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Above: Sikh workers from the lumber industry, Oregon, early 1900s. Below: Photo of Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna - courtesy, Amarjit Singh Chandan Collection.

Our Heroes

Neglected In The Land They Fought For,
Sikh Freedom Fighters Honoured in the US






Pashaura Singh Dhillon was around six or seven-years-old, when his family fled their village of Jandiala in Punjab.

They were among the 14 million people who were displaced as the British precipitously abandoned the subcontinent, and India and Pakistan were carved out and created in 1947.

“I vividly remember, avoiding known paths and stumbling through the muddy fields under the cover of darkness, we came across the man-made border to village Bhakna in district Amritsar by daybreak,” said Pashaura, now a 75-year-old living in Madera, California, USA.

An estimated one million people died during the Partition, one of the great forced migrations in human history. But Pashaura’s family was lucky. They found shelter.

“My family stayed with Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, who was a close relative and became one of the biggest influences in my life,” said Pashaura.

Sohan Singh was the founding president of the Ghadar Party, a pre-eminent political and social organization that was formed in the United States a century ago by immigrant Sikhs.

Ghadar means “rebellion” in Punjabi.

The party was founded in Astoria, Oregon in 1913 with their first formal meeting held at the Finnish Socialist Hall, though the headquarters later moved to San Francisco, California.

It evolved from the Pacific Coast Hindustan Association, a network made up of mainly Sikh workers. Their aim was to work towards an independent India but they also banded together to fight the severe discrimination they faced in the US.


On a bright and sunny November day in Berkeley, California around 75 people, mostly Sikh and South Asian, gathered at the Finnish Brotherhood Hall to commemorate the Ghadar Party. The location served as a reminder about the party’s first meeting over 100 years ago.

With servings of chai and samosas, the attendees sat in semi-circular rows facing a panel that would engage with them about the Ghadar party’s legacy and its relevance today.

But first, 75-year-old Pashaura Singh, who is also a singer, poet and retired architect, stood facing the crowd. Wearing a yellow turban and a dark grey suit, he sang a poem in tribute to the Ghadarites.

November 1 was proclaimed by the city of Berkeley as Ghadar day in 2014. It became the seventh city in the state of California after Ceres, Fresno, Manteca, Modesto, Stockton, Turlock -- and the eighth in the west coast after Astoria, Oregon -- to officially recognise the roots and contributions of the Ghadar Party.

“That a [Punjabi] Association and a Finnish Socialist Hall existed in remote, 1913 Astoria is its own startling news for many,” writes Johanna Ogden in her work called Ghadar, Historical Silences, and Notions of Belonging (pdf). Ogden, 60, is an independent and regional historian from Portland, Oregon.

Some 30 million people left the subcontinent between 1830 and 1930 either by choice, economic imperative, or force, explains Ogden. They left home to work as merchants, soldiers, plantation workers, or labourers, largely in other British colonies.

The year 1908, in particular, saw an influx of immigrants from the subcontinent, mostly Sikhs, into the US, primarily due to an immigration ban imposed by British Columbia (Canada), Ogden writes. Sikhs had been migrating to the US prior to 1908, but that year nearly 7,000 migrated to the country from Canada and other parts of the world. Eventually, the Sikh community of labourers in North America stretched from British Columbia to California, working on mills and farms.

With pockets of communities spreading all over the West Coast, it wasn’t difficult for them to organize politically. The first of many Ghadar meetings was held in Astoria in 1913 -- and together with their weekly newsletter called “Ghadar,” the newly formed party was able to spread and garner support for its pro-independence, nationalist and secular movement.

Within a year of the first meeting, Sohan Singh, who was at that time in Portland, led hundreds of Sikh laborers from America’s West Coast to India with the intention to forcefully overthrow the British. “Most were promptly captured, detained, tried, or executed,” notes Ogden.

Sohan Singh survived, spent close to 16 years in prison in India and lived out the rest of his life on the subcontinent.

Those that opted to stay back in the West Coast continued supporting the party’s mission but also became involved with social injustices they faced locally. With their distinctive turbans and beards, Sikhs were no strangers to discrimination.

“Their personal experiences were horrifying and it was inevitable that they stood for labour and immigration rights here,” said Pashaura Singh.

Eventually, the mission of the party restructured in lieu of India gaining independence. While members lent support to other movements, the Ghadar Party slowly faded away over the years.

Historians, activists and supporters have attempted to keep Ghadar stories alive but the party’s political achievements and link to Indian independence is largely forgotten today in America.


With her findings published in the Oregon Historical Quarterly in 2012, Ogden collaborated with the city and mayor of Astoria, Willis L. Van Dusen, to officially recognise the Ghadar Party.

“The Ghadarites fought and died not only for the freedom of their own country but also for the innate rights of the immigrant worker to lead a dignified and discrimination free life …”, a clause in the proclamation reads.

Local legislative bodies offering Ghadar proclamations are a fairly recent development. Astoria, the birthplace of the Ghadar Party was the first city in the US to give one last year. A two-day celebration on October 4 and 5, 2013 was funded by the city to celebrate the centenary.

After returning from the festivities in Astoria, Pashaura, along with other representative of the Sikh Council of Central California, approached several cities in the region about Ghadar resolutions, many of which were passed specifically recognising the party.

Similarly, Mary Nicely, 54, of the Peace and Justice commission in Berkeley introduced a resolution in the Berkeley city council after learning about Ghadar history while on a Sikh Radical History walking tour earlier this year.

But not everyone was thrilled with the development. One of the three Berkeley council members that abstained from voting, Gordon Wozniak, said “I understand that they didn’t think very highly of Mahatma Gandhi, so I don’t think we should argue with that.”

Barnali Ghosh, 40, organizer of the walking tour disagrees. “That is factually incorrect. The Ghadar movement was not non-violent but Gandhi came years later, after the peak of the movement that had its roots in Berkeley.”

Apart from the eight cities in the US, Canada’s Vancouver has passed a similar proclamation. Also pending is House Resolution 259, introduced by representative Mike Honda that seeks recognition for the Ghadar Party at the national level in the US.

With the number of proclamations -- and therefore, the Ghadar Party’s recognition -- gradually increasing, Pashaura Singh cannot help but think back to his childhood, where wooden cots with mosquito nets were laid out in Sohan Singh’s backyard and children gathered for poem recitals.

“I feel it takes a century,” he said, “but the Ghadrite spirit of solidarity for equality and leading a discrimination free and dignified life for all citizens is back at least in America, where it all began.”

[Courtesy: Quartz. Edited for]
December 5, 2014

Conversation about this article

1: Puneet Pal Singh Bhogal (India), March 14, 2015, 4:48 AM.

I salute the Ghaddar Baabbey who had sacrificed a lot for our community and India.

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Sikh Freedom Fighters Honoured in the US"

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