Preparations for an uprising
Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the Ghadar movement. By way of a tribute, Lalkar began dedicating this long article to the memory of its founders and participants – the forerunners of India’s struggle for liberation from British colonialism. This article 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 IV of this article appears in this issue. The remainder will follow in subsequent issues.
Return to India
Following the humiliating treatment of the Komagata Maru passengers, made worse by the harsh treatment heaped on them when they arrived at Calcutta in the last week of September 1914, the Indians living abroad resolved that they would rather die than live under British slavery. The Ghadar weekly had already begun appealing to Indians to return to India to take up arms against the British Raj. It called upon them to deposit their belongings at the Ghadar Party office and return to India as a matter of urgency. Ghadar‘s appeal met with an enthusiastic response and hundreds of Indians left for India by the earliest available ship.
British imperialism had entered the First World War while the Komagata Maru was still on its way back to India. The Ghadarites naturally regarded the war as a welcome opportunity for freeing India through armed struggle while Britain’s efforts were concentrated on the European theatre of war. They held mass meetings in several towns on the Pacific coast of the US and Canada, which were addressed by the leaders of the Ghadar Party, the thrust of whose speeches was to exhort the Indians to give up their jobs, return to India and liberate her from the clutches of British imperialism. The most important of these meetings were held in Fresno and Sacramento, the latter attracting an audience of 5,000-6,000 and collecting $6,000 on the spot for the purpose of buying arms.
Most of the leadership of the Ghadar Party, in addition to a large number of Indians from the US and Canada, left for India to join the battle against British colonialism. Joining this exodus were Indians from Japan, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Manila, Honolulu and many other places where the Ghadar weekly was received and avidly read.
According to Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, more than 8,000 Indians returned from abroad in the first two years of the war. Since the government, with its vast network of spies and agents, had advance knowledge about the intentions of the returning immigrants, it succeeded in arresting almost all the leaders of the Ghadar Party. The young revolutionary, Kartar Singh Sarabha, and a few others managed to escape the dragnet.
Situation in India – the sad truth
The situation in India turned out to be just the opposite of that visualised by the Ghadarites. While the movement for the liberation of India was very intense among the Indians in far off US and Canada, there was at that time hardly a murmur against British rule in India. The Ghadar leadership was sadly ill-informed about the true state of affairs in the Indian subcontinent, where the political movement was at its lowest ebb. Any remnants of such a movement came to a grinding halt with the start of the war. With the war hysteria reaching a feverish pitch, almost the whole of India was transformed into a country of empire lovers.
Just one day after Britain’s entry into the war, more than fifty prominent Indian industrialists, merchants, lawyers and political leaders, some of them living abroad, issued a cringing statement from London addressed to ” the most noble Marquess of Crewe, … his majesty’s principal secretary of state for India.
“We the subjects of his majesty’s Indian empire, who are now residing in the metropolis, feel it our duty and privilege to express what we believe is the prevailing feeling throughout India, namely, a sincere desire for the success of the British arms in the struggle”. Further, ” We have not the slightest doubt that as on previous occasions when the British forces were engaged in defending the interests of the empire, so on the present the princes and peoples of India will readily and willingly cooperate to the best of their ability and opportunities in securing that and by placing the resources of their country at His Majesty’s disposal …
“Whatever differences on questions affecting the internal administration of our country might exist in peaceful times, the devotion of the people of India to the British throne in the face of an external foe is bound to ensure such a feeling of harmony and internal peace that they can have no other thought than that of being united with the British nation in a wholehearted endeavour to secure a speedy victory for the empire ” (quoted in Josh at p.206).
The signatories included Lala Lajpat Rai, Mohamad Ali Jinnah and Ratan Tata.
As for the Punjab, the leadership of the masses was held by the Hindu, Sikh and Muslim landlords, who were completely under the thumb of the government, which exercised complete sway over the religious functionaries of these communities – the pandits, mullahs and Sikh priests – all of whom shamelessly prayed in their respective places of worship for a British victory, thus turning themselves into subservient spiritual tools of the enslavers of the Indian people. The Sikh feudal lords in charge of the chief Khalsa Diwan covered themselves with ignominy by going to the extent of excommunicating the Ghadar revolutionaries, declaring them apostates.
All the native princes declared themselves for the British and placed all their resources at the disposal of the Crown to ensure British victory and the expansion of the British empire.
The imperial government had every reason to be well pleased at the display of “so striking an exhibition of patriotism”, accompanied by the ” support offered by the princes and peoples of India to his majesty the King in connection with the war”. The British authorities saw to it that this shameful “exhibition of patriotism” was circulated far and wide throughout the empire.
Leading Indian figures encouraged Indians to recruit into the army. Among those who took part in this campaign was Gandhi, the alleged apostle of non-violence, who condemned every act of revolutionary violence by the oppressed and yet held no qualms of conscience when it came to acting as a recruiting sergeant for the slaughter of the First World War on the side of the British oppressors, torturers and exploiters of the Indian people. Local and regional bigwigs in towns and villages, who were subsequently to receive land awards and titles, played a significant role in the recruitment drive.
Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna gives the following vivid picture of the political scene that he encountered on reaching India:
” Indians working in America were thinking that 300 million Hindustanis are ours; only some thousand white rulers are aliens. But the situation in India was just the opposite. Masses were in a deep slumber in slavery. It was a great sin to talk of freedom. Indian leadership was in the hands of feudal lords, princes and capitalists who were dancing attendance on the British. Truth-lovers like Mahatma Gan dhi, were working in their favour and the country’s wealth and people were being sacrificed for the British” (Sohan Singh Bhakna’s memoirs quoted in Josh at p.208).
Punjab, the most crucial arena in the plans of the Ghadarites, was at the time in a state of political somnolence. The flunkey leadership of the chief Khalsa Diwan had been successful in impressing on the Punjab Sikhs the government demand for the supply of large numbers of recruits for the British army as cannon fodder. Combined with government repression to suppress all dissent, the disgraceful services performed by the chief Khalsa Diwan had the effect desired by the British rulers.
Such, then, was the real situation in Punjab that the Ghadar revolutionaries found on their return from abroad to do battle against British imperialism.
Arrests, lack of secrecy, funds and organisation
In addition, prominent and experienced leaders of the Ghadar Party had been arrested on their return, which proved a serious blow to the movement. In the words of O’Dwyer:
” Internment of responsible leaders seriously disorganised the original plan, the success of which mainly turned on the secrecy and suddenness of their attack. Before they were able to devise another plan and replace the leaders interned, we knew much more about their nefarious designs and were in a better position to cope with them” (India as I knew it, p.196).
Secrecy, however, was not the strength of these revolutionaries who, neither fearing death nor caring for the consequences of their actions, had thrown caution to the wind and secrecy overboard along with revolutionary literature and weapons on the return journey home. They made no secret of their plans during the voyage and British intelligence agents, who had infiltrated their ranks, gave detailed reports to the government, which was fully aware of their plans earlier than their arrival. Professional and experienced revolutionaries would not have acted like this; they would have entered the country on the quiet, taken careful stock of the situation and worked out their tactics accordingly.
As if all this were not enough, they had neither sufficient funds nor arms. Whatever money they had on them was confiscated by the government on their arrival. To carry out their programme of winning over the Indian troops, liquidating government officials and their stooges, freeing political prisoners through jail-breaks, setting up a printing press, procuring arms, and rousing the Indian people, especially the youth, funds were needed. Unable to collect sufficient funds from willing contributors, the revolutionaries decided on a course of armed robberies directed against the enemies of the poor and subservient supporters of British imperialism.
While the five robberies committed by the revolutionaries brought in some money – not enough – they lost two of their most daring comrades in the course of them. Government propaganda, portraying the Ghadarites as common thieves, bandits and criminals, spread by its rural agents, was successful in getting ordinary people to regard them as such, as people involved in common criminality and lawlessness, rather than as patriots motivated by an intense love of India and its people and involved in a life-and-death struggle to expel British imperialism from India. In some cases, villagers risked their lives to protect the blood-sucking moneylenders against the patriots. The hysteria and jingoism generated by the war, the recruitment drive, the unquestioning, unqualified and totally subservient support given by the Indian political leadership and the commercial and land-owing classes, combined with the absence of mass political awakening – all these factors worked in favour of the government and against the Ghadar revolutionaries.
Winning over the regiments
Winning over the regiments in the cantonments was the most urgent task, for without at least sections of the army siding with the revolutionaries, the uprising stood no chance of success. Difficult though this task was, as entry to the cantonments was strictly forbidden, the Ghadarites did manage to enter Mianmir (Lahore) and Ferozepur cantonments, where they made contact with regimental units. The response was beyond the expectations of the revolutionaries, for the soldiers were disaffected, discontented, and willing to join the rebellion if one was begun, but they would not take the initiative to get one going. The soldiers were favourably inclined to the cause of rebellion, first because Indian forces had been routed at the beginning of the war, the news of which had reached the soldiers in India. Second, rumours were circulating that Germany was on the winning side of the war, which had a demoralising effect on the Indian soldiers. Third, news about the activities of the Ghadar Party and its plans for an uprising had spread to the cantonments, which gave hope to the soldiers of escaping the fate of being sent to the front as cannon fodder on behalf of British imperialism.
As the authorities began to be suspicious, they took some preventative measures, such as keeping the regiments on the move, transferring them from one cantonment to another – even from one province to another, so as to prevent contact between the soldiers and the revolutionaries.
The fast-moving situation required of the revolutionaries that they should make contact with the soldiers without delay. This they did, assigning cadres to approach the soldiers in various cantonments. The plan of the revolutionaries to attack Lahore and Ferozepur cantonments towards the end of 1914 failed to materialise, through a combinations of mishaps and indecisiveness. The moment at which the disaffection among the Indian soldiers was at its peak would soon be lost. This disaffection was accelerated by the casualties at the front – of the 34,000 casualties for the Punjab, 12,794 (2.6% of all Punjabi soldiers) had been fatal.
These high casualties at the front, combined with the differential between the salaries and treatment meted out to Indian and white soldiers, the reluctance of Indian soldiers to go abroad to do the fighting, and the revolutionary propaganda of the Ghadar Party, provided a potent mix for getting soldiers to participate in an uprising against the British. But this moment, the likes of which are but rare, was allowed to pass. With the authorities becoming more suspicious and alert by the day, while the revolutionaries carried on their activities in the open under the watchful surveillance of the police, the result could only be, and was, a large number of arrests and detention of the Ghadarites and a depletion of their ranks.
Date of the uprising and betrayal
Discovering that the troops were to sail for France on the 1st of March, the revolutionaries, having done some work among these troops, fixed 21 February 1915 for the uprising – an uprising which hinged principally on the Lahore and Ferozepur cantonments, whose regiments were prepared to join the uprising provided the Ghadarites took the initiative. The latter for their part insisted that the Lahore Cavalry should mutiny and ride out to join them. Thus no decision was arrived at.
Needing an experienced revolutionary, the Ghadarites sent for the Bengali revolutionary Rash Behari Bose, who had thrown a bomb at the Viceroy in Delhi. Wanted in the Delhi and Lahore conspiracy cases, Bose was at the time living underground in Benares (Varanasi). Responding to the request of the Ghadarites, Bose travelled to Amritsar in the middle of January and stayed there till the end of the month, before shifting to Lahore and assuming charge of the conduct of the proposed uprising.
On his arrival Bose discovered that, although some work had been undertaken to win the regiments over and there was a little bit of disaffection among the rural population, there was practically no organisation. He therefore assumed the task of remedying the situation by embarking upon measures of organisation and centralisation – no mean task in view of the shortage of time as the troops were due to leave for the European theatre of war by 1 March.
Meanwhile the authorities had a good number of clues concerning the activities of the Ghadarites. They got hold of a spy by the name of Kirpal Singh who had little difficulty in infiltrating the revolutionary ranks and informing on them. He told the authorities that the revolutionaries were busy making bombs and organising robberies as a prelude to an uprising. He found out the locations where the revolutionaries met. During these fateful days, the revolutionaries came upon evidence which made them believe, and correctly so, that Kirpal Singh was a police spy who had infiltrated their ranks. Since he knew the date of the uprising, the revolutionaries decided to advance the date by two days to 19 February. All the same, it was too late. Acting on Kirpal Singh’s information, and on a signal from him, the police raided on 19 February the house where the revolutionaries were meeting, capturing seven of them. The following day (20 February), another group of revolutionaries, unaware of the raid and the happenings of the previous day, came to the same house and fell into the hands of the police who were lying in wait for them.
These arrests broke the back of the leadership of the planned uprising. More and more revolutionaries kept on falling into police hands as the government kept the raids and arrests a close secret. It was not until a few days later that revolutionaries who were still at large came to discover the horrible truth about the utter failure of the intended uprising through the betrayal and treachery of Kirpal Singh.
The discovery by the police of the plans for, and the date of, the uprising, the arrests on 19 February and thereafter, had a demoralising effect which brought about a change of sentiment. Yesterday’s fellow travellers became enemies and police informers. Kartar Singh Sarabha and a few of his comrades, refusing to accept the full significance of the deadly blow delivered by the police to the revolutionary movement, planned to form guerrilla squads for raiding police stations, attacking policemen posted on railway bridges, capture arms and by daring acts to draw in the passive peasantry in the countryside. Instead, the incorrect evaluation of the prevailing situation helped to lure them into the house of a police spy, on whose information the police surrounded their place of hiding, arrested them and took them to the police station at Ballohwal, Sargodha.
In the aftermath of failure
The failure of the planned uprising emboldened the elements loyal to the government, who now participated actively on the side of the police in the arrest of the remaining revolutionaries in return for money, titles and land awards. The government propaganda machine, with the full support of the feudal princes and religious organisations, went into overdrive portraying the revolutionary patriots as law-breaking bandits, apostates and common criminals.
Following the arrests of the Ghadarites, Lt-Governor O’Dwyer assembled in Lahore in March 1915 a conference of Sikh chiefs, lawyers and other loyal elements, along with commissioners and deputy commissions of Punjab at which he asked his audience to assist the government in the suppression of the Ghadar movement. He need not have bothered, for most of these Sikh feudal chiefs were even more loyal to the British empire than O’Dwyer himself. They pleaded with him to arrest and incarcerate without delay anyone suspected of the least disloyalty to the government. They competed with each other in assuring O’Dwyer of their full cooperation in whatever treatment he deemed necessary to visit upon the revolutionaries.
At district level, the government established committees of local notables ” … to enquire into the conduct of the returned emigrants and their supporters to advise the deputy commissioner as to the action to be taken. These Sikh committees proved to be a most valuable help to the administration” (Sikh Committee Report, cited in Josh at p.238).
The notables in the countryside as well as retired soldiers were, with a few exceptions, loyal to the government, reported on every activity in the villages to the police, discouraged all anti-British sentiment and preached loyalty to the British Crown.
The leaders of religious organisations, from the chief Khalsa Diwan to Arya Smaj, the Hindu Sabha and the Muslim League – all lined up behind the government, leaving the revolutionaries to face the gallows or transportation for life.
While a reign of terror prevailed in Punjab, which was at the centre of the revolutionary movement at the time, a few revolutionaries who were still free refused to surrender. They were still making contacts with soldiers at several places and urging them to mutiny. Thus it was that the revolutionary Vishnu Ganesh Pingle went to the Meerut cantonment, whose regiments had been the signal for the 1857 War of Independence, but was arrested in the course of contacting soldiers of the 12th Cavalry. Individual revolutionaries continued to liquidate police informers and government witnesses. Possessed of a revolutionary spirit, they feared neither death nor torture in the British jails. All the same, the sad truth is that after 19 February the movement was crushed for the time being, leaving its mark and legacy for a generation of revolutionaries who were to follow the Ghadarites, inspired by the latter’s lofty vision, heroic efforts and selfless courage in pursuit of their burning desire to liberate India from the brutal British colonial rule.
In quick succession following the arrests of the Ghadar heroes, the government set in motion a kangaroo tribunal for the trial of the revolutionaries for conspiracy to “wage war against his majesty and to overthrow by force the government established by law in India”. We let pass the sleight of hand by which the brutal colonial wars and the resultant colonial conquest has been transformed into “the government established by law in India”.
The purpose of this conspiracy trial, as indeed of many other such trials, was to crush the revolutionary movement in the bud so as to perpetuate British rule. They never completely succeeded, for no sooner had one revolutionary movement been crushed, than it was followed by another. During the Ghadar conspiracy trial, the British judicial system, shedding any pretence to any regard for the due process of law, stood in its hateful brutal nakedness.
In its endeavour to remove every obstacle to the successful prosecution of the First imperialist World War and to rally the Indian masses to the British colours, the British authorities were ready to pounce on the exhibition of any statement it regarded as subversive, any movement it considered revolutionary and seditious – in particular any movement that might infect the army with subversive ideas. Michael O’Dwyer, the Lt-Governor, had unlimited powers of life and death over the people of Punjab. The so-called judiciary was just an adjunct to, and an arm of, his administration. The government of India enacted the Defence of India Act, which enabled O’Dwyer to abrogate important procedures in regard to the conduct of criminal law. Therefore, the first Lahore conspiracy case against the Ghadar patriots was handed over to a panel of three hand-picked judges. Begun on 26 April 1915, the trial was to be in camera with the press banned from reporting on the proceedings; there was to be no appeal or review of the decisions of this tribunal, though the provincial or the central government were given the power to exercise clemency.
The Crown prosecutor, Bevan Petman, in a speech lasting two and a half days, summarised the object of the conspiracy and the means to execute it. The object of the conspiracy, he said, was to overthrow by force the government established by law in India, “expelling Europeans” (he should have said the British, but used the word ‘Europeans’ deliberately so as to gain sympathy from Europeans) and establish self-government. As to the means to be adopted, he listed the following:
Seduction of the soldiers from their allegiance to the Crown, mutiny against British rule, and to furnish arms and ammunition to the Ghadar revolutionaries;
Collection of money, arms, ammunition and men for the rebellion;
Securing money for the same aim by raiding government treasuries and through robberies;
Wrecking of trains, destruction of railway bridges and attacks on “all European troops” as soon as the rebellion got under way;
Production and circulation of seditious literature and delivery of inflammatory speeches exhorting soldiers to mutiny and the people to rebel.
In all, 61 revolutionaries were indicted. All but five were Punjabis. The five included Pingle and Parmanand. Although the indictment stated that the conspiracy against the Crown and to overthrow the British government was hatched in America in May 1913, followed by the return of many Indians to India with that intent in 1914, the defendants were not allowed to summon about 50 witnesses from abroad to give evidence in rebuttal of the Crown’s assertions. The demands of the war, combined with the complete subservience of the Indian leadership -religious and secular – to the baton of British imperialism, and the hoodwinking and deception of the masses through massive government propaganda, enabled the ‘judges’ to play with the lives of the Ghadar heroes. Only the cruel hanging of the patriots, or their transportation for life, suited the interests of the Raj and its hand-picked judicial pimps, who refused to entertain the idea of allowing witnesses from abroad. 24 of the freedom fighters tried in the first Lahore conspiracy case were given death sentences. Their response to the sentence was to mockingly say to the judges: “Thank you very much”. One of them, Nidhan Singh Chugha, remarked: ” Is that all? Can’t you award something more?” On being given the sentence of transportation for life, Jawala Singh, famously known as the potato-king, shouted: “Why this discrimination? Why don’t you give me the death sentence too?” On being asked by the Indian judge, Sheo Narain, to reconsider his uncompromisingly defiant statement in the court, Sarabha answered thus:
“I do not want to save my skin by keeping my activities against this foreign tyrannical government away from the public”.
Arjan Singh Khukhrana, given the death sentence for the killing of a policeman in Lahore, was the first to be hanged. He went to the gallows singing the 17 th poem from Gadar-di-Goonj, two lines of which read: It is better to die fighting like brave men Than lose one’s life like dogs; Either we kill the enemy or get killed. We should not turn tail like cowards.
The jail authorities asked the prisoners to write to the Lt-governor or the viceroy to ask for clemency, which they all refused to do.
Such bold and fearless revolutionaries can be killed, hanged or put away for life in a dungeon, but no force on earth can silence their ideas or efface their revolutionary legacy.
Apart from the first Lahore conspiracy case, there were four other supplementary Lahore conspiracy cases and five others – making a total of ten such cases. A summary of the criminal cases arising out of the Ghadar movement, given by Isemonger and Slattery at the end of the Ghadar Conspiracy Report, has it that a total of 279 emigrants were tried, of whom 46 were hanged, 64 given transportation for life and others awarded lesser sentences. However, this summary omits many other trials and thus is a gross underestimate of the numbers of revolutionaries tried and either hanged or given jail sentences. According to informed sources, the number of people tried may well have been in excess of 500.
The entire conspiracy case was built much more on the articles which appeared in the Ghadar journal and on the poems in the book Gadar-di-Goonj. A few robberies and murders of policemen formed a minor part of the judgement. The judges placed the centre of the conspiracy in America for the obvious reason that the government had committed the blunder of arresting 173 passengers, mostly Sikhs, from America, Japan, Manila and Shangai who had reached Calcutta on 28 October 1914 aboard the steamship Tosha Maru. Of these, 73 were released on bail while the remaining 100 were locked up. Having been detained immediately upon arrival, they could not credibly be implicated in any conspiracy if its centre had been in Punjab. In that case, the authorities could not have subjected them even to the ordeal of a trial, let alone convicting them and handing out death sentences or life imprisonments.
Realising that the authorities had already decided on their fate, the accused revolutionaries treated the entire proceedings with contempt, gave up taking any interest in the case and passed their time during the proceedings exchanging jokes with each other and derisively laughing at the cruel tragedy being staged in the court room. Losing even the semblance of impartiality and the pretence of judicial hearing, the judges acted like prosecutors and frequently interjected with rude remarks about the accused.
The judgment, pronounced on 13 September 1915, which sentenced to death 24 of the accused, created a furore and deep resentment. Even Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy, wrote in his book My Indian years:
“The Lahore conspiracy case gave me much trouble at the time. No less than 24 men were condemned to death by a special tribunal”. He travelled to Lahore and told O’Dwyer that he would not allow ” a holocaust of victims in a case where only 6 men had been proved to be actually guilty of murder and dacoity (robbery)” (p.130, quoted in Josh p.285). Foreseeing the frightening ramifications of hanging 24 revolutionaries, the Viceroy commuted the death sentences of 17 of them to transportation for life – an act for which the British establishment in India violently attacked the Viceroy. The viceroy’s decision amounted to an implicit criticism of both the special tribunal, for not keeping itself within even the draconian legal provisions, which gave it the widest of powers. It was also tantamount to a censure of O’Dwyer who wanted to commute the sentences of only six of the revolutionaries.
While claiming to prevent a holocaust, the Viceroy refused to commute the death sentences passed on seven of the freedom fighters, and sent 17 of those whose sentences were commuted to rot away in the horrible dungeons and torture chambers of the Raj, although they had taken no part in any revolutionary activity in India – if for no other reason than that they had been arrested as soon as they landed in India.
The seven who were hanged included Kartar Singh Sarabha (aged 19) and Vishnu Ganesh Pingle (aged 27). A few words about Sarabha are in order here. He was a very young and fearless revolutionary, possessed of indomitable courage. Inspired by the revolutionary ideals of liberation from colonial subjugation, he knew well how to inspire others to fight for India’s freedom. The hangmen in judicial garb honoured him, even if unintentionally, by observing that he was “…. one of the most important of these 61 accused and has the largest dossier of them all. There is practically no department of this conspiracy in America, on the voyage [to India], and in India in which this accused has not played his part” (Josh p.287).
He infuriated the judges by his refusal to answer any questions put by the counsel or to engage personally in any cross examination, instead sitting defiantly silent in court.
During the short time he was free, he spared no effort to further the cause of India’s freedom and the downfall of the brutal British empire. As the Ghadarites were extremely short of funds, he took part in a few robberies as a means of securing money for setting up a printing press and starting the publication of a paper along the lines of the Ghadar Weekly. He attended several meetings and at great risk, visited Ferozepur, Meerut and other cantonments to win the soldiers over to the cause of Indian freedom. He also went to Bengal to purchase arms. Filled with intense hatred against the British enslavers, “Kill the British rulers” became his everyday prayer. The judges hated him so much that, throwing aside all norms of judicial decency, they hurled abuse at him, calling him ” a thoroughly callous scoundrel, proud of his exploits to whom no mercy whatever can or should be shown”.
There was method in the judges’ madness. Since the purpose of the conspiracy case was to inspire terror and fear of death by sending to the gallows a large number of Ghadarites, Sarabha was frustrating that aim by his audacious and death-defying conduct during the proceedings and making this kangaroo court a laughing stock in the eyes of the accused and the country at large.
All his fellow revolutionaries affirmed that Sarabha was a person of rare ability who hated cowards. He firmly held that man was born but once and, as such, he should devote himself to the betterment of his fellow human beings and not waste life on worthless frivolities. Bhai Parmanand in his memoirs wrote these words about Sarabha: ” During the whole proceedings of the case he was in a very joyous mood and infected others with the same spirit. He would often say: ‘Let us be hanged quickly so that we may be reborn again to take up the work where we left it'” (Josh, p.288).
The start of the First World War definitely created conditions which were more favourable for revolutionary activity than had been the case before. First, the war provoked an opportunity for an armed uprising by the army as large numbers of experienced soldiers had been sent to the French and Mesopotamian fronts, leaving behind inexperienced and inadequate forces to deal with any organised onslaught by disciplined and determined revolutionaries acting in concert with the army.
“The internal situation”, writes Lord Hardinge, “began to grow menacing due to the anarchists [!] realising our military weakness owing to the depletion of our troops”. (Op.cit., p.131).
Second, the tremendous losses suffered by the British Indian army in the opening stages of the war, combined with the rumours then circulating that Britain was losing the war, had a demoralising effect on the regiments, including those still in India, which began to shake their loyalty – no doubt aided by the Ghadarite propaganda – and made them think whether, instead of going to the front and dying in the imperialist war – and that too on behalf of a country that denied the 300 million Indian their freedom and held them in subjugation, they should make an effort at home for India’s emancipation. Such sentiments were boosted by the discrimination practised against them by the British authorities with regard to promotion, food, salary, bonuses, leave and pensions, as compared with white soldiers.
Third, the appearance of unrest among the peasantry arose from mainly two causes: (a) high prices of food and the prevalence of famine, the outbreak of plague at the beginning of 1915, and the resultant deaths due to disease and hunger; (b) the repressive measures adopted by the government in its recruitment campaign to enlist large numbers of young people to replace those dead and dying at the front. No less an authority than Lord Hardinge was compelled to admit that: ” At this stage of the war, the recruiting of Indians to fill the vacancies caused by the death and wastage of Indian regiments was going none too well and especially amongst Sikhs” (Ibid. p.117).
There prevailed “a general contagion of lawlessness” in the countryside, according to the Sedition Committee Report.
Notwithstanding the above relatively favourable circumstances, there was no uprising against British rule, which is explained by the following:
First, the British rule and British authority in India were reinforced by their Indian flunkeys, ranging from the feudal princes to industrial leaders and religious organisations – all of which displayed cringing loyalty and subservience to the British rulers.
There was the likelihood that, had an uprising begun, the people would have torn themselves away from the vicelike grip of the Indian flunkeys and weighted in on the side of the Ghadarites. However, sad to say, the Ghadar leadership proved unable to rise to the occasion. Many of its leaders, including its president Baba Sohan Singh were arrested soon after reaching India, thus depriving the movement of its general staff.
They were handicapped by an extreme shortage of money and arms and harboured illusions in the princely states as a source of arms.
They failed dismally to organise secret work, which made their ranks an easy prey for infiltration by spooks and police agents. One of the major weaknesses of the Ghadar Party was its poor sense of secrecy, which made it an easy target for British imperialism, armed as the latter was with knowledge of the plans of the Ghadarites, not to say a monstrous police and military machine for the suppression of the Indian people.
They failed to build a tightly-knit centralised organisation that could be relied upon to provide leadership for the conduct of revolutionary struggle in the most difficult situation surrounding them.
The Ghadar Conspiracy Report, although emanating from enemy sources, nevertheless paints this truthful picture on this score:
” When the Gadarites returned to India, they lacked the firmness of leadership necessary for the scheme … they wandered aimlessly through the districts of Central Punjab and though they succeeded in corrupting [!!!] a number of villagers and troops, they made no progress towards the outbreak which was to set the people and the army ablaze” (F C Isemonger and J Slattery, Gadar Conspiracy Trial Judgments, para.110, quoted in Josh p.271).
Much more than anything else, the absence of mass support, combined with the failure of the Ghadarites to build a tightly-knit centralised organisation, which could function secretly and combine legal and illegal activities so as to frustrate the attempts of the colonial administration to infiltrate and smash the revolutionary ranks, explains the failure of the Ghadar movement to achieve its aims.
No failure in historical terms
Although the Ghadar movement was crushed and it failed to bring about the uprising it had planned against British colonial rule, it was by no means a failure in historical terms. Notwithstanding its weaknesses, and though cruelly suppressed by the British imperial authorities, the Ghadar movement left a rich revolutionary legacy and made an indelible mark not only on the movement for India’s liberation but also on the struggle of the downtrodden masses of India for a brighter social and economic future. It inspired an
entire generation of revolutionaries, such as Bhagat Singh and his comrades, whose courage, wisdom, passionate yearning for the emancipation of the oppressed and exploited masses of India, whose secularism and abhorrence of every kind of caste oppression and religious obscurantism, whose internationalism and self-sacrificing heroism, carried forward the struggle for India’s liberation from colonialism, and continues to inspire the struggle of the Indian proletariat for its social emancipation through the overthrow of the system of exploitation of one human being by another.
The Ghadarites were an exceptionally crucial link in India’s freedom struggle, which began with the 1857 First War of Indian Independence. In fact they were the inheritors and continuers of that struggle. Precisely for that reason they had consciously and deliberately chosen to call themselves by that name – both to honour the heroes and momentous events of 1857 as well as to carry forward that struggle. Being fully aware of the role played by the army in 1857, the Ghadarites assigned crucial significance to work in the army, and to win it over, in the fight to overthrow British imperial rule. Inspired by the Ghadarites, a good number of soldiers actually did come out against the British rulers, and were court-martialled and shot.
No better tribute to the success of the Ghadarites in implanting the banner of freedom and irreconcilable hostility to colonial and imperialist slavery among the Indian people, as well as to their lasting legacy, could be paid than the following observation from a representative of the enemy camp:
” The movement was suppressed during the war but has never been stamped out and there are still in the Punjab many returned Sikhs whose bitter hatred of our rule predisposes them to join with eagerness in any conspiracy aimed at the subversion of our authority” (Sir David Petrie, director-general of British intelligence, Communism in India, p.138).
THE NEXT ISSUE WILL DEAL WITH THE GHADAR PARTY’S LINKS WITH GERMANY