A Famous Uprising

By Syed Birjees Asghar: DAWN, June 12, 2005

IN the past, the colonial powers that were in control of the countries in Africa or the Asian subcontinent had the habit of dubbing different native movements for self-rule as Ghadars, meaning rebellions or mutinies. British rulers of India called the first independence movement of 1857 a Ghadar or the Sepoy Mutiny. The Mau Mau uprising in Kenya during the ‘50s was also termed a seditious rebellion according to the then rulers of the land. So entrenched had the term rebellion become in the native psyche that subsequent indigenous struggles for independence were also termed Ghadars of sorts by the initiators or pioneers of such movements themselves. One similar movement which began in the beginning of the 20th century is known as the Ghadar Movement.

At the turn of the century, about 5,000 native Indians, mostly from the land of the five rivers and a majority among them belonging to the Sikh community, had migrated as farm labourers to Canada, which was then a British colony. Some of them were ex-soldiers and most belonged to farming communities. From Vancouver and British Columbia they trickled to the west coast of the US and settled in San Francisco, Portland, Los Angeles and San Jose on the west coast. But they faced severe discrimination in job opportunities and personal lives in Canada and in the US. In 1909, these immigrants and some Americans formed an organization named the Indo-American Association. Many students from the subcontinent studying at American Universities joined the association. The association had inter-alia on its programme to induct more students from the homeland into American Universities to widen its base in North America. In Canada, the migrant community also formed an association, the aim of which was to muster resources to work for the independence of their homeland. They started publishing a paper called Azadi Ka Circular. This paper spoke against the continuation of the British rule over their native lands. The Canadian government taking notice of these activities tightened its hold on the immigrants from the subcontinent and introduced discriminatory rules to limit the exit and entry of the temporary workers from the subcontinent. In 1909, only six Punjabi Indians were allowed to enter Canada.

In 1912, Hindustani Association of the Pacific coast was formed at Portland (USA), its aim being to get rid of the British Raj in the subcontinent even through an armed rebellion. Two newspapers under the title Ghadar, one in the Punjabi language and the other in Urdu were started by this association, which helped awaken national feelings amongst the immigrants. The first issue of the paper was distributed to politico-Indian centres in the US, Canada and Pacific islands and countries of the Asia Pacific rim where there were large pockets of Indian settlers. The Hindustan Association later changed its name to the Ghadar Party. Leaders of the Ghadar Party in general were migrant Hindus and Sikhs. But the party got a great fillip in Japan through Maulvi Barkat Ullah who was a professor at the Tokyo University. The Ghadr Party’s ambitious plan to oust foreign rulers from their homeland was to invade Kashmir from China, then go for Punjab and subsequently other provinces. The first World War had started in July 1914. The Ghadr Party taking advantage of the British involvement in this worldwide conflict decided to move against British interests and to start an uprising in India.

To achieve this goal, the first step taken by the Ghadr Party was to gather its adherents at the place of action. The first ship with 26 Indians left Vancouver in August 1914. Another ship with 60 left San Francisco. According to government records 2,312 Indians had entered India between Oct 1914 and Feb 1915 from North America. Their influx continued till 1916 when their number rose to 8,000. But government agencies were very active and at least 50 per cent of the returning men were arrested on arriving or were confined to their villages by the provincial government. The Ghadar Party established its own press and published small pamphlets in Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi which were distributed among students and the soldiers stationed in all cantonments in the NWFP, Punjab and the United Provinces. The party executive met on Feb 12, 1915 and decided to start a rebellion on Feb 21. Their plan was to attack and simultaneously capture Mian Meer (Lahore) and Ferozpur cantonments. Another attack was to be launched to capture Meerut cantonment from where they were to march towards Delhi.

The government had full intelligence on the Ghadarite’s plans. Government agents had been posted at railway stations in the north. The village functionaries like Zaildars, Lambarders, Patwaries and postmen had also been alerted to provide information on the activities of the Ghadarites and their sympathizers in the villages. The Ghadr Party executive itself had been penetrated by the agencies who knew about the impending rising and its date of action. The government was thus fully prepared to meet the design of the Ghadr Party. The Ghadarite sympathizer started derailing trains and blowing up bridges in central Punjab. The government moved in on Ghadarite elements quickly before their D-Day and arrested 13 main revolutionaries in Lahore. Further arrests took place all over Punjab. The cantonments were put on alert and native troops were placed under vigilance. Some were even disarmed. The detainees were put up in Lahore Jail; 291 men were tried there under the Defence of India Act; 42 were acquitted and 93 were awarded different jail terms. Forty two were awarded death penalty and 114 were transported for life. Confiscation of property was ordered against many amongst them. No one appealed against the punishments.

The soldiers did not remain isolated from the event. Some army units such as 26 Punjab, 12 Rajput, 23 Cavalry, 128 Pioneers 22 and 23 Mountain Battery, 24 Jaat Artillery, 130 Baloch and 21 Punjab came out in open rebellion in different cantonments. Seven hundred men of 5th light infantry located in Singapore mutinied on February 15, 1915 and got hold of the fort. The rebellion was subdued by the Gora platoons. Subsequent court martials sentenced 37 soldiers to death, 41 to transportation for life and remaining to various jail terms.

In December 1915 an Indian government in exile was set up in Kabul with Ghadarite Raja Mohinder Partab as president and Maulvi Barkat Ullah as prime minister, Maulvi Obaid Ullah Sindhi as home minister, Maulvi Bashir as war minister and Pillai as foreign minister.

The Hindustani troops stationed in Iran and Iraq were also instigated to fight for their country’s independence. An Indian Independence Army was raised in Iran. The Hindustani POWs in Turkey were coaxed to join this army. This army advanced towards Balochistan, capturing Kirmanshah. It planned to advance along the Makran coast. They reached Gwadar and Dawer. Defeat of Turkey in the World War and occupation of Mesopotamia by Britain in the meantime put a halt to the activities of such ragtag forces by cutting off their supply lines. British forces strengthened by their victories in Mesopotamia attacked the remnants of Ghadarites in Iran and defeated these patriots engaged in gorilla war. By 1919 the activities of the Ghadarites were completely halted. And thus fizzled out another very big but a weak and unrealizable attempt to wrestle the country out of the colonial yoke. The hold of the mighty Raj over such a big country could not have been shaken with the bow and arrow uprising engineered by the Ghadarites.