Thursday, July 24, 2008

Gadar of 21st February 1915

Gadar of 21st February 1915
Inderjit Nandan

Economic policies of the British government had pushed the nation on the brink of an economic disaster. In addition to looting the treasury they started exporting not only go ods but also the essential food-grains. This dragged the nation towards an impending famine. During the period between 1850 and 1900 there were 25 famines. Food supplies were being transported out of Punjab while the death-toll owing to starvation was rising.The situation deteriorated much further in the first decade of the twentieth century, and deaths caused by droughts, plague, malaria etc. reached unprecedented proportions. Classification of land holdings as personal capital, coupled with imposition of heavy taxes started destroying the age old village autonomy. Ownership of jointly held land was annulled and farmers went on getting crushed under heavy debts. They started fleeing to foreign countries in search of livelihood, often mortgaging or selling their agricultural land.

In the mean time the goverment continued passing new draconian laws which worsened the situation to the brink of volatile instability. ”Colonization Act”, ”Indigo Act” and ”Doab bari Act” were some amongst them. These circumstances forced the Punjabis to migrate to America, Canada and other countries on an even larger scale.
However even migration did not put an end to their su erings as they encountered ill-treatment and humiliation even in their new abo de. They had to work much harder and much longer at extremely low wages, while they developed regions which were earlier uninhabitable by the native population. With a view to regaining their land in their native country, and subsistence of their families left behind, they were working twice as hard. However, in the mean time local laborers started pressing their government with the demand to stop this immigration. Riots broke out against immigrant laborers in 1907 in British Columbia. Canadian government promulgated a law in May 1908 banning entry into Canada of those who were not traveling to Canada directly from their native countries. Moreover, these new immigrants had to declare a minimum of 200 dollars on entry. This was specifically done to prevent the in ux of Indians and this had tacit support of the colonial government of India. For the British to o did not want the Indians to gain awareness, because those traveling abroad could return and spread the message of freedom and the news of well being in the foreign societies. Moreover socialism was being preached in Vancouver and the British government did not want any similar movement here.

Owing to the ill-treatment in America and Canada, and the policies of the white rulers, Indians began organizing themselves. Indian laborers working in American industries began to form trade unions. ”United India League” and ”Hindi Association” were some of the institutions formed by them. Also, there was an assassination attempt on Lord Harding on 23rd Dec. 1912. These events reinvigorated the revolutionary spirit among Lala Hardayal and his associates. In 1913, ”Hindi Asso ciation of the Pacific Coast”, an o shoot of ”Hindi Association” was instituted. Its founders included Sohan Singh Bhakna, Kesar Singh, Lala Hardayal, Kartar Singh Sarabha, Baba Jawala Singh, Baba Waisakha Singh, Balwant Singh, Pt. Kanshi Ram, Harnam Singh Tundilat, G. D. Verma, Lala Thaker Das, Munshi Ram, Bhai Parmanand, Nidhan Singh Chugha, Santokh Singh, Master Udham Singh, Baba Harnam Singh, Karim Bakhsh, Amar Chand, Rehmat Ali and V. G. Pingle. In the same year, alarmed by the growing economic might and land- holdings of Indian immigrants, the American government passed the “Alien Land Law” lest the immigrant population acquired further riches.

The first step of the party was the publication of a magazine to propagate the principles, goals and the plan of upcoming activities of the movement. A magazine called ”Gadar” was started in November of the same year by the party, with Lala Hardayal as its editor. He enthusiastically began the propaganda bringing awareness among the Indian immigrant population. Publication of the magazine ”Gadar” and establishment of ”Yugantar Ashram” in San Francisco in a way marked the beginning of the ”Gadar movement”. This ”Gadar party” was inspired by the sepoy mutiny of 1857. Though they drew inspiration from the 1857 mutiny, they did not overlo ok the shortcomings of the same. Realizing the need of national unity which was possibly missing in the sepoy mutiny, they emphasized the importance of nationalism in their principles. More importantly it was decided that religion was a personal matter and so was not a topic to be discussed. Similarly casteism was completely shunned. It was also stressed that each individual was to participate in the independence struggle of the country of his residence. Utmost emphasis was on attainment of freedom from the British by means of an armed struggle. The propaganda by Lala Hardayal and other had established beyond doubt that British rule alone was responsible for poverty, adversities and humiliation of Indians. Therefore the party started to press for the armed struggle so that India could be liberated from the clutches of British empire.

The scene of the then world was fast changing and the activities of Gadar party were approaching its zenith. In February 1914, the ag of Gadar party was hoisted in the city of Stockton, California and the idea of pledging their wealth for their motherland was mooted. The members of Gadar party, had perceived the state the world was in and had anticipated that a World war was imminent.They were also aware that Britain would certainly participate in such war. They were waiting for an opportune moment topress their demands. This was necessitated because Congress, till now, had not played any meaningful role for the welfare of the people, had not negotiated any deal with the government related to mass-starvation, epidemics and famines, nor had they initiated any appropriate measures. They were merely begging for their rights, whereas Gadar party was aiming to gain freedom using an armed struggle. With this goal, its party members were being trained in military warfare. British rulers were under the impression that members of Gadar party were gullible simpletons. They considered Lala Hardayal to be both shrewed and intelligent, and thought that he alone was behind the whole show. If he could be arrested the whole movement will lose its momentum and become directionless. Lala Hardayal was arrested on 25th March 1914 under this design. However, his associates bailed him out and quietly relocated him to Switzerland.

After the 1908 Canadian Law was repealed, Indians were ready in large numbers to immigrate to Canada, however no ship was willing to sail them across the oceans. Some associates contacted Gurdit Singh who was working as a contractor in Singapore and Malaya. He leased the Komagata Maru ship from Japan so that Indians from Kolkata, Singapore and Hongkong ports could be ferried to Canada. When this ship reached the shores at Vancouver, the Canadian government refused them the permission to land in Canada and the ship was redirected towards India. The travelers were disallowed from even procuring food items on their return voyage. Finally when the ship reached Kolkata’s Bajba j Ghat, 222 of the travelers were arrested, 19 were executed, 62 were forced to catch trains. Only 9 passengers could save themselves. This event angered Indians living abroad and they enmasse started returning to India. In October 1914, many Indians from America, Canada, China, Philippines, Singapore, Malaya, Hongkong, etc., came back. Bibi Gulab Kaur was one brave woman among them who delivered inspiring speeches to the passengers of a ship returning from Manila and made an important contribution to the Gadar movement.

The members of the Gadar party and Indians residing abroad had sensed that World War could break out at any moment and therefore zealously started spreading the message of revolution because they wanted to sacrifice their lives for the creation of a new and independent motherland. Not only were they spreading this revolutionary message among Indians residing abroad, they were also conducting similar propaganda in India. They wrote open letters to Indians wherein they intimated the Indians about the impending war and called upon them to jump into this freedom struggle. They enlightened the people about the need for political sagacity at that moment, for they knew it was certain that Britain would get involved in the war and hence would need Indians’ support. They emphasized that the moment was ripe to press for total independence. They maintained that Indian help would certainly be needed by the British and in return complete freedom must be demanded. They proclaimed: ”We must educate our people about our demands. We must unite as a common front, and fight for our national independence together. Until we are all united we cannot press our demands. We should not let this opportunity slip away this time. Our slogan should be:

• Complete independence or non-cooperation.
• Complete freedom and nothing else.
• No freedom, no soldier from India.
• No freedom, no money from India.
• Freedom or resistance.”

The plans of the revolutionaries of the Gadar party got a shot in the arm when the World war broke out exactly as per their prediction and ship loads of Indians started returning home. However, circumstances in India were not as conducive for their efforts as they were abroad. Moreover, the general populace had not reached similar levels of awareness. Nevertheless, on their return they began the party work on a war-footing with utmost dedication. In addition to general public, they also strived to bring about enhanced awareness among the Indian soldiers, who were in British army, by spreading their message in the cantonments. During the 1857 sepoy mutiny the Sikhs had been on the side of the East India Company, however, this time this community was solidly with their own country men. At the same time British too did not want the Sikh community against them.

Intense preparations were made in Northern India for the revolution. Satyendranath Sanyal helped them contact Rambihari Bose who agreed to take over the command. Vishnu Ganesh Pingle too had joined them. As a result of comprehensive propaganda in the army cantonments, the news was that Indian soldiers to o were in a revolutionary mood and in the event of a mutiny they would join the revolutionaries. It was planned that the first attack in Gadar (revolution) would be on the Miyar Meer of Lahore and armament factories at the fort in Firozepur. The success at these venues was to trigger mutiny at other cantonments too. The day for the mutiny was set to be 21th February 1915. The whole operation was carried out so secretively that the British had no inkling of it till as late as 15th February 1915. Unfortunately, however, Kirpal Singh turned an informer and divulged the secret to the Colonial rulers. On learning this, the date of mutiny was advanced to 19th February 1915 but the government caught hold of this information too. Nevertheless, on the appointed day, a group of revolutionaries led by Kartar Singh Sarabha reached Firozepur. But since the British had known this in advance, they had disarmed the Indian soldiers at the camp. This plot failed and the revolutionaries were arrested. Then, these people were tried in Lahore conspiracy case and many were convicted. Kartar Singh Sarabha, Vishnu Ganesh Pingle were among the 46 sentenced to death, 70 were awarded life-imprisonment, 125 were given less severe punishments and 34 were exonerated. Despite this the zeal of the revolutionaries who had returned from abroad did not subside. They continued their struggle as if to rewrite the history of Indian Freedom struggle with their own blo od. In a way, these lines from Kartar Singh Sarabha summarize the entire Gadar struggle:

Our struggle will continue as long as handful of men, be they foreign or native or both in collaboration with each other, continue to exploit the labor and resources of our people. Nothing will deter us from this path.

Translation by:
Vivek H. Gupta
Satwinder Jit Singh

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