In Punjab, the Legacy of the Ghadar Movement Continues to Inspire the Fight for Justice

The 28th edition of the mela commemorated the centennial year of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre but the repression of people in Kashmir was also a prominent theme in many of the talks and cultural programmes.

Jalandhar: Every year at the beginning of November, progressive writers, thinkers and activists  – young and old – come together at the ‘Mela Ghadari Babian Da’ in this Punjab city to pay homage to the revolutionaries who had laid down their lives as part of the Ghadar movement during India’s struggle for freedom.

Desh Bhagat Yadgar Hall. Photo: Pawanjot Kaur

This year, the 28th ‘Mela Ghadari Babian Da’ commemmorated the centennial year of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre as well. The three-day event began with the release of the Punjabi translation of Arundhati Roy’s latest novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by author and journalist Daljit Ami.

Members of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) addressed the gathering after Roy spoke on her book. The NFIW also released a fact-finding report from Kashmir on state brutality against minors.

Inevitably then, the mood of the three-day-long event was set. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre followed by illegal detentions by the British in Punjab were seen as a parallel to the crackdown unleashed on ordinary Kashmiris after the region’s special status was revoked this August.

Also read: Excerpt | The Man Who Told the World of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre

Every year, a musical, called ‘Ghadar da geet‘ or ‘A song of ghadar’ is presented at the festival.

The musical this year highlighted the situation in Kashmir. Young boys and girls covered their eyes with cotton patches to show the pain of pellet survivors. Posters of incarcerated human-rights activists like Sudha Bharadwaj were raised along with posters of free-thinkers like Gauri Lankesh and Narendra Dabholkar, who were murdered by Hindutva activists. A scene on mob-lynchings was presented too.

Photo: Pawanjot Kaur

The musical represented the evils that plague modern Indian society and highlighted a prominent one – communalism.

Ghadar movement

Ghadar’ – also written as ‘Ghadr’ in English – is an Urdu word for rebellion and the Mela Ghadari Babian Da gets its name from the Ghadar party, formed in 1913, by early Indian immigrants settled in North America. Their motive was to wage a nationwide armed struggle against British colonialism in India.

Most members of the Ghadar party came from the peasantry who first began migrating from Punjab to cities in Asia like Hong Kong, Manila and Singapore at the dawn of the 20th century. Later, with the rise in the lumber industry in Canada and the US, many moved to North America, where they thrived – but also became victims of institutionalised racism.

In 1907, Asian immigrants coming to Canada were allowed in only if they had $200 with them. The racism against Indians – who had the right to enter Canada as subjects of the British Empire – was so pronounced that Canadian authorities eventually passed a ‘Continuous Journey Provision’, under which only those ships were permitted to Canada which arrived from their point of origin through a direct route. Since there were no direct ship routes between India and Canada at the time, it was assumed that this rule would put an end to Indians arriving at Canada’s shores.

Also read: ‘Kashmiris Should Be Given Freedom to Take Their Own Decisions’: Punjab Farmers

Incessant discrimination against Indians took place, not just in Canada, but also in the US. The loss of dignity in such a manner seeded the idea of freedom and nationalism in the imaginations of working-class men and women settled in North America. They mobilised themselves against the whites. But when they started, they did so with very little or no knowledge of the English language until Lala Hardyal, a former professor of Indian Philosophy at Stanford, at the time, learnt about this.

The pioneers

After almost a decade-long fight against racism in Canada and in the US, Sohan Singh Bakhna and Pandit Kanshi Ram met Lala Hardyal in 1913 and formed the Ghadar Party – a party that hoped to liberate Indians. They wanted justice but also vengeance.

The Pioneers. Photo: Ghadarmemorial.net

Together, Lala Hardyal, Pandit Kanshi Ram and Sohan Singh Bakhna, along with young rebels like Kartar Singh Saraba, based themselves in San Francisco, at 436 Hill Street, called it the Yugantar Ashram and set up a printing press to publish vernacular newspapers in Punjabi and Urdu. It was a party of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Parsis. A truly multicultural organisation that represented the nation of Indian people fighting for freedom before anything else.

A photo of the Hindustan Ghadar Party Headquarters displayed at the Desh Bhagat Yadgar Hall, Jalandhar. Photo: Pawanjot Kaur

Hindustan Ghadar was the name given to the newspaper and a weekly compilation of poetry and songs called Ghadar ki Goonj was published too.

With this, the news of a newly-born revolutionary party spread like wildfire. An advertisement with the following lines was carried in the inaugural issue of the newspaper:

Wanted: Brave soldiers to stir up revolution in India
Pay: Death
Prize: Martyrdom
Pension: Liberty
Field of Battle: India

Hindustan Ghadar published profiles of martyrs, anthologies of rebel leaders, the 1857 rebellion and informed the Indian diaspora about their rights and the need for equality and justice. The party grew to about a thousand members within a few months and recruitment continued.

Revolution begins

With a successful printing press, Lala Hardyal and others managed to mobilise thousands of Indians abroad. Once the Ghadar Party had recruited enough young rebels, they decided to set sail to India.

Ghadar leaders decided to take advantage of Britain’s weak standing during World War I. Armed with money and weapons, and with the help of  German agents operating in America at the time, Ghadar leaders left for India in batches.

The British had already learnt about these developments and had started laying down precautions for a ‘mutiny’. An ‘Ingress Into India Ordinance’ was passed, under which strict restrictions were imposed on all immigrants returning to India. All ships coming to Indian ports were thoroughly inspected and a large number of people were hunted down. This was the beginning of the many challenges the Ghadar Party faced.

Failure of the revolution

Even before setting foot on Indian soil, a large number of Ghadar leaders were arrested as they were imprisoned after they disembarked.

Some, who evaded arrest – Kartar Singh Saraba, Pandit Kanshi Ram and G. Pingale among others– gathered in Punjab to carry out the revolution. At the time, Micheal O’ Dwyer was the lieutenant-general of Punjab.

Also read: How a Gandhi-Led Movement Against Bhagat Singh’s Death Sentence Could Have Changed India’s History

In Punjab, Ghadar leaders adopted different strategies. The British targeted them as dacoits and they were not welcomed by the native Punjabi population too. A section of the  Sikhs in Punjab branded the Ghadar leaders as apostates. At the time, Sikhs were the most loyal men in the British Army and had benefited enough from these jobs.

This loyalty towards the British by their country-men was unacceptable to the Ghadar leaders. Winning over native Punjabis became imperative for the revolution.

One of the many strategies adopted by them to carry out operations within India was to bring Indian soldiers of the British Army on their side. They did this by crossing cantonments and clandestinely speaking to well-trained soldiers in the lines. The 19-year-old Kartar Singh Saraba was the most active in this operation.

Kartar Singh Saraba. Photo: CPI(ML) website

Men from various regiments in Rawalpindi, Jhelum and Peshawar agreed to revolt and bombings on Mianmir and Ferozepur cantonments were carried out subsequently. Yet, the lack of discretion in carrying out bombings in Punjab and wide rejection by native Punjabi population were constant challenges that Ghadar members faced.

The mass unrest that the bombings caused made the British-Indian government, especially Micheal O’Dwyer, launch an aggressive crackdown against them. O’Dwyer ordered the imprisonment of every Ghadar member – legally or illegally.

A new law to contain the revolution was introduced – the Defence of India Act of 1915 – under which all ‘revolutionary and nationalist’ activities were banned. People were incarcerated without trial and sent to indefinite detentions in jails built in the middle of nowhere. Fearing this, Rash Behari Bose, who was at the time given the reins of the Ghadar movement, escaped to Japan, leaving the party with no leadership.

Lala Hardyal (L) and Pandit Kanshi Ram (R). Photo: Pawanjot Kaur

The Ghadar movement ‘inspired to transpose egalitarian values of American culture in the social framework of colonial India’, notes political scientist Harish Puri who has written widely on the Ghadar movement.

Most Indians believed the commonly peddled narrative about Ghadar leaders being dacoits and apostates. So there was a lack of acceptance for this revolution in the first place. Secondly, the movement also lacked centralised leadership.

Scholars have noted that the Ghadar leaders’ ideology was a ‘departure from Marxism’, where one party guides the revolution. Instead, people like Lala Hardyal were inspired by Russian anarchists and their belief in spontaneous acts of bravery.

Also read: Sufi Amba Prasad, India’s Forgotten Freedom Fighter

These spontaneous acts of bravery, however, were not enough to overthrow the British Raj in India. The British took all of this as a nuisance, especially since a majority of native Indians were still on their side.  Ghadar leaders were not negotiating with the British like Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak or Dadabhai Naoroji for Swaraj (self-rule) but for complete freedom.

The legacy of Ghadar

Ghadar Party of 1913 failed to achieve its motives. It was not a successful armed rebellion for more reasons than one. But the movement became a milestone in Punjab’s history of the struggle for freedom. Ghadar leaders and their ‘spontaneous acts of bravery’ became a part of Punjab’s folklore and continue to be so even today.

The rebellion – successful or not– set into motion various important events that marked India’s struggle against the British. The Pagdi Sambhal Jatta movement, led by Ajit Singh was one such event. Ajit Singh was closely associated with the Ghadar Party. In 1907, his fight for the rights of peasants in Lyallpur was an outright revolt against exploitative taxation policies of the British.

The Ghadar movement had a strong impression on Bhagat Singh as well. It is a widely known fact that Kartar Singh Saraba, the youngest member of the Ghadar party – who was 19 when he carried out bombings inside army cantonments – had been one of the most inspiring figures for Bhagat Singh, Ajit Singh’s nephew. It is also said that Bhagat Singh carried a photo of Kartar Singh Saraba in his front pocket at all times.

The Rowlatt Act and the massacre that followed at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919 had a strong bearing of the Ghadar movement too. After the provisions of the Defence of India Act expired, the British feared the mushrooming of nationalist revolutionary organisations once again. This fear was the precursor for enabling the Rowlatt Act as a legislation. “They didn’t want Ghadar to happen once again,” said Parminder Singh, a retired professor of English literature and general secretary of the Ghadar committee in Amritsar who was present at the festival.

Photo: Pawanjot Kaur

Two boys from Haryana in their 20s told The Wire that they attend the festival every year because Bhagat Singh inspires them. So “we identify with the Ghadaris too,” they said.  “The present government doesn’t care about youth unemployment or about farmer distress. We are fighting for our rights like this country’s great martyrs did.”

Women in Ghadar

Not much has been written about the role of women in the Ghadar movement. A huge photo gallery of martyrs at the Desh Bhagat Yadgar Hall  in Jalandhar has photos of women rebels. The Wire spoke to Gurmeet Singh, General Secretary of the Desh Bhagat Yadgar Committee, who had also curated the photo gallery. Singh said that Bibi Gulab Kaur, Mata Jass Kaur, Madam Cama, Durga Bhabhi were prominent women members of the Ghadar movement among others.

Gulab Kaur. Photo: Sikhchic.net

Bibi Gulab Kaur’s role was key to the distribution of  arms and Ghadar literature. She posed as a journalist with a fake press card to carry out operations of the party and was also at the forefront of recruiting members through her fiery speeches. In his book, Ghadar Di Dhee or The Daughter of Ghadar, Kesar Singh documents Gulab Kaur’s life. He notes how Gulab Kaur was inspired by the lectures of Ghadar Party members in Manila, which led her to join the movement.

Kaur was married to Mann Singh, who refused to take part in the revolution when they were in Manila. Nonetheless, Kaur went ahead with her mission and boarded the ship to India with fifty other Ghadar leaders. She was ultimately sentenced to prison and tortured for seditious activities. She died in 1931.

The annual festival in Jalandhar is not limited to celebrating the Ghadar movement alone. It celebrates the idea of revolution.

“The two reasons why we must always remember the Ghadar movement are this. First, they stood for a kind of a future which must be the future of a working-class and second, they stood for secularism. They were out and out secular people. They never tried to follow any kind of religious ideas,” Parminder Singh told The Wire in a video interview.

At a time when India is witnessing the peak of right-wing politics, Mela Ghadari Babian Da stands out. It is a space where people can openly speak about the need for secularism, the need for action against human rights violations and the need for rights of working class in India.

Poster seeking justice for Tabrez Ansari. Photo: Pawanjot Kaur

Indefinite detentions and illegal incarceration of revolutionaries by the British under the Defence of India Act, and subsequently under the Rowlatt Act, resonates with the detentions of dozens of Kashmiris today. The tyranny of laws that impinged on basic human dignity under the British stands in parallel to the violation of human rights in Kashmir.

Also read: A Popular Annual Mela in Jalandhar Celebrates Resistance and Diversity

Mela Ghadari Babian Da is held annually at the Desh Bhagat Yadgar Hall, constructed in 1959 by a Ghadar veteran, Amar Singh Sandhwan. The festival and the hall is run and managed by the Desh Bhagat Yadgar Committee. This committee was set up before partition by Ghadar leaders themselves. At the time, it was called the Desh Bhagat Parivar Sahayak Committee. Their aim was to spread the message of Ghadar, identify and help the families of Ghadar leaders who were left behind after their imprisonment.

Comrade Surinder Singh. Photo: Pawanjot Kaur

Comrade Surinder Singh, a third-generation Ghadari, is one such trustee of the Desh Bhagat Yadgar Hall. Speaking to The Wire, he said that his grandfather joined the Ghadar Party from Panama and arrived in India around 1934. Within a year, he was arrested in Amritsar and jailed. But later Singh’s father, and later, he himself and now even his son – the fourth generation – spread the message of Ghadar and live by the principles of secularism, equality and liberalism.

While chatting with comrades at the Mela, one of them said that the Ghadar leher or the Ghadar wave is never spoken about in mainstream culture, yet it teaches the most relevant ideas to live by in the current political climate of India.

“Our [Ghadar leaders’] struggles have not been highlighted in the history of India’s struggle for freedom. Whatever Ghadar leaders documented about themselves was not circulated enough. The British tried hard that nothing about the Ghadar leaders gets documented. Later, the Indian National Congress did not want our stories to be told either. For them, Gandhiji’s struggle for freedom was vital and Nehruji was a prominent revolutionary”, 78-year-old comrade Surinder Kaur said.

“The legacy of the Ghadar movement has been an antidote to communal politics in India and will always be,” added Parminder Singh.