An Irishman, a German and a Sikh revolutionary walked into a (figurative) bar. The outcome was not a punchline, but the largest pan-global conspiracy of World War I.
It ended, as many failed conspiracies, in a courtroom – this time in San Francisco. On one side were attorneys from the United States aided by British secret agents. On the other, the co-conspirators Ram Chandra and Ram Singh, aided by Irish-American attorneys. It was the most expensive trial in history at the time, costing three million dollars. Its climax came, not with a judgment, but with gunshots in the courtroom.
Ram Chandra shot his co-defendant, Ram Singh, thrice – once in the heart and twice through the body. He would have fired more – but a United States Marshall shot him in the head over the heads of the other people in the courtroom.
How did things turn out this way? What made the idea of Indian independence become a global affair? And why did Ram kill Ram in the final moment?
The Sides are Drawn
Ghadar is an Urdu word meaning revolt or revolution. For many in early 20th century India, the Revolt of 1857 hung fresh in collective memory. For the British, it was a warning call; for revolutionaries, an unfinished act.
The Partition of Bengal in 1905 had turned many nationalists at home and abroad into overt opponents of the British rule. The India House was started in London and soon became a meeting ground for future-revolutionaries. One of these was a man named Har Dayal.
Har Dayal was on a Government of India scholarship, studying Sanskrit at Oxford University, and walked the university’s streets in the humble Dhoti. He renounced his studies in 1907 to return to India the following year. Following a few political uprisings, he left never to return again.
A stint in Paris led to another in Algeria and finally to a position as lecturer in Indian Philosophy and Sanskrit in the United States. There, he founded the Ghadar newspaper at the University of California. This became the revolutionary rag of Indian expats in the United States – and led to the founding of a party. As he wrote:
Today there begins ‘Ghadar’ in foreign lands, but in our country’s tongue, a war against the British Raj. What is our name? Ghadar. What is our work? Ghadar. Where will be the Revolution? In India. The time will soon come when rifles and blood will take the place of pens and ink.
The Ghadar Party was the first political outfit to call for complete Indian independence. Founded in 1913, its contention was that the Congress Party was ‘appeasing’ the British rather than ousting them.
More than any other political movement for independence, the Ghadars managed to make theirs an international cause. What later became known in the United States as the Hindu-German Conspiracy began as a plan to stir an armed uprising against the British in India while the Royal Army was busy fighting World War I.
A guiding principle was the adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and World War I saw no shortage of opposing powers to the British Empire. The Ghadarites sought help from the Germans, Irish Nationalists, Afghans, Ottomans, Chinese, and Japanese. Figures such as Abdul Hafiz Mohamad Barkatullah were a part of it – whose pan-Islamic connections aided the movement’s global component.
Negotiations took place across the world. Ghadarite leaders engaged in talking with Germans – who sought a route to ship weapons through China with their permission. In East Asia, Rabindranath Tagore himself approached the Japanese High Command for weapons. In Paris, Indian and Egyptian revolutionaries made plans to assassinate the British Secretary of State of War. Bomb-making techniques were learned in Russia and imported from France. And in the United States, a highly intricate plot was formed with the Irish to smuggle guns by sea to India.
The Irish independence struggle, in particular, was an inspiration. In an article written in the Gadar magazine, edited by Ram Chandra, the Irish struggle is held up as a model. “When the Hindu revolutionist comes up to the standard of the Irish rebel, then the British attacks … will be answered.”
The idea of all of this was that the Ghadarites would return to India and raise up the Indian sepoys against their British masters. This required building a network within the military in India. The problem was that this network was exposed before any of the others. In September and October of 1914, up to 300 Ghadarites sailed to India on various ships. One of these expeditions, led by Jawal Singh on the SS Korea, was intercepted in Calcutta. While the other ships succeeded in delivering their cargo and building a pan-Indian network, the complications of revolution proved immense.
For all the knots, ends, connections, arms and sheer scale of the conspiracy – its leadership was simply too ad-hoc and non-representative to pull off a revolution. As Amit Kumar Gupta writes in Social Scientist:
However, neither the perspective of a worldwide anti-colonial movement nor the urgency of forming an armed Hindu-Muslim joint front against the British had clearly been projected by their counterparts and compeers within the pre-first world war India. Revolutionism of the nationalist variety was practiced in the main by those inside the country who belonged to the educated middle-class of the upper caste Hindu society.
The British seemed to be cracking down on their efforts at every stage. For they too had been following the thread. Informers helped them foil would-be mutinies in India, and it didn’t help that they intercepted a communication from the Ottoman leader himself – Enver Pasha, writing in a Turkish newspaper:
This is the time that the Ghadar should be introduced in India . . . Hindus and Muhammedans, you are both soldiers of the army and you are brothers, and the low degraded English man is your enemy; you should become ghazis by declaring jihad and combining with your brothers to murder the English and liberate India.
Against the Ghadarites were pitted the combined intelligence force of the British, Americans and Canadians. In the United States alone, agencies such as the State Department, the Justice Department and its Bureau of Investigation, the Labor Department and its Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, the Military Intelligence Division of the U.S. Army, the Adjutant General’s Office and the War College Division of the General Staff worked together to unveil the so-called Hindu-German conspiracy.
Ultimately, the only mutiny that took place was in Singapore on Chinese New Year– where the primary army garrison stationed in the city went on revolt. Over 300 sepoys of the 5th Light Infantry took part – but to no avail. An Allied task force of French, Japanese, Russian and British-Indian soldiers took back the garrison and captured the troops.
On March 22, 1915, five of the mutineers were sentenced to death by execution. This left only the Ghadarites in America to execute the crux of the Hindu-German conspiracy.
The Annie-Larson Affair
After successful negotiations, the Germans were convinced that if they were going to fund an insurrection, they might as well make it a big one. $200,000 worth of arms were acquired through the Krupp company in the U.S. The plan was for arms to be shipped to India via Burma.
A schooner called the Annie-Larson was purchased through an agent who didn’t know the plan. As a result, he bought a vessel that wasn’t suited for a trans-Pacific journey. The conspirators had to buy another vessel – this time an old oil tanker called the Maverick. A front company with fake shares was set up as a ruse (they even sold fake shares at $100 a piece). The ship needed extensive repairs – which the German Consulate in San Francisco funded.
The plan was for Annie-Larson to carry the arms and rendezvous with the Maverick, off the Socorro Island near Mexico. Everything that could then go wrong, went wrong.
When the Annie-Larson set sail for the island, the Maverick was again confined to drydocks for another month. During this time, it attracted the suspicion of the authorities – who searched it several times, in tandem with British officials. They found nothing – but rumours had already emerged about the ship’s intentions. It finally departed with a crew of five Indians bearing Persian passports sent by Ram Chandra. They carried a cargo of revolutionary literature – and arrived at the Socorro island to find nothing.
In waiting for the Maverick, the Annie Larson had run out of fresh water. It had to sail for the Mexican mainland to restock. Instead of returning, its crew refused to sail back – saying the schooner was not sea-worthy. Courting disaster, they sought the help of a U.S. gunboat – the USS Yorktown. The Americans boarded the ship but did not discover the cargo, and the Indians used the Yorktown’s radio to inform the Germans of the failed rendezvous.
In this time, the Maverick waited 21 days at the island – in which time she met with the H.M.S. Kent, whose officers boarded the ship and questioned the men. At the last minute, they managed to burn their literature in the ship’s boiler room. They were heavily grilled, but the British found nothing. With the plan in disarray, the Indians took orders from the German High Command – who asked them to sail to Anjer, Java.
Along the way, the Maverick’s crew quarrelled over the money Ram Chandra had given them. It later emerged that there were discrepancies in how the German’s money was allocated by Chandra. It was these discrepancies and the possibility of Chandra being an informant that made Ram Singh shoot him in the courtroom.
The Annie Larsen returned to the island to find no Maverick. The plan had completely failed. Plans to rendezvous near the Hawaii islands also failed. Constantly searching for a port to restock in, their cargo was finally discovered and seized at the port of Hoquaim.
By this time, the entire conspiracy had been well known to both British and American authorities. Several informants, both Irish and Indian, had compromised the plot. The Americans, then neutral in the war, found that these activities breached their neutrality laws and arranged for a trial of the defendants.
The Hindu-German Conspiracy was the grandest foiled act of the early twentieth century. It combined intelligence and counter-intelligence from across the world. Its legacies were many. A shared Irish-Indian bond was formed out of the numerous aids given by the latter – when HarDayal needed bail money, a ‘mysterious Irish woman’ provided it for him. Similarly, when Ram Chandra needed bail, an Irish patriot named Hugh Daly covered his bond. It’s no surprise that when India gained independence, the Indian Constitution was partly based on the Irish one.
The British tightened their intelligence and hold over India. The direct outcome of the conspiracy was the Rowlett Acts as well as the Defence of India Acts. And America inched ever slowly from its position of neutrality during the war.
The success of the India Office in London inspired similar setups in Europe – culminating in the formation of the Indische League in World War II. History would indeed repeat itself.
Har Dayal escaped unscathed. From 1915, the American operations had been coordinated by Ram Chandra. Dayal ended up settling in Sweden – where he became an avid Buddhist scholar, spending the rest of his life in isolation.
All in all, the Ghadar plot/Hindu-German Conspiracy was a global cloaks-and-daggers operation. The failure of violent independence movements strengthened the moderate cause. Opposition to the Rowlett Act and to Britain’s tighter grip on the Indian populace strengthened Gandhi and the non-violent movement and history took a different turn. All we know is that if these revolutionaries had succeeded, our history would have seen bloody wars, death and loss on an unfathomable scale.
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