By Ahmed Kamran
Although almost forgotten among the younger generations of today’s India and Pakistan, it has generally been believed by those few who are aware of this part of our common history that the Hindustan Ghadar Party (more commonly known as the Ghadar Party) was founded in California with headquarter in San Francisco. Few trace its origins to the Sikh Gurdwara in Stockton, California. Others believed that the small revolutionary group of Indians that was, later, converted into the Ghadar Party was founded in 1913 in the small town of Astoria, Oregon.
Recently, the Ghadar Party and its history have also come into the limelight of some US academic circles. Johanna Ogden, a history researcher, drawing upon her University of British Columbia MA thesis (2010), Oregon and Global Insurgency: Punjabis of the Columbia River Basin wrote an article Ghadar, Historical Silences, and Notions of Belonging: Early 1900s Punjabis of the Columbia River for the Oregon Historical Quarterly in April 2011. The article was sent by the Journal to Dr Bruce La Brack, a cultural anthropologist and South Asian specialist at the University of the Pacific, Stockton, California for review. This was the beginning of their joint work, and their subsequent collaboration with the Oregon Historical Society and Astoria City Council has resulted in the plans by the City of Astoria, Oregon, to celebrate the centenary of the founding meeting of the Ghadar Party in that city, currently scheduled for October 1-5, 2013. The celebratory activities may include a festival of Sikh or Sikh-themed films, a public display of portions of the UC-Berkeley “Echoes of Freedom” travelling exhibit, and some symposia or lecture/conference. Reportedly, the City of Astoria is even considering initiating a “Sister City” relationship with Amritsar. This information is based on a recent note published jointly by Dr Bruce La Brack and Johanna Ogden, appealing to the Sikh and Indian community, particularly living in Oregon, California and other adjoining states to join the celebratory events at Astoria in large numbers to make it successful.1
A Congressional resolution recognizing the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Ghadar party in the US has also been reportedly introduced by the two Congressmen in the House of Representatives.2
What was the Ghadar Party and who were these people?
After India’s Great War of Independence failed in September 1857, the people of India witnessed a wave of terror and brutalities, wanton destruction and razing to the ground of a large part of the Capital City of Delhi. Summary execution and public hanging of people, both of common origin and prominent members of the deposed ruling elite of the Indian society, was a daily sight. Thousands were executed across India with vengeance.
Faced with excessive repression, heavy taxes, destruction of indigenous small-scale crafts and local skill sets unfavorably positioned in competition with European finished products promoted in the local markets, a large number of Indians felt increasingly hard pressed. Evictions from hereditary lands in the rural areas and a general economic down turn compelled a large number of skilled workers from Indian towns and landless peasants from rural hinterland (Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims) to enroll themselves as indentured labour with English traders, planters, and farmers to be taken to remote parts of the vast British colonial empire. As R. Palme Dutt3, in his seminal book India Today observes that while ‘in England, the ruin of the old handloom weavers was accompanied by the growth of the new machine industry. But in India the ruin of millions of artisans and craftsmen was not accompanied by any alternative growth of new forms of industry’.4
The old populous manufacturing towns, Dacca, Murshidabad (which Clive had described in 1775 to be ‘as extensive, populous and rich as the city of London’), Surat and the like, were in a few years rendered desolate under the ‘pax Britannica’ with a completeness which no ravages of the most destructive war or foreign conquest could have accomplished. ‘The decay and destruction’, reported Montgomery Martin, the early historian of the British Empire, ‘of Surat, of Dacca, of Murshidabad and other places where native manufactures have been carried on , is too painful a fact to dwell upon. I do not consider that it has been in the fair trade course of trade; I think it has been the power of the stronger exercised over the weaker.’5
During second half of the 19th century and early 20th century, thousands of Indians were carried off as cheap indentured labour to Malaya, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Fiji, and Canada. To escape from hunger and repression, many Indian poor left their homes and hearths seeking opportunities of employment in the colonies. A fairly large number of these emigrants were Sikhs from Punjab. These Indians were mainly working as coolies in sea ports, construction sites, railway works, and as farm workers on plantations and forest logging areas. By early 20th century there were a sizable number of Indian workers spread all over Malaya, Indo-China, China, Pacific Islands, Japan, California, West Indies, South America, and Canada. Hardy and enterprising people, as they were, many of these Indians earned a good living and grew comfortable also. But in a highly racist and discriminatory society as these colonies still were, the Indians were generally treated at work places, restaurants, and on the streets with insult and contempt.
Thoroughly discontented with their painful situation in these foreign lands and, simultaneously, getting exposed to the modern political developments and revolutionary ideas in the West, many of the Indians keenly realized that they may never get a fair and equal treatment in the colonies unless their own country was free from colonial rule and counted as an independent country in the comity of nations. More energetic among them and enthused with the ideas of freedom, equality, and fraternity, started organising themselves for participating in activities for their rights as well as for the independence and freedom of their own homeland in India.
One Tarak Nath Das from Bengal founded an Indian Independence League and started its monthly magazine Free Hindustan in Vancouver in early 1908. This was probably the first South Asian publication in Canada, and one of the first in North America. Together with Tarak’s Free Hindustan, his colleague Guran Dutt Kumar started its Gurmukhi edition, Swadesh Sevak. With Tarak Nath’s swift expulsion from Canada by the middle of 1908, he moved to Seattle, Washington in USA and brought out his paper Free Hindustan from Seattle in July 1908. These and few other magazines that were being published from various cities in North America advocated for an armed struggle in India against the British. An East India Association was also formed in 1911 with similar objectives. Similarly, in a meeting of Indian workers and students held at Portland, Oregon in 1912 The Hindustani Association was formed. It was also decided to start an Urdu weekly newspaper, India. The Association was headed now by a relatively affluent Indian, Pandit Kashi Ram. He was soon joined by Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna.
Sohan Singh Bhakna and Bhai Udham Singh Kasel were laid off from their jobs and they went to Astoria, Oregon to see their friend Bhai Kesar Singh. There a branch of the party was opened with Bhai Kesar Singh, Munshi Karim Bakhsh and Shri Munshi Ram as President, Secretary and Treasurer respectively. Only five or six meetings were held when G. D. Kumar, who was to start the Urdu weekly paper India, fell sick and the paper could not be started. During this time Lala Thakuar Dass (Dhuri) came to Portland to see Sohan Singh Bhakna and Kashi Ram. He advised them to send for Lala Hardyal from Stanford and entrust him the work of running the paper. Hardayal, together with Bhai Parmanand reached Oregon in the last week of March, 1913.
A movement for establishing a unified party of the Indian revolutionaries was now seemingly gaining ground. On 12 April, 1913, a meeting was held in the Sikh Gurdwara at Stockton near San Francisco by Khalsa Diwan Society, which was also attended by Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna from Astoria. A series of other meetings were reportedly held in March through May 1913 at various places, including, Fresno, Sacramento, Oxnard, Upland, Claremont, and Los Angeles in California, Astoria and Washington in Oregon, and at Seattle in Washington.
The Daily Budget, a paper being published from Astoria, Johanna Ogden says, ‘printed a notice on May 30, 1913, announcing an invitation to hear Har Dayal, a Stanford professor and ‘noted philosopher and revolutionist in India’. Dayal delivered a lecture on India’. Coinciding with this occasion, probably on 7 June, 1913, a Hindi Association of the Pacific Coast was founded in a meeting that took place in Finnish Socialist Hall in Astoria. Reportedly, about 200 participants represented from different cities and regions.
Following was decided in this founding meeting6.
- To liberate India with the force of arms from British servitude and to establish a free and independent India with equal rights for all.
- To establish headquarters in San Francisco, that would serve as a base to coordinate all the activities for achieving these aims and objectives. The San Francisco office was to be named as Ghadar Ashram or “Uganter Ashram.
- To publish a weekly newspaper, Ghadar, in Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi and in other languages of India.
- To hold organisational elections every year to elect a coordination committee from the different committees to carry out all the work.
- No discussion or debate was to take place on religion within the organization. Religion was considered a personal matter and that it had no place in the organization.
The party’s program clearly reflected a democratic and secular outlook of the founding fathers. These people were not communists or some political workers under the influence of a socialist country. The Soviet revolution was still four years away, and the Russian Bolshevik party itself was facing severe repression at home and abroad. Predominantly Punjabis and Sikhs, but many others had come from different cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions.
At the initial gathering in Astoria in 1913, Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna was elected President, Kesar Singh and Jawala Singh as Vice Presidents, Lala Hardayal, General Secretary & Editor Ghadar in Urdu, Lala Thakur Das Dhuri, Joint Secretary, Pandit Kanshi Ram as Treasurer, and Kartar Singh as Editor, Ghadar, Punjabi. Others who were present as the founding members included, Harnam Singh, Karim Bukhsh, Bhai Permanand, Santokh Singh, Rehmat Ali, GD Verma, Balwant Singh, and V.G. Pingle.
The legacy of 1857 War of Independence (Ghadar) had always been a powerful motivation and a singular point of reference for the Indian revolutionaries since then. A precursor of the Ghadar paper, another magazine the Talvar, which was printed in Berlin, had on its front page in its April-May 1910 issue a couplet from Bhadur Shah Zafar, the last emperor of India and a symbolic leader of the Ghadar of 1857. The lead article was dedicated to May 10, 1857, the date of the first uprising at Meerut, and was written,
‘In memory of
Rani Lakshmi Bai and her comrades
Mandar and Kashi
Rana Kunwar Singh
Maulvi Ahmad Shah
Ghulam Ghaus Khan
and those tens of thousands of men and women who perished in 1857 in the sacred attempt to wrench the mother from the hands of the Faranghi’.7
The concept and memory of Ghadar was so powerfully ingrained and deeply associated with this newly formed Hindi Association of the Pacific Coast and, perhaps, because of its widely distributed organ Ghadar, the party itself was, later, named as the ‘Hindustan Ghadar Party’.
The first issue of the Ghadar in Urdu appeared on the 1st of November 1913. The Punjabi edition of the paper in Gurmukhi script was brought out in December 1913, and a third edition in Gujrati was published in May 1914. Initially, the party headquarter was established at a rented location – 436 Hill Street, San Francisco – but, later, it moved to its own three-storey building at 5 Wood Street, purchased with the funds collected from members and mostly Punjabi Indian laborers. On January 22, 1917, the movement was also officially registered as the ‘Hindustan Ghadar Party’ in San Francisco, to comply with the American law, with its headquarters at 5 Wood Street, San Francisco8.
An electric press was installed for printing weekly Ghadar and other revolutionary publications. Apart from its weekly paper, the Party also published several pamphlets, appeals, and ‘Open Letters’ addressed to Indians at large. Few of these pamphlets included Ailan-e-Jang (War Declaration) in Urdu, Naya Zamana (New Age) in Urdu, The Balance Sheet of British Rule in English, and Ghadar Di Goonj (The Resounding Echo of Mutiny) in Punjabi.
Ghadar Di Goonj was an anthology of revolutionary poems. The simple poetry was hard hitting:
Kuli Kuli Pukarda Jag Saanun
Saada Jhulda Kitey Nishan Kiyon Nahin
Kidoon Bachangey Sada Ghulam Rah key
Saanun Rajniti Wala Giyan Kiyon Nahin
Dhayi Totru Kha Gaye Khet Saada
Hindustan da Koi Kisan Kiyon Nahin
(We are called coolies, coolies everywhere
Why not our own banner is unfurled anywhere?
Would we always live a life of a slave?
Why don’t we know the science of politics?
A few people have taken away our land
Why is it not to a tiller of Hindustan?)
Marna Bhala, Ghulami di Zindagi tun
Nahin Sukhan eh Man Bhulaavney Da
Mulk Jaagyaya Cheen Jo Ghook Suta
Dhol Vajyaya Hind Jagaawanney Da
Saanun Laur Na Panditan Di, Na Kazian Di
Nahin Shok Hai Berra Dubavaney Da
Jap Jaap Da Waqt Bateet Hoya
Vella Aa Giya Tegh Uthavney Da
Parhkey Ghadar Akhbar nun Khabar Lagi
Vela Aa Giya Ghadar Machavaney Da!
(Better to die, than live a life of servitude,
We should never forget this saying.
China has awakened from its sleep
Battle drums of Hindustan’s awakening are sounding
We don’t need any Pandit(Hindu schlolar) or Kazi (Muslim Maulvi)
As we do not want our ship to sink.
The time for prayers and Puja is over
Now is the time to pick up the sword
Reading Ghadar, we got to know;
The time for revolt has finally come!)
Bhukhey Marnn Bacchey Kaall Vich Sadey
Khatti Khann Saadi Englistan Walley
Kannak Beejkey Khann Nun Jaun Mildey
Paisa Chhad dey Nahin Laggan Valley
Laayiya Tax Firangiyan Bahut Yaaro
Bhukhey Marann Gharib Dukaan Valley
Karo Paltan Nun Khabardar Jaakey
Sutey Payey Kiyon Tegh Chalaan Valley
Musalmaan, Pathan, Balwan, Dogar
Singh Soormey, Yudh Machaann Valley
Hindustaniyan Morchey Fatey Keetey
Burma, Misar te Cheen, Sudan Valley
(Our children are dying in famines
The English are enjoying the fruit or our toil
We sow wheat but we get barley to eat
We are not left with a penny, all is taken by the tax collectors
The English have levied heavy taxes
Poor shopkeepers are dying of hunger
Go and arouse the army
Why those who wield the sword are asleep?
Muslims, Pathans, Warriors, and Dogras
Valiant Sikhs, the Battle Criers
Hindustanis winning battles in
Burma, Egypt, China, and in Sudan)9
I couldn’t help reproducing the above few couplets to give an idea of the pathos of this poetry. It’s powerful and moving even today, after so much water has flown down the bridge during last about 100 years.
2. The Times of India, US & Canada News, June 15, 2013
3. Rajni Palme Dutt was a prominent member and Marxist theoretician of the British Communist Party. R. Palme Dutt was born in England in 1896 to Upendra Dutt, a surgeon of Indian origin and mother Anna Palme from Sweden. Anna Palme was the great aunt of the future Prime Minister of Sweden, Olaf Palme (1969-1976). R.P. Dutt remained loyal to the CPGB and supported the Soviet Union. He died in 1974.
4. R. Palme Dutt, India Today, Book Traders, Lahore, 1979, Pg.119
5. R. Palme Dutt, op. cited, Pg.120
6. Dr. Jaspal Singh, History of the Ghadar Movement
8. The Ghadar Party office at 5, Wood Street, San Francisco, was handed over to the Indian Consulate office when the party was formally dissolved in the USA. It is now a Ghadar Museum in a building rebuilt in 1975 by the Govt. of India and the local Indian community.
9. Dr. Jaspal Singh, op cited.
To be continued…