Monday, January 09, 2006

Ghadr Movement

Mark Juergensmeyer and Khushwant Singh have an interesting take on the expatriate Sikh contribution to the Indian freedom struggle in 1915. The reference is to the Ghadr movement that had its origins in California. Pre-partition Punjab had stretched from the outskirts of Delhi to the North West Frontier Province. The Sikhs lived for the most part in the central districts of the old Punjab i.e. Amritsar, Hoshiarpur, Jullundar and Ludhiana. The colonial authorities developed new canal-irrigated farming colonies in the late 1800s in west Punjab in what is today Pakistan. Many Sikhs moved to the hitherto largely Muslim western districts. The diversion of the Chenab river in the west Punjab had transformed a barren wasteland into a fertile area developed by the Sikh entrepreneur-farmer. The Sikhs dominated the new canal colonies.

The British however introduced the Alienation of Land Act in 1900 to prevent certain non-farming castes from owning newly irrigated agricultural land in the Punjab. The objective was to prevent the urban mercantile castes from appropriating the land. Many non-Jats were thus excluded from the canal settlements. The colonial administration introduced legislation preventing the new Sikh settlers from having full legal title to the irrigated land. A famine and a bubonic plague killed a million people in the Punjab in the early 1900s as well. This tightening environment triggered Sikh immigration to the west coast of Canada and the United States.

The first Sikhs arrived in California in 1899. There was a wave of Sikh immigration into Canada in 1907 and 1908. 1910 witnessed a significant Sikh influx into the United States. The Sikhs worked in the lumber camps of Oregon and Washington state, in the Canadian-Pacific Railroad and in the Hudson Bay Company. They later expanded into the San Joaquin valley of California. The Sikhs helped construct rail links in the North West United States and in the Panama Canal. A Sikh Gurudwara was built in British Columbia in 1907 and in California in 1912.

The arrival of Asians in the Pacific coast contributed to racial tensions. The anti-Asian riots of 1907 in British Columbia affected the Sikh community. Race riots spread to California and Oregon in 1908. Gangs attacked striking Chinese, Japanese and Sikh workers in 1914 in Wheatland, California. British Columbia stopped all new Asian immigration in 1908 while California passed the Alien Land Law in 1913 to restrict land ownership for Asians to a three year lease. The ill-fated attempt of 376 Indians who had traveled to Canada aboard the Komagata Maru in 1914 heightened the disenchantment. California introduced the Asiatic Exclusion Act in 1924. It refused permission for wives and children to join the Sikh men.

The early Sikh immigrants turned to Indian nationalism in exasperation. They founded the Ghadr movement in California, obtained German financial support and enlisted volunteers to return to India to stir rebellion. Several Hindus joined the effort given the close links between the two religions. World War 1 was then raging in Europe. Several hundred expatriates traveled to India to "participate in the armed uprising". The untrained and naive leadership unsuccessfully reached out to Afghanistan, China and Turkey for help. The three countries were themselves on the brink of collapse. This was a bizarre experiment where overseas Indians tried to start a revolutionary army and invade India by sea. The attempt ended in a fiasco. A series of mishaps, colonial infiltration and financial irregularity explained its failure. A few hundred "revolutionaries" were tried, 36 individuals sent to the gallows and most others sentenced to life in prison.

This was the first organized violent bid for independence after 1857. The Ghadr movement failed in its immediate objective. But it succeeded in inspiring other Indian freedom fighters. Subhas Chandra Bose might have well been influenced by the Ghadr precedent to leverage German and Japanese support in his efforts to dislodge the British in World War 2. In fact, his Indian National Army had a strong Sikh component. The Ghadr movement directly inspired Bhagat Singh and his band of revolutionaries. Many Ghadr veterans later joined the ranks of the Babbar Akalis to secure control of the Gurudwaras and oppose the British sponsorship of the Sahajdari (non-Khalsa) Sikh Mahants. A few members of the Ghadr linked up with Stalin's Comintern. Regardless of the immediate failure, the Ghadr had influenced the freedom struggle in no uncertain manner.


Kaunteya said...

That was very informative.

Keep em coming

Sukhinder said...

Punjabi expats have always had an interest in their homeland. The Khalistani movement in the 80s also illustrated it. The Sikhs in Canada are perhaps more ethnic conscious than us in India.

doubtinggaurav said...


Don't mind but I feel uncomfortable when a nationalist movement like Gadar is compared with Khalistani movement.
But ues I do agree that Punjabi expats have lots of effinity with Homeland


Sukhinder said...

I agree with you doubting gaurav. Gadar is not the same as Khalistan which never ever existed in Sikh history. Ranjith Singh governed a multi-religious empire. His chief minister and treasurer were Hindus. The Sikhs in the west are insecure in their identity compared to us here. Hence their continued fascination with the idea.

Jaffna said...


I would not say that "Khalistan never ever existed in Sikh history". It did but not as envisioned by 20th century zealots who manipulated history in a crude manner.

The Sikh Confederacy between 1716 and 1799 was a loose alliance between several local rulers who joined hands to resist the Afghans. They ruled over a largely non-Sikh population.

Ranjit Singh's empire between 1801 and 1839 is another example. But as you point out, the Sher-e-Punjab ruled a largely non-Sikh and heterogenous population. It happened to be predominantly Muslim to be more exact.

Ranjith Singh's father was the local chief at Gujranwala in what is today Pakistan. Ranjith Singh captured and ruled from Lahore. He then proceeded to annex Aksai Chin (the word is of Uighur origin), Chitral, Gilgit, Hunza, Jammu, Ladakh, Kangra, Kashmir, Multan, Peshawar and Skardu. Amazing saga although devoid of institutions which alone would have provided continuity after his death.

Anyway, I am off topic :-)

libertarian said...

Jaffna great post. I had no idea that the Punjabis had their North-American roots as far back as you mention.

sukhinder: seems like all expats have a craving for home - however defined. Probably a reaction to being uprooted.


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