By Ahmed Kamran
Call for Revolt
With the extensive organizational work of the Ghadar Party among Indians spread all over the world, soon party organizations sprang up in China, Malaya, Siam (Thailand), Europe, the Philippines, Africa, Hong Kong, Singapore, Panama, Argentina, Brazil, Iran, Afghanistan, Japan, Russia, and Canada. In a few years, by 1916, it is estimated that about one million copies of Ghadar were published every week. Special issues of Ghadar were also printed in Nepali, Bengali, Pashto, Gujarati, and many other languages.
After the outbreak of WW1 and Great Britain joining it in August 1914, the Ghadar Party, taking this moment as an opportunity for itself, decided to organize a revolt in the Indian army against the British rulers. Many of the party workers had served in the army at some time in their careers. They were aware of some working of armed forces and its organizational structure and they had the confidence, perhaps a little misplaced, that they could work together with the rank and file Indian soldiers of the British army and be able to persuade them to join the rebels. In their heightened enthusiasm, the assumption that all Indian soldiers in the British army were ready for the rebellion was, it seems, almost taken for granted. With their experience, they knew, and quite rightly, that Britain could only keep India in its subjugation with the help of its army.
At this stage, a number of Indian revolutionaries who had been independently engaged in the struggle for the independence of India in different parts of the world and inside India started gravitating towards the Ghadar Party for participating in a unified struggle for the liberation of their homeland. Many freedom loving Indians from all walks of life, regions and religions had joined the struggle.
Maulvi Barkatullah Bhopali, little known today but an outstanding and dedicated revolutionary, joined Ghadar Party’s efforts in Hong Kong. He had reached Hong Kong, after being expelled from Japan in November 19141. Born in Bhopal in 1859 shortly after the great war of independence, in a family that was experiencing immense sufferings owing to its participation in the war of independence in 1857, Barkatullah became a staunch revolutionary. Hunted by the police, he somehow reached Bombay and slipped to London on a ship sailing from Bombay port in 1887. In London, Barkatullah was part of the group of Shyam Krishan Verma, who was later instrumental in setting up the ‘India House’ in London (to be discussed further in the post on the ‘Berlin Committee’).
While in London, Barkatullah was well respected in political and academic circles for his erudite scholarship. He worked with well known British historian Stanley Lane-Poole on his well-known work Medieval India under Mohammedan Rule. Returning to India in 1897 after 20 years in London, Barkatullah became an active member of a revolutionary group in Calcutta, carrying out violent struggle against British rule. He was sentenced to death in 1905 after his arrest in Calcutta on account of armed revolutionary activities. On account of his high academic stature, Barkatullah’s capital punishment was, however, converted into exile, only a few hours before he was about to be hanged. Maulvi Barkatullah reached Japan and was teaching at Tokyo University while bringing out anti-British journals. Owing to his participation in anti-British activities, upon insistence of the British Ambassador, Barkatullah’s service with Tokyo University was terminated in 1912. Unemployed and with little means, he lived a frugal life providing tuitions to the University students but he continued with is activities and contributing articles for the journal Muslim World. Finally, much agitated with his anti-imperialist activities, the British government compelled the Japanese government to expel Maulvi Barkatullah from Japan in November 19142. He reached Hong Kong and joined Ghadar Party that was initially set up in Hong Kong by Bhai Bhagwan Singh who had by now himself sailed to the USA and was at the party’s headquarter in San Francisco3. Barkatullah played a key role in the organization of the Ghadar Party’s diplomatic efforts.
After a British agent made an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Barkatullah in Hong Kong, the Ghadar Party managed to send him to the party headquarter in San Francisco. From San Francisco, in coordination with the Berlin Committee, Barkatullah was sent to Turkey in June 1915 for mustering international diplomatic support for the planned armed uprising in India. Barkatullah quietly sneaked out of USA in a clean shaven disguise, reached East Africa and managing to obtain a German passport arrived in Istanbul to join the Berlin Committee group3. Dr. Mathra Singh of the party was also with him. The Berlin Committee delegation led by Raja Mahendra Partap Singh was eagerly waiting for Maulvi Barkatullah for seeking support from Turkey and other Muslim leaders. Maulvi Barkatullah was received by the Ottoman Sultan Muhammad V, the Muslim Caliph, then the most revered and highest religious and secular office of the Muslim world, with respect and dignity4. Caliph Sultan assured him of Turkey’s full support. But soon realizing Ottoman Turkey’s own difficult situation and increasing pressures on its war fronts, the joint group decided, with the consent of the Sultan and Caliph to proceed to Kabul in Afghanistan, for arranging critical route for foreign support from the western border of India.
The Ghadar Party gave a clarion call to all Indians wherever they were to return to India and organize the armed revolt. The party president Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, who was in Japan also decided to return to India and join the rebellion. Before returning to India in 1914-15, the Ghadar Party elected a new leadership to carry on the work. The following were elected to the executive committee5:
- Bhai Bhagwan Singh—President
- Bhai Santokh Singh—General Secretary
- Munshi Ram—Treasurer
- Ram Chand—Manager of the paper
- Gobind Bihari Lal—Editor
- Godha Ram—Urdu Editor
- Gopal Singh Sohi—Punjabi Editor
- Sundar Singh Ghali
- Nidhan Singh
- Bishan Singh
Estimates range from five thousand to eight thousand Ghadar Party workers who returned to India to participate in the armed struggle. Many of them, including the President of the party, Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, were arrested on arrival at Indian ports. But many others managed to reach India from various ports and entry points in Colombo, Madras, Karachi, Bombay, and Calcutta.
Amritsar was established as the control centre of the rebellion and, initially, the date for the armed uprising was fixed at 30 November, 1914. Revolutionary contingents were to capture British Cantonments at Lahore, Ferozepur, Meerut, and Delhi and proclaim the Republic of India. Sardar Kirtar Singh was to lead the attack on Lahore Cantonment while Nidhan Singh was the commander of the contingent to capture Ferozepur. Military garrisons in Kohat, Bannu, and Dinapur were to also rise in rebellion simultaneously. Supply of bombs was entrusted to Dr Mathura Singh and the propaganda work was under the responsibility of Bhai Permanand.
To organize the revolt, Nidhan Singh, Gurmukh Singh, and Harnam Singh went to Jhelum, Rawalpindi, and Mardan while Dr. Mathura Singh proceeded to NWFP to organize Afridis and other Pathan tribes. Others went to Ambala, Meerut, Lucknow, Allahabad, Benaras, and Faizabad6. The flag of the revolt was to be a tricolor of red, green, and yellow stripes with two swords crossing each other in the centre. The mutiny, a second Ghadar, was to engulf the British Empire from Peshawar to Hong Kong. Later, in a meeting before 30 November, it was decided to extend the date for the uprising to February 21, 1915 owing to some incomplete preparations, and Lahore was decided to be the new headquarter.7
To raise funds, Rehmat Ali Fakir, one of the founding members of the party, also organized a robbery of the treasury money on board a train near Patna, Bihar. Two policemen were killed during this robbery8. By now, Dada Amir Hyder of Rawalpindi had also become an active worker of the party in Punjab9.
To help organize military reinforcements and establish a dependable materials supply line from international sources, a high-powered group had already reached Kabul from Istanbul to enlist support of Habibullah Khan, the Amir of Afghanistan. The delegation under the leadership of Raja Mehendar Partap Singh of the Berlin Committee arrived in Kabul in October 1915. Maulvi Barkatullah and Dr. Mathra Singh represented the Ghadar Party10. While in Kabul, owing to his widely acknowledged respect and influence, Maulvi Barkatullah working together with Maulana Obaidullah Sindhi succeeded in obtaining support of Amir Habibullah Khan for establishing an independent Indian government-in-exile, ‘The Provisional Government of India,’ in Kabul11. The details of this Provisional Government will be discussed later in the post on the ‘Hijrat Movement’.
In spite of some measures that might have been taken by the Ghadar Party leadership to keep its rebellion plans secret, the party, it seems, was exposed to the extensive and all pervasive intelligence network of the British Empire and secret sharing of information between different colonial administrations and other countries. Shortly before the planned rebellion on 21 February 1915, a large number of Ghadar Party leaders and workers were arrested at different places in India. The night falling on 19 February, 1915 was a lightning strike on the cities and villages of Punjab. Many party leaders, workers and supporters were arrested in a major police action. This was the first major setback that the Ghadar party suffered in its struggle. In the face of this crackdown, militant party contingents in many towns and military garrisons raised the rebellion flag. However, many others went underground and continued their efforts to re-group and re-organise the forces. Efforts to gather international support from outside continued in Kabul, Berlin, Tokyo, San Francisco, and Istanbul. It was indeed a long and tortuous war.
Back home in India, arrests continued to be made and over time a series of Lahore Conspiracy Cases were registered against the Ghadar Party workers. In the first Lahore Conspiracy Case, out of the 97 accused 24 Ghadar Party leaders were sentenced to death, 56 were awarded life imprisonment while 17 were declared absconders. This harsh judgment gave rise to an outcry and a wave of general protests all over India. Under pressure, the Viceroy Lord Hardinge converted the death sentence of 17 leaders, including Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, into life imprisonment, and reduced the terms of imprisonment for seven others. Seven Ghadar Party leaders were, however, hanged to death on 16 November, 1915.
In the second Lahore Conspiracy Case, 102 leaders were tried, of whom again seven were hanged to death, while 45 were sentenced for life and others for varying lengths of imprisonments. Similarly, harsh sentences were awarded in the Third, Fourth, and the Fifth Lahore Conspiracy Cases.
Rebellions and ‘Mutiny’ also took place in some British colonies outside India. Ghadar Party leaders and rebel Indian soldiers were arrested and court-martialed in Malaya, Singapore, Rangoon, and Mandalay. Thirty eight soldiers were shot dead in Singapore and two more were later hanged to death while eight British officers, nine soldiers and 17 civilians were killed in the course of mutiny. Similarly, four soldiers in Rangoon were hanged to death, 69 were given life imprisonment, and 126 others were sentenced for varying terms.12
It is estimated that in all about 145 Ghadar Party leaders were hanged and about 900 were given either life sentences or long term imprisonments. The leaders and selfless workers of the Ghadar Party who laid their lives for the independence of their country belonged to all communities and parts of India. Undoubtedly, the majority of them were Sikhs, prominent among them were Harnam Singh, Kartar Singh Sarbah, Rur Singh, Kessar Singh, and Balwant Singh. But, many Hindus and Muslims were also included in the martyrs. Rehmat Ali Fakir of Patiala, Hafiz Abdullah of Ludhiana, and Mujataba Hussain of Jaunpur, UP were among the Muslim Martyrs, and Babu Kashi Ram of Ropar, Babu Ram of Hoshiarpur, Vishnu Ganesh Pingle of Pune in Maharashtar, and Chailia Ram of Ludhiana were prominent among Hindus who gave their lives for the common cause. Many of them were among the party’s founding members at Astoria and San Francisco. These included Pandit Kashi Ram, Rehmat Ali, V.G. Pingle, Balwant Singh, Jawala Singh, Kessar Singh, and Kartar Singh.13
Undoubtedly, the organization and the leadership of the Ghadar Party left much to be desired. It was, obviously, inexperienced and immature for carrying out planning and execution of a secret armed uprising in the face of a tightly run and strong-handed British Indian administration, well equipped with an extensive network of its far too experienced intelligence services. The rebellion plan itself was rather immature, and was based more on ‘wishes’ and ‘emotions’ rather than a cold-blooded analysis of the weaknesses of the party, strengths of the enemy, and of the real situation on the ground in India. A far greater reliance was made on the expectation of the ‘local troops joining the mutiny’, without making a realistic evaluation of the whole situation and the ‘actual readiness’ of the Indian troops, and the country’s population at large.
No doubt, during the crackdown of 1915-1916, the Ghadar Party operations and its movement for the armed uprising in India was defeated but its spirit was not crushed. The party, in large measure, became inoperative. But the Ghadar Party workers, however, both in India and abroad, continued to operate under different covers and significantly contributed towards the independence movement of the country. The fragrance of rebellion remained fresh in the air for a long time.
The After Shocks
The ‘Second Ghadar’ in 1915-1916 might have failed, but it had certainly produced a mighty echo in Indian politics, the tremors and aftershocks of which continued to be felt much later. The India wide Goonj that the brave cries of the leaders of this heroic movement had produced continued to inspire many subsequent revolutionary movements. For long, the Ghadar movement was remembered as a bright shooting star appearing on the Indian sky, leaving a blazing trail behind it.
Many young men and women, fired with revolutionary zeal and the spirit of Ghadar movement, across India, formed various groups and associations for waging a violent struggle against the British rulers. Although, coming from different perspectives and different paths, all of these revolutionaries and freedom fighters converged on one goal; the independence of India.
One such group of few Indian Muslim students from Lahore had quietly crossed the Indian border in February 1915 for organizing a war of independence from Afghanistan. It was followed by Muslim revolutionaries like Maulana Mehmudul Hasan and Maulana Obaidullah Sindhi in October 1915. The spirit of Jihad against the British Empire eventually produced a mass migration movement of Indian Muslims to Afghanistan in 1920. This movement will be discussed later in the post on the Hijrat Movement.
During WW1, about 1.25 million Indians, mostly from Punjab, Nepal, and NWFP, had served in the British army fighting on various fronts in Asia and Europe. More than 43,000 soldiers had died fighting for the British Empire. With the de-mobilization of such a large number of soldiers after WW1, returning home to suffer unemployment, deprivation, significant shortages of food, and epidemics (the 1918 global flu epidemic had taken a toll of 17 million people in India, about 5% of the population) and the wounds of 1915-1916 Ghadar still fresh, the political conditions in India were extremely precarious. By 1919, the situation, especially in the Punjab was highly explosive. The explosion, finally, took place at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar in April 1919. After a provocative assault on an English missionary woman, Miss Marcella Sherwood, at the hands of an Indian mob on a street of Amritsar on 11 April, Brigadier Dyer, the local British army commander, carried out a cold-blooded massacre of Indian protesters at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar on the fateful day of 13 April, 1919, killing 379 civilian people. To quell widely spreading series of protests and rebellions, on the instructions of the British strongman, Michael O’Dwyer, the Governor of Punjab, the British army resorted to air strafing and bombings at protesters two days later at Gujranwala, killing another twelve people. Punjab and India rued these killings for a long time.
A little later, another group of young students in Lahore formed a Naujwan Bharat Sabha to pursue their ideals of a free India. Bhagat Singh14 was the most prominent leader of this group. His father and two uncles were members of the groups in Punjab, which later joined Ghadar Party. They were also jailed for taking part in revolutionary struggle. One of his uncles, Ajit Singh fled to Persia to avoid arrests while the other died in 1910 after his release from jail. Young Bhagat Singh was powerfully inspired by the Ghadar party and adored its leader Sradar Kartar Singh who was hanged in Lahore with many others15. Later, Bhagat Singh went to Kanpur where he came close to another group of revolutionaries who believed, in the spirit of the Ghadar Party, that only an armed and violent struggle could bring the independence of India. The group included, among others, Sachindra Nath Sanial16, a prominent leader of the Ghadar party who was arrested and sent in exile to Andaman Islands (Kala Pani) together with Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna.
This group of revolutionaries had founded the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) in October 1924 at Kanpur. The founding members were Ram Parsad Bismil, Sachindra Nath Sanyal, Dr. Jadugopal Mukherji, and Jogesh Chandra Chatterji. The party program called for overthrowing the British colonial rule and establishment of a ‘Federal Republic of the United States of India’. Soon, its branches were established in Agra, Allahabad, Banaras, Kanpur, Lucknow, Saharanpur, and Shahjahanpur. A little later, great revolutionary and an equally powerful legend of the Indian revolutionary movement as Bhagat Singh and his mentor, Chandar Shekhar Azad joined HRA in Kanpur. He was soon followed by Bhagat Singh who also joined the party.
To raise funds for the purchase of weapons and to carry out its revolutionary activities, the HSRA planned a train robbery of the treasury money in August 1925 carried out by eight party workers under Ram Parsad Bismil, including Ashfaqullah Khan and Murari Lal who were from Shahjahanpur while Chandar Shekhar Azad was from Unnao, Rajendra Lahiri and Manmath Nath Gupta from Banaras, Banwari Lal from Rai Braeli, Mukundi Lal from Etawa, and Sachindra Lal Bakhshi and Keshab Chakarvarti from Calcutta. In the footsteps of Ghadar Party’s Rehmat Ali Fakir’s train robbery about a decade ago in Patna, the Kakori Train robbery was a daring act that made headlines in both Indian and British press. Soon, most of the HRA leaders including its principal organizer Ram Parsad Bismil and Ashfaqullah Khan were arrested. Chandar Shekhar Azad, remaining in hiding, together with newly joining Bhagat Singh reorganized the Association and the word ‘Socialist’ was added to its name to change it to ‘Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. Four of the HSRA leaders, including Ram Parsad Bismil and Ashfaqullah Khan17 were eventually hanged to death in December 1927.
On 17 Novemebr, 1928, a well-known Indian revolutionary, Lala Lajapat Rai died as a result of head injuries during an indiscriminate Lathi charge by the police on a public demonstration led by him against the visiting Simon Commission, appointed by the British Government. The leaders of HSRA decided to take its revenge by assassinating James Scott, the Superintendent of Police who had ordered the Lathi charge18.
Together with Chandar Shekhar Azad, Rajguru, and Sukhdev, Bhagat Singh assassinated John Saunders, the Assistant Superintendent Police, on 17 December 1928, in a mistaken identity of James Scott. All of the HSRA leaders managed to escape. Few months later, on 8 April, 1929, Bhagat Singh together with his comrade Batukeshwar Dutt threw two hand-bombs inside the Punjab Assembly hall from the visitor’s gallery while raising slogans of ‘Inqilab Zindabad’. Soon, a bomb factory was unearthed by the police and Bhagat Singh together with Rajguru, Kishori Lal and Sukhdev were arrested and tried in Lahore in a well-publicized case. Two of the weak members of the party, Hansraj and Jay Gopal becoming approver, a massive hunt for the leaders of the revolutionary party was carried out and many key leaders in Punjab, Behar, and UP were arrested19.
With a view bring their case in more limelight and to protest against the harsh conduct of the British authorities, Bhagat Singh and many other revolutionaries observed a long hunger strike. Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, after his 14 years in Andaman Islands was now also interned in Lahore jail. Though, he was very weak and sick, Sohan Singh also observed hunger strike in support of Bhagat Singh and the young revolutionaries. Also aware of Sohan Singh’s critical condition but to put him under pressure, the government announced extension of Sohan Singh’s jail term in case he didn’t desist from joining the insubordination of other revolutionaries. Hearing about Baba Sohan Singh’s precarious situation, Bhagat Singh made a special request to allow him meeting with Sohan Singh. During his meeting, Bhagat Singh repeatedly requested Baba Sohan Singh to end his hunger strike but Baba Sohan Singh remained steadfast in his determination. As a result, his jail term was also extended for one more year.20
While the Bhagat Singh case was in its final stages, Chandar Shekhar Azad was killed during a police shoot out in Allahabad on 27 February 1931. While in hiding he was engaged in a secret meeting with his comrades in Alfred Park of Allahabad (now Chandar Shekhar Park), his presence was betrayed by a colleague. Surrounded by the police, he let his other comrades escape but defended himself from behind a large tree. Rapidly shooting at the police from his revolver to keep them at bay, Chandar Shekhar used the last bullet in his revolver to shoot himself. He died on the spot. The people of Allahabad, men women, and children flocked to the park in the memory of this brave man and the tree under which he gave his life became a revered object. The British administration soon completely uprooted the tree from the park21.
Soon, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev, were also hanged to death in Lahore Jail on 23 March 1931. The old Jail in Lahore where Bhagat Singh, together with his colleagues, and many other revolutionaries before him, were hanged to death was later razed to ground in 1960’s and now Shadman Colony is situated on its grounds.22
Years later, while in Multan Jail, what Hasan Abidi had said is, perhaps, more true for the Lahore Jail:
Kuch ajab boo-e nafs aati hai deewaron se
Ha’aye zindan main bhi kya log thay hum se pehlay
- Gumshida Auraq, Riktab Publications, Karachi, 2011, Pg.307
- Ibid, Pg.300-307
- Ibid, Pg.308-310
- Ibid, Pg.311
- Dr. Jaspal Singh, History of the Ghadar Movement
- Shaukat Siddiqui, Op Cited, Pg.146
- Ashraf Ata, Kuch Shakista Dasatanen, Kuch Pareeshan Tazkiray
- Shaukat Siddiqui, Op Cited, Pg.147
- Dr. Jaspal Singh, Op Cited.
- Raees Ahmed Jafri Nadvi, Karwan-e-Gum Gashta (The Lost Caravan)
- Dr. Jaspal Singh, Op Cited.
- The Martyrs of Ghadar Movement;
- Bhagat Singh is one of the most powerful symbols of the Indian Independence Movement and a hero of revolutionary folk lore. He was born in a Sandhu Jat family in Chak 105 GB, Jaranwala Tehsil, near Lyallpur (now Faisalabad in Pakistan) in 1907.
- Ajoy Kumar Ghosh, Bhagat Singh aur uskay Saathi (Bhagat Singh & His Comrades), Maktaba-e Danyal, Karachi, 1992, Pg.15
- Sachnidra Nath Sanyal was born in Benaras, UP. He was a close associate of Rash Behari Bose. Together with him he had attempted to assassinate the Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge, in Delhi, in 1912, but failed. Joined Ghadar Party and upon arrest in 1915, he was exiled to Andaman Islands. After his release and return to India, he again engaged in anti imperialist revolutionary activities and, though not a Marxist, he became one of the founders of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association and a mentor for Chandar Shekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh who joined the HSRA. Together with Ashfaqullah and others, Sanyal was arrested and tried in Kakori Train Robbery Case in 1925. He was once again transported to Andaman Islands. Towards the end of his life, suffering from TB, he was transferred to Gorakhpur jail where he died in 1942.
- Ashfaqullah Khan was born in Shahjahanpur, UP in 1900. While young he was inspired by Ram Parsad Bismil, a revolutionary worker and an Urdu poet. Himself an Urdu poet with a pen name of Hasrat, Ashfaqullah joined Bismil in his revolutionary activities during non-cooperation movement of 1922. Both Ashfaq and Bismil participated in the famous robbery of government treasury on a train near Kakori in UP in August 1925. The daring incident of train robbery with apparently no trace of the robbers had a shocking effect on the British government. Finally, with the help of Scotland Yard, the CID managed to trace the robbers and arrested all but Ashfaqullah Khan who manged to go in hiding in Behar. After about ten months in hiding, Ashfaqullah returned to Delhi to find out the way to escape out of India. Betrayed by a Pathan friend, Ashfaqullah was finally arrested and was detained in Faizabad jail. Together with his three other comrades, Ram Parsad Bismil, Rajendra Lahiri, and Thakur Roshan Singh, Ashfaqullah Khan was hanged to death in December 1927 at the age of 27. When his chains were released before hanging, Ashfaqullah Khan Hasrat is reported to have walked up to the post, reaching for the rope he kissed it and reciting the Muslim’s Kalma Shahadat in Arabic he wore the noose around his neck and was soon hanged to death.
- Ajoy Kumar Ghosh, op cited Pg.20
- Ibid, Pg.22
- Ibid, Pg.29
- Syed Sibte Hasan, Foreword to Ajoy Kumar Ghosh, op cited, Pg.8
- Ibid, Pg.9
To be continued…