Beacons of Light

Some forgotten chapters of the Indian Independence Movement

(This is the centenary year of the founding of the Hindustan Ghadar Party in USA in 1913. This chapter of our independence movement, together with few other allied movements, is almost completely forgotten in the subcontinent and finds little mention in history books. We are beginning an exciting new series to remember the Ghadar Party together with two other important movements of that time – the Berlin Committee and the Muslim Hijrat Movement. We invite readers to contribute and enrich this history.)

By Ahmed Kamran

The City Council of an obscure sleepy town in the north-east of US on the Pacific coast is busy with planning a unique centenary celebration in October of this year. One of the City Councilors, Karen Mellin, is particularly excited about it. The city is Astoria, situated near the mouth of Columbia River in the state of Oregon in the United States of America. It is served by the deep-water Port of Astoria.

What is the significance of this event for us? What connection it has with our today’s discussion on some forgotten chapters of the Indian Independence Movement?

‘It was 1913 when a group of Punjabi Sikh Indians in Astoria, working in Alderbrook and along the Columbia River, had an idea. Sparked by the history of the American Revolution, a group of inspired immigrants who were not treated equally at home or in America held a meeting at the Finnish Socialist Hall, where the Dunes Motel on Marine Drive now sits.

It was there that the group founded the Ghadar political party, eventually leading to the freedom of the Indians from British rule. And on the 100th anniversary of the party’s creation – a party that no longer exists – Astoria will be celebrated as the birthplace of “the shot heard around the world,” says, Chelsea Gorrow in The Daily Astorian, Mar 27, 20131.

India’s Independence Movement

India’s heroic struggle for its defense against European colonial expansion, in early stages, and for its liberation and independence against occupation, in its later stages, is long and tortuous. In the early phase, for the defense of India many heroic battles were fought, which included, among others:

  1. The Battle of Plassey in Bengal by Sirajuddaulah (June 1757)
  2. The Battle of Baxar, near Patna in today’s Behar (October 1764)
  3. Four Mysore wars fought by Haider Ali and his son, Tipu Sultan between 1766 and 1799, the last was fought by Tipu Sultan at Srirangapatam (in today’s Karnataka) in May 1799,
  4. Three Anglo-Maratha Wars fought between 1775 and 1818. The Capital City of Delhi was lost to English army under General Gerard Lake in the Second Maratha War in September 1803.

The struggle for independence and wars of liberation, in the second stage, starts with the Great War of Independence (Mutiny or Ghadar) during May-September 1857. Indian soldiers of the British Indian army rose in rebellion in Meerut in May 1857. After taking control of the military cantonment at Meerut, the rebel soldiers left for Delhi, igniting a series of rebellions and battles against British occupation. The control of Delhi was taken over by the rebel Indian army and tens of thousands of peasants joined the struggle. Soon the flames of rebellion had engulfed most of the major British army garrisons across northern India and some parts in the South. After initial setbacks, the British army, however, regrouped and, with reinforcements joining from the Punjab and the North West, launched a counter offensive. Pitched battles were fought in Delhi, Lucknow, Faizabad, Jhansi, Gwalior, Behar, Bengal, and scores of towns across India.

The war was eventually lost by the Indians in September 1857.

A reign of terror was unleashed. It’s a long story, spread over about ninety years till 1947, in which thousands of brave sons and daughters of united India laid their lives by hanging in public or being executed before the firing squads. Many thousands more ended up with life imprisonments, or exiles to remote islands, euphemistically known in India as Kala Pani.

The glorious struggle for the independence of India had many facets and streams, acting independently in various parts of India, and hardly coordinating with each other before these independence movements and revolutionary groups started converging in the 1st quarter of 20th century.

The formation of the Communist Party of India was one such convergence. Many of the prominent leaders and workers of the independence movement, coming from different backgrounds and experiences converged and joined hands giving the independence struggle a new organizational structure and a global dimension.

The role of the Communist Party of India in the Indian Independence Movement and its subsequent far reaching impact on the Indian society in general cannot be fully appreciated, unless it is seen in the backdrop of three very powerful, but largely forgotten, movements of their time. These movements grew quite independent of each other and played crucial role in the history of the freedom movement of the united India. Later, in a strange way, these movements converged, preparing the ground for the formation of the first Communist Party of India in 1920.

These movements are, undoubtedly, an integral part of the long and tortuous struggle for the independence of India. These are: the Ghadar Party (1913-1931), the Berlin Committee (1914-1918), and the Hijrat Movement (1915-1921) of the Indian Muslims.

Here we will try to remember these forgotten chapters of the history of the Indian Independence Movement in a series of posts.



To be continued

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  • M.Jawaid
    Posted at 20:18h, 28 August Reply

    Interesting to know the hidden part of history. My question to the writer, all the martyrs and freedom fighters who fought in these wars, would be “labelled” as “terrorist” in today’s terms. What are your views on this.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 05:55h, 29 August

      I don’t think Indian freedom fighters killed innocent folks to seek attention. Nobody called Afghan rebels fighting Soviet forces terrorists.

    • Kamran Ahmed
      Posted at 04:20h, 01 September

      Jawaid, your question is very pertinent. I think the correct formulation is actually the reverse of it. These people who are today’s ‘heroes’ and ‘freedom fighters’ were, in fact, labelled as ‘terrorists’ in their own times! They were haunted, arrested, jailed, and hanged for their ‘crimes’. It depends how you look at it and from which side of the divide. It also depends who wins and comes out as successful at the end. I’ll make an humble attempt to briefly sum it up at the end of this series and will seek to draw parallels with today’s ‘terrorists’ and their own ‘struggle’. Perhaps, there are many similarities, but as Anil has observed, there are also many ‘dissimilarities’ as well. We need to dissect and evaluate carefully. To be honest it is fairly complex and a lot depends upon your perspective. In my view, that would need a separate thread of discussion.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 06:16h, 01 September

      Kamran: Nelson Mandela is an excellent illustration of your point.

    • Kamran Ahmed
      Posted at 05:33h, 02 September

      Yes, you are right. Right or wrong, history is always written, and dominant cultural and literary expressions in the form of books, novels, plays, films, and poetry are always given shape and direction by the ‘victors’.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 14:09h, 06 September

      How? Nelson Mandela was a terrorist, he tacitly approved acts of terrorism. It is another story that he changed later in life.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 10:18h, 01 September Reply

    Kamran: By the Muslim Hijrat Movement are you referring to the Reshmi Rumal Tehreek? If so, there is some good material on it in Barbara Metcalfe’s book on Maulana Madani. And there is some intriguing stuff in Muhammad Hasan Askari’s essay – Maghrib mein musalmanoN ke tablighi vufood – which is on page 669 of the Sang-e-Meel Majmoo’a. It has the same names and the same years and some involved stories culled from obscure writings in French.

    • Kamran Ahmed
      Posted at 13:01h, 01 September

      Yes, it is also sometimes known as ‘Reshmi Rumal’ Tehreek. In fact, there were a number of famous letters — ‘Reshmi Rumal’ letter, ‘Ghalib Nama’ letters, and the ‘Golden Letter’ that were sent out from Kabul and were intercepted by the British police in the middle of 1916, and some well-known cases were instituted — were all parts of a larger ‘Jihad Movement’ that started a year earlier in 1915. And as a continuation of it, a massive Muslim’s Hijrat was undertaken a few years later in 1920.

  • kizilbashsohail
    Posted at 21:34h, 01 September Reply

    Excellent series Kamran. Will you be commenting on the roles played by the Congress and ML?

  • Kamran Ahmed
    Posted at 05:16h, 02 September Reply

    The study of the roles of Indian Congress and Muslim League in the context of these movements is very instructive and revealing. But It won’t be possible for me to discuss their roles in this series as it requires a separate set of discussions.

  • Mohammad Khan Hoti
    Posted at 05:58h, 17 September Reply

    Contribution of the Sikhs in the war of independence has been consistently obliterated by our current rulers of punjab, especially in Lahore. Due respect and acknowledgement is essential to appreciate our common identity and history.

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