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Haj to Utopia: How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism and Attempted to Overthrow the British Empire

Haj to Utopia: How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism and Attempted to Overthrow the British Empire

by Maia Ramnath

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In The 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


In The 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. The Haj to Utopia demonstrates how far-flung freedom fighters managed to articulate a radical new world order out of seemingly contradictory ideas.

Product Details

University of California Press
Publication date:
California World History Library Series
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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Haj to Utopia

How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism and Attempted to Overthrow the British Empire

By Maia Ramnath


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95039-9


"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.


Excerpted from Haj to Utopia by Maia Ramnath. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Maia Ramnath teaches Global Histories at New York University.

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