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The Rediff Special/Arthur J Pais in New York

August 14, 2004

Arthur J Pais charts the success of a parallel Indian independence movement in North America that began in the late 19th century

For Ved Prakash Vatuk, a former Berkeley professor and an expert on the Gadar movement, there is hardly anything more colorful and exciting than the fight for Indian freedom that was waged from Canada and America.

"Imagine this," he said last year at an event marking the anniversary of the movement, "a group of so-called low-class workers, who are denied many of their basic rights here, still manage to provide time and money -- despite their meager earnings -- for the freedom struggle." These Gadar-ites were joined by elitists -- students and professors -- from universities like Stanford University and this made the movement even more powerful. 

1893: 'Christians must always be ready for good criticism and I hardly think that you will mind if I make a little criticism,' declares Swami Vivekananda at the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago.

'You Christians, who are so fond of sending out missionaries to save the soul of the heathen -- why do you not try to save their bodies from starvation? In India, during the terrible famines, thousands died from hunger, yet you Christians did nothing. They ask us for bread, but we give them stones [churches]. It is an insult to starving people to offer them religion; it is an insult to a starving man to teach him metaphysics.' Several progressive Christian groups, like the Quakers, listen to him carefully. A decade later, they will start supporting the idea of a free India.

1888: Scores of Indian soldiers, who were invited to England to take part in the 50th anniversary celebration of the rule of Queen Victoria, are given the opportunity to visit Canada before returning to India. They decide to stay back looking for jobs in the lumberyards. But riots against Hindoos (though most of them were Sikhs) break out, and many start migrating to Washington state in the US from their British Columbia homes. But in Washington state they encounter hostile demonstrations. Quite few new immigrants head to California.

1906: Harnam Singh Tundilat, who would soon become a leader of the Gadar movement to fight for India's Independence, arrives in Canada to work on a farm. Both in Canada and in the US people are alarmed by this new 'Hindu invasion.' Canada enacts many new laws restricting immigration from Asia. One of them makes it mandatory that someone coming to Canada should board the ship sailing directly from their country.

1908: Taraknath Das, a very well-educated radical, starts publishing a paper Free Hindustan. A Punjabi paper Swadesh Sewak is started by Gurudutt Kumar.

1909: Patriotism and nationalism awakens many immigrants. They express their resentment against British rule by burning all certificates of appreciation and medals given to them for the bravery in battles by the British, in a meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia.

1913: Lala Har Dayal, who joined the freedom movement after renouncing his fellowship to study at Oxford University, arrives in California to teach Indian philosophy at Stanford University.

Har Dayal inspires many students at Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley to popularize the idea of a free India. Prominent among them are Katar Singh Sarabha, Vishnu Govind Pingle and D Chenchiah.

1913: Katar Singh becomes the link between the workers and intellectuals, between Har Dayal and other future leaders of Gadar Party. A meeting of Indians from all walks of life takes place in Astoria, Oregon in April 1913. The Hindi Association of the Pacific Coast is formed with Sohan Singh Bhakna as its first president and Har Dayal as the secretary.

The organisation calls for an armed insurrection against the British. They set up headquarters in San Francisco at the Yugantar Ashram, named after a revolutionary Bengali paper Yugantar.

1912: Agnes Smedley, a triple agent who worked for the Indian nationalists, the Soviets and finally for the Chinese, befriends a group of nationalist students from India. She is among a few hundred Americans, including Germans and Irish, who hope to humiliate England by helping India win freedom. Smedley joins the Friends of Freedom for India, a secretive organisation closely monitored by the US government. A schoolteacher with a working class background, Smedley helps hide the group's codes, contact information, and correspondence in her room.

1913: To keep alive the memory of 1857 Revolution against the British alive, a weekly called Gadar is launched at the Yugantar Ashram in several Indian languages. With the backing of so many radicals, the movement gets a name -- the Gadar Movement (movement of revolutionaries).

In the first issue of the weekly: 

What is our name?


What is our work?

Gadar. Our name and our work is the same. No need to fuss about it.

Where will this Gadar take place?

In India.


Very soon.

Why will it take place?

Because the people are fed up of British Rule's tyranny and are ready to die fighting for their freedom.

Under wanted ads it published:

'Wanted: brave young men/revolutionaries

Job: to launch gadar (revolution)

Pay: martyrdom

Reward: India's freedom.'

1914: The British put pressure on America to arrest and jail Har Dayal and declare him to be an anarchist and a terrorist. Har Dayal is arrested and released on bail on the condition he leaves America for Switzerland.

1914: When a ship named Komagata Maru is charted to sail from India to take its human cargo directly to Vancouver, it is forced to turn back without any of its passengers landing on July 23. The ship remains in the Vancouver harbor for nearly two months. None of the passengers meet the continuous passage requirement because the voyage of the Komagata Maru had begun in Hong Kong.

Baba Gurdit Singh, a Sikh activist and entrepreneur, had tried to get a ship out of Calcutta, according to Hugh Johnston, Simon University professor, but agents of the Indian government had prevented it.

Singh and the organising committee understood the legal situation, but they believed that they had a strong case and were confident they could succeed if they challenged the Canadian law in court. Most of the other passengers simply believed that they had a right to land in Canada.

Only 24 passengers were allowed to disembark and stay in Canada. And on July 23, 1914 the Komagata Maru returned to Hong Kong.

1914: When the Word War I breaks out, the Gadar-ites feel it is  a golden opportunity to throw the British out of India. Hundreds of radicals from America and Canada begin returning to India to declare a war on the British.

Many of them are arrested as soon as they set foot on Indian soil. Kartar Singh Sarabha and Vishnu Govind Pingle are among them. But the revolt is not formally declared because spies betray the revolutionaries. Many Gadar-ites are killed by the British.

Among those who were hanged were Kartar Singh Sarabha, 19, and Vishnu Govind Pingle, 23. A successful farmer in southern California, Hari Singh Usman joins the movement but the a small ship in which he is sailing to India, filled with arms, is captured near Java. He escapes the British and later becomes a well-known revolutionary against the Dutch in Indonesia. He also joins the Subhas Chandra Bose-led Indian National Army during World War II.

1918: While studying at the University of California, Agnes Smedley is arrested with Salindranath Ghose, a prominent Indian nationalist. She is charged with aiding and abetting espionage and is also indicted on charges of helping the Friends of Freedom for India establish themselves as a government-in-exile.

But escapes to Berlin to join her lover Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, who suddenly leaves for Moscow and is never heard of after that. She will write a few years later an autobiographical novel called Daughter of Earth in which many Indian nationalists, with their names disguised, play key roles.

Smedley eventually went to China to become a volunteer for the revolutionaries there. She wrote detailed, first hand report of the civil war for Associated Press and died in London because she did not want to return to America.

1919: Indian activists and their American supporters are dismayed to discover that President Woodrow Wilson's call for colonies to have self-determination did not include countries such as India. But the pro-India activists do not lose their morale.

1920s: As Mahatma Gandhi assumes the leadership of the freedom struggle in India, American groups like Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) start speaking out against British rule in India.

American civil disobedience historians point out that the concept of nonviolent resistance was not simply imported into America from India in the 1920s.  America has had a 'distinctive tradition of nonviolence' dating back to colonial times, and played a significant role in the early nonviolent resistance, Quakers point out.

Gandhi was influenced by American thinkers and activists, especially of the New England Non-Resistance Society. As early as 1838 the society practiced nonviolent action methods in the abolitionist movement. Gandhi also read Henry David Thoreau's classic On Civil Disobedience. It left a 'deep impression' on him  from which he published lengthy extracts in his journal, Indian Opinion.

1923: Inspired by Gandhi's ascendancy and the concomitant nonviolent resistance, the War Resisters League is established in New York. Its leaders too support the end of colonialism. One of the League's founder John Haynes Holmes, who helped lead the American Civil Liberties Union and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, called Gandhi 'the greatest man since Jesus Christ.'

Holmes constantly referred to Gandhi in his sermons and in his many articles and was one of the first to popularise the concept of nonviolence as a practical alternative to war. According to civil rights scholar David Cortright, black Americans look up to Gandhi in significant numbers. The Chicago Defender, one of the largest and most influential black newspapers in the United States, calls Gandhi the 'greatest man in the world today.'

The Chicago Defender asks, in a 1932 editorial, 'Will a Gandhi Arise?' and notes that 'what we need in America is a Gandhi who will fight for the cause of the oppressed in this country.'

Gandhi's ideas also make an important impression on Reinhold Niebuhr, the most influential American theologian of the 20th century. In his books -- Moral Man and Immoral Society -- Niebuhr emphasizes the reality of evil in society and challenges pacifism and traditional nonviolence as inadequate responses to oppression, Cortright notes. Niebuhr calls Gandhi 'the greatest modern exponent of nonviolence.'

1926: An American tourist, Katherine Mayo, who spends a few months in India publishes Mother India, a myopic look at  Indian society. The book is condemned by many in India, including Gandhi. The supporters of legislations to bar Indians and many other non-white nationalities into becoming American citizens are delighted by the book.

1928: Dhan Gopal Mukherjee, one of the most successful of American authors writing for children, publishes a blistering response to Mayo, called A Son of Mother India Answers. Mukherjee is one of the few Indians who had become an American citizen despite the restrictions because he was married to a white woman. Some people also became American citizens during the period when courts were not sure whether Indisns were to be considered to be Caucasians or black.

1938: Several successful businessmen and a handful of Indian student groups join New York businessman Jagjit Singh in establishing the India League of America. Mubarak Ali Khan, a prosperous Arizona farmer, has already founded the Indian Welfare League in 1937. Indians continue lobbying for citizenship rights.

Early 1940s: President Franklin Roosevelt suggests dominion status for India but Tory British Prime Minister Winston Churchill rejects the idea. Thousands of American troops are stationed in India during World War II. There is resentment against American troops in India because of America's hypocritical policy which supports British colonial rule.

Jagjit Singh arranges for Congresswoman Claire Booth Luce to visit India, convinced that the former journalist and editor of Vanity Fair magazine would influence Time magazine to write in support of Indian independence.

Luce, a Republican, is the wife of the media mogul and Time magazine founder Henry Luce. She and Democrat Emmanuel Celler introduce bills to lift restrictions on Indian immigration. Meanwhile, a denaturalization process in California has stripped many Indians of land they legally owned.

The Gadar movement, already weakened by the departure of many of its activists to India to directly fight the British rule, is further weakened. Many Indians, married to Mexican women, transfer their land to their children.

1945: The Committee on Immigration and Naturalization does not act until President Roosevelt sent William Phillips, his personal representative who had visited India, to testify for the bill. The House passes the bill in October 1945, but Southern Democrats and Midwestern Republicans block it in the Senate.

1946: The Luce-Celler bill, allowing Indian naturalization and immigration with many restrictions, is passed.

Image: Dominic Xavier

Also Read: Across a chasm of seventy five years, the eyes of these dead men speak to today's Indian American

Remember Jallianwallah Bagh!

The Rediff Specials

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Number of User Comments: 3

Sub: Article Editing

This article when i read on August 15th had described about Sardar Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru i liked this article a lot but when ...

Posted by Shreyash

Sub: firstly...

...i like to acknowledge your effort in highlighting the effort of the ghadar party. But you have spoiled your piece with the usual nonsense about ...

Posted by ramesh

Sub: Let us not forget them who also fought for Indian Frrdom

There is a convient thinking that only those under the leadership of Mr. Gandhi fought for and got India free. This artical very much contrbute ...

Posted by Dr. V. P. Joshi


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