On the Centenary of Hindustani Ghadar Party

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Hindustani Ghadar Party drew its inspiration as well as its name from the Ghadar (revolt) of 1857, in which people from all parts of India rose as one, with the single aim of driving the British Colonialists out of India.

April 2013 marks 100 years since the founding of Hindustani Ghadar Party (HGP), a party formed by Indian emigrants in North America to liberate the motherland from the yoke of British colonialism. The story of HGP is a great chapter in the history of our freedom movement. People who had gone 10,000 miles or more away from their homeland, to earn a livelihood and escape from the barbarism of colonial rule, decided to sacrifice everything and risk their lives to liberate India. This in itself is unprecedented and awe inspiring. Moreover, when the attempt at an armed uprising failed in 1915, leading to the loss of many leaders and members, the Ghadaris did not lose heart and give up the cause. Hindustani Ghadar Party rebuilt itself, rising like a Phoenix, and carried out its revolutionary activities in India and abroad, for many decades until the end of colonial rule.

Hindustani Ghadar Party drew its inspiration as well as its name from the Ghadar (revolt) of 1857, in which people from all parts of India rose as one, with the single aim of driving the British East India Company out of India.

Not one or two or a dozen individuals, but tens of thousands within India and all over the globe participated in the struggle led by HGP. One can even today feel their irresistible heroism, self-sacrifice and single-minded conviction. The story of the heroes of Hindustani Ghadar Party, or Ghadari Babas as they are fondly called, is too vast and important to recount in just a few pages. It is also easy to get carried away by undiluted emotion and admiration at these noble and heroic souls. But we have tried to tell the story in summary form and in a factual manner below. We hope the new generations who have not heard it will benefit from this summary and also be encouraged to read more detailed versions.

Several detailed accounts have been written to glorify this or that individual, analyse his achievements and mistakes, or in some cases carry on analysis of the individual’s psychology. There are some researchers who delve into the life history of some individuals in the movement who later did an about-turn and joined the Indian National Congress. 

Our approach is not focused on any individual as such, but on telling the story of a movement that swept across many continents, powered by sheer patriotism and the collective spirit of people who would not tolerate or compromise with the enslavement of their motherland. In the beginning of the twentieth century, Indian people, especially from central Punjab, immigrated to North America for economic reasons. A considerable number of Punjabis serving in the British army in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Philippines, Singapore, etc., took up jobs as policemen or watchmen in these countries after retiring from the army, instead of going back home. Indian working people had also migrated to Europe, Australia  and South America. After the brutal suppression of the Ghadar of 1857, a large number of Indians were taken to various countries like Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji and Honduras, as indentured labour.

Indian immigrants in Canada and the US were used as a source of cheap labour by capitalist companies engaged in building the railways and in the lumber, mining and farm sectors in the west coast. The immigrants were paid less than others for the same work. Moreover, in an alien land they could always be threatened with deportation if they protested against their superexploitation.

Hence capitalist employers preferred to hire them. The hiring of immigrants at lower than minimum wages caused resentment amongst local and European immigrant workers. It created a climate in which racist physical attacks were carried out against Indians, Chinese and Japanese workers.

The governments of China and Japan protested to the authorities in Canada and the US against the racist attacks on their countrymen. But nobody was there to complain on behalf of Indians. Indian immigrants realised that this is because they are not from a free country. The promise of Queen Victoria in her Proclamation of 1858 that she will treat all her subjects equally, did not mean anything at all in reality. The super-exploitation and racial discrimination faced by Indian immigrants created a fertile soil for revolutionary mobilisation against imperialism and colonialism.

In a communication dated February 26, 1908, John Morely, gave the following reasons for limiting immigration of Indians to Canada: “1) That the terms of close familiarity which competition with white labor brings about, do not make for British prestige; and it is by prestige alone that India is held, not by force; 2) that there is a socialist propaganda in Vancouver and the consequent danger of the East Indian being imbued with socialist doctrines; 3) labour rivalry is sure to result in occasional outbreaks of feelings on the part of the whites and any dissatisfaction and unfair treatment of Indians in Vancouver, is certain to be exploited for the purpose of agitation in India; and 4) East Indian affairs are sometimes made use of by unscrupulous partisans to serve the cause of their political party”

Various organisations of Indians existed in Canada and the US at that time, such as Hindustan Association in Seattle (where Taraknath Das published a journal called Free Hindustan), Khalsa Diwan Society and India League in Vancouver. Many groups also used to meet to discuss the issues of Indian independence and racism in Berkeley and other cities in California. Particular mention must be made of the farm of Baba Jwala Singh where workers from various saw mills gathered on weekends for discussions.

By 1907 there was a serious economic crisis in the world. Many workers lost their jobs. The Canadian government tried to dupe Indians to go to Honduras. The government even promised to pay the travel cost to Honduras. Indian community agreed to send a delegation to go and assess the situation in Honduras. A two member delegation accompanied the government representatives (Nagar Singh and Sham Singh) to Honduras on October 25, 1908 and came back on 7th November. At that time Jaundice and Malaria were rife in Honduras. Many Indian bonded workers there had succumbed to these diseases. They lived in squalid conditions, were not allowed to move to other places without permission, were given meagre wages and they could never save enough to pay for going back home.

The two members of the delegation were promised huge bribes to present a good report to their compatriots on return. But they presented the true picture of conditions in Honduras to a gathering of Punjabi community, thereby exposing the nefarious scheme of Canadian government. The only reason Canadian government did not force Indians to get out of Canada was that a majority of them were Sikhs, and Sikhs in Indian army were seen as a pillar of the British Empire.

Canadian Government brought General Swayne, the Governor of Honduras, to Canada in order to persuade Indians to emigrate there. After discussions with Teja Singh, an intellectual, Gen. Swayne advised the Canadian government to change its mind. In response to Teja Singh’s representations, Gen. Swayne finally admitted to the Vancouver World newspaper, “Teja Singh is right. Sikhs are in good position. They don’t want to leave British Columbia. Under these circumstances if they are expelled forcibly from the country, there is a danger of 50, 000 Sikh soldiers going out of control in India, and in order to bring them under control, we will have to send 200,000 soldiers.”

In 1910 the Canadian government passed a highly restrictive immigration law to practically prevent the entry of Indians to Canada. Under this law, it was made conditional that any person coming to Canada should travel directly from his country without any stoppage anywhere else, and must have a sum of $200 with him. No Ship sailed directly from India to Canada at that time. In addition, the Canadian government also did not allow the families of non-European persons to join them in Canada.

Indians in Canada sent a delegation (Balwant Singh and Narain Singh) in March, 1913 to London to present the problems to the British government. However, the Secretary of the Colonies, Harcourt, refused to see them.
Hindustani Ghadar Party was founded in April, 1913, by a gathering of Indian people in Astoria, Oregon, in the United States of America, under the name of Hindi Association of Pacific Coast. Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna was elected the President and Lala Hardayal the General Secretary. Right from its founding, Ghadar Party was convinced that petitions, appeals and representations to the imperialist powers were not going to achieve justice in India or in foreign lands. The only way forward was to participate in liberating the motherland from colonial slavery.

In the founding gathering of Ghadar Party, it was decided to organise Indian people the world over to help liberate India from colonial rule through the force of arms. For this purpose, a weekly newspaper called Ghadar, in Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi languages was to be published and distributed throughout the world, including within India.

The Constitution of the party banned any discussion on religion within the organisation. Religion was considered a private matter. However, anybody who believed in untouchability could not become a member. Members had to pay one dollar per month as membership. All members were duty bound to fight for the liberation of India.

Soon, branches of Ghadar Party were established in various cities in Canada and the US. The first issue of the Ghadar magazine was published on November 1, 1913 in Urdu, ten days later, the Punjabi issue came out. Masthead of the paper declared in very bold letters, Angrezi Raj ka Dushman (Enemy of the British Rule). Special issues of Ghadar were published in Gujarati, Nepali, Pashto and various other languages.
A magazine, Ghadar Di Goonj, containing a collection of poems which were published in the Ghadar in Punjabi, was also published from time to time. It became very popular and people recited these poems in political gatherings.

One of the poems published in the Ghadar says: Des paiyen Dhake, bahr dhoi koi naa, Sada pardesian da des koi na. (In our country we are harassed; in alien lands we have got no support, There is no land which we can call homeland)

By 1916 over one million copies of the Ghadar were printed and circulated throughout the world. The branches of Ghadar party were established in Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Argentina, Egypt, Turkey, Panama, France, Germany, Afghanistan and other countries.

The organisation was built around the newspaper Ghadar, which exposed British Colonial rule in India in very powerful and moving language. In the very first issue a list of fourteen points was printed, arguing that the British Raj is the source of all the misery of Indian people and this list was repeated in all the issues. Amongst them were: Ghadaris warned people not to accept anything less than complete independence of India. They told them that the leaders of Indian National Congress were not fighting for revolutionary change but half measures, such as some seats in provincial legislative assemblies. Such measures were not going to end famines or disease.
Ghadaris analysed the international situation and were certain that a world war was imminent. They wanted to utilise this inter-imperialist war for a revolution in India. As most members were Punjabi ex-soldiers, they had connections in the Indian army. They thus planned to create cells in the army to get them to revolt against the British.

In Canada, people had exhausted all available avenues to get justice against discriminatory immigration policies and laws which were used against Indians. Various groups of Indian immigrants had petitioned the authorities in Canada, London and Delhi, but were rebutted everywhere. They had knocked at the doors of courts of justice but to no avail.

The anger of Indian immigrants peaked with the Komagata Maru episode of 1914. Komagata Maru was the name of a ship hired by an Indian businessman, Baba Gurdit Singh (see “Stirring Legacy of Komagata Maru”, by Madhavi Thampi, GJH Vol 3, Issue 1&2)1. To recall briefly, Komagata Maru was engaged to bring Indian immigrants from Punjab to Vancouver Canada.

It left Hong Kong on April 4, 1914 after waiting for four days for a reply from Canadian government to a telegram sent by the governor of Hong Kong, informing it about Indian passengers sailing on it to arrive in Canada, and asking them if there are any problem with that. They never got a reply to this, and it sailed assuming that everything was alright

The British Columbian government refused the ship to dock in Vancouver, giving various excuses. They even refused it food, clean water or medicines. Some passengers had taken seriously ill. One of the four returning immigrants who were allowed to land after a long delay for no obvious reasons, died after a few days. The Indian community in Vancouver became so angry that they threatened to burn the city if the ship was not supplied with food and medicines. Even Gurdit Singh was not allowed to land in Vancouver. The lawyers were not allowed to go to the Ship to speak to the passengers, whom they were hired to represent.

They were kept waiting in the sea for two whole months, while Gurdit Singh with the help of Indian community lodged a case in court. Lawyers were hired using the 22,000 dollars collected by the Indian community for the case and for paying towards pending charges for hiring of the ship. A big meeting was held in Dominion Hall in Vancouver. A leading Ghadari, Hussain Rahim, solicitor Mr Bird and Mr Fitzgerald, a socialist, gave speeches condemning the racist attitude of the Canadian govt. Mr Fitzgerald gave his views that the passengers should go back to India and fight to liberate their country.

The court gave a verdict against the landing of passengers. In the end the ship sailed back to Hong Kong after the Canadian government agreed to supply the ship with fuel, food and other necessary provisions. Ghadaris boarded the ship and made speeches, gave revolutionary literature to the passengers. Some Ghadaris went to America and bought some pistols and ammunition to give to the passengers. The ship set sails to Hong Kong on 24 July, 1914. Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna had already left for India and met the Komagata Maru in Yokohama, Japan, where he bought some 200 pistols and 2000 live rounds of ammunition to smuggle to Komagata Maru. The plan did not succeed as the intelligence agents of the British were active everywhere, shadowing the Ghadaris.

Komagata Maru was denied anchor in Hong Kong or in Singapore on orders of the British government. In the end it reached Calcutta where it was directed to anchor 20 miles outside, in Budge Budge Harbour. The passengers were not allowed to go to Calcutta but forced onto the trains to Punjab. Some passengers asked for permission to deposit their holy book in a Gurdwara in Calcutta. They got no reply and they thought it was alright. They left the ship in a procession toward the Gurdwara. The police opened fire when they reached a railway crossing. Twenty six people were killed and some thirty five were seriously injured in this firing.

While the Ghadaris were active in full swing, imbuing their countrymen with the spirit of Desh Bhakti or patriotism, British Intelligence was also very active in tracking the movement of Ghadar party members. William Hopkinson was the main intelligence officer who reported to Canadian government in Ottawa, and the British in London and Delhi. Hopkinson had spread his network of informers in the Indian community in Canada as well as USA. One of the agents of Hopkinson, Bela Singh, shot and killed two prominent members of Ghadar party, Bhag Singh and Wattan Singh, in the Vancouver Gurdwara and injured another five people. Hopkinson was also instrumental in getting Lala Hardyal arrested in the US. It should be noted that Mewa Singh later shot and killed Hopkinson in a Vancouver Court where he was going to appear as a witness in support of Bela Singh, who was in the dock for the murder of Bhag Singh and Wattan Singh. Finally Bela Singh went back to India, where he was killed by patriots after nearly thirty years.

The First World War started in August, 1914. Ghadar Party had expected that a war will start and wanted to take advantage of this war to liberate India, and were making preparations for that, but it had started too soon. Komagata Maru affair also disrupted their plans. After passengers of Komagata Maru departed for India, Indians were called upon by the Party to go back to fight for the liberation of India. Thousands of Indians accepted this call, sold everything and gave money to party and went back on any ship they could get a seat on. Many of them got arrested as their ship reached Indian ports as the British government had passed a law called ingress law to permit police to detain any Indian when they get back to their own country.

According to official estimates some 8000 members of Ghadar party went back through various ports, including Bombay, Madras, Pondicherry, which was under French rule at that time, and Colombo. Nearly 2000 people were able to avoid arrests.

Kartar Singh Sarabha, a youth of hardly 18 years of age, was amongst those who eluded the police. He contacted all those who were still not apprehended and conducted meetings. They formed detachments to work amongst the British Indian Army to arouse them to revolt against the British. A nine member executive was elected to lead this work. They had made contacts with many native regiments in India as well as outside India and smuggled Ghadar newspaper and Veer Savarkar’s book on Ghadar of 1857 amongst them.

Regiments stationed in Lahore, Ferozepur, Sargodha, Bannu, Kohat, Ambala, Meerut, and many other cantonments had agreed to revolt, which was to start on 21 February, 1915 from Lahore. Contacts with revolutionaries in Bengal and UP were also established, who helped to make contacts with regiments outside Punjab. However, they had to bring the day of revolt forward to 19 February, as they had come to know that the plan has been leaked to the British. Even this date was leaked by the informer, Kirpal Singh. The British disarmed the affected regiments and court marshalled the leaders of the revolt. Many of them were hanged. The attempt at revolt inside India had failed. The British dealt ruthlessly with those who were arrested. Hundreds of Ghadaris were hanged, and hundreds more were imprisoned under harsh terms in prisons such as the infamous Andaman Jail.

But the revolutionaries did not lose heart. They organised revolts in the army troops that were fighting against the Germans on the eastern as well as western fronts. On the western front, under the leadership Maulwi Barkat Ullah and Taraknath Das, they worked with nationalist forces in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. Large amount of Ghadar literature was reprinted with help of Madam Kama which was distributed amongst Indian Soldiers.

Indian soldiers arrested by Germany and Turkey organised in Azad Fauj (Freedom Army) fought alongside Iranian nationalists against the British imperialists, and defeated its army in Karamsar and advanced till Karamsheer. Victories of Azad Fauj had encouraged the peasants in Baluchistan, who refused to pay taxes to the British. After the defeat of Turkish forces, their supply line was cut off and they had to retreat, for lack of ammunition. Some of the leaders like Sufi Amba Prasad got arrested there but those who escaped carried on guerrilla attacks on British and Tsarist armies until 1918.

Ghadaris were also very active on the eastern front during the war. Ghadar Party sent Pandit Sohan
Lal Pathak, Babu Harnam Singh Sahri, Bhai Santokh Singh and Bhai Bhagwan Singh to eastern front. They also took with them president of Manila branch of Ghadar Party, Mujtaba Hussain Jaunpuri. They were to establish a commando training camp in Thailand and a printing press to print and distribute Ghadar to Indian soldiers. A printing press was established in Thailand. In the first issue of Ghadar they printed Declaration of war against the British and also an appeal by the Turkish king to all Muslims to fights against the British.

They established their headquarters in Rangoon, Burma. The Baluch regiment in Singapore had revolted on 15 February, 1915 and had occupied the whole city and fought heroically for three days before the British could get help from a Japanese naval ship. The local Sultan also helped the British.

The Ghadaris had established contacts with Burmese revolutionaries and were preparing for the revolt in the British Indian army. The British found out about their plans from one of the distributors of Ghadar newspaper on Burma-Thailand border. Many leading Ghadaris were arrested in Thailand.

Soon after the First World War, Ghadaris made contacts with the Soviet Union, where workers had established a socialist state after overthrowing the tyrannical rule of the Russian Tsar. More than 14 countries, including Germany, England and USA, had attacked the newly formed worker’s state. Maulwi Barkat Ullah went to Soviet Union and worked amongst the Muslims of Central Asian Republics to expose the plans of imperialists and win them over to support the socialist state. He spoke in rallies organised in Masjids, villages and cities. He gave interviews to newspapers and wrote pamphlets about the nefarious schemes of imperialists to subjugate heir countries. Ghadaris also fought with Chinese revolutionaries for their liberation.

The October Revolution had profound influence on the thinking of Ghadar Party. They came to the conclusion that they had to prepare workers, peasants, youth and students for overthrowing the British rule. In order to do this, they worked on two fronts. First, they started their own newspaper within Punjab, called Kirti (worker), in Punjabi and Urdu. Second, they revived their work in foreign countries, to get support amongst Indian workers and also amongst progressive and socialist circles in support of India’s freedom.

To learn from the experience of Soviet Union they decided to send Indians to get ideological as well as military training in Soviet Union. Many Ghadaris from all over the world, including US, Canada and Argentina, went back to India after getting training in Soviet Union. Kirti was published every week continuously from 1926 to 1939. On its masthead was written, “Workers of the World, Unite!”. This paper stressed on organising workers, reported on the struggles of workers and peasants and exposed the tricks of the British rulers. It wrote about the life and work of martyrs hanged by the British colonialists. It also informed its readers about the life of workers and peasants in Soviet Union. It supported all the agitations for people’s rights, including religious rights. Shaheed Bhagat Singh also edited Kirti for some time.

The story of Hindustani Ghadar Party is a story that turns all theories of men being motivated only by “enlightened self-interest” upside down. It is a real story of self-sacrifice by thousands of people. It is a story of a giant leap made by impoverished immigrants – a story that connects the racial discrimination faced abroad to the subjugation of the motherland. It is a story of linking national liberation inevitably with social emancipation, equality of rights, justice and empowerment of the masses.

Hindustani Ghadar Party remains a source of inspiration to all progressive Indians at home and abroad, who are looking for a renewal of Indian society with the people at the centre-stage; and for putting a complete end to the colonial legacy in our politics, economy and in the very way we think. It is a story that has to be learnt and retold in this centenary year, because the struggle of our people is yet to reach its logical conclusion. The revolt continues. Ghadar Jari Hai!

Salvinder Dhillon and Dalwinder Atwal, London, UK.

For further reading:
1) Deol, Gurdev Singh The role of the Ghadar Party in the national movement, Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1969
2) Josh, Sohan Singh Hindustan Ghadar Party: a short history, New Delhi: People’s Pub. House, 1977
3) Puri, Harish K., Ghadar movement: A short history NBT, 2011
4) Ghadar, 1915: India’s First Armed Revolution, Khushwant Singh, Satindra Singh, R & K Publishing House, 1966
5) South Asian American Digital Archive