Essays

This paper will be published in Radical History Review in winter 2004-5. An even more long and pedantically documented version served as my second master's thesis en route to a PhD in history at UCSC. (The first, at NYU, was on social banditry in India. Maybe i'll put that one up sometime too.)

Two Revolutions: The Ghadar Movement and India's Radical Diaspora

"Exile has its privileges. It is the price paid for the right of preaching the truth as it appears to us....We may pay homage only to our conscience and defy all the governments of the world to make us deviate a hair's breadth from the path of Duty and Righteousness."1 --Har Dayal

INTRODUCTION

In 1914, an alert went out from San Francisco. It's time. Are you ready to die for freedom? The call traveled around the world to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, Yokohama, Manila, Rangoon, Panama City, Seattle and Vancouver, summoning the Indians home. 8,000 would-be independence fighters-- Sikh veterans of the British Army from around the Pacific Rim; Punjabi laborers from the farms and lumberyards of the west coast; and the Bengali student radicals who'd been training with their guns in the hills outside Berkeley-- all retraced their diasporic steps to cast out the British from India.

Indian political radicalism had flourished both within and beyond subcontinental boundaries since around the turn of the century, with activity shifting into a transnational network as repression increased inside British domains. With the eruption of World War I, Indian nationalists throughout Europe and North America seized the opportunity of British vulnerability and German aid to foment insurgence in Britain's most vital colony. Revolutionary activity now cohered into a cluster of ambitious schemes combining armed invasion, mass uprising and coup. This relative coherence was knit together by the circulation of a newspaper from San Francisco, which bestowed its name upon the communities to whom it gave voice: Ghadar, which means mutiny, uprising, revolt.

Ghadar is part of the literatures of both American and Indian history.2 However, it is little more than a tangential curiosity in relation to the former, while remaining largely offstage or behind the scenes in relation to the latter. Today, the North American Sikh community deploys Ghadar as part of a patriotic hagiography, retrospectively claiming the story as its contribution to India's independence struggle. Indian leftist historians include Ghadar as part of the narrative of the Extremist version of the Indian independence struggle, in a larger project that would restore to view and even glorify the militant revolutionary aspects of a complex and many-stranded process of resistance, which much of western and Indian official discourse tends artificially to flatten, homogenize and moderate. Here though, Ghadar is cast in a more or less supporting role in relation to militant political activities within India. But the standard narratives of nationalism and ethnic pride are not ones I am particularly interested in telling. What intrigue me are the stories that occurred between these sites, outside the national frames. I would question the inevitability of the colonialist/nationalist mirror image, and seek non-nationalist anti-colonialisms. There is considerable space, both physically and conceptually beyond nationalism, in which to undertake such exploration and resistance. This is the space in which Ghadar thrived, along with the other transnational political communities with whom it was in personal and epistemic contact.

I began by exploring the Ghadar movement as a phenomenon of hybrid radicalism possible only in the context of diaspora. Both physically and conceptually, it spilled far beyond the bounds of national territory, or a unified vision of a national government. Its readership literally spanned the globe, as did its eclectic-- not to say opportunistic-- array of strategic contacts. Ideologically too, it exceeded the definition of nationalism. Inspired by the nationalist movements of the previous century, particularly Mazzini's Italian Risorgimento, it had close ties of solidarity with Irish and Egyptian opponents of British colonialism; as well as with Pan-Asianist and, more problematically, with Pan-Islamist movements against western imperialism. Hooked into networks of anarchists and socialists in Europe, Japan and North America, with a Bengali tradition of Kropotkinism as well as guerrilla militance, components of Ghadar overlapped with the radical left; in its second incarnation after World War I and the success of the Bolshevik revolution, it was subsumed into the orbit of the Comintern. Combining at different points elements of nationalism, left radicalism, religious or ethnic revivalism, Ghadar chronicler Harish K. Puri refers to it as an "ideological hold-all."3 But I propose that this is less due to the incoherence of the Ghadar ideology, than to the multiplicity of ideologies which Ghadar harnessed into an ephemeral, bright and fast-burning coalition.

In particular, Ghadar was the volatile offspring of a combination of two elements: a small group of middle class radical intellectuals, mostly from Bengal; and a large number of Punjabi peasants, of whom about half were Sikh veterans of the British Army. The first group staffed the printing press, propagandized, theorized and lectured. The second, which comprised about 95% of the active membership, provided the mass of fighters and funded the operation through donations and subscriptions. Between these two, chronic tension rankled regarding the ownership of the movement, identification of leadership, and ways of conceptualizing liberation. In particular the Bengalis fused western-influenced rationalism and anarchist-tending left radicalism to a newly militant cultural practice and spiritualized nationalism. Meanwhile the Punjabis found that the egalitarian and agrarian traditions of Sikhism lent them an affinity first with liberal democratic nationalism, and eventually with the peasant movements and anti-colonial analysis of communism.

As such, I began to understand that I had made a mistake by losing myself in diaspora without taking proper care to ground the movement in the contexts of its migratory participants' points of origin and arrival. Who they were, where they were from, their social and cultural backgrounds, their location in a colonial economic structure, all affected their diasporic experiences. The same factors also affected the motives and visions that defined their participation in the struggle for Indian independence.  Each group arrived at the point of militant radicalism via a different route, and developed a different way of framing the anti-British struggle. Puri's application of the Gramscian terminology of organic and professional intellectuals to the relationship between Bengali and Punjabi emigrants is apt. So is his stress on the need for translation between the two, for which achievement Ghadar editor and rhetorical architect Har Dayal is generally credited. In this essay I explore both ideologies and seek their interactions. But in order to do this I must situate them within their specific contexts. Thus I will first sketch the make-up of the diasporic community, and then provide a brief narrative of Ghadar activity from 1913 to1918, in an attempt to illustrate their emerging relationship. Finally, in presenting both the Bengali and the Punjabi visions of Ghadar and its significance, I will argue that although it was the Bengali elite intellectuals who nurtured a uniquely Indian-inflected radical-left theory and praxis of revolution in the early 20th century, and who considered themselves the mentors of a laboring mass audience ripe for their catalyzing rhetoric, it was the Punjabi organic intellectuals whose theory and praxis ultimately proved more durable, nursing Ghadar into its second reincarnation as part of an international communist movement.

I. THE RADICAL DIASPORA

"Wherever there are Indians," one idealistic militant claimed, "there is Ghadar." At the peak of its circulation, thousands of copies of the weekly newspaper in Urdu, Gurmukhi, and later English and Hindi were smuggled and read greedily throughout the Pacific Rim among army veterans, emigrant laborers, students, and political exiles.

Soldiers: The sun never set on the empire; the British Army had troops stationed around the globe. This meant that Indian soldiers shared that global presence, entrusted with securing Britain's interests in South and East Africa, the Near East-- notably the Iranian oil fields and the Suez Canal-- and the Far East. Significant numbers of Sikh soldiers fought for the British in the Boxer Rebellion, and the British military police forces that patrolled Hong Kong, Shanghai, and the other Chinese treaty ports thereafter were largely Sikh with a smattering of Punjabi Muslims. So were the various regiments stationed in Burma, Malaya and Singapore. All of these were a pool of potential Ghadar recruits with military training. In the early years of the twentieth century, discharged soldiers began increasingly to seek lives and livelihoods in North America, seeking economic opportunities there rather than returning to their insular villages. So they joined the Sikh laboring communities abroad, where their cosmopolitan experience relative to their compatriots tended to nudge them into community leadership roles.

Laborers: Although the veterans' specific trajectory makes it necessary to consider them as a separate category, they can also be considered a subset of the workers, of which they comprised about half. Others from similar backgrounds came directly to North America without the military detour. Britain had begun to recruit coolie labor for its sugar plantations in Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana, Surinam and Fiji in the 1830s, following the abolition of the slave trade. Indian coolies entered South Africa in large numbers from around 1860; in 1896 contractors recruited 19,000 of them to build the Uganda Railroad. After Chinese emigration dropped, in part due to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act in the United States, steamship companies began recruiting contract labor from India to come to North America. They settled first in Canada, which kept them still officially within British dominions, until legal and extralegal discrimination drove them southward. In the Pacific Northwest Indians first gravitated to the lumber industry and railroad construction on the Northwest, Canadian Pacific, South and Western Pacific lines, ultimately settling into agricultural labor in the central valleys of California. Compared to Chinese, Japanese and even Korean immigration to the U.S. their numbers were small, never reaching more than 2000 in the peak years between 1907 and1910. Even through the 1920s there were never more than a few thousand Indians in the U.S., of whom the vast majority were on the west coast, and over three-fourths in California.

Intellectuals: Students began to travel to London and Tokyo around the turn of the twentieth century. Tokyo was to remain a key stronghold for the Indian independence movement abroad, and the earliest host site for an international community of radical pan-Asianism, anarchism and socialism. The flow of students from India increased notably after 1905 following two politically catalyzing events, namely the Japanese victory against Russia which increased Asian confidence in opposing European powers, and the British partition of Bengal which gave Indians an immediate and emotional motive for such opposition. Thereafter, Viceroy Curzon urged that Indian students should be discouraged from going to Japan where they were "likely to become imbued with sentiments tending towards discontent and even disloyalty." All too often, the Viceroy warned, they left seeking access to modern technical training in what one of them described as "industrial machinery and western methods of production,"4 only to end up publishing anti-British articles. Several prolific and influential future Ghadarites spent time among the student radicals of Tokyo.

Radicals: Aside from Tokyo, London, as metropolitan center of the British Empire, provided an early hub for nationalist students. There in 1905 Shyamaji Krishnavarma founded India House, which quickly became the nerve center for the Home Rule Movement, attracting those in favor of "extremism," as opposed to MP Dadabhai Naoroji's rival camp which favored constitutional moderation and diplomacy within the colonial system. It was at India House that Har Dayal, having abandoned his Oxford scholarship for political reasons incomprehensible to his professors, was first nurtured as a vocational revolutionary. But after another young student named Madan Lal Dhingra assassinated India Secretary Lord Morley's assistant Sir William Curzon Wyllie in 1909-- a textbook case of propaganda by the deed, for which he was hanged-- London became a far less hospitable place for Indian radicals.

The center of activity then shifted to Paris, where prominent socialists and anti-colonialists S.R. Rana and Madame Rustomji Cama presided over a well-established political circle. Their Bande Mataram newspaper, which Har Dayal edited from 1909-11, soon became the international voice of Indian revolution. Paris was also the paramount meeting place for continental revolutionaries, where, T.R. Sareen writes, "the Indian[s] had no difficulty in collaborating with the Irish, Egyptian and anti-Tsarist [political exiles] whereby they learnt from them the technique of revolutionary propaganda and method."5 Indeed, members of the Russian Narodnaya Volya (People's Will) party, whose assassination of Tsar Alexander II was revered by Asian radicals, were some of the most influential of these exiled mentors.

Following India's harsh Criminal Law Amendment in 1908, aimed in part at suppressing the rural unrest in the Punjab which had peaked the year before, many political agitators forced into exile for their "seditious" activities fled to Paris or America. Once outside British territory they could take advantage of a free press and a thick web of international contacts, including their compatriots who had preceded them. In the United States, politically active Indians had formed organizations advocating political independence and social change on both coasts as early as 1906. The pattern was to establish an equivalent to India House, publish a newspaper, and hold educational meetings to discuss social and political issues with laborers. Aside from New York, Vancouver was the first major North American site for Indian political work, followed by Seattle, Portland, and ultimately San Francisco. According to Darisi Chenchiah, a young Berkeley scholar, the Bay Area by 1912 hosted "Revolutionary Societies" from China, Japan, Turkey, Ireland and Russia, from whom the Indians received help in the printing and distribution of revolutionary literature, as well as tips on recruitment and training. By 1918, when some of those imprisoned in connection with Ghadar activities faced deportation, the Indians had won the vocal support of many prominent American socialists, civil libertarians, labor organizers, left liberals and theosophists, who united briefly through the Friends of Freedom for India or Tilak's Home Rule League.

Within the diaspora there was significant overlap between these four groups, particularly between the first two and the last two. But how were the interests of all of them fused together? A brief account of the Ghadar movement in its wartime cycle of active revolution offers some opportunities to observe this interaction.

____________________

  1. From the Indian Sociologist, 1908, published in Paris. Quoted in Emily Brown, Har Dayal: Hindu Revolutionist and Rationalist (University of Arizona Press,1975), p. 74.
  2. For the American context see S. Chandrasekhar, ed. From India to America: A Brief History of Immigration; Problems of Discrimination; Admission and Assimilation (La Jolla: Population Review Publications, 1982); Joan M. Jensen, A Passage from India (Yale University Press,1988); Karen Isaksen Leonard, Making Ethnic Choices: California's Punjabi Mexican Americans (Philadelphia: Temple University Press,1992); H. Brett Melendy, Asians in America: Filipinos, Koreans and East Indians (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977); Malini Sood, "Expatriate Nationalism and Ethnic Radicalism," (Ph.D. diss., SUNY Stonybrook:1995). For the Indian left context see Leonard Gordon, Bengal: The Nationalist Movement 1876-1940 (New York: Columbia University Press,1974); Sohan Singh Josh, Hindustan Gadar Party (People’s Publishing, New Delhi: 1977 (vol 1)/1978 (vol 2)) and Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna: Life of the Founder of the Ghadar Party (New Delhi: People’s Publishing House,1975); R.C. Majumdar, History of the Freedom Movement in India vols. 1 and 2 (Calcutta: Mukhopadhyay, 1963); Sumit Sarkar, The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal (New Delhi: People's Publishing House, 1973). For the transnational political context see Don Dignan, The Indian Revolutionary Problem in British Diplomacy 1914-19 (New Delhi Press:1983); T.R. Sareen, Indian Revolutionary Movement Abroad (New Delhi: Sterling Press, 1979). For invaluable Ghadar-specific material see Brown; Robert G. Lee, "The Hidden World of Asian Immigrant Radicalism," Chapter 9 of The Immigrant Left in the United States, Paul Buhle and Dan Georgakas, eds. (State University of New York Press: 1996); Janice and Stephen MacKinnon, Agnes Smedley: The Life and Times of an American Radical (University of California Press: 1970); Harish K. Puri, Ghadar Movement: Ideology, Organization and Strategy (Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev University Press: 1983).
  3. Puri, p. 6.
  4. See Dhan Gopal Mukherjee's autobiographical Caste and Outcast (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2002), p.133. Curzon is quoted in Sareen, p. 145.
  5. Sareen, p. 37.

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