Ghadar movement the Punjab angle
Leaders of the Ghadar movement set out to liberate India from the British. Based abroad, primarily in the US, the international movement had its roots and focus in the state that gave it most of its leaders and followers — Punjab.
Dr Kirpal Singh
LEADERS of the Ghadar Movement were pioneers in many ways. In 1913, they were the first to declare that their aim was independence of India long before the Indian National Congress passed a resolution for India’s independence in 1926.
None of the members of the Ghadar Party had any vested interests whereas the leaders of the Rebellion of 1857 had their individual vested interests. The Rani of Jhansi did not join the Rebellion in May 1857 but joined the revolt after the British government’s refusal to accede to her request for adopting a son.
The leaders of the Ghadar Movement were committed to the cause and did not waver at any time. One anecdote had been recorded in a Gurmukhi booklet Shaheed Jiwanian (banned by the British government). An elderly gentleman of Sarabha village went to meet Kartar Singh Sarabha in jail. He told Kartar Singh Sarabha that he had come to take him back to the village. Kartar Singh Sarabha enquired about his relatives. The elderly villager told him that one of his relatives had died of cholera; another had died in an accident, while yet another had died long ago. At this, Kartar Singh Sarabha asserted: “Let me die for my country.” The elderly villager had tears in his eyes on hearing this answer. The sacrifice of Kartar Singh Sarabha was a great inspiration for Bhagat Singh. It is said that Kartar Singh Sarabha’s photo was found from the clothes of Bhagat Singh after his death.
During the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century, many Sikh emigrants from Punjab went to Malay States and China. From there, they migrated to Canada and the USA as these countries offered them good prospects of employment. This process of migration continued for some time for Indians, especially Sikhs living in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Malay States, America and Canada. In Canada and USA, all Indians were looked down upon by the Europeans settlers as they felt Indians disturbed their economy by working on much lower wages. Due to this, there occurred numerous racial riots at different places.
Restricting Indians’ entry
The government of the country always sided with the Europeans and passed various Acts restricting the entry of the Indians. The Chinese and Japanese were accorded lenient treatment. These measures aggravated their condition. This colour prejudice was part of workers’ exploitation. All these factors convinced them that their miseries and humiliation were due to the fact that their home government was not their own. They decided to free their motherland by organising an armed rebellion.
In March 1913, a conference was called at Washington and invitations were sent to Indians living in various parts of Canada and USA. This conference was sponsored by Sohan Singh Bhakna, Wasakha Singh, Jawala Singh, Kartar Singh Sarabha and Hardyal. They had toured the Pacific coast and were able to enlist the support of Khalsa Dewan, Stockton; Hindustan Association, British Columbia and Vancouver United India League. About 200 delegates attended this conference.
A Hindi Association was founded with Sohan Singh Bhakna as its president, Baba Kesar Singh, vice-president, Hardyal, secretary and Pandit Kashi Ram, treasurer. The aim was the liberation of India from the foreigners by the force of armed rebellion. The headquarters of the party were to be at San Francisco, as it was a suitable place to keep in touch with the Indian revolutionaries in other countries. A printing press was made operational and a newspaper was started. The site of the press and its office was called Yuganter Ashram and the newspaper was named Ghadar. The first issue of Ghadar appeared on November 1, 1913. It was published in Urdu, Gurmukhi and Gujarati.
When World War I was declared on August 4. 1914, Indians living in the USA thought it was the most opportune time to expel the British from India. After this, Yugantar Ashram and other Indian organisations decided to arrange for the return of Indians living in the USA for organising an armed rebellion for throwing off the foreign yoke.
The Shamsher Khalsa on October 15, 1914, published a notice to the effect that the Khalsa Diwan, Stockton, having received numerous requests from settlers to effect the sale from their land, has made arrangements with a company for the purpose. Settlers intending to sell their land should communicate with Khalsa Diwan. The object is, no doubt, rebellion in India. (Ghadar Conspiracy, p 52).
The Government of India, on the other hand, became more vigilant and issued Ingress Into India Ordinance on September 5, 1914. This ordinance provided for control of the persons entering British India, whether by sea or hand. Later, this ordinance was made the basis for Defence of India Act, 1915.
When the revolutionaries heard about the fate of Komagata Maru, they decided to reach India by different ships. Tosha Maru reached Calcutta with some leaders of the Ghadar Movement, including its founder president Sohan Singh Bhakna. But they were immediately arrested. Nidhan Singh, Jawala Singh, Jagat Ram and Kesar Singh came via Colombo. They reached Punjab after visiting Gurdwara Nanded, Hyderabad. Nippon Maru brought Kartar Singh, who also reached Punjab via Colombo. Fiazang brought Jagat Singh, Foo Sang Piara Singh, Harnam Singh, Ran Singh, Nand Singh and Jawand Singh.
The general situation in the Punjab was favourable for the leaders of the Ghadar Movement. After the outbreak of War, the legend of invincibility of Germany gained favour. The leaders of the Ghadar Movement were Kesar Singh, Jagat Ram, Rur Singh, Jawala Singh, Mulla Singh and Bhai Parmanand of DAV College, Lahore. Rash Behari from Banaras and Ganesh Das Pingley joined them later on. Jagat Ram was sent to Peshawar for purchase of arms. Bhai Parmanand was entrusted with the propaganda work. Dr Mathra was appointed to make bombs. In the beginning, the Ghadarites were most active in Amritsar, which was made the headquarters. The leaders of the Ghadar Movement met on Diwali at Amritsar and during the annual fair at Nankana Sahib. Later, a meeting was held at in Amritsar in which Kartar Singh Sarabha participated. The next meeting was held at the monthly fair of amavas at Tarn Taran and at Jhar Sahib, a gurdwara, where it was decided to act in unison with other revolutionaries working in different districts.
Later, Rash Behari joined the movement and at his suggestion headquarters were changed from Amritsar to Lahore.
Persuading troops to join
One of the major aims of the programme was to persuade the troops to join the movement. Mula Singh was appointed for this purpose. Sowars of 23rd Cavalry were won over and they promised to march out and join the armed rebellion at the appointed hour. As a token of their assurance, they sent a sword to the leaders of the movement. One emigrant enlisted himself in 22nd Cavalry. Nidhan Singh and Kartar Singh contacted men at Ferozepur. Piara Singh went to Frontier cantonments. During the first two months of 1915, emissaries were sent to all cantonments in Northern India.
The date for general rising was fixed as November 30, 1914. Later on, the date was postponed. February 21, 1915 was appointed as the final date. The Ghadar leaders were to attack Lahore cantonment and to secure ammunition and cooperation of the 23rd Cavalry. Kartar Singh, Balwant Singh and Randhir Singh were to secure cooperation of 26th Punjab and ammunition at Ferozepur cantonment. Besides this, telephone wires were to be cut and police stations were to be looted in order to secure arms.
The Amritsar Police came to know the activities of Mula Singh and they appointed one person to work secretly among the revolutionaries. He was also a returned emigrant from Shanghai and was known to Nidhan Singh. He reported the entire plot to the police. Some revolutionaries were arrested at Amritsar. When leaders of the movement came to know that the police had come know of their programme, they changed the date to be February 19 instead of February 21. This was again communicated to the police and the government strengthened all the cantonments and took preventive measures. Mula Singh was arrested. The police attacked some of the revolutionaries at Anarkali, Bazar, Lahore but they boldly faced the police and killed a sub-inspector. Arjan Singh was, however, captured and Sajan Singh and Batas Singh, escaped.
On February 19, 23rd Cavalry was kept on duty throughout the night. Hence no body dared to move out. At Ferozepur, Kartar Singh was to attack the cantonment. A party of about 70 persons was ready and Kirpa Singh was sent to bring these sepoys who had promised to join. But they never came and the party waited for the whole night but dispersed after finding that the plot hand been forestalled. After the collapse of the plot, Rash Behari fled from Punjab and other leaders were arrested one by one. Pingley was arrested at Meerut.
Sir Michael O. Dwyer, Lt Governor of the Punjab, reported, “It is not desirable at present time to allow trials of these revolutionaries or of other sedition mongers to be protracted by ingenuity of counsel and drawn out to inordinate lengths by committal land appeal procedures which the criminal law provides.” Their trial was to be summary before the judges and there could not be any appeal.
The military men who were to join the rising were found guilty at a court martial and shot. Nine batches of conspirators were tried by a Special Tribunal under the Defence of India Act. Twentyfour were sentenced to death and confiscation of property, 26 were transported for life. Among them were Sohan Singh Bhakna, Bhai Parmanand, Pandit Jagat Ram, Baba Wasakha Singh, Baba Nidhan Singh, Harnam Singh, Gurmukh Singh, Prithvi Singh Azad. On November 19, seven men, including Kartar Singh Sarabha, Bakshish Singh and Pandit Kashi Ram were executed.
The Yugantar Ashram published the following pamphlets:
- Ghadr di Gunj (Echo of Mutiny). This was written in Gurmukhi and was addressed in particular to the Sikhs.
- Illan-i-Jang (Declaration of War) was published in Urdu. It gave a graphic picture of India’s slavery by highlighting its economic exploitation by the English.
- Naya Zamana (New Era) began with an ode in praise of Lokmanya Tilak who was cited as an example for everybody to follow. It appealed to all Indians to wake up and work in earnest for the salvation of India which was to be found in getting liberty and equality for all.
- The fourth pamphlet was “Balance Sheet of Rule in India”. It included 14 items. Item no 4 and 5 dealt with famines and plagues which occurred in India. Item no 10 dealt with destruction of Indian craft for the sake of British industries. Item no 11 dealt with the Indian sacrifices done for the sake of British conquest in Burma, Afghanistan and China (Ghadr Conspiracy).
The writer is a well-known historian