Encounters with Ghadar

Last year, I wrote an essay for CounterPunch about the Indo-US agreement. It began with the bravery of my friends Bela Malik and Tommy Mathew, whose protest in Jangpura drew the might of the US secret service and the Delhi police. Bela, an editor and teacher, went into a coma shortly afterwards. She was then in Nepal, where she threw herself into the democracy movement (for those in Kathmandu, there will be a memorial for her at Martin Chautari on the 22nd at 11am). An incandescent light, Bela slipped away on December 16, 2007. She was my first editor and a dear friend. Many years ago, we chatted about the Ghadar movement while roaming around Delhi. This essay helps me remember her humor and intelligence, and above all, her commitment.

A few years ago, I sat with Kartar Dhillon in her modest home in Berkeley, California. Kartar, who has lived a very full political life, told me about her brother, Budh. In 1924, twelve-year old Budh marched down to 5, Wood Street in San Francisco to a building known as the Ghadar Ashram. There he volunteered to join a jatha to go and liberate India, a country that he had not yet visited. It was the homeland of his parents, and he told his sister that unless this country was free, their lives in the U. S. would not be pleasant. People would treat them as coolies as long as India remained in British hands. Along with another teenager, Daswanda Singh Mann, Budh joined the Freedom for India Mission and set off across the Pacific Ocean. He did not get to India. En route, through the young Soviet Union, Budh got distracted. The route into India was closed, so he enrolled in the University of Toilers of the East and learnt a little bit about Marxism. Budh Dhillon returned to California and spent the rest of his life as an active militant for freedom and justice for all people.

Of such souls was the Ghadar Party made.

In 1913, veteran Indian nationalist Har Dayal used the two thousand dollars he had raised from Indian workers in California to buy a house in San Francisco. This house, the Yugantar Ashram initially, became the Ghadar Ashram, and it was from this base that Har Dayal began to publish a paper (initially twenty five thousand copies in Urdu). He named the newspaper Ghadar, Revolt, and its first issue (November 1, 1913) signaled its political views:

“Wanted: Brave soldiers to stir up Ghadar in India.
Pay: Death.
Prize: Martyrdom.
Pension: Liberty.
Field of Battle: India.”

A British intelligence agent who had his eyes on Har Dayal reported that by early January 1914, Indian students at Berkeley hoarded arms (twenty revolvers and sixteen Winchester rifles). In 1922, the British Consulate in San Francisco reported, “California is gaining the reputation of a nursery for Revolution and Revolutionary agitators.” When World War I broke out, Indians from along the western coast of North America went as if in an exodus toward India to fight British rule. Three Ghadar leaders, Ram Chandra, Bhagwan Singh and Maulvi Mohammed Barkatullah toured the west coast to urge men to join the jathas and cultivate a revolution. A Ghadar song testified to the courage and the idealism of the returnees,

“The time for prayer is gone.
It is time to take up the sword.
Empty talk does not serve any purpose.
It is time to engage in a fierce battle.
Only the names of those who long for martyrdom will shine.”

The bulk of the Indian farmers and students who lived along the west coast of North America had deep-set grievances against the British. Their families in India still suffered the indignities and extravagances of British rule, and these exiles continued to feel the stigma of exclusion and racism. It was the British Isles that ruled the bulk of the colonized world, and in particular, a large share of the Indian subcontinent. Indian nationalists in the U. S. made common cause with the Irish republicans. Agnes Smedley, who worked for the Friends for the Freedom of India, wrote of her participation in New York’s main Irish nationalist celebration in 1920, “We are in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. All the Hindus in the city, practically, will wear native costume and turbans and march. We had the Indian republic flag and banners demanding independence.” Both Ireland and India were held in thrall. The longest finger was pointed toward Britain.

Of the eight thousand emigrants who returned to India, the British arrested four hundred immediately, while they interned two thousand five hundred more in their villages. Their uprising did not come. Some of their best comrades (291 of them) stood in the dock in the Lahore Conspiracy Case–the bulk of them went to the gallows, or were sent to the Andamans or to the Lahore jail. Idealistic, they came to inspire the Indian army against their British masters. One among their lot, Prithvi Singh Azad, recalled their ethos: “The leaders of the Party in the U. S. A. were badly lacking in political awareness. We, a handful of people, plunged headlong in the field of action and had no mass support. We knew not how to gain mass support and never worked for that. We had been impelled by the impulse to free the nation from foreign yoke. I had been under the sway of a powerful passion to liberate my enslaved nation.” Marxism was not available to them in a serious way (neither in India nor in the U. S.). The Anarchists and Syndicalists inspired many of these emigrants (Har Dayal’s close confidant was the Anarchist leader Emma Goldman, and many of the radicals worked alongside the International Workers of the World). They wanted to conduct spectacular acts, not organize the bulk of the population for a better world.

This was Bhagat Singh’s milieu: people like Prithvi Singh Azad, and Sohan Singh Josh. Josh came from Chetanpura, Punjab, the same town as Surat Singh Gill. Both Gill and Josh had tried to go to the U. S., but whereas Gill got a visa (and became Kartar Dhillon’s husband), the U. S. embassy denied Josh. Josh grew up around Ghadarite radicals (and as a Communist leader he would write an early history of the movement). It was through Josh that a young Bhagat Singh learnt the history and theory of Communism and Marxism. Ghadar, via the Soviet Revolution, played a central role in the dissemination of socialist ideas among the Punjabi youth.

Only marginally did the Ghadar workers turn their attention to the role of U. S. imperialism and of Canadian complicity with British imperialism. The U. S. and Canada allowed the Indian radicals some space to work, although the governments also allowed British intelligence to follow their activities (our reconstruction of their work is made possible by these intelligence reports). When World War I broke out, and many Indian radicals decided to make common cause with Germany, the U. S. and Canadian states went after them (M. N. Roy, for instance, fled to Mexico as a result of this pressure, where he helped found its Communist Party; he was the Mexican delegate to the Comintern meetings where he debated Lenin). The repression provided the opportunity for some among the radicals to write in praise of the U. S. that at the very least had an ethos of republicanism and anti-colonialism–something Britain lacked. For example, Taraknath Das, Har Dayal’s associate, wrote an essay for the Calcutta-based Modern Review entitled “American Diplomacy at its Best,” which extolled U. S. foreign policy.

The members of the Ghadar and other like organizations were well aware of U. S. imperialism. One of Har Dayal’s close comrades was John Barry, a leader of the American Anti-Imperialist League (San Francisco branch) and of the Socialist Radical Club. The League was formed in 1898 to oppose the U. S. annexation of Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines. “We hold that the policy known as imperialism is hostile to liberty and tends toward militarism, an evil which it has been our glory to be free,” the League declared in its 1899 platform. “We regret that it has become necessary in the land of Washington and Lincoln to reaffirm that all men, of whatever race or color, are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Whereas the League took a strong position against imperialism, it promoted a grave illusion about the American Republic: that it had no prior history of expansionist activity. Forgotten in this was one of the causes of the 1776 War of Independence, for the settlers in the original Thirteen Colonies to expand westward. When they did, these settlers and their new state annihilated or pacified the Amerindian residents and annexed large parts of Mexico. Only when this proximate colonization was over did the U. S. state exercise its right to the Western Hemisphere (through the 1823 Monroe Doctrine) and outward into the Pacific (the Hawaiian islands and the Philippines).

If Har Dayal and others observed what was ongoing in Central America, they would have seen the future tendency of planetary imperialism. The U. S. government from 1915 onward began to absorb some Caribbean islands (the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba) and Central America (Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Panama) into its economic orbit by frequent military interventions and by the seizure of the economic sovereignty of these small countries. They were not ruled directly by the U. S. government, but their local satraps paid tribute to U. S. power (including to U. S. corporations, such as the United Fruit Company). No longer was imperialism identical with colonialism (for the extraction of resources and the creation of dependent markets); it had now morphed its tentacles into all areas of social life and economic accumulation. Foreign direct investment into Central and South America created a cumulative stock of investment, which in turn generated a return flow of earnings (as the U. S. Marxist Harry Magdoff argued in 1969). Nothing short of a broad, planetary united front against the structures of this form of imperialism would be adequate.

In 1915, the African American radical, W. E. B. DuBois (a close friend of many Indian nationalists) wrote an insightful essay, “The African Roots of the War.” In this essay, DuBois pointed out that the growth of monopoly capitalism alongside liberal democracy in Europe and North America led to the creation of a large quantum of surplus, some of which was turned over to the white working class (which became an aristocracy among labor). The uneven union of the white working class with their capitalist masters led, DuBois argued, into an intra-national fight over the world’s spoils, mainly the “darker nations of the world–Asia and Africa, South and Central America, the West Indies and the Islands of the South Seas. The present world war,” DuBois continued, “is, then, the result of jealousies engendered by the recent rise of armed national associations of labor and capital whose aim is the exploitation of the wealth of the world mainly outside the European circle of nations. These associations, grown jealous and suspicious at the division of spoils of trade-empire, are fighting to enlarge their respective shares; they look for expansion, not in Europe but in Asia, and particularly in Africa.” This argument would appear two years later, with slightly different emphases, in Lenin’s Imperialism. DuBois was greatly interested in developments in India, but his own writings were not to be read by either the Indian political thinkers or by the Indian radicals in the U. S.

Only later, in the 1940s, would an Indian radical in the U. S. develop an understanding of the growth of U. S. imperialism. Kumar Goshal (born 1899) had come to the U. S. in 1920, and after a stint in Hollywood, became an ardent proponent of Indian independence (he was also close to leaders of the Communist Party in the U. S.). After 1947, Goshal became a main correspondent for the Courier (an African American paper in Pittsburg), where he wrote an important three part series in December 1953, “People in Colonies Versus the American Colossus.” Here, Goshal laid out the contours of U. S. imperialism, “To enlarge their empire during and since World War II, U. S. industrialists and financiers have knifed partners when partners were unable to retaliate; brought up or influenced governments through grants and loans; arranged 99-year leases for military bases on foreign soil; signed trade treaties giving U. S. capital ‘equal treatment’ with weak domestic capital in economically backward countries; acquired air and naval bases in countries with weak or unpopular governments. No country is too small to escape the eye of U. S. corporations roaming the globe for more profits.” Not only did the U. S. state put its considerable power and influence behind U. S. based corporations, but it also found willing allies in the “darker nations” to do its bidding in the name of “modernization” and “democracy.” U. S. imperialism was always smarter and more flexible than that of its European forbearers, who quickly became “American” in their own relationship to the rest of the world. Goshal was not known in India, but his line of analysis is not different from those Communists who had few illusions about the Indian bourgeoisie and its tepid commitment to national sovereignty and to national development (Vivek Bald and I are collecting his main writings for an edited volume that should appear in a year or so).

We now live under the dispensation of an “American” imperialism, although the U. S. government is simply the leader of an assault for the planetary turbo-elite (including sections of the dominant class in India). The U. S. is now a hollowed out entity (for this one has to take seriously the dramatic effect that “jobless growth” has had on the social lives of the U. S. poor, who now number around 37 million). The U. S. economy has major structural problems, exemplified by the almost U. S. $1 trillion deficit. The deficit is currently buoyed by the Chinese and Saudi purchase of U. S. Treasury bills. In time creditor firms and banks will turn from T-bills to purchase U. S. capital stocks. But the U. S. has one major comparative advantage: its military force. Military power will be the major export of the U. S. to help cover its deficit. Militarism (as DuBois, Lenin and Goshal indicated) is a fundamental aspect of imperialism. To end militarism, one has to work to abolish the nature of capitalist accumulation.

Spectacular acts of violence or particular rage at the U. S. is equally misleading. The structures of imperialism make themselves manifest here and there, but not entirely. Broad social and political change is the order of the day, not the removal of this or that regime alone. Bhagat Singh’s Naujawan Bharat Sabha wrote a far-sighted manifesto in 1928 that far exceeded the tactical struggle ongoing among these young people, inspired by Ghadar. “Without going into details,” they wrote, “we can safely assert that to achieve our object, thousands of our most brilliant young men, like the Russian youth, will have to pass their precious lives in villages and make the people understand what the Indian revolution would really mean. They must be made to realize that the revolution that is to come will mean more than a change of masters. It will, above all, mean the birth of a new order of things, a new state.”

Three years later, from Lahore Central Jail, Bhagat Singh wrote his letter to political workers. He asked them to form a Communist Party and to begin their ceaseless work among the masses to create a popular will for socialism. In this brief essay, Bhagat Singh returned to the origins of Punjabi radicalism, the Ghadar. “One of the fundamental causes of the failure of the efforts of the Ghadar Party (1914-15),” he wrote, “was the ignorance, apathy and sometimes active opposition of the masses. And apart from that, [an organized party] is essential for gaining the active sympathy of and organizing the peasants and workers.” By “ignorance” Bhagat Singh did not mean stupidity as much as lack of access to a broader analysis of oppression and exploitation. This is what an organized movement in constant struggle against power can produce; struggle is, in his own words, a school for the masses.

As Bhagat Singh waited in jail, a second group of Ghadar Party radicals entered India. They came with a different purpose. Harbans Singh Basi, Bhagat Singh Bilga, Iqbal Singh Hundal, Chanan Singh, Gurmukh Singh, Prithvi Singh, Teja Singh Swatantar and others came from Moscow not to conduct individual acts of violence or to hope for an uprising in the army. They returned to build the Indian Communist Party.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu




Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).