People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 23

June 09, 2013




Powerful Inspiration for the Creation of a Better India


Sitaram Yechury


THE year 2013 marks the centenary of the Ghadar movement. Like a blazing comet that sets the skies aflame, the Ghadar movement started on the USA's west coast on November 1, 1913, with the beating of drums that its name was 'mutiny' and that it was the 'enemy of the British rule.’ It openly declared that its policy was to start another Ghadar. (The word means rebellion and referred to the Great Uprising of 1857, the First War of Indian Independence.)




Consider the time when the Ghadar movement began. It was a year before the First World War began. It was four years before the triumph of the Russian Revolution. It was eight years before Maulana Hasrat Mohani and Swami Kumaranand, two communist leaders, moved the resolution for complete independence at the Ahmedabad AICC session in 1921, which was not accepted by Gandhiji. The slogan of poorna swaraj was finally given by the AICC on December 31, 1929 at its Lahore session. It was a full sixteen years after the Ghadarites first raised the slogan of independence. The Ghadar movement started towards the end of what is called ‘Britain’s Imperial Century’ where the ‘sun could never set.’  An Indian patriot, we are told, promptly retorted, “Yes, of course. Even God does not trust the British in the dark!”


The call for independence, given by the Ghadar movement, not only predates all other important milestones in India’s struggle for freedom but it also in a sense anticipates many of the hallmarks associated with the freedom struggle. The Gandhian non-cooperation satyagraha, as we shall see, was one of the strategies of struggle for independence that the Ghadarites adopted. This movement was a source of inspiration for Bhagat Singh who reportedly always carried the photograph of Kartar Singh Sarabha in his pocket. The methods that Subhash Chandra Bose’s INA adopted were also influenced by the Ghadar movement.                                                                                                                                                                   


The Indian emigrants in the USA and Canada, thus, formed the earliest organisation – amongst the many streams of our freedom struggle – not on Indian soil, but abroad. Given the conditions of miserable existence in British India, many people migrated to various parts of the world, particularly to East Asia, i.e., Malaya, Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan, etc. Since the conditions in these countries were not very encouraging either, they turned towards Canada and to the United States, which were then experiencing an economic boom. These emigrants, however, had to experience abject racial discrimination and were treated with contempt. This was distinct from the treatment that these two countries accorded to the Chinese or the Japanese. These emigrants, mainly from the Punjab, came to the natural conclusion that it was India's colonial slavery which was the root cause for such discrimination against and racial exploitation of the Indians. The struggle against injustices meted out to them thus naturally coalesced with the quest for India's freedom. Apart from the emigrants, other revolutionaries who left India to live in exile and those who went for higher studies also joined such struggles. Among them was Lala Hardayal who rose to become a prominent Ghadarite. Along with stalwarts like Sohan Singh Bhakna, the Ghadar movement adopted an anthem, Ghadar di Goonj, which said 'Nawan roop rachan Hind de samaj da, Tukham udaona zalaman de raj da' (destroy the roots of the tyrants rule, in order to construct a new social and political order in India).


Though bulk of those who joined the movement were from Punjab, there were others like Pandurang Khankhoje and Vishnu Ganesh Pingle from Maharashtra and Darsi Chenchaiah from Andhra Pradesh, etc.




Soon after its formation, the Ghadar movement started its own paper, Ghadar, with Lala Hardayal as its founding editor. On top of the paper's masthead was printed its identity: Angrezi raj ka dushman (enemy of the British rule). At the bottom of the front page of its every issue, ran its stated objective: “56 years have elapsed since the Mutiny of 1857; now there is an urgent need of a second one.” Thus emerged onto the theatre of the Indian people’s glorious saga of struggles for freedom a band of deeply secular emigrants who were to first inspire and directly contribute to the achievement of our freedom.


Naturally, the Canadian and the US authorities further tightened the immigration laws in view of these developments. In order to block further entry of Indians, the authorities imposed various harsh restrictions, like showing two hundred dollars before entry; denied the facility to bring their spouses and children; prohibiting ships carrying Indians to provide food or water to them; etc. Such obnoxious racist treatment was meant mainly for the Indians. Far from deterring the Ghadarites, however, these steps only deepened their resolve to struggle for India's independence further.


Canada stipulated that Indians could be allowed only in ships that are directly bound to Canada, an impossible stipulation to meet at that time when there was no direct ship service from Canada to India.


As late Comrade Harkishan Singh Surjeet noted, “…..the Indian community in Vancouver came forward to meet this challenge. One Gurudit Singh, who hailed from Amritsar, chartered a Japanese vessel named Komagatamaru, issued tickets and took in passengers to be taken to Canada. On April 4, 1914, the ship sailed from Hong Kong and reached Vancouver on May 23, with 351 Sikhs and 21 Punjabi Muslims aboard. But they were not allowed to land. Having stayed in the waters near the port for eight weeks, the ship finally started its return journey on July 23. But when the hapless passengers arrived at Budge Budge port near Calcutta on September 27, they were greeted with bullets, which claimed 18 lives, according to the government, and injured many. A number of passengers were arrested while 29, including Gurudit Singh, were reported missing.


“Finally, in the beginning of 1915, heroes of the Ghadar Party started to leave Canada and the USA and came to India in batches, via Shanghai and Singapore. Their aim was to spread discontent in various cantonments and motivate the Indian soldiers for revolt against the British. Leaders and cadres from other revolutionary organisations like the Anushilan Samiti also extended their cooperation in this endeavour. The earlier fixed date for the uprising was February 21, 1915, but it was preponed to February 19 when a traitor gave out the news to the CID. Still, however, the plan did not succeed and the leaders were hauled up before they could do something.”




Then followed a series of conspiracy cases fabricated by the British. There was a main Lahore conspiracy case, and then there were four supplementary conspiracy cases, two Mandi conspiracy cases, two Burma conspiracy cases, and those conducted in Singapore and some other places outside India. As a result of this shameless mockery of justice which is what the colonial British judicial process represented, 46 Ghadar patriots were hanged to death and 64 sentenced to life transportation to the notorious Kala Paani in the Andamans. Hundreds more were sentenced to various degrees of punishment.


Much before the Mahatma entered the scene to lead the freedom struggle and gave the call for non-cooperation satyagraha, the Ghadarites had come to the simple conclusion that if the then 300 million Indians had refused to cooperate with the British, the British would never have been able to stay in India. Their slogan was, 'pindaan walion maamla bandh kar deo' (village folks stop paying land revenue to the government).


Inside India, the legacy of the Ghadar movement picked up momentum after Mahatma Gandhi withdrew the 1921 non-cooperation movement following the people’s attack on a police station in Chauri Chaura, Uttar Pradesh, calling it a “Himalayan blunder.” A large number of youth strongly disapproved of this action. Among them was Jawaharlal Nehru, who wrote from jail to this affect. Significantly, among such youth was Bhagat Singh as well. He was strongly influenced by the idealism of the Ghadar movement, particularly its steadfast commitment to secularism at a time when communal violence was rampant in the post-Gandhian withdrawal of the non-cooperation movement. As historian Harish Puri notes, “.….the sheer audacity of the Ghadar patriots and the tremendous sacrifices they made left the young man (Bhagat Singh) awestruck. Kartar Singh Sarabha became his hero and a role model. As he wrote about Sarabha later: 'one is amazed to think of what he at the age of 19 was able to do….. Such courage! Such self-confidence! So much of self-denial and passionate commitment has been rarely seen earlier..... Ohnan di rag rag vich inquilabi jazba samaya hoya si (revolutionary passion was embedded in every vein of his)’.” In a sense, this explains Bhagat Singh's own personal attributes in the next decade or so: he, at the age of 23, refused mercy from the authorities and with a smile went to the gallows on March 23, 1931, with his example continuing to inspire all the future generations of patriotic youth down to this day.


Bhagat Singh's exchanges with prominent Ghadarites who were released from the Andamans --- Bhai Paramanand, Sachindra Nath Sanyal, Ramsaran Das and others --- led, among other things, to the establishment of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha in 1924 and of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army in 1928.




Simultaneously during this period, soon after the 1915 Ghadar uprising failed, an event occurred that changed the whole history of the world --- it was the triumph of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Comrade Lenin's and socialist Russia's wholehearted support to the independence of colonial countries attracted the Ghadar heroes and two of them --- Bhai Santokh Singh and Ratan Singh --- went as a delegate and an observer, respectively,  to attend the fourth congress of the Communist International. Having seen the success of the worker-peasant alliance in bringing about the Russian Revolution, the need to organise the Indian peasantry and working class became an absolutely necessary objective. Bhai Santokh Singh returned to India with the objective of strengthening the revolutionary consciousness of the people and hence he started the journal Kirti (Labour) in February 1926, both in Punjabi and Urdu, and actively plunged into the kisan movement. Bhagat Singh also worked on the editorial staff of Kirti for a few months, as he clearly held the Ghadar movement as the first genuinely revolutionary struggle for the freedom of India. Bhagat Singh edited the journal as a continuation of the revolutionary struggle in a new way, i.e., for a revolutionary change through political education and the mobilisation of the peasants and workers.


With the active support of Lenin and socialist Russia, many young revolutionaries were sent to study at the University of the Toilers of the East, established by the Russian Revolution in Moscow. The last batch of such students returned in 1936 and plunged directly into the revolutionary struggles. Many of the Ghadarites like Bhai Santokh Singh, Jawala Singh, Ratan Singh, Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, Karam Singh Cheema and others --- today affectionately called Ghadari babas --- played a significant role in the formation of the All India Kisan Sabha in 1936.


The Ghadar movement thus influenced other important streams that contributed to India's freedom. The organisation of the Indian National Army (INA) by Subhash Chandra Bose was almost a reiteration of the Ghadar methodology of the liberation of India through an armed attack. Ras Behari Bose, one of the leaders of the planned Ghadar uprising in 1915, who was living in exile in Japan since then, was one of the chief sources of support in raising the INA in Japan. The legacy of the Ghadar movement, hence, became an important element of inspiration for all streams of India's struggle for independence including the RIN mutiny of 1946.


Harish Puri says the Ghadar movement “was the first openly declared political struggle for complete independence of India. Beginning with moral outrage against the British, the end to the British rule in India through an armed insurrection became its objective. The movement was inspired by the dominant ideological thinking among the young revolutionary Indians living abroad during the period 1905-1920. It gave birth to dreams of freedom, of founding in India a secular, democratic republic and creating a new social order based on social good. It is believed since the Ghadar movement originated outside India, “it could never present itself as an indigenous movement. That may well be part of the reason for the less attention given to its role in India's freedom struggle.”


The observances of the Ghadar movement's centenary must be an occasion for us to undo this grave historical wrong and injustice of not giving this movement and its heroes their legitimate due in not merely the achievement of India's freedom and independence but also in shaping the ideological consciousness and in moulding the youth down the generations for carrying forward the struggles for justice, freedom and liberty in a most comprehensive manner. Their contribution continues to remain an inspiration to the current struggles in India that are aimed to create a better India for the vast mass of its people.