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Commentary / Rajeev Srinivasan

Across a chasm of seventy five years, the eyes of these dead men speak to today's Indian American

We celebrated the birth centenary of Kartar Singh Sarabha on November 16 in San Francisco. Born in 1896 in the Punjab, died in Lahore in 1915. A mere boy, nineteen years of age. So why do we remember him?

Because he was a remarkable young man, and his story deserves wider renown. He also represents one of the paradoxes of nationalism -- that distance lends enchantment. Sarabha and his fellow Gadar Party members were loyalist Indians who struggled for their motherland in far-off America; in the end, many of them paid the ultimate price: they were executed by the British Raj for 'sedition'.

Today's Indian Americans -- at least some of them -- reflect the patriotic fervour exhibited by these early nationalists. I once read somewhere that expatriates harbour 'dangerously romantic' notions about their home countries. There is considerable truth to this. For example, it is Irish-Americans who have never even been to Ireland who have sustained the Irish Republican Army for years. The Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora has supported the ambitions of Tamil nationalists, including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Similarly, Americans of Sikh descent, especially in the California farm community of Yuba City, have been in the forefront of the agitation for an independent Khalistan. It is all the more bitter irony, then, that it was predominantly the Sikhs of California who sacrificed everything for the Gadar movement for Indian independence.

The Gadar Party (I believe the word means 'revolution') was formed in San Francisco in the early part of this century by expatriate Indians. Indians in the US and in the British colony of Canada were generally ill-treated: There were, for example, the Asian Exclusion Act and its extension, the Hindoo [sic] Exclusion Act, which prevented Asians of all sorts from owning property in the Americas, marrying white women, or bringing their own womenfolk to the continent. Ah, for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness!

Despite all this, a few Indians, mostly Sikhs, had carved out an existence for themselves in the rich farmland of California, marrying Mexican Californians, who were also generally oppressed. The catalyst in their political awakening was the ill-fated voyage of the ss Komagata Maru, a Japanese vessel that was bringing would-be Indian migrants to the Americas.

As I understand it, the Komagata Maru was turned back repeatedly: by the Canadians first, then by the Americans; the ship returned to Calcutta. Some people died on the way; on docking at Calcutta, the passengers were shot at by British troops (perhaps those who had expended their life savings on the passage rioted because of the mistreatment they had suffered) and more were killed.

It was in this atmosphere that the Gadar Party was formed in 1913, to campaign for an independent 'United States of India', a secular, tolerant nation that would at last have gotten rid of colonial rule. On November 1, 1913, the first issue of Gadar saw the light of day. It advocated armed revolutionary struggle for India's freedom.

In 1913, Kartar Singh Sarabha was sent to study at the University of California, Berkeley, then as now one of the top three universities in the US. He arrived in the Bay Area, and soon joined the Gadar Party. In 1915, Sarabha and a number of others returned to India to continue the insurrection. Their intent was to organise soldiers to mutiny against the British during the First World War. Unfortunately, betrayals by others in their ranks led to their capture by the British. A show trial was the result -- the infamous Lahore Conspiracy case -- in which 80 men were tried. Twenty six were convicted and seven were sentenced to be hanged.

Kartar Singh Sarabha and Vishnu Ganesh Pingle, another Berkeley student, were among the seven hanged at the Lahore Central Jail on November 16, 1915. But their sacrifice was not in vain. The Lahore case captured the public imagination; in particular it inspired Bhagat Singh, who became the most famous symbol of fiery Indian resistance to colonialism.

What of the Gadar Party? Many of their members were hounded, jailed, or extradited to India by the US: after all, they were 'inciting sedition against a US ally'". But the Gadar continued to be published; and today, on a suburban street not far from the Indian consulate in San Francisco stands the Gadar Memorial Hall, a small structure which houses a library and a meeting room.

On the walls of the Gadar Memorial Hall are photographs of glowering young men. Across a chasm of seventy five years, the eyes of these dead men speak to today's Indian American. It is no wonder that some of us respond. At occasional meetings at the Gadar Hall, you see a cross-section of India -- young and old, female and male, Northern and Southern, of all faiths; united in affection for our land.

My perspicacious friend Bapa Rao suggests that it is only when your self-image is under attack that you tend to become consciously nationalistic. Most of us in the US have had experiences of racism, of a 'dot-head' epithet tossed at us, of glass ceilings and discrimination in the work place, of the casual demeaning of our nation and our beliefs that we face frequently. Some have also been beaten up.

As a result, many Indian Americans, especially those who are long-term residents of the US, tend to perhaps view the mother country with rose-coloured glasses. This is even truer of the second generation of US-born Indian-Americans. After a childhood where they mostly deny and abhor their Indian-ness, the grown-up second generation often becomes passionately nationalistic.

Both the consciously constructed identity and the defense mechanism lead to strident assertions of nationalism. This is perhaps the reason why some Indian Americans support the BJP (whatever its other sins). It appears to be the only party in India that unabashedly embraces a pan-Indian nationalism; the other parties tend to temporise and vacillate to the extent they lose credibility.

The Tamil film Roja by Mani Rathnam is worth noting in this context— the protagonist realises his patriotism only when he is challenged by secessionists. Interestingly it is those from South India, those whose Indian identity is sometimes questioned, who are constructing this unambiguous nationalistic response.

Cynics might suggest that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel; but it also the last refuge of the exile, the vaastuhara, the dispossessed.

As Vikram Seth, who knows about these things, said in his poem Diwali, ... I know the whole world Means exile of our breed Who are not home at home And are abroad abroad.... ..... This may as well be my home. Because no other nation Moves me thus? What of that? Cause for congratulation?....

In their glorification of the path of violence, perhaps the Gadar Party erred; perhaps so did Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and his 'forgotten army', the Indian National Army. The path taken -- of conciliation and non-violence -- led to the terrible holocaust of Partition. Historians will decide on the path not taken -- whether Gadar and the INA too served the cause of nationhood.

Even more than those who live in India, and who are thus subject to the daily corruption and degradation of our nation, those of us who live abroad might dream of India. Perhaps not the sordid reality of it, but the 'city on a hill', the nation that the Gadar Party envisioned. An ideal for which one could say: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. It is sweet and proper to die for one's country.

Rajeev Srinivasan

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