ACTIVIST: Remembering an unsung Dalit hero of the Ghadar movement

GURPREET SINGH
RADIO INDIA

Ghadar Party flag

The flag of the Ghadar Party. Submitted graphic

As secularist and progressive groups have started celebrating the Ghadar Party centenary this year, those organizing the events need to highlight the role played by many unsung heroes of the freedom struggle.

Among them was Mangu Ram Muggowal, a prominent Dalit icon of Punjab. He was a part of the Gadar party that was launched in the U.S. on Nov. 1, 1913 and believed in an armed struggle against the British occupation of India.

Although historians sometimes do injustice to individual participants of historical struggles and their contributions are sometimes overshadowed by the role played by a few dominant leaders, the followers of Muggowal believe that his role in the Gadar movement may have been deliberately ignored because of caste prejudice. While this allegation is debatable, Muggowal’s role should be acknowledged by those organizing events to mark 100 years of the Ghadar Party in Vancouver and elsewhere.

Incidentally, his descendants live in the Greater Vancouver area. A special event will be held to mark his birth anniversary at Guru Ravidass Sabha Burnaby on Jan. 20, 2013.

Born in Punjab in 1886, Muggowal, like other members of the Ghadar Party, immigrated to the U.S. for economic reasons and became involved in the freedom struggle following a realization of racism and discrimination in the foreign land. Members of the Ghadar Party believed their sufferings were the result of slavery back home and resolved to fight against imperialism.

A person like Muggowal endured double discrimination for being a person of colour and a Dalit. Being born in a so called low caste “untouchable” family, he began facing caste-based discrimination during childhood.

He faced segregation at school and suffered physical abuse for defying caste laws. Thankfully, the Ghadar Party believed in secularism and kept religion and politics apart, yet he faced such prejudice even in the U.S.

Muggowal not only worked for the Ghadar newsletter but also went to Java to help in collecting and sending arms to India. He escaped near death sentence at the hands of the British allies. Thinking that he had died, his family remarried his widow to his brother.

On coming back to India he was disillusioned by the continued oppression of the Dalits, who were considered untouchables by the orthodox Hindus and Sikhs. He was partly upset with the popular leaders of the freedom struggle who failed to address the issue of casteism. He resigned from the Ghadar Party in order to mobilize Dalits against systemic caste-based discrimination and eventually launched the Aadi Dharam movement in Punjab. He believed that without bringing social revolution first it was impossible to bring real freedom in India.

The Ghadar Party assured him full support in his struggle against caste oppression. But since his movement was in conflict with the interest of the freedom struggle, his cause was not dear to the popular leadership of India. Rather, Muggowal was branded as a tool of the British Empire that was playing a divide and rule game to prolong its rule in India. Whereas the British Empire was happy to give concessions to the Dalits, leaders like Muggowal felt deceived by the mainstream nationalist leaders of India. Despite such differences, it goes to the credit of Muggowal that he did not support a religion-based partition of India in 1947.

Even after the freedom, Dalits continue to suffer caste-based discrimination in India. Untouchability is still practised in many parts of India in accordance with orthodox principles of Hinduism despite India being a secular country. Besides, thousands of Dalits are forced to indulge in manual scavenging for livelihood in spite of tall claims of development and progress. Mangu Ram’s legacy therefore should be kept alive to stop oppression against Dailts. Let Muggowal be remembered both as a Ghadar and a Dalit activist.

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