100th Anniversary of the Ghadar movement

Part 5

The German connection and the San Francisco Trial

Ghadar Party and Germany

At the time it was suggested by some pro-British writers that the Ghadar movement in America was the product of “German intrigues” that succeeded in persuading “uneducated or half-educated” Indians in America to believe that that an armed revolution against British rule in India was feasible or desirable. This is untrue. Even the British government in India admitted that “… the first Gadar scheme … owed nothing to Germany in its inception and very little, if anything at all, in its execution. In the later schemes, however, the Gadar Party and the Germans worked together.” (James Campbell Ker, Political trouble in India – 1907-1917, p.272, quoted in Josh Vol 2 at p.7)

The judgments in the Conspiracy cases attest to the fact that Germany had nothing to do with the planned Ghadar revolt of 1915. Germany came on the scene much later. Far from owing anything to German intrigues, the Ghadar movement was a product of the humiliating treatment meted out to Indian immigrants in North America, especially in Canada, as well as the reality of brutal British rule in India.

It goes without saying that the Ghadarites were not adverse to receiving material or financial assistance from Germany, which they regarded as an ally in the fight against a common enemy, British imperialism.

As a matter of fact, when on 4 August 1914, Britain went to war against Germany, the news of the outbreak of war brought much rejoicing in the camp of the Ghadarites who saw a great opportunity in Britain’s adversity. Ghadar wrote:

The war has started between Germany and England [to the Indians, England was synonymous with Britain]. Now is your chance for India’s freedom. All the nations of Europe are divided into two camps … All land and naval forces of Britain will fight against Germany … While troops in India will have to leave. This is the right time for you to start a war of freedom … on one side Germany will attack her [Britain] and on the other you will attack her.”

Entertaining illusions in imperialist Germany as well as in the treacherous Indian princes, Ghadar went on: ” If you do not do this, Germany alone will find it very difficult … and it is possible that by the end of the war the English will become more powerful… Go to India and incite the native troops. Preach mutiny openly. Take arms from the troops of the native states … If you do your work quickly and intelligently, there is hope that Germany will help you .” (see Josh, p.194)

As soon as war broke out (4 August 1914), quite independently of the Ghadar Party, Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, it would seem, contacted the German government in order to secure the latter’s assistance for India’s freedom struggle. The German government, being keen to enlist the revolutionaries’ help, grasped at the suggestion and an agreement was struck on 3 September 1914. Under this agreement, the Indian freedom fighters were to receive arms and training from Germany in return for destabilising India through armed struggle against the British. To this end, an Indian revolutionary committee under the name of the Indian Independence Committee (IIC) was formed. Neither the IIC nor, for that matter, the German government, knew much, if anything at all, about the Ghadar Party.

Just at that moment, Barakatullah, who had close connections with the Ghadar Party, arrived in Berlin and managed to persuade the IIC to synchronise its plans with those of the Ghadar Party for an armed revolt against the British so as to achieve maximum effect. The German foreign office also looked favourably upon this proposal.

Following this agreement, the German foreign office began issuing instructions to its consulates in several countries to assist the Indian revolutionaries with money and the arms they needed to prepare for an armed revolution in India. Berlin assumed a crucial role in this regard, for such aid could only be granted to the accredited representatives of the IIC. As the Indian workers were mainly based in America, the German government set up three centres there: New York, Chicago and San Francisco, with the local German representatives and agents being instructed by their government to contact Indian revolutionaries in those cities.

In San Francisco at the outbreak of the war, the Ghadar Party was well organised and thriving. It was the only party of Indians which had a large following in America and outside, with branches in several other countries. It had already been instrumental in motivating thousands of Indian immigrants to depart for India for the purpose of waging an armed war of liberation against the British.

Thus, San Francisco was best placed as a centre through which the Germans could channel their financial and material aid to the Indian revolutionaries. What is more, Ram Chandra was the only Ghadar leader in San Francisco at the time German financial assistance took concrete shape. After Hardayal’s departure from the US, Santokh Singh took his place as General Secretary of the Party, with Sohan Singh Bhakna as President and Kanshi Ram as Treasurer. These three also constituted the Commission of three responsible for all secret work, control of funds and general supervision of the Ghadar Party.

After Bhakna’s departure for India, Bhagwan Singh and Maulavi Barkatullah arrived in San Francisco and were appointed President and Vice President of the Party respectively. Soon after, Santokh Singh and Bhagwan Singh left San Francisco for other fronts, leaving Ram Chandra as the sole head of the Party, wielding tremen-

[continued overleaf]

dous influence on the revolutionaries.

On the positive side, this made the task of the German consulate very easy, and cooperation between Ram Chandra and the consulate proceeded smoothly.

To facilitate communication with India, the revolutionaries set up a number of intermediary posts in Honolulu, Manila, Batavia (Indonesia), Tokyo, Shanghai and Bangkok where local German representatives helped them in their work.

But, through a combination of British naval strength and the ubiquitous presence of British spies, various schemes to dispatch weapons to India ended in failure, including the Siam-Burma plan under which 10,000 Indians were to be trained in military warfare to fight the Raj. Pakoh, just north of Bangkok, became the centre of their activities. Many tunnels were dug to bury large quantities of arms and ammunitions. Arms were to come from the US and Mexico, some for Siam and some for Burma. German experts were to train the Indians in the Chandrai jungles in Siam where a good number of Indians were employed in the construction of railroads under the supervision of German engineers. Indians from other parts of Siam were to join them and form a contingent to spearhead an attack on India through Burma.

Through their network of spies, the British authorities came to know of the plan, and almost all the Ghadar patriots closely involved with this plan were arrested and detained in Bangkok jail, from where they were removed and handed over to the British authorities in Singapore. Santokh Singh was the only one who managed to escape by a hair’s breadth as he came to know of the arrests of other revolutionaries. He too was pursued by British agents – but unsuccessfully.

Let us note in passing that during the middle of this eventually unsuccessful attempt to smuggle arms to India, one of the Ghadar revolutionaries, Darisi Chenchia, took the opportunity to meet in Japan China’s revolutionary leader, Dr Sun Yat Sen, whose son had been a fellow student at the University of California. During this meeting, the Chinese leader made this penetrating observation on the international situation at the time:

British imperialism”, he said, “was the greatest enemy of freedom, of independence of other countries of the world. So long as the British were ruling in India, they would continue to be a menace to the freedom of the weaker nations. The Indians must overthrow the British rule in India first; till then there would be no hope for weaker nations. It was a historic duty of the Indians to help humanity by liberating India” (quoted in Josh, p. 24).

San Francisco conspiracy trial

Be that as it may, having frustrated the attempts of the Ghadarites to smuggle men and munitions from Siam through Burma to India, and having crushed the attempts at an uprising in India, the British government turned its attention to America, which at the time was the true centre of Indian revolutionaries. In April 1914, the British had successfully brought pressure to bear on the American government to make Hardayal flee the country. Now they wanted the same treatment to be given to the remaining Ghadarites in America.

At the beginning of the war, the US proclaimed neutrality, though on 7 April 1917 it joined the war on the side of the allies. The American neutrality legislation provided the British government with a powerful lever to prevail upon the US government to arrest Indian revolutionaries for violating American neutrality through the use of US soil to conspire against the British Indian government and thus impede the British war effort. Succumbing to British pressure, the US government arrested Ghadarite revolutionaries and set in motion the Indo-German Conspiracy case popularly known as the San Francisco conspiracy case.

The trial started on 20 November 1917 at a time when the First World War between the two groups of imperialist bandits for redivision of the world was at its height, and the epoch-making Great Socialist October Revolution was taking place and undermining the very foundations of imperialism.

The accused were charged by the government with conspiracy to effect a revolt in India against the authority of Britain, a country with which the United States was at peace, and to give aid, comfort and assistance to the German empire with which Britain was at war. It was further stated that the defendants had set afoot a nationwide conspiracy financed by Germany; that they had set up a war fund which was disbursed through the German consulate in San Francisco, with which they purchased ships and arms to be sent to India, with the object of getting the Indian troops to rise up in revolt against the British Crown.

Six of the defendants were from the German consulate and 14 were Ghadarites, including Ram Chandra, Santokh Singh, Bhagwan Singh, Taraknath Das, Gopal Singh and Ram Singh. In all 29 defendants, excluding Ram Chandra (who was shot dead in court by Ram Singh) and Ram Singh himself (who in turn was shot dead by US Marshal Holohan – see Endnote 1, page 9) were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms of up to two years and to payment of fines or, in a couple of cases, just fines.

Purposes of the trial

Ÿ To extinguish the San Francisco centre of revolution which supplied men and arms to India to fight the Raj;

Ÿ To secure conviction of Indian revolutionaries and, on the basis of that conviction, to have them deported to India to be hanged or locked up on the Andaman islands for life.

However, the trial, rather than snuffing out the revolutionary movement, helped in spreading far and wide the cause of India’s liberation from British imperialism. The guilt of the defendants in the trial was no more than that of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and Adams, who had led an armed revolutionary war of liberation; and they had succeeded in their revolutionary enterprise with not very inconsiderable help from the French, who were most likely motivated by a desire for revenge for their defeat in the Seven-Year War at the hands of the British who, incidentally, had at that time been helped by colonists such as George Washington.

Likewise, there was nothing strange or unsavoury about the Ghadar revolutionaries in making common cause with Germany against the British as both sides, for their respective reasons, had an interest in seeking the defeat of British imperialism.

Since the San Francisco Conspiracy trial coincided with the earth-shaking developments in Russia, it is but natural that the Ghadarites were enthused and greatly inspired by the October Revolution and avidly read every item of news about Soviet Russia.

Fight against deportation

The most pressing problem facing the revolutionaries on emerging from jail, however, was the threat of deportation from the US. They therefore addressed this problem as a matter of urgency and with the help of progressive Americans and the Friends of Freedom for India (FFI) they launched an anti-deportation campaign. The two aims of the FFI, which had come into being during the conspiracy trial were: first, to safeguard the right to asylum and ensure that Indian political prisoners and refugees in the US received justice consonant with the American tradition of offering asylum to such people; second, to initiate a fair, open and frank discussion to ascertain the truth about India.

But later, as Indians joined the organisation and its scope and perspective widened, the aims of the movement became much more sharply defined, namely, to maintain the right of asylum for political refugees from India, and to present the case for India’s independence.

The work of the American progressives in the FFI was decisive in defeating the attempts of the US labour department to deport the Ghadarite revolutionaries after their release from jail. Particular mention must be made of the role of Agnes Smedley and Robert Morse Lovett, both of whom were members of the FFI, who made tireless efforts in mobilising trade unionists, writing to Congressmen and senators, to President Woodrow Wilson, issuing regular statements to the press, in support of the right of Indians to asylum. The FFI received the services of a renowned lawyer, Mr Gilbert E Roe, a man who used ” his knowledge and power – and he had both – … to defend men and women whom he believed to be fighting the good fight”, and who was not motivated by money.(See Agnes Smedley, Daugher of the Earth – For further information on Agnes Smedley, see Endnote 2, page 10)

The FFI also brought out a weekly publication India News Service (INS) which was supplied to 300 labour papers every week throughout the US. Apart from labour publications, INS reached nearly 100 magazines and daily newspapers.

Such was the pressure of the movement that on 19 May 1920, the District court of Washington DC cancelled the arrest warrants in the case of Santokh Singh, Gopal Singh and Bhagwan Singh, deportation proceedings against whom had been pending since 1918. It was one of the most joyful days for the Ghadar revolutionaries who, with the help of democratic and progressive Americans, had won, against heavy odds, the right to stay in America and continue their political activities for India’s freedom with the promise that they would do no harm to American interests. The victory in the anti-deportation case opened for them, if they so decided, the opportunity to acquire US citizenship and buy landed and other property.


On being released from jail, the Ghadarites found the Party in the doldrums. Hence their principal task was to put it on a firm footing – organisationally and financially. They had successfully fought off the attempts to deport them and had won the right to asylum. Further, through their conduct in the court, notwithstanding the Ram Chandra episode, they had won the respect and goodwill of Indian immigrants and many others. There was therefore a good basis for reviving and reactivating the Ghadar Party.

Thanks to the strenuous efforts of Santokh Singh, Rattan Singh and others, as well as the support given by Indian workers, the Ghadar Party’s future was secured through the organisation of new, and the revival of old, Party units, collection of funds needed to meet the necessary organisational expenses and bring out the Party’s organ.

As indicated earlier, the fierce fighting between the two factions – one led by Ram Chandra and the other by Bhagwan Singh – had raged unabated prior to the Conspiracy case. Each faction had been trying to capture the Party journal. Two competing journals were being published simultaneously from the same premises, i.e., the Ghadar Weekly by Ram Chandra and his followers and the Hindustan Ghadar by the Bhagwan Singh faction. With the commencement of the Conspiracy case, both papers ceased publication. But the factional struggle was continued – outside and inside the court, with dramatically tragic consequences.

After their release from jail, apart from reviving the Ghadar Party, Santokh Singh, Rattan Singh and Gopal Singh faced the urgent task of uniting and reorganising it. They devoted themselves to this task with commendable commitment and energy and succeeded in getting the Party back on its feet, collecting considerable amounts of funds and instilling renewed enthusiasm in their compatriots for making every sacrifice in the cause of India’s liberation.

After completing successfully the task they had undertaken of reactivating the Party, Santokh Singh and Rattan Singh took the important step of founding an English-language monthly entitled Independent Hindustan and persuaded Surendranath Karr to leave New York for San Francisco to be its first editor. Karr, who had been the first editor of the India News Service, responded positively to the call of duty, accepted the invitation and assumed responsibility as chief editor of the monthly, whose first issue appeared in September 1920. The purpose of the paper, as its first editorial, entitled ‘Our Aims’, explained to its readers, was “… to interpret and inform concerning the revolutionary and progressive spirit which is guiding the destiny of India”.

This editorial, emphasising the unity of the struggle of all people fighting for liberation in several countries, went on:

Breathes there a man or a woman with heart so dried and intellect so cracked who never rejoices over the prospect of a glorious day when the banner of freedom will be unfurled over Ireland, India, Persia, Egypt, China … over the suppressed and oppressed of the world? ” (Quoted In Josh Vol 2, pp.202-3).

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.