Remembering the Ghadar Party
Resonances of radical, anti-colonial struggle in our contemporary moment
On May 23, 1914, a steamship sailed into Burrard Inlet in Vancouver. On board were 376 passengers of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu origin. Those passengers, like millions of immigrants to Canada since, came seeking better lives for their families. Greater opportunities. A chance to contribute to their new home. Those passengers chose Canada. And when they arrived here, they were rejected. Mr. Speaker, Canada cannot solely be blamed for every tragic mistake that occurred with the Komagata Maru and its passengers. But Canada’s government was, without question, responsible for the laws that prevented these passengers from immigrating peacefully and securely. For that, and for every regrettable consequence that followed, we are sorry. […] Just as we apologize for past wrongs, so too must we commit ourselves to positive action - to learning from the mistakes of the past, and to making sure that we never repeat them.
- Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada. May 18, 2016
In May of 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized on behalf of the Government of Canada for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident, in which passengers from Punjab, British India, aboard a steamship were refused entry at a Vancouver port. Trudeau’s apology highlighted the discriminatory laws of the Canadian state at the time and made a broad call for not repeating those “mistakes”.
Trudeau’s narrative, however, excluded the historical, geographical, and material conditions under which the Komagata Maru occurred. Baba Gurdit Singh, the Indian who contracted the Komagata Maru steamship to travel to Canada, would have rejected the idea that the Komagata Maru incident was just a question of unfair legislation on the part of the Canadian government. He argued that the event was a manifestation of how imperial society was organized: non-white immigrants were “slave” labour who were responsible for the industrialization of the United States and Canada. Gurdit Singh described how when the labour of Indian “coolies” was no longer needed, or when they had become “sucked oranges”, the governments enacted strict immigrant laws to prevent them from gaining citizenship rights, either by preventing their entry or deporting those already in the country.
While many – including those in the South Asian diaspora in Canada – see such apologies and other gestures of pluralism by the Liberal government as beacons of progressiveness in the face of ascendant hard-right politics, liberal multiculturalism has done little to change the state’s role in reproducing inequities through borders. Border and citizenship regulations continue to be constitutive of class today. Canada’s own Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program continues to produce a super-exploited labour force by denying citizenship rights and placing heavy restrictions on migration. The Program, introduced in 1966, allows for Canadian farms to hire agricultural migrant labour from the Caribbean and Mexico on temporary work visas.
Moreover, contrary to Trudeau’s misleading narrative, South Asian migrants on the Komagata Maru were not mere victims of state oppression. Many held affiliation with the Ghadar Party — a radical anti-colonial organization founded along the west coast of North America by Punjabi migrant labourers in 1913. While the early twentieth century South Asian diaspora originally struggled to affirm their rights as British imperial citizens, they later shifted their politics to a critique of the Canadian state as implicated in empire, racism, and labour exploitation which were materially inscribed into settler colonial society.
With the British entry into World War I against Germany in 1914, the Ghadar Party called upon the global Punjabi diaspora to return to their homeland to rise up against the British. The British violently repressed these efforts. When the nineteen-year-old Kartar Singh Sarabarbha was to be hanged for his political organizing with the Ghadar Party in Punjab, he bravely declared: “If I had to live more lives than one, I would sacrifice each of them for my country’s sake.”
The Ghadar Party is not merely an interesting moment in social history. Rather, its memory persists to be invoked and contested today. Trudeau’s statement above attests to how the memory of the Ghadar Party can even be subordinated for a hegemonic project to consolidate the settler colonial state.
In 1910s North America, the Ghadar Party situated its politics in anti-colonialism as opposed to struggles for extending liberal rights to the community or for cultural recognition. Its anti-colonial politics was informed by national liberation struggles in India and globally. The Party realized that racism was not a question of individual prejudices but was structural to a global imperial order. As such, it saw antiracist struggles in Canada as connected to a broader struggle against empire in India and elsewhere. The Ghadar Party helped us see that the Komagata Maru was not an isolated moment but was endemic to the operations of a white supremacist state.
The Ghadar Party’s politics contrasts with the efforts of many groups in Canada’s diaspora communities today. For example, ever since its founding in 2002, the Professor Mohan Singh Foundation has repeatedly called for an apology by the Canadian government for the Komagata Maru incident. But while verbal apologies are commonly perceived as redemption, what concretely did Trudeau’s statement change about race relations in Canada? A substantive apology would have included a dimension of transformative reparations or structural changes in society towards equitable relations.
Ghadar’s history continues to be interpreted and translated for contemporary concerns across space and time, not only because of the global and internationalist character of their praxis but also the persistence of colonialism and imperialism today. Despite the violent suppression of the Ghadar Party in 1915 by the British colonial state, activists in the Indian subcontinent continued to remember them in their struggles. In the 1920s, some Sikh Ghadaris began organizing in the Babbar Akali movement to liberate gurdwaras in India from colonial control. The October Revolution in 1917 influenced the Ghadar militants to rethink their political orientations to integrate Marxism with their anticolonial praxis. An outcome of this was the formation of the Kirti Kisan Party (Worker and Peasant Party) in the 1920s. A large section of Punjabi communists in the 1940s came from this lineage of radical anticolonial politics of the Ghadar Party, Babbar Akali movement, and Kirti Kisan Party.
The history of the Ghadar Party also continues to inform South Asian activists in the diaspora across multiple sites of struggle. In 1973, the East Indian Defence Committee was formed in Vancouver as an antiracist social movement. Branches later opened in other cities in Canada: Edmonton, Winnipeg, Hamilton, Toronto, and Montreal. In the 1970s, EIDC formed self-defence brigades that protected people of colour and indigenous communities against racist and fascist attacks and protested against the state’s blatant complicity. The organization located itself as part of a lineage of South Asian antiracist and anti-imperialist organizing in Canada carrying the legacy of the Ghadar Party and the events surrounding the Komagata Maru.
Back in 2006, I was part of an effort to start a South Asian community news program for CKUT Radio in Montreal. As we were developing the direction of the show, there was a heated debate about its name. Jaggi Singh, an anticolonial anarchist-militant, suggested Ghadar Radio. The reference to Ghadar was a means of situating ourselves as part of the long history of anticolonial and antiracist organizing by the South Asian diaspora in North America and across the globe.
Ghadaris showed how the struggle against imperialism could take on multiple nodal points which reached beyond the contours of British India. The connections the movement made spoke very much to the politics several of us desi radio activists were drawn towards. At the time, I wasn’t fully able to appreciate that history and its contemporary resonance, and it was unable to capture the consensus of our collective. It was a missed opportunity for keeping the struggles of the Ghadar Party alive in our collective memories.
While there has been a recent wave of academic scholarship on the Ghadar Party, especially around its recent centenary in 2013, social movements have been at the forefront of keeping that history alive. Kartar is still remembered among a section of the Punjabi population in Canada. I remember his portrait being displayed at a demonstration in Toronto in 2013. The EIDC in the 1970s reflected upon the history of the Ghadar Party in Canada for its radical antiracist politics. They didn’t simply mimic the Ghadar Party, but translated it for their times to critique the liberal politics of the state and of groups in the South Asian diaspora.
Anticolonial and anti-imperialist social movements must continue to lead the way to reclaim the struggles of the Ghadar Party and rethink its meaning for our own battles of today and tomorrow.
Kasim Tirmizey is a teacher and writer. He currently teaches at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.
This article is part of Jamhoor’s Special Issue on Politics in Diaspora