In Haj to Utopia, Maia Ramnath tells the dramatic story of Ghadar, the Indian anticolonial movement that attempted overthrow of the British Empire. Founded by South Asian immigrants in California, Ghadar—which is translated as “mutiny”—quickly became a global presence in East Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and East Africa. Ramnath brings this epic struggle to life as she traces Ghadar’s origins to the Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, its establishment of headquarters in Berkeley, California, and its fostering by anarchists in London, Paris, and Berlin. Linking Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in 1914 to Ghadar’s declaration of war on Britain, Ramnath vividly recounts how 8,000 rebels were deployed from around the world to take up the battle in Hindustan. Haj to Utopia demonstrates how far-flung freedom fighters managed to articulate a radical new world order out of seemingly contradictory ideas.
Haj to Utopia How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism and Attempted to Overthrow the British Empire
"The Air of Freedom"
Ghadar in America
There had been a smattering of Indian sailors in New England ports since the late eighteenth century, and the odd celebrity religious philosopher since the late nineteenth, starting with Vivekananda's star turn at the Chicago World's Fair in 1892, which garnered a cult following of theosophists and countercultural practitioners among a northeastern elite. Meanwhile, the flow of indentured labor to the Caribbean islands and the north coast of South America began in the 1830s, to fill the vacuum left by the abolition of the slave trade. But the first South Asian immigrant population of significant size in mainland North America were the Punjabi Sikhs, who began arriving on the West Coast around 1903.
The leap from tens to thousands arriving per year was rather abrupt. Even so, according to an official count, only 6,656 South Asians entered the United States (legally) between 1899 and 1913. Hundreds more waited in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila, and other East Asian ports for trans-Pacific passage, hoping for a little help from friends who had already made the crossing. By the eve of the war in 1914 there was an estimated total of 10,000 South Asians in North America.
Most of the Punjabi laborers came from relatively prosperous families of small independent landholders, overwhelmingly concentrated in the Doab region. About half of them were veterans of the British army or military police. After their service, having seen a bit of the world, many of these men of cosmopolitan experience if little formal education now had a taste for further adventures rather than settling back down in the sleepy villages of their birth. Lured by the opportunity to make some good money, and offered incentives by steamship companies looking to fill in their dwindling manifests of Chinese working-class passengers (the Chinese Exclusion Act had been signed into U.S. law in 1882), the Punjabis came to work in lumber mills or laying railroads, a few in canneries or construction. But overwhelmingly they filtered into the migratory agricultural labor force. Disciplined and adaptable, they were much in demand, claimed the Immigration Department's official translator Dady Burjor, to the point where big landowners from the Sacramento Valley sometimes went directly to Angel Island to hire new arrivals. (The noncombatants who came directly from the village, usually as a result of a collective economic decision by an extended family, were in Dady Burjor's opinion a lesser quality of crude yokel.)
This positive desire to emigrate was compounded by straitened economic circumstances brought about by colonial agricultural policies at home. The 1901 Alienation of Land Act, by restricting the transfer of land from traditionally landowning groups, had been designed to prevent the loss of rural control to urban (usually Hindu) moneylenders. But it also had the effect of institutionalizing existing inequities of access for some Sikh and low-caste populations. Then the 1906 Colonization Bill and Bari Doab canal scheme led to a sharp rise in water rates and micromanagement of its use, which aimed at maximizing the region's rich agricultural output for the British commodity market, thereby rerouting it away from local control and subsistence needs.
This had sparked a wave of agitation in 1907, led by the brothers Ajit Singh and Kishan Singh, future Ghadar collaborators and the respective uncle and father of Bhagat Singh. Notably during the course of the unrest, Ajit Singh had spoken not just for reform of the offending legislation but for the unequivocal expulsion of the British from India, by violent means if necessary. He also founded the Indian Patriots' Association, the Bharat Mata Society, and a newspaper, the Peshwa. For his activities he was sent to jail in Mandalay until 1909, when he decamped to Persia along with his Peshwa collaborator Sufi Amba Parishad. Here they set up a revolutionary center from which they facilitated contacts among revolutionaries throughout Europe and North America for many years. By 1914 Ajit Singh was living in Paris, under the faux Persian identity of Hassan Khan, and supporting himself by giving English lessons. His travels during the war later took him as far as Brazil and Argentina. As fate would have it, he died literally on the eve of independence, 15 August 1947.
But the general Punjabi population was not yet connecting their grievances to a larger, secular and/or national context. Much of the political consciousness-raising at that time was occurring rather through the religiously defined Arya Samaj and Sikh Sabha, while the British army remained a strong focus of collective identity and allegiance. In theory these veterans had the right to settle in Canada as subjects of the dominion, taking pride in the community's sterling record of military service to the empire and the status it supposedly conferred. In practice they encountered worsening racism, both popular and legislative. Why such antipathy? After all, notes Harish Puri, the Indian threat could not have been simply about racial purity, since there were far more Chinese and Japanese entrants at the time. But politically the Indians were a special case, bearing on the delicate stability of colonial rule. Among the fears of the Secretary of State for India about what might happen if emigration to Canada were allowed to continue were the following:
i. That the terms of close familiarity which competition with white labour brings about do not make for British prestige; and it is by prestige alone that India is held not by force;
ii. that there is a socialist propaganda in Vancouver, and the consequent danger of the East Indians being imbued with socialist doctrines;
iii. labour rivalry is sure to result in occasional outbreaks of feelings on the part of the whites and any dissatisfaction at unfair treatment of Indians in Vancouver is certain to be exploited for the purpose of agitation in India; (and)
iv. East Indian affairs are sometimes made use of by unscrupulous partisans to serve the cause of their political party.
On none of these points was he necessarily wrong, as time would show.
In the same vein Brigadier General E. J. Swayne warned in a confidential memorandum that Indians who came as free laborers to Canada were "politically inexpedient" due to the risk that "these men [might] go back to India and preach ideas of emancipation which would upset the machinery of law and order." The fresh air of freedom, it seemed, was a dangerous gas.
Ghadar narratives (both contemporary and retrospective) repeated the notion that in America the "settlers" now breathed the air of modernity, freedom, and equality. And yet a gap remained between this stated American ideal and their own American experience. Once they reached California, they could obtain a daily wage of up to $2-$3 for harvesting asparagus, celery, potatoes, beans, lemons, and oranges. It is interesting that chroniclers of the community seem to find a source of pride in some of the very factors used as pretexts for racial discrimination against them: the white laborers were jealous and resentful of the immigrants' strength, endurance, industriousness, and ability to live with such astounding frugality. To help in doing so Indian laborers developed mutual support networks for living and work situations, often rooming, cooking, and eating collectively, and forming work teams represented by an Anglophone spokesman with the task of procuring work and negotiating terms, or dealing with lawyers as necessary. Some teams even divided their wages equally at the end of the week. The young network of gurdwaras (Sikh temples serving as community centers) also served as a important sites of mobilization, resistance, and solidarity, furthering a tradition of Sikh granthis as community leaders, representatives, intermediaries, and mobilizers around the Pacific Rim.
For example, one of the most important political spokesmen for the British Columbia Sikhs prior to the formation of the Pacific Coast Hindi Association was Teja Singh, a respected preacher who had been studying at Columbia University when he received an invitation in 1908 to represent his community on the West Coast. Although more a scholar and cleric than a rabble-rouser, he began addressing meetings in the gurdwaras to mobilize defense against the threat of deportation, all the while framing his actions as a sacred mission guided by Guru Nanak, and phrasing his speeches in the idiom of spirituality.
But although the gurdwaras did remain convenient organizing bases for Ghadarite activities, offering an ideal infrastructure for communicating and assembling people, their original mission was oriented toward defensive self-purification in line with the work of the Sikh Sabha in Punjab, preserving community identity against the danger of its erosion in a foreign country. These efforts, carried out though the leaders of the Khalsa Diwan Society, were concerned with counteracting deviations in orthodox dress and food habits among the Sikh laborers through evangelization and the foundation of new gurdwaras (and if necessary the boycott and ostracism of apostates). However, Puri attributes this attitude, as well as the attachment to martial-caste loyalism to Britain, to elites among the immigrants. The Ghadar Party, when it emerged, represented quite a different stance.
Meanwhile, Indian students began trickling into the United States around 1906 seeking technical training or degrees in fields emblematic of modernity, such as engineering and chemistry; or if they had followed Har Dayal's recommendations, economics and sociology. Many had first tried Japan only to find that the Anglo-Japanese agreement prevented their access to the specific types of training they sought. The majority of students were Bengali, and their most immediate context of political radicalization had been the Swadeshi movement and the connected revolutionist centers in London and Paris.
In 1912, Jawala Singh, a prosperous potato farmer and agricultural entrepreneur near Stockton, approached Har Dayal with a proposal to endow a scholarship with the goal of bringing students from all over India to study in the United States, preferably at the University of California, where most were enrolled. Along with important future Ghadarites Wasakha Singh and Santokh Singh (whom Behari Lal described as "exceptionally patriotic and pious men"), he had formed a society in 1912 whose members pledged "one hundred per cent dedication" to their country's liberation. The first competition for the Guru Gobind Singh scholarships was to be judged by a selection committee consisting of Har Dayal, Teja Singh, Taraknath Das, and Arthur Pope, a sympathetic philosophy professor of the University of California. The scholarship was supposed to cover tuition, textbooks, lab fees, room and board, second-class return passage to India, and a $50 monthly stipend. Eligibility was in theory to be unrestricted by caste, religion, race, or gender. Out of six hundred applicants, six were selected for the 1912-13 academic year, including Gobind Behari Lal. But by the time they arrived, Jawala Singh's harvest had proven significantly less lucrative than expected due to a drop in potato prices that year, and the promised funds were not forthcoming. The scholarship winners decided to stay and enroll anyway, using their own resources.
Together the six scholars rented a house near the campus. Among the six, Nand Singh was the designated mediator to the scholarship committee, ensuring their material needs were supplied. They took turns cooking "Indian food of a very simple kind, rice, dal, milk, vegetable or meat" and also got a small weekly allowance for pocket money. By the end of 1912, however, the funds dried up completely. The notion of "self-supporting," said Behari Lal, was "a peculiar American system" quite new to them. Now, like the rest of the students, they earned their living by working in the mornings or afternoons, or during holidays, waiting tables in boardinghouses, washing dishes in restaurants, selling newspapers, or even working in canneries. During the summers, they often worked in "the fields and orchards where, almost always in the company of Indian farm workers-Sikhs, Moslems, Hindus, Pathans-they picked fruit from the trees or planted celeray [sic] or potatoes or did some thing or other." On a 25¢ to 30¢ hourly wage, or by selling Indian handicrafts such as shawls (was it assumed they would bring the stock of goods with them?), one could live comfortably for a year on $250 and like a king for $350.
In 1911, Calcutta's English-language magazine Modern Review printed a series of articles offering advice to Indian students on how to deal with arrival and life in America, such as how to find housing and employment. One should bring identification papers from a sponsoring organization and then get a recommendation letter from the American consul general in Seattle. (Students also were advised to just say no if the immigration inspector asked if they believed in polygamy. Such a traditional form of Oriental deviance was certainly no less controversial than the very modern Western practice of free love, advocacy of which was to get Har Dayal into trouble the following year.) Someone would then meet and escort them to G. D. Kumar's new India House. From there they could write to Berkeley, and someone else would come up to meet them. The recommended course was to arrive in the spring, work over the summer, and enroll in the fall, either at the university straightaway or at a free Berkeley high school for a year first.
Har Dayal also published a series of articles in Modern Review, praising the United States as the ideal place in all the world "from which a solitary wandering Hindu can send a message of hope and encouragement to his countrymen." As the future-oriented nation par excellence, the United States was the perfect foil for India, whose ancient culture it was thus eager to embrace. Indeed, such a rapprochement would be mutually beneficial: Vedantic philosophy would do wonders for the superficial, "restless, noisy," "overfed, self-complacent" Americans, while modernity would stimulate and inspire the Indians mired in tradition, stunted by colonial chains, and hampered by current repression. He thought the social and political climate of the United States would be very salubrious for Indian students, virtually "an ethical sanitarium." Here they could openly explore "the value of unity, the lessons to be learned from Japan, the importance of industrial progress, the greatness of the American people, the blessings of democracy, the honourableness of manual labour, the meanness of Theodore Roosevelt and the necessity for education, liberal and technical, for the uplifting of the people of India." As they were in Har Dayal's opinion "endowed with energy and brains but little money," they would benefit in practical terms not only from technical training but from the moral effects of supporting themselves for the first time through manual labor, thereby "learning self-reliance and resourcefulness of mind."
In a similar vein Harnam Singh Chima published "Why India Sends Students to America" in 1907. He asserted that the real purpose for him and his fellow students was "that we may deserve the title educated in the fullest and practical sense of the word. We came here to imbibe free thoughts from free people and teach the same when we go back to our country and to get rid of the tyranny of the rule of the universal oppressor (the British)."
No less than the workers, the students experienced racism. Boardinghouses and restaurants often declined to serve them, and they were ineligible for membership in most campus clubs. This, along with the need for them to do menial labor, may to some degree have neutralized the class privilege they had enjoyed in India. In any case the Ghadarites and their immediate predecessors deliberately fostered secularism, tolerance, and fraternization across religious and caste lines. Of course it would be disingenuous to suggest that all differences of class, caste, religion, and regional origin were erased in the New World. However, it does seem that these differences faded into lower relief in comparison to their mutual interests and experiences in the North American context. Even if these and other differences were not completely erased-only temporarily deemphasized to reemerge later-by 1912 the Ghadar community's two main ingredients were present. The movement's "outstanding characteristic," in participant Gobind Behari Lal's opinion, was the "combination of university-bred scholar and the cultural leader and of the pre-educated Indians, workers, farmers and small shopkeepers etc. of the Pacific Coast." But the ensuing emphasis on education for workers and manual labor for students closed the distance between them and encouraged the merging of each group's concerns with those of the other-a volatile fusion that illuminated and ignited both of them.
Neither students nor laborers as a group were overwhelmingly political upon arrival, as the majority were focused on their own personal advancement. The farmers had come seeking prosperity, the students professional success. However, an important minority had come with other ideas in mind. A professor complained: "[The students] are generally revolutionaries, or if not such when they come, are soon taken in hand by their fellows and converted," after which, "having come under the influence of the socialistic and revolutionary ideas they regarded it as their mission in life to work for the subversion of the British rule in India." A California Immigration officer observed in 1914 that "most of the Indian students residing there are infected with seditious ideas," so thoroughly that "even Sikhs of the labouring class have not escaped their pernicious influence." But who radicalized whom?
In Modern Review Har Dayal said, of the peasants as much as the students, that America had "lifted [them] to a higher level of thought and action. The great flag of the greatest democratic state in the world's history, burns up all cowardice, servility, pessimism and indifference, as fire consumes the dross and leaves pure gold behind." Of course this exposure to liberal discourses and rising expectations advertised by the land of opportunity, combined with systematic exclusion from access to the same, is what fired their ire, not merely the imbibing of some magically liberating influence inherent in the American atmosphere.
Between 1907 and 1910, white American anxiety and hostility increased apace as the number of Indians grew, although opinion was far from unified during this period of dramatic social and cultural flux. Moreover, class positioning on both sides conditioned American responses to Indian newcomers, causing Indians to be read as exotically tantalizing Orientals if they came from educated elite backgrounds, and as threatening dark-complected aliens if they came as low-wage workers. According to Rattan Singh's account, the Sikh "pioneers" did fairly well in prosperous periods, but an economic downturn in the United States in 1907 led to tensions with white workers. Joan Jensen attributes this to a predictable pattern: whenever the economy put pressure on low-income white laborers, anti-Asian hysteria rose in direct proportion, as the incoming workers, who were ready to accept even lower wages, were seen as competition. Just as the West Coast's Asiatic Expulsion League had thought things were under control with the Chinese and Japanese, now here came the latest manifestation of the "Yellow Peril," this time in the form of a "tide of turbans." Organized labor accused Sikhs of being in league with the bosses who colluded with the steamship companies in recruiting Asian laborers. Often even Socialists judged Asian workers backwards and unorganizable, a drag on the progress of more advanced and "modern" white labor.
Indian laborers were used as strikebreakers in Tacoma. An escalating series of hostile incidents followed, beginning with the August 1907 riot in Bellingham, Washington, that literally drove the Indians out of town, in an act premeditated to be the grand finale of a Labor Day parade, and followed by other acts of vandalism and vigilantism in California and Oregon. In March 1910, "white hoodlums" in St. John, Oregon, apparently with the collusion of the police, attacked the quarters of Indian workers, who beat them back with sticks and clubs.
The views of the West Coast anti-Asian groups and certain sectors of the white labor movement notwithstanding, the American public as a whole was not ill disposed to the Indians; Americans identified with the rhetoric of an anti-British independence struggle and tended to sympathize with refugees from foreign tyranny. But as American power on the world stage, along with the United States' imperial ambitions, waxed around the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth century, the balance of social attitudes toward the rest of the world and its émigrés was shifting. President Theodore Roosevelt, recent recipient of congratulations and approval from Rudyard Kipling on his successful conquest of Cuba and the Philippines, along with a copy of Kipling's poem "White Man's Burden," affirmed his appreciation for the British Raj's effectiveness as "the most colossal example history affords of a successful administration by men of European blood of a thickly populated region on another continent ... one of the most admirable achievements of the white race during the last two centuries." Still, the Indians continued to find support among progressive leftists and left-liberals, civil libertarians, pacifists, and anti-imperialists, who opposed World War I, and of course Orientalist intellectuals and theosophists.
Meanwhile policymakers proposed increasingly sly ways to keep Indians out without explicitly banning them. For example, the United States might make an agreement with the British requiring Indians to carry passports, and then refuse passports to laborers. Or the United States might persuade shipping lines to discontinue service for Asians or to refuse to sell tickets to Indian laborers, thereby in effect privatizing or contracting out enforcement of an exclusion policy. A 1910 Immigration Commission report recommended congressional exclusion and a gentlemen's agreement with Britain to stem the flow of East Indians, as they were by now "universally regarded as the least desirable race of immigrants thus far admitted to the United States" ; also, the report suggested, requiring a literacy test might help curtail East Indian immigration.
In 1912, the Root amendment to the pending Dillingham immigration bill called for the deportation of "any alien who shall take advantage of his residence in the United States to conspire with others for the violent overthrow of a foreign government recognized by the United States." It was defeated. In 1913 the Alien Land Law was passed, in part to prevent Japanese or Sikh agricultural workers from accumulating their own profitable land base in California's Central Valley, a process already underway. At the same time another bill was debated though not passed, restricting not entrance, but eligibility for citizenship. Of course, restricting immigrants from entering and disqualifying them from citizenship were two different tasks. It was not until 1917 that the Asiatic Barred Zone was declared, drastically restricting entry for anyone originating within a geographically (if not politically) arbitrary latitude and longitude that covered most of China, part of Russia, part of Polynesia, and all of India, Burma, Siam, the Malay States, Arabia, Afghanistan, and the Indian Ocean islands.
As early as 1907, officials in Punjab noted the circulation of "seditious pamphlets" addressed to soldiers in the local army garrisons "pointing out to them how easy it would be to throw off British rule.... The circular emanated from some Natives of India now in the United States." As North America grew as an organizing center, revolutionaries abroad in Europe, such as Har Dayal, Ajit Singh, and Bhai Parmanand, increasingly started looking west in hopes of advancing their work. Once there, the necessary tasks would be to carry out anti-British "sedition" and to protect the community from North American racism. The two imperatives were complementary: in the organizers' calculations, the latter was precisely what might prime a potential mass movement to develop its consciousness of the former. In other words, the rage fueled by discrimination might be channeled toward anticolonial struggle. Still, this conjunction of Indian independence and American civil rights could also lead to conflicts in priority. The difference in primary aspirations for status as American citizens versus status as free Indian citizens was eventually reflected in a divergence of interest between moderate permanent settlers and radical temporary sojourners, though this may ultimately be a circular argument, given that it was the radicals who left to go fight in the mutiny, leaving the moderates behind. But it was only between 1912 and 1918 that the Indian frame came to override the American one with such urgency, and that the narrative arc of national liberation came to blot out that of immigrant arrival and success. Before the Ghadar movement coalesced, while organizers did habitually speak against British rule, in the immediate sense they prioritized worker education and the social welfare of the immigrant community. A few examples of the organizers follow.
Ram Nath Puri
Ram Nath Puri was a bank clerk in Lahore when he first drew the attention of the British authorities for a few "objectionable pamphlets" and a "seditious cartoon" he had published in 1905.B /BIn 1906 he left for America. There he worked first as a hospital watchman and then as an interpreter for the Sikh laborers who were then beginning to arrive in larger numbers. It was also reported that he "employed his talents in cheating them at every opportunity" and was "regarded by the Indians as a swindler and by Americans as a loafer." He enrolled in a mining college, and later worked in the fields picking fruit, as a "waiter in the house of an American lady," and as an unsuccessful entrepreneur. Both his Eastern Employment Agency and his Indo-American General Trading Company failed.
But Puri also started a Hindustan Association and a dormitory called the Magnolia Street Union, which provided Punjabi laborers with room and board for 10¢ a night. He also published a short-lived Urdu paper called the Circular-i-Azadi (Circular of Freedom), which appeared in June, July, and August 1907 in San Francisco and Oakland. One of the first significant pieces of anticolonial propaganda literature circulated on the West Coast, it was prohibited from shipment to India due to its "seditious" content. According to the report of the director of criminal intelligence for January 1908, its "object ... is to organise an Indian national party among the Indians who go to America for employment. ... It seems to owe its existence to the collision which has occurred between the white and coloured labour at Vancouver and at places in California, the state of Washington and elsewhere in the west of America."
Puri's paper was allegedly connected to an "Indian Association" based in San Francisco, and with branches in Astoria and Vancouver, the purpose of which was "to impart instructions to Indians on national lines, to teach gunfiring, Japanese exercises, and the use of spear, sword and other weapons in self-defence, and to foster American sympathy with India." Although copies of the original paper are now impossible to find, the Director of Criminal Intelligence (DCI) reports inform us that the August issue included an article advocating a boycott of government service; and that both the July and the August issues contained extracts from the anti-British Gaelic American (of which we have not heard the last) and from other Indian newspapers-presumably the Bande Mataram and Indian Sociologist, since they shared material with the Gaelic American.
Puri acquired a modest bit of land in Oakland around 1910 and considered settling in the United States, since he was still afraid to return to India. But he apparently changed his mind, reaching Tokyo in time to make a "very objectionable" (which presumably meant militantly seditious) speech at a farewell dinner for Muhammed Barakatullah, who was leaving his teaching post there in summer 1910. Puri then "turned up unexpectedly" in Bijnor (his hometown) in 1911 and advised the youth at the Arya Samaj gurukul (religious school) there that they should "go to America where they would learn how a man could achieve liberty." The report is silent as to what happened to him later, whether he stayed in Bijnor, and whether he reconnected with the Ghadarites when they returned in 1914-15.
Guru Dutt Kumar
Guru Dutt Kumar arrived in British Columbia around 1907 and opened a grocery store in Victoria.B /BBorn in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), he was exposed to the revolutionary movement in Calcutta, where he had studied at the National College, briefly taught Urdu and Hindi, and apprenticed at a photographer's studio. In Calcutta he also met Taraknath Das, who assisted him in coming to North America, along with Harnam Singh Sahri, a veteran of the Fourth Cavalry.
In 1909 Kumar became the secretary of a new Hindustan Association in Vancouver-the same association linked to Puri's Circular of Freedom. Its ultimate goal was "complete self-government" for the "Hindustani Nation," which for him would entail not only the elimination of foreign exploitation but the promotion of domestic education, industry, trade, and agriculture. The organization boasted some 250 members and ministered most to "students and educated men." F. C. Isemonger and James Slattery's official report claimed that it functioned chiefly to entice Indian students to America, where they could be "instructed in nationalist, revolutionary, and even anarchical doctrines." Initially working closely with the Khalsa Diwan Society, Kumar emphasized social reform, moral uplift, teetotaling, and caste and religious harmony. While agitating against entry bans on new immigrants, including families attempting to join their loved ones who were already there, an anticolonial strain was becoming increasingly overt.
Kumar and his colleagues also opened the Swadesh Sevak Home in Vancouver, modeled on Krishnavarma's London India House. It offered a school for immigrants' children (although with families barred from entry, surely there could not have been many of them) and evening English classes for the immigrants themselves. Its corresponding organ was the Swadesh Sevak, started in 1910 as the Gurmukhi counterpart to Taraknath Das's Free Hindustan. Both papers reprinted articles from the Bande Mataram and Indian Sociologist, which were published by their radical movement counterparts in Europe, and advocated mutiny among the Sikh troops in the British Indian army. The paper was put on the list of "objectionable" literature prohibited from entering India under the Sea Customs Act, as of March 1911.
Meanwhile, Kumar, Sahri, and others took up the practice of visiting groups of Indian laborers at their workplaces to talk with them about "social and political problems." In addition to circulating the paper, they held meetings and raised funds for combating the entry ban or reversing the arrests of confederates who had been threatened with deportation. Upon his arrest in October 1910, Kumar was found to be in contact with Das, and "in possession of the addresses of a number of Hindu [i.e., Indian] agitators in America, Africa, Switzerland, Egypt and France, and also had some notes on the manufacture of nitro-glycerine." The deportation case was decided in his favor, and he stayed on to become "a leader in the agitation against the immigration laws."
Kumar and Sahri also focused (secretly) on recruiting new immigrants as potential anti-British revolutionaries, offering training in the procurement and use of arms and explosives. An association requiring an oath of secrecy for membership was formed in 1911, whose aim was "to establish liberty, equality and fraternity of the Hindustani nation in their relation with the rest of the nations of the world."
The arrests on the pretext of illegal entry were symptoms of the suspicion and surveillance under which the British and Canadian authorities kept the Hindustan Association. In May 1911 the Vancouver Daily Province printed a story claiming that the "Vancouver Hindus" had sent thousands of dollars to "plotters in India" for the purchase of rifles. Kumar wrote scathingly to the editor, refuting the headline as slander, but nevertheless closed down the association soon afterward, along with the paper and the house, and left the country to join Taraknath Das in Seattle.
Taraknath Das had been recruited to the original Bengali Anusilan Samiti in 1903 and helped to form its Dacca branch in 1905.B /BThe following year he took the familiar route through Japan to New York at age twenty-three. After earning a college degree in Seattle, he went to work as an interpreter in the U.S. immigration office in Vancouver. But he was fired in 1908 for his obtrusive habit of exhibiting scathing anti-British opinions.
In April, just before Das's dismissal, the first issue of his eight-page English-language journal Free Hindustan had appeared. After two months he relocated printing to Seattle, where the Socialist paper Western Clarion provided the use of its press, and then to New York, aided by the press and the comradeship of George Freeman, editor of the Irish-American Fenian Brotherhood's organ Gaelic American. In fact, the DCI noted in July 1908 that the first two issues of Free Hindustan had arrived enclosed inside a copy of the latter, even before the partnership officially began in August. The new paper was "similar in size and character to the Indian Sociologist," and Das, its editor, also happened to be the treasurer of the Vancouver Indian Association. "The subject to which most attention is directed in these two numbers," noted Sir Charles Cleveland, director of criminal intelligence, "is naturally the immigration question and, in addition, the impoverishment of India by England, and a few other grievances are discussed with considerable bitterness."
Like the Indian Sociologist, whose tone it echoed, Free Hindustan took its masthead motto from Herbert Spencer: "Resistance to Tyranny is Obedience to God." The paper's claimed purpose was "political education of the masses for revolution." A 1910 issue "advised political work among the Sikh soldiers for an 'organised uprising'"; it noted that "considerable numbers [of Sikhs] were settled in Canada and the Western States, and ... were already much irritated by the Canadian immigration restrictions." The first issue contained an account of a mass meeting of Vancouver Indians outraged by such measures and protesting the threat of deportation. The meeting had sent a cablegram to the Secretary of State for India, Lord Morley, expressing as much. The paper also contained articles accusing Britain's "murderous commercial policy" of wreaking catastrophic famine in India, and compared its "Measures of Oppression" to those of czarist Russia-a comparison the Swadeshi radicals had also made.
In 1908, Das entered a prestigious military school in Norwich, Vermont, but was forbidden to enroll in advanced coursework or to join the Vermont National Guard as most alumni did. Aside from his foreign nationality, his political history also worked against him. Despite his popularity among the students and his "great interest in everything pertaining to military matters," he refused yet again to tone down the hostility to Britain that he had been warned against expressing "on all occasions, appropriate and otherwise." He moved on instead to earn advanced degrees in political science at the Universities of Washington and California, during which period a British Foreign Office Memorandum on Indian revolutionaries abroad identified him as a West Coast "ringleader." (Given his skill in negotiating mainstream American society, he had become something of an advocate and representative of the Indian community.)
In 1910 he helped set up the United India House in Seattle, where he and other Bengali students lectured to gatherings of around twenty-five laborers every Saturday. Das gave frequent lectures to the "students and settlers" on the Pacific coast, mainly on the theme of the economic exploitation of India. In addition to such efforts at public education, Das modeled some of his secret society methods of organization on the Bengali groups, with whom he remained in contact. They were kind enough to pass on their notorious bomb manual, which Das later shared with his San Francisco counterparts when invited down to address a meeting in 1914.
This activity must have eluded the knowledge of the immigration and naturalization authorities, who permitted him to attain U.S. citizenship in 1914. In the 1920s he married a white American woman named Mary Keatinge Morse, a noted women's suffragist and founding member of the NAACP. He later became a professor of political science at Columbia University, and remained prominent in Indian politics in North America until his death in 1958, though his path would diverge from the Ghadarite lineage as he turned toward a more conservative form of nationalism and fell out with the leaders of the reborn Ghadar Party in the early 1920s.
While Kumar and Das were most associated with Vancouver and Seattle, Pandurang Khankhoje could claim much credit for starting up the Indian Independence League in Portland and Astoria, which formed the seed of the Ghadar Party. Khankhoje's inspiration was Tilak, who had first encouraged the young man to seek military training outside of India. Like many others, he too had first tried Japan, but found that the Anglo-Japanese Alliance forbade his study of the "modern methods of warfare" there. He proceeded to California in 1905 and enrolled first in agricultural science at the University of California and then in 1908 at the Tamalpais Military Academy. He hoped to continue his training at West Point but was rebuffed as a non-U.S. citizen; his application for citizenship was also turned down. Nevertheless, he had already learned enough to drastically readjust his thinking on the possibilities of Indian military resistance, as he realized that modern weaponry and chemicals based in advanced technology were not within feasible reach of most Indians, although, says Emily Brown, "he did find the books on discipline, quick action, and secrecy to be of some value."
Early on, he had tried to use his school holidays not only to work-building roads, lumbering, and picking hops, grapes, and strawberries-but to talk with the laborers alongside him about the evils of British rule and encourage them to join the Indian Independence League. As of yet these efforts proved premature, but not for long. After graduation he drifted for a time, looking for work. In Portland he made the significant acquaintance of Pandit Kanshiram, an "old revolutionary and disciple of Sufi Amba Prasad." Kanshiram was now a prosperous lumber-mill owner who often provided financial support to both students and workers. Khankhoje proposed that they start a new Indian Independence League in Portland, "similar to the ones we had in Japan and San Francisco." He recalled: "The sight of so many Indians in one place had inspired me. I had to find some way to organize a movement with the Indian workers in America and spread the word right up to India."
But Kanshiram had reservations, based largely on the persistent mistrust of the workers for the educated youngsters, whom they felt liable to deceive, cheat, or condescend to them. But Khankhoje worked hard to dispel this perception, with Kanshiram's help, gradually earning trust through his integrity and good faith as he made himself "indispensable" when translation, medicine buying, or letter writing was needed. Finally the establishment was successful; though Sohan Singh Bhakna proved a tough nut to crack, as one of the most vocal in reluctance to trust a babu. Bhakna worked at the timber factory in Astoria while also serving as the local granthi and striving to represent the rights of Indian workers on both sides of the border. As a gesture of good faith Khankhoje proposed Bhakna as founding president, and Kanshiram as treasurer, of what workers would call the Azad-e-Hind (Freedom of India) Party.
As Kanshiram recognized the need to delegate, he assigned Khankhoje to local leadership of the Astoria branch. A Punjabi-owned lumber mill there welcomed him with open arms, thanks to his letters of introduction from Kanshiram and Bhakna, who had now come around to be a staunch ally. Astoria then became the hub of the North American movement and the birthplace of what would become the Ghadar Party. There were also branches of the movement now in Sacramento, San Francisco, and Portland.
Once things seemed to be running smoothly, Khankhoje returned to his studies at the Agricultural College in Corvallis, and later Washington State College, still nursing his dream of "training an army of farmer revolutionaries" and torn as he would be for much of his life between, quite literally, the sword and the plowshare. This conflict is a recurring theme in his biography; as his daughter puts it, "He was now simultaneously engaged in two fields: agriculture and revolution." It was in agriculture that his life's work would be celebrated. Diego Rivera immortalized Khankhoje in a mural for his contribution to the nourishment of the Mexican people through development of special strains of maize, and the Mukta Gram project that he established decades later in independent India, as a model for village self-sufficiency in food production and cottage industries, was inspired by his visit to Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute around 1912. For the moment, however, he used all his spare moments outside of soil and crop genetics research conducting military trainings and touring the region with his old roommate and longtime comrade Bishan Das Kochar, armed with lectures, magic lantern slides, and a cutting-edge cinematograph machine, raising funds and awareness.
Vishnu Ganesh Pingle
Another important figure in this circle was Vishnu Ganesh Pingle, at the time an engineering student at the University of Oregon. He also studied for a time at Berkeley, despite having been initially refused entry; this had, as usual, stimulated further agitations against the immigration laws. After meeting Khankhoje, a like-minded fellow Maharashtrian, Pingle began to neglect his studies and became preoccupied with the prospect of building a revolutionary army. He eventually took on leadership roles in the Portland and Astoria organizations, but his primary interest was Indian national liberation rather than American immigration woes, though the two matters were always linked. Thus, as the Portland group got more enmeshed in legal immigration issues on behalf of both Canada and United States entrants, Pingle was drawn back down to the Ghadarite stronghold of the San Francisco Bay Area, where the concern for national liberation was ascendant.
The Pacific Coast Hindi Association (PCHA)
Thanks to the work of these early activists, the building blocks of the movement were all in place by 1913. At that time, leading organizers, supported by those farmers and agricultural workers whose discontentment was acute, started looking for someone who could consolidate the existing nodes of activity, unite the students and the workers, channel the pervasive and building unrest, and beef up the political content of cultural and social reform projects. This person turned out to be Har Dayal.
Accounts vary as to who actually suggested that Har Dayal take the helm of a unified organization of the West Coast Indian community. It may have been Thakur Das, who had been active for some years in Iran under the name of Ghulam Hussain, working with Ajit Singh-himself an initial suggestion for California leadership-and Sufi Amba Prasad. Hussain/Das had then worked among Cama and Rana's Paris circle until they sent him to Portland in 1912 as "a skilled agitator ... with a specific mission to stir up disaffection among the Sikhs." Initially Har Dayal asked if this mission could wait; his schedule was booked with activities in San Francisco progressive circles, including projects such as his Radical Club, the utopian Fraternity of the Red Flag, and the IWW branch secretaryship. All this was soon to change, however.
There had already been a series of meetings in the Pacific Northwest throughout the spring of 1913 (the largest attended by 120 workers) by the time Har Dayal arrived for the fateful gathering in Astoria in early June. Also present were Hussain/Das, Sohan Singh Bhakna, Ram Chandra, Kanshi Ram, and Nawab Khan. "Two electric tram cars and two motor cars are said to have been hired for the occasion," reported Isemonger and Slattery, "and the cars were decorated with placards bearing the words 'India' and 'Freedom.' Hardayal was hailed with the words 'Bande Mataram,' but declined to be garlanded."
Reconfirming the leadership of Khankhoje's group, Sohan Singh Bhakna was elected president and Kanshiram treasurer. Har Dayal was named secretary. Now all the main components of the organizational infrastructure were in place, under the new name of the Pacific Coast Hindi Association (PCHA). In addition to a committee for collecting funds and a fifteen-member working committee (soon swelling to twenty-four) of annually elected representatives of local branches, there would be a general association comprising representatives from all the local communities up and down the coast, including both students and workers. The group then selected San Francisco as the publishing and propaganda hub because that was where Har Dayal's influence was strongest.
Nawab Khan provided a lengthy transcription of Har Dayal's speech: "You have come to America and seen with your own eyes the prosperity of this country. What is the cause of this prosperity? Why nothing more than this, that America is ruled by its own people. In India, on the other hand, the people have no voice in the administration of the country." Deploring the situation in which a rich agricultural land was wracked by famine as its crops were exported, he urged his audience: "Desist ... from your petty religious dissensions and turn your thoughts toward the salvation of your country. What you earn, earn for your country. What work you do, do it for your country.... Collect money and get the youth educated in America in order that they may become equipped to serve.... Prepare now to sacrifice yourselves." He then rhetorically reframed their immigrant status as an explicit function of Indian liberation. It was useless to keep struggling for American civil rights without the backing of an independent government, he said, arguing that "as long as the Indians remained in subjection to the British they would not be treated as equals by Americans or any other nation."
Ghadar was the fruit of a very particular synthesis: of populations, of issues, of contextual frames, and of ideological elements. It is precisely the richness of this combination that enabled it to play the role of missing link in the genealogy of Indian radicalism, and ofmedium of translation among coexisting movement discourses. Still, to a degree unprecedented within the revolutionary movement abroad, Ghadar was overwhelmingly a workers' movement, in which, moreover, the line between workers and intellectuals had become rather smudged. The impact of racial discrimination and its crucial intersection with class cannot be underestimated as a catalyst for the radicalization of South Asians in North America. Yet only when this frame was overlaid on the geopolitical reality of India's colonized status would American discontent transmute into Indian mutiny.
About the Book
Reviews“Maia Ramnath's Haj to Utopia is an odyssey through the world of early twentieth-century political radicalism, with a focus on the freedom dreams of those of Indian ancestry who found themselves on the West Coast of the United States. She traces with pointillist care the unruly imaginations fired up by empire's unimaginative rule. To be read and re-read.”
—Vijay Prashad, author of The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World
"Maia Ramnath’s Haj to Utopia is a thought-provoking study of the Ghadar project for revolutionary change. Going beyond the frame of a nationalist, armed struggle for the overthrow of British rule in India, the author deftly explores and contextualizes the links between Ghadar and a medley of revolutionary groups, and the exotic mix of radical ideas and activities. It provides valuable insight into the peculiar conjunction of nationalist, pan-Islamist, and Marxian discourses which made Ghadar a unique revolutionary adventure."
—Harish K. Puri, author Ghadar Movement: Ideology, Organisation and Strategy
“Maia Ramnath's book on the Ghadar Movement is an impressive accomplishment: it is at once an in-depth monograph surpassing all previous work on the subject, and a model of how world history should be written. She places the Ghadar in the perspective of pre-nationalist, anti-imperialist struggles, connecting it with other contemporary revolutionary movements around the world. It is empirically rich—Ramnath explores all extant empirical sources and illuminates them with exacting theoretical insights.”
“Maia Ramnath's meticulous scholarship enables her to effortlessly avoid the old clichés of nationalist historiography and the new clichés of ‘global’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ history. The Haj to Utopia is respectful of detail and context and has a fine feeling for the diverse social histories and intellectual movements in which its characters find themselves.”
—Benjamin Zachariah, author of Playing the Nation Game: the Ambiguities of Nationalism in India
Table of Contents
List of Maps
1. “The Air of Freedom”: Ghadar in America
2. Our Name Is Our Work: The Syndicalist Ghadar
3. Enemies of Enemies . . . : The Nationalist Ghadar
4. . . . and Friends: The Republican Ghadar
5. Toilers of the East: The Communist Ghadar
6. “Dear Muhammedan Brothers”: The Khilafatist Ghadar
7. Lal Salaams: Ghadar and the Bolshevik Muhajirin