Ghadar, cont. (part 3)


Although the pressing goal of the insurgency was the national liberation of India, and although its participants sought strategic alliance with German imperial, Japanese Pan-Asian and Turkish and Egyptian Pan-Islamic forces, I would argue that this version of Ghadar fit squarely into the fold of the contemporary international left.

Swadesh: Many of the radical intellectuals who arrived on the west coast between 1907 and 1913 had been inspired by-- or were hardened veterans of-- the Swadeshi (Self-Reliance; linked to the concept of swaraj or self-rule) Movement which had flared up in response to the administrative partition of Bengal in 1905. As the seat of the British colonial government until its transfer to Delhi in 1912, Calcutta possessed India's highest concentration of western-educated elites, English-speaking civil-servants, and a consciously modernizing bourgeois/gentry community. Intensive cultural revival characterized this sector from the late nineteenth to early twentieth century; Hindu reform movements like the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj laid the groundwork for modern nationalist and nascent feminist movements, as well as producing a literary renaissance that included Rabindranath Tagore and Bankimchandra Chatterjee, both of whose work became enshrined in the nationalist canon.

At the same time a network of service-oriented cultural organizations called samitis emerged, whose projects encompassed providing village uplift, education and infrastructure as well as fostering mental and physical self-improvement in training schools or akkharas. In reaction to the collective humiliation of being ruled unfit for fighting by the ethnic taxonomies of the British, the Bengali movement for cultural revival and modernization at this time included a compensatory stress on physical violence. Although the samitis spanned a range of views and methods, the more extreme of the akkharas were linked to militant revolutionary cells which carried out assassinations, bombings and dacoities. One of the most notorious, the Anusilan Samiti, produced several seasoned veterans such as Taraknath Das and Jatindranath Lahiri who would play important roles in Ghadar.

By the time Lahiri arrived at Berkeley in 1912, he had not only carried out a number of violent missions for the Samiti, but received a degree in chemistry at Calcutta University. Now he was studying explosives for his Master's of Science at the University of California, where he and Darisi Chenchiah led a study group focusing on the comparative analysis of revolutions, political and economic theory, and the glories of India's past. As in Bengal, the program also included self defense, fencing, shooting, and guerrilla techniques. But the ideological motivation of Bengali revolutionists like the notorious Jatin Mukherjee, mentor to several future Ghadarites, had been relatively simple: get rid of the British. Radicalism or "extremism" in this context referred to methodology, not necessarily to political theory. Furthermore, ideologically speaking, the Bengalis drew upon a number of key influences, not all of which appeared immediately compatible.

For example, Italian nationalist Mazzini, who called for the unification of disparate entities through armed revolt toward the goal of an independent, democratic republic, was constantly cited as a model. But this type of nineteenth century republican nationalism was mingled with other ingredients, in a fusion of western-inflected radicalism with uniquely Indian traditions. The ideology of Bengali nationalism began at this time to assume an intense spiritual aspect, as the cult of shakti-- i.e. divine power in female form-- fused with the cult of Bharat Mata, Mother India personified as the goddess Kali, for whom devotees were willing to kill and die. Bankimchandra's novel Anandamath sketched the ideal for the band of uncompromising servants of this implacable mother; samiti members consciously modeled themselves upon these characters.1

Juxtaposed to such spiritualized nationalism, the ominous epithet "anarchist" occurs not infrequently in official communications regarding key Ghadarites and their allies. British authorities deployed the term to play up the absolute dangers the rebels posed to the stability of government and empire; but it seems clear that in their minds the word denoted "bomb-throwing assassin" rather than "libertarian socialist," just as "Bakuninism," even to its avowed adherents, at least initially tended to describe a methodology more than an ideology. By 1907 the Bengali revolutionists had determined that they must seek out Russian anarchists as tactical trainers. So the samitis dispatched Hem Chandra Das, Mirza Abbas and P.M. Bapat to Paris to learn the trade of bomb-making under the tutelage of Nikolai Safranski of the People's Will party. The infamous bomb manual Das then produced traveled duly back to India where the Bengalis applied it to the training of guerrilla revolutionists. Bengali militant Ganesh Savarkar was carrying a pamphlet called "How the Russians Organize a Revolution" when arrested in 1908.2

But even though self-avowed followers of Bakunin provided the Bengalis with methodological mentorship, they didn't necessarily provide the necessary guidance for the shape of the swaraj to come. Instead, militant Swadeshi workers derived the visionary aspect of their program from Tagore as well as from Kropotkin, both of whom appeared on lists of the Extremists' intellectual gurus. Tagore was one of the most prominent and beloved of literary and cultural figures at the time, and a participant in the Swadeshi movement, although he preferred to distance himself from political radicalism in favor of a more humanistic and spiritual focus. Shantiniketan, the school and utopian community Tagore founded in 1901, was strongly influenced via his direct correspondence with Tolstoy, whose own intentional community Yasnaya Polyana also contributed to Gandhi's vision for Sabarmati Ashram a few years later. Idealized village republics such as these, with their idyllic pastoralism and cultural efflorescence, were in a sense the validation of Tolstoy's and Kropotkin's writings. Correspondingly, the latter's template for a decentralized, de-industrialized society, with a subsistence-based cottage economy based on mutual aid and providing for the creative development of full human potential, struck a resonant chord in Bengali reformist or restorationist thought of the time, which recognized in it a compatible ideal (regardless of their translation into or previous existence in reality).3

Among the diasporic communities in Tokyo, Paris and San Francisco, particularly among Har Dayal's circle, radical students even further embraced ideas derived explicitly from western anarchism. However, this is not to say that such ideas were passively received through pedagogical contact with European militants; but rather were innovatively reinterpreted and recombined with compatible elements within the Indian intellectual tradition. The results did not simply ape the western versions. For example, unlike many western radicals, the theorists of Indian revolution did not reject spirituality out of hand as a valid component of modern thought. Rather they drew upon Hindu spiritual traditions even while casting them into modern secular applications. For example, prior to his withdrawal from politics into full-time religion, Aurobindo Ghose had used yoga as a keystone of the dedicated militant's mental and physical regimen. The image of the ascetic sage burning with inspiration was easily transferable to the ideal of the singleminded, ascetic revolutionary, to which Har Dayal had always committed himself.

This progression from militance to spiritual retreat, or at least to a more introverted focus on the transformation of consciousness, was a recurrent pattern among Indian freedom workers. Aurobindo had studied in England from 1879 to1892 and was part of the militant nationalist movement from 1906 to1910, when he was imprisoned. But he abruptly abandoned active politics after his release-- following a visionary conversion experience while incarcerated-- to found a utopian spiritual community. Student radical and celebrated writer Dhan Gopal Mukherjee also moved through the political mode with which he had flirted while living with American anarchist cronies in the Bay Area circa 1911 to 1912, to focus instead on a more internalized, spiritual approach toward liberation. Even Har Dayal would eventually shift his obsessions from open revolution to moral transformation. To those catechized in the stages of the Hindu life cycle-- that is, the passage from chaste student, to civic-minded householder, to renunciatory forest sage-- the pattern was perhaps not unfamiliar. However, the diasporic Ghadarites of the 1910s were determinedly secular in ideology, even if their expression of secular ideas was inflected through cultural practices rooted in Sikh and Hindu traditions. As Sohan Singh Bhakna declared, "We were Hindustanees; our religion was patriotism."4

Har Dayal: Har Dayal was a brilliant if erratic thinker whose political philosophy, according to Don Dignan, "was a distinctive amalgam of western anarchism and Hindu revivalism, [which] did not prevent him from welding together into the first purely secular Indian revolutionary organization a cross-section of very disparate groups and individuals who comprised the hitherto unorganized and sporadic revolutionary movement."5

He first publicly articulated the principles of what biographer Emily Brown shorthands "Hardayalism" circa 1907, and published them in the Paris Bande Mataram in 1909. The program called for three stages toward a completed revolution: first, moral and intellectual preparation, by which "the spirit of the slave must disappear;" secondly war, by which "the debris of the old regime must be removed" and the "way... declared for the establishment of a free and sovereign state managed by the people;" and finally independence, in which ̉the work of reconstruction and consolidation commences."6 After a few peripatetic years of soul searching, which included studying both Marxism and Buddhism in Martinique and Hawaii -- where he supposedly had the requisite encounter with Sun Yat Sen-- Dayal arrived in San Francisco in 1911, where he had been invited to help mold the disaffected laborers and radical students into a powerful unified movement aiming for "social acceptance and economic equality,"7 presumably within the U.S. context. Having agreed to undertake the task, Dayal simultaneously accepted a lectureship in Indian philosophy at Stanford until his discomfort with the restraints thereby placed on his controversial political activities led to his resignation in 1912. The university then disavowed all connection with him, not least because of his public statements in support of young people practicing free love in defiance of the oppressive institution of marriage.

Between 1911 and1914 Dayal also gave regular lectures on labor and revolution at the San Francisco and Oakland IWW halls, reportedly serving the Wobblies for a time as the San Francisco branch secretary. He founded the Radical Club (a.k.a. the International-Radical-Communist-Anarchist Club) as a meeting place for an eclectic array of social, political and intellectual non-conformists, as well as the more specialized Bakunin Club. A supporter of the Magon brothers, Dayal also encouraged his Ghadar readers to learn from the examples of the Russian and Mexican revolutions. Although I do not know if he ever encountered the Magons personally, many local IWW members had recently participated in their invasion of Baja California, in some ways a political control case for the same military expedition prohibition which would come to haunt the Ghadarites. Finally, Dayal established what he called the Bakunin Institute on land donated near Oakland as a "monastery" for his proposed Fraternity of the Red Flag. Calling on members to pursue personal development through voluntary renunciation and self-discipline, its formal principles stated its dedication to the ultimate abolition of capital, private property, government, religion, race-feeling, patriotism, and marriage, since it led to the subjugation of women. Regarding the latter, Lahiri and Dayal both advocated that any revolutionist who was already married, rather than keeping his wife at home, should encourage her to pursue education and training as an equal worker for the cause. But given the dearth of females among the California student radicals, this declaration remained rhetorical.

Chenchiah recalled an occasion on which Lahiri publicly berated Dayal for wasting his time dabbling in anarchism, free love and social philosophy when he should have been focused solely on liberating India. But Dayal maintained all along-- as would Gandhi-- that this immediate political goal was only one component of a much more comprehensive social, cultural, economic and philosophical transformation. Insofar as Ghadarites identified with this phase of Dayal's ideas, and insofar as these ideas were influential in shaping the movement, it was a vision of an anarchist society. Still, even among the diasporic radical intellectuals, revolutionary ideology was not monolithic. Har Dayal's name was associated with anarchism and M.N. Roy's virtually synonymous with Indian communism, while Barakatullah's linked Ghadar to progressive Pan-Islamism. Taraknath Das, with his comprehensive geopolitical analysis, connected it to Pan-Asianism. But the addition of the Sikh factor introduced even more multiplicity to the character of the movement.


  1. This tendency to spiritualize political extremism has had chilling implications in independent India, fueling the rise of volatile rightwing Hindu fundamentalism in recent years. This form of radical politics also depends upon a diasporic network in order to function inside India, drawing most of its funding from expatriate Indians with a heavy concentration in Silicon Valley; thus reflecting Ghadar's geographic though not its ideological profile.
  2. Steven G. Marks, How Russia Shaped the Modern World (Princeton University Press, 2003), pp. 31-33; Peter Heehs, The Bomb in Bengal: The Rise of Revolutionary Terrorism in India 1900-1910 (Oxford University Press, 1993).
  3. See Adi Doctor, Anarchist Thought in India ( Bombay: Asia Publishing House,1964); M.K. Gandhi, "Hind Swaraj" in The Penguin Gandhi Reader, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, ed. (New York: Penguin Books/Ahmedabad: Nivajivan Trust, 1993), pp. 1-66.
  4. Brown, pp. 75-6.
  5. Dignan, p. 36.
  6. Puri, p. 76.
  7. Brown, p. 85.

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