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A century later, these Indian freedom fighters are finally being embraced—as Americans

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Vancouver Public Library via Flickr
A group of Sikhs attempting to enter Canada in 1914
Published Last updated on This article is more than 2 years old.

Pashaura Dhillon was around six or seven years old, when his family fled their village of Jandiala in Punjab. They were among the 14 million people who were displaced as the British left the subcontinent, and India and Pakistan were formed in 1947.

“I vividly remember, avoiding known paths and stumbling through the muddy fields under the cover of darkness, we came across the man-made border to village Bhakna in district Amritsar by daybreak,” said Dhillon, now a 75-year-old living in Madera, California.

An estimated 1 million people died during the partition, one of the great forced migrations in human history. But the Dhillons were lucky. They found shelter.

“My family stayed with Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, who was a close relative and became one of the biggest influences in my life,” said Dhillon.

Bhakna was the founding president of the Ghadar Party, a preeminent political and social organization that was formed in the United States a century ago by immigrant Indian Punjabi farmers.

Ghadar means “rebellion” in Urdu.

The party was founded in Astoria, Oregon, in 1913 with their first formal meeting held at the Finnish Socialist Hall, though the headquarters later moved to San Francisco, California.

It evolved from the Pacific Coast Hindustan Association, a network made up of mainly Punjabi workers. Their aim was to work towards an independent India but they also banded together to fight the severe discrimination they faced in the US.

Punjabis on America’s West Coast

On a bright and sunny November day in Berkeley, California, around 75 people, mostly of South Asian descent, gathered at the Finnish Brotherhood Hall to commemorate the Ghadar Party. The location served as a reminder about the party’s first meeting over 100 years ago.

With servings of chai and samosas, the attendees sat in semi-circular rows facing a panel that would engage with them about the Ghadar party’s legacy and its relevance today.

But first, 75-year-old Dhillon, who is also a singer, poet and retired architect, stood facing the crowd. Wearing a yellow turban and a dark grey suit, he sang a poem in tribute to the Ghadarites.

Nov. 1 was proclaimed by the city of Berkeley as Ghadar day in 2014. It became the seventh city in the state of California, after Ceres, Fresno, Manteca, Modesto, Stockton, and Turlok—and the eighth in the west coast after Astoria, Oregon— to officially recognize the roots and contributions of the Ghadar Party.

“That a Hindu Association and a Finnish Socialist Hall existed in remote, 1913 Astoria is its own startling news for many,” writes Johanna Ogden in her work called Ghadar, Historical Silences, and Notions of Belonging (pdf). Ogden, 60, is an independent and regional historian from Portland, Oregon.

Some 30 million people left India between 1830 and 1930 either by choice, economic imperative, or force, explains Ogden. They left home to work as merchants, soldiers, plantation workers, or labourers, largely in other British colonies.

The year 1908, in particular, saw an influx of Asian Indians into the US, primarily due to an immigration ban imposed by British Columbia, Ogden writes. Punjabis had been migrating to the US prior to 1908, but that year nearly 7,000 migrated to the country from Canada and other parts of the world. Eventually, the Punjabi community of labourers in North America stretched from British Columbia to California, working on mills and farms.

Northwest Citizen
Sikh workers in the lumber industry

With pockets of communities spreading all over the West Coast, it wasn’t difficult for them to organize politically. The first of many Ghadar meetings was held in Astoria in 1913—and together with their weekly newsletter called “Hindustan Ghadar,” the newly formed party was able to spread and garner support for its pro-independence, nationalist and secular movement.

Within a year of the first meeting, Sohan Singh Bhakna who was at that time in Portland, led hundreds of Punjabi laborers from America’s west coast to India with the intention to forcefully overthrow the British. “Most were promptly captured, detained, tried, or executed,” notes Ogden.

Bhakna survived, spent close to 16 years in prison in India and lived out the rest of his life in the subcontinent.

Those that opted to stay back on the west coast continued supporting the party’s mission but also became involved with social injustices they faced locally. With their distinctive turbans and beards, Punjabis were not strangers to discrimination.

“Their personal experiences were horrifying and it was inevitable that they stood for labour and immigration rights here,” said Dhillon.

Eventually, the mission of the party restructured in lieu of India gaining independence. While members lent support to other movements, the Ghadar Party slowly faded away over the years.

Historians, activists and supporters have attempted to keep Ghadar stories alive but the party’s political achievements and link to Indian independence is largely forgotten today in America.

Political recognition

With her findings published in the Oregon Historical Quarterly in 2012, Ogden collaborated with the city and mayor of Astoria, Willis L. Van Dusen, to officially recognise the Ghadar Party.

“The Ghadarites fought and died not only for the freedom of their own country but also for the innate rights of the immigrant worker to lead a dignified and discrimination free life…” a clause in the proclamation reads.

Local legislative bodies offering Ghadar proclamations are a fairly recent development. Astoria, the birthplace of the Ghadar Party was the first city in the US to give one last year. A two-day celebration on Oct. 4 and Oct. 5, 2013, was funded by the city to celebrate the centenary.

After returning from the festivities in Astoria, Dhillon, along with other representative of the Sikh Council of Central California, approached several cities in the region about Ghadar resolutions, many of which were passed specifically recognising the party.

Similarly, Mary Nicely, 54, of the Peace and Justice commission in Berkeley introduced a resolution in the Berkeley city council after learning about Ghadar history while on a South Asian Radical History walking tour earlier this year.

But not everyone was thrilled with the development. One of the three Berkeley council members that abstained from voting, Gordon Wozniak, said “I understand that they didn’t think very highly of Mahatma Gandhi, so I don’t think we should argue with that.”

Barnali Ghosh, 40, organizer of the walking tour disagrees. “That is factually incorrect. The Ghadar movement was not non-violent but Gandhi came years later, after the peak of the movement that had its roots in Berkeley.”

Apart from the eight cities in the US, Canada’s Vancouver has passed a similar proclamation. Also pending is House Resolution 259, introduced by representative Mike Honda that seeks recognition for the Ghadar Party at the national level in the US.

With the number of proclamations—and therefore, the Ghadar Party’s recognition—gradually increasing, Dhillon cannot help but think back to his childhood, where wooden cots with mosquito nets were laid out in Bhakna’s backyard and children gathered for poem recitals.

“I feel it takes a century,” he said, “but the Ghadrite spirit of solidarity for equality and leading a discrimination free and dignified life for all citizens is back at least in America, where it all began.”

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