The revolutionary movement for India’s independence was sparked by the Sikhs of Northern California, and had its roots in the core Sikh belief of freedom for all people and equality of humankind.
Although this crusade took hold in the West Coast of North America, its origins can be traced back to Punjab’s countryside. By the beginning of the 20th century, Sikhs had lived under tremendous oppression from the British Raj for nearly 50 years. Land acts were issued to pauperize Sikh farmers through taxes and loans, guaranteeing the maintenance of a ruling class of pro-British families. Facing insurmountable economic deprivation and an inability to make social progress, young Sikhs farmers migrated to other parts of the world. Several thousand settled in the Far East by the beginning of the 20th century. Many also chose go to Canada and the United States. The exact number of migrant Sikhs to the United States is not readily available, but a good source of this information can be found in the Annual Report of the Commissioner-General of Immigration. These reports shed light on Sikh migration with more accuracy than any other data. According to the reports, immigration of “East Indians” to the US was at peak in 1910 but drastically declined in 1911 and remained very low at the beginning of World War I in 1914, and virtually died down by 1915. The numbers provide a story of migration that is directly tied to the economic conditions of Punjab during that time. And it was these Sikhs from Punjab that formed the backbone of the Gadar (Revolution) Party in California’s Bay Area, and began the organized movement for an armed revolt in India for independence. Early immigrants, from 1907 to 1910, were responsible for the Gadar Lehar (Wave) and its organization. The data puts to rest the argument that the Gadar Party began to form in 1913. There is little probability that the number of immigrants that arrived in 1913, or later, were large enough to initiate a strong organization such as the Gadar Party. In 1913, 188 East Indians entered the US. And, in 1915, only 82. The movement already had strong footings by 1913 when immigration from India had dried up. Later arrivals, from 1911 to 1915, joined an established group. The 1911 edition of the immigration report gives a description of the East Indians: “About 85 per cent of these are Hindus wearing the turban; the others are Mohammedans or Afghans.” This is a clear indication that the majority of the immigrants from India were indeed Sikhs. The reports also provide a detailed breakdown of their employment. The majority were “Farm Laborers” and made up about 83 percent of the total population. Sikhs were best suited to work in the agricultural economy. Farming not only provided them with steady employment but also with a strong financial base to organize and orchestrate a freedom movement. An analysis of names appearing on the manifests of the ships arriving at the port of San Francisco from 1906 to 1910 also shows that the early East Indians who landed on the West Coast were Sikhs. Harold S. Jacoby, sociology professor at the University of the Pacific, in Stockton, conducted the analysis and published his findings in his book, “History of East Indians in America,” in 1992. According to his book, Sikhs made up 80 percent of Indian immigrants to San Francisco, Hindus 9 percent and Muslims 6 percent. But the actual number of Sikhs is probably higher because Jacoby only looked for names with “Singh” as the last name. Some Sikhs use a different surname. The construct that Gadar Party members primarily were Sikhs is also evident from the “The Ghadr Directory,” published by the British in 1917, and revised in 1934. It provides a list of 616 names of prominent members of the Gadar Party, of which 527 were Sikhs, 54 were Hindus and 35 were Muslims. This makes the Gadar Party a truly Sikh organization. Immigrants from India also landed on the West Coast of Canada. Data from the immigrant ship, Komagata Maru, which arrived in Vancouver on May 13, 1914, shows that the largest contingent of its passengers also were Sikhs. According to data from the Canadian government archives, the ship had a total of 376 passengers, of which 340 were Sikhs, 24 were Muslims and 12 were Hindus. About 90 percent of those travelling on the Komagata Maru were Sikhs, while only 10 percent were non-Sikhs. The Komagata Maru and all its passengers were turned back to India in a effort to control Asian immigration to Canada, then a British colony. The US did not impose immigration restrictions because it needed foreign workers to build its West Coast. And Americans sympathized with the Indians’ aspiration to be free of British rule. Sikhs were the major supporters of the Gadar Party because they felt somewhat at home in fighting for justice and freedom. They had a history of struggle for survival. Many Sikh families, especially the rural and farming communities, had at least one family member who travelled abroad for a more prosperous life. And many immigrants were themselves well-travelled men who had served in the British armed forces, or had a family member who had travelled to other parts of the commonwealth and experienced the value of freedom. Teja Singh, one of the most influential figures of that time, played a major role in helping promote the ideology of Gadar by establishing the first American gurdwara, in Stockton. Meetings of the early Gadar Party were held at the gurdwara, which became its headquarters until it officially relocated to San Francisco. The early influence of Sikhs and Sikh philosophy are evident in the Gadar Party movement. Because Sikhs formed the majority of the East Indian immigrants, they also formed the backbone of the Gadar Party. It is easy to understand why Sikh philosophy had a major impact on the party’s outlook and policy. The teachings of the Gurus - to be prepared to sacrifice your life for freedom (Guru Granth Sahib, page 1,412) - was an inspiration to Sikhs who were working for the Gadar Party. They placed Guru Nanak’s message on the masthead of the Gadar newspaper: “You may play this game of love but be prepared to sacrifice.” This inspiration was instrumental in providing a spiritual foundation for the uplifting spirit of the Gadar Lehar. The poetry published by the Gadar Party also reflected the teachings of Sikh philosophy that: “When all measures have been exhausted and justice is not in sight, it is just to take the sword and fight (Zafarnama -22).” This message of fighting for one’s rights was central to the publications of the Gadar Party, which usually carried a map of India and an image of “Mother India” with her hand on the sword, ready to take it out for battle. The Gadar Party was a revolutionary movement led by Sikhs and supported by Sikhs. Rather than calling it a “Revolutionary Movement” it would be more correct to label it as a “Sikh Revolutionary Movement.” _________________________ This paper was presented at the "One Guru Granth, One Panth, and Sikh Rehat Maryada" conference at Santa Clara University in California, on May 4. The author is an electronics engineer who graduated from Oregon State University in 1985, and is currently working in Sacramento with the State of California. His interests include Sikh numismatics and the history of the community’s struggle for survival and sovereignty. Commentaries are the opinions of the authors, and not necessarily that of Sikh News Network.