The Ghadar Revolt: How an Anarchist and a Potato Farmer Tried to Overthrow the British Empire

Wheat Fields to Lumber Mills: The Creation of a Punjabi Diaspora

Punjab, a vast river basin straddling the Hindu Kush and the Gangetic Plain has for centuries served as the entry point to the South Asia peninsula. If the Khyber was the door to Hindustan, Punjab was the foyer, with conquerors from Alexander to the Hephthalites to Babur having established their first (or only) foothold in South Asia in the Punjab. It was in the turbulent Punjab that the Sikh religion first emerged in the 15th century, and it was with the Sikhs, in 1849, that Punjab fell to yet another conqueror, the British East India Company, at the conclusion of the Second Anglo-Sikh War. The last part of South Asia to fall to colonial rule, Punjab occupied a significant position in the British Raj, with its plains producing vast surpluses and its denizens forming a disproportionate majority in the British Indian armed forces. By the 1870s, however, Punjab had come under significant financial strain. The significant extension of canal and irrigation infrastructure by the British over the past decades had increased the yield per acre of Punjabi fields prodigiously, leading the price of land per acre to skyrocket, rising nearly 400% by the end of the century.[i] Nevertheless, agricultural yields remained unpredictable, and repeated shortages in 1869 and 1877 damaged the financial stability of local farmers. Compounding issues even further, the population of the Punjab had risen significantly, causing urban overcrowding and leaving some families with very little land upon which to subsist.[ii] An epidemic of bubonic plague (which would continue to break out sporadically until well into the mid-20th century) only added to the farmers' woes.

Partially attempting to solve these issues and further intending to increase agricultural revenue for the Raj as a whole, a program of colonial settlements along newly constructed canals was undertaken in the 1890s. Undertaken in the Rechna Doab, primarily in the Lyallpur and Rawalpindi districts, these settlements opened previously uncultivated land to new agriculture, displacing the indigenous inhabitants (who were considered less suitable for agriculture) with inhabitants from the Bist and Bari Doabs.[iii] The Bist and Bari Doabs contained the majority of the Sikh population at the time.

While these projects lessened the financial strain upon part of the population, outrage soon developed over the government's heavy-handed administration of the new land allotments. Colonists were prohibited from making wills regarding the land (a long held right throughout the area) and were not allowed to clear-cut trees.[iv] While failing to enliven the public sentiment or significantly relieve the strain upon impoverished agriculturists, the canal colonies did provide Sikhs in the Punjab their first experiences with immigration (albeit only across a small distance), proving the possible financial benefits of relocation. The dissatisfaction of those that did manage to secure a land allotment provided an additional impetus for immigration.

Contemporary to these upheavals in the Punjab, Sikhs serving in the military and civil service also got their first tastes of long-distance displacements. The conquest of Burma resulted in the deployment of a great deal of Sikhs in Southeast Asia for military and peacekeeping purposes. Sikhs were also sent to China and Hong Kong during and after the Opium Wars. Thus, minor Sikh enclaves emerged in East and Southeast Asia, providing future immigrants key layover areas and providing a general familiarity with immigration within the Sikh community.[v]

By the turn of the century, Sikhs in East Asia turned to a new frontier, the North American West Coast. Seeking low-cost labor, Western railway companies and lumber mills recruited heavily among Sikh enclaves in Hong Kong, with the promising economic gains of early immigrants soon attracting migrants directly from the Punjab, most of whom reached the West Coast along the same route as their predecessors, through Hong Kong. Hong Kong quickly developed as a hub for Sikh immigrants to North America, who usually traveled to Hong Kong before taking steamships to the North American West Coast.

(A Group of Early Sikh Immigrants in British Columbia)

Already disaffected by large scale immigration from China and Japan, white British Columbians did not respond positively to Sikh immigration. The Pacific Monthly summed these views in 1907, writing, “Thousands of worshippers of Brahma, Buddha, and other strange deities of India may soon press the soil of Washington.”[vi]

Eager to stem the tide of the supposed “Dusky Peril,” the Canadian government in 1908 passed a series of laws severely restricting Sikh immigration, effectively arresting it entirely. The first law made true the initial suggestion made to Lord Minto, requiring every Asian immigration from a country without treaty rights with Canada to possess $200 at their point of entry (a respectable sum for the average Sikh immigrant). The second prohibited travelers from entering Canada unless they came directly from their country of birth via a "continuous journey." Sikh immigrants, lacking considerable funds and wholly reliant upon their Hong Kong layaway, proved incapable of surmounting these new laws.[vii]

Barred from Canada’s lumber mills, some Sikhs, following in the footsteps of their East Asian contemporaries, travelled instead to California, where they sought agricultural work in the Sacramento Valley. The interactions between disaffected working class Sikh immigrants and their cosmopolitan counterparts in the United States would quickly ferment among the most dangerous threats to British rule since the Sepoy Mutiny.

Potato Farmers and Global Anarchists: The Formation of the Ghadar Part

Their faith in the British Empire severely shaken, Sikhs in North America began organizing within their own communities, slowly turning to radical activities. Among the first organizations representing North American Sikhs were the Pacific Coast Hindustan Organization (based in Oregon) and the Khalsa Diwan Society of Northern California, led by Sohan Singh Bhakna and Jawala Singh, respectively. Jawala Singh, a well-established immigrant and highly successful Californian potato farmer, was largely representative of the Sikh masses, who were mostly uneducated and engaged principally in hard labor to make a living both in Punjab and California. Though uneducated himself, Jawala Singh was a notable philanthropist among the Sikhs of California, helping finance the construction of a Gurdwara in Stockton and establishing the “Guru Gobind Singh Scholarship,” allowing enterprising young Sikhs in Punjab to study in California.[viii] Bhakna, however, represented an altogether different category of Indian immigrant. Born in Amritsar, Bhakna had immigrated to the United States in 1909, joining the IWW and becoming a labor organizer in Oregon’s lumber industry. Unlike most of his fellow immigrants, Bhakna was well educated and deeply involved in the politics of international socialism. Bhakna’s credentials as a radical thinker and organizer were hard to rival, though one rather extraordinary immigrant topped even Bhakna both in education and radicalism- Lala Hardayal.

Born Har Dayal Singh Mathur, Lala Hardayal, an immigrant from Delhi, attracted attention almost as soon as he arrived on the West Coast. Having served as the editor for radical socialist newspapers in France under the tutelage of Bhikaji Cama (a noted Indian anti colonialist in her own right), Har Dayal had initially arrived in California to teach Hindu philosophy at Stanford University in 1912.[ix] Not exactly cautious in voicing his political opinions, the eccentric Har Dayal caused quite a scandal almost immediately upon his arrival, giving lectures on socialism, championing animal rights, and defending the rights of his fellow Stanford employees to practice “free love.”[x] Perennially nomadic (and perhaps oppressed by Stanford officials due to his foreign status and radical views), Har Dayal went so far as to resign his position at Stanford only six months after assuming it, ostensibly to tour the United States.[xi] Though ousted from Stanford’s terracotta-topped halls, Har Dayal found his calling when invited to PCHA headquarters in 1913, where he, alongside his fellow radicals, formed the Ghadar[1] Party, an organization dedicated to overthrowing the British Raj and thereby elevating the social position of the Indian population the world over. By fall of 1913, the Ghadar party had formalized its organizational hierarchy, electing Sohan Singh Bhakna as president, Har Dayal as Secretary, and Jawala Singh as Vice President. Har Dayal would, in the ensuing months, launch an aggressive campaign of speeches to Indian workers along the length of the West Coast, soon moving the party’s base from Oregon to San Francisco, a cosmopolitan city situated in close proximity to the farms of the Sacramento Valley.[xii] Funded by the wealthy Jawala Singh, the Ghadarites published incendiary newspapers to distribute throughout India and stockpiled arms in anticipation of their grand revolt.

(Jawala Singh in California)

(Har Dayal Singh Mathur, more commonly known as Lala Har Dayal, in 1916)

Energetic though they may have been, the early Ghadarites were not particularly discrete, publicly giving fiery speeches and openly publishing controversial literature calling for armed insurrection against the British Empire. The Ghadar movement was, in fact, infiltrated from its very onset, with one William C. Hopkinson, a Canadian spy of Anglo-Indian lineage having kept close tabs on Sikh radicals in British Columbia as early as 1909.[xiii] Hopkinson, donning a fake beard and turban and referring to himself as “Narain Singh,” regularly relayed information to US and Canadian authorities. By the winter of 1913-1914, Hopkinson had established himself in San Francisco full time, bringing along his wife and children, all the while slowly compiling an extensive record against the unwitting Har Dayal. Curiously, the crowning jewel of Hopkinson’s dossier came from an irate recipient of Jawala Singh’s Gobind Singh Scholarship who, though he made the expensive trip across the Pacific, found himself never actually compensated for his voyage to or lodgings in California by his prestigious agriculturalist sponsor. From his informant, Hopkinson learned of Har Dayal’s self-described involvement in the recent plot to kill the newly installed viceroy of India, Charles Hardinge. A boastful (and almost certainly delusive) Har Dayal had, according to Hopkinson’s source, exclaimed upon learning of the attempt, “Have you heard the news, what one of my men have done in India to Lord Hardinge?”[xiv]

Lala Har Dayal was arrested by US immigration officials on the 25th of March, 1914 and, after extensive interrogation, released on bail four days later.[xv] Falling back into the nomadic tendencies of his early life due perhaps to the wanderlust of a wistful revolutionary spirit (though intimidation seems a more likely explanation), Har Dayal quickly fled to Europe, continuing his radical activities in Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and Sweden.[xvi] For his part, the skilled William Hopkinson never lived to be rewarded by his Canadian employers, being assassinated a few months later in British Columbia by one “Mewa Singh,” a former informant eager to rehabilitate his reputation after betraying his fellow revolutionaries to avoid a charge of arms smuggling. Though Hopkinson’s personal efforts went largely unappreciated, the greater infiltration of the Ghadar would prove disastrous throughout 1914 and 1915.

Komagata Maru, The First World War, and a Ghadar Call to Action

In the days following Har Dayal’s hasty departure from the United States, another Indian immigrant set into motion his own plans to oppose colonial hegemony, albeit through decidedly different tactics. Opposing the Canadian government’s continuous journey laws, Gurdit Singh, a prominent Singaporean businessman, had hired in 1914 a Japanese passenger ship, the Komagata Maru, for a voyage to Canada. Greatly publicizing his venture, Singh made stops at Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Yokahama, collecting hundreds of Sikh passengers. Singh and most of his passengers were barred from disembarking in Vancouver, however, and Singh was threatened to pay his charter dues lest the Komagata Maru be impounded.[xvii] While a public collection organized by Sikh immigrants in Canada managed to cover the charter, the Komagata Maru's passengers were still barred from entering Canada, with Sir MacBridge of British Columbia stating unequivocally "To admit Orientals in large numbers would mean in the end the extinction of the white peoples and we have always in mind the necessity of keeping this a white man's country."[xviii] After two months in limbo, the Komagata Maru sailed back East. With the outbreak of the First World War, however, passengers from Singapore and Hong Kong were not allowed reentry. Finally landing in Bengal, an altercation between frustrated passengers and police led to a police-orchestrated massacre in an event British officials later deceptively dubbed the “Budge Budge Riot.” There were 43 casualties.[xix]

(Gurdit Singh, standing in the far left of the first row, aboard the Komagata Maru)

Moved to action by the fate of the Komagata Maru and the promise of a poorly defended India following Britain’s entry into the First World War, the Ghadarites launched their greatly anticipated plans for revolution. Donating his property to the Ghadar Party, Jawala Singh volunteered to personally lead the initial band of revolutionaries across the Pacific aboard the ship Korea. Addressing the gathering of revolutionaries aboard the Korea, Ram Chandra, successor to Har Dayal as party secretary, made clear to the Ghadarites their goals. Noted Chandra, “your duty is clear. Go to India. Stir up rebellion in every corner of the country. Rob the wealthy and show mercy to the poor. In this way gain universal sympathy. Arms will be provided you on arrival in India. Failing this, you must ransack the police stations for rifles.”[xx]

Inspiring though Ram Chandra’s words may have been, the Korea’s fate was doomed before it so much as left the harbor. While the ship’s Ghadarite passengers made sure to throw their revolutionary literature into the ocean before arriving in Hong Kong (where they were to board the Tosa Maru to Bengal), British authorities were well aware of their plans and immediately arrested the unsuspecting revolutionaries upon their arrival in India on the 16th of October 1914.[xxi] In any case, the California migrants would have only been disappointed upon their arrival. Indeed, the Ghadarites had planned for a mass revolt across India on the 21st of February, months prior to the arrival of the California revolutionaries. This revolt, planned alongside Rash Behari Bose, a Bengali radical who had earlier orchestrated the Delhi-Lahore Conspiracy on the life of Lord Hardinge that had proved Lala Har Dayal’s undoing, was intended to involve a mass bombing campaign across the Indo-Gangetic Plain alongside large-scale desertions by sepoys and an extensive guerilla campaign. Bose and his conspirators however, had been discovered while trying to smuggle weapons into Punjab. Bose’s own accomplice was, in an event later termed the “Benares Conspiracy Case,” arrested in Meerut with explosives “sufficient to annihilate half a regiment.”[xxii] Back in Lahore, an informant’s untimely betrayal led to a raid of Ghadar headquarters. Of the conspirators rounded up by the police in February of 1914, the “domestic arsenal” of one “Suresh Babu” yielded “a 450 six-chambered revolver, a tin of cartridges for the same, a breech-loading rifle, a double-barreled 500 Express rifle, a double-barreled gun, seventeen daggers, a number of cartridges, and a packet of gunpowder.”[xxiii] Though a prodigious collection for an individual, even Suresh Babu’s comical arsenal was insufficient for a general uprising. Sporadic violence would continue in the Punjab throughout 1914, with an attempted attack on the Chauki Man railway station between Ferozepur and Ludhiana on the 16th of October 1914 leading to two civilian casualties. A month later, on the 27th of November, an attempt by 15 rebels to loot the Moga treasury ended with two Ghadarites being wounded and seven being taken captive by the police.

Larger scale attempts at inciting revolution were also attempted. Indian immigrants in Germany had, by 1915, colluded with German authorities to ship arms directly to Bengal. One immigrant, Naren Batacharji, adopting the pseudonym “Martin,” attempted to make arrangements with his connections in Bengal to receive a shipment of 30,000 rifles, proportional ammunition, and 200,000 rupees in the Sundarbans. Unfortunately for “Martin,” the ship carrying the arms was ultimately detained by Dutch authorities in Batavia after trying and failing to convene with a sister arms shipment.[xxiv] By the end of 1915, the Ghadar rebellion had ended. Though poorly planned and hopelessly executed, the Ghadar would terrify colonial authorities and would ultimately influence British rule in India to a remarkable degree.

Ghadar Paranoia and the Future of the Indian Independence Movement

The fates of the Ghadar leaders were decided in the Lahore Conspiracy Trials of 1915. Ultimately, 28 Ghadarites were hanged for their involvement in the rebellion, 29 were acquitted, and hundreds were imprisoned or transported to the Andaman Islands.[xxv] Among the most notable Ghadarites, Jawala Singh, the agricultural tycoon of the Sacramento Valley, was sent to the Andamans. Sohan Singh Bhakna, the prominent Oregon IWW member, though initially sentenced to death, was later transported alongside Jawala Singh. Kartar Singh Sarabha, the youngest Ghadar leader at a mere 18 years of age, was hanged in Lahore.[xxvi] Back in California, the “Hindu-German Conspiracy Trial,” as it came to be called, ended with many Ghadarites receiving up to two years imprisonment for violating the neutrality of the United States. In a stunning turn of events, party secretary Ram Chandra was shot to death while still in the witness box by a fellow Ghadarite over disputes regarding the misappropriation of party funds.[xxvii]

(Kartar Singh Sarabha, the youngest leader of the Ghadar Movement)

By far the most significant result of the Ghadar rising, however, was its impact upon the psyche of the British colonial system. Attempting to quell Ghadar violence, the Defense of India Act of 1915, passed with the significant support of Michael O’Dwyer, governor of Punjab, accorded significant power to the colonial government to prosecute rebellious activity. Among the abilities allowed to the Raj by the act included the ability to search civilian property without a warrant, the ability to arrest any persons “reasonably suspected” of criminal activities, and the ability to commandeer private businesses if deemed necessary for public safety. In addition, special tribunals were created for the swift trial of cases of sedition.

Much like the Sepoy Mutiny a century earlier, the Ghadar risings would color colonial opinion of Indian politics for decades to come. Indeed, in the years following the Ghadar revolt, in the wake of protests against the act of 1915, colonial troops under the command of Reginald Dyer massacred innocent civilians at Jallianwala Bagh, brutally repressed peaceful demonstrations throughout Punjab, and went so far as to air power, machine guns, and aerial bombings to pacify crowds.[xxviii] O’Dwyer himself would, following Jallianwala Bagh, note that the massacre proved “the decisive factor in crushing the rebellion.” These atrocities would themselves inspire new violent radicals, but they would also, paradoxically support the more moderate noncooperation movement, with harrowed Indian civilians becoming disillusioned by British rule. In the years following the Ghadar rebellion, colonial officials, terrified by the prospect of a successful iteration of the Ghadar vision, began to see violent rebellions where they didn’t exist.

[1] “Ghadar,” translated literally, means “revolution”

[i]Hubert Calvery, The Wealth and Welfare of the Punjab (Lahore: Civil and Military Gazette, 1936), 219. [ii]Kushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs. 2. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. 2 vols. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004), 159 [iii] Ibid., 160. [iv] Charles O’Donnell. The Causes of Present Discontent in India (United Kingdom: T.F. Unwin, 1908), 2 [v] Singh, 168. [vi] “Have We A Dusky Peril?” Pudget Sound American, September 16, 1906. [vii] Valerie Knowles. Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-1997 (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1997), 121 [viii] “Scholarship For Ambitious Hindus” The San Francisco Call, January 26, 1912 [ix] “Hindoo to Lecture” San Francisco Mercury and Herald, March 3, 1912 [x] “Hindoo Professor Lecturer On Labor” Organized Labor, July 20, 1912; “Savant Sponsor For ‘Free Love’” San Francisco Call, September 17, 1912 [xi] “Hindu Professor Quits The Stanford Faculty” San Francisco Mercury and Herald, September 21, 1912 [xii] Seema Sohi, Echoes of Mutiny: Race, Empire, and Indian Anticolonialism in North America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 58 [xiii] Johnson, Hugh. “The Surveillance of Indian Nationalists in North America, 1908-1918.” BC Studies, no. 78 (1988), 8 [xiv] Ibid., 14 [xv] “Question of Hindu Is Focused” Chico Record, March 26, 1914; “Har Dayal, The Hindu” The Press Democrat, March 29, 1914 [xvi] “Har Dayal” The San Francisco Call, May 1, 1920 [xvii] Singh, 178. [xviii] Ibid., 179. [xx] Singh, 181. [xxi] Rowlatt, Sedition Committee 1918: Report (1918), 149. [xxii] Ibid., 184. [xxiii] Ibid., 185. [xxiv] Ibid., 121. [xxv] Ibid., 157. [xxvi] Sohi., 184. [xxvii] Sohi., 192. [xxviii] Maxwell Leigh, The Punjab and the War (Lahore, Sang-e-Meel Publications, 1997).