100th Anniversary of the Ghadar movement – a salute to the forerunners of the Indian liberation struggle

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Ghadar movement. By way of a tribute, Lalkar is dedicating this long article to the memory of its founders and participants – the forerunners of India’s struggle for liberation from British colonialism. What follows is an attempt to give a brief history of the Ghadar movement – its origins, motivations, vision and scope, as well as its lasting contribution to India’s freedom struggle, its legacy and continuing significance to the struggle of the Indian masses for a people’s democratic revolution as an integral part of the movement for socialism through the overthrow of capitalism. Part I of this article appears in this issue. The remainder will follow in subsequent issues – Editor

India’s struggle against British rule is as long as that rule itself. The 1857 national revolt of the Indian people, known as the First War of Indian Independence was the most prominent of the earlier struggles to free India from the clutches of British rule. But the latest and most modern phase of India’s freedom movement begins in 1913 with the formation of the Ghadar Party – the Party of Revolt – by the Indian revolutionaries then living in Canada and the USA. With the formation of the Ghadar Party, the revolutionary movement in India took a giant step forward – for this Party was both internationalist and secular in its outlook. It recognised the importance of revolutionary work in the army with the aim of inciting the latter to revolt against British imperialist rule, and overwhelmingly drew its members from peasants turned factory workers, unlike earlier revolutionaries who had by and large belonged to the privileged classes.

The Ghadar movement, although cruelly suppressed by the British imperial authorities, left a rich revolutionary legacy and made an indelible mark on the freedom movement, inspiring a whole generation of revolutionaries with its courage and self-sacrificing heroism. It produced a weekly publication, Ghadar, the very first issue of which boldly declared:

Today there begins in foreign lands a war against the British Raj. What is our name? Mutiny. What is its work? Mutiny. Where will mutiny break out? In India. The time will soon come when rifles and blood will take the place of pen and ink.”

From time to time, Ghadar published the following advertisement in its columns:

Wanted – enthusiastic and heroic soldiers for organising Ghadar in Hindustan. Remuneration – death; Reward – martyrdom; Pension – freedom; Field of work – Hindustan”.

The Ghadarites faced the gallows and firing squads with indomitable courage.

One of the youngest of the Ghadarites, Kartar Singh Sarabha, courted death with these words:

I will get life imprisonment or capital punishment. But I will prefer the latter so that after rebirth I may again be prepared for the struggle for India’s freedom. I will die again and again till India becomes free. This is my last wish”.

In 1849 Punjab was conquered by the East India Company. Eight years later, the First War of Indian Independence broke out. This revolt of 1857 failed because of the betrayal by feudal chieftains and the help of the Sikh armies just as the British were being driven out of Delhi.

Punjab was crucial to British rule after 1857. Though constituting a mere one-thirteenth part of Indian territory, it supplied 60% of the soldiers in the British Indian army. It was the fear of the British rulers that a vibrant social, educational or political movement in the province might assume mass proportions and infect the army, thus undermining the chief pillar of British rule – hence the all-consuming concern of the authorities to isolate the army from any outside political influence.

To keep India British, Punjab had to be kept tranquil, which in turn required Punjab to be kept in a state of cultural, educational, social and political backwardness.

One of the directors of the East India Company, which ruled India prior to 1857, had bemoaned the fact that Britain had lost America through the folly of allowing the establishment of schools and colleges in that former colony, a mistake which must on no account be repeated in India. Therefore any Indian requiring to be educated had to go to England to study. The British government which took over from the East India Company after 1857 continued this policy, although it could never be completely applied since, on the one hand, there was a need for loyal and obedient clerks to run the administration, and on the other, Christian missionary education and proselytisation provoked a response on the part of the Indians to put in place some form of education. However, the British rulers did not even trust the chief Khalsa Diwan leaders, loyal though they were to the British, to provide elementary education through proper teachers for the younger and rising Sikh generation, for that might be a potential source of mischief – even active danger. If the alternative was that there be no imparting of even elementary education, then so be it. Its policy was to keep the Punjabis poor, illiterate and backward.

The government undertook the publication of books for the distortion of the Sikh religion, with the aim of inspiring loyalty to the British, flattering them with the characterisation of being the bravest, most loyal and devoted subjects of the British crown.

Even the ultra-loyal leaders of the Chief Khalsa Diwan were suspect, for no other reason than that they had discussed questions such as unity, sacrifice for the nation, the degraded state of the Sikhs, the conversion of untouchables to Sikhism, imparting education to Sikh children, reforming non-Sikh practices among Sikhs and their temples. The British insisted on just one loyalty – to the Crown.

Why emigrate?

Punishing land revenues, heavy indirect taxation, fragmentation of land holdings and indebtedness to money lenders had worsened the conditions of the Punjabi peasantry during the second half of the 19th century. There were no opportunities for employment other than recruitment into the army, which brought a life of extreme risk in return for the measly sum of 9-10 rupees a month.[1]

Ultimately it was conditions of extreme poverty which forced emigration, some people forced out by their inability to pay land revenue and other taxes, direct and indirect, while some sought the means to pay off their debts to the usurer classes, or simply to improve their economic conditions.

The soldiery in Punjab was recruited from the impoverished peasantry, which accounted for over 70% of the Punjab’s population. Dissatisfied with their lot in the army, a considerable number of them resigned and went abroad to improve their economic conditions. Approximately 90 per cent of those who went to Canada and the US were old soldiers of the British Army, with very few others emigrating.

In addition, a small number of politically conscious people, who had been involved in the 1906-07 struggle of the peasantry against the Colonisation Act, such as Ajit Singh (uncle to Bhagat Singh) and Lala Lajpat Rai, also fled abroad to escape arrest and torture at the hands of the colonial authorities.

Initially, these hunger-driven people went to Malaysia, Singapore, and China – in many cases recruited in these places into the British police or simply working as watchmen for rich Chinese or Malay merchants, or as guards or railway workers.

In the port cities of these countries to which they first emigrated they encountered visitors from Canada and America, heard stories regarding the prosperity of those latter countries, and information that the wages of even unskilled workers over there were ten times those they received in non-white colonies. This is what took them to Canada, a British colony, and the US. Many resigned from the army so as to be able to travel abroad in search of better employment.

Thousands of adventurous Sikhs … from 1907 onwards emigrated in increasing numbers to the Far East, the Pacific coast of Canada and the US, many of them old soldiers … to better their lot (Sir Michael O’Dwyer, India as I knew it, Constable, London, 1925, p.190).

These emigrants were loyal British subjects who had fought in Britain’s wars of expansion and expected to be greeted with open arms in the British colony of Canada. Instead of being treated with courtesy and respect, however, they were showered with hate, insults and discrimination. It took a while for them to realise why and shed their earlier illusions about the British rulers of India having been the instruments of peace, justice and the rule of law.

The reality of life in Canada, where they faced humiliation at every turn, shattered their illusions and transformed these labourers, slowly but surely, into defiant and proud individuals, staunch freedom fighters, willing to sacrifice their all in the cause of India’s liberation from the jackboot of British colonial rule.

By 1908, approximately 5,200 Indians had reached Canada, while the number of Chinese and Japanese immigrants, who had been entering Canada for tens of years prior to that, stood at over 50,000.

Physically well built, most Punjabis took up the lumber trade which requires hefty men. Coming from a farming background, many took to farming as farm labourers – in a few cases even becoming owners of farms. Still others worked as carpenters, weavers, mechanics, or electricians. As the restrictive practices of the trade unions in Canada barred them from working at the trades in which they were skilled, they took any jobs that were available to them. The Indians were almost entirely concentrated in British Colombia and worked mainly in Vancouver and Victoria and on the farms in the neighbouring areas. They built a Sikh temple (gurdwara) in each of these cities and held property worth $300,000 in Victoria and $200,000 in Vancouver

Opposition to immigration

As the number of Asians began to assume sizeable proportions, opposition to immigration raised its ugly head under the slogan ‘Preserve Canada as a white man’s land’, with use of racial hatred and labour competition as weapons for the achievement of this demand.

The Canadian government was only too willing to oblige, being motivated by the political consideration that, by mixing with the local white population, the Asians, especially the Indians, would acquire notions of racial equality and self government and thus undermine British rule in India and other Asian colonies.

The British government, acting behind the scenes, fully backed the actions of the Canadian authorities to attempt to exclude altogether the entry of Indians into Canada, regarding it as both natural and desirable for economic, social, political and national reasons that Canada should remain a white man’s country. Canada as a self-governing dominion was the best judge of it, according to the British government.

In her 1858 declaration, following the suppression of the 1857 First War of Indian Independence, Queen Victoria had proclaimed: ” we hold ourselves bound to the natives of our Indian territories by the same obligations of duty which bind us to all our subjects“. Naively, Indians put great faith in the bona fides of this proclamation, which was merely a means of hoodwinking and deceiving the Indian masses, although British statesmen knew very well that the Queen’s pledges were to be honoured in their breach, and that the expectations roused by her could never be fulfilled.

For all practical purposes, Indian entry into Canada was barred.

Indians had begun reaching the US about the same time as they entered Canada, first arriving in the US in 1904. Before 1907, there were very few Indians in the US, and most of those were not of a labouring category. In that year, 1,072 Indians were admitted into the country, while 1908 saw the admission of an additional 1,710. Soon after that, the immigration authorities became very restrictive, in the wake of anti-Indian riots in the US and Canada. In spite of these restrictions, Indians found a back door to the US through the Philippines.

What awakened the consciousness of the Indians in Canada and the US was the far better treatment meted out by the authorities in Canada to Chinese and Japanese immigrants who, unlike the Indians, were not even British subjects. Not only did the Japanese and Chinese have much easier entry into Canada, they were allowed to bring their wives and children with them, or send for them after securing employment; they were allowed to acquire citizenship and voting rights. Unlike them “the Hindus” (a term used at that time for all Indians, be they Hindu, Muslim or Sikh) had no such facilities.

It was not long before it dawned upon the Indians that they were the target of hatred, contempt and discrimination for the sole reason that they were a subject people; that the slavery of their motherland lay at the root of all their problems; that, therefore, the sooner they got rid of it the better, for without freeing India from the brutal British rule, the Indians would never be treated as equals anywhere. Their incipient realisation of this truth was greatly helped by their abode in countries which were permeated with ideas of various bourgeois freedoms and liberties. The combined effect of being discriminated against and the acquisition of ideas of freedom and liberty was to turn these loyal British subjects into rebels and implacable foes of British colonialism and imperialism.

What alarmed the Canadian intelligence services was that certain Indians from the Punjab and Bengal had reached Canada, brought out newspapers which linked the problems faced by Indian immigrants to India’s subject status. What is more, their propaganda was finding fertile ground among the badly-treated Indians in North America.

One such politically enlightened Punjabi, Ramnath Puri, having reached America at the end of 1906, established in early 1907 a Hindustan Association (HA) in San Francisco with branches in Vancouver and elsewhere. The principal condition for membership of the HA was that the members would rid themselves of prejudice based on caste, colour and creed. It published in the Urdu language a periodical named Circular-i-Azadi (‘Circular of Freedom’) which the authorities quite correctly perceived to be of a “seditious character”. It published articles calculated to instil feelings of hatred and contempt for the British Raj in India.

The Bengali revolutionary, Taraknath Das, was involved in this movement and, after the closure of Circular-i-Azadi, began the publication of his English language monthly, Free Hindustan. A capable leader, he had been a member of the first revolutionary society formed in Calcutta in 1903. He reached San Francisco and joined Berkeley University as a student.

Fighting against the British subjugation of India, Free Hindustan embarked upon the road of imparting education to the Indians in Canada and California with the aim of preparing them for the struggle to liberate India.

At the time, the number of Indians in Canada and the US had reached nearly 10,000, of whom 95% were Sikhs. Most of these sturdy peasants from the Punjab were disciplined men with military backgrounds and training. The political campaigners did not fail to remember the bitter truth that the revolt of 1857 had failed because of, inter alia, the military support extended by the Punjabis, principally the Sikhs under the leadership of their treacherous feudal princes. They therefore well understood that any rebellion in the future had no chance of success unless the Punjabis joined the revolutionary forces. Hence their emphasis on instilling in the Punjabi workers a sense of burning hatred for British rule and on making them conscious in order to play an active part in the movement for India’s liberation. Besides, these workers, hailing from the Punjab and with a military background, had valuable contacts with Indian troops and regiments, which could prove crucial to the success of any uprising against the British.

In the conditions in which the Indian immigrants were living, such ideas proved extremely infectious. As soon as they grasped these ideas, the Indians began to be consumed by a burning desire to free India. One by one, those with a military history concluded that the medals won by them through their service in the British army ought to be regarded as ‘medals of slavery’, that these medals signified that they had fought as mercenaries for the British against the cause of their own countrymen or various free peoples. As such, these medals, buttons, uniforms or insignia should never be worn but discarded. Some publicly threw away their medals, while others made a bonfire of their certificates of honourable discharge from the British army. The Sikh veterans in Vancouver pointedly turned down the city mayor’s invitation to attend a military review staged in honour of the Governor-General’s visit.

Though mostly uneducated, the Sikh peasants had learned through hard experience much that the educated Indians, who were then busy being servile to British imperialism, had not learned. The rising level of political consciousness of the Indian immigrants was the most important consideration weighting on the governments of Britain, Canada and India in their determination to bar the entry of more Indians into Canada. Various devices were used to this effect. Only those Indians who arrived directly from India were to be admitted. And, since there was no direct route from India to Canada, this rule operated, as was intended, to prevent Indian immigration altogether. Even members of the families of Indians owning land in Canada had to have on them $200 (a very large sum for those times) each. While other British subjects could acquire the right to vote after 6 months’ residence, the Indians were denied such a right. Since the Indians were not denied this right in the US, Germany or Japan, they could not but conclude that they were better off in foreign countries than in British territory.



In India as a whole, consequent upon its conquest by the East India Company, the entire framework of Indian society had been broken down, ” without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing” (Karl Marx, British Rule in India, 10 June 1853).

Marx went on to point out that from immemorial times there were three departments of government in Asia: ” that of finance, or the plunder of the interior; that of war, or the plunder of the exterior; and finally the department of public works“, without which agriculture is impossible in Asia. As Marx noted, the East India Company willingly accepted from the previous Moghal regime the department of finance and of war, but completely ignored that of public works, which caused deterioration of agriculture to an unheard of extent. In addition the British rulers went on to break up Indian industry, reducing the masses of Indians to utter destitution and overdependence on land. It is hardly surprising then that these conditions should produce epidemics and famines which swept away tens of millions of people – a question which will have to be discussed elsewhere.