- Haj to Utopia: How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism and Attempted to Overthrow the British Empire by Maia Ramnath
Maia Ramnath’s Haj to Utopia: How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism and Attempted to Overthrow the British Empire is a historical study of an event and movement often referred to but rarely explored in detail in academic literature. It is one of only two works published in the last thirty years devoted to analyzing the origins and implications of the Ghadar movement (the other being Harish Puri’s Ghadar Movement: Ideology, Origins and Strategy), and it is, for that reason alone, a welcome contribution.1 As Ramnath reminds us, the Ghadar movement emerged among a nascent South Asian diaspora, among several thousand students, mill workers, and farm laborers who had migrated to the Pacific coast of Canada and the United States of America in the first decades of the twentieth century. It straddled a plethora of competing ideologies and creeds: the impacts and interactions of Ghadar with pan-Islamism, Irish republicanism, anarchism, and Bolshevism are detailed in the work. It orchestrated attempts at [End Page 905] armed revolt and military mutiny in India during the First World War, and its members had long careers in secular and religious nationalisms in colonial India in the interwar period.
Throughout her work, Ramnath is keen to emphasize not only that Ghadar was a movement of transnational migrants influenced by transnational ideologies, but also that it provides the connective tissue between early anti-imperial movements in India—particularly rural agitation in Punjab and revolutionary terrorism in Bengal—and the more recognizable nationalisms and revolutionary movements of the 1920s and 1930s. It “served as a missing link,” Ramnath asserts, “as connective tissues or switching circuit, capable of linking various elements among the Indian radicals abroad, linking Indian radicals to other networks, and linking pre- to postwar revolutionary movements inside the country. In fact it could be hazarded that the movement’s wider network overlapped at some point, at no more than a degree of separation, with every radical tendency of its time” (pp. 2–3). This is done most successfully in chapters 5, 6, and 7, detailing the long interconnections between the early Communist movements among the South Asian diaspora and forms of pan-Islamic thought.
The attempt to highlight the intellectual interconnectedness and malleability of Ghadar ideology leads, however, to a loss of specificity about what made Ghadar unique. This results in a loss of the ordinary members of Ghadar as the subjects of Ramnath’s work. The overwhelming majority of Ghadaris were not student radicals, pan-Islamists, or individuals involved in the various anarchistic movements present in the United States at the time. They tended to come from rural communities of Punjab (from the submontane districts of Sialkot, Gurdaspur, Hoshiarpur, and Ambala), a significant number were pensioned soldiers of the Indian Army, and the overwhelming number were Punjabi Sikhs. As a result, a parallel literature (and eventually leadership) develops in Ghadar in which popular publications in the Gurmukhi script were significantly different from their more intellectualized Urdu or English counterparts (take, for instance, the fact that the Gurmukhi editions of the Ghadar newspaper carried as its masthead the Sikh shabad or hymn “Jo tau prem khelan ka chao / Sir dhar tali gali men aao” or “If you want to play the game of love / Then be willing to sacrifice your head”). Very little is said in Haj to Utopia of the Sikh religious context of Ghadar or of Punjabi traditions of martyrdom that affected the nature of the movement’s violence. In addition, the migrant experience in the early twentieth century could have been explored further: “anti-Asiatic” violence in North America and transpacific networks of migration that enabled ideas and bodies to travel back and forth from [End Page 906] India to California. As Hussein Omar has commented in his review of Haj to Utopia in the magazine Bidoun, Ramnath...