By Carissa Chew
Professor Virinder S. Kalra’s latest research paper, entitled ‘Poetic Politics from Ghadar to the Indian Workers Association’, discusses the enduring legacies of the Ghadar Party, a short-lived Indian nationalist movement which was centred in California during the First World War. Following economic hardship, which was heightened in 1906 by the Land Alienation Act, many Sikh farmers from East Punjab migrated to California. There, many of these Punjabi-Sikhs, as well as some men from other regions and religions, united in their revolutionary ambitions to overthrow the British Raj, forming the Ghadar Party c.1914. The party produced a weekly newspaper called The Ghadar, which included a range of prose as well as poetry that was intended to incite rebellion in India. The Ghadar produced several thousand copies each week, and these were circulated around India, as well as among the expatriate communities living in San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver. In 1917, more than 60 members of the Ghadar movement attempted to return to India with smuggled weapons, where they intended to begin an uprising.
Their movements aroused suspicion, however, and the majority of the Ghadarites were arrested upon their arrival. Only a few members of the Ghadar rebellion reached the Punjab, where their impact was limited. The British authorities effectively eradicated the Ghadar and other members of Indian nationalist opposition during the First World War, using the Defence of India Act of 1915 to issue 64 life sentences and 46 executions in Bengal and Punjab alone. The Ghadar Party was banned, and even the use of the word ‘Ghadar’ was prohibited under the British Raj thereafter. Thus the Ghadar revolution reached its end before 1918. Although short-lived, its influence has permeated the twentieth century and continued into the twenty first, with numerous left-wing (and some right-wing) organisations having openly identified with, or been notably influenced by, the Ghadar Party. Examples include the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association of India, the Kirti Kisan Party, and the Communist Party of India.
On Monday 29 January 2018, the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History welcomed Virinder S. Kalra from the University of Warwick’s Department of Sociology to discuss his latest research in a seminar titled ‘Pondering on the Revolutionary Subject: From Ghadar to Kirti’. This title was dropped, however, as Kalra chose to concentrate on the Ghadar Party with some reference to the Indian Workers Association (IWA) in Britain, but with little mention of the Kirti Kisan. Although the Ghadar Party has already received significant attention from scholars, predominantly in regard to the Party’s organisation and global connections, as well as its role as an inspiration for subsequent nationalist rebellions and its post-independence legacy, Kalra offers a new angle through which to view the Ghadar Party and its enduring influence. Kalra began the seminar by asserting his intention to illuminate the connection between the Ghadar Party and the IWA by looking at the Ghadar as ‘the archetype for a certain type of consciousness and subject that emerges out of a migratory experience’. It is with particular attention to the Ghadar and IWA use of poetry as a mode of articulation and expression that Kalra aims to explore, more broadly, the relationship between the diasporic consciousness and the reason why subjects become political.
As already mentioned, the Ghadar movement has had a profound influence on twenty- and twenty-first century politics in South Asia. Kalra looks beyond the subcontinent, however, to the diaspora in Great Britain. Kalra introduced the Indian Workers Association to his seminar audience by reading the opening excerpt to ‘Poetic Politics’, in which he describes the February 2016 protests in Birmingham and London. Sparked by the suicide of Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad, Indians gathered to protest the actions of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in India. At these protests – and also at the Dalit-group protests that took place in London on Saturday 20 January 2018 in response to the recent tension in Maharashtra, Kalra noted – protesters were seen holding banners that emphasised the IWA’s establishment in 1938. Founded in Coventry as an anti-colonial organisation, the IWA had directly identified its origins with the Ghadar. In fact, they had wanted to call themselves the ‘Ghadar Party of Britain’. Kalra argues, therefore, that recent IWA activity and the sustained link to their historical roots reveals ‘the continuing transnational connections that the Indian diaspora maintains and sustains’. It is this parallel between the Ghadar and IWA that Kalra sets out to explore in ‘Poetic Politics’, through the frameworks of diasporic consciousness, poetic articulation, and biography.
The anonymous poems that were published in The Ghadar have attracted significant attention from scholars. Ghadar poetry is important because it was the primary means through which the majority of illiterate, migrant workers were mobilised. Poetry is the form that resistive or expressive literature had taken in the region for thousands of years. According to Kalra, Ghadar poetry also reveals much about the status of migrants, making it apparent that the Ghadar struggle was distinctly diasporic. The poetry does not explore settled notions of revolution, region or religion, but reveals Ghadar identity as a transformational process from slavery to freedom, not dissimilar to the ideas articulated in Franz Fanon’s The Wretched Earth. The experience of racism in California plays into the Ghadar’s sense of being colonised in India, and this, Kalra proposes, is reflected in Ghadarite poetry. In ‘Poetic Politics’, Kalra explores the legacy of this poetry more fully through a discussion of its similarities with the poetry of the IWA.
Another reason why Ghadar poetry has received significant commentary, Kalra elucidated, is because it provides interesting primary evidence in regard to the debate surrounding the secular nature of the Ghadar movement. What type of revolutionary consciousness were the Ghadar articulating: secular or Sikh? Drawing upon numerous examples, Kalra insisted in line with the academic consensus, that this poetry reveals the secular nature of this anti-colonial movement. Although the majority of members of the Ghadar Party were Sikh men, their poetry referenced both Hinduism and Islam, for example one poem reads: ‘Our profession is to launch revolution/ That is our namaz, this is our sandhya’. Namaz is Muslim prayer, whilst sandhyavandanam is a religious ritual performed by Hindus. In another example, from September 1914, the Ghadar criticise the religious elite for collaborating with the British: ‘They [collaborators] have all the good people from temples and mosques,/ these black hearts have even sold Gurdwaras/ . . . Save yourself from these sinners somehow, O’lions, take this opportunity to rebel together’. Moreover, another poem from January 1914 quite clearly states there is no need for religious figures: ‘We do not need Pandits or Kazis, we do not want our ship to sink’. Kalra ultimately challenges Parmbir Gill’s suggestion that this poetry fails to reveal any anti-religious sentiment. In fact, Kalra acknowledges that religious symbols are prevalent but argues that they are converted into symbols directed toward the end of colonial tyranny. Thus, although religious symbols are evoked in an attempt to mobilise the masses, these symbols are attached to no particular group – and when they are, it is in a negative way such as criticising the religious elite. The Ghadar message is that Indians must overcome their religious divisions in order to defeat the British.
The importance of Ghadar poetry, Kalra argues, is further apparent through a consideration of the biography of Udham Singh, a figure who connects California, India and Britain. Singh was born in British colonial Punjab, served in the British Army in Mesopotamia and East Africa and travelled to the United States. Whilst working in California, he was exposed to the Ghadar influence. After seven years in the United States, he travelled to Europe and the Mediterranean. In 1927 he returned to India, where he was arrested and fined for being in possession of the prohibited paper, Ghadr-di-Gunj (albeit in addition to unlicensed weapons and obscene postcards). In 1940 he travelled to Britain, where he was arrested and executed for shooting Sir Michael O’Dwyer, who had been the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab at the time of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1913. Using the example of Singh’s story, Kalra explained that poetry, as a form of expression, was confusing to the colonial authorities. In 1940, a British official remarked concerning Singh that Ghadar revolutionaries were ‘half-educated’, and that they aspired to ‘poetical compositions in which truth is subordinate to the flow of language’. However, although the British derided the poetic form and mocked the intelligence of the Ghadarites, it is also clear that the British authorities felt deeply threatened by the circulation of this Ghadar poetry. This paranoia is evident in the fact that Singh was arrested for being in possession of Ghadarite literature. The British in fact dedicated an immense amount of time, energy and resources to eradicating the Ghadar, which was in perspective, a relatively minor organisation that posed little real threat to the British Raj. This is perhaps testament to the revolutionary potential of the poetic form in South Asian history.
At the end of this seminar, Kalra concluded that the revolutionary political consciousness articulated in Ghadar poetry was masculinist, martial and secular. Kalra stressed the enduring legacy of the Ghadar, but also noted that given its exclusionary nature on the basis of gender and caste, it is perhaps questionable that Dalit organisations continue to take inspiration from it. The discussion that followed, led by Dr. Talat Ahmed, raised wider questions concerning Kalra’s research. How do we define ‘revolutionary consciousness’? What was the Ghadar relationship with Communism? Why were the poems anonymous? What was the role of youthfulness in Ghadar revolutionary ideology? How does the wider international context play into the Ghadar movement? Were the Ghadar anti-religious or non-religious?
In summary, Kalra’s recent research into the Ghadar movement and its impact on the IWA offers an innovative, interdisciplinary contribution to the field of diaspora studies. By bringing together sociological concepts, historical analysis, and literary sources in his exploration of the interconnections between the diasporic consciousness of the Ghadar and IWA, Kalra broadens the scope for future comparative and interdisciplinary scholarship.
Bates, Crispin, Subalterns and Raj: South Asia since 1600 (London, 2007)
Kalra, Virinder, ‘Poetic Politics From Ghadar to the Indian Workers Association’, in Hegder, R.S. and Sahoo, A.K, (eds.), Routledge Handbook of the Indian Diaspora, (Oxford, 2017)
Shah, Murtaza Ali, ‘Dalits march in London protesting atrocities in India’, Geo News, https://www.geo.tv/latest/177975-dalits-march-in-london-against-atrocities-in-india ; accessed 30 January 2018.