohan Singh had testified as a Hindu - In each case the right to a cancellation of the naturalization of the defendant is based upon the allegation, admitted by the motion to dismiss, that defendant is and was a high-caste Hindoo of full Indian blood, and as such not admissible to citizenship in the United States of America under the provisions of section 2169 of the Revised Statutes (Comp. Stat. § 4358). That such an individual is not admissible to citizenship may not now be questioned in this court. United States v. Thind, 261 U. S. 204, 43 Sup. Ct. 338, 67 L. Ed. 616.Where, however, the case is that the person presenting himself as an applicant for citizenship admits that he belongs to a particular race, members of which are not eligible for naturalization, then no question of conflict of evidence arises, and upon the applicant's own petition or testimony, or both, naturalization must be denied.

"Free white persons” within the meaning of section 2169 of the Revised Statutes (Act of June 29, 1906, 34 Stat. at L. 596) was construed to mean Caucasians in the popular and not in the ethnological sense. The instant case overrules a previous decision. In re Mohan Singh (1919, S. D. Calif.) 257 Fed. 209.

To this day Mohan Singh’s case is studied and quoted by immigration lawyers and law schools, read together with Thind’s ruling. In those dark days where color and race were paramount, the Punjabis in America led a tough life, not able to bring in their families or cohabit with white people, many marrying Mexican immigrants to raise alter families. As far as I could gather, Harry Mohan remained single.

Act 3 – Yogi Hari Ram

What would you think our man Harry Mohan did? I don’t know very much about the mental state of the slighted Sardar, but it was a period in America when the mysterious East was becoming popular. And so, Harry Mohan simply reinvented and launched himself as Dr Hari Mohan - Yogi Hari Ram, the master of levitation, the disciple of the absolute, and a metaphysician, from India! Donning Ochre robes, and sporting a beatific smile, Yogi Hari Ram was prepared, he had been studying yoga books and attended training classes with Paramahamsa Yogananda.

Already well versed with the way things were done in the US, he had a clear business plan. It was to go big, advertise all over with buzz phrases (miracle man, secrets never revealed before, free, last chance, money-back guarantee, only chance, practical demo - not theory, once in a lifetime, he will never return) and launch lecture sessions across the country. Perhaps he had a chip on his shoulder after the citizenship fiasco, perhaps it was an act of revenge, I don’t know, but he decided to gup and grab some money from the gullible, and in return, he would give them ‘9 keys’ to life improvement. Dr A Lewis Allen his manager would have helped him fine-tune the package.

He had to differentiate his package and so it was called ‘Super Yoga Science’ coupled with levitation classes (that got a lot of people going!) yogic exercises and breathing demonstrations, and all kinds of other esoteric stuff mixed in. Classes were announced and from the beginning, it was clear that the Yogi’s presence would be short-lived, that he would be gone by 1928.

People, get ready to take the classes before the Yogi goes away!!

Thomas Masson, the famous Anthropologist noted - I suppose the best teacher from India who ever came to this country was Yogi Hari Rama. I am told that his birth was registered in his native place in 1828. He is therefore over one hundred and looks from his picture like a man of thirty-five, with wonderful penetrating eyes. Of course, that was incorrect and he heard wrong, Mohan Singh was born in 1885 and was 40 in 1925.

Dr Hari Mohan thus taught Hindu and yoga Philosophy traveling across California. In 1926, he was popularly known as Yogi Hari Rama and hit various US cities giving classes on ‘Super Yoga Sciences’. His book detailing all this was already published i.e., Yoga System of Study: Philosophy, Breathing, Foods and Exercises (H. Mohan, 1926). By 1927, reports stated that he had many thousand followers, with some even claiming that he was able to walk on water, but only in an emergency. The book which he published is available online, so you can take a look, fairly harmless and complete with yogic recipes!

Several hundred students gathered for his lectures and classes, and 12 (six men and six women) were initiated as apostolic disciples to further spread the ‘yoga science’ - which concentrated on the three mental states of sub-consciousness, consciousness and super-consciousness. This would he said, awaken latent powers through strict living and eating habits and various exercises. Anyway, it was all wildly popular during its time. He gave lectures on consciousness, vibrating from conscious to super consciousness, the seven seals, path of truth, spirituality, Christ and the Hindu, mystic and occult power, mantra chanting, reincarnation and what not!

He resorted to some hocus pocus and mumbo jumbo as well, like breathing noisily through his ears, with his nose and mouth closed, lifting three fat men on his tummy, talking in what people believed was Sanskrit (most people said it was unintelligible, must have been Punjabi) interspersed with American slang, showing color slides of Indian monuments etc. A 1926 news report quoted Hari Rama stating that sending prana to affected areas could cure most diseases, that he had received his teaching in ancient Sanskrit, and that he was more than 100 years old, expecting to live to a 200!

Though not emphasized by him, the Benares League of America which was an offshoot of this program, was quickly the most widespread organization (50 chapters) of its kind in the United States, by 1928. Some researchers even believe that there was a guild of some kind, working to maximize Yoga business in USA and that Mohan Singh had been drawn into such a caper.

Was he also somehow associated with the Ghadr movement? Circumstantial evidence points to such a link since Surendra Mohan Bose who was arrested in India in 1914 had a photo of Mohan Singh, the pilot as well as his Chicago address, in his pocketbook.

Act 4 Samadhi – Vanishing act

In August 1928, as advertised in advance and reemphasized, a supposedly rich Yogi Hari Ram, a.k.a. Harry Mohan, a.k.a. Hari Mohan Singh, vanished from the surface of this earth, never to be seen or heard of, again.

Some chapters of the Benares League survived for a few more decades, and by the 1960s hardly any trace of Yogi Hari Rama or his League remained. He and his yoga movement vanished without a ripple, without complaints from people getting bilked out of their life’s savings, or women getting groped or assaulted. Nor were there any mentions of psychedelic drug usage, or of the guru enriching himself or flitting about in Rolls Royce cars, leading a high life in mansions replete with orgies, or the such.

Was it so that he had an immigration deadline to depart US in 1928 and left as he should have? It is rumored that he went to India, but that would be interesting – he had no US citizenship or passport and his British Indian Citizenship may have been rescinded, so how did he travel back? Researchers opine that his appearance fees could have resulted in huge collections, perhaps totaling to millions, but I wonder how Mohan could have got all that money across to India, during those pre-war years!

If anybody can help me complete Acts 5 – Hari Mohan Singh’s days after leaving US, I’d be obliged…

As I mentioned at the outset, he was indeed India’s first pilot but well, very much the enigma.

The many lives of Mohan Singh, a pioneering aviator who conned America as a yoga guru - Philip Deslippe ( Many thanks for helping me lead my studies, with his succinct article.
Yoga system of study – Yogi Hari Rama (H Mohan)
The Benares League of America (1928-1930) – Franklin Merrell Wolff fellowship site
Franklin Merrell-Wolff: An American Philosopher and Mystic: A Personal Memoir - Doroethy B. Leonard
Benares League of Portland, Oregon records, Berkley online record (date of arrival etc)
Aerial Age, Volume 1, Issue 1 (advertisement picture)
Aero and Hydro, Volume 4
Aeronautics: The American Magazine of Aerial Locomotion, Volumes 12-13, Volumes 13-14
Hundreds of news clippings from US newspapers – Yogi Hari Rama

Note: Do not confuse Hari Mohan Singh with Manmohan Singh, another aviator who trained later in the UK, flew a Pussy Moth and was a contemporary of JRD Tata.



KP said...

Unbelievable how you researched & came up with this piece. A great perspective on early adopters of technology and the struggles that they had to go through. Wonderful!

Maddy said...

Thanks KP,
The early days of flight were exhilarating days for those who ventured to take the risks, but many of them had very short lives thereafter. Quite a few tales still to be told!