The last Monday of May is observed every year as Memorial Day, when Americans pay tribute to their martyrs in America. It is a day of national awareness and reverence to honor those who gave their all in service to this country. Every nation has a history and a story of its patriot warriors who at one critical juncture or another of a dire need stood up to the tyrant. They stood up for their country to be counted, fought and sacrificed their all to protect its freedom and foster its nationhood.
Years later in national celebrations, memorials and thanksgivings however, only those few are remembered who somehow find a place in its history books and thus in peoples’ minds. Others remain unknown, ignored or forgotten as the time goes by. The incredible story of our pioneer Indians, who immigrated to America a century ago and inspired by the American Revolution, became revolutionaries themselves, appears to have met the same fate as above mentioned others!
The rise of the Indian national Ghadar Party from the American soil, which flew the first Indian independence flag in San Francisco was such a glowing chapter, which deserved a suitable spot in history books.
I am not a historian but this much I know; whether our ancestors in Punjab or India were Dravidians or Aryans can be debatable, our ancestors in North America were most certainly those, who came here in late 1900’s and early 20th century against all odds.
They labored in lumber mills in Oregon and worked on railroads and farms in California . Unfortunately, the story of velour and sacrifice of those pioneers turned Ghadrites that began in Astoria –Oregon in 1913 is a history now that was lost in both countries – America as well as in India due to different reasons. Johanna Ogden – a local historian based in Portland writes, “In America it was lost and silenced in Oregon due to social attitudes, notably that conception of America as a white Christian nation. While America has utilized the labor of millions from around the globe to build up the country, Chinese, Punjabis and many others were barred from the citizenship and from the American story.” In India they were paid only a lip service for almost a century. That is not to say, the flickering light was not kept alive by the left of center political parties, mainly the communist parties in India as well as by their sympathizers abroad. The Punjabi American community in Californian for instance commemorates Ghadrites every year by organizing “Ghadri Melas” on different days and sometimes twice in the same town depending upon the number of organizations doing this.
Despite the commendable work being done by these organizations which deserves to be appreciated, commemorating Ghadrites the right way needs to dedicate a day just like Memorial Day when all diasporic Indians of erstwhile undivided India should come together. It is critical to remember, while the Ghadar movement was started and was largely represented by the Sikhs, it was a very diverse membership with undivided Indians of all backgrounds, regions, and who spoke various languages involved with the goal of getting the British to quit India the same way the American Revolution caused the British to quit America. Ghadrite’s story is our proud heritage as diasporic Indians living in America, especially Punjabis and Sikh Americans. It is not just a footnote in Sikh history; it is a crucial part of American history as well which deserves to be told in the history books. In this regard, testimonies have already been made for updating the Curriculum for History –Social Science Framework for Grade 10 California Schools.
In India, a century later however, during his inaugural address on January 8, 2013 at Pravasi Bhartiya Divas in Kochi, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh said:”This year, we are celebrating the centenary of the Gadar Movement, which was a luminous spark of support in distant California for the struggle for independence being waged at home in our country. Apart from commemorating it by the issue of a special postage stamp, we will also upgrade the Gadar Memorial in San Francisco into a functional museum and library with a sculpture to honor the Gadari Babas, the heroes of the great movement.” Dr. Manmohan Singh also sanctioned the sum of $4 million for this upgrade. The plans are now said to be ready. But the current estimate of $15 M instead of $4M for this state of the art building is under review by the now External Affairs Ministry is another matter.
Interestingly, this story also suddenly sprang to life in 2013 in Astoria- Oregon, where the Ghadar party was originally born a century ago in 1913. An article, “Ghadar, Historical Silences, and Notions of Belonging: Early 1900s Punjabis of the Columbia River, by Johanna Ogden which was published in (Summer 2012), issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly, proved a miracle. Based on this article, on October 4-5, 2013, the city council and the mayor of Astoria hosted a 3 day centenary commemoration of the founding of the Indian national Ghadar party in 1913 in that city’s Finnish Socialist Hall. They also passed a proclamation that in Johanna’s words took a life of its own. A dozen city councils and mayors in California when approached took a similar stand.
Although there is a long way to go in getting our unsung heroes the right place in history books, but all of the above ongoing is a big step forward to get them closer to the main stream.
To conclude this post, I would like to emphasize the need to dedicate one day for the commemoration and would go back to the title “Revering Ghadrites in a shared landscape on Memorial Day in America is the right thing to do!
What says you? Please leave a comment as usual.