The Ghadr Rebellion

by Khushwant Singh

Pioneer Asian Indian
Immigration to the Pacific Coast


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The Ghadr Rebellion by Khushwant Singh. Printed in Illustrated Weekly of India
Feb 26, 1961. Pp 34-35; March 5, 1961 P. 45; March 12, 1961 P.41

In the early months of World War I, an ambitious attempt to free their country was made by Indians living overseas - particulary in the United States and Canada. Although the overwhelming majority of the Ghadarites were Sikh and the centres of revolutionart activity were the Sikh temples in Canada, the United States, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore, many of the leaders were of other parties and from different parts of India - Har Dyal, Rash Bihari Bose, Barakatullah, Seth Husain Rahim, Tarak Nath Das and Vishnu Ganesh Pingley. A few of these Gadarites are alive today: Sohan Singh Bhakna and Bhagwan Singh in the Punjab; Gobind Bihari Lal in Los Angeles; others in different parts of the world, living in obscurity. The Ghadr was the first organised violent bid for freedom after the rising of 1857. Many hundreds paid the price with their lives.

The story began in the year 1897 in London when a unit of Sikh soldiers took part in the parade to celebrate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. The English people had heard a great deal about the Sikhs, but this was the first time that they was the enormous bearded and beturbaned warriors, their breasts aglitter with medals won in the service of the Empire, march through their streets. The Sikhs stole the show. Their subsequent journey homewards as across the Atlantic and the Pacific so that they could see some of the other countries of the Empire. One of these was Canada--larger than India and very sparsely populated.

A few years later, some of these men retired from the army and, finding their pensions inadequate and their lands in the clutches of money- lenders, decided to try their fortunes in the countries they had visited. They joined their kinsmen in Burma, Malay, the East Indies, the Philippines and China. Jobs were not hard to find. They were taken in the police force or were employed as night-watchmen by British firms. Some started small businesses of their own or plied taxis. These occupations gave them a modest income but their minds were on bigger things. At that time the Chinese and Japanese were going to Canada and the United States in their thousands and sending handsome remittances to their families at home. The Sikhs, who had seen Canada, exhorted their younger kinsmen to stake their earnings and go to the New World. Agents of big Canadian combines like the Canadian-Pacific Railway and the Hudson Bay Company guaranteed them employment. At first, the young men were reluctant to go to these countries because treatment of Orientals by the white population. They were however assured that this would not happen to them. They were British subjects; Canada was a part of the British Empire; and the British Empire owed much to the Sikhs. And had not Queen Victoria, in her famous proclamation of 1858, given a solemn pledge to the people of India that they would enjoy "equal privileges with white people without discrimination of colour, creed or race"?

In 1904, a few ventured across the Pacific and landed in British Columbia. They got jobs immediately. And, although their wages were lower than those paid to white workers, they were able to save enough to send money to their relatives at home and encourage others to follow them. Three years later over two thousand came over; by 1908 there were a little more than 5,000 of them, mostly Sikhs form the districts of Jullundur, Hoshiarpur, Ludhiana and Amritsar. They built five temples in and around Vancouver and Victoria where they worked on the timber mills and laid tracks for the Canadian-Pacific Railway.

Then the Canadian Government slammed the door in their face. Canada was to be a white man's country and the fact that the Indians were loyal British subjects with records of military service was not going to make any difference. Permission was refused to wives and children to join the men. Then attempts were made to expel the immigrants from Canada. Indian immigration, which had touched the figure of 2,623 in 1908, dropped to a mere six in 1909. This was achieved by the Canadian Government by a series of Orders-in-Council imposing conditions of immigrants, one of which was aimed solely at Indians. It prohibited the entry of people who came "otherwise than by continuous journey from the country of which they are natives or citizens, and upon through tickets purchased in that country". India had no ships and shipping companies were forbidden to sell tickets to Indians wanting to go to Canada.

Indians then turned to America. In the next couple of years over 2,000 were able to get in to the States of Washington and California. Then the Americans, too, proclaimed: "No more Indians." Both in Canada and the United States there were race riots in which stray groups of Indian workers were beaten up by white hoodlums. The police took no notice of the complaints.

The Indian settlers petitioned to the King, to the Canadian Prime Minister, to the American President and to the Viceroy of India. There were mass meetings all over India to protest against the treatment of their countrymen settled abroad. None of these were of any avail. The beatings went on and discriminatory laws continued to operate. When the cup of sorrow was full to the brim, came the infamous episode of the Komagata Maru.

In April, 1914, Gurdit Singh of Sarhali, a prosperous contractor in Singapore, chartered a Japanese ship, the Komagata Maru, to take over a party of Indians to Canada. The charter was to get round the "Continuous Voyage" clause. The ship sailed from Hong Kong and, after collecting other passengers at Shanghai, Kobe and Yokohama, arrived at Vancouver with 376 Indians aboard. The Canadian Immigration authorities put a cordon round the ship and refused all but 22 passengers who were returning to Canada permission to land.

The Indians on the ship and in the British Columbia appealed to the courts and to the people of Canada for justice. But they were told in no uncertain terms that Canada would not allow any more Indians.

The ship ran short of food; but no provisions or fresh water were allowed to be brought. Shipowners clamoured for money, but the cargo that Gurdit Singh had brought to sell in Canada was, like his passengers, refused an import permit. Then the Immigration Department sent a party of 150 armed police to board the ship to seize it by force. For the first time the Indians met with force. They picked up driftwood for the sea and threw the policemen back into the tug in which they had come. A week later the Government sent for an armed cruiser, The Rainbow, and sent word to Gurdit Singh that, if the Komagata Maru did not leave peacefully, she would be blown up.

After two months of Canadian "hospitality", the Komagata Maru turned its face homewards to India. Its passengers were a bitter and disillusioned band. A reporter asked Gurdit Singh: "Towards whom do you feel most unfriendly as a result of being forced to return to your own land?"

"We had no cause to complain of the attitude and treatment accorded to us by the Canadian people,' replied Gurdit Singh acidly. "But we are most unfriendly towards our own Government in not being strong enough to see that Hindus as British subjects are allowed to go to any place within the Empire."

The Komagata Maru's travails did not end at Vancouver. Whenever it touched a British port, it was searched by the police and none of its passengers were allowed to disembark. The climax came when it docked at Budge Budge harbour near Calcutta. War had broken out and the Government had armed itself with strong discretionary powers. The passengers were ordered to board trains which would take them to the Punjab. Most of them refused to be ordered about in this manner and protested that they had sold their land and homes in Punjab and would rather seek employment in Calcutta. The argument resulted in a fracas. The police opened fire, killing many passengers and innocent passers-by. In the melee, two British police officers were shot by Gurdit Singh's Band.

On January 11, 1915, at 8 a.m., Mewa Singh went to the gallows cheerfully, chanting hymns. The last man to see him was the priest of the Vancouver Gurdwara. This is the message Mewa Singh gave to the world before leaving it:

My religion does not teach me to bear enmity with anybody, no matter what class, creed or order he belongs to, nor had I any enmity with Hopkinson. I heard that he was oppressing my poor people very much. I made friendship with him through his best Hindu friend to find out the truth of what I heard. On finding out the fact I, being a staunch Sikh, could no longer bear to see the wrong done both to my innocent countrymen and the Dominion of Canada. This is what led me to take Hopkinson's life and sacrifice my own life in order to lay bare the oppression exercised upon my innocent people through his influence in the eyes of the whole world. And I, performing the duty of a true Sikh and remembering the name of God, will proceed towards the scaffold with the same amount of pleasure as the hungry bebe does towards its mother. I shall gladly have the rope put around my neck thinking it to be a rosary of God's name. I am quite sure that God will take me into his blissful arms because I have not done this deed for my personal interest but to the benefit of both my people and the Canadian government. (San Francisco Chronicle, January 12, 1915)

In the first issue of the Ghadr, dated Novemver 1, 1913, published from San Francisco, Hardayal wrote: "Today there begins in foreign lands, but in our country's tongue, a war against the British Raj... What is our name? Mutiny. What is our work? Mutiny. Where will mutiny break out? In India. The time will soon come when rifles and blood will take the place of pens and ink."

It was only after a year that the miniature war against the British Raj in India was launched from the coasts of North America. In the meantime many things happened. The disgraceful episode of the Komagata Maru angered the Indian emigrants so much that thousands abandoned their jobs, sold their lands and businesses and volunteered to go to India to fight for freedom. But they had no leaders. Hardayal had fled to Europe for fear he might be handed over to the British. Sohan Singh Bhakna, who had joined the Komagata Maru, was in British hands. Rash Bihari Bose, Barkatullah and the fiery orator Bhai Bhagwan Singh were trying to rouse their countrymen, operating from different parts of the world. In their absence the leadership went to one Ram Chandra of Pershawar who did not measure up to the task.

When war broke out in August, 1914, it found the Ghadrites eager but far from ready for the fray. When Canada also declared war against Germany, the Party had to carry out its operations from neutral territory. The focus of activity shifted from Vancouver to San Francisco. Then the Germans also apperaed on the scene. If the Ghadrites could foment a major rising in India, it would weaken British resistance in Europe. So the Germans began to pour large sums of money into the Ghadr Party.

The tone of the Ghadr had always been militant. One of its most popular contributors was a rustic poet called Harnam Singh, who later came to be known by the pseudonym "Tundilat"--the one-armed-lord (one of his arms had been blown off by a bomb of his own manufacture). "Tundilat's" poems were published in a collection called Ghadr di Goonj (The Echoes of Rebellion). Here is a sample of what he wrote:

No pundits or mullahs do we need, No prayer or litanies recite. These will only scuttle our boat; Draw the sword, it's time to fight! Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs though we be Sons of Bharat are we still. Postpone your prayers to another time; The call of the hour is to kill!

Fifteen days after the outbreak of the war, 61 Ghadrites, under the leadership of Jwala Singh, boarded the ship Korea at San Francisco bound for the Chinese coast. Ram Chandra spoke to the group before the ship sailed. He said: "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 for you on arrival in India. Failing this you must loot rifles from the police station."

The Korea took the Ghadrites to Shanghai. From Shanghai they went to Canton where another hundred joined them among them several spies planted by British intelligence. The party came to Calcutta by a Japanese steamer. Jwala Singh and many others were promptly arrested. Those that got away forgathered as planned in a samll village in the Punjab some weeks later. They were only a handful and not one had any arms. They decided to disband and return to their village.

The first round had been an utter flop. The Germans were as disappointed as the Ghadrites. The liaison between the two was strengthened and the Ghadrites tried to organise themselves better. Ram Chandra continued to handle the money given by the Germans. Santokh Singh reorganised the emigrants of the Pacific coast. Tarak Nath Das prepared and circulated a manual on bomb-making.

In the spring of 1915, plans for a second round had matured. Two ships were taken on charter. The Annie Larsen was loaded with arms and ammunition. The Maverick carried Ghadr propaganda material and had five members of the party on board. The two ships were due to meet at an appointed place where the Maverick was to take over the arms and ammunition and proceed to India.

The Annie Larsen sailed as scheduled and reached the island of Socorro in the Pacific and waited for the Maverick, which, however, for reasons unknown, did not leave in time. Meanwhile the Annie Larsen ran out fo fresh water and, being unable to procure any in the island and having waited 45 days for the other ship, returned to American waters and was immediately seized by the U.S. navy because of the arms she was carrying. The Maverick arrived at the rendezvous some days after she had left. She waited for many days (during which she was searched by a British warship), and then sailed aimlessly towards the West. She was last heard of in Batavia and then vanished. She was presumed to have been lost in a typhoon. There is still no answer to the question: Why was the Maverick 45 days late for her rendezvous with the Annie Larsen?

The second round was a worse flop than the first.

Ram Chandra had promised the men arms. But he had also said, "Failing this, you must loot rifles from the police stations...rob the wealthy and show mercy to the poor," In the six months that the war had been on, some hundreds of the thousands who had left Canada, the United States, China, Malaya and Burma had wriggled through the gauntlet of British intelligence and the Indian police and got to Norhtern India. The Third and the only one in which the Ghadrites scored some points was fought by these men.

Small bands of revolutionaries roamed the Punjab countryside, preaching rebellion to peasants to whom loyalty to the British was an article of faith. Some infiltrated into military cantonments at Ferozepur, Lahore, Ambala, Benares and other places and sounded the troops. These things could not remain a secret for too long. The Army authorities kept the troops on the move from one place to another; the police planted more spies among the Ghadrites.

The operation to acquire money and arms was not very successful. Several money-lenders were robbed, and, in the act, some were killed. A few police stations were raided and a handful of pistols and rifles acquired. But these were not enough and in the process quite a few of the Ghadrites lost their lives or were apprehended. The police were on the alert and had full information of their personnel and plans.

The Ghadrites had pinned their hopes on a rising in the army. Barkatullah had contacts with Pathan troops on the Frontier; Sanyal with the Rajputs stationed in Benares; and Vishnu Ganesh Pingley with the units at Meerut. The first shot was to be fired by the Sikh regiment posted at Lahore. Rash Bihari Bose, who was in over-all command of this aspect of the mutiny, moved franitcally from one cantonment to another, arranging the details and fixing the date and hour of the revolt. Finally, the night of February 21, 1915, was chosen when the Indian soldiers would rise as one man and overpower the English units.

British intelligence got knowledge of this plan. On the 19th, the mutinous elements were quickly disarmed and removed from the cantonments. The disaffected troops were hurriedly transferred to other stations and the link between the Ghadrites was effectively snapped.

Not a shot was fired on the night of February 21, 1915. But many were fired later to execute soldiers who had pledged to join the mutiny. That was the end of the Ghadr rebellion.

In cold statistics the Ghadr did not amount to very much. It was as if a hunter's gun had gone off before the tiger was within range and the tiger had turned on the shikari. The Government took a very serious view of the Ghadr Party. The Rowlatt Committee Report admitted that the early months of the year 1915 were one of great anxiety for the Government of India--this was also the view of Sir Michael O'Dwyer, who was then Governor of the Punjab. The judge who tried on batch of the conspirators wrote: "Had not these crimes been checked by prompt and successful action on the part of the Government, the police and district officials, a state of affairs would have supervened similar to that of Hindustan in the Mutiny of 1857--paralysis of authority, widespread terrorism, mutiny of troops, wholesale robbery and murder not only of the officers of Government, but of loyal and well-disposed subjects."

"Three may keep a secret," wrote Benjamin Franklin, "if two of them are dead." The "secrets" of the Ghadr conspiracy were shared literally by many hundreds; consequently they became public property and eventually the cause of the party's destruction. In addition to loose-tongued patriots (of which variety there were many), there were others, men of straw, who succumbed to the third degree methods of the Punjab police or turned approvers to save their own skin. And there was yet another despicable category of men who misappropriated the money donated by the people and given by the German Government.

The Government of India was armed with powers to dispense with the ordinary procedures of justice. It constituted tribunals to try the conspirators. There was no appeal from the findings of these bodies. The government was represented by the ablest of counsel; the accused by nondescript lawyers who were more keen on publicity for themselves than no fighting for the revolutionaries. And, above all, Englishmen formed a majority in the tribunals and even the few Indians associated were stooges eager to prove their loyalty to the British.

In the First Lahore Conspiracy Case, of the 64 accused put up for trial, 24 were sentenced to death, 27 to transprtation for life and six to varying terms of imprisonment. Amongst those who went to the gallows were Kartar Singh Saraba and Vishnu Ganesh Pingley. The sentences imposed on men like Sohan Singh Bhakna, Bhai Parmanand and Prithi Singh were commuted by the Viceroy. In the first supplementary case in which 24 conspirators were tried, another six were sentenced to hang and 45 condemned to life imprisonment. In the second supplementary trial, another six were sentenced to death and five banished to the andamans. Trials were held at Benares, Mandi and in Mandalay. The most dramatic trial, however, was the one at San Francisco, the home of the Ghadr Rebellion.

On April 7, 1917, the United States had declared war on Germany. Its first act was to arrest those who had violated its neutrality in the preceding years. In November, 1917, 17 Indians and 16 Germans were arraigned before Mr. Justice Van Fleet at San Francisco and charged under Section 37 of the Federal Penal Code. The Germans were members of their country's consular corps who had passed money to the Indians. The Indians were members of the Ghadr Party and included men like Bhai Bhagwan Singh, Ram Chandra, Tarak Nath Das, Sontokh Singh, Imam Din and Govind Bihari Lal. The trial lasted six months and made headline news in the newspapers of the world.

It opened on a dramatic note. The chief Crown witness was one Jodh Singh who had been put through many months of third degree by the British police at Singapore. He refused point-blank to testify and shouted defiantly, "I will die with my own countrymen!" The Indian accused rose from their seats and acclaimed him with cries of "Bande Mataram!" and "Brother, we salute you!" The judge had to summon the marshal to restore order in the court. Charges were now framed against Jodh Singh also. The San Francisco Chronicle reported the incident in the following words: "Jodh Singh burned his hope of freedom, cast aside his fear of death for treason before a British rifle squad and refused to connect others with the international plot to foment revolution in India."

Jodh Singh's action was not followed by other approvers; nor did it change the attitude of the prosecutor or the court which was seriously prejudiced by the news of the German onslaughts in European battlefields. There were many occasions when the Indians cried, "Give us justice--this is a farce!" Once, when Ram Chandra was roughly handled by the marshal, he shouted to the judge that this was "worse than proceedings in India... we are helpless in the midst of a historical trial".

The trial nevertheless proceeded with several Germans and Indians confessing their part in the conspiracy. The story of the their part in the conspiracy. The story of the chartering of the Annie Larsen and the Maverick and the purchase of arms was unfolded by one confessor after another. For the first time many of the Indian accused heard of the extent of German participation in their fight for freedom; of foreign Minister Zimmerman's instructions to the German Ambassador in Washington; of the contacts between German consulates in San Francisco and Japan with some of the Indian revolutionaries; of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that the Germans had handed over to the Indians in the name of the Ghadr Party.

Where had all the money gone? The answer was partly provided by Dr. C. K. Chakravarty who had become the chief liaison between the Germans and the Ghadr Party some months before he was arrested. On one occasion he had been given 60,000 dollars. The next day he bought two apartments for himself in New York. He continued to feed his German paymasters with imaginary stories of the revolution round the corner. In the sixteen minutes he took to testify, he damned everyone he could.

As he sat down, Bopp, the German Consul-General, asked him bitterly: "You say you were inspired by patriotism?"

"Dr. Chakravarty: "Yes."

Bopp: "Patriotism and 60,000 dollars."

Dr. Chakravarty only accounted for a part of the money; bigger sums still remained to be accounted for. As the trail proceeded, the Indians broke up into factions accusing one another of pocketing the money. The majority was led by Bhai Bhagwan Singh and Santokh Singh. They demanded full accounts from Ram Chandra. Ram Chandra retaliated by expelling them from the Ghadr Party. As the trail drew to its conclusion, the Indians were almost at war amongst themselves. The hearing lasted 155 days in which over 100 witnesses from all parts of the world were examined. The case cost the U. S. and British Governments over three million dollars.

The grand finale took place on April 23, 1918. The prosecution and the defence had concluded their arguments. It was nearing noon time and the judge adjourned the hearing till after lunch when he was to sum up the case and present it to the Federal Grand Jury for its verdict.

The judge had left the court room. The crowd was trooping out. Counsel were putting away their briefs. Ram Chandra was talking to his lawyer. The other accused were in a huddle, discussing the way things were going. Suddenly, unnoticed by anyone else, one of the accused, Ram Singh, of village Dhaneta, walked up to Ram Chandra, pulled out a revolver from his pocket and fired five shots in rapid succession. Ram Chandra crumpled by the witness box. There was pandemonium in the court room, with people stampeding and lawyers ducking under the tables. From behind one of the chairs, the marshal fo the court took careful aim at the trigger-happy Ram Singh's neck and killed him instantly.

The jury found all the Indians, accused, guilty under the Neutrality Act and they were given varying terms of imprisonment with fines. But neither the judge nor the jury were concerned with Ram Singh's motive for killing Ram Chandra. Mr. J. E. Boyden, correspondent of The San Francisco Chronicle, who was president when the incident occurred and had made investigations, reported next day: "... the motive for Singh's deed is clear according to the Hindus of the Bhagwan Singh faction. Ram Singh formerly owned hundreds of acres of land in Canada and was accounted as a rich man. He had given thousands of dollars to the Hindu cause--thousands of dollars which were turned over to Ram Chandra. In private conversation, the Bhagwan Singh faction freely called Ram Chandra a grafter and pointed to the many thousands of dollars given to the cause by Ram Singh. Most of this money, according to the Hindus, was 'retained' by Ram Chandra for his personal uses."

Two factors throw doubt on this theory of the murder. First, Ram Chandra had a very good record in the freedom movement before he joined the Ghadr Party and even during the time he was in control of the movement. Though people complained about his autocratic manner, no one questioned his integrity. And, secondly, if he ever did "retain" any money, it was not for personal use because he left his wife and three daughters destitute.

It is best to conclude that the motive for the murder died with the assassin.