Ghadar Movement

The Ghadar Movement was an important episode in India’s freedom struggle. A ship named Komagatamaru, filled with Indian immigrants was turned back from Canada. As the ship returned to India several of its passengers were killed or arrested in a clash with the British police. This incident made the Ghadar Party proclaim war and inspired thousands of Indian immigrants to come back and organise an armed rebellion against British imperialism. However, this movement was crushed. This article deals with the important events of Ghadar Movement.

Original name of Ghadar Party was Pacific Coast Hindustan Association. The founding president of Ghadar Party was Sohan Singh Bhakna and Lala Hardayal was the co-founder of this party. Headquarters of the movement were set up at Yugantar Ashram in San Francisco.

19th Century: Sikh sentiments towards Raj during Mutiny

At the end of the second Anglo-Sikh war in 1849, the Khalsa sovereignty was put to an end, and Punjab was annexed into the territories of East India Company by Lord Dalhousie. But, one of the important consequences of the Anglo-Sikh wars was that they gave substance to the Sikh valour in the eyes of the British.

Notwithstanding the initial efforts to disband the Sikh army, the British saw an opportunity in a Sikh soldier who could help them firmly establish the Raj on Indian soils.

Within a decade happened the Mutiny of 1857. The Sikhs saw this mutiny nothing more than an attempt by Marathas to bring back the old order of Mughals. The Sikhs sided with the British in 1857 and the Sikh princes backed the East India Company by providing soldiers as well as support. There were four primary reasons to this.

  • Firstly, Sikhs never wanted the Mughals to return to power in Delhi, thanks to the bitter past.
  • Secondly, Sikhs were already anguished against the Indian soldiers (Bengal sepoys / Poorbia sepoys / Rajputs / Marathas etc.) in the British army who had sided with the British during Anglo-Sikh wars and were hunting for chances to take it back on them.
  • Thirdly, the idea of Indian nationalism was not ripe at that time and the early nationalism of the Sikhs was Punjabi and not the Indian. The Sikhs resented the presence of Eastern Troops (Poorbia sepoys) in Punjab and were eager to take an chance of getting their own back on the Bengal sepoy, this time with the British on their side.
  • Fourthly, British won the confidence of the Sikhs by tolerating their religious sentiments and making suitable changes in army recruitment process by allowing the baptized Sikhs to observe Sikh code of conduct and wear the five emblems of Sikhism.

These steps undertaken by British finally culminated in form of loyalties of the Sikhs in Anglo-Burmese war of 1852 and against the nomad tribe on the North West frontier. They played a role in crushing the 1857 revolt. Frederic Cooper, the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar, Punjab during 1857 also had serious doubts about the Sikh participation in the mutiny. He was able to maintain the trust of Sikhs in the British rule throughout the revolt. The appreciation of the role of Sikhs was recorded in secret correspondence of the British.

The Sikhs were duly rewarded by giving special ranks in the newly reformed British army. The Sikhs which constituted only 2% population of British India formed over 30% of Indian army. This association was carried on smoothly till the World Wars in which again the Sikh soldiers participated in largest amount.

Early 20th Century: Sikh exodus to distant lands and resentment towards British

The 1890s and the following years saw a massive migration of a huge number of landless peasants, ex-soldiers from Jullundhar and Hoshiarpur districts of Punjab to Hong Kong and further east to Canada and USA. While many belonged to land-constrained areas and went in search of better pastures and means of survival; others were the ones who had served in the British Indian Army and had awareness of the abundant opportunities abroad.

These immigrants mainly indulged in labor work in Canada and some secretly crossed borders to West Coast and made settlements in cities like Portland, San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles. The Punjabis gradually created their own niches and established micro-societies. The promised lands then closed doors to the fresh immigrants. In addition the settlers were racially discriminated against by the Whites. The ones which had just gone from the villages and were not aware of the western culture and mannerisms were even refused entry. The American whites launched agitations against the incoming South Asians calling it the so called “Brown Invasion“. The rise in hostilities towards Indian immigrants led to strong opinion against the British government back as the latter had refused to intervene as against Japanese and Chinese governments who actively supported their citizens. The Canadian government which was under British rule responded by harassing the immigrants and further tightened the immigration rules for Indians. The Canadian government established a “Continuous Passage Act” to stop the immigrants particularly from India. The “Continuous Passage Act” was a bizarre law, which required that the Indians will have to directly come from the country of their birth/citizenship via a continuous journey on tickets purchased before they left their home country. The Indians were also required to possess a sum of $200 which was an unthinkable sum for many Indians who only earned a few cents in a day. Canada had its own legitimate reasons for not supporting the cause of Indian immigrants abroad. These included:

  • Fear of familiarity with western cultures
  • Intermingling of cultures will eventual damage British pride
  • Spread of socialist ideas among immigrant Indians
  • Knowledge of revolutions can lead to national agitation

Lala Hardayal, India House and launch of Ghadar Party

The Surat split of 1907 followed suppression of the extremists. But at the same in time in London, numerous informal nationalist organizations were working. The most important among them was the India House. After 1910, the activities of India House had declined and the cradle of activities shifted from Europe to America. Lal Hardayal was In India till 1909, when he moved to Paris and associated himself with a newspaper Vande Mataram over there.

India House

The India House was based in London and was established by Shyamji Krishna Verma to promote the nationalist views among the Indians of Britain.

It published a newspaper “The Indian Sociologist” which used its subtitle -An Organ of Freedom, and Political, Social, and Religious Reform. Several revolutionaries got associated with the India house and most important ones are V D Savarkar and Madan Lal Dheengra. Others were V.N. Chatterjee, Lala Har Dayal, V. V. S. Aiyar, M.P.T. Acharya and P.M. Bapat. All of them later laid the foundation of militant nationalism in India. The newspaper was later banned for sedition.

In 1911 he settled in San Francisco and indulged in Industrial Unionism. In 1913, Pacific Coast Hindustan Association was founded by Lala Hardayal with Sohan Singh Bhakna as its president, which was called Ghadar Party. The members of this party were the immigrant Sikhs of US and Canada. The first issue of The Ghadar, was published from San Francisco on November 1, 1913. Later it got published in Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi and other languages also.

The Ghadar

The masthead of the paper carried the inscription in bold letters,”Angrezi Raj ka Dushman” and also had a feature article on the front page of each issue under the title, “Angrezi Raj ka Kacha Chittha“. It went far beyond the American borders to reach Indians in Canada, Malay States, Hong Kong, Philippines, Honduras, Singapore, Trinidad and India. It got widespread attention, appreciation and acceptance. People were moved by the views expressed in it and were motivated to join hands with Ghadar leadership for the common cause.

The government hostility towards Indians continued unabated. Ghadar party which came into being saw new leadership take charge after Lala Hardayal was arrested for a hate speech he had made against the British rule in India 3 years ago.

The Komagatamaru Tragedy 1914

As mentioned above, the circumstances were not in favour of Indian / Sikh immigrants in west and they were subject to all kinds of racial / political / procedural discriminations. The continuous immigration of Indians, particularly Sikhs had already irked the Canadian natives and authorities. It was a fear that Indians would take their jobs. In such backdrop, the Komagatamaru Incidence was one of the first Indian challenges to colonist British beyond the pacific Coast.

About Steamship : Komagatamaru

Gurdit Singh, a Sikh from a small village in Punjab was a son of a small time farmer near Amritsar. Father of Gurdit Singh left Punjab and moved to Malaysia. He became a small time contractor over there. In 1885, Gurdit Singh joined his father and later he established a steamship company. This company had leased a Japanese steamship Komagatamaru.

The Canadian “Continuous Passage Act” was enacted to stop the so called “Brown Invasion’ from Asia, particularly India. This law required that the immigrants must travel nonstop to their country of the birth. At that time there was no direct ship from India and the journey of the Komagatamaru was set to circumvent this law. The ship had sailed from Hong Kong to Vancouver in 1914, aboard 376 passengers including 240 Sikhs, 24 Muslims and 12 Hindus. The ship arrived on 23 May 1914 at Vancouver. The Canadian authorities refused to allow the passengers to go ashore. Gurdit Singh, owner of the ship; was pressurized to pay the charter dues in one go. He said he would do so after selling the cargo but the ship was not allowed to unload its cargo. The Indians at Vancouver started agitations against the government. After some confrontation, the only 24 passengers were admitted to Canada and the ship was forced back to India carrying rest all. After a return voyage, the Komagatamaru docked at Hooghly’s Budge Budge harbour. Here, the British government treated these passengers as rebels. The ship was searched and the Sikhs were herded in trains to force them back to Punjab. When some of them refused, Police opened fire killing 18 people. 200 people were herded in jails. The incident became famous as Budge Budge riot. Gurdit Singh escaped the Police and he surrendered in 1921, after 7 years.

Notably, Ghadar published the following advertisement

Wanted: Enthusiastic and heroic soldiers for organizing Ghadar in Hindustan:
→Remuneration: Death

→Reward : Martyrdom

→Pension : Freedom

→Field of work: Hindustan

Implications of Komagatamaru incident on Indian History

The incident made its imprint in the historical annals merely due to indifference shown by the British rule towards the agonized passengers of the doomed carrier. The incident gathered widespread criticism and was the most notorious attempt by the Canadian government to contain the entry of British citizens of Indian descent into Canada. The action was supported by Canadian media by putting alerts saying,’ Mounting Oriental Invasion’.

Arrival of Ghadar in India and suppression

The most notable happening was the onset of World War I in which British energies and forces were severely spent. The British Army was largely comprised of the Sikh soldiers. The Ghadarites regarded it as a golden opportunity to establish self-rule in India. The leaders decided to move to India and mobilise the anti-Britain sentiments further amongst the civilian population and the Indian recruits into the British army. Ailan-e-Jung or Proclamation of War was issued and circulated among Indians settled in various countries to arouse them to go to India and give shape to an armed rebellion.

The government CID had already broken into the Ghadar movement, which made British aware of the Ghadar plans and helped them control the movement in the budding stage itself in India. Resultantly all the main brass of the Ghadar was immediately arrested on their arrival at India. With this arrest the Ghadar movement came to an abrupt end to settle in the arms of history forever. The mistakes made by Ghadar revolutionaries are show in adjacent graphics.

Relevance of Ghadar Movement

The Ghadar movement can be described as tale of extreme valour, hard-work, toil which has reached the heart of every Indian settled on distant lines. The powerful speeches by its leaders did shape the NRI opinion against the misrule of British in India. It truly qualifies for a major struggle which aroused the people internationally and sowed seeds for any other future course of action. The immediate results would have been different had the then leaders introduced proper organization and had given more time to study the general mood of the population. As we complete 100 years from when the incident took place, we salute the zeal, the energy and the speed with which they steered the way to success.

Ghadar Activism- Racial Project versus attempt to overthrow British Empire

One cannot deny from the fact that the Ghadar activism was a racial projection which emerged out of racial exclusion and so called “brown invasion” theory of the whites. But, as evident in the words of Maia Ramnath, the Ghadar Movement had charted global radicalism and attempted to overthrow the British Empire. The movement as well as the Ghadar Party was indigenous to California and was founded to overthrow the British Rule. The political activism and radicalism of the Ghadar movement was first and foremost directed at promoting Indian Independence. It charted global radicalism because of its unique ability to forge an identity for South Asians in the United States, where, it not only sought freedom for India but also aimed to achieve dignity and respect for South Asians in first world. The Ghadar party collectively painted of the South Asians immigrants as “nationalists”. Before the Ghadar movement was launched, the radicalism in students at Berkley led them to launch a newspaper “Free Hindustan”, which contained nationalistic writings. But it was Lala Har Dyal, a founder of the Ghadar Party and lecturer at Stanford University, who tapped into the energy of students and radicalise them more towards achieving the objective of Free Hindustan. Lala Hardayal called the students to prepare to become great patriots and wonderful warriors. He electrified their views by saying that ” anybody can be a Collector, or an Engineer, or a Barrister, or a Doctor, but what India needs is warriors of freedom. Better death in that noble cause than living as slaves of the British Empire.”

Women Activists of the Ghadar Movement

The role of women activists in the Ghadar Movement was no less than their male counterparts. The most notable women activists in the Ghadar Movement were Gulab Kaur, Bhikaji Cama and Agnes Smedley (American)

Gulab Kaur

Gulab Kaur was a native of Bakshiwala village in Sangrur district of Punjab. Due to economic hardships, Gulab along with her Husband had moved to Phillipines for an onward jounrey to America in 1914. But when a ship, SS Korea, reached Manila for an onward journey to India, Gulab boarded it to work with Ghadarites, including Kartar Singh Sarabha. She left her husband to work with Ghadrites, while her husband refuse to participate in any radical activities. She was arrested from Naudh Singh Wala and tortured at Lahore’s Shahi Quila. She died in 1931.

Bhikaji Cama

Bhikaji Cama, who is best known for founding the Paris Indian Society; was born in a wealthy Parsi family in Mumbai in 1861. She was named Bhikaji Sorab Patel and became Bhikaji Rustom Cama after her marriage. She not only worked in the slums of Mumbai during outbreak of plague but also left her husband to work selflessly for the poor people afflicted with the disease. She fell sick and was taken to Germany for treatment. Later, she went to England to work with the Indian revolutionaries. On 22 August 1907, Madam Cama had unfurled a self-designed tricolour in Stuttgart town of Germany. This enraged the British. She then later moved to US and worked with the Ghadar activists.

Agnes Smedley

Agnes Smedley was a journalist and writer, born on February 23, 1892 at Missouri in US, was known more for her autobiographical novel “Daughter of Earth” wherein she described her association with the Indian freedom struggle. Despite no similarity in culture and traditions, Agnes came in close contact with Lala Lajpat Rai, M N Roy, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, Shailendranath Ghose, Bhagwan Singh and Taraknath Das in US during World War-I and served as a communication volunteer for Indian revolutionaries and oversaw Ghadar party’s various publications.

Notable Trivia:

  • The eventual course of action for the Ghadar party in 1914 was moulded by 3 isolated but highly charged incidents viz. Arrest of Lala Hardayal, Komagatamaru incident and First World War.
  • After Lala Hardayal was compelled to leave USA, he moved to Germany and set up the Indian Independence Committee at Berlin. The committee had a plan to mobilise Indians living abroad, to help revolutionaries in India and finally through an arms struggle and also may be through an attack, free India from British rule.
  • Budge Budge railway station on Kolkata’s outskirts was the place where many Sikhs fell to the bullets of the British after their ship, Komagatamaru, was forced to return to Indian waters from Canada. The Government of India has renamed the railway station as “Komagatamaru Budge Budge station” to salute the martyrs of September 29, 1914.
  • Bhagat Singh was deeply impressed by the Ghadar Movement from a tender age and that he regarded Kartar Singh Sarabha as his hero. Bandi Jeewan by Sachindranath Sanyal, which included the first historical account of the movement by an insider, was “a basic textbook” which he and his friends at the National School at Lahore read and discussed. The Rowlett Committee Report of 1918, containing the British Government’s secret intelligence version of the Ghadar movement, was another.

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