The history of the Indian independence movement is multilayered; some would say that the movement of non-violence spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi led our country to freedom, while others would say it started in 1857. We owe our independence today to those many movements and others that took place in India after 1857. One of these, the Ghadar movement, has the unique distinction of being the first armed movement for Indian independence launched from foreign soil during the First World War. It comprised members of all communities; mostly Sikhs, ex-servicemen and student leaders. My father, Pandurang Khankhoje, was one of those students.
The beginning of the twentieth century was a time of great unrest and intellectual ferment in India. Lokmanya Tilak was a key figure in this period. He inspired many with his call for Swaraj and Swadeshi. Khankhoje, a young man from Maharashtra, was one of his most devoted disciples. Khankhoje was also inspired by tales of 1857 recounted by his grandfather ‘Tatyajee’ Venkatesh Khankhoje, who had joined the movement and fought alongside Tatya Tope. Rebellious and determined since childhood, he vowed to fight for India’s independence. During his schooldays he formed a secret society dedicated to spread the message of independence in his town and even formed links with the great secret society of Bengal, the Anushilan Samiti.
Khankhoje was born in Wardha in 1886. By 1906, after his forays in promoting so-called ‘sedition’ he was already in trouble with the local police. Subsequently, he visited Pune and stayed with Lokmanya Tilak. Seeking Tilak’s guidance, he learnt of the famous victory of the Japanese over the Russian Imperial Navy. Tilak advised the young man to go to Japan and seek military training. Khankhoje left for Japan to learn the military sciences and start an armed struggle for freedom. There he met Dr Sun Yat Sen and his Chinese revolutionaries, and honed the basics of handling weapons and revolutionary tactics. After meetings with Count Okuma, the Japanese premier, Khankhoje and his friends founded the India Independence League (IIL) in Japan, which, many years later, would be revitalised by Rash Behari Bose. However, the Japanese, due to their own compulsions, could not encourage Khankhoje, and he decided to move to the USA.
He worked as a coolie in the United States. There he met like-minded students like Tarakhnath Das, Khagen Das and Suren Bose; soon they formed another branch of the IIL. He also joined the Mount Tamalpais Military Academy in San Rafael, California, and obtained a military diploma. Along with Sikh freedom fighters like Sohan Singh Bakhna, Pandit Kashiram and many others, he spearheaded the early part of the freedom movement termed Azad-e-Hind. With the rise of Lala Har Dayal (by which time the movement had gathered momentum), the revolution came to be known as the Ghadar Movement.
Not much is known historically of Khankhoje as he took charge of the secret military wing of the Ghadar, where he adopted many aliases. For him, secrecy was of paramount importance and this probably helped him survive. The Mexican Revolution, raging in 1910, gave him an insight into the horrors and attrition that an armed revolt can lead to. He was determined to train a proper insurgent army, with the help of Sikh ex-servicemen members of the party. Lala Har Dayal had by then secretly engaged German diplomats who undertook to provide shiploads of arms and ammunition for the rebels. It must be emphasised that the German aid was only a diversionary tactic, meant primarily to weaken Britain when the Germans finally waged the First World War.
Har Dayal was arrested; but he jumped bail and left for Switzerland, leaving the party rudderless. When the Great War was declared, impatient groups of patriotic Sikh revolutionaries returned to India to wage insurrection. Pandit Kashiram, Sohan Singh Bakhna, Khankhoje, Vishnu Ganesh Pingle and other leaders of the party devised a plan. In Khankhoje’s words: “We planned to start a civil war in India, to instigate people not to pay taxes, in order to weaken the British oppressor economically. We wanted to paralyse the administration by calling strikes, blowing up bridges and destroying sensitive military establishments.”
On his way to India, Khankhoje heard news from Agashe, a fellow patriot, of a meeting of Indians and Germans that would take place somewhere in Europe. He immediately changed his plans and made his way to Constantinople with Agashe and Bishan Das Kochar, where a meeting was held. He joined the expedition led by Wilhelm Wassmuss, the colourful character, often dubbed as the German Lawrence of Arabia. They proceeded to Shiraz where they were joined by Sufi Amba Prasad. In this manner began the Ghadar expeditions in Afghanistan and Iran. Finally, Khankhoje’s dream of taking a revolutionary army to India via Baluchistan looked possible. His companions in this endeavour were Agashe and Pramathnath Dutta. His small army consisted of Indian prisoners of war (recruited by Har Dayal), Indian soldiers recruited on the way, Ghadar revolutionaries and willing tribesmen. Collectively, they fought a number of battles against the army of Brig Gen Sir Percy Sykes. Dadabhai Kersasp, a Parsi Ghadrite, who joined them later, was summarily executed by a British firing squad, while Sufi Amba Prasad committed suicide before facing the firing squad. Khankhoje was wounded and captured, but finally managed to escape. The German Consul Zugmayer wrote in a letter of recommendation that ‘Khankhoje was a true patriot, willing to go to extreme sacrifice for his cause’. Pandurang Khankhoje continued his skirmishes against the British till the end of the war, but never managed to enter India as his army was decimated. The British general Sykes wrote that his army was guarding the way to India and the war could have easily been lost, which would have damaged the British Empire. He took refuge with the Kashghai tribe, till the end of the war.
The failure of the Ghadar Movement can be ascribed to many reasons, mainly logistic and communication problems during a world war. The British Secret Service intercepted arms shipments at various places; in the Socorro Islands in Mexico and in Batavia, Indonesia, MN Roy was left waiting for a shipment of arms that never came. In India the secret service arrested and executed many revolutionaries. The central coordination and help expected from the Germans was not forthcoming and in USA the Ghadar ended with mass arrests and internment during the war. Yet, symbolically it can be said that this movement inspired many future revolutionaries. The setting up of the First Provisional Government of Independent India by Raja Mahendra Pratap, Barkatullah, C Pillai and other Ghadrites in Afghanistan and the unrest caused by the returning Sikh revolutionaries, together with the reports of ‘disaffected Indians waging war’ in Persia had made the British wary. After the First World War, Khankhoje joined Virendranath Chattopadhyaya in Berlin. Bhupendranath Dutta, Luhani, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya and Khankhoje met Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik government in an attempt to gain recognition for India’s independence movement. After the failure of these meetings they returned to Germany empty-handed. The very efficient British Secret Service was after Khankhoje, and fearing for his life, he sought asylum in Mexico. His name was on the proscribed list, and had he returned to India he would have courted a death sentence or penal servitude in the Andamans. In Mexico, he became a renowned agricultural expert, always hoping to use his expertise in India. He formed many free schools of agriculture in Mexico for poor farmers, and his contribution is recognised till today. He also paved the way for diplomatic relations between the two countries. After India’s independence he was invited by the Central Provinces Government, later Madhya Pradesh, to head the Agricultural Policy Committee, but he returned to Mexico in 1951. He came back to India for good in 1956 and settled down in Nagpur, where he passed away in 1967.
Till the end of his life he wanted no reward or recognition; India’s Independence was his only reward.
As told to Rahul Jayaram
(Savitri Sawhney is the author of a memoir about her father I Shall Never Ask for Pardon)