On March 18th 1915, Sir Reginald Craddock delivered a speech to the Imperial Legislative Council addressing the “rapidly developing disturbances of the past few weeks”. He explicitly cited the Ghadar party: “a party of anarchists and revolutionaries, who have been engaged in scattering revolutionary seed […] by private communications, by despatch of emissaries, and by the dissemination of anarchical and revolutionary literature.” The outcome of this speech was the ‘Defence of India Bill’. This placed greater rule-making powers in the hands of the Governor General, and streamlined the court system. Those infringing the law in India would now have no right of appeal, and the hand of ‘justice’ would be far swifter.
This was a direct response to the so-called ‘Ghadar conspiracy’ of 1915- a planned pan-Indian mutiny in the British Indian Army in February 1915. It was thwarted by the authorities in the main part, but the 5th Light Infantry stationed at Singapore mutinied, and a state of unrest lasted there for almost seven days. The role of Ghadar in all of this is not completely clear, since the network itself was nucleated in character.
As an organisation, the Ghadar Party was founded in 1913, made up mainly of Sikhs and Hindu Punjabis living in North America, with the aim to end British rule in India. From this node in San Francisco, anti-empire propaganda and literature emanated.
North America may have been the central node of Ghadar literature, but the networks were sprawled across the globe: there were centres of activity across the east-Asian seaboard, throughout South and Central Asia, in the European capitals of Britain, France and Germany, and even penetrating into Latin America. This was a truly transnational organisation, operating in the era of international radicalism. Nonetheless, it was a movement seemingly full of contradictions, with different actors using the Ghadar ‘container’ as a vehicle for their own ideologies. The apparently disparate categories of nationalism, Marxism, and pan-Islamism were all projected onto this ‘container’. This paper will therefore answer the question of how and why such a nucleated and contradictory movement was able to pose such a threat to the British Empire.
Previously, historians have focused on the causes for failure of the Ghadar movement in liberating India from British rule. Lack of unified leadership and strategy, in addition to incoherent ideology is often cited. Maia Ramnath’s research has shown how these ‘weaknesses’ should actually be perceived as a strength; the peculiarly decentralised leadership and organisation was the enabling factor which allowed the movement to have a unique global role. “The Ghadarites were pragmatists, not dogmatists; activists above all, not systematic armchair theorists.” These were people who felt the same way, and so the Ghadar movement actually served to create and strengthen bonds of global radicalism.
A study of Ghadar is additionally, therefore, a critique on the containers of ‘isms’; radicals were far more connected than their placing in containers of ‘isms’ permits. Ghadar transcended so many borders, physically and ideologically, continuously posing a strong, shifting threat to the British Empire even after the thwarting of the 1915 conspiracy. This paper is not so much interested in the contradictions themselves, but the way in which this pluralistic organisation was viewed from the British perspective, the original Sikh founders perspective, and from the perspective of the nucleated groups and networks operating in the name of Ghadar. Analysing a combination of British intelligence files, literature from the Ghadar press in North America, as well as a range of personal memoirs and newspaper articles, I will use the lens of the aftermath of the failed Ghadar conspiracy in 1915 to argue that violence was the bond that created and held networks together. It played a crucial internationalising role.
At a time when a violent organisation that claims sovereignty over large swathes of the Middle-East is able to attract people from a range of Islamic backgrounds throughout the world to fight for its cause, one has to reconsider the role of violence in fostering networks and connections. Even though the capacity for comparison with Islamic State is limited – since there is an explicit religious dimension in this case – it is evident that violence acts as a unifier, transcending national boundaries.
A pragmatic, free-flowing network of actors can be far more disruptive to the status quo than a set of dogmatically defended ideas. With this in mind, this paper will contribute to the dialogue that re-evaluates the role of ideologies in the late-modern world.