100th Anniversary of the Ghadar movement

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Ghadar movement. By way of a tribute, Lalkar is dedicating this long article to the memory of its founders and participants – the forerunners of India’s struggle for liberation from British colonialism. What follows is an attempt to give a brief history of the Ghadar movement – its origins, motivations, vision and scope, as well as its lasting contribution to India’s freedom struggle, its legacy and continuing significance to the struggle of the Indian masses for a people’s democratic revolution as an integral part of the movement for socialism through the overthrow of capitalism. Part III of this article appears in this issue. The remainder will follow in subsequent issues.



Pacific coast Hindi Association

Meanwhile conditions had been maturing for the setting up of a revolutionary organisation of Indians then living in the US and Canada. As indicated above, a few politically-conscious individuals, such as Ramnath Puri and Taraknath Das, had been attempting to bring onto the agenda of the day the all-too-important question of putting an end to the British subjugation of India. The crying need, however, was to establish a central body with a revolutionary programme.

With this in mind, it was agreed between a few leading Indians that a meeting of workers in the sawmills be held in Portland, Oregon. Such a meeting took place some time in July 1912, attended by, among others, Sohan Singh Bhakna. It was resolved at this gathering to set up an organisation to be called the Pacific Coast Hindi Assocation (PCHA), with an office in Portland. Bhai Sohan Singh Bhakna was elected its president, Guru Datt its general secretary and Kanshi Ram its treasurer. The decision to bring out an Urdu weekly, Hindustan, failed to be implemented because of the illness of Guru Datt soon after the historic Portland meeting. The PCHA members felt frustrated and increasingly impatient. It was in the circumstances that they turned to Lala Hardayal, who was then living in San Francisco.

Lala Hardayal

First a few words about Hardayal.

Hardayal had been in America since January 1911. Before his arrival in America he had visited many other countries. He was given the post of Professor of Indian philosophy and Sanskrit at the Leyland Stanford University in February 2012, but in September of the same year he gave up his post and returned to Berkeley to take up revolutionary work. He set himself a two-fold mission: first, to bring to the attention of the American people the miserable plight of the Indian masses under British rule and to enlist their sympathy and support for the cause of Indian liberation; and second, to spread among Indian immigrants the awareness of their duty toward the cause of freedom of their motherland – India. In pursuit of these twin aims, he addressed meetings at places where Indians were working and residing.

According to contemporaries, he was the most well known revolutionary among several revolutionary societies then active in the USA, especially in San Francisco, which was the centre of these societies – working in connection with the revolutionary movements in Russia, Ireland, Japan, Turkey, China and India. Hardayal, whose lectures attracted large numbers of workers as well as intellectuals, was the great friend of, and philosopher and guide to, these societies.

His views on British rule in India, which he repeated at meeting after public meeting, may be summarised thus: that the drain of colossal amounts of India’s wealth by the British, he said, was the cause of the widespread prevalence of extreme poverty, disease and famine in India; that personal liberty in India was characterised by its total absence; and that the British government in that country was the ” worst government on the face of the earth”; that the government there practised torture as an instrument of rule, with the judiciary being thoroughly corrupt and under the thumb of the colonial administration, offering no justice to Indian litigants, especially in cases involving Indians against any British; that such a government could not be reformed, it has to be overthrown. Calling it the British vampire, rather than the British empire, he called upon his Indian audiences to help in preparing the conditions for the overthrow of the tyrannical British rule in India. He had a burning hatred of the British Raj and had been of a mind to establish a revolutionary party of Indians in America even before 1913. However, nothing of this sort materialised. His efforts were eventually to prove fruitful only after the Indians in America and Canada, through their own hard-won experience, had come to the conclusion that the freedom of India, and a revolutionary organisation dedicated to the cause of freedom, was a pre-requisite for Indians to gain respect and dignity – abroad as well as in India.

Transformation of PCHA into Gadhar Party

Responding to the call of the PCHA, Hardayal finally arrived in St John in the final week of March 1913. On 25 March, at approximately 9 p.m., he addressed a gathering of Punjabis who had come to listen to him. British rule, he said, was at the root of India’s troubles, from which there was no escape without putting an end to the British colonial subjugation of India. The task of freeing India rested on the shoulders of workers and peasants. They alone could accomplish this task, provided they were made aware of their patriotic duty. He told his audience, especially the Punjabis, that they could do a lot more for India’s freedom in a bourgeois democratic country such as America than they could in India. Hitherto, he said, the Indians had been fighting for the benefit of their enslavers and subjugators; they should, instead, form a democratic revolutionary organisation, shorn of communalism or sectarianism, and imbued with the spirit of the 1857 revolt (Ghadar). They should make preparations in America for the revolutionary overthrow of British rule in India and then proceed to India to drive out the British and establish a democratic government there, guaranteeing equality of treatment to its citizens irrespective of their religion, caste or colour.

This great scholar and orator, who inspired his listeners and instilled in them confidence in a bright future, convinced them by practical arguments to agree to his proposal to begin the publication in Urdu and Punjabi of a weekly paper for the propagation of revolutionary ideas among Indians as part of the preparations for ridding India of the jackboot of British colonial occupation. He suggested that the weekly be named Ghadar, both to honour the memory of that First War of Indian Independence and to carry forward its heritage. The Ghadar headquarters, to be called ‘Yugantar Ashram’, was to be in San Francisco. The party, after the name of its weekly, came to be called the Ghadar Party and its headquarters became popularly known as the Ghadar Ashram.

After these momentous, yet tentative, decisions, it was agreed to get the approval of the elected representatives of Indian workers labouring in the state of Oregon. Following several meetings in different towns, at which the entire plan was explained by Hardayal and three officers, a meeting of delegates was held on 21 September 1913 in Astoria, at which Hardayal summed up his proposals thus:

ŸThat the organisation be named as the Hindi Association of the Pacific Coast of America (HAPC), which subsequently came to be known as the Ghadar Party.

Ÿthat the object of the Association was to liberate India from the British yoke through armed struggle and replace it with a national government on the basis of equality and justice;

Ÿthat the party should publish a weekly organ – Ghadar – in Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi;

Ÿthat the headquarters of the organisation be in San Francisco – a port and revolutionary centre;

Ÿthat those working in the party office and on Ghadar should receive no remuneration – only an allowance for food, clothing, etc.

Ÿthat every party member should pay a dollar a month as membership fee;

Ÿthat every factory or workplace where Indians worked should have an elected committee which would be affiliated to the executive committee (EC) of the party;

Ÿthat the EC elected by the delegates should be responsible for the weekly paper and press as well as other functions;

Ÿthat the EC would elect from amongst its members a three-man Commission, to have sole responsibility for political and secret work;

that religion should be the individual concern of each member, with no discussion permitted on religious questions;

Ÿthat it should be the responsibility and bounden duty of each member to fight against slavery and support the struggle wherever it was being conducted;

Ÿthat the party bodies should be elected annually.

The above proposals were approved unanimously, to the accompaniment of thunderous applause.

The meeting then went on to elect a committee of eight, with Sohan Singh Bhakna as president, Lala Hardayal as general secretary and Pandit Kanshi Ram as treasurer. These three were also elected as members of the commission to take charge of the party’s secret and confidential work.

In response to an appeal for funds, $10,000 were collected on the spot.

1 November 1913 – the birth of Ghadar

It took a while for the organisation to get started. In the end, the first issue of the Urdu Ghadar appeared, after a delay of nearly 7 months, on 1 November 1913. It is to this date that the birth of the Ghadar Party proper can be traced – a date that marks the beginning of the genuinely modern phase in the struggle of the Indian people against colonialism. Continuing, and honouring the legacy of 1857, the Ghadar movement took a gigantic step forward.

Ghadar was the deadliest enemy of British imperialism and was edited by one of the foremost intellectuals of his time, Hardayal, who knew exceptionally well the intricacies of British diplomacy, as well as the hypocrisy, fraud and treachery that characterised the conduct of the British ruling class. He knew, too, how to expose the oppression and tyranny of the British Raj and its cunning mode of maintaining the subjugation of India.

The first issue of Ghadar boldly announced:

A new epoch in the history of India opens today, 1 November 1913, because today there begins in foreign lands but in our country’s language a war against the British Raj …

“What is our name? … Ghadar (revolt, mutiny).

“In what does our work consist? In bringing about an uprising.

“Where will this uprising break out? … In India.

“When will it break out? In a few years.

“Why? Because the people can no longer bear the oppression and tyranny practised under British rule and are ready to fight and die for freedom. It is the duty of every Indian to make preparations for this uprising”.

Almost in Marxian terminology it added: “The time will soon come when rifles and blood will take the place of pens and ink”.

It looked to Germany for support of India’s liberation struggle as “…they (the Germans) and ourselves have a common enemy … Germany can draw assistance from us and [it] can render us great assistance also”.

With the appearance of Ghadar, a great change took place in the consciousness of Indian immigrants. Petty quarrels and bickering gave way to feelings of fraternal harmony and solidarity. In place of the old selfishness, there appeared a spirit of selflessness, sacrifice and an obsession to gain India’s freedom. A large number of immigrants became hardened revolutionaries, ready to sacrifice their all at the altar of India’s freedom.

The restrictive, discriminatory and racist immigration policies pursued by the governments of Canada and the US, and the behind-the-scenes role played by the British government in exacerbating these miserable conditions, acted as a spur to revolutionise thousands of Indians who, in search of a living, were wandering about from the Philippines to China, Japan, the Malay States and New Zealand, from Argentina to Panama, the US and Canada, but were welcome nowhere. Their wanderings throughout these lands served to prepare the ground for setting up the Ghadar organisation in all these and many other countries. Through their contact with workers in these countries, Punjabi peasants, former British soldiers in many cases, formed bonds of close comradeship with revolutionaries from other countries, who were also struggling against imperialism and its local stooges.

The appearance of the Ghadar weekly took Indian immigrants by storm as it truly represented their desires, aspirations and interests. Wherever it reached, Ghadar units began to be formed spontaneously. Within months of the first issue it became a household name, and, to meet the rising demand for it, new press arrangements had to be made. Though sent free of charge to anyone who desired to have it, there was no shortage of money for keeping the publication going, for readers generously donated considerable amounts of funds.

The first Punjabi edition of Ghadar appeared on 8 December 1913. Both the Urdu and Punjabi versions of the paper carried permanent features such as, for instance, an ‘Exposure Sheet’, ‘Evidence of Statistics’ and the ‘History of the Ghadar 1857’. The first two of these features were devoted to the exposure of the exploitation and naked looting of India by British imperialism, the impoverishment of its masses, and the resultant frequency of disease and famine. They also dwelt on the denial of even the most basic of liberties by the British rulers to the Indian people, hand in hand with the practice of the most repressive and tyrannical methods of rule. The third feature, relating to 1857, was hugely significant as it kept alive the heroic exploits of the first war of Indian Independence, reminding readers of the revolutionary and patriotic role of the army, which had risen against British rule and come close to toppling it, as well as focusing their minds on the unity between Hindus and Muslims during those momentous days. Had the treacherous Sikh feudal princes in particular, and some other feudal princes in general, not betrayed the people by siding with the enemy, British rule in India would have been ended a whole 90 years earlier.

Ghadar repeatedly harped on the theme of Hindu-Muslim unity. The problem, it stated, was not Hindus pitted against the Muslims, but Hindus and Muslims against the British subjugators of the Indian people.

The readership of Ghadar was by no means confined to the US and Canada: it reached all countries which were host to Indian labourers. It was regularly dispatched in large bundles ot Hong Kong, Shanghai, the Malay States, Penang, Singapore, Philippines, Siam, Argentina, Burma, Indonesia, Guyana, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

There were other papers abroad brought out by Indians conducting agitational work before Ghadar came on the scene. But in the revolutionary spirit it inculcated, the extent of its reach, and the mass movement it helped to create, Ghadar surpassed all previous attempts. It aimed to impress on the Indian people, especially Indian soldiers in the British army, the need to rise up against British rule. It was posted in large numbers to the Punjab from many places other than the US and Canada. Although the government confiscated copies of the paper in India and all other British colonies, some copies nevertheless got through and were avidly read – in some cases collectively at public meetings.

Apart from its regular Urdu and Punjabi editions, Ghadar brought out irregular issues in Hindi, Gujarati, and one issue in Pashtu. Every issue of Ghadar (Punjabi) published one or two poems. Although rugged and lacking in poetical sophistication, these poems were written in a popular style, which appealed to the readership. A collection of 37 of these poems was published in a booklet under the title Gadar di goonj (‘The roar of revolution’). The first edition of 10,000 was sold instantly and was much appreciated by the readers. The poems in the pamphlet kept closely to the political line of Ghadar. They roused the Indians to take up the sword against their British enslavers, and roused the indignation of the masses by laying bare the miserable conditions of slavery to which British rule had subjected them. These poems chided the Indian soldiers in the British army for invading other countries at the behest of the British rulers, instead of taking possession of their own country by driving the British out of India.

D Chenchiah, a south Indian participant in the Ghadar movement, wrote of the transformative effect of the weekly Ghadar on the Indian workers in America in the following words:

The Punjabi labourers in the USA were drawn to this movement. They themselves began to contribute articles, poems, etc… They began to address even public meetings. Many intellectuals arose out of them. They were sincere and brave. These labourers, who till recently were very ignorant and illiterate, suddenly became politically conscious, highly patriotic and intensely revolutionary. As a result, the Ghadar movement passed rapidly into their hands” (People’s Path, Jullundur, December 1966, see Josh pp. 174-5).

In addition to the three booklets of poetry, the Ghadar Party published a number of short, very popular and informative pamphlets exposing the crimes of British imperialism, its use of terror as an instrument of governance, rampant corruption in the police and the judiciary. They also subjected to merciless criticism many of the political, communal and religious organisations and institutions operating in India. Many of these pamphlets were the work of Hardayal, whose sharpest criticism was directed at the Congress Party and its leadership as a bunch of useless office and title seekers. The thrust of his argument at the time was that there was no need for any organisation other than the Ghadar Party founded on the principles of freedom and equality. Those who wanted to work for the freedom of India, he asserted, should direct their work against British rule; if not, simply shut up shop.

In his article, ‘The meaning of equality’, Hardayal castigated the hateful divisions based on caste among Hindus and emphasised the need for economic equality. “There can be no equality between master and servant”, he wrote, ” though both may be Mohammedans or Sikhs or Vaishnavites … The rich man will always rule the poor man … Without economic equality, fraternity is only a dream” (quoted in Josh at p.177).

Hardayal forced to flee the US

The activities of the Ghadar Party, its expanding influence, the enlightening role of the Ghadar weekly and the trenchant articles and booklets of Hardayal threw the British authorities into a state of panic, especially as the Ghadar Party’s literature had begun to appeal to Indian soldiers. It was thus that, at the behest of the British government, the Californian authorities issued a warrant against Hardayal to deport him from America on the pretext that he was an anarchist as two years earlier he had made a speech against the Russian Tsar. Hardayal was angry that a sovereign and powerful country such as the US was taking instructions from the British embassy. On 27 March 1914 he addressed a statement to the American press which, inter alia, drew public attention “… to the despicable pro-British subservience of the United States government, which is so vivid a feature of President Wilson’s foreign policy…”.

Hardayal was correct in his assertion as it soon came to light that the warrant for his arrest had been issued at the request of Ernest Scott, Secretary of the British embassy. Hardayal, while boldly stating that his life’s ambition was to bring about a revolution in India, denied that he was an anarchist or that he had advocated the assassination of individuals. The US press accepted as correct Hardayal’s statement and condemned Hardayal’s arrest by the Californian authorities.

Hardayal, in his defence, relied on British rule in India, a booklet by W J Brayan, the then US Secretary of State. Written in 1906, Brayan’s work was a brilliantly scathing criticism of British imperialist rule in India. Branded as ‘seditious’ by the British authorities, it was nonetheless published in Britain. It was Hardayal’s contention that his attack on the British rule was no harsher than that of Brayan.

Hardayal was let out on a bail of $1,000 and ordered to present himself in court on 10 April 1914. On the advice of his Executive Committee, who believed that it was only too likely that on deportation he would be handed over to the British authorities, Hardayal jumped bail and travelled to Switzerland.

As the San Francisco Chronicle wrote at the time: ” President Wilson should be particularly gratified if Dayal is no longer within United States territory. He will be spared the unceasing taunts of having singled out this individual for deportation solely in obedience of what was virtually a demand on the part of Great Britain (12 May 1914).

Before fleeing America, Hardayal handed over the charge of his functions to his party comrades. Santokh Singh replaced him as general secretary, to whom he transferred the bank account; Harnam Singh Kotla became the editor-in-charge of Ghadar. The commission of 3 members now consisted of Bhakna, Santokh Singh and Kanshi Ram. Among others, young revolutionary Kartar SinghSurabha was appointed to the editorial board of Ghadar weekly. In all probability, Hardayal was helped by the authorities to leave the US and escaped with police connivance.

Contrary to British government expectations, the removal of Hardayal from the US did no harm to the Ghadar Party. New people came to the fore and carried on their revolutionary work of furthering the cause of Ghadar in India. Sohan Singh Bhakna quit his job and became a full-time party functionary, touring areas where Indians were concentrated, holding meetings, collecting funds, and organising new units. The leadership became more collective, with only secret and confidential work still being entrusted to the Commission of 3 persons.

Being ambitious, farsighted and serious revolutionaries, the Ghadarites did forward planning. Realising the significance of aerial warfare in the coming period, they decided that a few of their members should be sent for training in flying. Kartar Singh Sarabha was therefore sent to Germany for that purpose and, to his credit, he completed his 6-month training course in 4 months. Master Udham Singh Kasel who, having worked in the Hong Kong army, had learned the use of artillery, was deputed to teach the use of various weapons to a group of students. Harnam Singh Tundilat started to learn the art of bomb making; through an accidental explosion his right hand was so badly damaged that it had to be amputated. Thereafter his comrades gave him the nickname of Tundilat (General Stump).

The Ghadarites suffered from a burning hatred of the fact that Indian soldiers fought under the British flag and in so doing riveted India’s slavery. They exhorted Indians not to enlist in the British army and instead consider such enlistment as a badge of shame. Consequent upon this propaganda, Indians in America and Canada, stopped boasting: ” We defeated Burma, we conquered Afghanistan, we won China. They were ashamed to help British imperialism enslave other countries and had developed anti-slavery sentiment so much that they hated the British enslavers to the extreme” (from Bhakna’s Memoirs, quoted in Josh at p.192).

[to be continued]

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