India’s freedom in 1947 has been largely painted as the result of a non-violent and unipolar resistance by Mahatma Gandhi and his Congress party. But it was certainly not the case. There were many revolutionary leaders, many groups and organisations that had played their part in the long struggle and stirred the collective psyche of Indians towards creating a national identity and seeking independence from colonial powers that held it in captivity. One such attempt was the Ghadar movement that originated on foreign soils and made its impact in India through its courageous leaders who not only displayed exemplary courage in standing up to the British rule but also created a flame of resistance through their speeches, slogans and literature that mobilised countless Indians in the subcontinent and beyond.
The last years of the 19th century had seen a massive migration of Punjabi peasants and Sikh soldiers of the British Army to the west. In addition to British ruled colonies in Asia like Hong Kong and Singapore, large numbers of Sikhs had migrated to USA and Canada in search of better prospects and livelihood. Though they were able to find livelihoods there and settled in distinguished small groups in several cities, gradually discrimination and eventually administrative campaign to dissuade immigrants started in those countries. The Sikhs had been loyal soldiers of the British Army and had valiantly helped in securing many victories. In return, the Sikh community expected to support and assistance from the British Government for Indian origin settlers in Canada and the USA. Instead, harsh and unacceptable laws like the Continuous Passage Act were brought in to deny the incoming Indian migrants entry into foreign soil.
Amidst the growing discontent among the Sikhs settled abroad, community leaders like Lala Hardayal and Sohan Singh Bakhna established the Pacific Coast Hindustan Association in 1913 which later came to be known as the Ghadar Party. Sohan Singh Bakhna was its President. They also published the first issue of the magazine ‘The Ghadar’ in November 1913.
A pivotal event in 1914 further motivated the Ghadar Party to steel their resolve and take their struggle against the British to a more defined phase. In 1914, 376 Indians onboard a ship Komagatamaru were denied entry at Vancouver after a long and expensive journey from Hong Kong. After agitations by Indians in Vancouver, only 24 were allowed to disembark. The Continuous Passage Act was cited as the reason. The ship was owned by a Sikh man too. It was turned away from Vancouver and upon reaching the Hoogly harbour in India, the British Government of India declared the passengers as rebels and opened fire on them after they refused to go back to Punjab. More than 200 passengers were herded in jail. The incident of Komatagatamaru had a profound impact on the Ghadar Party’s resistance movement.
The Ghadar Party housed in Yugantar Ashram, San Fransisco was already publishing their paper The Ghadar and its bold words against the injustice done by the British was gaining popularity among Indians in USA, Canada and even Hong Kong, Malay and Singapore. After the Komagatamaru incident, many Sikh leaders returned to India to carry on the struggle for independence from the British Rule. The Ghadar Party and its literature had received wide acceptance among Indians abroad and were successful in mobilising an entire generation of Indians against the British Rule. In Punjab and northwestern India, the Ghadar movement was the foundation stone that saw the birth of many future revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh and his contemporaries.
The Ghadar Party was clear in its message that it wants an independent and self-governed India free of the British rule. It carried fearless criticism of the British rule and was bold and open in its views. Much before the Quit India movement or other defined struggles for freedom were even thought of, the Ghadar movement had created a consciousness of secular, sovereign and Independent India. While Lala Hardayal had escaped from the American authorities to Berlin and formed the Indian Independence Committee there. With the first world war commencing in 1914, the British were vulnerable and hundreds on ex-patriot Indians returned with funds and arms. Through its literature and speeches, the Ghadar Party had managed to awaken a large number of Indians to a nationalistic goal of driving the British forces out. The leaders had met and February 21, 1915, was set as the date of armed revolt against the British in many locations.
The movement inspired revolutionary heroes of India’s independence struggle. Lala Lajpat Rai, Bhagat Singh, Ram Prasad Bismil, Gulab Kaur and many others. Though the movement itself failed to launch a substantial attack on the British regime because the British were able to get information of it beforehand, the movement had created a much-needed push to the Indian conscience at large. Just before the February revolt was to be executed, the British got whiff of the plan details and descended upon the Ghadar leaders with massive force. Under the Defence of India Act formed by the Brtish, all key leaders were arrested and 42 were executed. 114 leaders got life sentences and 93 others got prolonged sentences in the first Lahore Conspiracy Trials. 18-year-old Kartar Singh Sarabha, Kala Singh, Vishnu Pingle and many others were hanged in 1915. Several leaders were sent to the cellular jail in Andaman.
The heroes of the Ghadar movement are mostly forgotten. Our history books and the popular narrative is full of odes on Mahatma Gandhi and his methods of non-violent struggles but countless lives that were dedicated to create, mobilise and inspire thousands of Indians across the globe are hardly mentioned. The Ghadar movement saw Indians regardless of class, regionalism and caste unite to bravely face the tyrannies of the British. Though started mainly as a front for Sikhs, Ghadar movement was soon joined and carried forward by leaders of many communities. It stoked the nationalistic identity of Indians living all over the globe and created a momentum that was carried forward by Bhagat Singh, Bismil and many patriots of their time. Though the armed revolt that was planned never happened, the Ghadar movement provided fuel for an entire generation of Indians to stand up and raise their voices.