On 24 February 1919, as war-time recruits into the Indian Army were still being demobilized, a number of dissenting nationalists in India, including Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), pledged to disobey a variety of laws proposed by the viceroy and his council. Gandhi’s resolution began:

Being conscientiously of the opinion that the Bills known as the Indian Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill No. 1 of 1919 and the Criminal Law (Emergency Powers) Bill No. II of 1919 are unjust, subversive of the elementary rights of individuals on which the safety of the community as a whole and the State itself are based, we solemnly affirm that, in the event of these Bills becoming law and until they are withdrawn, we shall refuse civilly to obey these laws and such other laws as a Committee to be hereafter appointed may think fit [...].[1]

It proved a seminal moment in the political career of Gandhi, the development of the Indian National Congress (INC) and of wider anti-colonial currents in South Asia. The Rowlatt Bills (named after Sir Sidney Rowlatt (1862-1945), the president of the committee that first outlined its contents) were not withdrawn. The situation worsened. Peaceful opposition to the draconian legislation precipitated large-scale arrests, the enactment of summary punishments, and the massacre in Amritsar, and, in turn, it provided the basis for the Non-Cooperation Resolution of 30 December 1920 and the first push for Swaraj or self-rule by the INC and its allies:

[The British] Government [...] has forfeited the confidence of the nation by its utter disregard of the sacred sentiments of the Mussulmans in India and the outraged feelings of the whole of India regarding the wanton atrocities of the Punjab administration during the satyagraha year [...].[2]

Yet still the legislation and the use of extraordinary violence by the government of India remained. Colonial officials were unable to react to the demands of moderate nationalists in the present because they were haunted by spectres of revolutionary nationalisms in the past. The First World War in India was remarkable for the array of revolutionary conspiracies that threatened British rule. As Rowlatt’s initial report makes clear, it was the fear that these war-time revolutionary movements would coalesce and haunt the imperial state once more that provided the justification for permanent, preventive measures:

All these plots have been directed towards one and the same objective, the overthrow of British rule in India. Sometimes they have been isolated; sometimes they have been interconnected; sometimes they have been encouraged and supported by German influence. [...] it is not surprising that, in dealing with conspiracies so elusive and carefully contrived, Government has been compelled to resort to extraordinary legislation.[3]

But what precisely were these conspiracies which loomed so large in official British policy in India? And, were these colonial anxieties justified? This article will provide some answers by charting the pre-war origins of revolutionary nationalisms in India, their interactions with South Asian émigrés in Europe, North America and South-East and East Asia and, finally, an analysis of the Ghadar Movement, which provided a locus through which differing and divergent strands of activity were drawn together during the First World War.[4]

Pre-War Revolutionary Activism

Organized expressions of political radicalism were present in India long before hostilities began in 1914. As Harald Fischer-Tiné has argued, it is incorrect to assume that the First World War was alone in destabilizing perceptions of the benefits and capabilities of European modernity for the colonized of Africa and Asia.[5] Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) later recalled that one of his earliest political memories was his excitement at reading of Japanese victories in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.[6] Even if members of nascent revolutionary organizations in India did not follow daily war reporting quite as scrupulously as the young Nehru, the final Japanese victory and its symbolic humbling of white prestige contributed to a new climate of anti-imperial possibilities. From 1905 on, opposition emerged within Congress to the “moderate” position of couching demand in the myths of British liberty or fair-play and the hope of winning support from British Liberals or the Labour movement:

The Old party believes in appealing to the British nation and we do not. That being our position it logically follows we must have some other method. There is another alternative. [...] We are not armed, and there is no necessity for arms either. We have a stronger weapon, a political weapon, in boycott.[7]

The “New Party” – led by the troika of Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920), Lala Lajpat Rai (1865-1928) and Bipin Chandra Pal (1858-1932) or Lal-Bal-Pal – saw their rhetoric tested in the Swadeshi Movement in Bengal which began in order to resist the administrative division of the province of Bengal for purely political purposes.[8] After July 1905, it metamorphosed into a mass boycott and burning of foreign (British) goods.

The growing dissatisfaction with the line that separated illegitimate from legitimate activity in Swadeshi, violence from non-violence, created a demand for even more radical action. Secret societies were formed among young, urban, educated, mostly high-caste, male elites promoting revolutionary terrorism. These arose mainly in Bengal in Eastern India – the Anushilan Samiti (Self-Culture Association) in 1902 and then the Dhaka Anushilan Samiti and Jugantar (New Era) group from 1905-1906 – but not exclusively so. Parallels can be found in western India in the Bombay Presidency where V.D. Savarkar (1883-1966) helped to form the Mitra Mela (Band of Friends) in 1900 and Abhinava Bharat (Young India) in 1904. All these groups held an intellectual-romantic attachment to the ideal of the secret society – often basing their neophyte organizations on the Russian nihilists (or rather depictions of Russian nihilists in late Victorian British publications).[9] And, all advocated for the use of robberies or dacoities to secure funds clandestinely, and of political assassinations as a means of initiating political change (most notably the assassination of Sir William Hutt Curzon Wyllie (1848-1909), aide-de-camp to the Secretary of State for India, in London on 1 July 1909[10] and the near escape of Charles Hardinge, Baron Hardinge of Penshurst (1858-1944), Viceroy of India, during the Delhi Durbar[11] of 23 December 1912). The wealth and social status of the men involved enabled the very earliest of revolutionary societies to have an international dimension. As youthful revolutionaries became students or businessmen abroad, they met and attached themselves to older Indian émigrés who were themselves moving seamlessly through the radical movements of their time: Shyamji Khrisnavarma (1857-1930) with the Clan na Gael, Bhikaiji Rustom Cama (1861-1936) and Sardar Singh Rahabhai Rana (1878-1957) with the British Suffragettes and the Stuttgart Conference of the Second International and Har Dayal (1884-1939) with the Industrial Workers of the World.[12]

Migration, Revolt and Mutiny During the First World War

During the First World War the engine of revolutionary activity shifted from cosmopolitan elites in India to semi-permanent communities of migrant labourers abroad. The largest proportion of these came from Punjab in north-west India and were largely (although not exclusively) Sikh. Emigration from Punjab, from communities that were colonized but favoured with British patronage after the "Mutiny" of 1857, was a product of British imperialism. It was dependent on constant British neuroses of the fragility of the Empire and of imminent, colonial collapse. The Sikh policeman and soldier became a staple in settlements across South East Asia after their introduction into the Hong Kong Police in 1867, the Perak Armed Police in 1873 (which soon became the Malay States Guides) and the Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Garrison Artillery from 1881 on. But, other migrations also occurred unconnected with the extreme exigencies of defending or policing the British Empire. Beginning in the 1880s, men from the same communities and villages migrated as labourers to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and, finally, logging and railroad camps, timber-mills and large farms along the Pacific Coast of North America (California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia). These two migrations from Punjab – as colonial policemen and colonial labourers – were intimately connected. A large number of migrants were former soldiers (between half to three-quarters of the total), hoping to ease their entry abroad by invoking their former imperial service and funding their migrations through the gratuities they received upon discharge.[13] The ease with which a Punjabi sipahi (soldier or policemen) could become a chaukidar (guard, doorman or watchmen) and then a mazdur (labourer) was conditioned by the effects of colonialism at home. Punjab was on the same arc of rural underdevelopment that plagued the rest of colonial India. Colonial officials were constantly concerned about the levels of rural indebtedness in the very districts from which the Indian Army gained its recruits: “The small holder is faced with two alternatives. Either a supplementary source of income must be found, or he must be content with the low standard of living that bondage to the money-lender entails. The bolder spirit joins the army [...] the more enterprising emigrate.”[14] In 1907, in response to epidemics of bubonic plague and malaria (leading to 2 million deaths in the province of Punjab), increasing rural landlessness, the failure of the cotton crop and the “Colonization Act” (subverting previous rights of tenure and increased water rates for irrigation), Punjab became embroiled in rural agitation.[15] The movement gave Punjabis a revolutionary rhetoric and symbols and, through the arrests and transportation of Sardar Ajit Singh (1881-1947) and Lala Lajpat Rai (1865-1928), their own revolutionary martyrs.[16]

The first political organizations among Punjabi labourers in North America arose in the context of anti-immigrant racism. The reaction to the presence of Punjabi migrants in Canada and the United States of America was unambiguously hostile, even though the numbers of actual migrants remained small (between 1900 and 1920 only 5,351 “East Indians” were admitted into Canada and 7,324 into the United States[17]). Race riots, moratoria on South Asian migration, the denial of entry to wives and dependents and attempts to impose colour-bars on certain forms of industry became unforgiveable wrongs for men who still saw themselves as imperial loyalists and British subjects:

[...] we are British subjects, of proven loyalty. More than 90 per cent of the Hindustanees are Sikhs. With the name Sikh is linked up fidelity and heroic loyalty to the Empire. […] A large number of these men in Canada have seen active service, and many among them have medals for special bravery.[18]

Ethnic, religious and national markers of identity suddenly came to the fore. The search for a common rhetoric with which to articulate their grievances united labourers with Sikh religious reformers[19] and more politicized students, merchants, intellectuals and religious figures who had been on the periphery of pre-war radical movements.[20] Early organizations representing migrants in North America tried to appeal to the Imperial State for relief, most notably when the Khalsa Diwan Society and the United India League sent a joint delegation to London and India in February 1913. The three-man deputation was ignored (in London), informed that nothing could be done (in New Delhi) and threatened with arrest (in Lahore).[21] With avenues of appeal closed, India was redeemed in the eyes of those who had left it as a space that could fulfill aspirations of wealth and social status denied Indians abroad. The Hindustani Association of the Pacific Coast was formed in May 1913, uniting the various associations and organizations that littered Indian migrant enclaves in Canada and the U.S.A. It established a printing press at the “Yugantar Ashram” in San Francisco, and established a newspaper entitled Ghadar. The newspaper’s name, “Mutiny” or “Rebellion,” accurately reflected the nature of its content: the desire to forcibly expel the British from India. An Urdu edition was established first on 1 November 1913 and a Gurmukhi (Punjabi) version on 9 December 1913. The different versions of the same newspaper reflected the bifurcated nature of its leadership which was divided between student-intellectuals and Punjabi labourers. The former produced a series of articles and publications in the same register as earlier revolutionary societies in India, drawing inspiration from international events:

Oh Warriors! The opportunity that you have been searching for years has come, that is, the Trumpet of War has sounded; the war has started; you lie sleeping here. Do you know what is happening in the world? [...] War has started between Germany and England. Now is the chance for India’s freedom. This news is so important that I will give you a short narrative of it. The entire nations of Europe are divided into two parties. On one side is Germany, Italy and Austria [sic.], on the other side Russia, England and France. War has started between these two parties. All Britain’s land and naval forces will be occupied in fighting against Germany. Therefore, all the white troops in India will have to leave. This is the right time for you to start a war for freedom. You can very soon expel the British from India. Oh brethren, take your freedom now.[22]

The Gurmukhi content differed in tone, placing revolution within Sikh and Punjabi religious and literary tales of masculinity, martyrdom and self-sacrifice:

Arise, ye sons of India, why have you slept so long?

In the moonlight you have slept, but see now that the sun has risen.

You are in the clutches of a nightmare. It will not leave you without taking your life.

The red serpent is all around you. Where are your war flags?

How have we become short-statured and cowards.[?] Where are our youths who are eight feet tall?

We cowards survive today without self-respect. Where are the heroes of the country?

Today we are called dirty, black people [kala log]. Where is India’s glory?

When they confiscated our India, where did they misplace our religion?

One who cannot swim the river cannot live in a seastorm; prepare to fight.

You are sluggish and keep sitting drugged. O idiots, where is your intellect?

Had brave Hari Singh been alive, he would have taken up the sword.

He would have sacrificed his life for self-respect, the same as the lion-hearted Shivaji.

You cowards are afraid of death. How can you think of becoming lions in battle?

One hero should stand against one hundred and twenty-five thousand. That is the order of the Guru.

You sons of the Guru are Singhs, and there is much oppression. Where are your lion-like traits?

Oh ye brave Singhs, join together to gather up the dropped pearls. Why must all be lost?

We will fight for India, we will kill and be killed. Cry loudly! Where is your tongue and heart?[23]

The Ghadar Party, as the Hindustani Association of the Pacific Coast soon came to be known, was an unlikely focus for post-war colonial neuroses even with the wide circulation of its publications[24] and the opportunities for unrest provided by the outbreak of the First World War. There was no systematic planning to complement the romantic aspiration of returning to India to orchestrate an uprising of the type seen in 1857: “What is our name? Revolt. What is our work? Rebellion. Where will the mutiny break out? In India. When? In a few years.”[25] Ghadar was monitored by British intelligence from its inception,[26] its early leaders were arrested and deported[27] and there was little enthusiasm or support for Ghadar among German diplomatic staff in the United States.[28] Plans of what to do upon arrival in India were only hurriedly sketched out a few weeks after the start of the First World War and only as migrant labourers-turned-revolutionaries were already en route to India. The trigger for the return to India was a local incident – passengers aboard the S.S. Komagata Maru were refused entry into Vancouver between May and July 1914 – and the shootings and mass-arrests that occurred when its passengers arrived in Calcutta.[29] Campaigns were organized to raise money and purchase food and necessities for the stranded passengers. The funds collected became the means to buy passage back to India after individuals heard of what had befallen the Komagata Maru’s passengers and rumours circulated of the discontent it had caused in Punjab circulated.[30]

From 29 August 1914, up to 5,000 returned migrants filtered through into rural Punjab.[31] Some of those who originally intended to go to India were diverted to trying to win over the South Asians they met in ports of call across East and South-East Asia;[32] others were arrested in Calcutta or had lost interest in the cause by the time of their return. Those who made it were disjointed and disorganized, often only meeting each other by accident, and even then unsure of what action to take or if there even was a larger plan. Ghadar devolved into unconnected low-scale violence – reflecting the interests of the small bands involved. Some tried to raid government magazines in the hope that they could gain access to rifles rather than pistols or the swords and axes that littered rural Punjab. Others tried to loot divisional and sub-divisional treasuries in an attempt to liberate the money their families had paid in tax. Still more settled for singling out local moneylenders and village headmen for public beatings and executions.[33] More concerted action was taken after members of Ghadar reached out to members of Jugantar (one of the pre-war Bengali secret societies) in hiding in Benares[34] in order to gain access to more arms and home-made explosives. A date was fixed – 21 February 1915 – upon which members of Ghadar were to attack Lahore Cantonment. “Bombs were prepared, arms got together, flags prepared, a declaration of war drawn up, instruments for destroying railways and telegraph wires collected and everything was put hastily in train for the general rising on the 21st February.”[35] Efforts were made to secure support from active soldiers by former comrades or relatives (some members of Ghadar even re-enlisted in the Army for that purpose). The 23rd Cavalry at the Lahore Cantonment at Mian Mir and the 26th Punjabis at Ferozepur promised to defect en masse; soldiers in the 128th Pioneers, 12th Cavalry at Meerut and 9th Bhopal Infantry in Benares promised that they would do something if other battalions and squadrons defected. It was decided that the liberation of Lahore was to be the signal for a general rising by soldiers who had already committed themselves to the cause and an inspiring example for the majority of soldiers and civilians in India who would be caught unaware. “The idea,” the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab later wrote, “was not fantastic, for it had penetrated as far down as Bengal and was known to the disaffected elements in Dacca.”[36]

The promised rising never occurred. A police spy, Kirpal Singh, managed to infiltrate the circle of Lahore conspirators and police raids were launched on Ghadar enclaves in Punjab and elsewhere in India on 19 February 1915. Afterwards, the movement continued spasmodically for another several months: men who threatened to give King’s Evidence were killed, a last-ditch attempt at a rising involving the 12th Cavalry at Meerut was made in mid-March and a poorly-implemented plan to create a Ghadar training camp on the Thai-Burma border was launched. Even after it was clear that there were no hope for a war-time rebellion in India, the Ghadar press in San Francisco continued printing its material. By the end of the First World War, however, the use of mass-arrests, internment and trials/tribunals ensured that the Ghadar Party had effectively been quashed.[37] A total of 274 individuals were tried in India, Burma and the United States, forty-six were hanged, sixty-nine awarded transportation for life (rarely better than a death sentence)[38] and 106 awarded lesser terms ranging from fourteen years’ transportation to shorter terms of imprisonment.[39] Some evaded arrest altogether and drifted into movements not associated with Ghadar – especially the Indian Independence Committee in Berlin and German-funded pan-Islamist movements in Afghanistan[40] – but these remained small, elite, diasporic groupings unable to penetrate into India or make much impact until the end of the First World War. Those that remained in the United States were plagued by a factional struggle between student-intellectuals and Punjabi labourers – the latter accused of impropriety, the former (not unreasonably) of embezzling funds.

Significance and Legacies

But if Ghadar was a failure, how are we to account for the hyperbole and over-reaction of the colonial state in India? Ghadar was seen as so toxic that, in later years, even reproducing the stanzas and rhetoric of its propaganda was regarded as dangerous for the maintenance of colonial order and rule:

It is manifestly inexpedient that the pernicious matter which it reproduces should obtain publicity; the miserable history of sedition in India has all too often shown, and the report amply testifies, how the seeds of violence are first sown, especially in the enthusiastic but inexperienced mind of youth [sic.], by access to the literature of anarchy and crime.[41]

The answer lies in more than just the peculiar nature of British imperialism, which was always prone to sketch out phantasms of disorder and spectres of colonial collapse in order to justify measures that were unjustifiable elsewhere. The significance of Ghadar, both for the British Raj and for historians judging its impact, lies in its very novelty: that the interconnected global web of Empire that was for Britain a strength (not least in times of war) could yet be the source of an anti-imperial movement; that colonial essentializations of effeminacy, masculinity and loyalty were impossible to maintain under the fluidity of the imperial modern. And, that Ghadar, even after its defeat, lived on in the minds of later generations of South Asians trying to imagine a revolutionary anti-colonialism:

No apologies

Not a shot in the dark

This is a warning

The sleeping tiger awakes each and every morning

The time is now ready to burst the imperial bubble

My act of revenge is just a part of the struggle.

A bullet to his head won’t bring back the dead

But it’ll lift the spirits of my people![42]

Gajendra Singh, University of Exeter

Section Editor: Santanu Das