Few Canadians are aware that racism in Canada in the early 20th century was a contributing factor in a failed mutiny against the British Empire.
A century ago, rampant discriminatory immigration policies in this country led a group of radical immigrants to form a political party that promoted armed rebellion against British rule in India.
Sunday (April 21) will mark the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Ghadar Party in Astoria, Oregon. Ghadar means mutiny in Urdu, and the term was popularized by an organized Indian mutiny in 1857 that was suppressed by British authorities.
While the group’s official name was the Hindi Association of the Pacific Coast, it later came to be known as the Ghadar Party after the launch of its newsletter called Ghadar in November 1913. The group had a big following among South Asians living along Canada’s Pacific coast.
Most of the Canadian supporters had migrated to this part of the world as British subjects, and some had previously served in the British army. However, racial discrimination in Canada transformed them into social-justice activists. They soon realized that the British authorities were of no help when they sought to have the same rights as other settlers, including the right to bring their families here.
In 1907, people of Indian descent were disenfranchised in Canada, and efforts were made to relocate them to British Honduras. The same year, Indian workers were assaulted during riots in Bellingham. These men realized that the British government favoured white workers, and they looked to liberating India from British rule.
In 1908, the discriminatory continuous-journey legislation was passed in Parliament, requiring immigrants to make a nonstop voyage from their home country to Canada. This effectively barred immigration from South Asia because it was impossible to make such a long trip without stopping for provisions.
The following year, former Sikh soldiers burned their medals and uniforms at the Sikh temple in Vancouver, sending a clear message of rebellion. A significant number of Indians based in Canada later enthusiastically became members of the Ghadar Party. Among them was Bhag Singh, under whose leadership the bonfire of medals and uniforms occurred.
Even though a majority of the Ghadar activists were Sikhs, the party remained secular in character and kept religion and politics apart. Later, many Ghadar members returned to India to start a violent struggle, with some ending up facing the gallows or life imprisonment.