Gurpreet Singh: Ghadar newspaper centenary marks an important anniversary for journalism
This weekend marks the centenary of the Ghadar newspaper, a publication brought out by radical South Asian political activists on the Pacific coast of North America.
Launched on November 1, 1913, the Ghadar represented the liberation struggle started by the South Asian immigrants in this part of the world against racism and Britain's occupation of India.
Most of these men involved in the Ghadar movement came here as British subjects. Many chose to live in Canada, which was a British colony.
Rampant racism against these people and indifference toward their grievances by Britain's representatives disillusioned them and transformed them into social-justice activists. The racist policies of the Canadian government that denied them right to vote and bring their families to this country fuelled their anger.
They soon realized that the root cause of their sufferings was foreign rule back home in India. As a result, South Asians began getting organized and formed Hindi Pacific Association in April, 1913 in Astoria, Oregon, with a mandate to drive out British rulers from India and resist racism abroad.
The association resolved to form a democratic republic and a secular society in free India and later launched its paper, titled Ghadar, to expose the tyranny of the British Empire and educate South Asians across the world.
The name Ghadar was borrowed from the first uprising against the British Empire in 1857. The British government that gave this revolt its name—an Urdu term that means mutiny—only to see it appropriated by South Asian activists years later.
The paper was published from association headquarters in San Francisco through volunteer efforts, without any monetary considerations. The production and distribution of the paper relied on dedicated supporters of the group.
The radical content caught the attention of the Canadian authorities as the association had a big following in Vancouver.
It regularly published the provocative Ghadar narrative, some of which was written by Vancouver-based activists. The Ghadar promoted secularism and social equality and openly challenged Indian feudalism and the Empire.
Although a majority of these men were Sikhs, the sssociation was secular in character. It had members and supporters from among the no- Sikh communities and discouraged any discussion on religious matters. Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims were treated alike and there was no room for caste-based discrimination. It emphasized people’s unity.
The paper became so popular that the association widely came to be known as the Ghadar Party. The paper also brought out a special issue on the Komagata Maru episode in 1914.
The Japanese vessel with over 350 South Asians aboard was forced by the Canadian government to remain in Vancouver's harbour under the discriminatory continuous-journey law that aimed to prevent Indian immigrants from settling in Vancouver. Eventually, the boat was forced to leave and return to India with its passengers.
The Ghadar newspaper also encouraged Indians to return to their home country to launch an armed rebellion with the help of Indian soldiers in the British army while the Empire was locked in a war with Germany.
Even those actively involved in the publication and composing of the Ghadar returned to India, sometimes facing the gallows and long imprisonment. Prominent among those were Kartar Singh Sarabha, who looked after the Punjabi edition of the Ghadar and wrote regular columns. He was hanged in 1915.
The history of the Ghadar newspaper shows that media activism was alive in North America 100 years ago. Those involved were courageous enough to do what they preached.
Although in today’s materialistic world, it’s difficult to recreate a paper like the Ghadar, its history can still provide inspiration to those in the media in the contemporary world. The minimum they can do is to stand up against the establishment and give voice to the underdog rather than being embedded journalists in exchange for the patronage of the rich and powerful.
Rather than profiteering through the media, the profession should focus on serving the interests of the society at large. The challenges of neocolonialism—like free markets, the arms race, and invasions—should be questioned much as everyday social challenges, like systemic racism, religious extremism, and social inequality.