Indians for Social & Economic Justice

The Gadar Movement: How it gained momentum in the USA                                                    Back to Home
(From The Gadarite, No. 2, A publication of The Gadar Heritage Foundation)

The Gadar Party derived its name from the weekly newspaper called the Gadar which had been started as the voice of Hindi Association of the Pacific Coast. The association was formed in April 1913 in Astoia, Oregon, where a large number of Indian workers, mostly Punjabis, toiled in lumber mills under racist conditions. Baba Sohan Singh Bakhna became its founder president, Lala Hardayal was elected its secretary and Pandit Kanshi Ram became its treasurer. (Pandit Kanshi Ram was later sentenced to death and hanged alongwith eight other gadarites in the infamour Ferozeshahr murder case. Baba Bakhna was sentenced to death but his sentence was later 'commuted' to transportation for life -- Kala Pani -- in the so-called Lahore Conspiracy Case. In the same case, Kartar Singh Sarabha, Vishnu Ganesh Pingle and five other gadarites were sentenced to death and hanged.)

The latent discontent, the surging anger against the British, and the will to change their condition in the racist milieu, got focussed on one idea: to get freedom for the country whatever the sacrifice. Only people from a free country, it was felt, could live in dignity and fight for their rights in alien lands. This became a credo with the Indian immigrants who toiled hard in lumber mills in the states of Washington and Oregon and on the farms in California. They were paid far less than the wages paid to white workers for similar work.

These people had come all the way from Punjab, and elsewhere, leaving their home and hearth, also their loved ones, for a dignified livelihood. Now, ir demeaning status, in comparison with white workers, as also the arbitrary racist immigration laws that prevented them from bringing their families to stay with them, turned them into an incendiary human stuff ready to change this state of affairs.

                                                                                                   The situation was so desperate for India immigrants that the                                                                                                          inner fury against the British came to the fore the moment the                                                                                                        idea of their mobilization was mooted. Nearly everyone,                                                                                                                 everywhere, who had come from India, rallied round the idea of                                                                                                       freedom for the country. Several students from India those days                                                                                                     were getting education at the University of California at                                                                                                                  Berkeley; they were mostly from Bengal and Punjab. They were                                                                                                     potential revolutionaries who needed a mass base. When the                                                                                                         turbulence amongst the Indian workers came to their notice                                                                                                           they flocked to work with them at once. Kartar Singh Sarabha                                                                                                        and Vishnu Ganesh Pingle were the most prominent. Lala Har                                                                                                       Dayal had landed in the United States in 1911. The well-known                                                                                                      Arya Samaj protagonist Parmanand (Lahore) was also in                                                                                                               California those days.

                                                                                                   Besides, the unabated struggle of Punjabi immigrants to have a                                                                                                     foothold in the neighboring British Coulmbia (Canada)                                                                                                                    culminating into the foced return of Komagata Maru with 376                                                                                                          Punjabi passengers on July 24, 1914 after more than sixty days of day-and-night struggle in Vancouver, mainly due to racist reasons, was enough for every India immigrant to cry: GADAR, FREEDOM AND JUSTICE.

As the idea of justice, equality and freedom smote their conciousness, all of them became natural and determined soldiers for the cause which was simultaneously taking form in the minds of countless Indian students getting education in Berkeley.

How the tide was turned and countless Indian workers became gadarites in a short time can be understoodfrom Baba Sohan Singh Bakhna's account of those days: "The standard of living of the American worker was higher than that of immigrant workers. They would decline to work on low wages. Besides, they got unemployment allowance. But the Asian workers, mostly from Japan, China, India, Turkey and Ruissia were hard-pressed and had to work on low wages during recession. The American workers got convinced that the immigrants were responsible for their sorry plight. They attacked the Indian workers at night and beat them after looting their belongings. This happened five to six times. Once, Indian workers were forcibly loaded into streetcars, driven to the wilderness of the forest and left there. The victims approached the English counseller for redressal of the grevance but to no avail. One such attack was organized by the American workers against the Japanese workers. The latter complained to their government which took such a serious cognizance of the situation that the American government has to pay compensation and assure the Japanese of protection in the future. It dawned upon us Indians that since we were slaves in our own homeland nobody cared for us, and there could be no redressal to the situation unless we became free as a people."

Baba Bakhna states further: "Besides these attacks, there was an atmosphere of great hostility towards Indians. In trams, restaurants and other such places, the Indians were scorned at. Once Professor Teja Singh (Sant Teja Singh Mastana) came to see me from Canada. I took him to the city of Portland. As we entered an American restaurant for lunch we were told there was no room for us. We took our food in a Japanese restaurant."

Yet another instance quoted by Baba Bakhna is revealing. He writes: "Once our mill stopped working. I and one of my friends went to another mill to ask for work. As we entered the office of the superintendent he offered us chairs with respect and said: "There's a lot of work but not for you." Then he blurted quickly, "Instead, I feel like shooting you down with a gun." We protested: "Why, man, what's our crime?" He asked: "What's the population of your country?" On hearing that it was 30 crore, he asked: "Are these 30 crore sheep or human beings? If you 30 crore Indians were really human beings how would you have become docile and lived like slave? I'll give you both a gun; first go back to your country and get it free. After achieving freedom when you come to America I will be the first to welcome you."

As these workers got awakened to their rights the British India government felt alarmed. On pressure from both British and Indian governments arbitrary restrictions on Indian workers' entry into Canada and the USA were placed. Such steps were provocations enough for them to think, act and mobilize.

Several incidents ignited Indian workers in the USA to be aglow
with the desire to throw the British out of their own country.
Forty percent of them had served in the army at different places,
some in Hong Kong, Malaya, Shanghai and Singapore. The
situation led to holding of regular meetings at different mills on
Sundays. With political awakening and discussions, mobilization
was taking place spontaneously. Baba Bhakna and Pandit
Kanshi Ram, because of their age, maturity, strength of
character and organizational ability, became natural leaders of
the workers in Portland (Oregon). Simultaneously, Professor Teja
Singh, Lala Har Dayal, Bhai Parma Nand (Lahore) and Tarak
Nath Dass had been instrumental in creating such awakening in
California. Kartar Singh Sarabha, studying chemistry at Berkeley,
plunged headlong into the movement. Bhai Jawala Singh, a
prosperous farmer, offered scholarships for Indian students to
come to America for study and work for Indian's freedom on
getting back there. In Canada, too, in the neighboring British
Columbia, the surging anger against the rising racist conditions
had prepared ground for an upheaval. The heroic fight for the basic
human rights had been continuing there with three delegations
nominated by the Sikh sangat to represent to the British and Indian governments to seek redressal of their grievances. Instead, situation for Indian workers in British Columbia deteriorated culminating into the return of Komagata Maru in July 1914.

How the Gadar Party was formed, Baba Bhakna recounts thus: "In the beginning of 1912 Babu Harnam Singh Kehri Sehri and G.D. Kumar, who had their center of activities in Seattle, visited Portland. Their activities centered round the idea of social reform or they would publish some broadsheet but could not build any movement. Even other seasoned patriots such as Kishanji Verma, Madam Cama, Lala Har Dayal, Tarak Nath Das, Sardar Ajit Singh also were unable to turn their ideas into any mass movement. When both Harnam Singh and G.D. Kumar interacted with Indian workers in mills around Portland they discovered that the Indians here did not approve of any reformist program. ... Both Hamam Singh and G.D. Kumar agreed with the workers of Portland, and it was decided to form a revolutionary association which should have its name as Hindustan Association of Pacific Coast. The Party should have a paper to be called Hindustan....These decisions were taken  unanimously and office bearers were elected: President: Sohan Singh; General  Secretary: G.D. Kumar; Secretary: Pandit  Kanshi Ram. They were elected   unanimously. The executive committee had Harnam Singh Tundelat, Udham Singh  Kasel, Ram Rakha and some other  comrades. Those days Kartar Singh Sarabha too had arrived and was staying with his co-villager Rulia Singh and  worked in Astoria Mill."

Baba Bhakna puts the record straight regarding the role of Lala Har Dayal in the foundation of the Gadar Party. He says that either out of ignorance or some other reason some people call Har Dayal the founder of the Gadar Party. That is not true. The party had taken roots much earlier than Har Dayal's first visit to St.  Joan in March 1913. In his presence only one change occurred, and that was, the word Hindustan in the association was replaced by Hindi and the name of the newspaper to be published was decided to be called Gadar and not Hindustan
Baba Bhakna continues: "The last conference was held on 21 April 1913 at Astoria Lumber Mill where the representatives of all mills were present. After deliberations, the decisions taken at St. Joan were unanimously approved. The members gave generous donations for running the office of the party and the newspapers. Pandit Kanshi Ram donated 10 thousand dollars in cash and a piece of land to the party.

Now, the Hindi Association got itself converted into an organization that cried gadar (mutiny) against the might of the foreign rulers in their homeland. The idea of gadar (mutiny) gained momentum as a strategy, i.e. to spread disaffection among the Indian soldiers in the service of the British Imperialism and prepare them to mutiny. The first war of independence in 1857, known as gadar, became the model for action for which organizational work was carried out in the USA to be executed by members of the Gadar Party in India.

All classes of Indians living in America came under one umbrella organization, i.e. the Hindi Association of the Pacific Coast, which immediately got into the act and got the name the Gadar Party. The two other Indian organizations that existed before had been without any political agenda. These were: the Hindustan Association of the USA, composed mainly of students and educated men and the other organization was the Sikh Khalsa Diwan which had its headquarters at Stockton, California. Both got ideologically merged with the Gadar Party.

The back-bone of the movement, however, were the peasants who had trickled in the USA from their distant land where also they had been facing economic misery due to the inhuman policies of the British. These were sturdy and hard working people, with a farming background, and the only job opportunity for them had been in the British army. They had a reputation of being determined fighters. They were always proud of their heritage and the sacrifices their forefathers had made in their fight against the Mughal oppressors. They also were imbued with tales of the sacrifices made by the kukas who had been tied to the cannons and blown to pieces by the British tyrants.

Har Dayal, in his capacity as Secretary of the Hindi Association of the Pacific Coast, and being a man of erudition and fiery intent, aglow with the idea of armed revolution, took up the task of writing for the newspaper Gadar. Addressing a gathering of Indian workers and others in Astoria on June 2, 1913 Har Dayal said: "You have come to America and seen with your own eyes the prosperity of this country. What is the cause of this prosperity? Why, nothing more than this, that America is ruled by its own people. In India, on the other hand, the people have no voice in the administration of the country. The British are mindful only of their own personal interest. As an agricultural country India is infinitely richer than any other country in the world, and yet we see famine ravaging our country. The reason for this is that wheat is grown in India merely to be exported to England by the Government. From the official statistics of the last sixteen years it is seen that two crore people have died from hunger alone in India. Again, during the last decade, eighty lakh people have succumbed to plague. Government has been totally unaffected by this enormous loss of life."

On June 4, 1913, Har Dayal delivered another lecture on the subject of India at the Finnish Socialist Hall where a number of Americans were also present. He said: "The Roman Empire, the French before the revolution, or even the Russian Empire was not worse than the British Government in India. IT COULD NOT BE REFORMED AND IT MUST BE ABOLISHED....Two thirds of the army in India were Indians and received only four dollars a month as against the 25 dollars paid to English soldiers."

The weekly newspaper Gadar, published in Punjabi and Urdu, initially edited by Lala Har Dayal, who wrote most of the articles that formed the ideological core of the gadar movement, had an electrifying effect wherever it reached. In the first issue, the message was clear: What is our name ? "Gadar" What is our  work? "Gadar" Where will it take place? "In India." The issue of the Gadar in Urdu appeared on the 1st of November 1913. In December an edition of the weekly in Punjabi (Gurmukhi script) was brought out, and in May 1914, a third edition was published in Gujrati also. The weekly circulation of the Punjabi edition was 2500 copies and 2200 copies were published in Urdu.

The Gadar Party had its headquarters at 5 Wood Street, San Francisco where it had a printing press to publish newspaper and pamphlets. Apart from Lala Har Dayal and Kartar Singh Sarabha, others who worked actively at the headquarters those days were Munshi Ram who dealt with correspondence and kept up the registers, and Hari Singh, the poet, a regular contributor to the Gadar; he wrote under the name of Fakir.

The mobilization work also took place on occasions of special congregations at the gurdwara in Stockton. As the message of the gadar spread quickly among Indian immigrants through the fiery writings in the Gadar, meetings were held at different places wherever Indian workers/farmers were.

Here is an account of the meetings/mobilization that had taken place (available in a book An Account of the Gadar Conspiracy, 1913-1915 written by British Intelligence Officers F.C. Isemonger and J. Slattery): "On the 12th April 1914 a meeting was held at Stockton under the auspices of Khalsa Diwan Society, which Sohan Singh (Bhakna), President of the Hindi Association, was deputed to attend from Astoria. On the 10th May there was a series of meetings at Fresno, Upland, Oxnard and Los Angeles. Weekly meetings were also held at Claremont during May at which the audience was exhorted to shed its blood in expelling the British from India."

As meetings became a daily phenomenon, the account, as given by the intelligence officers, says: "On the 7th June there was a meeting at Astoria at which the usual songs and speeches were delivered. Bhagwan Singh was president. Violent speeches were delivered by him and by Barkatullah and Sohan Singh, each of whom advised the audience that it was time to hasten back to India and start a revolution there. On the 8th and 9th June the audience assembled again, vowing to fight and die in the coming mutiny. A meeting was also held at Wina on the 9th June, at which mutiny was preached with great enthusiasm. Others were held on the 11th June at Washington (Oregon), on the 13th June at Aberdeen and on the 15th June at Seattle, where many new members were enrolled. On the 14th June there was a special meeting at Portland which commenced with a procession led by a band. The main subject discussed was the detention of the Komagata Maru. and the audience vowed to join in the coming mutiny and to expel the British from India."

A very large meeting was held at Stockton on the 3rd July, which was attended by Indians from Canada and Mexico, and there were other meetings at Elton and Jersey in California on the 5th and 7th July.

Kartar Singh Sarabha, 19, had arrived in America in February 1913 and studied chemistry at the University of California in Berkeley. Sarabha soon became a leading activist of the movement. He was a link between the intellectuals/students and the workers/farmers. He shifted himself to the Gadar Party headquarters and operated the machine that published the newspaper He was later sentenced to death and hanged in the infamous Lahore Conspiracy Case In the same case Vishnu Ganesh Pingle of Pune, Bakhshish Singh of Gilwali (Amritsar), Harnam Singh of Bhati Goraya (Sialkot), Jagat Singh of Sursingh (Amritsar), Surain Singh of Gilwali (Amritsar), Bir Singh of Bahowal (Hoshiarpur), Ishar Singh of Dhudike (Ferozepur). Ranga Singh of Khurdpur (Jalandhar), Rur Singh of Talwandi Dausanj (Moga), Uttam Singh Hans (Jagraon), Balwant Singh of Khurdpur (Jalandhar) Hafiz Abdulla of Jagraon, all returned immigrants, were sentenced to death and hanged. Besides, there were several others who were hanged in the same case.

As an offshoot of the weekly Gadar, the Gadar Party headquarters published several pamphlets, the most important of which was an anthology of poems/songs called Gadar-di-Goonj. Ten thousand copies of this pamphlet were published and quickly distributed. The native talent of the peasants, the raw feelings for justice, freedom and equality, and the fiery need to get prepared for action, all got reflected in the verses composed by several amateur poets. This pamphlet truly reflected the political consciousness of the hard working farmers/workers who organized themselves to take up arms and fight for freedom of their country and against injustice/oppression.

The Gadarites were convinced that the British would have to be forced out of the country. No way the alien rulers, who had been looting the country for long, would offer freedom for the asking, and on the platter. The only way for Indians was to organize and prepare the Indian soldiers working for the British to mutiny; this could be done through guerrilla tactics. As Britain was entangled in the First World War in 1914 the time, it was decided, to strike had come.

With this intent, thousands of them, who had come to the USA for a good living and for better prospects for their families, readied themselves for a superior cause. The Gadar Party, most of its members being peasants from Punjab, several having served in the British Indian army earlier, became an instrument in metamorphosing the life and vision of the Punjabi immigrants.

Several thousands of them left the shores of California by whatever ship they could get and arrived in India to infiltrate in the army in India and tell Indian soldiers that instead of fighting to save the British empire they should be instrumental in throwing the British out of the country. In all, around six thousand left for India.

It changed the history of India  regardless of the fact that not much attention has been given to the role of the Gadar Party and the supreme sacrifice of countless Gadarites in the annals of the freedom struggle.  

Stockton Gurdwara, California (1912). One of the centers of Gadar Party activity
Komagata Maru, guarded by Rainbow Cruiser and police boats, leaving Vancouver