Gadar—Overseas Indians Attempt to Free India from British Slavery
The Gadar1 Movement was the saga of remarkable courage, valor and determination of overseas Indians to free India from the shackles of British slavery. Indians had come to Canada and the United States either for higher education or for economic opportunities. Instead, they imbibed the fire and zeal of revolutionaries and became the trailblazers of freedom struggle for their motherland, India. They may have lived ordinary lives but they left an extra-ordinary legacy.
At the dawn of the 20th century, Indians started coming to the United States mostly for economic opportunities. Some also arrived in the USA for higher education. Both India and Canada were British dominions. As such, Indians had an easier access to Canada. The new immigrants were not members of trade unions, were hard working, accepted lower wages and worked for long hours. They were able to procure work soon upon landing. Some Canadian employers publicized the economic and job opportunities available in Canada to attract more workers from India. During the first few years, about 2000 immigrants, mostly Punjabi farmers and laborers, were permitted to come every year. As the number of immigrants increased, the locals felt threatened by labor competition from the hardy and adventurous Punjabis. Fear of labor competition led to jealousy, racial antagonism and demands for exclusionary laws from cheap foreign “Asian workers”. The local press carried many scare stories against the “Hindu Invasion.” In 1908, under pressure from labor unions, the Canadian government required Indian immigrants to have $200 in their possession upon landing. Also, the Indian immigrants were denied entry if they had not come by "continuous journey" from India. Since there was no direct shipping between Indian and the Canadian ports, legal immigration of Indians to Canada virtually ended. The Canadian government also made attempts to expel those Indians who had already settled there. The restrictive legislation and ulterior intent of the Canadian government led to growing discontent and anti-colonial sentiments within the Indian community.
When Indian immigrants saw the doors closing on them in Canada, they started moving to the United States, which needed more people to do hard labor work to build new communities. Indians came as sojourners and without spouses, were paid low wages and could afford to live only in the poor squalid part of the town or in shanty structures. They lived frugally, subsisted on low income that was prohibitive for whites to survive on. The Indian workers maintained low standard of living and many shared crowded lodging to save money to pay off their debt or meet family obligations back in India. They were willing to do any kind of manual job. Within a span of few years, the number of immigrant workers had grown, so they also started facing widespread hostility. The pentup frustrations of the white workers manifested in violence against Hindu workers, vandalism of Hindu belongings and hatred of their religion, lifestyle and living. Like Canada, the United States, which had initially welcomed the Indian workers, enacted Asian exclusionary laws to bar Asians immigrating to the United States.
The Japanese and Chinese governments sympathized with their overseas nationals for discriminatory treatment and negotiated with the American Government for compensation for life and property losses in race riots. But the British Indian Government would not make any representation to the U.S. Government for similar compensation for Indian nationals. Indians soon realized the difference between the citizens of a “slave” country and those governed by their own people. Racial prejudice by American people and lack of concern by the British Indian Government gave birth to political consciousness in the Punjabi laborers.
MAGNET OF HIGHER EDUCATION
Higher education in American universities was a powerful magnet for young people even during the beginning of the twentieth century. America provided them opportunity to “earn and learn” and Indian students were attracted to seek admission in the US universities. However, several students upon graduation were not able to get jobs commensurate with their qualifications. The unfair and discriminatory hiring practices were against the very ideals of liberty and freedom they had experienced in their university environment. The Indian students attributed the racial prejudice and discrimination to their being nationals of a subjugated country and were motivated to get rid of the foreign rule in India. They were determined to fight for freedom for their motherland and started fostering feelings of patriotism and nationalism among their fellow Indian immigrants.
Many Indians in the USA, as also in Canada, England, Germany and France, articulated nationalist feelings and started advocating freedom for India, their motherland, from the British serfdom. They formed organizations to collectively assert their birthright to independence for India and explored ways and means to attain self-rule. Ramnath Puri who came to California at the end of 1906 and worked as interpreter to the Sikhs arriving in California, started a paper in Urdu Circular-i-Azadi in 1907 with declared objective of political education of the Indians. Tarak Nath Das, a student, started publishing a magazine Free Hindustan in 1908 in Seattle, advocating armed rebellion against the British rule as a means for achieving independence. He also established the East India Association in 1911. The same year, Hindustan Association was formed in Astoria, Oregon (also see Astoria Proclamation) with Kesar Singh as president. P.S. Khankhoje of Maharashtra came to USA in 1907, wanted to get military training and procure weapons for fight against the British rule in India. He established “Indian Independence League.” In New York, a Maratha Christian Samuel Lucas Joshi (S.L. Joshi) and Maulvi Mohammad Barkatullah of Bhopal formed “Society for the Advancement of India’ in 1907. In Vancouver, Canada, G. D. Kumar and Harnam Singh Sahri started a Punjabi paper Swadesh Sewak2 in January 1910. In March, 1911, the Indian Government stopped importation of this journal as it was found to be Anti-British.
In 1905 in London, Shymji Krishna Varma founded Indian Home Rule Society and India House, ostensibly a residence for Indian students but used for revolutionary activities. He also published Indian Sociologist. Bhikhaiji Rustom Cama (born in Bombay into a Parsi Patel family) was involved with Krishna Varma's Indian Home Rule Society in London. She moved to Paris where she formed Paris Indian Society and started publishing Bande Mataram magazine. She unfurled the "Flag of Indian Independence" at the International Socialist Conference in Stuttgart, Germany on 22 August 1907. Har Dayal renounced his scholarship and studies at Oxford University and joined the freedom movement. In Paris, Har Dayal edited Bande Mataram in 1909.
Har Dayal came to USA in 1911 from England and worked as a faculty member at Stanford University for some time. He was identified with nationalist activities in the United States. He inspired many students studying at the University of California at Berkeley and channelized the proIndian, anti-British sentiment of the students for independence of India. Two of his many student followers, Katar Singh Sarabha and Vishnu Ganesh Pingle later on played very prominent roles in the Gadar movement. Dayal’s fervor for India’s freedom spread beyond the university campuses to Punjabi farmers and laborers who had already been victim of racial attacks, discrimination and repression from the host community.
HINDUSTANI ASSOCIATION OF PACIFIC COAST
In July 1912, Indians working in different mills in Portland (Oregon) area formed Hindustan Association with Sohan Singh Bhakna, a lumber mill worker, as president, G.D. Kumar as secretary and Kanshi Ram as treasurer. They invited Har Dayal who visited them a few months later. A few months later, Sohan Singh Bhakna and Udham Singh Kasel went to Astoria and established a branch of Hindustan Association with Bhai Kesar Singh Thatgarh as president. At the end of May, 1913, Har Dayal along with Bhai Parmanand visited St. John, Oregon, and addressed meetings of Indian groups in the neighboring cities of Bridal Veil, Linton and Wina and on June 2, went to Astoria along with Sohan Singh Bhakna and others. At a meeting of some patriotic and enlightened Indians, Har Dayal passionately spoke about throwing the British out of India and securing liberation by all means at their disposal. It was at this June 2 meeting that Hindustani Association of the Pacific Coast was formed with a major objective of liberating India from British colonialism with the force of arms, just as Americans had done more than a century ago, and help establish a free and independent India with equal rights for all. Sohan Singh Bhakna, was elected President of the association, Kesar Singh Thathgarh as Vice President, Har Dayal, as General Secretary and Kanshi Ram as treasurer. Har Dayal provided leadership for the newly formed association and was the central figure and the force behind the new organization. It was also decided to start a newspaper to be named ‘Gadar’ after the 1857 Gadar in India. In December 1913, during a conference in Sacramento, attended by representatives from Oregon, Washington, California and Canada, the executive committee was expanded. Jawala Singh was elected as vice president and several others from California were included in the committee.
Punjabis had come to the United States with the highest of expectations. But they were disillusioned when they faced hostility, humiliation and racial prejudice from the American people and were disheartened by the failure of the British Indian Government to provide help when they became victims of violent acts from American hoodlums. They felt that they could fight for their rights and live in dignity in America if their own homeland was not under foreign rule. When the Hindustani Association of the Pacific Coast was formed, Punjabis whole-heartedly supported its objectives of liberating India from the colonial rule, enthusiastically became its members, liberally helped financially and willingly agreed to fight a revolutionary war for India’s freedom.
The headquarters of the Hindustani Association of the Pacific Coast was established at 436 Hill Street in San Francisco and was named Yugantar Ashram. It served as a base for coordination of all the activities of the association. Later, a building at 5 Wood Street was purchased and the headquarters was shifted there.3 The association launched a magazine appropriately titled Gadar for free distribution to promote the aims, objectives and activities of the organization. In the first issue of the Gadar journal, the editorial declared:
“Today there begins in foreign lands, but in our own country’s language, a war against the British Raj. What is our name? Gadar. What is our work? Gadar. Where will Gadar break out? In India. The time will soon come when the rifles and blood will take the place of pen and ink.”
THE GADAR NEWSPAPER
Gadar literally means revolt or mutiny and was published in Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, among other languages. The first issue of the journal Gadar was in Urdu and was published on November 1, 1913. An edition of the journal was brought out in Punjabi in Gurmukhi script in December and in May 1914 a Gujarati edition of the journal was also published.4 It carried articles on the conditions of the people of India under British rule and also on problems of racial prejudice and discrimination against Indians in the United States. The magazine contents expressed community’s pent-up anger and suppressed feelings and exhorted like-minded people to join the association. Through the magazine, the Indian people were called upon to unite and rise up against the British rule and throw them out of India. The activities of the association were intense and incessant. The Gadar magazine became very popular among Indians, its circulation and influence increased rapidly. Over a period of time, the Hindustani Association of the Pacific Coast itself became known as the Gadar Party.
Within a short period of time, the weekly magazine became a sought-after periodical for revolutionary and patriotic ideas. Besides Gadar, other publications were brought out to raise the consciousness of the Indian people for revolt against the British. One of them was a collection of poems / songs titled Gadar-di-Goonj which became very popular among the Punjabis. The poems were composed by amateur poets and reflected the discontent and the surging anger against injustice and oppression by the British. Ten thousand copies of this pamphlet were published and distributed. The poems were memorized and recited at gatherings. They exhorted people for an armed rebellion to gain freedom of their country. Publications from the Yugantar Ashram became very popular and were eagerly awaited. They were sent to Indian revolutionaries in India, Europe, Canada, Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Burma, Egypt, Turkey, and Afghanistan. The weekly Gadar magazine, being the principal patriotic literature, reached many people; even if one copy reached India or to a fellow revolutionary elsewhere, multiple copies were made for circulation.
In the past, several attempts were made in UK and Canada to mobilize the Indian community for India’s independence. But it could not become a mass movement as both countries were under the British. After Gadar Party was formed in America, many volunteers started devoting full time to publish Gadar magazine which was sent free every week to over 5000 people in USA, Canada and other countries. The contents of the journal awakened the conscious of the readers and poems published in Gadar newspaper excited them to liberate their motherland. The visible effects of the Gadar publications started to manifest in India and abroad. Many committed volunteers opened branches of the Gadar party in various countries and worked tirelessly to promote the objectives of the party. They had imbibed the fire and zeal of revolutionaries and were motivated to fight for freedom for their motherland. The movement became the symbol of political consciousness of the overseas Indians. The influence of the Gadar movement was so powerful that when called upon, many overseas Indians returned to India to fight for India’s freedom.
HAR DAYAL’S EXIT
The British government became alarmed at the popularity of the Gadar movement and free accessibility and availability of the ‘seditious’ literature. They used every means to stop its circulation, particularly in India. They also tried to suppress the Gadar movement and had hired agents to penetrate the Gadar party and watch their activities. Har Dayal used the columns of Gadar to caution his compatriots against British spies. The British were convinced that removal of Har Dayal would bring an end to the revolutionary movement. Under pressure from the British Indian Government, Har Dayal was arrested by the U.S. Government, but later released on bail on March 24, 1914. Har Dayal jumped the bail and left for Switzerland on April 14 and from there, he went to Germany.
The sudden departure of Har Dayal did create some vacuum in the organizational structure of the association but it did not cause its demise. Har Dayal was simultaneously the editor of Gadar and secretary general of the association. Santokh Singh, an educated and a great revolutionary, was appointed as the Secretary General. His active involvement gave fresh incentive to the movement. Ram Chandra Bharadwaj who had joined Yugantar Ashram in January 1914 and had experience as editor of a newspaper in India became the editor of Gadar, which was renamed as Hindustan Gadar. The weekly publication of the magazine continued without interruption. Kartar Singh Sarabha, Harnam Singh Kotla, and a student Niranjan Das were appointed on the editorial board of the Party’s mouthpiece, Hindustan Gadar. Many committed and motivated volunteers continued to work tirelessly and pursued the planned activities of the association.
The Gadar leadership decided that it would be important to train some people in certain roles they could play in the planned revolt in India. Kartar Singh Sarabha was sent to New York to learn flying airplanes. Master Udham Singh Kasel, who had worked in the artillery side in Hong Kong army, started teaching the use of different kinds of weapons to a group of Gadarites. Harnam Singh of Kotla Naudh Singh began learning how to make bombs. He, however, lost an arm while testing a bomb and became known as Tundilat after that accident. Indians in Canada were very unhappy with the new regulation which effectively prevented Indian immigration from India. An enterprising and resourceful Indian in Singapore, Gurdit Singh, chartered a Japanese vessel Komagata Maru to circumvent the Canadian exclusion regulations and brought 376 passengers in May 1914. The Canadian government refused disembarking of the ship at Vancouver. The Indian community in Canada was outraged, rallied in support of the passengers and sought legal recourse. After a two-month legal wrangling, only 24 passengers were allowed to immigrate and the ship was forced to return to India on July 23. The action of the Canadian Government created bitterness, frustration and vengefulness not only among the passengers but also among the Indian people in Canada and the US. Before Komagata Maru reached India, the British authorities had enacted a new law, “Ingress into India Ordinance” on September 5, 1914, which empowered the Punjab Government to check the people entering India. The Government was also empowered to confine their movements to their villages or imprison them without trial. On reaching Budge Budge harbor, near Calcutta, on September 29, 1914, the British Indian Government wanted to transport the incoming passengers to Punjab while most of the passengers wanted to stay and find employment there. When the arriving passengers refused to board the special train for Punjab, the police opened fire on them resulting in several fatalities. The police also arrested over two hundred passengers and put them in prison. The brutal treatment of the returning passengers generated a wave of resentment against the British government. The Komagata Maru incident encouraged new converts to the Gadar cause, not only from North America but Indians from all over the world and gave impetus to the movement. Some of the passengers of the ship also turned Gadarities.
WORLD WAR I
The Hindustani Association of the Pacific Coast was still new when in August, 1914, World War I broke out, in which Germany fought against England. The Gadar Party considered it to be a great opportunity to expel the British from India while the British Indian troops would be busy fighting war at the front. Bhai Bhagwan Singh who was deported from Canada within a few months of his arrival due to his revolutionary activities, arrived in Yugantar Ashram from Japan in May 1914 with Maulvi Barkatullah. He prepared ‘Declaration of War’ (Ailan-i-Jung) which was published on August 5, 1914 in the Gadar magazine. The Gadarites started an energetic campaign to mobilize the overseas Indians in Canada and the United States. Gadar Party president Sohan Singh Bhakna had
followed the Komagata Maru to India. Ram Chandra, Bhai Bhagwan Singh and Maulvi Barkatullah addressed a series of meetings in the Pacific Coast states, exhorting Indian patriots to return to India to liberate their motherland. They drew plans to infiltrate the Indian army and excite the soldiers to fight—not for the British but against the British Empire—and free India from the shackles of British imperialism. The Gadarites inspired thousands of Indians to go to India to launch a revolution. Kartar Singh Sarabha left early and reached Colombo in the middle of September, 1914. Santokh Singh, Babu Harnam Singh, Sohan Lal Pathak and Balwant Singh were sent to Singapore, Siam and Burma. Bhai Bhagwan Singh was sent to Manila and Maulvi Barkatullah was deputed to Islamic countries. Several leading Gadarites including Bhai Jawala Singh Thathian, Bhai Wasakha Singh, Bhai Kesar Singh Thathgarh and Bhai Sher Singh Vein Poin and Master Udham Singh Kasel took the lead and left by whatever ship they could get their passage booked. These leaders of the Party volunteered to be among the first to go to India in order to inspire others to follow them. After the departure of leading Gadarites, Ram Chandra became the most important leader of the Gadar Party.
INDIAN INDEPENDENCE COMMITTEE
The German Government had great sympathy with the Gadar movement because the German Government and the Gadarites had the British as their common enemy. In September 1914, Indians formed Indian Independence Committee (also known as the Indian Revolutionary Society) members of which were Virendra Nath Chattopadhyay (younger brother of politician-poetess Sarojini Naidu), Maulvi Barkatullah (after his death, he was buried near Sacramento), Pandurang Khankhoje, Bhupendra Nath Datta (brother of Swami Vivekananda), Champak Raman Pillai (a young Tamilian) and Tarak Nath Das (a foundation is named after him in Columbia University, New York). Har Dayal became member in January, 1915 but left it in October. The objectives of the society were to arrange financial assistance from German government for revolutionary activities and propaganda work in different countries of the world, training of volunteer force of Indian fighters and transportation of arms and ammunitions to reach the Gadarites for a revolt against the British Government in India.
The Indian Revolutionary Society in Berlin successfully arranged financial aid for the Gadar Movement from Germany. The German Embassy in the United States engaged a German national to liaison with the Gadar leadership in San Francisco. Some ships were chartered to carry arms and ammunitions to India but the arms never reached India. The Gadarites also sought help from antiBritish governments in other countries. In December 1915, Raja Mohinder Pratap formed a Free Hindustan Government-in-exile in Kabul, Afghanistan. He himself became President, made Maulavi Barkatullah as Prime Minister and Champakaran Pillai as Foreign Minister. The government-in-exile tried to establish diplomatic relationships with countries, such as Turkey, Germany, Japan, and others, opposed to the British in World War l.
Before leaving for India, the Gadarites had hoped that the embers of freedom had caught fire in India too and Indians were ready for a revolution. So when the World War l provided a golden opportunity for them to attain their goal, they hurried homeward for rebellion and overthrow of the British Government. The irony of that valiant effort was that while the Gadarites had gone to India to fight for the freedom of their motherland, the Indian political leadership openly and willingly cooperated with the British, thereby prolonging India’s serfdom. While the overseas Indians prayed in Gurudwaras, mosques and temples for the success of the Gadarites’ mission to free India from the British slavery, the people in India fully supported the government and flocked to Gurudwaras, mosques and temples to pray for the victory of the British!
INDIANS NOT READY
Many Gadarites who reached India, found no arms to start rebellion. A number of Gadarites including Sohan Singh Bhakna, president, and Kesar Singh and Jawala Singh, vice presidents were taken captives on reaching India while Kartar Singh Sarabha, Nidhan Singh Chugha, Harnam Singh Tundilat, Bhagat Singh alias Ganda Singh Kacharbhan, Parmanand Jhansi, Jagat Ram Hariana, Prithvi Singh, Hafiz Abdullah of Jagraon, Pandit Kanshi Ram, V.G. Pingley and several others were able to evade arrest. An estimated 8000 Overseas Indians left for India from 1914-18, about 3000 were intercepted; more than 300 were put in jails while many more were restricted to their villages5.
Many Gadarites who rea> Kartar Singh Sarabha and other Gadar leaders had come to India to overthrow the British rule and wanted to unite and work with all those forces that were working to liberate India. They organized meetings to plan for the revolution, procure arms and arrange funds to carry out propaganda and other activities for the achievement of their goal. Since many Gadarites were retired military soldiers, they tried to infiltrate into various units of the armed forces, established contacts with their colleagues still working in the armed forces and incited them to revolt and become part of the rebellious force to liberate India. The Gadarites’ plan included recruiting new people to join them, looting military arsenals, making bombs and robbing government treasuries.
ENTER RAS BEHARI BOSE
Kartar Singh Sarabha and Vishnu Ganesh Pingle convinced the well known Bengal revolutionary Ras Behari Bose and he came to Punjab in January, 1915. He brought the work of the Gadar Party under centralized control, established headquarter at Lahore and directed the party propaganda from the headquarter. The Gadar leadership decided to start the rebellion on 21 February, 1915. But the success was dependent on the uprising by the military units in Lahore and Firozepur cantonments followed by units elsewhere. Two weeks earlier, Kirpal Singh, a Government spy met with Gadar leaders Nidhan Singh, Kehar Singh and Harnam Singh Tundilat. Nidhan Singh knew Kirpal Singh from Shanghai and that acquaintance was considered enough for the three leaders to include him in the inner circle. Kirpal Singh wasted no time in alerting the police about the planned uprising. When Gadar leaders learnt about the leak, they advanced the date to February 19, which too had reached the police. The suspected army units were disarmed or placed under vigilance. Several Gadarites were arrested and the police went all over to arrest the other Gadarites. Thus, the plans of the Gadarites for revolt were foiled and their dream to see mother India liberated from the British slavery came to nothing. By the end of February 1915, most of the Gadar activists were taken captives.
The Gadarites were prosecuted in batches by the Special Tribunal in what are known as Lahore conspiracy trials. At the end of trials, as many as 46 patriots including Kartar Singh Sarabha and Vishnu Ganesh Pingle attained martyrdom. Seventy Gadarites were given life imprisonment, several among them transportation for life – confinement in Andaman Cellular jail – and 125 were given varying terms of imprisonment6 . The lives of most Gadarites changed due to long imprisonments during which they endured unimaginable sufferings. A few died during imprisonment, some had serious health issues after release. In the United States too, several Gadarites and their German supporters, were prosecuted in the San Francisco Hindu German Conspiracy Trial (1917-18). Twenty-nine “Hindus” and Germans were convicted for varying terms of imprisonment for violating the American Neutrality Laws7 .
The Gadarites had a flame of liberty lit in their hearts, and did not hesitate to make any sacrifice for the cause of freedom, dignity and prosperity of their motherland. They fought valiantly for their cause. Although the movement did not achieve its stated objective, but it had awakened the sleeping India, contributed to the politicization of Indians and left a major impact on India’s struggle for freedom. The heroism, courage and sacrifices of the Gadarites inspired many freedom fighters to continue their mission. Several Gadarites, after completing their prison term, became active in the struggle for India’s freedom while majority of the eight thousand returned Gadarites forever carried a cherished vision of a free India in their hearts.
A prominent Indian writer, Khushwant Singh, wrote in Illustrated Weekly, on February 26, 1961, “In the early months of World War I, an ambitious attempt to free their country was made by Indians living overseas, particularly in the United States and Canada. Although the overwhelming majority of the Gadarites were Sikhs and the centers of revolutionary activity were the Sikh temples in Canada, the United States, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore, many of the leaders were of other parties and from different parts of India, Har Dayal, Ras Bihari Bose, Barkutullah, Seth Husain Rahim, Tarak Nath Das and Vishnu Ganesh Pingle. …… The Gadar was the first organized violent bid for freedom after the uprising of 1857. Many hundreds paid the ultimate price with their lives.”
Inder Singh is Chairman of GOPIO, Global Organization of People of Indian Origin. He was GOPIO President from 2004-09. He is chairman of Indian American Heritage Foundation. He was NFIA president from 1988-92 and chairman from 1992- 96. He was founding president of FIA, Southern California. Inder Singh can be contacted by telephone at 818-708-3885 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 2. Ghadar Movement, Harish K Puri, ch 4
- 3. After India became independent, the building was handed over to Indian Consulate in San Francisco. The old dilapidated building was demolished and replaced with a new two-story structure, now known as Gadar Memorial Hall.
- 4. Ghadar Revolution in America, Anil Ganguly.
- 5. The Role of the Ghadar Party in the National Movement by G.S. Deol, pp 106-107.
- 6. Ghadar Movement, Harish K Puri, pp 131
- 7. www.sikhpioneers.org