Saga of sacrifice

The Ghadar Movement was organised by Indian immigrants, mostly Punjabis in America and Canada, to violently overthrow British rule in India, writes Karanbir Singh

IN the annals of the Indian freedom struggle, there existed a heroic saga of silent sacrifices for the motherland which has been largely ignored by the electronic and print media since Independence. It was the Ghadar Movement organised by Indian immigrants, mostly Punjabis, in America and Canada during World War 1 to violently overthrow British rule of India. They utilised this opportunity to organise themselves on the principles of nationalism, patriotism and secularism, leaving aside the religious, communal, caste and regional tendencies in their home country from time immemorial.

Many participated with their lives in this spectacular adventure tilled with patriotic enthusiasm. Their aim was to establish a republican sovereignty of India. The British authorities termed it as a stereotyped xenophobic nationalism, which had a single agenda to get rid of the yoke of British by any means. The publicity organ of the Ghadar Party, The Ghadar, a weekly, was published in the Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati, Hindi and Pashto languages and circulated free of cost all over the world. It became a vehicle for spreading secular, nationalist and revolutionary ideas among members of the Indian community abroad.

The aim of Ghadar Party leaders Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna (left) and Kartar Singh Sarabha was to get rid of the yoke of the British and make India a sovereign republic
The aim of Ghadar Party leaders Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna (left) and Kartar Singh Sarabha was to get rid of the yoke of the British and make India a sovereign republic

In the first decade of the 20th century, many Indians migrated to North America in search of better avenues of employment. Of them, the illiterate or semi-literate labouring classes came exclusively from Punjab, and nearly 75 per cent of them were Sikhs from the districts of Ferozepore, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Amritsar, Lahore and some also from the native state of Patiala.

Indians approached the British consulate in Canada and America to address this situation, as they came here as British subjects and it was the responsibility of the British to protect them. But the government's response was arbitrary. Repeated appeals, memorandums and petitions by some political active Indians did not yield any positive response to problem situations of migrant Indians.

In the last years of the first decade of the 20th century in California and Oregon, some bold men among the immigrant farmers and labourers appeared restless for some substantive political activity. They were looking for a leader to guide them and to organise the Indians under a unified command. During the course of negotiations, it was decided to invite Har Dayal, an Indian scholar par excellence and an exile revolutionary, for doing the spadework in revolutionary activity. After his arrival in May 1913, a Hindi Association of the Pacific Coast was established in Portland under the presidentship of Sohan Singh Bhakna. It was later renamed as Ghadar Party.

In the subsequent meetings of the party, it was decided to carry out direct and effective propaganda on the western Pacific Coast, where most of the Punjabi migrants worked. The leaders of the community got positive response from the Indian immigrants. For the effective coordination between the members of the party, a working committee was formed and it was decided to establish the party headquarters at Yugantar Ashram, San Francisco, and circulate The Ghadar free of cost. A series of meetings were held subsequently at different work centres of Indians in the states of Oregon and Washington. A final meeting in which the representatives from different places were called was held in Astoria, where leaders of the party, Sohan Singh Bhakna, Dayal, Kartar Singh Sarabha, Raghubar Dayal, Harnam Singh Tundilat etc, emphasised that the association would be secular and nationalistic in its political activities. Religion was to be regarded as a private affair.

The Ghadar newspaper played a very important role in establishing the units of the Ghadar Party in different places. It was first published in Urdu language and then in Gurmukhi in November 1913. The masthead of the paper carried a declaration as to its character, Angrezi Raj Ka Dushman (Enemy of the English Rule), and exhortation to take weapons for the cause of independence. Ghadar poems marked by secular and revolutionary zeal made powerful impact on the people.

With the outbreak of World War 1, Ghadar propaganda also gathered momentum and a series of public meetings were addressed by Sohan Singh, Bhagwan Singh, Comrade Ramchandra and Mohammed Barkatullah.

At this time the party was not properly organised; the most crucial meeting was held in Sacramento, which decided that it was better to do something and die than let the opportunity of war slip out of hands. Many Ghadarites arrived in India. En route they openly infused rebellious sentiment among Indian soldiers stationed at Hong Kong, Singapore and Rangoon.

Meanwhile, the Government of India was sufficiently well informed about the designs, movements and the temper of returning Ghadarites. The atmosphere in the country was marked by loyalty to the British Crown for individual gains. However, leaders such as Kartar Singh Sarabha and Harnam Singh Tundilat made their efforts to organise a military coup with the active help of Bengali revolutionaries on February 21, 1915. The British intelligence succeeded in penetrating into the loose structure of the Ghadar Party, which simply led to the failure of scheme so very cleverly envisaged by the immigrant sons of the soil. Many Ghadarites were arrested, imprisoned, deported and even hanged in the ensuing events.

The writer is a research scholar in the Department of History, Panjab University, Chandigarh