The Ghadar Party in China

The Ghadaris not only fought valiantly against British rule over India, but that they also opposed foreign domination and subjugation of other countries. Madhavi Thampi takes us through the history of the Ghadaris in China.

The Ghadaris not only fought valiantly against British rule over India, but that they also opposed foreign domination and subjugation of other countries. Madhavi Thampi takes us through the history of the Ghadaris in China.

Oh Brother, do not fight in a war against the Chinese. Beware of the enemy. He should not deceptively instigate you to fight your Chinese brothers. The enemy splits brothers and makes them kill each other. The people of Hind, China and Turkey are real brothers. The enemy should not be allowed to besmirch their brotherhood.

Poem in Ghadar ki Goonj, widely circulated among Indian soldiers and policemen in China.

The most characteristic feature of the Ghadar party was its consistent anti-imperialism. Consistent anti-imperialism meant that the Ghadaris not only fought valiantly against British rule over India, but that they also could not countenance foreign domination and subjugation of other countries. As the above poem eloquently shows, the Ghadar Party could not tolerate that its countrymen were being used by Britain to attack and kill the workers and ordinary people of China who were revolting against the imperialist presence in their country in the early twentieth century. But unlike other Indian political organisations like the Indian National Congress, which limited themselves to passing resolutions against the use of Indian soldiers by Britain in China, the Ghadar Party actively organised to defeat it. In many cases, as we will see below, the heroic work carried out in very dangerous circumstances by Ghadar activists within Indian army and police detachments posted in China, led to these same detachments refusing to fire on Chinese. The work done by the Ghadar Party in China is an important chapter in its history and an unforgettable part of its legacy.

How do we explain the active presence of the Ghadar Party in China, almost right from the time of its inception? There are several reasons for this. It is well known that the Ghadar Party as formed in North America from amongst Indian workers and patriotic intellectuals there. These Indians were able to understand the connection between the racial discrimination and abuse they faced abroad and the enslavement of the Indian people by British imperialism at home. China was a major transition point for Indian workers seeking to go to North America at that time. Hundreds of young Indians congregated in ports such as Shanghai and Hong Kong, waiting for the opportunity to sail to North America. Most had close connections with Indians who had already gone there, and were themselves resentful of the ill-treatment that they received at the hands of the British colonial authorities in the Chinese ports. They therefore shared the same anti-imperialist sentiments as their counterparts in North America and formed a major base of the Ghadar movement abroad.

A second important reason was the large-scale presence of Indian soldiers and policemen in China. Right from the time of the notorious First Opium War in China (1839-42), Indians had formed a major part of British military and police forces in China. To overthrow British rule in India, the Ghadar Party understood the necessity of weakening that most important prop of British colonial rule – the Indian army. Ghadar activists in China infiltrated army and police units, conducted propaganda amongst them against British imperialism, and organised revolutionary cells within them. The Ghadar Party publications, Ghadar ki Goonj and Hindustan Ghadar Dhandora, were widely circulated in their ranks and even clandestinely carried back to India by some of them when they were sent back after finishing their tour of duty in China.

A British intelligence report on the Ghadar activists in China in the 1920s gave the following description of how they conducted their work with the Indian regiments:

One Sangat Singh, … an exwatchman and ex-dalladar of the 39th Central India Horse, approached a Naik and three men of the 4/1st Punjab Regiment and engaged them in conversation of a disloyal nature… 

One Asa Singh, … Police Constable No.83 of the Shanghai Municipal Police, attempted to hand a copy of the Ghadar paper to a Hindu Naik of the 3/14th Punjab Regiment… 

Two Sikh watchmen, named Amar Singh and Dalip Singh, were arrested for hanging about the camp of the 3/14th Punjab Regiment in a suspicious manner and attempting to get into conversation with some of the men…

The third factor favouring the activity of the Ghadar Party in China has to do with the circumstances prevailing in China in the early twentieth century. In 1911, a revolution in China brought to an end the era of centralised imperial rule. For the next four decades, the political situation in China was very turbulent, as no one political force succeeded in establishing control over the whole country. Ghadar activists were able to operate with relative freedom in China, as they were able to move from one place to another if they were pursued too closely by the police at any given place. At the same time, although China was not a colony of a single power like India, it was exploited and humiliated by several imperialist powers, and anti-imperialist and nationalist feelings ran high among Chinese people and various political forces. This meant that a number of Chinese, including some prominent political figures, gave active or tacit support to Ghadar activists as they sympathised with their aim of fighting British imperialism.

Activities in China

In the first phase of Ghadar activity in China, during World War I, the main focus was on recruiting fighters for the plan to launch an uprising in India, and to secure arms and ammunition for the same. As mentioned above, the Indian army and police units stationed in China, along with other Indians in China’s treaty ports and Hong Kong, provided a fertile ground for recruiting willing fighters. In particular, the gurdwaras in these places became important centres of fiery agitation, because the British authorities found it impossible to prohibit the soldiers from visiting the gurdwaras.

China was also a convenient place to buy arms and ammunition, because of the large number of political organisations and military commanders who freely used arms in their political battles. Many Chinese political figures were sympathetic to the aims of the Ghadar party and were willing to help those fighting British power. A letter written in 1916 by one of the Ghadar activists in San Francisco which was later intercepted by the  authorities testified that “Li Yuan Hung (then President of the Republic of China) is in sympathy with the Indian revolution and would like English power weakened. Some of the prominent people are quite eager to help India directly, and Germany indirectly…”

Dozens of jathas organised by the Ghadar Party to go back to India to take part in the planned uprising passed through Chinese ports between starting from 1914. However, this first attempt to organise a country-wide armed uprising against British rule after 1857 was discovered and brutally crushed by the British in India. The British believed that they had put an end to what they called ‘seditious’ activities by Indians in China. In 1925, the British police officer posted in China to spy on the activities of Indians reported complacently: “The circumstances which gave birth to the Ghadar movement were unusual, and are not likely to be repeated. Certainly no parallel exists today…” However, his analysis proved to be completely wrong. 1925 in fact marked the beginning of the second, and even more active, phase of Ghadar activity in China.

Despite the setback in India, the Ghadar Party continued to organise even more actively abroad among Indians and to seek support of other anti-imperialist forces for the cause of India’s freedom. In particular, they drew inspiration from the October Revolution in Russia, and received assistance from the Comintern. In China, the period from 1925-27 marked a high tide in the anti-imperialist movement there. The imperialist powers who congregated in China’s treaty ports felt that their interests were threatened. In panic, the British rushed troops from India to fire on protesting Chinese workers and youth in Canton and Shanghai, killing and wounding many. In response to this, the Ghadar Party issued a stern statement: “The Hindustani Ghadar Party declared any Hindu [sic] who fired upon the Chinese a traitor”. One of the issues of the Hindustan Ghadar Dhandora contained the following appeal entitled “The Duties of the Indian Army in China”. It said: 

“The dutiful sons of China are fighting for the freedom of their country. The freedom of India and the freedom of China have a close connection with each other. By the freedom of China the day of the freedom of India will draw near. It is the duty of Indians to help the Nationalist Party of China so that they may have the pleasure of seeing India free.”

The Ghadar Party also organised to ensure that this message was delivered personally to Indian troops landing in China. Shiploads of Indian soldiers were met almost at the docks by their activists and urged not to fire on Chinese. This message coming from Indians in China just like them had a profound impact on the Indian troops. Some of them rebelled against their commanders and refused to fire, and their regiments had to be hastily disbanded by the British and sent back to India.

An interesting story has been reported in which seventy Indians from the Hong Kong police force resigned in protest against British atrocities on the Chinese. These men then presented themselves before the Governor of neighbouring Guangdong province of China and offered their services to the Chinese. When the Governor hesitated to accept their offer, they are reported to have told him: “We have burnt our boats. There is no going back. You can utilise us for China’s cause or kill us – as you please.” Hearing these words, the Governor decided to take these Indians into the local police force.

Throughout the 1930s and into the early 1940s, the Ghadar Party activists continued to be active in China, despite repeated arrests and deportations of activists and sympathisers by the British. It is very largely due to the untiring efforts of the Ghadar activists that China became one of the most important overseas bases of the anti-imperialist movement of the Indian people.

The activity of the Ghadar Party in China, and especially its heroic work in opposing the use of Indians to fight Chinese, showed that it understood a basic truth – that no people can ever be free if it oppresses, or participates in the oppression of, another people. Unmindful of the danger to themselves, Ghadar activists engaged in undermining the loyalty of Indian soldiers and policemen to the British authorities, skilfully using a variety of means. In this way, they not only made an important contribution to the anti-imperialist movement of the Indian people, but also concretely assisted the anti-imperialist movement of the Chinese people.

The author teaches Chinese History and language in Delhi University and has written several books and articles on India China relations in the colonial period.


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