Why you should care

Because Gandhi — and Martin Luther King Jr., and so many others — stand on the shoulders of these forgotten giants.

Indian-Americans today don’t generally have a reputation for being rabble-rousers. Doctors, engineers, sure. Model minorities, definitely. Political revolutionaries? Not so much.

But in fact, 100 years ago, there were a few rabble-rousing Indian immigrants living in America who were far from model. About a decade before Gandhi started organizing, these working-class Indians living thousands of miles from home were attempting to disrupt the British crown and its hold on their motherland.

The group called themselves the Ghadar Party, meaning “rebellion” in Urdu. They were Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs, farmers and students at UC Berkeley. They met at what is now a squat pale green building at 5 Wood Street in San Francisco. They printed a weekly paper, called The Ghadar, which declared their cause simply: “We are enemies of the British crown.”

The 30-year-old founder of the party, Har Dayal, a bespectacled, worldly Stanford lecturer, came of age at a time when Indian nationalism was gaining traction. When he was 24, studying at Oxford, Dayal had pissed off the wrong people by fussing a little too loudly about the injustice of British rule. Seeking a place where he could write and think freely, he left England and six years later landed up in California (after pit stops in Algeria and Paris) — in a new nation that, he wrote, most Indians knew of as “the country of Washington and Emerson and negro-lynchings.” (Dayal’s original writings are preserved on the South Asian American Digital Archives.)

Though millions of Indians fought for the British as colonial subjects, the intellectual inheritors of Har Dayal used the occasion of WWI to attempt a revolt.

It was 1911 when he settled in the future birthplace of the Black Panthers, Oakland, California, and discovered leftist movements like the International Workers of the World. But his political awakening was lonely; he wrote that the “Hindus here are too much engrossed in the struggle for life to have much time for real patriotic work.”

Regardless, Dayal tried to fan a revolutionary flame in some of his peers. Of the Sikh farmers he met in California, he observed they were beginning to see “that there are other Powers in the world besides Great Britain … a great internal revolution occurs within… .”

And while anti-imperial revolution was their prime cause, they were also jockeying for local causes: for the rights of California farmworkers, and for the U.S. to ease its immigration policy to let in more Indians. It wasn’t long before that revolution went from mental to material. Dayal gathered his new friends at 5 Wood Street, which he called the Yugantaram Ashram. There, they began printing pamphlets and newspaper articles in English, Hindi, and Urdu calling for all Indians around the world to come together to dismantle the British crown.

Dayal was arrested in California for his troubles. He ran — to Germany.

It was 1914, and something else was brewing, of course: World War I. And though millions of Indians fought for the British as colonial subjects, some, the intellectual inheritors of Har Dayal, used the occasion of war to attempt a revolt. With Dayal’s networks in Germany on their side, the Ghadars and other activists began planning a mutiny.

It went like this: A few hundred members of the Indian diaspora boarded ships back to the motherland in October 1914, two months after England had declared war on Germany. It turned out pretty much how you’d expect a leaderless movement to: chaos won out over well-meaning grassroots passion. The revolutionaries wanted to infiltrate the Indian Army. But very few people turned. Most of the leaders of the movement were hanged. Dayal went on to live a comfortable, intellectual life in Europe before dying back on American soil in Philadelphia.

Dayal swapped ideas with young Mexican immigrants and black men. Together, they noticed the parallels between colonialism and racism.

Sixty-seven years after Independence, why remember a group like the Ghadars, who ultimately clung to an impossible version of India, and who failed at bringing it about? Because the nonviolent movement that followed surely owed something to the Ghadars’ imagination. The Ghadars’ wish for a Pan-Indian movement, a unification across classes, religions and castes, feels far off today.

But the Ghadars did make some ripples. Just maybe not for the better. Their mutiny brought the British iron fist down even harder on the subcontinent, and likely even contributed to the aggressively anti-Asian immigration act the U.S. passed in 1924. America didn’t need any more radicals in its backyard, it reasoned, and especially not ones intent on complicating their relationship with a key ally.

Then again, what the Ghadars might really teach us is something about the cartography of revolution. They’re a reminder that the birth of modern India was a global event. That ideas themselves were global, long before Twitter. What Dayal witnessed in Oakland bled into Germany and Punjab and back to America. He swapped ideas with young Mexican immigrants and black men. Together, they noticed the parallels between colonialism and racism.

A few decades later, a young black man in America would read words written by a man in India — who had read Emerson and Tolstoy himself — and Martin Luther King Jr. would think that there was something worthwhile in this philosophy of revolution. Only this time, he would hope to revolt bloodlessly.

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