Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980s and 1990s, Partha Sircar, a family friend and one of the history buffs in my Bay Area Bengali community, would sometimes share stories of early Bengali revolutionaries in California, some of whom were involved with the anti-colonial Indian-American Ghadar Party. I initially filed the stories away as trivia, not fully understanding the relevance until much later.
My Partha-uncle wasn’t the only one sharing these stories. I later learned that the Punjabi community is full of elders trying to keep alive the legacy of Punjabi Ghadarites. “The youth don’t know our stories,” I heard a few lament at a recent Ghadar Party commemoration event. But a century after the Ghadar Party’s formation, a new wave of young South Asian American artist-activists have been finding new meaning in the Ghadar legacy.
History of the Ghadar Movement
The Ghadar Party, founded in 1913, was a West Coast movement of Indian immigrant laborers and students organizing to end British colonial rule in India. (Ghadar means “rebellion” or “mutiny” in Urdu and Punjabi.) The organization was headquartered in San Francisco, where it published secular anti-colonial literature read in dozens of countries. Members organized internationally, as well as with a variety of American social movements, including labor, anarchists, and Irish-Americans.
In the dawn of the 20th century, as Indians streamed into Canada and the United States in search of a better future and relief from British oppression they encountered discrimination and intolerance on the shores of their new home. With no support from the British-run India, these immigrants (mostly farmers from Punjab) banded together and formed the Ghadar Party. The aim of the movement was to overthrow the British in India through the use of force and aggression.
This was clearly stated in the first issue of the weekly newspaper Ghadar, dated November 1, 1913: “Today, there begins in foreign lands, but in our country’s language, a war against the British Raj … What is our name? Ghadar. What is our work? Ghadar. Where will Ghadar break out? India. The time will soon come when rifles and blood will take the place of pen and ink.”
About a century ago, the Komagata Maru, a Japanese steamship, carrying 376 passengers from Punjab sailed to Canada, where all but 24 were sent back to India. This was due to Canada’s exclusion laws to restrict immigration from India. Upon arriving in India these hapless travelers encountered the British police who deemed them “self-confessed lawbreakers,” and fired shots. Many were killed and the rest arrested. This incident served to energize the Ghadar movement. Inspired by the editorial rhetoric and nationalistic fervor, donations flowed in and men were exhorted to fight for freedom of the motherland from the British overlords. The first ship carrying Ghadar revolutionaries sailed from San Francisco in August 1914.
The Ghadar movement which had its roots in Punjab, joined forces with Bengali revolutionaries for strategic effectiveness. According to G.S. Deol, author of The Role of the Ghadar Party in the National Movement, Ras Behari Bose was “a link between the Bengali anarchists and the Punjab conspirators.”
The movement ultimately failed because of several reasons. The Ghadarites were ill-prepared. They did not anticipate the lack of enthusiasm for revolt in India.
They could not persuade Indian leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and B.G. Tilak to lend their support. The shipment of arms and ammunitions failed to arrive in India.
And the most critical reason was a matter of misplaced trust. The British got wind of the revolt through Kirpal Singh, who infiltrated the Ghadar leadership and leaked critical and sensitive information to the British.
While the planned revolution failed, the Ghadar Party continued to influence the global movement for Indian freedom, both through its own work, as well by inspiring other anti-colonial revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh.
What Does a Younger Generation See in These Histories?
Zuha Khan, a Pakistani-American UC Davis student and music journalist, traces her interest to her discovery of Ghadar revolutionary Kartar Singh Sarabha, who was a University of California student a century before her. Explains Khan, “the Ghadarite emphasis on inclusivity during the struggle amazes me because South Asians—Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and others—were working together, developing camaraderie, and organizing toward a single goal. Learning about this makes me wish that camaraderie between different groups from South Asia was as common now, instead of our being split up along religious, ethnic, or national lines.”
Simmy Makhijani, a San Francisco Bay Area youth organizer and Ghadar researcher, emphasizes the relevance of the Ghadar Party as a lens on 21st century America. “History is circular. The Ghadar Party was a product of forced labor migration met by virulent forms of racism. These conditions politicized and provoked our ancestors to take up the legacy of Ghadar and rebel. They were then met with militarized policing, surveillance, and ongoing racist discrimination, but continued to organize and resist.” For Makhijani, the Ghadar legacy offers critical lessons for our community in a post-9/11 context.
Oakland environmentalist and artist Amman Desai recently participated in a Ghadar history reading group. What he learned made a deep impression on him. “What’s remarkable about the Ghadar Party,” he explains, “is the way they were able to rally around anti-imperialism without completely collapsing into nationalism. They weren’t just advocating for the independence of India—their politics were much bigger and more thoughtful, and they were simultaneously building relationships and solidarity with anarchists, nihilists, radicals, and other anti-imperialist struggles on a broad international scale. And the Ghadarites were doing all of this large-scale, effective, and involved organizing by pen, paper, memory, boat, and foot. At a time when people are so willing to give credit to Facebook and social media for the success of various social justice struggles, the Ghadar party is a reminder of the power of human agency, not technological capacity, in dismantling structures of power.”
Young San Francisco Bay Area artists have been finding new ways of seeing old stories, celebrating 2013, the 100-year anniversary of the Ghadar Party, by developing responses to the history through dance, music, visual arts, and place-based performance.
Making the Art-History Connection
Joti Singh, artistic director of the Duniya Dance Company, has a very special connection to Ghadar history as the great-granddaughter of Ghadar leader Bhagwan Singh Gyanee. In her recent work “Red, Saffron, and Green,” a moving two-hour bhangra, spoken word, and music performance, Singh explored Ghadar history through her family’s story, using biography as an entry point to a complex history. “Knowing this history,” she explains, “makes you realize and question where we are now, and where our struggle is.”
Visual artists Nisha Sembi and Amman Desai just concluded “Our Name is Rebel,” their joint month-long show of artwork inspired by Bay Area’s South Asian American people’s movements. Sembi designed a striking wall-sized street art-inspired mural honoring young Ghadar Party martyr Kartar Singh Sarabha, including text handwritten in English, Urdu, and Punjabi. (The mural is visible at Guerilla Cafe in Berkeley, California.) Another of her paintings brings to life the Ghadar Party’s printing press, the source of their revolutionary literature. An artist and organizer, Sembi says it’s an honor to be able to create work dedicated toward popularizing the Ghadar story.
At the “Our Name is Rebel” show, Amman Desai unveiled a new linocut image of anarchist Ghadar philosopher Har Dayal, one of the co-founders of the party. He also showed off an intricate pen and ink image of Ghadar veteran Kartar Dhillon, who started her life in the Ghadar Party, but went on to work in a variety of California movements, participating in worker organizing campaigns, supporting the Black Panther Party, and even founding the San Francisco-based “Chaat” performance art collective in the 1990s (making her quite literally a foremother to the new wave of young artist-activists).
Some Ghadar-inspired artists make very explicit connections between the issues of the 1910s and the 2010s. DJ Drrrty Poonjabi recorded his new track “Ghadar di Gunj” for Beats for Bangladesh, a fundraiser album supporting worker struggles in Bangladesh in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster. “I wanted to connect musically,” he explains, “the Ghadar struggles and inspiring legacy with the oppression these Bangladeshi laborers are facing today, and also express solidarity with all colonized, racialized, dispossessed, and oppressed working people of color worldwide.”
Across the country there have been many commemorative events organized. In Los Angeles on June 16, 2013, the event focused on discussions explaining the history of the Ghadar movement and how the threads of these trailblazers are intertwined within our immigrant lives. A similar event was organized on June 29 in Atlanta and another in Washington, D.C on July 28. The event in DC was organized by Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO). The speakers talked about the Party’s organizational ability and its network of support within academic institutions like Berkeley and Stanford and its resemblance to the Irish push for independence, which was also characterized by turbulence, fervor and sacrifices.
As for me, I’ve finally found my own path to the Ghadar legacy, many years after my Partha-uncle began sharing his stories with me. My partner, Barnali Ghosh, and I now curate the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour, a monthly history experience that uses storytelling, street theater, and poetry to make the history of South Asian American organizing come alive. On the tour, I play the role of a Ghadarite; Ghosh and I wrote the monologue in a way that hints at contemporary immigrant rights and food justice campaigns, so audiences can walk away thinking of Ghadar in the context of living movements.
Histories can be remembered in different ways. (The story of the Punjabi Mexicans, for example, is sometimes shared as a kind of multicultural trivia, without much relevance for the way we live today.) While they use different approaches, a new generation of South Asian American artist-activists is starting to converge on a shared reading of Ghadar history that very explicitly foregrounds its contemporary relevance. One hundred years on, the Ghadar Party continues to inspire the creation of revolutionary new histories.
Anirvan Chatterjee is a techie, entrepreneur, and climate activist from Berkeley, California. Find him online at www.chatterjee.net and @anirvan