100th Anniversary of the Ghadar movement

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 II of this article appears in this issue. The remainder will follow in subsequent issues. Editor

The end of 1907 witnessed riots directed against Asian, especially Indian, immigrants. These riots were caused by competition in the labour market, exacerbated by the economic crisis of 1907-8, and heightened by race prejudices which contributed to the accompanying violence. Besides, according to reliable sources, British agents behind the scenes had a hand in these disturbances. Starting in a small town in the American state of Oregon – home to a large number of sawmills – these riots spread to the Canadian province of British Columbia. Originating in the sawmills, the hatred against Indian immigrants soon spread to other sectors of the economy, from railways and tram cars to hotels, cinemas and parks.

Just at this time, a ship arrived with approximately a thousand Indians on board. The inhabitants of Vancouver, expressing their opposition to the entry of Indians into Canada, sent a telegram to the Canadian prime minister who replied that ” If the Hindus were paupers they were subject to deportation”. Being aware of the developing political unrest among the Indians, the Canadian government wanted to be rid of them. With this in mind, the Canadian government hatched a plan to make these Indians leave Canada by persuading them to migrate to the British colony of Honduras. The Indians put up spirited resistance to this plot, for Honduras was infested with mosquitoes and ravaged by yellow fever, not to speak of the starvation wages paid to workers there. Thanks to the efforts of one Dr Teja Singh, who delivered a series of public lectures which were widely publicised in the press, the Indians of Vancouver were able to prove that they were not paupers, that they owned land worth several thousand dollars, and that, therefore, it would be an act of gross injustice for the newly-arrived Indians to be forced to go to Honduras.

After the failure of the CID inspector, Hopkinson, and the government commissioner to persuade the Sikhs to leave for Honduras, the Canadian government pressed into service General Sneer, governor of Honduras, who had spent some time in India and spoke Hindi and Punjabi fluently. On reaching Vancouver, he went to every Sikh residence. He failed, however, to convince them to leave Canada for Honduras. He left and reported to the government in Ottawa on his findings. He also sent his report to the Vancouver World for publication. In it he stated that ” Teja Singh is right. The Sikhs are in a good position. They don’t want to leave… In these circumstances, if they are expelled forcibly from the country, there is a danger of 50,000 Sikh soldiers going out of control in India and in order to bring them under control, we shall have to send two lakh (200,000) white soldiers” (quoted in Sohan Singh Josh, Hindustan Gadar Party, People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, 1978, p.82, hereafter referred to as ‘Josh’). Thereupon the Canadian government relented and permitted the Indians to remain in British Columbia. Teja Singh, however, was made to pay the price for his role in defending the right of Indians to stay in Canada: he was refused permission by his university to complete his last term and sit for the degree examination. The president of the University Senate told him: ” You are not a student. We have received the … report of the Vancouver happenings. We cannot confer the degree upon you” (Josh, p.83).

Hypocritical excuses

Instead of openly and honestly declaring that Indians were not welcome in Canada, both the Canadian and British governments gave all manner of hypocritical excuses for denying them entry into Canada, pharisaically maintaining that all their actions were done in the interests of the Hindus. Here are some examples of the flimsy excuses put forward for barring Indian from Canada: that the northern climate was unsuitable for them; that there were no suitable employment opportunities; that the Indian would suffer great hardship in Canada; that their entry would cause racial friction owing to competition in the labour market, with the resultant lowering of the standard of life of the white workers, ” who, as citizens with family and civic obligations, have expenditure to meet and a status to maintain which the Hindu labourer is in a position wholly to ignore” (Josh, p.83).

All these dishonest reasons applied equally to the Chinese and Japanese, whose presence in Canada was eight times larger than that of the Indians and who, unlike the Indians, were permitted to bring over their families. A quick glance at the reasons proffered by the authorities reveals their ludicrous baselessness. Considering that the Punjabis were used to the extremes of cold and hot climate, the question of the unsuitability of the northern climate does not sound convincing. The jobs that the Indians were doing, or proposed doing, were of an unskilled nature requiring hard labour, e.g., lumbering, logging, tree-cutting, forest clearance, farm labouring and working in the sawmills – all areas in which there was not much competition with the white workers.

What is more, they constituted no public charge, for even during periods of unemployment they were taken care of either by friends or the Sikh temple.

As to racial friction, much of it, as we know only too well from the British experience since the Second World War, tension between workers of different racial backgrounds was stoked by Canadian politicians in the interests of the electoral fortunes. Votes could easily be garnered by unscrupulous white politicians who resorted to inciting the white electorate against the foreigner – the foreigner who, moreover, served as a scapegoat for the inherent ills of the capitalist system – unemployment, homelessness, poverty and destitution.

Another spurious reason for discrimination against Indians was that, as they wore turbans, their strange appearance and peculiar customs and habits acted as a hindrance to their integration into Canadian society. What is really strange about this objection is that in India, in furtherance of its expansionist designs, British imperialism arrogated to itself the role of protector of the Sikh religion, visiting punishment on Sikh soldiers who did not abide by such tenets of Sikhism as having a beard and other outward symbols such as wearing a turban. Yet in Canada it was not averse to inciting racial hatred against Sikhs for not shaving off their beards and for wearing turbans!

Yet other scurrilous allegations against the Indians – overwhelmingly Sikhs – was that they were dirty, lousy and diseased, allegations which were completely refuted by some well-placed and honourable white persons. Henry H Gladstone, nephew of the famous 19th century Liberal British prime minister, who was present a meeting in Vancouver Town Hall on 18 October 1906 where resolutions were passed against any further immigration of Indians on the grounds of their alleged filthy habits, and who had spent 15 years in India, stood up and refuted these charges. He subsequently wrote an article for thePacific Monthly (Vo.17, 1907) in which, among other things, he stated: ” The Sikhs are scrupulously clean and I regard them as a very fine race of men” (quoted in Josh at p.85).

Another sane voice against racist madness was Dr H S Lawson who had been a ship’s surgeon on the Canadian Pacific Railway steamers. He wrote that it was his job to give a thorough physical examination to each immigrant at Hong Kong, saying that ” although at first I was strongly prejudiced against them, I lost this prejudice after thousands of them had passed through my hands and I had compared them with white steerage passengers I had seen on the Atlantic. I refer in particular to the Sikhs and I am not exaggerating in the least when I say that they were one hundred per cent cleaner in their habits and fear from disease than the European steerage passengers I had come into contact with. The Sikhs impressed me as a clean, mainly honest race. My recent impression as a surgeon in mining camps among thousands of white men, where immorality is rife, has increased my respect for the Sikhs” (quoted in Josh, p. 85).

The real reason, doubtless was political, as the Indians living in Canada and the US were only too likely to be contaminated by ideas of independence, liberty and freedom from colonial slavery. They were only too likely to learn about the history of the people of the US who had, using armed struggle, liberated themselves from British colonialism in the late 18th century and established a democratic republic.

Racial insults, humiliating and discriminatory treatment that the Indians encountered everywhere was to make them ponder deeply upon the causes of their plight. It set in train a process which led them to realise that the liberation of India from British colonial subjugation was a condition precedent for Indians achieving equality of treatment in India as much as abroad. It is what was to turn them from being naive, and from entertaining illusions about British justice, into politically conscious rebels and uncompromising enemies of British imperialism – though not yet.

As Indians in Canada were busy seeking redress of their own grievances, the Canadian government, bypassing its own laws, expelled Bhai Bhagwan Singh, a respected priest and a remarkable speaker and revolutionary poet. He was grabbed by Canadian officers, gagged and forcibly carried to the SS Empress of Japan on 19 November 1913. The charge against him was that he had entered the country illegally. All attempts to have him released proved futile. His parting words were defiant: “Our chains are not manacles, but ornaments”, he said, adding: ” you can send us to jail or hang us. We are not afraid of your swords” (quoted from The Daily Sun, Vancouver, 23 April 1914 – see Josh p.91).

Meanwhile, H. H. Stevens, a member of parliament and an inveterate racist and notorious Hindu baiter kept up the campaign to have all Indians expelled from Canada. Here is a small example of the abuse directed at the Indians in his racist tirades: ” If Hindus are allowed to bring their families to Canada, every Hindu will bring 4 girls as his daughters who will in fact be his wives”; “their religion and intelligence – are rubbish”. “Who is there,” he demanded of white people at a meeting in Vancouver on 30 September 1913, ” who would like his daughter to be married to an Indian?”; “if you want to live a happy life, then deport the Indians bag and baggage from Canada.”

Meanwhile the Indians, still harbouring illusions in British justice and fair play, considering themselves as the most staunch and loyal supporters of the British empire, sent a deputation to Ottawa on 15 December 1911 to make representations to the Canadian government for the redress of their grievances. Teja Singh, the leader of this four-man delegation, wrote the representation – a stomach-churning sycophantic document, going to the shameful length of glorifying the part played by the Sikhs in the suppression of the First War of Independence in 1857, swearing loyalty to the British empire in the times to come, it pleaded for the removal of restrictions on the entry of Indians to Canada. More specifically, it asked for the right to family reunion by permitting Indians resident in Canada to bring their wives and children, the removal of the requirement of a 200 dollar payment on entry, as well as the condition of continuous unbroken journey from India to Canada.

The deputation returned empty handed, with the Canadian prime minister, Borden, bluntly stating: ” Our government has decided that Sikhs cannot become Canadians, cannot bring their wives and families into Canada … except under almost impossible conditions” (The Aryan, August 1912, quoted in Josh at p. 99).

All cringing professions of loyalty on the part of the deputation fell on deaf ears. The argument that, as British subjects Indians had the right to reside anywhere in the Empire and that Indians and Canadians, being subject to the same King and Emperor, should have equal rights, received short shrift.

While loyalty of the Indians to the British Crown was not in doubt, this in itself was an inadequate ground for admission into Canada, as was the British connection, the deputation was told in clear and certain terms.

Undoubtedly there were Canadians who harboured feelings of goodwill and gratitude towards the Indians. Not only did they constitute a tiny minority of the Canadian population, but all their arguments in favour of the Indian being allowed into Canada, and for the removal of the restrictions on them, were entirely based on the interests of the British Empire and the significant contribution made by the Sikhs in the success of that enterprise. ” If they are worthy to fight our battles for the glory of the Empire, are they not worthy to share in its advantages?”, asked Rev. Dr. Wilkie, a campaigner for justice for the Indians.

A correspondent wrote to the Toronto Telegraph thus: ” Anyone who has been to India and spent many years there can only be filled with admiration of the Sikhs. They have proved a worthy foe in the past and the staunchest friend of Britons at the present, and have done more to build up the British Empire than ever Canada has done or ever will do ” (see Josh p. 111).

All these supplications, by Indians and their Canadian friends alike, were absolutely of no avail.

The Canadian authorities were determined to persist in their racist anti-Indian practices and immigration policy, caring not a hoot for their sycophantic appeals.

Delegation to London and Delhi

Under the auspices of the India League and Khalsa Diwan Society, the Punjabis in British Columbia followed the fruitless Ottawa deputation with the dispatch of a three-man delegation to London and Delhi to press their demands. This delegation reached London in the first week of April 1913. It had asked for an interview with the Secretary of State for India but had managed to meet only a junior official from the India Office. The official position in London was that the grievances of the Indians could be remedied by the Canadian government alone.

The only positive outcome was a public meeting at Caxton Hall on 14 May, which the delegation managed to hold to explain the problems faced by Indians in Canada. On 28 May 1913, the delegates sailed for India.

On reaching Bombay they received a letter through the post which started: ” Only the Canadian government can do something in consonance with its laws. The imperial government would not bypass the laws and say anything to the Canadian government” (see Sainsra p.60, History of the Gadhar Party in Punjabi).

The delegation went to Punjab, arriving at Lahore on 6 July 1913. It held two public meetings there, the second of which, at Bradlaugh Hall on 18 August 1913, was very impressive and was attended by loyalists as well as critics of the government – all of whom supported the resolution asking the government of India to remove the grievances of their nationals in Canada. The delegates explained the problems faced by Indians in Canada, the humiliations and racial insults heaped upon them, and the discrimination they faced in all walks of life. Their two demands were, first, the removal of restrictions on Indians emigrating to Canada and, second, allowing men domiciled in Canada to bring their wives and children to join them.

The delegates thereafter went on to visit other towns in Punjab, including Ambala, Ludhiana, Ferozepur, Jullundur and Amritsar. With the meetings in Gujranwala and Sialkot in October, the official tour of the delegation came to an end.

During this tour the delegates managed to secure a meeting with Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the Lt-Governor of Punjab (subsequently the butcher responsible for the Amritsar massacre), as well as with the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge. Absolutely nothing positive came out of these meetings, as the imperial government in London had already resolved to leave the problem completely in the hands of the Dominion government of Canada.

The only significant outcome of the tour was that the delegates were able to give a first-hand account to the Indians of the problems faced by their compatriots in Canada, as well as acquaint them with the unsympathetic attitude of the imperial and Indian authorities toward them. Particularly useful in this context was the appearance of the delegates at the 28th session of the Indian National Congress at its Karachi session in 1913, which passed a resolution in support of the demands of the Indians concerning family reunion and the abolition of the continuous journey requirement. The passing of the resolution by the Indian National Congress served a great propaganda purpose as through it Indians at large came to know about the horrendous difficulties faced by Indians in Canada.

While the delegation received a warm welcome from the masses in the places it visited, it aroused suspicion and hostility on the part of the authorities in Punjab and at the centre. O’Dwyer was particularly agitated over the warm reception the delegation received in Punjab and the unprecedented unity displayed at its public meetings by all classes and communities. In all of this upsurge, the Lt-governor sensed a great danger to the province which was the focal point for military recruitment.

They held meetings throughout the province”, he wrote, ” some of which were attended by men of undoubted loyalty. But after a time the tone of these meetings changed. Instead of reasonable criticism of immigration laws, the speeches became menacing and inflammatory. At this stage I sent a warning to the delegates that if this continued, I would be compelled to take serious action, for the province was then in a state of high tension …” (M O’Dwyer, India as I knew it, Constable, London, 1925, p.191).

The Komagata Maru Odyssey

In view of the obstacles placed by the Canadian authorities to the entry of Indians into Canada, and the refusal of the Indian government and the imperial government in London to help them in this regard, the Indian community came up with a plan of its own. One Gurdit Singh, hearing of the woes of the Punjabis in Hong Kong, who had been stranded there for months as no shipping company was prepared to issue them with tickets for Canada because of government instructions from Canada and India, chartered a Japanese vessel, the Komagata Maru, issued tickets to them and set sail on 4 April 1914 for Canada. With 372 passengers (351 Sikhs and 21 Punjabi Muslims), it reached Vancouver on 22 May 1914.

The passengers, most of them veterans of the British army in India, were not allowed to disembark and the ship was ordered to be positioned mid-harbour. No Indian on shore was allowed near the Komogata Maru; so the passengers were completely cut off from the Indian community in Vancouver, which sent protest telegrams to the government against the treatment to which the Komogata Maru passengers were subjected. The stand-off, which was to last 8 weeks, proved a harrowing experience for the passengers who were made to suffer food and water shortages by the immigration authorities in an attempt to force the ship to leave. At 1.30 on the morning of 19 July, the immigration authorities, backed up by a force of about 150 officers, tried to board the Komagata Maru in an attempt to subdue the passengers and force them to leave. But the passengers, using pieces of coal, fought back and beat off the attack, forcing the tug Sea Lion to beat a humiliating retreat, to the jubilation of the Indians, and in the process delivering a blow to the prestige of the Canadian authorities.

The upper part of the Sea Lion became a wreck. She was ordered back to shore and the wounded were sent to hospital for treatment. The men on the Komagata Maru were jubilant. They thought they had defeated the whole British army and rejoiced accordingly” (British Columbia Historical Quarterly, Victoria, January 1941, pp.16-17, as quoted in Josh p.145).

Recovering from the failed attempt to board the Komagata Maru, the immigration authorities made preparations for launching a much bigger operation, enlisting the services of the warship Rainbow, armed with guns. Just at this moment, the Canadian press, learning of the battle preparations, questioned the wisdom of using the Irish Fusiliers, Highlanders and the Sixth Regiment to subdue half-starved and unarmed Indians, imprisoned mid-harbour for two months. The questioning by the press put the immigration establishment on the back foot.

It is clear that only people driven mad by racial and political hatred could have envisaged a military operation in these circumstances. And that too on the eve of the first imperialist world war during which the Punjabis were to make a heavy sacrifice in defence of the British Empire – including its Canadian colony.

In view of the press opposition, the tense situation in Vancouver wrought by the Komagata Maru episode, and the worldwide ramifications that the storming of an unarmed vessel might have had, the authorities dropped the plan for an attack with a warship, seeking instead to enlist the services of the Indians on shore for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. In the end an agreement was reached whereby the Komagata Maru passengers agreed to leaving Canadian waters in return for their ship being provided, while still positioned mid-harbour, with food, water, medicines and other supplies for the return journey to Hong Kong. This agreement brought rejoicing among the Indian aboard the Komagata Maru, for, although they were being deported, they had through resilient resistance won their demands for proper provisions for their return journey.

At the beginning of their journey from Hong Kong to Canada, none of the passengers was of a rebellious inclination. In fact, they regarded themselves as loyal British subjects. Although they had received on board some literature of the Ghadar Party, which had been founded in November 1913 in the US, it did not have much effect on them. It was the ordeal of the journey to Canada, eight weeks of being stranded in the Vancouver harbour without adequate food, water and other necessary items of existence, the refusal of the authorities to let them disembark, the daily vituperations and racist humiliations heaped upon them, the use of force by the immigration administration and the threat of deployment of a warship to force them to leave without supplying them with provisions for the journey – all that transformed these men. For the first time they realised the true meaning of bring British for people hailing from a slave country, to whose assistance in their hour of need neither the Canadian, nor the Indian, nor the imperial government would come. They now fully realised that these three governments were united in their racist treatment of Indians. With this realisation, they resolved to dedicate their lives to the cause of liberation of the Indian people from British colonial rule. “Freedom or death in the fight for it” was from then on to be their slogan.

They were dying, after this experience, to get back to India and inform the Indian people of what they had been made to go through in Vancouver. More importantly, they were burning with the desire to let the Indian people know, especially the Indians serving in the British army, that by sacrificing their lives for the defence and expansion of the British empire, they were only forging the chains of their own slavery, and that, instead, they should turn their guns against their British enslavers and exploiters.

The Komagata Maru began its return journey on 23 July 1914. The Indians in Vancouver had unsuccessfully attempted to supply the passengers with some pistols and ammunition. However, on the arrival of the Komagata Maru at Yakohoma (Japan) on 16 August, the president of the Ghadar Party, Sohan Singh Bahkna, did manage on the quiet to deliver to the passengers one hundred pistols and ammunition. He also gave them revolutionary literature and explained to them the aims and vision of the Ghadar Party.

For the British imperialist government, which had just entered the First World War, the passengers on board the Komagata Maru were “turbulent and disaffected” mischief-makers, a “menace to public tranquillity if permitted to land in Calcutta”, as ” their arrival might be used for recrudescence of agitation regarding emigration to the colonies”, with all its fall-out in the area of army morale. Be it said in passing that the Komagata Maru was not allowed to discharge any of its passengers at Hong Kong or Singapore, even those who were residents of these two places, for their encounter with Punjabi soldiers there might have caused problems to the British government.

On reaching Kobe on 21 August, the passengers, much to the dislike of the British Consul, were given a heroes’ welcome and a grand reception by the Indian community. At Kobe, having acquainted himself with the hostile attitude of the British government, Gurdit Singh, the charterer of the Komagata Maru, warned the passengers not to have on them any incriminating material, either in the form of revolutionary literature or weapons, and to throw the same overboard. Most of them, though not all, followed his advice. The Komagata Maru reached Budge Budge port near Calcutta on 27 September, where the passengers were greeted with a hail of gunfire, which claimed the lives of 18 men and injured many more. Scores of the passengers were arrested, while 29, including Gurdit Singh, were reported as missing.

This massacre of innocent men, who had already endured so much hardship at the hands of the Canadian government, with the collusion of the Indian and imperial governments, caused such an outcry in India that the government of India was compelled to appoint a committee of enquiry which, loaded with three high officials and two flunkeys, not unexpectedly whitewashed the whole affair and laid the blame on the victims rather than on the real culprits.

Thus ended the Komagata Maru odyssey. It began as a continuation of the struggle of Indian resident of Canada and the US to travel to, and reside in, any part of the British empire, especially the white settler colonies, as British subjects, but ended up by transforming loyal British subjects, full of illusions in the fair play and humanity of the British rulers of India, into uncompromising enemies of the Raj, determined to make any sacrifice to overthrow it.

[to be continued]