Roots of Ghadr Revolution
The beginning of 20th century in India is marked for revolutionary upsurge. During this turbulent time in India’s history the struggle for power, between more than one and half century old and deeply entrenched British rule and the seething, boiling anger of Indian revolutionaries was at its highest. After subduing revolt of Namdharis the British Government started crushing Punjabi people since they wanted to get rid of British Govt. There is no doubt that the Ghadr Party had been established in America but its base was in Punjab. The Singh Sabha Lehar was purely for preaching of the Sikh religion and enlightening the Sikhs to get educated. Educated Sikh started the analysis of the policies of the British Government. The people learnt that the British were spreading misinformation in the world that Indians were very happy under the British rule and were palpitating with “loyalty” to their British masters, and that British rule was regarded as a heaven-sent blessing. The people of India had no control over Reuters’ or any other news agencies. It was impossible for them to prevent the publication of these statements, and they knew it would be futile to make protest at that stage to the imperial authority.1 Even Mr Austin Chamberlain, Secretary of State for India gave an interview which was published in the paper The New York Sun, May 14, 1916 declaring that the people of India ‘’have never been more loyal than today.” This was the Government viewpoint.2 There was no truth in the assertions made by the British newspapers that India was loyal to the British or sympathized with their cause. India was disaffected from one end to another. The country was seething with anti- British revolutionary ferment. It was only the British propaganda to avoid the International pressure to improve the condition of Indians which was worse than the life of animals due to British policies and laws, especially for the peasantry.3 The British Industrial inroads had destroyed the indigenous craftsmanship of India.
When we read the history of this period, we find that Punjabi people were totally against the British rule and they wanted to become free from the clutches of the Firangis. The people who received education felt that the country was in the grip of economic and political crisis.
The All India Congress Party was established in 1885 and the leaders like Dada Bhai Naroji had adopted the slogan, ‘Freedom is a fundamental right of the human beings’. The Congress as an organisation up till now was dominated by moderate leaders whose activities were limited to sending applications and petitions to the British Government. In 1904, the British tried to divide the Bengal, and people got angry. To show their anger, an 18 year old youth of Bengal, Khudi Ram Bose blasted a bomb on a District Judge in Muzaffarpur, resulting in the death of two English women. The brave action of Khudi Ram Bose was covered by some newspapers run by the Indians.4 The Government hanged Khudi Ram Bose which became reason of an agitation against the British Government resulting in some prominent people like Ravindranath Tagore returning the houour of knighthood’ bestowed by the British Government.
The reaction of this incident influenced some Punjabi people also. The Punjab Alienation of Land Act 1900 was the most important land Acts passed by the British in India. Judging from the circumstances under which the Act was passed, it was normally expected that the measure would provide relief to the overburdened peasantry from some of the difficulties which were crushing them down like rural indebtedness, etc. But it is amazing to note that the act practically did nothing in this direction. “No restrictions were imposed on the powers of expropriation of the money-lender. Rather the British bureaucracy used the provision of this Act to create a new class of agricultural usurers and middlemen to act as a bulwark of British rule in India by facilitating in certain respects the means of expropriation of the cultivator.”5 The various Government measures, such as Land Colonisation Act, 1900, the Land Alienation Act 1901, the Transfer of Property Act, 1904, and the Punjab Pre-emption Act, 1905, created complex reactions from the political leaders.
When Punjab Govt presented a Canal Colonization Bill about the newly established Colonies of Lyalpur, the Sikh people felt that this would be dangerous for the Punjabi or Sikh farmers. To stop this, a political struggle had been started by S Ajit Singh and Lala Lajpat Rai. The new Act limiting the rights of land owners in areas of settlement colonies, particularly the Chanab colony, caused still greater unrest in the Punjab rural area. Ajit Singh was a fiery orator and had addressed many meetings in Lahore. To enlighten the farmers, they sang a song ‘Pagri Sambal O Jatta’ (O peasant, guard your turban) throughout the struggle. As a result both were exiled to Barma by the Government.6
A number of meetings were held. Ajit Singh, Sufi Amba Parsad and Agha Haider, who had organized the Anjuman-i-Watan, and intended to bring out a journal ‘Bharat Mata’ felt that this was an appropriate time to rouse the masses in the Punjab and they began to plan a massive agitation against the British.7 A mass meeting of the peasants and auction purchasers of the Chenab Colony was held at Lyalpur on the 21st and 22 March 1907 to protest against the new Colonization Bill which had been passed by the Punjab Legislative Council. S Ajit Singh visited Amritsar on the 29th March 1907 and delivered a lecture at the Bande Mataram Hall to about one thousand persons on the political situation in India.8 In his lecture he pointed out that India in former days was a most prosperous country. Commencing with the days of the East India Company he traced the decline of prosperity in India, and endeavored to show how the misfortunes of Indians had gradually increased with recurring famines, increased taxation and repressive legislation. … “Let it be your first duty to encourage the indigenous industries of your country. The British Government lives in a house of glass which can be broken in a moment. Our own help has made it impregnable.”9 S Ajit Singh made a violent attack upon the increase in land assessment. He said that the peasants were the real rulers of the country. The Rajas were their Kamins. The Government and its chief officials were their servants.10
Another speech delivered by S Ajit Singh at a public meeting in Rawalpindi on 21st April 1907 asserting that nothing had happened as yet. Hindu and Mussalman unite. Now is your time. We are 30 crores. They are a lakh and a half. A puff of wind would blow them away…” This type of agitations became a common feature of the days in Punjab which shook the British Government to take some strict action to stop such type of activities. Major Barton, Deputy Commissioner, Ferozepore wrote a demi-official letter to Private Secretary Lieutenant-Governor, Punjab on 24 April 1907 stating, “….I have had a dozen visitors the last four days, who have spoken quite plainly about the growing agitation in the county, and I had hoped that the two meetings in the city here of 10 and 15 days ago were the last but on Sunday (April 21st) there was a third, and worse in the language than any of the others.”12 He also quoted some extracts in this letter regarding the speech, “…..the time for talk has passed and action must come. Get ready. Let each man carry a lathi or any weapon he can find. Then let this Zulm of the Sarkar cease. Tell all your friends and brothers in the Sikh regiments here that Government has broken faith in the colonies, and that no one can rely on any Government promise for pay or pension….”13 In those years the financial condition of the Punjab was the worst. Poverty had forced the people to live under the British. In 1905 an earthquake destroyed the historical city of Kangra in which thousands of people lost their lives. After that an epidemic had spread all over the area which caused tremendous loss of life and property. It is recorded that 7, 251, 257 people had died due to plague upto the year 1913 and death rate was 34.28 for the year 1907-11.14 Even at this pitiable condition the British Government did nothing to ameliorate the difficulties of the masses.
An atmosphere of hate and bitterness against the Government prevailed in the Punjab which is evident from a news published in the newspaper ‘India’ in April 18, 1907 that a “ten year old boy coming across a Britisher cried aloud “Cursed be British Justice.” The police arrested the boy and took him to police station and he said there, “Yes, I have cursed the British Justice… because your people are tyrannical and unjust. They deny us our privileges and have not redeemed the pledge contained in the proclamation of 1858.”
In his book, Secret History of the English Occupation of Egypt, Mr Wilfrid Scawen Blunt gives some strong and important testimony regarding the British rule in India as seen close at hand and under the most favourable light. He was an intimate personal friend of Lord Lytton, who at that time was the Viceroy of India. Mr Blunt came to India to make a study the conditions here. He found that British rule in India, instead of being a blessing, was working India’s ruin. He said, “I am disappointed with India, which seems just as ill-governed as the rest of Asia, only with good intentions instead of bad ones or none at all. There is just the same heavy taxation, government by foreign officials, and waste of money that one sees in Turkey.”15
Hence, the agrarian unrest as well as the agitation in 1907 vividly displays that patriots like Ajit Singh and Lajpat and others played a leading role in arousing anti-British feelings among the Western Punjab. The repressive policy of the Government that followed the agitation in the Punjab in 1907, gave rise to the revolutionary activities in the whole province.
Thus in the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the central Punjab farmers (who immigrated to Canada, America and other countries and abundantly participated in the Ghadr Movement demonstrated their natural behaviour sufficiently) having negligible political awakening cultivated tendency to listen to the new thought for progressing further. They had developed a craze for the betterment of their brotherhood. This means that these emigrated farmers were bold, self respecting having fortitude for understanding revolutionary activities but still they needed guidance and political awakening.16
Under these circumstances most of the countrymen, especially the Punjabi people, had started joining the army and abandoned their traditional profession of peasantry. With the help of the British-Indian army, the Firangees had occupied Burma, Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong. Some of the Islands were conquered by the Dutch and French also. These soldiers had been sent on various campaigns in the European and African countries where these soldiers learnt about the various opportunities of work and to earn handsome labour. Some of the soldiers, after their retirement, settled there for some time to earn more money so that savings could be taken to the Punjab to start their own work. When they returned to Punjab they told their fellow villagers that in America a man could do as he pleased, there was plenty of land and plenty of money. After that most of the men who migrated to Canada or USA were land owners from the Central Punjab. In these countries these people were known as ‘Hindus’ but none of them were actually Hindus. Most of them were Punjabi Sikhs and Muslims. A significant proportion of the pre-1914 immigrants had served in the British military and police and had seen service overseas, in China, Southeast Asia, East Africa, Lebanon, and other places. A Sikh platoon was stationed in Hong Kong, and a Gurdwara was built there in 1910.
On the other hand, the Britishers also played an important role in bringing Western culture to India, and in their attempts to do so they often came into conflict with their own government. That Government feared that the effects of the spread of modern education may become obstacle in its way, and yet it was due to the pioneering efforts of earnest Englishmen, who gathered enthusiastic groups of Indian students around them, and English thought and literature and political tradition were introduced to India. The First newspaper was started by an Englishman in Calcutta in 1780 and the first Indian newspaper was started in 1818 and many Indian languages followed in quick succession in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay.17 The newspapers also played a crucial role to enlighten the people about the Western culture, literature, broad thinking, human freedom etc. The advent and use of the printing press gave a great stimulus to the development of the popular Indian language. Later on these newspapers published the inhuman atrocities by the British on Indians. The enlightened people of India or some of the Britishers (who were against the slavery system) had written their views in these newspapers. And these exchanges of views awakened the people to put down the yoke of the British slavery. Even when some peasantry went to Canada they saw that Indian workers were in a state of neglect in America and Canada. They were humiliated because India was under the yoke of British rule. The slavish mentality of the Indian and the arousing spirit of people of America and Canada moved their heart. The taunting and humiliation so often hurled at Indians aroused in them an urge to free India. Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, the President of the Ghadr Party Lehar, when sailed to USA in 1909 to find a job also faced this type of discrimination. The Indians felt that these atrocities were being faced by them due to British slavery.
Now, the peasants learnt the power of sustained and organized agitation and its capacity in making the authorities concede their demands. They also became familiar with the new ideas of Nationalism and representative government emphasized by the nationalist agitators from the towns. Sardar Ajit Singh, played a most active role in trying to integrate the various sectors of the 1907 agitation and to give it a militant political edge, he became the hero of 1907.18 Rather it is not wrong to say that the Ghadr Party Movement was the production of the influence of the internal progressive and free thinking atmosphere of America on the Indians who went there.
1. Indian Against Britain, Ram Chandra (editor Hindustan Gadar, San Francisco, California, U.S.A. 1916, Preface, p. 5
2. Ibid., p. 7
3. A Few Facts About British Rule in India, The Hindustan Gadar Office, 1324 Valencia Street, San Francisco, U. S. A.
4. Giani Kirpal Singh, Varatman Sikh Itihas (Modern Sikh History), Political Movements, 1962, p. 61
5. Punjab History Conference, First Session (November 12-14, 1965), Publication Bureau, Punjabi University, Patiala, 1990, p. 151.
6. Giani Kirpal Singh, op. cit., pp 61-62
7. Dr S S Bal, A Brief History of Modern Punjab, Lyal Book Depot, Ludhiana, 1974, p. 20
8. Dr Ganda Singh, History of the Freedom Movement in the Punjab, Vol IV, Department of Punjab Historical Studies, Punjabi University, Patiala, 1978, p. 24
9. Ibid., p. 24
10. S R Sharma, Punjab in the Ferment in the Beginning of the 20th Century, Patiala, 1966, p. 10.
11. Dr Ganda Singh, op. cit., p. 32
12. Dr Ganda Singh, op. cit., p. 32
13. Dr Ganda Singh, op. cit., p. 32-33
14. A Few Facts About British Rule in India, The Hindustan Gadar Office, 1324 Valencia Street, San Francisco, U. S. A.
15. Lajpat Rai, Unhappy India, Banna Publishing Co, Calcutta, 1928, p. 438
16. Jagjit Singh, Ghadr Party Lehar (Punjabi), 1955, p. 53
17. Jawahar Lal Nehru, The Discovery of India, 1945, The Signet Press, Calcutta, p. 272.
18. Mridula Mukherjee, Peasants in India's Non-violent Revolution: Practice and Theory, Sage, p. 29
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2013, All