Ghadar Party: Call for freedom, across oceans



They are not given enough credit, but in India’s long struggle for independence from British rule, the non-resident Indians from around the world played an important role. While the struggles of Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa, Dadabhai Naoroji in Britain and Madam Cama in Germany are well known, very little has been written about the brave and determined members of the Ghadar Party, who tried to fight for India’s Independence from North America, primarily USA and Canada. In fact, their activities shook the British so much, that they enacted the Rowlatt Act of 1919, which in turn led to the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar.

Towards the end of the 19th century, India suffered a deep economic depression. During this time many, especially Punjabi peasants, migrating abroad for a better future. Many of them migrated to USA and Canada through the Pacific route and settled in places like California and Oregon in USA and British Columbia in Canada.  This was also the time when there was a large influx of Chinese and Japanese migrants to USA’s East Coast.

Much like the Hispanic immigrants in Trump’s America today, while they were welcomed as cheap labor, these ‘Asian’ immigrants faced a lot of local resentment over jobs. The competition for jobs led to racial hostility and demands for exclusionary laws for Asian workers. Sometimes, the racial tension led to violence and riots , such as the Vancouver and the San Francisco riots of 1871, 1877 and 1907.

Flag of the Ghadar party
Flag of the Ghadar party|Wikimedia Commons 

While the Japanese and Chinese governments sympathized with the plight of their overseas nationals and negotiated with the American governments for compensation for race riots and removal of racial laws, there was no one to speak up for Indians. The British Government in India had no interest in the plight of Indians in USA. The  Indians in America realized the difference between the citizens of a colonial country and those ruled by their own people.

Hurt by the constant racial onslaught and no one to turn to, some Indians, including labourers working in farms and factories, students studying in the universities and middle class intellectuals doing odd jobs in American towns got together in Oregon, United States on 1st November 1913 and established the Hindustan Association of the Pacific Coast (HAPC). The association was born in an age of revolutions, when fires were being lit in Russia, France and Ireland. The HAPC was a product of the same heady times. Its major objective was to liberate India with the force of arms from British colonialism, just as Americans had done so more than a century ago. Their aim was to help establish an independent India with equal rights for all.

Handbill showing photographs of Indian Martyrs, 1915 (L); advertisement for new members (R)
Handbill showing photographs of Indian Martyrs, 1915 (L); advertisement for new members (R)|Wikimedia Commons 

Though a majority of the members of HAPC were Sikhs, the party maintained a secular stand and welcomed members from all communities.  The first president of HAPC was Sohan Singh Bakhna, a Sikh intellectual from Amritsar, who was working as a labourer in a lumber mill in Oregon.

To reach out to a large number of people, the organization also came up with a publication named ‘Ghadar’ which means revolt. The weekly paper carried the caption: Angrezi Raj Ka Dushman (an enemy of the British rule). It became a hub of revolutionary literature and often carried the following advertisement:

Wanted – Enthusiastic and heroic soldiers for organizing Ghadar
Remuneration – Death
Reward – Martyrdom
Pension – Freedom
Field of Work – Hindustan

Lala Hardayal
Lala Hardayal|Wikimedia Commons 

The newspaper was edited by Lala Hardayal, who was then part of the faculty at Stanford University. Lala Hardayal was a Punjabi intellectual who had moved to USA on the advice of Lala Lajpat Rai. Closely associated with the American labor movement, he developed close contacts with the Punjabi farmers in California. In 1912, at the young age of 28, he started working as a lecturer of Sanskrit and Indian philosophy at Stanford University. Being a fiery orator, it was no surprise that he was considered the voice of the Ghadar movement.

The HAPC also published pamphlets like Ailan-e-Jung which described India as downtrodden and trampled on by foreigners, Naya Zamana criticised the Indian National Congress as an ‘official assembly’ of the British and declared its members as flatterers; and Balance sheet of British India which listed the economic cost of British occupation of India. Ghadar literature was distributed to the large Indian communities who lived in the the Pacific ports cities like Shanghai, Manila, Singapore, Penang, etc. Though banned in India due to its fiery content, patriots successfully smuggled these pamphlets into India.

 Pamphlet ‘Balance sheet of British India’ distributed by Ghadar party 
Pamphlet ‘Balance sheet of British India’ distributed by Ghadar party |Wikimedia Commons 

Over a period of time, the publication became so well known among overseas Indians that the HAPC Association itself came known as the Ghadar party. By 1914, the membership had swelled to 12,000 members from across United States and Canada.

However, in April 1914, the fiery articles led to a massive clampdown. Lala Hardayal was asked to quit from his job at Standford University. There were also attempts to arrest him under the immigration law and deport him to India and hence, Lala Hardayal left for Germany. Here, he came in contact with a number of Indian revolutionaries like Madam Bhikaiji Cama who were fighting for India’s independence. Madam Cama was a leading Indian revolutionary, who served as mentor to numerous young revolutionaries fighting for India’s freedom.

But this was not the end of the Ghadar party. In fact the members saw the first World War which started in mid-1914, as a golden opportunity to strike.  Gatherings were held in different places in California and Oregon such as Los Angeles, Clairmont, Astoria, Upland, etc. and all the Indians in North America were called on to go home and fight. Ram Chandra Peshawari, the later editor of Ghadar, said -

‘Your duty is clear. Go to India, stir up rebellion in every corner of the country. Rob the wealth and show mercy to the poor…Arms will be provided to you on arrival in India. Failing this you must ransack police stations for rifles.’

Ghadar Party leaders, Sohan Singh Bakhna, Mohammed Barkatullah, Bhagwan Singh (L-R) 
Ghadar Party leaders, Sohan Singh Bakhna, Mohammed Barkatullah, Bhagwan Singh (L-R) |Wikimedia Commons

The ring leaders of this revolt were Sohan Singh, Taraknath Das and Barkatullah , three young Indian revolutionaries, who were working as blue collar workers in USA. The plan was to raid arsenals and organize mutinies in Punjab while the British were preoccupied with the War. It was decided to organize revolutionary centers within the Indian armed forces and with their help, capture power. The party also established contacts with revolutionaries in India. . A clarion call was made to its members to return to India and around 8000 members returned to plan a revolt. The plan was for a mass uprising against the British in Punjab  and the date set was 21st February 1915.

But all was not well when they reached India. The police had already been informed by their spies of a possible attack and many were arrested on arrival itself. This included the leader Sohan Singh. Those who managed to evade the police made ad hoc efforts to collect arms, raise funds through armed dacoities, manufacture hand bombs and so on. But the lack of leadership made the planned mutiny go hay-wire. The ill-planned and ill-conceived mutiny was ruthlessly suppressed.   Out of the 175 members arrested, 136 were convicted and 42 were sentenced to death.  After 1917, most of the Party’s activists were forced into exile to USA and Canada and ceased to play an active role in India.

News headline about the Rowlatt Act, 1919
News headline about the Rowlatt Act, 1919|Wikimedia Commons 

What most Indians don’t realize it that this failed revolt by the Ghadar party members, jolted the British so much that to avoid a repeat, they enacted the draconian Rowlatt act of 1919 which, in a nutshell, clamped down on any group meetings and extended emergency measures of preventive indefinite detention and incarceration without trial. The tragic Jallainwalla Bagh massacre was a result of the Rowlatt Act.

Though the Ghadar movement failed to achieve its goal, it definitely left a mark. The revolutionary ideas had already inspired the next generation of revolutionaries like Ram Prasad Bismil, Chandrashekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh, and they would take on the baton from the heroes of the Ghadar party.

Sadly, few remember the sacrifices made and the battles fought by the brave men and women of the Ghadar party, across the oceans.

Cover image courtesy: www.foundsf.org


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