Gadar Revolutionaries – India’s Forgotten Heroes

Gadar revolutionaries tried doing exactly the same things during the First World War, what Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and his “Azad Hind Fauz” did during the Second World War. Both tried to throw out the British rule through gun battle. The Gadar attempt failed but it inspired a lot of Indians like Bhagat Singh to carry on the battle of independence.  

Gadar Represents the Zeal for Freedom

Gadar (or Ghadar) Movement is the saga of courage, valor and determination of overseas Indians (dominated by Punjabis) who had left home for better economic opportunities or higher education. They imbibed the fire and zeal of revolutionaries and became the trail blazers of freedom struggle in India.

The word ‘gadar’ means revolt, rebellion or revolution in Punjabi and Urdu. In the context of India’s freedom movement, Gadar implies (or points to) the Hindustani Association of the Pacific Coast which was a party formed by Indian immigrants in the US in 1913. Gadar party is another popular name for it. Gadar also refers to the Gadar newspaper published by this group. Gadar movement (or Gadar rebellion) refers to the unsuccessful armed struggle of 1915 to through out the colonial British. Despite failure, it inspired a lot of Indians to pick up arms against the colonial occupiers.

gadar party introKhushwant Singh, a noted Indian writer, wrote in Illustrated Weekly, about Gadar movement 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 from other parties and from different parts of India, Lala Hardyal, Ras Bihari Bose, Barkutullah, Seth Husain Rahim, Tarak Nath Das and Vishnu Ganesh Pingley.

Background

At the dawn of the twentieth century, both India and Canada were British dominions, so, Indians could rather easily get into Canada. The pacific Coast of North America saw large scale Indian immigration, especially from Punjab which was facing a severe economic slowdown. A significant number were ex-servicemen who had served in the British cantonments in the Far East where they first learned about the opportunities in the New World. The low wage Indian immigrants found easy acceptance. In the first few years, annually about 2000 immigrants, mostly Punjabi farmers and laborers, were permitted to come. Apart from Indians, the labor force also included the Chinese, Greeks, Irish and Japanese. However, the cozy scenario was interrupted when a financial crisis led to a forceful backlash after 1907. As white-workers and some powerful labor unions attempted to stem the “Tide of Turbans”, it fanned anti-Indian sentiments, leading to anti-Indian riots. The Canadian government came up with a series of legislations to curb the entry of South Asians into Canada. As a result, by 1909, legal immigration from India virtually ended.

Dissatisfaction among Indian Immigrants

India’s Punjabi community had expected that they would enjoy the same rights from the British and Commonwealth governments as extended to British and white immigrants. But racism was widespread in the British colonial empire around the world.  Indian immigrants had also noticed that the Japanese and Chinese governments championed interests of their citizens abroad, but India’s British government remained indifferent to their hardships. It made them realize the difference between the citizens of a “slave” country and those ruled by their own people. A large number of Punjabis also moved to the United States, but they encountered similar political and social problems as the US also tightened immigration laws to keep Asians away. The plight of Indian students was no different; they also faced racial discrimination and prejudices in finding jobs.

This situation led them to realize the worthlessness of being imperial subjects. The situation of Indian immigrants was more or less similar not only in Canada and US but also in Europe. Their hardships bonded them together and they started to organize into political groups, filled with the urge to change the situation by throwing out the British from India. They started debating on ways to drive the British out of India. What was unique about these efforts was that these men were bonded together practically cut off from the mainstream nationalistic movement happening on the Indian soil.

In USA, a student Taraknath Das started publishing a magazine Free Hindustan in 1907 in Seattle, advocating armed struggle to throw out the British from India. A Punjabi paper Swadesh Sewak was started in Vancouver and Indian Home Rule Society was formed in London. A student Lala Har Dayal relinquished his scholarship and studies at Oxford University and came to USA; his lectures inspired a lot of students and filled them with nationalistic and patriotic feelings.

In April 1913, Hindustan Association of the Pacific Coast was formed with the major aim of liberating India through armed struggle, just as Americans had done more than a century ago. Sohan Singh Bhakna was elected President, Lala Har Dayal, General Secretary, and Pandit Kanshi Ram Mardauli, Treasurer. Its headquarters was established in San Francisco. It members were mostly Punjabi immigrants. A lot of distinguished members came from the University of California at Berkeley.

These highly charged up nationalists viewed the goal of the Indian National Congress (INC), to get a dominion status for India, quite modest and its political methodology too ineffective. The ultimate goal of the Hindustan Association of the Pacific Coast was to overthrow the British colonial authority militarily. An important part of its strategy was to entice Indian soldiers of the British military to revolt. It needed facilities to print nationalistic literature and newspaper. Thus, it established the Yugantar Ashram in San Francisco. From here, the association began publishing a magazine Gadar for free distribution to promote the aims, objectives and activities of the organization. Gadar was published in Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi and many other languages. The first issue published on November 1, 1913 was in Urdu.

The Gadar

Gadar advertisementThe 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“. The Gadar exposed the British imperialism and called upon the Indian people to unite and rise up against British rule and throw it out. It carried articles highlighting conditions of the people of India under the British Rule and also on problems of racial attacks and discrimination against Indians in the USA and Canada. It got widespread attention, appreciation and acceptance. People were moved by the views expressed in it and were motivated to join hands with Gadar leadership for the common cause. In no time Gadar became popular among Indians and the Hindustan Association of the Pacific Coast itself became popular as the Gadar party.

The gadar newspaperSeveral other publications were also brought out to fill Indians with patriotic zeal and nationalism so that they get ready for revolt against the British. The Gadar literature was sent to Indian revolutionaries in India, Europe, Canada, Singapore, The Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Trinidad, Burma, Egypt, Turkey, and Afghanistan. In a short period of time, publications from the Yugantar Asram, particularly the Gadar magazine became very popular.

It alarmed the British government and it tried every means to stop the circulation of Gadar and other publications, particularly in India. Yet, Indians always looked forward to reading and circulating them privately.

The Komagata Maru Tragedy 1914

Komagata Maru tragedy was an important mile stone in the freedom struggle The Canadian government had enacted a Continuous Passage Act in 1908 to stop what was called the ‘Brown Invasion’ from Asia, particularly India. It required the immigrants to travel nonstop from the country of their birth, exploiting the fact that there were no direct ships from India. So the journey of a steamship Komagata Maru was planned to circumvent this law. In early 1914, the ship sailed from Hong Kong to Vancouver with 376 passengers (240 Sikhs, 24 Muslims and 12 Hindus) on board. When it arrived in Vancouver in May 1914, the Canadian authorities refused to allow the passengers to disembark. This infuriated the Indian community in Canada and it came out in support of the passengers and against the government policies. Finally, after 2 months of legal battle, 24 passengers were allowed entry and ship was turned back. But on reaching Calcutta, the Komagata Maru was docked at Hooghly’s Budge Budge harbor where the British government detained the passengers under the Defense of India Act and tried to forcibly transport the Sikhs to Punjab. It caused rioting at Budge Budge killing 18 people and around 200 were jailed. This incident became famous as the Budge Budge riot. The Budge Budge railway station was renamed as “Komagata Maru Budge Budge” station to salute the martyrs of September 29, 1914.

The Komagata Maru incident was turned into a rallying point by the Gadar leaders like Barkatullah and Tarak Nath Das that attracted many Indians in the North America into the party fold. A Bollywood movie is likely on the Komagata Maru tragedy.

Detention of Har Dayal and Action in Germany

Soon pressure from the British Indian Government led the US government to arrest Lala Har Dayal. He was released on bail in March, 1914 but he soon left for Switzerland and then to Germany. The sudden departure of Lala Har Dayal did slow down the activities of the organization, but the seeds of revolt that he sown had already grown much stronger. Many committed and dynamic volunteers continued to work tirelessly and pursued the planned activities of the association.

In Germany, Lala Har Dayal continued to work for India’s freedom. He knew that Germans would be sympathetic to the Gadar movement because they had the common enemy, the British. Lala Har Dayal, along with Virendra Nath Chattopadhyay (younger brother of politician-poetess Sarojani Naidu), Barkatullah, Bhupendra Nath Datta (brother of Swami Vivekananda), Ajit Singh, Champak Raman Pillai, Tarak Nath Das, and Bhai Bhagwan Singh formed Berlin Indian Committee in September 1914. It was also known as The Indian Revolutionary Society. The objectives of the society were to arrange financial assistance from German Government for revolutionary activities and recruit Indians from different countries, plan military training for volunteers and transport arms and ammunitions for the Gadarites.

The war between Germany and England broke out in August, 1914. The Gadarites saw it as a golden opportunity because the British troops would be busy at the war fronts. They started forceful campaign to mobilize overseas Indians in Singapore, Burma, Egypt, Turkey and Afghanistan and particularly Punjabis in Canada and USA to go to India and launch revolution. They drew plans to infiltrate the Indian army and provoke Indian soldiers to revolt.

The Indian Revolutionary Society in Berlin had arranged for substantial financial aid from Germany. The German Embassy in Washington actively helped the Gadar leadership in San Francisco. Several ships were arranged to carry around 6000 Gadarite troops along with their arms and ammunitions to India.

Besides Germany, the Gadarites also sought help from other anti-British governments. In December 1915, they set up a Free Hindustan government-in-exile in Kabul, Afghanistan, with Raja Mohinder Pratap as President, Maulavi Barkatullah as Prime Minister and Champakaran Pillai as Foreign Minister. The government-in-exile tried to establish diplomatic relationships with countries opposed to the British in World war l such as Turkey, Germany, Japan, etc. The Gadarites also established contact with the Indian troops at Hong Kong, Singapore, and in other countries and hoped for their participation in the uprising against the British.

Gadar Failed, But Sparked Nationalism

gadar failed because its secrets were outWhat the freedom fighters did not realize was that the British agencies had penetrated the Gadar Party and their secrets plans no longer remained secret.  As a result, the ships carrying arms and ammunitions never reached India. Germany, which was planning to send more arms and ammunition to India, lost interest seeing the fate of the earlier vessels. Many Gadarites and freedom fighters were arrested when they reached India. Those who could escape joined hands with Ras Behari Bose and other known revolutionaries in India. However, they failed to get support of the mainstream leaders particularly of the Indian National Congress (INC), as they remained committed to co-operating with the British Indian Government in its war ventures.

It was a perfect irony. The Gadarites thought that India was ready for a revolution when the WW1 broke out and they rushed homeward for revolution. But the leaders of the freedom movement back home became British allies in their European War. Several Gadarites in India were imprisoned, many for life, and some were hanged. In the United States too, many Gadarites and Germans who supported Gadar activities, were prosecuted and were sent for varying terms of imprisonment.

Although the Gadar movement failed, primarily due to lack of proper coordination and support from mainstream freedom movement, it was the first organized armed bid for freedom after the rebellion of 1857. Despite the failure, it did have an impact. It motivated several revolutionaries, including Bhagat Singh. It heightened the insecurity of the colonial rulers.

Canadian Apology for Komagata Maru Incidence