An Archive of Anticolonialism and State Surveillance: Tracing Early South Asian American History

An Archive of Anticolonialism and State Surveillance Tracing Early South Asian American History

In September 2012 in Stockton, California, the gurdwara, a house of worship for people of the Sikh faith, commemorated its one-hundred-year anniversary with the opening of the Sikh History Museum, Library, and Heritage Center. On display in the museum was the hand-cranked printing press that the Ghadar Party—the most well-known South Asian revolutionary anticolonial movement to emerge in the early twentieth century—used to print its weekly revolutionary publication, Ghadar. Headquartered in San Francisco, the party was comprised primarily of Sikh agricultural workers on the West Coast and lumber mill workers in Oregon, though it had branches across the globe including Vancouver, Panama City, Manila, and Hong Kong. Ghadar’s goal was to free India from British rule and the world from white supremacy, which Ghadar activists saw as part of the same freedom struggle. Their primary method for circulating these ideas was Ghadar, the party’s periodical that was sent to South Asian migrant communities in North and South America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. Ghadar activists immediately came under the scrutiny of British and U.S. officials and Ghadar was banned in India following the publication of its inaugural issue. As I explore in my recent article for the September 2022 Special Issue of the Journal of American History, the Ghadar Party’s anticolonial politics were a source of anxiety for U.S. officials, who pointed to such revolutionary organizing as evidence that “foreign agitators” were organizing on U.S. soil. Such claims helped to fuel the passage of the 1917 Immigration Act, which effectively barred South Asians from entering the country and demonstrates the confluence and mutual construction of restrictive immigration laws that targeted Asians and those that targeted political radicals.

Although South Asian migration to the United States began in the late-nineteenth century, 1904 was the first year of significant South Asian migration, with the arrival of 258 migrants. This number steadily increased over the next few years, reaching 1,072 by 1907. About ninety percent of these migrants were Sikhs who hailed from five agricultural districts in the Indian state of Punjab. Their migrations were prompted by exploitative economic and politically repressive policies in India under British colonial rule, which coincided with the capitalist development of the American West, where the railroad, lumber, and agricultural industries sought a cheap labor force.

But from the moment they arrived in the United States, South Asians encountered a deep-seated tradition of anti-Asian racism and white supremacist violence. In the summer of 1907, public agitation against South Asian migrants grew to a fevered pitch in Bellingham, Washington, when an angry mob forcibly drove nearly two hundred Sikh workers from the town, dragging many of them from their beds, throwing their belongings into the streets, beating them, and demanding that they leave Bellingham immediately. White workers in Bellingham blamed the Sikh workers for taking lumber mill jobs that they saw as theirs and insisted that the expulsion of “a tide of turbans” was crucial to protecting “white men’s countries.”[1] In response to the racial discrimination, violence, and exclusion they faced in the United States, South Asian migrants formed the Ghadar Party.

I grew up going to the Stockton gurdwara. Yet, it was only as a graduate student doing my dissertation research that I learned that the Stockton gurdwara was a critical site for not only religious worship and refuge from the toils of labor, but also for resistance, anticolonial mobilization, and state surveillance—it was where South Asian migrants gathered to worship and to organize. Identified by U.S. and British governments as a dangerous site of anticolonial activism, U.S. and British officials closely monitored the gurdwara and viewed it as a center of sedition. British surveillance records reveal that colonial authorities were tracking Ghadar activity in gurdwaras in Vancouver, Victoria, Stockton, Hong Kong, Manila, Shanghai, and Nairobi.

When I began my dissertation research, I set out to uncover the early histories of South Asian Americans, histories that were little known to me and often only briefly mentioned in U.S. immigration and Asian American history courses. At first, I feared that the archives would not yield sufficient material for me to complete a dissertation. What I found shocked me. Not only was their ample material, but the archive itself was more than a collection of ship manifests and immigration inspector reports—it was an archive of South Asian anticolonialism and state surveillance.

One of the most rewarding aspects of doing this research was coming across the writings of South Asian activists themselves, who produced a dynamic body of texts that interrogated empire, race, inequality, citizenship, and immigration. In doing so, they highlighted their experiences as excluded migrants, colonized subjects, racialized laborers, and surveilled anticolonialists. Ghadar published regularly featured articles and publications such as, “A Few Facts about British Rule,” Angrezi Raj Ka Kacha Chitah (The British Rule Laid Bare), and Ankon Ki Gawalri (Evidence of the Statistics), which emphasized the destructive nature of British rule in India, including the high rates of taxation and the British Indian government’s neglect of education and public health. Ghadar also highlighted how British wealth and supremacy were built on the labor and exploitation of its colonies.

Attuned to ways in which colonialism relegated colonized peoples geographically and temporally to spaces that were constituted as backward, uncivilized, and undeveloped, Ghadar’s writings articulated a counter-narrative to colonial temporality and western modernity. Subverting colonial timelines mandating that colonized subjects gradually “progress” towards self-determination under western tutelage, the Ghadar Party eschewed British racial visions of progress and modernity by calling for an armed insurrection. In so doing, they rejected colonial promises that India would be given its independence when it was deemed “fit” for self-government. Instead, Ghadar urged South Asians to “take your freedom now.”[2]

The British government considered Sikhs to be desirable recruits in military and police forces and Punjab was the most fruitful recruiting ground for the Indian Army. During the First World War, Sikhs comprised less than one-hundredth of the population but supplied about one-sixth of the fighting forces of the Indian empire.[3] Outside of the confines of British military service, however, British officials racialized these same Sikhs as exceedingly dangerous. This prompted the Ghadar Party to argue that Sikhs were only valued as foot soldiers for the British Empire’s territorial and monetary interests. Ghadar Party leaders capitalized on Sikh experiences in the British Indian Army to enhance their anticolonial arguments and to politicize Sikh soldiers. They hoped to make the soldiers receptive to Ghadar’s critique of the relationship between the British Indian Army—what Ghadar referred to as an “instrument of oppression” used to control India—and British exploitation and subjugation of colonized peoples around the world.[4]

The Ghadar Party sought to expose the British Raj’s exploitation of India to articulate an important strand of its anti-colonial politics: namely, to convince South Asian soldiers that because their military service was essential to the security of the British empire, their refusal to serve would constitute a serious threat to the empire’s security and stability. Ghadar emphasized that the British used taxes collected in India “to finance England’s ceaseless bloody wars of aggression and conquest” and that “India’s men and treasure have paid for all of England’s wars in the Far East, in China, Burma, Egypt, and Africa, in whatever corner of the globe British greed sees a chance to oppress a weaker people.”[5] Thus, Ghadar leaders argued that because there was a material link between the British subjugation of India and the global operations of the British Empire, overthrowing the British Raj would initiate the fall of British imperial rule the world over.

Next year marks one hundred years since the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act, the first comprehensive immigration policy passed by the U.S. Congress, which effectively closed the door to Asian migrants for decades. Even before the 1924 legislation, however, Congress had already severely restricted Asian immigration, in part through the 1917 Immigration Act. The most stringent immigration law to date, the 1917 Act imposed, for the first time, a literacy requirement for immigrants over sixteen years of age. It also excluded all peoples living within a constructed geographic region referred to as the “Barred Zone,” which included almost all of Asia, with the exception of Japan and the Philippines. Finally, the Act gave U.S. officials the authority to utilize deportation to suppress what was deemed dangerous or subversive political actors and movements. Because Chinese and Japanese migrants were already largely excluded through the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1907 Gentleman’s Agreement, the Barred Zone Act was intended to close the door to South Asian migrants. As my research shows, the anti-Asian and antiradical dimensions of the 1917 Immigration Act have not disconnected threads of exclusion, but deeply intertwined and mutually reinforcing. While arguments for South Asian exclusion utilized similar anti-Asian language previously used to justify excluding the Chinese and Japanese, the “menace” South Asian migrants posed at this particular moment was also driven by their anticolonial and nationalist aspirations.

The anticolonial politicization and mobilization of some of the earliest South Asians to come to the United States were far from inevitable or even expected. The vast majority came as migrant workers with no history of anticolonial organizing. Fifty percent of them were veterans of the British Indian Army. But the racial violence and hostility they encountered in North America generated an anticolonial movement that was transnational in scope and revolutionary in its aims. The exclusion, surveillance, and deportation of South Asians during the early twentieth century show that the politics and practices of immigration restriction at this time also helped fuel an anticolonial movement that both appealed to and interrogated the unfulfilled promises of U.S. democracy.

Seema Sohi is an associate professor of ethnic studies and a faculty affiliate in the Department of History at the University of Colorado Boulder. She is the author of Echoes of Mutiny: Race, Surveillance, and Indian Anticolonialism in North America (2014).

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