Indians started coming to the United States either for higher education or for economic opportunities. In a short period of time, they quickly learnt the value of freedom and liberty. Many Indians wanted India to be free from the British slavery and some of them played a significant role in the struggle for independence of India. They imbibed the fire and zeal of revolutionaries and became the trail blazers of the freedom struggle for India. They may have been born as ordinary people and lived ordinary lives but they left an extra-ordinary legacy. On the 60th anniversary of India’s Independence, Indian Americans salute their pioneers, the heroes of Indian American history, who sacrificed their careers and some even their lives, for the sake of liberty and freedom for India.
On April 5, 1899, four Punjabis who had worked in the British Royal Artillery in Hong Kong landed in San Francisco, and they were allowed to stay in the US by the Immigration Service (UC Berkley website). That grant of permission provided the signal to others to follow those four pioneers.
Many more Punjabis headed towards America in search of economic opportunities. The new immigrants found only menial jobs in factories, lumber mills and railroad construction. They were needy workers, accepted low wages, poor working conditions and many times traveled from place to place in search of work. The employers preferred the Indians to the whites, but the unions despised the immigrants. As the number of Indian workers increased within a span of few years, they started facing discrimination and hostility which sometimes led to racial riots, resulting in certain cases, loss of life and property.
In 1907, Indians became the victims of racial riots deliberately directed at them in Bellingham, a milling town in Washington State. Amob of about 500 men assaulted boarding houses and mills, forcibly expelling Hindus (Indians were called Hindus irrespective of their faith). The chief objective of the racial attack was to “scare them so badly that they will not crowd white labor out of the mills.” The town had a small police force which was overpowered by the white mob. Indians became victims of violence, experienced bigotry, encountered discrimination and suffered humiliation. They had come in search of a chance for a better life for themselves and their families but the nightmarish incident forced about 200 Indians employed in various mills to leave the town in fear.
The Japanese and Chinese governments would negotiate compensation for life and property losses with the American government for race riots and similar discriminatory treatment perpetrated on their overseas nationals. But the British Indian Government did not make any representation to the U.S. Government for compensation for injuries or the loss of property of the Indian nationals. Indians soon realized the difference between the citizens of a “slave” country and that ruled by their own people.
Higher education in American universities was a powerful magnet for young people even then. The United States welcomed qualified Indian students seeking admissions in the American universities. However, upon graduation, they were not able to get jobs commensurate with their qualifications. The discriminatory practices were against the very ideals of liberty and freedom they had experienced in their University environment. The Indian students attributed the racial prejudice and discrimination to their being nationals of a subjugated country. They were motivated to get rid of the foreign rule in India and were determined to fight for freedom for their motherland. They also started fostering feelings of patriotism and nationalism among their fellow Indian Immigrants who were already facing racial prejudice and discrimination at work.
Some Indian students formed organizations to collectively assert their birthright to independence for India and explored ways and means to attain self-rule. Taraknath Das, a student, began publishing the magazine Free Hindustan in 1907 in Seattle, advocating armed rebellion against the British rule as a means for achieving independence. He also established the East India Association in 1911. Har Dyal who had come from England after relinquishing his scholarship and studies at Oxford University, started Bande Mataram in 1909 for communicating his revolutionary ideas to the students and the Punjabi settlers.
In the United States, Har Dyal was identified with the nationalist activities. He had been a faculty member at Stanford University for about two years. He inspired many students studying at the University of California at Berkeley and channelized the pro-Indian, anti-British sentiment of the students for independence of India. Two of his student followers, Katar Singh Sarabha and Vishnu Govind Pingle, later played very prominent role in the Gadar movement. Dyal’s fervor for India’s freedom spread beyond the university campuses. A meeting of some patriotic and enlightened Indians was called on April 23, 1913, in Astoria, Oregon, where Har Dyal, Bhai Parmanand and others passionately spoke for throwing the British out of India and securing liberation by all means at their disposal. It was at this meeting that the Hindustan Association of the Pacific Coast was formed with a major objective to liberate India with force of arms from the British colonialism, just as Americans had done more than a century ago, and to help establish a free and independent India with equal rights for all. Sohan Singh Bhakna was elected President of the Hindustan Association of the Pacific Coast while Har Dyal became the General Secretary. Har Dayal provided leadership for the newly formed association and was the central figure and the force behind the new organization.
Punjabis had come to the United States with the highest of expectations but they were equally disillusioned when they faced hostility and racial prejudice from the American people. When the Hindustan Association of the Pacific Coast was formed, they supported its objectives whole-heartedly, became its members enthusiastically and supported it financially.
The association began publishing the magazine Gadar, to promote the aims, objectives and activities of the organization. Gadar, literally means revolt or mutiny. It wasaimed atexposing the British imperialism and called upon the Indian people to unite and rise up against the British rule and throw them out of India. It carried articles on the conditions of the people of India under British rule and also on problems of racial attacks and discrimination against Indians in the United States.
Gadar, was published in Urdu, Hindi, and Punjabi, among other languages and was distributed free. In a short period of time, the Gadar magazine became very popular and sought-after periodical for revolutionary and patriotic ideas. The magazine and similar publications from the Gadar headquarters, Yugantar Asram in San Francisco, were sent to the Indian revolutionaries in India, Europe, Canada, Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Burma, Egypt, Turkey, and Afghanistan. Even if one copy reached India or a fellow revolutionary anywhere, multiple copies were reproduced for circulation. The visible effects of the Gadar publications started to manifest in India and abroad. The Gadar movement became the symbol of political consciousness of the overseas Indians. Many committed volunteers opened branches of the Gadar party in other countries and worked tirelessly to promote the objectives of the party. Thus, the seeds of revolt that Har Dyal sowed developed into a formidable organization.
The British government got alarmed at the popularity of the Gadar movement and free accessibility and availability of the ‘seditious’ literature. They used every means to stop its circulation, particularly in India. They also tried to suppress the Gadar movement and had hired agents to penetrate the Gadar party and watch their activities. The British were convinced that removal of Har Dyal would bring an end to the revolutionary movement. At the behest of the British, the American government arrested Har Dyal in March, 1914, but later released him on bail. Upon the advice of some friends, Har Dyal jumped the bail and left for Switzerland from where he went on to Germany.
Soon after the formation of the Gadar party, World War I broke out in August, 1914, in which Germany fought against England. The Germans offered the Indian Nationalists (Gadarites) financial aid to buy arms and ammunitions to expel the British from India while the British Indian troops would be busy fighting war at the front. The Gadarites started an energetic campaign to mobilize the overseas Indians in Singapore, Burma, Egypt, Turkey and Afghanistan and particularly Punjabis in Canada and the United States, and to inspire them to go to India to launch a revolution. They drew plans to infiltrate the Indian army and excite the soldiers to fight not for the British but against the British Empire, and free India from the shackles of British imperialism.
The German government had great sympathy with the Gadar movement because the German government and the Gadarites had the British as common enemy. In September 1914, Indians formed Berlin Indian Committee (also known as the Indian Revolutionary Society) members of which were, Har Dyal, Virendra Nath Chattopadhyay (younger brother of politician-poetess Sarojani Naidu), Maulvi Barkatullah (after his death, he was buried near Sacramento), Bhupendra Nath Datta (brother of Swami Vivekananda), Ajit Singh (uncle of Shaid-i-Azam Bhagat Sigh), Champak Raman Pillai, Tarak Nath Das (a foundation is named after him in Columbia University), and Bhai Bhagwan Singh (he was the most wanted rebel by the British Government; his grandson S.P Singh lives in Atlanta). The objectives of the society were to arrange financial assistance from German government for revolutionary activities and propaganda work in different countries of the world, training of volunteer force of Indian fighters and transportation of arms and ammunitions to reach the Gadarites for a revolt against the British Government in India.
The Indian Revolutionary Society in Berlin successfully arranged substantial financial aid for the Gadarites from Germany. The German Embassy in the United States engaged a German national to liaison with the Gadar leadership in San Francisco. The society also commissioned several ships to carry arms and ammunitions and batches of about 6000 Indian revolutionaries to India.
The Gadarites also sought help from anti-British governments in other countries. In December 1915, they established a Free Hindustan government-in-exile in Kabul, Afghanistan, with Raja Mohinder Pratap as President, Maulavi Barkatullah as Prime Minister and Champakaran Pillai as Foreign Minister. The government-in-exile tried to establish diplomatic relationships with countries opposed to the British in World War l such as Turkey, Germany, Japan, and others. The Gadarites established contact with the Indian troops at Hong Kong, Singapore, and in some other countries and hoped for their participation in the uprising against the British.
Before leaving for India, the Gadarites were given the misguided impression that India was ready for a revolution. So when the World War l provided a golden opportunity for them to attain their goal, they hurried homeward for rebellion and to overthrow the British Government in India. They had hoped that the embers of freedom had caught fire in India too and expected the Indian revolutionaries to join them in rebellion to liberate India. The irony of that valiant effort was that while the Gadarites had gone to India to fight willingly for the freedom of their motherland, the Indian leadership openly and willingly co-operated with the British, thereby prolonging India’s serfdom.
The traitors of the Gadar movement leaked out the secret plans to British spies. As a result, the ships carrying arms and ammunitions never reached India. Many Gadarites were taken captives upon reaching India. They were prosecuted and several were imprisoned, many for life, and some were hanged. According to one estimate, as many as 145 Ghadarites were hanged, 308 were sentenced for longer than 14 years and many more for lesser terms. In the United States too, several Gadarites and their German supporters, were prosecuted in the San Francisco Hindu German Conspiracy Trial (1917-18) and twenty-nine “Hindus” and Germans were convicted for varying terms of imprisonment for violating the American Neutrality Laws.
The Gadar Movement was the saga of courage, valor and determination of overseas Indians to free India from the shackles of British slavery. Although the movement did not achieve its intended objective, nevertheless it awakened a sleeping India and left a major impact on India’s struggle for freedom. The heroism, courage and sacrifices of the Gadarites inspired many freedom fighters to continue their mission. The Gadarites wanted to liberate India by the force of the arms. Many years later, Subhash Chander Bose, a prominent Congress leader, organized Indian National Army (INA) under the leadership of General Mohan Singh to invade India, hoping that the serving soldiers of the British Indian army would defect and join to liberate India by force. The Gadar leaders were shocked at the Indian freedom fighters’ co-operation with the British Imperialist government in their war efforts during World War I. However, the same leaders started Quit India Movement in 1942, which ensured lack of mass support for the war efforts during World War II. It was the conclusion that the overseas Indians were ready to “do or die” for India’s freedom before the Freedom fighters in India were able to do so.
The Gadarites had a flame of liberty lit in their hearts, and did not hesitate to make any sacrifice for the cause of freedom, dignity and honor of their motherland. Some Gadarites such as Kartar Singh Sarabha and Vishnu Govind Pingle, had escaped arrests, and allied with Ras Behari Bose and other known revolutionaries in India to continue their fight for freedom for India. In the United States too, there were many who still had the same burning desire to liberate India. Subsequently, many more joined them in their mission but the methodology was changed. They abandoned the power of sword of the Gadarites and adopted the power of pen instead.
Lala Lajpat Rai, one of the prominent leaders of India’ Freedom Movement, who later became known as “the Lion of Punjab”, came to the US in 1914 to elicit American support for the Freedom movement. He founded the Indian Home Rule League in 1917 in New York and in 1918, started publishing Young India as his organization’s magazine. He made contacts with the leaders of the Gadar party but did not support their method of obtaining Swaraj. He started publishing articles in the American media, cultivated contacts with intellectuals and gained the support of wide audience of Americans sympathetic towards the cause of India’s freedom. He departed for India in 1920, leaving the Indian Home Rule League in trusted hands. Unfortunately, neither the League nor the magazine Young India survived for long after his departure.
Dalip Singh Saund, who in 1956 got elected to the US Congress, had started his working life in America as a farm laborer after obtaining Ph. D. in Mathematics from University of California at Berkley. He was an ardent nationalist and used the platform of his position as the national president of the student body, Hindustan Association of America, to expound on India’s right to self-government. After he moved to the Imperial Valley of California, he joined the Toastmaster Club and continued to take advantage of every opportunity to speak about India’s right for self-rule. He also started India Association of America and raised funds from the California Sikh farmers for the lobbying efforts in the United States Congress in Washington, DC for India and Indian causes. He engaged in several debates and spoke before many groups and organizations, presenting India’s side, “a side of democracy and a side for humanity.”
Mubarak Ali Khan who came to the US in 1913 and had become a successful farmer in Arizona,
founded the Indian Welfare League in 1937 and gained considerable support for India.
Anup Singh obtained his Ph.D in Political Science from Harvard University. He became very active in New York based India League of America, and later moved to Washington D.C and started The National Committee for India’s Freedom. He also published a monthly magazine Voice of India to disseminate the message of India’s nationalist movement. J. J Singh was a member of the Indian National Congress before coming to the United States. He established himself as a successful merchant in New York, and in 1940 he became president of India League of America. He started the League’s mouthpiece India Today which was well-edited informative monthly bulletin. He also expanded its membership base to include Americans, including Nobel Prize winner author Pearl Buck who was Honorary President in 1944. For all practical purposes, J. J. Singh had become an unofficial lobbyist for India and Indians. His public relations campaigns and lobbying efforts convinced significant sections of the American public, including members of the United States Congress, that the time had come for India to be liberated. Indian community activists J. J. Singh, Anup Singh, Haridas Muzumdar, Taraknath Das and Krishanlal Shridharani and some others had tremendous enthusiasm and abundant energy and used it all for the cause of India's freedom. They had embraced the force of ideas and used their writings, speeches and meetings with elected officials and people of influence to gain sympathy, support and endorsement of the American people, majority of the United States Congress and the President of America for the independence of India. For many years, these community activists provided dedicated and committed service for the cause of India and Indians and thus played the role of Indian community emancipators in the United States. Forgetting the legacy of their crucial role in the struggle for India’s independence would be losing an anchor with the past.
Inder Singh regularly writes and speaks on the Global Indian diaspora. He is President of Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) and chairman of Indian American Heritage Foundation. He was president of National Federation of Indian American Associations (NFIA) from 1988-92 and chairman from 1992-96. He was founding president of Federation of Indian Associations in Southern California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Other articles on Indian American heritage from the same author:
Struggle of Indians for US Citizenship
Dalip S. Saund, The First Asian in U.S. Congress
Gadar – Overseas Indians Attempt to Free India from British Serfdom
Bhagat Singh Thind: The Legacy of an Indian Pioneer