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Ghadar Movement and Its Anarchist Genealogy

The Ghadar movement virtually came out of nowhere and rapidly took over the consciousness of an entire Indian diaspora. What was so compelling in its message that it could uproot an entire project of migration and settlement and turn it upside down? Why would thousands of migrants, from different regions of India, but predominantly the Sikhs from the Punjab, suddenly become interested in waging an armed struggle against British colonialism? These questions can be better addressed if we switch the Ghadar movement from the cultural register of Indian nationalism to the revolutionary theories and practices of the Russian anarchists. What is also striking about the Ghadar Party was that unlike many contemporary militant organisations, it was actively hostile to religion.


Ghadar Movement and Its Anarchist Genealogy

Harjot oberoi

The Ghadar movement virtually came out of nowhere and rapidly took over the consciousness of an entire Indian diaspora. What was so compelling in its message that it could uproot an entire project of migration and settlement and turn it upside down? Why would thousands of migrants, from different regions of India, but predominantly the Sikhs from the Punjab, suddenly become interested in waging an armed struggle against British colonialism? These questions can be better addressed if we switch the Ghadar movement from the cultural register of Indian nationalism to the revolutionary theories and practices of the Russian anarchists. What is also striking about the Ghadar Party was that unlike many contemporary militant organisations, it was actively hostile to religion.

Harjot Oberoi ( is professor of South Asian History, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.

A revolutionary is a dedicated man. He has no personal interests, no dealings, feelings, attachments or property, not even a name. Everything in him is solely directed towards one exclusive concern, one thought, one sole passion – revolution.

– Sergi Nechayev, Catechism of a Revolutionary If you talk, talk of Ghadar, if you dream, dream of Ghadar; if you eat, eat for the sake of Ghadar.

–Hindustan Ghadar Early in the winter of 1913, the inaugural issue of a weekly periodical, published from San Francisco, carried the following advertisement: Wanted: Brave soldiers to stir up revolution in India Pay: Death Prize: Martyrdom Pension: Liberty Field of Battle: India1

his extraordinary notice written without the help of an e xpensive marketing consultant or a professional copy- e ditor might rank as one of the most successful pieces of political propaganda ever produced by amateur revolutionaries. In less than a year of its circulation, the call for political recruits yielded a crop of thousands of militant activists, all eager to launch an armed revolution in colonial India. While geographically the bulk of these new revolutionaries lived on the Pacifi c Coast many other Indians from the diaspora from as far afi eld as Panama, Manila, Tokyo, Shanghai, Canton, Bangkok, Rangoon, Singapore, Penang, Borneo, and Berlin became enthusiastic c ollaborators. Collectively, they all identified with an incipient organisation that came to be known as the Ghadar Party. The Urdu word “Ghadar” has a range of meanings, but commonly it denotes a rebellion. Although this movement emerged in tandem with the Hindi Association of the Pacifi c Coast, it took its popular name Ghadar from the vernacular newspaper launched in coordination with the Association that was entitled Hindustan Ghadar.2

The Ghadar movement, in part, expressed the communal experience of early Indian immigrants to the west coast who began arriving into this region in the early 1900s. While initially the construction of transcontinental railroads and a boom in the lumber industry allowed these immigrants to gradually establish themselves in cities like Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland, this early good fortune came to an abrupt halt. By 1907 as the economy entered into a recession these early settlers were faced with widespread racial discrimination and political exclusion. While we do not have a comprehensive archive covering the early phase of the south Asian diaspora, we have a fairly good knowledge of what was going on within the immigrant communities based on the writings of Norman Buchignani, Hugh Johnston, Karen L eonard and Archana Verma.3 For instance, in 1907 the Canadian government stipulated that all immigrants arriving from Asia would only be permitted if they had $200 and in May 1910, to

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make entry even more difficult, it passed the “Continious Journey” provision. This new law would make it impossible for the people of the subcontinent to come to Canada because henceforth only immigrants who had journeyed directly from their place of origin to Canadian ports would be allowed in. And it was well known that there were no direct shipping lines between India and Canada.4 At one stage the Canadian authorities even plotted to have all Indians expelled from Canada. In order to resist these alarming developments, a few among the pioneers began to experiment with a variety of forums and publishing ventures. However, these early struggles were greatly hindered by the fact that the bulk of the immigrants had almost no formal education and many could not communicate in English. Gradually, these early efforts to find a political voice crystallised when Lala Hardayal (1884-1938), widely acknowledged for his charisma and educational distinctions, agreed to provide a helping hand to the young party. Since Hardayal is so central to the ideology and many of the strategic choices made by the Ghadar movement, it will be useful to list a few of his biographical details here.

Erratic and Explosive

Hardayal belonged to an upper caste Hindu family that had lived in Delhi for many generations.5 His father worked for the Raj as a reader in the district court. As a child Hardayal was sent to the mission school and then graduated from St Stephen’s College. On winning a government stipend he moved to Lahore where he fi rst earned an MA in English and quickly followed this with another MA in History, this time breaking the university record for the highest marks. With these impressive credentials, 21-year old Hardayal had no difficulty in securing a state scholarship to study at St John’s College, Oxford. While in England from 1905 to 1907 something fundamentally shifted within Hardayal. Externally, he gave up on his western attire and started wearing a dhoti and kurta, undaunted by the winter climate. He would sleep on the floor, refuse any food cooked by English people, and became a strict vegetarian. A few months prior to the completion of his academic programme at Oxford he resigned his scholarship and took up the cause of advancing Indian nationalism. Dissatisfi ed with the prospects of moderate nationalism that he thought was inherently ineffective and below his cultural dignity, for it sought to petition and persuade colonial rulers, Hardayal cast his lot with militants like Shyamji Krishanvarma (1857-1930), V D Sarvarkar (1883-1966), and Madame Bhikaji Rustom Cama (1861-1936) envisioning a vigorous propaganda blitz against colonial rule, which, in turn, would fuel quick strategic strikes against British interests in the subcontinent. As a gesture of solidarity for this line of action Hardayal wrote an essay entitled: “A Sketch of a Complete Political Movement for the Emancipation of India (1907)”. Perhaps no one in England at the time could have realised that in less than six years the mental architecture of this essay would i nform a concrete armed struggle for the liberation of India.

In February 1909, Hardayal who had never held a paid job until then was compelled due to financial hardship to leave London for Paris where he could reside almost for free with expatriate friends. Here he enlarged his initial circle by making contact with Russian revolutionaries and Egyptian nationalists. But due

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to his strange sartorial habits Hardayal’s health began to suffer. He was advised to live in a warmer climate, and it was this search for more temperate surroundings that led Hardayal fi rst to Algiers, then to Martinique, and finally in April 1911 to California where he was to reside for the next few years. In less than a year after his arrival on the west coast, Hardayal was hired as a lecturer in Indian Philosophy at Stanford. But when the university president received news that he was advocating free love on campus and calling for dissolving private property, religion, marriage, and government he was asked to resign. Hardayal quickly acceded to the request and informed his friends, “I am too erratic and explosive to be institutionalised”.6

Freed from institutional constraints and enthused by news of a new wave of militancy in India, Hardayal now directed all his energy and attention to mobilising the various segments (farmers, workers, and students) of expatriates on the west coast for the liberation of India. His general optimism, simplicity, and a poetic temperament all contributed to his spectacular success. Within a few months he was able to attract sufficient moral and material support to launch four critical initiatives: first, in October 1913 in collaboration with Sohan Singh Bhakna and Pandit Kanshi Ram the Ghadar or the Revolutionary Party of India was founded; second, he and his associates purchased a printing press; third, they launched vernacular newspapers in Urdu and Punjabi; and fourth, they purchased a house on 436 Hill Street in San Francisco that was to house the publishing venture and serve as a meeting place. This new abode was given the name, Yugantar Ashram (Advent of a New Age Ashram). As news of the fl edging party spread across the west coast, it attracted many student volunteers, particularly from Berkeley. Within months, as the handfed press churned out the weekly papers, anthologies of revolutionary poetry, and chronicles of Indian heroic figures and past armed struggles like the great rebellion of 1857, the organisation began to expand at the stunning rate of three to four hundred new recruits a week.7 Prominent among them was a large body of Sikh factory workers, farmers, agricultural labourers and students. The close association of the Sikh diaspora with the Ghadar was to remain one of its defi ning characteristics.

Starting the Revolution

Within six months the membership list of the party grew to over 6,000. The Ghadar leadership was unprepared for this phenomenal expansion. It was one thing to dream of a revolution in India, but how does one bend history to human will and start a concrete uprising in the subcontinent, while living on the Pacifi c Coast? Fortunately for the Ghadar leadership the breakout of the war between Germany and Britain on 4 August 1914 provided an immediate opening to strike out against the empire. Hardayal proposed that with Britain distracted by the war effort in Europe, it was the perfect time to start a revolution in India. This line of i mminent action was further strengthened when German agents in America offered to help the Ghadarites with tactical advice, money, and arms. In October 1914, the German Foreign Offi ce in Berlin instructed its embassy in America to buy a large cache of arms for onward shipment to revolutionaries in India.8 Three German banks were nominated to remit funds and act as hubs


for communication between German authorities and its Indian operators.

Prominent Ghadar leaders Maulvi Mohammad Barkatullah, Bhagwan Singh, and Ram Chandra Peshawri toured the west coast holding large meetings in mill towns and diasporic enclaves. They repeatedly told their audiences that they had enlisted the support of a large number of Indian troops, an arsenal had been collected for their use, and as soon as a sufficient number of Ghadar Party members were back in India a general uprising would begin. Fully trusting these assurances the first batch of revolutionaries left Vancouver on 22 August 1914 by a regular steamship service operated by Canadian Pacific, a large shipping company. A few days later a second group sailed from Victoria. On 29 August Jawala Singh, a major financier of the party and popularly known as the potato king of California left with 62 men on board the ship Korea.9 In Canton, Jawala Singh was joined by another 90 sympathisers. Over the next three months these d epartures kept gaining momentum and by the end of November 3,000 men are said to have left for India.

The colonial state alerted by an extensive intelligence network in Canada, the United States, and Hong Kong took the threat posed by the Ghadarties very seriously. On 5 September the government of India introduced a strict new measure called the “Ingress into India Ordinance”, that imposed strict controls on those seeking entry into India, and returning emigrants thought to pose a threat to public safety, interest, and tranquility could be arrested. Passenger manifests from all of the leading shipping companies plying in the Pacific region were thoroughly combed. Lists of those deemed dangerous were handed out to various port authorities. As the unsuspecting Ghadraties reached Calcutta many were immediately arrested; for instance, the prominent leader Jawala Singh and his band of men who left Hong Kong in mid-October were all arrested as soon as their ship the Tosa Maru docked in Calcutta. Based on police records we know that from 1914 to 1917 out of 8,000 returning emigrants, approximately 1,700 were interned.10 Despite these strict police measures, many revolutionaries slipped through undetected, in particular, almost all of those who returned through Ceylon and some of the s outhern ports.

As the Ghadarites who had evaded arrest gathered in Punjab they became aware that contrary to what they had been told in California the country was not on the verge of a revolution.11 With the start of the war many Punjabis were enthusiastically supporting the British efforts towards further recruitment. In the countryside village councils agreed to report on any one suspected of sympathising with the radicals. Deprived of leadership and with no ready access to arms, party activists started contacting local radical organisations. Within a short period, with the help of B erkeley-returned Vishnu Ganesh Pingley, a new nexus was e stablished with militants in Bengal. By early January 1915, Rash Behari Bose (who occupied a top perch within radical circles b ecause he had masterminded the assassination attempt on the British viceroy, Lord Hardinge in 1912), was inducted into the leadership of the Ghadar movement. This new collaborative e xercise emboldened the Ghadarites to revert to their earlier strategy of starting a general uprising. When Ghadar emissaries received strong assurances from army units in Lahore, Ferozepore, Meerut, Agra, Benares, and Lucknow that they were ready to defect, Bose fixed the night of 21 February, for the start of a general revolt. All fresh recruits were instructed on how to cut telegraph lines and destroy railway lines. Once again British intelligence agents had successfully planted spies in the party headquarters at Lahore and all Ghadar plans were known well in advance to the colonial establishment. Just before the fateful night, all of the disaffected army regiments were either moved or disarmed. Any help that the Ghadarites may have expected from outside army circles was minimal. The revolution was over even before it began. Although Bose evaded the police, almost all of the other leaders and several hundred activists were arrested. Armed with the Defence of India Act (1915), the colonial state set up special tribunals to try them. These special courts were convened in Lahore, Benares, Mandalay, and Singapore. Of those tried in Punjab, 46 were hanged and 194 given life-imprisonment. Although the Ghadar movement was virtually crushed in the Punjab, many party loyalists continued with their revolutionary activities in such diverse locations as the US, Germany, Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan.

An Alternative Genealogy

What is puzzling about the Ghadar movement is the manner in which it virtually came out of nowhere and rapidly took over the consciousness of an entire diasporic community. What was so compelling in its message that it could uproot an entire project of migration and settlement and turn it upside down? Why would thousands of migrants, from different regions of India, but predominantly the Sikhs from the Punjab, suddenly become interested in waging an armed struggle against British colonialism? We do not have much within existing historiography to deal with these sort of questions. Political scientist, Harish Puri proposed that the diasporic militants so strongly imbibed the egalitarian values of American culture that they were inspired to transpose this social framework to colonial India.12 More recently, Maia Ramnath, in a revisionist piece of writing informs us that the Ghadar political formation was actually made up of two overlapping movements, one rooted in Bengali radicalism and the other in Punjabi diasporic concerns.13 But in concluding her essay Ramnath acknowledges a certain unity between the two movements, when she writes: “Ghadar crystallised at a moment of zenith for political and cultural radicalism in the US. At the same time, the North American immigrant workforce was beginning to link its grievances of labour exploitation compounded by racial discrimination to its position within a global political-economic structure. “Within these contradictions, the Ghadarites p aralayed the experience of peripatetic intellectuals and immigrant labourers in early 20th century California into a revolutionary anti-colonial movement.”14 The arguments put forward by Puri and Ramnath are deserving of close attention for all those who have an interest in understanding the dramatic rise and expansion of the Ghadar movement. But as we search for possible answers to our vexing questions concerning causation and motivation, I would like to argue that the issues we are raising are better addressed if we switch the Ghadar movement from the cultural register of Indian

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nationalism as it is commonly understood, to the revolutionary theories and practices of the Russian anarchists.

The reason the Ghadar movement appears to be coming out of nowhere is because we are using every possible trajectory/category coming to us from within the Raj to decipher it, and therefore it repeatedly slips from our grasp. The Ghadarites, unlike the Indian National Congress, had no discourse of municipal politics, electoral reform, or an unjust British empire. The following Ghadar poem signals their distrust of the status quo:

If our leaders had fought for our self respect We would not have lost our country and honour The kind of Bannerji, Bipin Chandra Pal, Gandhi And Madanmohan Malviya should not Have licked the boots of the British Deputations and resolutions are a waste of time These leaders of the Congress who have a soft corner For the British have become our leaders Because you were asleep and not conscious Freedom is not obtained by begging By appeals political power is not won Do not petition like cowards Get hold of the sword and they will run What have all the petitions done? Brutal British have plundered our land.15

The Ghadar activists viewed liberty and political freedom as natural rights and that one did not negotiate with a colonial regime to achieve these givens. Similarly, the Ghadarites did not share the theological underpinnings of the Maharashtrian and Bengali schools of terror. They simply refused to be caught up with issues of religious chauvinism, metaphysics, yoga, and secret pacts to serve the mother goddess (whether she was Durga or Kali). They did not invoke the life of Krishna or the text of the Bhagavad Gita for inspiration and political action.16 Among the foundational texts for the Ghadar ideologues one would count: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s commentary on the revolutionary p rocess, the General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century (1851), Michael Bakunin’s, God and the State (1871) and Peter Kropotkin’s classic, Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1899).

Therefore it is not a coincidence of history that a common Ghadar refrain was almost a literal translation of anarchist catechisms. It is worth noting here that the first epigram at the beginning of this article is by the Russian anarchist theorist, Sergi Nechayev (1847-1882) from his most famous work Catechism of a Revolutionary and the second is a widely used Ghadar maxim fashioned after Nechayev’s thoughts. Like the Russian anarchists, particularly the Narodnaya Volya, a group closely aligned with Nechayev, the Ghadarite strategists began to view revolution as a secular event that came with its own temporal clock, strategies of militancy, and cosmopolitan social space.

Given his life experiences and extensive readings of Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin, Hardayal could free himself from the cultural hegemony of the Raj and the trajectories of nationalism made possible within the colonial universe. He was not to be t utored by Indian nationalists like Dadabhai Naoroji, G K Gokhale, or B G Tilak, but rather instructed by the Russian anarchists and

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possibly Italian futurists. While still a student at Oxford, Hardayal went to meet the Russian anarchist Kropotkin who then lived in exile in London. One of Hardayal’s closest friends was the British radical Guy Aldred who wrote an influential biography of Bakunin and also published many collections of Bakunin’s writings. During his early days in the Bay Area Hardayal founded the Radical Club and although we do not have many reports on its activities, one report of a meeting held on 12 October 1912 is highly illuminating. The topic of discussion that evening was “Heroes who have killed rulers and dynamited buildings”. In 1912 Hardayal proposed the founding of the “Faternity of the Red Flag” and published a short manifesto in its support. A section of the manifesto was devoted to “Institutional Revolution”. It is, I think, worthwhile to quote some of its principles here:

  • (1) The abolition of private property in land and capital through industrial organisation and the General Strike.
  • (2) The establishment of free fraternal cooperation, and the ultimate abolition of the coercive organisation of government
  • (3) The promotion of science and sociology, and the abolition of religion and metaphysics.
  • (4) The establishment of Universal Brotherhood, and the abolition of patriotism and race feeling.
  • (5) The establishment of the complete economic, intellectual and sexual freedom of women, and the abolition of prostitution, m arriage, and other institutions based on the enslavement of women.17
  • Departure from Marxism

    Many of the key doctrines of 19th century anarchist thoughts are vividly expressed here. From the time of Proudhon, anarchists had considered private property simply as a form of theft and traced almost all societal ills to the institution of private property and the right of inheritance. Other themes listed in this manifesto like the abolition of government, internationalism, a universal revolution, freedom of women were all taken directly from anarchist political theory. To give these ideas a concrete shape, at one time Hardayal set up a Bakunin Institute in Oakland.

    With this background, we can well imagine why the Ghadarites cherished the doctrine of spontaneous revolution. Such an idea was initially formulated by anarchists like Bakunin who

    o pposed Marx and others within the First International Working Men’s Association (founded in 1864) for proposing that a centralised party must tightly orchestrate revolutionary change. For anarchists the basic unit of society was always the individual. Only by focusing on the individual, they believed, could personal l iberties be protected. Opposed to all forms of institutional controls, they were inherently hostile to the idea that a revolution could be spearheaded by a paternalistic elite, however wellintentioned. If this was to happen, the anarchists feared that the party leading the revolution would soon be corrupted. For it would seek to consolidate its newly gained power and not tolerate any dissent. The anarchists did not believe that there existed any historical or scientific laws of social change. A revolutionary upsurge was not predetermined by the forces of production and did not call for an advanced capitalistic economy. Such a reading of history and future possibilities was in complete opposition to


    what Karl Marx had for long proposed in his corpus. At the p opular level, both in the Communist Manifesto (1848) and the E ighteenth Brumaire (1853), but also in the more abstract Capital, Marx consistently invoked what can be called the axioms of h istory. In Marx’s grand narrative all human societies had to pass through four stages of evolution: slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and communism. In this deterministic framework each phase was to work out with the precision of a chronometer. Anarchists of course considered all this evolutionary thinking to be of no c onsequence.

    In departing from Marx, the anarchists refused to acknowledge that any single class, like the proletariat, had an overdetermined capacity to bring about a revolution. For them the peasantry was as good a revolutionary class as the proletariat. Thus staging a revolution for the anarchists was never a methodical process, but something that was always messy, full of s urprises, and often spontaneous. We see Hardayal acknowledging the thrust of anarchist thinking on revolution when he notes:

    Society is not an agglomeration of molecules, and man is not a machine. Social evolution is not a continuous process. There is no law of social progress visible anywhere. Human history is moulded by natural environments and by man’s will. Carlyle’s theory of civilisation as a product of personal influences is much nearer the truth than that of mechanical scientific evolution advanced by Marx and Spencer. Marx admitted the potency of social choice in evolution, but he regarded the “laws” of progress as predominant and gave a secondary position to human volition. This interpretation of history is vicious and misleading. History reveals no law or process or even a tendency. Change is the only law discernible here. The rest is chaos, which great men try to turn into cosmos.18

    Freed from the laws of history, Hardayal could imagine the possibility of revolutionary change in India. It was for him now only a matter of strategy and tactics.

    Here too, the Ghadarites turned to anarchist methodologies and practices that were first developed in Russia. It is worth noting here that Bakunin, perhaps the most important infl uence on Hardayal, was never an arm-chair revolutionary. Besides having been an officer in the czar’s army, Bakunin actually participated on the frontline in some of the most important popular insurrections in 19th century Europe. He served in the Workers National Guard in Paris during the 1848 revolution, the year after that he was one of the key commanders for an uprising in Dresden, and in 1870 he helped the workers and artisans of Lyon secure the city with arms and barricades.19 Bakunin saw people everywhere ready for revolution, but they required to be equipped with arms and trained. A similar incendiary line of action was an integral part of the Ghadar agenda right from its beginnings. There never was any policy debate among the Ghadarites over the use of militancy. From its inception the party was committed to an armed struggle. Even before the foundation of the Ghadar Party, Hardayal had been singing the praises of what he termed the “bomb and pistol policy”. For Hardayal, then, the deployment of terror was a virtuous political instrument for it helped avenge colonial oppression. It turned stasis into action; transformed powerlessness into power, and redeemed people from the shame of having been enslaved. Furthermore, for him the use of violence concentrated the moral will of a people, frightened the government into making concessions, and woke up the slumbering masses. This fascination with bomb throwing and its poetic celebration became an obsessive part of Hardayal’s six-step programme, that started with the pen and culminated in the deployment of the bomb.20 The ability of Indian nationalists to use a bomb was for Hardayal a significant moment of catharsis. In his logic it cleansed all previous sins of his compatriots for having collaborated with the colonial regime. Liberty, Hardayal proposed, could only be had by exploding bombs.

    These ideas of Hardayal were further developed by another major ideologue of the Ghadar movement, by the name of Gyani Bhagwan Singh. In 1915 he wrote a book, entitled, War and Freedom, that was published by the Ghadar Press in San Francisco.21 The basic thesis of the book was that no country had ever won political freedom without waging a revolutionary war. He illustrated this proposition by looking at armed resistance in Ireland, Russia and China. Singh’s important intervention clarified for the Ghadarites the difference between individual acts of terror and mass-based movements.

    In reading the Ghadar archives it is easy to become distracted by its talk of guns, bombs, and armed struggle. While this chatter was not rhetorical, it should not be overlooked that Ghadar was also simultaneously a war of ideas. The first item acquired by the party was a printing press and within the year it was publishing periodicals in three languages: Urdu, Punjabi, and Gujarati. In the summer of 1914, the Ghadarites published their fi rst collection of poetry entitled: Ghadar di Goonj (Echo of Revolt). This anthology was simultaneously released in Urdu and Punjabi and the first-run was an impressive 12,000 copies. When police raided Ghadar Party headquarters in San Francisco on 4 June 1918 they found that one entire room, about six feet by fi ve feet, was fully stacked with publications, numbering between 1,50,000 and 2,00,000.22 As we know all of the major leaders of the Ghadar movement published books, pamphlets, and newspaper articles. Hardayal taught at Stanford and Barkatullah had a long stint at Tokyo University. Many of the Ghadar activists were students at the University of Calfornia, Berkeley. Hardayal a dmonished I ndian students to give up the study of theology and metaphysics and instead acquire knowledge of sociology.23 In his model curriculum there was no place for Sanskrit. The study of the sacred language was to be replaced by French, S panish, and Italian.

    Cosmopolitanism Personified

    Perhaps it is these cosmopolitan yearnings that account for the modern social space carved up by the Ghadarites. Here it is important to make the point that although we often tend to associate cosmopolitanism with metropolitan societies and modern cultural networks, a certain sort of cosmopolitanism exists outside urbane environments. This alternate cosmopolitanism, prior to the age of high modernism, has recently been ably theorised by Akhil Gupta. He writes “Not only did a range of people transact and translate across different languages, but also they knew how to conduct themselves in different cultural settings with people

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    of different religious beliefs, while respecting the disparate religious, social and cultural practices of their neighbours. This was a form of cosmopolitanism that did not assume that equality and even intimacy in social relations assumed or required commensurability.”24 This alternate cosmopolitanism that Gupta has identified is best exemplified within the Ghadar movement by the life of Sohan Singh Bhakna (1870-1968), the man who in many ways was instrumental in the foundation of the Ghadar Party.

    Sohan Singh was the only child of a rich farmer living in close proximity to the city of Amritsar in the Punjab.25 When his father died, he inherited a considerable amount of land, close to 65 acres. Despite these landholdings his formal education was restricted to what was available in the village school, a total of fi ve years of instruction that gave him a working knowledge of Urdu, Persian and Punjabi. By his own account, while he often transgressed as a young man, an accidental meeting with a spiritual mentor, Baba Kesar Singh, was deeply transforming. Three things impressed Sohan Singh about his new teacher. First, the Baba was actively opposed to all religious distinctions. His following was made up Sikhs, Hindu, and Muslims. Second, the Baba actively taught against caste distinctions and ridiculed the idea of untouchability. Third, he did not believe in conducting elaborate religious rituals. In short, then, the Baba opened the doors to a vast reservoir of pre-colonial cosmopolitanism for Sohan Singh. The first public declaration of a greatly transformed Sohan Singh was when he started an annual multicultural and multireligious festival in his village, appropriately named after him: Bhakna Hola. This spring festival, among other activities, included a large kitchen-like facility dispensing free food to all those attending the country festival. It is quite possible that Sohan Singh lost the bulk of his inherited fortune in defraying the expenses for the annual festival and the free kitchen. Financially ruined, he decided to immigrate to the US at the age of 39. When he arrived in Seattle in 1909, he started his new life as a day-labourer in Seattle. The broad outlines of his early life reveal a man deeply rooted in the eclectic milieu of the Punjab, a milieu that would come in handy when he decided in 1913 to lead a movement made up of men drawn from various parts of the subcontinent and of distinctive confessional identities and castes.

    The Ghadar Party right from its beginnings was suspicious of any sort of parochial identity, in particular, those based on caste, religion, ethnicity, or region. Both the party membership and leadership drew from a plurality of castes, regions and religions. What is most striking about the Ghadarites was that unlike many contemporary militant organisations, they were actively hostile to religion. In remembering Hardayal, a close affiliate had this to say:

    He never worshipped; never said a prayer; the words, ‘Ram’, ‘Ram,’ never entered his mind or passed his lips. He never read the Vedas. He never bothered with the Gita… He always spoke in terms of historical references and naturalistic arguments: no mysticism, no yoga, no brahman, no metaphysics. Tilak would talk about God, but Hardayal would never say anything like that – never.26

    Although Hardayal’s atheistic leanings may not have been widely shared, the party did succeed in privatising matters of

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    faith. This distancing from confessional politics is widely evident in Ghadar poetry. One poem proclaims:

    No Pandits or Mullahs do we need, No prayers or litanies we need recite, These will only scuttle our boat. Draw the sword, it’s time to fi ght.27

    Such hostility to religious leadership, sacred texts, and worship has been a rare event in the history of modern India. If one combines this critique of religious identities, with the hostility that the Ghadarites expressed towards local affinities, we are faced with a powerful project of modernism. It was this inversion of primordialism (under the banner of universalism) and vigorous celebration of hybrid ideologies that has led me to think of Ghadarites in terms of cosmopolitan space, but it would be a mistake to think that all this cosmopolitanism was embedded solely in the project of modernity.

    I hope this narrative of Ghadar history, opens up the possibility of certain reconsiderations of Indian nationalism. First, I would like to suggest that the role of the Indian diaspora is u nder-theorised in our readings of Indian nationalism. It has now become a truism in the historiography of modern India that Indian nationalism was a composite movement, but when historians talk of this composite nature they are primarily thinking of how Indian nationalism drew different regions and social classes together within the political space of the subcontinent. However, this composite thesis does not include, to use Gyan Pandey’s vocabulary a fragment called the Indian d iaspora. And this brings me to my second reconsideration. While at a very general level the Ghadar movement confi rms Partha Chatterjee’s influential reading of Indian nationalism, at a more specific level it manifests something rather different.28 What Ghadar confirms of Chatterjee’s text is the strivings t owards a communitarian orientation, a celebration of the H egelian community, instead of Lockean (English) notions of contractual society. But at the same time, the Ghadar charter departs from Chatterjee’s proposal that Indian nationalism’s a rchitecture included a sharp dichotomy, whereby the interior, spiritual, and cultural space belonged to the Indians, and what was surrendered to the British was the outer, material, and political domain. For Ghadar activists, the inner and outer both at the level of rhetoric and everyday life remained unpartitioned. Perhaps Chattterjee’s reading is influenced too much by what happened in the province of Bengal and now is a good time to include the forgotten fragments from the Pacifi c North West.


    The Ghadar movement was based on an amalgam of 19th century European thought, Sikh egalitarianism, and Russian anarchist thinking. Hardayal was always striving for a synthesis of the east and the west; the indigenous and the foreign, and with the founding of the Ghadar Party he achieved this goal. What he overlooked was that the particularism of nationalism does not easily blend with the internationalism and cosmopolitan orientations of anarchist thought. This ideological syncretism deeply rooted in anarchist thinking was to cost the Ghadar movement dearly and contributed in part to its early demise.


    In its social composition, its intellectual imagination, and the brahman received was “If you want me to salute you, you can interventions it proposed, the Ghadar Party had very little in do it to me fi rst”.29 common with other militant organisations in India at the time. Freed of its nativistic moorings the Ghadar turns into an inter-The Ghadar project of a secular and non-denominational armed esting case of a transnational social movement. The leaders of the struggle, boldly looking towards the future rather than being Ghadar movement were in close contact with the highest echelons held hostage by the past, made it an exception within the con-of three different governments (Japanese, Chinese, and German), fessional and atavistic milieu of Indian militancy. By upholding and the movement was simultaneously active in 10 different coununiversalistic and egalitarian values the Ghadarites were pro-tries. And while it fought for national liberation, this was only one posing something that the segmented countryside in India was of its yearnings. It also sought social and cultural transformations. unwilling to entertain. They came to be seen as alien trouble-Perhaps this is what renders the Ghadar movement into something makers. The Ghadar movement was permanently marked by its of an anomaly in historiography for it cannot be easily assimilated genesis in exile, and despite its earnest endeavours towards cul-into any pre-existing grand narratives: whether those of the nation tural translation, it could never present itself as an indigenous state or of militancy within the British Empire. For North American movement. The mixing, matching, and mingling suggested by historians the Ghadarites had something to do with India. Within the Ghadarites was too much of a rupture from the familiar and India, for many scholars and contemporaries the movement had the quotidian. An episode narrated by a Ghadarite named Tuly something to do with those who left the shores of the motherland. Singh Johal, gives us a glimpse, into the sort of new social tran-This slippage from two dominant narratives of the past has largely scripts the movement was seeking to inscribe. As Tuly retuned rendered the movement difficult to read and decipher.30 But if we to India, from California, like many other rebels he was caught are seeking to understand the dynamics of its spontaneous by the colonial police and interned in his native village Jandiala revolutionary upsurge, anarchist political theory provides us with for eight years. In the village, reminiscences Tuly, the brahman solid clues to comprehend a movement that once mesmerised the policeman asked Tuly to salute him daily. The curt reply, the south Asian diaspora.

    Notes of Revolt, IV, p 47, cited in Emily Brown, Hardayal, 17 Emily Brown, Hardayal, p 115.
    1 2 3 4 5 Hindustan Ghadar, 1 November 1913. We are very fortunate to have an activist of the Ghadar movement provide us with an insider’s account of the party activities in Gobind Behari Lal’s “Detailed Account of the Ghadar Movement” in T R Sareen (ed.), Select Documents on the Ghadar Party (New Delhi: Mounto Publishing House), 1994, pp 19-56. An overview of the early institutional history of the Ghadar movement is available in Harish K Puri’s pioneering monograph, Ghadar Movement: Ideology, Organisation, and Strategy (Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev University Press), 1983, pp 54-67. The following two are also useful for background: Khushwant Singh and S atindra Singh, Ghadar 1915, India’s First Armed Revolution (New Delhi: R & K Publishing House), 1966 and G S Deol, The Role of the Ghadar Party in the National Movement (Jullunder: Sterling P ublishers), 1969. See Norman Buchignani and Doreen Indra, Continious Journey, A Social History of South Asians in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart), 1985, Hugh Johnston, The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada’s Color Bar (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press), 1989, Karen Leonard, Making Ethnic Choices: C alifornia’s Punjabi Mexican Americans (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 1992, and Archana Verma, The Making of Little Punjab in Canada (New Delhi: Sage Publications), 2002. Sarjit Singh Jagpal, Becoming Canadians: Pioneer Sikhs in Their Own Words (Madiera Park: Harbour Publishing), 1994. For the following biographical note I have relied 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 p 144. This number does not seem to be exaggerated since by mid-1914 several thousand G hadarites did leave the United States for India. For the German influence over Ghadar see Tapan K Mukherjee, Taraknath Das: Life and Letters of a Revolutionary in Exile (Calcutta: National Council of Education), 1998, p 71. My chronology of these sailings is based on Joan M Jensen, Passage from India (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1988, p 190 and Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 1966, Vol 2, pp 181-82. Ibid, pp 363-64. For the following empirical information I have drawn on two key sources, James Ker, Political Trouble in India, pp 363-71 and Khushwant Singh, The Sikhs, Vol II, pp 183-85. See Harish K Puri, “Ghadar Movement: An Experiment in New Patterns of Socialisation”, Journal of Regional History, Vol 1, 1980, pp 120-41. A somewhat similar argument is to be found in Mark Naidis, “Propaganda of the Ghadar Party”, Pacifi c Historical Review, Vol 20, 1951, pp 251-60. But more recently Harish Puri appears to be revising his understanding of the Ghadar movement. See his recent essay, “The Influence of the Ghadar Movement on Bhagat Singh’s Thought and A ction”, Journal of Pakistan Vision, Vol 9, 2008, pp 70-84. Maia Ramnath, “Two Revolutions: The Ghadar Movement and India’s Radical Diaspora, 1913-18”, Radical History Review, Vol 92, 2005, pp 7-30. Ibid, p 28. Retrieved on 12 July 2006. 18 Hardayal, “Karl Marx: A Modern Rishi”, The Modern Review, Vol 11, 1912, cited in Emily Brown, Hardayal, p 100. 19 For the life-story of this Russian revolutionary see E H Carr, Michael Bakunin (London: McMillan and Co), 1937. 20 The other four steps in between the pen and the bomb were: the tongue, the sword, the gun, and the general strike. 21 Bhagwan Singh, Jang Aur Azadi (San Francisco: Hindustan Ghadar Press), 1915. 22 DCI’s report of 28 September 1918, Home Political A, Proceedings, October 1918, Nos 191-94, cited in Harish Puri, Ghadar Movement, p 96. 23 Hardayal, “India and the World Movement”, M odern Review, Vol 13, 1913, pp 185-88. 24 Akhil Gupta, “Globalisation and Difference: Cosmopolitanism before the Nation State”, Transforming Cultures, Vol 3, 2008, p 18. 25 My account of Sohan Singh’s life is based on his memoir, Jiwan Sangram (Jullundur: Yuvak Kendar Prakashan), 1967 and a biogrpahy written by an admirer, Sohan Singh Josh, Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna: Life of the Founder of the Ghadar Party, New Delhi, 1970. For his time in the United States, see the recent book by Harold Gould, Sikhs, Swamis, Students and Spies (New Delhi: Sage Publications), 2006. 26 Emily Brown, Hardayal, pp 41 and 53. 27 Ghadar di Goonj (San Francisco: Hindustan Ghadar Press), 1913, p 17, cited in Khushwant Singh and Satindra Singh, Ghadar 1915, p 20. 28 See Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 1993.
    on Emily C Brown’s magnifi cent biography, Hardayal: Hindu Revolutionary and Rationalist (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press), 1975. 6 Letter from Hardayal to Van Wyck Brooks, 24 November 1914, cited in Emily Brown, H ardayal, pp 112-13. 7 We get this estimate from a published account of Guy Aldred, an English radical and anarchist. Aldred was a close friend of Hardayal from his days in England and the two regularly corre 16 Due to this widely shared secular imagination of the Ghadar movement I disagree with Ramnath (see f n 13 above) when she proposes to split the movement and speak of a Bengali and Punjabi dichotomy. The most fascinating aspect of Ghadar is that besides the Punjabi and Bengali participants, it also included a dedicated Maharashtrian cadre. And the reason all these regional and varied religious identities did not count for much within the Ghadar social space was because of its predominantly secular orientation and a shared 29 30 This episode is based on Joan Jensen’s book, P assage From India, p 193. A recent work on Indian militancy totally misses the significance of the Ghadar movement. See P eter Heehs, The Bomb in Bengal: The Rise of Revolutionary Terrorism in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press), 1993. Similarly, Thomas Metcalf’s highly detailed account, Imperial Connections: I ndia in the Indian Ocean Arena, 1860-1920 (B erkeley: University of California Press), 2007, only devotes a few
    sponded. See Aldred, “Stop This Infamy”, Herald ideological platform. sketchy lines to the Ghadar movement.

    December 12, 2009 vol xliv no 50

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