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.


Project Proposal- The international Ghadarite network: The role of violence in the development of a transnational organisation
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2 thoughts on “Project Proposal- The international Ghadarite network: The role of violence in the development of a transnational organisation

  • March 2, 2015 at 11:09 am

    This is a well-conceived project, a fascinating one with ample scope beyond the semester long project. There are many aspects that make this project a fascinating one, for me – and perhaps for our meeting tomorrow on the role of micro-macro – is how to combine and practice the links between different scales of investigation: individuals, networks and nodes, localities on the one hand, global processes on the other.

    You have successfully identified a topic with potential and scope far beyond the small and long essay. In order to proceed, my sense is you need to define the angle, a hypothesis or argument and / or research questions. This is where I am not entirely sure in which direction you wish to take the project. The micro-macro question is crucial here.

    I would put it this way: as a project proposal, it has certainly reached my attention. If we assume you were to apply with this at a graduate school (in globalish, transnationalish history), I would argue (perhaps with other colleagues), that I wanted to see this project funded. But I could also see my other colleagues arguing, ‘all fine, all interesting – but what is the research angle?’. We then decide to invite you to the interview stage. A rather typical intro into the interview would be to give a very brief (like our lightning talks, 2min max) introduction followed by questions and dialogue. Colleagues would certainly press towards research angle and questions, assumption, hypothesis.

    Would you have any? I think you have, the role of violence, “isms” beyond containers and the connectedness of the group are the elements to flesh out ideally.

  • March 3, 2015 at 5:18 pm

    Harri, this is a tremendous step. The title immediately caught my attention as an exciting topic, but it soon became apparent as I read on that this project is about far more than studying a radical terrorist organization. You could almost leave your project at looking at the Ghadar Party simply as an example of a transnational organization that influenced politics and cultures in various population centers around the world, but the depth which you propose to explore in this project is fascinating. Studying the idea of the Ghadar ‘container’ as a means for others to push their own agendas could illuminate ideas that would help us understand ideology: how it is used and how it disseminates differently into various cultures around the world. The ideas of Karl Marx immediately spring to mind. His ideas were clearly outlined in his writings, but they eventually took on different meaning for different people: Vladimir Lenin had very different than Joseph Stalin or Mao Tsetung, yet they all used the same vehicle of communism to carry out their respective plans.

    The role of violence that you identify in establishing and sustaining the networks of the Ghadar Party is very intriguing. I find this quite a novel approach to a transnational study, and I am curious to see where you go with it. Have you thought about how you intend to define or measure violence? Does a Punjabi soldier hurling verbal abuse at a British officer connote a significant degree of violence like a physical attack would? Is there something perhaps to be said of language: the language used by the propaganda newspapers circulated to Ghadar sympathizers around the world, or the language used by the sympathizers themselves against their adversaries? It might be helpful to state explicitly at the beginning of your project what you mean when you say violence, as there are many things beyond just simple physical brutality that could be seen as ‘violent.’

    All in all, though, this is a captivating subject that you’ve decided to address, and I am really looking forward to seeing how it develops as the semester goes on!

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