Know Your History: Har Dayal

In celebration of Asian Pacific American month, Know Your History presents a series of profiles of prominent Asian/Pacific/Americans, chronicling an American history too often overlooked. Far from being “perpetual foreigners,” our collective history has shaped this country’s trajectory in important ways.

A political activist, Indian independence leader, scholar, and philosopher, Har Dayal (1884-1939) was part of a group of young Indian expatriates living in the United States and Canada in the 1910s. Such was the context for a political activist movement led by an Indian revolutionary in America that would be one of the first iterations of A/P/A activism in the country.


Photograph of Har Dayal, 1934. From the South Asian American Digital Archive

The turning of the 20th century saw a significant influx of Indians to North America: students and laborers who settled mostly on the West Coast and in Canada. An academic study of the time estimated that nearly 7,000 Indians were admitted to the country in the period from 1899 – 1913 (about 3,000 more were refused admittance due to immigration restrictions). Many of these immigrants worked as farm laborers or railway workers in California, Oregon, and Washington, though records suggest they received wages well below that of their American and Italian counterparts. In the face of such racist immigration policies and a discriminatory political and social reception in both Canada and the United States, many of these Indian immigrants joined together to form political groups.


Indian laborers at San Joaquin Valley Island, 1909. From the South Asian American Digital Archive.

In Berkeley, California, under the leadership of Har Dayal, the Ghadar Party was formed in 1913, made up of Indian students at the University of California at Berkeley, many from the Punjab region. Translating roughly as “revolt” or “rebellion,” the Ghadar Party pushed for Indian independence from British colonial rule through the circulation of their famous newspaper The Ghadar. Their goal was to “stir up rebellion in India,” using their physical separation from their state as leverage to protect them from British retribution while purveying their nationalist ideas. Gaining support both from Indian expatriates in North America and among fellow revolutionaries in India, members of the Ghadar party returned to Punjab to organize an armed insurrection against the British state.

Amidst his work as an Indian nationalist revolutionary, Dayal also demonstrated a fascinating interest in the Indian American community. With the help of his peers, Dayal set up the Guru Govind Singh Sahib Educational Scholarship, encouraging young Indian farm workers in the California area to pursue higher education. Dayal offered his own home as a residence for the recipients of the scholarship.


A notice calling for applications for the Guru Govind Singh Sahib Educational Scholarship, 1912. The notice explains that recipients will receive free room and board, and expenses covered for all aspects of educational life at UC Berkeley. From the South Asian American Digital Archive

Dayal, still in the United States, was detained in April 1913 for his role in circulating “anarchist propaganda.” He fled to Berlin, where he reconvened with fellow Indian revolutionaries seeking sanctuary abroad. While the Ghadar Party and this incarnation of the Indian independence movement would prove unsuccessful (the Ghadar Party became defunct in 1919), Dayal lived out his life as an expat in both Europe and the United States, prevented from returning to his home in India by the British government.


“Har Dyal, Hindoo Savant, Faces Accusers,” writes one news headline discussing the possible deportation of the “political radical.” From the South Asian American Digital Archive

Dayal’s significance within the narrative of A/P/A history is unclear, but his story, which remains largely untold, ought to be remembered. Since the turning of the 20th century, Indian immigrants like Dayal have been living in this country, organizing and exerting influence in important ways. Dayal and the Ghadar party represent an interesting and very early incarnation of the inquisitiveness, activism, and resilience which in so many cases categorizes the early trailblazers of A/P/A history, who reached the shores of our country decades before the “explosion” of Asian immigration in the 1950s and beyond. The navigation of the racial and cultural barriers of early 20th century America, in which “Chinamen,” “Hindoos” and “Japs” were the very epitome of foreign, is unimaginable from our current perspective. And yet it is these trailblazers like Dayal who made possible the forging of modern A/P/A history. In his philanthropic work and his interest in increasing higher educational access for Indian Americans also indicate the opportunities that Dayal recognized for his countrymen living in America, and a dedication to empowering the Indian American community as it existed in his lifetime.

We see from stories like Dayal’s that our roots in this country are so much deeper than they may at first appear.

In death, Dayal has been remembered through his writing, his love of country, and his dedication to the cause of Indian independence. In Berkeley California, April 1911, writing for the July 1911 issue of the Calcutta-based Modern Review, Dayal wrote:

“At present, the people who live in India see only the dark thunder laden ominous clouds and the sun seems blotted out for ever. But I have seen the silver lining which is invisible to them: I have found it in Europe and America, but mostly in the latter country, for here I have discovered character and perseverance, self-denial and hard toil…. These are the qualities that go to nation-building, not fantastic religious or political theories, or eloquent speeches and articles.

India is not dead but living. Much is being done abroad which is not known at home. Let all work sincerely and silently, in the hope that time, which ripens the grain and brings the spring again after winter, which evolves the animal from the stone and man from the animal, which leads the savages of central Europe to the primacy of the world in art and science and bestows on the erewhile slaves of Rome the empire of the globe, time, the mighty architect, the healer of all wounds and the avenger of all wrongs, will lead our efforts to final success after our ashes are mingled with the eternal waters of the holy Ganga.”

Many thanks to the South Asian American Digital Archive for making this profile possible through open access to their extensive archives. 

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