By Inder Singh
LOS ANGELES: In the US, the last Monday of May is observed as Memorial Day to honour those Americans who died while defending America and its values. Memorial Day parades and memorial services are held on that day which was first observed on May 30, 1868, and became an official federal holiday in 1971.
Many Indian Americans may not know the historical background of Memorial Day. However, like Americans, several Indians hold gatherings of family and friends for parties and barbecues. Most Indians Americans may also not know their own day of reverence.
Between 1913-15, 6,000 overseas Indians went back to India to fight and free their motherland from the British. Some paid with their lives, hundreds were jailed, some for life. It is such a pity that there is no memorial day to them!
Indian emigrants started coming to the United States in the beginning of the twentieth century. Most of them were unskilled workers and found work in lumber mills or on farms. The employers preferred Indian workers as they worked hard and accepted lower wages. White labourers fearing displacement from their jobs, demanded exclusionary laws against cheap Indian workers. The festering hostility of American workers manifested in violence against the Indian immigrants at several places. Americans pressured their elected officials to pass exclusionary laws against the Asians. As a result, Asian emigration to the United States was stopped in 1917.
At that time, higher education in American universities was also a powerful magnet for young Indians. Several Indian students joined various US universities. However, upon graduation, they were not able to get jobs commensurate with their qualifications. They attributed American employers’ discriminatory practices to their being nationals of a subjugated country.
Har Dyal, who had come to the US from England and been a faculty member at Stanford University for some time, was identified with nationalist activities in the United States. He inspired many students studying at the University of California at Berkeley and channelized their pro-Indian, anti-British sentiment for the independence of India. Har Dyal’s fervor for India’s freedom spread beyond the university campuses to Punjabi farmers and labourers who had already been victim of racial attacks, discrimination and repression from the host community.
In May 1913, at a meeting of some patriotic and enlightened Indians in Astoria, Oregon, the Hindustan Association of the Pacific Coast was formed with a major objective of liberating India from British colonialism. Sohan Singh Bhakna, a lumber mill worker in Oregon, was elected its president, Har Dayal as general secretary and Kanshi Ram as treasurer. Har Dayal provided leadership for the newly formed association and was the force behind the new organization.
The headquarters of the association was established in San Francisco and named Yugantar (new age) Ashram. Later, a building was purchased with the funds raised from the community. The association began publishing a magazine named Gadar after the 1857 Gadar Movement (mutiny) in India. Every issue of the Gadar exposed British imperialism and called upon the Indian people to unite and rise up against British rule. It carried articles on the conditions of the people of India and racial attacks and discrimination against Indians in the US and Canada. The Gadar, over a period of time, became well known among Indians and the Hindustan Association of the Pacific Coast itself became known as the Gadar party.
Gadar literature was sent to Indian revolutionaries in India, Europe, Canada and several other countries. The magazine, being the principal patriotic literature, reached many people; even if one copy reached a fellow revolutionary anywhere, multiple copies were made for circulation. The British government used every means to stop the circulation of Gadar and other such publications, particularly in India.
In August 1914, about a year after the formation of the Hindustan Association, World War I broke out in which Germany fought against England. The German government and the Gadarites had the British as common enemy. So, Germany offered the Gadarites financial aid to buy arms and ammunitions to expel the British from India while the British Indian troops were busy fighting war at the front. The Gadarites started a vigorous campaign to exhort overseas Indians to join the freedom movement and encouraged them to go to India to launch a revolution. They drew plans to infiltrate the Indian army and excite the soldiers to fight against the British Empire and free India from British imperialism. With funding from the German government, several ships were chartered to carry arms and ammunition to India. About 6,000 overseas Indians hurried homeward to liberate their motherland.
Unfortunately, the traitors of the movement leaked out the secret plan to British spies. The ships carrying arms and ammunition never reached India. Many Gadarites and revolutionaries were taken captive upon reaching India. Forty-six Gadarites were hanged to death, over 200 were imprisoned, 69 of them for life. In the United States too, several Gadarites and their German supporters, were prosecuted in the San Francisco Hindu German Conspiracy Trial (1917-18). Twenty-nine “Hindus” and Germans were convicted for varying terms of imprisonment for violating the American Neutrality Laws.
The Gadarites lit a flame of liberty and made untold sacrifices for the freedom and liberty of their motherland. Although the movement did not achieve its stated objective, it awakened the sleeping India and had a major impact on India’s struggle for freedom. The heroism, courage and sacrifices of the Gadarites inspired many freedom fighters who eventually saw India freed in 1947 from British imperialism.
The Yugantar Ashram building was handed over to the Indian Consulate in San Francisco in 1949 and is now appropriately called Gadar Memorial Hall. It is the living symbol of the glorious sacrifices of martyrs of the freedom movement.
The Indian American community, on this Memorial Day, should remember the sacrifices of Gadarites and pay tributes to them.
As the 100th anniversary of the Gadar Movement is falling next year, Indian Americans should seriously consider commemorating the centennial and pay the well-deserved tribute to Gadarites and Gadar martyrs.
(Los Angeles-based Inder Singh is the chairman of the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOIPO), and can be reached at email@example.com)