Panel 4, Radicalism

Seema Sohi

Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies, University of Colorado-Boulder

“Indian Anticolonialism, State Surveillance, and Decolonial Epistemologies in North America, 1907-1920”

This paper will trace the anticolonial politics of Indian migrants in North America during the early decades of the twentieth century. Drawing from imperial archives, U.S. state records, and Indian anticolonial writings that emanated from a North American context, I will examine strands of anticolonial politics and the severe repression such politics generated amongst U.S., British, and Canadian officials. Taken together, Indian anticolonial writings constitute a critical archive that interrogates race, empire, and modernity. I examine these writings as analytical forms of knowledge production to argue that a significant, and heretofore largely unexamined, component of Indian radical anticolonialism was its decolonial epistemologies. In other words, while clearly anticolonial in that it was taking a stand against colonialism, Indian radical anticolonialism was also an epistemic and political decolonial project that elucidated modernity’s racial underpinnings and contested the epistemological hegemony of the West. Though deeply rooted in the politics of an anticolonial movement that demanded self-government and the eradication of British rule in India, these activists also contested the racialized foundations of empire, a critique that brought them under the scrutiny of state authorities and made them a critical part of early South Asian American history and the histories of global anticolonialism, immigrant exclusion, and state surveillance in the early twentieth century.

Gajendra Singh
Lecturer of South Asian History, University of Exeter

Photo of Dr Gajendra Singh

“Some Bhang, a Rape and a Killing: Everyday Violence and Anti-Colonial Imaginings in the Ghadar Movement in Colonial India, January 1915”

In Lahore, on the 26th April 1915, a trial began of 81 individuals for their connection to the Ghadar Movement. It was one of the first of a long list of prosecutions that were to take place in India, Burma, Canada and the United States. The Ghadar Movement served, in the Anglo-American imagination, as the missing link between anti-imperial violences in India, Ireland and Egypt and the ideologies of Anarchism, Bolshevism and Pan-Islamism. The dangers Ghadar posed required extraordinary measures. The Lahore trial was the first in a series of ‘Conspiracy Cases’ in British India that suspended ordinary jurisprudence. Guilt was assumed; it was innocence which had to be proven.

The near certainty of successful prosecutions made the Lahore trial a process of constructing a narrative of events rather than proving guilt. And, in that narrative of events relatively inconsequential crimes could become treason as long as it was shown that the participants were one step removed from an identifiable Ghadari.

This paper will focus on one such event – the Sahnewal dacoity on 23rd January 1915. It involved several men who killed and robbed a village moneylender, assaulted his wife and collectively raped his daughter-in-law. The paper will analyse how this relatively minor event could be used to construct revolutionary criminality and revolutionary consciousness in India during the First World War. It will explore the bodily violences committed at Sahnewal as a way of reading into the alternative consciousnesses of the rebel, and not-so-rebel, Ghadari.

Johanna Ogden
Independent Historian


“The Radical East Indians of Oregon”

I will explore two inter-related themes that I believe are critical to understanding the rise of the radical nationalist Ghadar Party and its 1913 formation in Oregon.

First, East Indians were overwhelming laborers in North America.  As such, they were immersed in the working class politics of the day, whether by choice or as exclusionist targets.  Mainstream working class political organizations in the North American West, as part of a global movement, were central to the spread and enforcement of white right.  Yet East Indians, overwhelmingly laborers, were propelled into radicalism – against their racial targeting and colonized status – in exactly this milieu.  I will explore the synergy and unexpected consequences in settler colonies between the time’s endemic racism and the greatest extension of democratic rights to those defined as white.  Ghadar was, in a way, East Indians’ claim to the heart of whiteness – the right to self-rule and democratic rights. Secondly, early political leaders in Oregon argued for a specific form of – as DuBois described the times –the white religion.  Rooted in western post-Civil War politics, and honed with Chinese migrants, Oregon’s racial policy presented as racial tolerance and opposition to communal ethnic violence.  In reality it was a policy of racial supremacy crafted to foster particular business and state interests.  And yet, Oregon leaders inadvertently created safer conditions for East Indian organizing, including the state’s possible riffs with federal agencies targeting Asian migrants and radicals.

Jo Ogden: Oregon’s Ghadar Party History