Ghadar, Historical Silences, and Notions of Belonging: Early 1900s Punjabis of the Columbia River
Ogden, Johanna, Oregon Historical Quarterly
ON May 30, 1913, the Astoria Budget printed a notice from "Munsii [Munshi] Ram, Secretary of the Hindu Association, Astoria, Oregon." It was an invitation to hear Har Dyal, a Stanford professor and "noted philosopher and revolutionist in India," deliver a special "lecture on India for the American residents of Astoria" at the local Finnish Socialist Hall.(1) That a Hindu Association and a Finnish Socialist Hall existed in remote, 1913 Astoria is its own startling news for many. But this was far more than a lecture in a "red" hall arranged by a surprising organization. Dyal's 1913 speech in Astoria was the keynote at the founding of the revolutionary nationalist Ghadar Party, an uncompromising and radical new direction in Indian nationalist politics.
Created by the Asian Indians (or Hindus, as they were referred to at the time) of the U.S. West Coast, Ghadar's aim was nothing less than the armed overthrow of British rule in India. (2) The group included intellectuals such as Dyal as well as students, but its ranks were the laboring Punjabi men who worked the region's mills and farms. Men from the length of the Columbia River and beyond filled the hall that May in Astoria. Within a year of the meeting, hundreds of Punjabis, overwhelmingly laborers from the West Coast led by Sohan Singh Bhakna from Portland, returned to India with the hope of sparking an insurrection against British rule. Most were promptly captured, detained, tried, or executed; Ghadarites were the target of conspiracy trials in Lahore, India, and San Francisco, California, the latter at the time the most costly trial in U.S. history. (3) These setbacks aside, Ghadar's secular politics united an unprecedented combination of social castes and religious backgrounds and made an indelible mark on the Indian imagination and politics. For that, Indian historiography views Ghadar as an opening salvo in the Indian nationalist endeavor. Ghadar Party memorials exist in Jalandhar, Punjab (India), and San Francisco, California. (4) Yet, this major political accomplishment and link to Indian independence is largely unknown today in the American West, and its birthplace in Oregon stands in mute anonymity.
Men from British Columbia to California accomplished the formation of Ghadar despite facing numerous legal proscriptions and extra-legal mob violence, frequently perpetrated with government backing or an official blind eye. Oregon was perhaps more nuanced in its treatment of the migrants because prominent figures in the state--for their own self-serving reasons--openly championed the economic usefulness of the Punjabi men's presence and stridently opposed violence against them. But while they were not physically driven from the state, the Punjabis have been run out of Oregon historically. There are no identifiable vestiges of them in Oregon's landscape, little recognition of their lives or accomplishments exist in our collective memory, and the watershed founding of Ghadar is largely forgotten. If remembered at all, Ghadar's Oregon story is eclipsed by that of San Francisco, the later home of its office and press. (5)
The story of Ghadar in the Pacific Northwest is, without a doubt, intriguing. For me, its historical importance lies in the realities it reveals about the transnational making of the region and the historical downplaying, if not silencing, of that very process. The erasure of Asian Indians in Oregon is rooted in myths that have privileged settlement over transience and rigid nationalist fables over stories of global peoples--whether Chinese, Japanese, or Hindustani--who were, and are, intrinsic to the region. Those myths have shaped our archives and stories, and they continue to haunt us through their impact on the notions of belonging and otherness in post-9/11 America. Re-rerembering the Punjabis of Oregon--communities of laborers and political activists stretching the length of the Columbia River--prompts one to consider the process of their erasure. …