Forgotten story of valour and sacrifice: The Ghadar Mutiny

Forgotten story of valour and sacrifice: The Ghadar Mutiny

By KARTHIK VENKATESH | | 13 August, 2016
Bose AICC meeting 1939.
An act of daring fuelled by idealism, the Ghadar Mutiny of the early 19th century was an important chapter in India’s freedom struggle. Yet it has been airbrushed out of our history books and its greatest protagonists have slipped out of public memory. It’s time to change that.

The current controversy over history textbooks and “who and what ought to be in and out” of our history books has afforded us much to wring our hands about. But, perhaps it could also be treated as giving us a moment to reflect. That the Sangh Parivar is attempting to use its new-found power to attempt to change the discourse to give greater space to its “icons” is indisputable. Savarkar and a “new, improved version” of Sardar Patel moulded to Sangh specifications are two such. The justification proffered is that the Freedom Struggle has been dominated by the Congress to the exclusion of others and this therefore needs to change. The Freedom Struggle was bigger than a single organisation is the contention. That it is. But, who should find a place? Who reflects the true ideals of the Freedom Struggle and the nation that has come into being thereafter?

When one gleans through the story of the fight for our freedom, one can see that two important narratives that ran contrary to the Congress line and method have been afforded an important place in the narration — Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekar Azad and the revolutionaries narrative and the Indian National Army (INA) narrative of Subhas Chandra Bose. These narratives have more or less held their own. But, a third narrative that was the precursor to both these narratives and has more than a tenuous connection to them has been airbrushed out — the story of the Ghadar movement. 

The British took over the empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh after pensioning off his heir, Dalip Singh in 1849. Punjab soon became the sword-arm of the Empire and Punjabis in large numbers joined the British-Indian Army. Through the second half of the 19th century, the Sikhs stayed loyal to the empire.

The Ghadar movement was conceived in America in 1913. It predated Gandhi’s arrival on the Indian political scene in 1914 and of course, it was a different politics altogether. But, it did share one thing with Gandhian politics — it too was conceived as a mass struggle as opposed to the Constitutional struggle of the Congress before Gandhi. The Ghadar movement was an act of daring fuelled by idealism. It failed, but nevertheless, it directly impacted Bhagat Singh and had an indirect connection to Subhas Bose. Its ideas were secular, but its chosen method of action was different from the Congress. Hence, it has been neglected, twice over, both by the Congress and the SanghParivar. It does not fit in with the manner in which they wish the historical narrative to run. 

To have fallen foul of both sides of the spectrum requires a lot of doing. So what were the circumstances in which the Ghadar movement was conceived? Why was the movement conceived in USA and Canada? And what was the trajectory of the movement? It would be worthwhile to study these prior to developing an understanding behind the neglect of the  movement in our History books. 

Early Punjabi Immigrants to America.The British took over the empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh after pensioning off his heir, Dalip Singh in 1849. Punjab soon became the sword-arm of the Empire and Punjabis in large numbers joined the British-Indian Army. Through the second half of the 19th century, the Sikhs stayed loyal to the empire. There were the occasional blips like the Kuka movement which challenged the might of the Empire. But by 1900, close to half the Indian Army comprised of troops drawn from Punjab — the majority of them Sikh but with some Hindu and Muslim representation as well. 

The Canal colonies developed by the British to feed into their commercial activities had also resulted in internal migration between East and West Punjab. The Canal Colonies had enabled many peasants obtain land, but the cycle of bad harvests, indebtedness and pressure to pay tax remained their bugbear. The famines of 1896-97 and 1899-1900 were particularly severe. In such a desperate situation, emigration to foreign countries began. Initial emigration was to the Far East. But by 1905, 45 Indians found their way to Canada. But by 1908, there were 3500 Indians in Canada when the authorities clamped down on Indian immigration. Shifting their gaze southwards, Indians now entered the USA. Several thousands managed to enter the USA, three-quarters of them Sikh and atleasthalf of them ex-soldiers. The New World however was a hostile place and the immigrants were not welcomed. Their presence caused much resentment and hostility. 

Meanwhile, Punjab was in ferment against the provisions of the Colonisation Bill and the increase inwater rates. Leaders like Ajit Singh andLalaLajpat Rai and Bhai Bhagwan Singh spoke against these moves of the government. Ajit Singh and LalaLajpat Rai were deported to Burma as punishment for their actions. 

Komagata Maru the boat that carried several Punjabi mirgants.The Ghadar movement was conceived in the light of these incidents as also the revolutionary fervour that gripped India after the partition of Bengal in 1905. The movement was led by leaders like LalaHarDayal, Kartar Singh Sarabha, Bhai Bhagwan Singh, Sohan Singh Bhakna, Vishnu Ganesh Pingle, P S Khankhoje and Taraknath Das. All of them (with the exception of Bhakna) were from well-educated backgrounds. It is also important to note that though the foot-soldiers of the Ghadar movement were mostly Punjabi, the Ghadar leadership consisted of Punjabis, Bengalis, Marathi and Telugu-speakers. In this sense too, the Ghadar movement was a precursor to the Congress. 

HarDayal had been selected for the ICS, but had turned it down. He had secured a scholarship to study at Oxford, but had given up on that too to pursue spiritual interests before choosing the revolutionary path. Sarabha was a student at Berkeley, Khankhoje and Pingle at Washington. Taraknath Das had graduated from Calcutta University. Bhagwan Singh had a religious education at an institution begun by the Singh Sabha movement and had to leave India in 1909 as a result of his political activities. Making his way through South East Asia, he found himself in Canada in 1913. Bhakna had emerged from the labouring classes who had migrated to USA. 

HarDayal who had arrived in the USA in 1911 had already taught at Stanford and given lectures across the US on British imperialism. He soon came to lead the many Indians who were all working in California, earning well, but unhappy at the way they were treated and at being away from their families and native land. Soon, Har Dayal organised them and made them politically aware. The Hindustan Association was formed in 1913 and a newspaper, the Ghadarpublished in November 1913. The organization soon came to be known as the Ghadar movement. 

The first six months of 1914 were a period of great activity both for the Ghadarmovement. The Ghadarnewspaper was circulated far and wide. Copies of the newspaper found their way to India too, but were seized by the British authorities who recognised the threat posed by the Ghadarites. The movement was gaining strength, but the plan was still hazy. There were plans for an armed struggle, but the actual plan had not been worked out. In the middle of all this activity, two important events took place which altered the dynamics of the Ghadar movement – the KomagataMaru incident and the beginning of the First World War. The KomagataMaru incident wherein a group of 376 people from Punjab were denied entry into Canada galvanized Indian opinion against the double standards of the Empire. The unexpected commencement of World War I meant that the Ghadarites had to work at lightning speed to seize the opportunity that had come their way. 

The Ghadarissue of 4 August 1914 published Bhagwan Singh’s Ailan-e-Jung: ‘O Warriors! The opportunity you have been looking for has arrived,’ it proclaimed. Ghadar leaders fanned out to different parts of the USA asking Indians to leave their jobs, wind up their businesses and return to India to prepare for an armed struggle to overthrow the colonial regime. By the end of October, eight ships left the USA and Canada towards India. Among the returnees was Kartar Singh Sarabha. 

The Ghadar movement faltered for many reasons. The Ghadarites had not expected the outbreak of war before 1920.

While Sohan Singh Bhakna was arrested soon after he landed on Indian shores, others were kept under close police surveillance. Kartar Singh Sarabha escaped the police net and attempted to get Indian soldiers in Punjab to mutiny in the hope that the spark ignited in Punjab would spread all over the country. Rash Behari Bose from Bengal joined the Ghadarites in India at the behest of Pingley. The date for armed revolt was set for 21 February 1915. This was leaked to the British authorities after which the date was changed to 19 February. News of this change did not reach all concerned. Meanwhile, the British reacted swiftly and arrested a number of revolutionaries. The promised revolution did not come to fruition. Both Pingley and Sarabha were arrested and later, executed by the colonial administration. Rash Behari Bose escaped to Japan, never to return to India. Other Ghadarites received long prison sentences.  

The Ghadar movement faltered for many reasons. The Ghadarites had not expected the outbreak of war before 1920. But once the war was underway, they could not stand aside. It was too crucial an opportunity to be missed. Support from the local population was also lacking as were funds and arms. The promised German help also did not materialise.

“Ghadar di gunj”,  the slogan for the mutiny.​But the Ghadar movement had ignited a spark. That Bhagat Singh drew much inspiration from the Ghadarites and Kartar Singh Sarabha in particular has been recounted many times over. Rash Behari Bose played an important role in persuading the Japanese to actively support the Indian independence struggle abroad. The Indian Independence League was established by Bose and others in March 1942 and in itssecond conference at Bangkok in June 1942, a resolution was adopted to inviteSubhas Chandra Bose to join the League and take charge as its resident. This led to the foundation of the Indian National Army in 1942. 

The Ghadar movement’s continued neglect in our history books speaks ill of those who laid the foundations for our freedom and is something that needs to be undone. This Independence Day is a good time. 

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