The Madness of Jodh Singh: Patriotism and Paranoia in the US, 1913 and 2013

Posted by sanyasi on June 12, 2013 · 17 mins read

Part of this essay is adapted from my book manuscript, "Refuge: A work of Memory, Cities, and Loss." My deepest gratitude to the archivists at the National Archives at San Francisco and the Bancroft Library at Berkeley, who keep our pasts--and, through those pasts, our futures--alive. This is the first part of a two-part essay.

Jodh Singh is mad. This is the unequivocal conclusion of the “alienists,” a beautiful, archaic, and appropriately ironic word for the psychiatrists commissioned to diagnose him. [1]

I found Jodh Singh by accident. After several years of living in America, my attention had turned to the persistent invisibility of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Indians of California, people without whom the stories of the San Francisco Bay Area and California were necessarily incomplete. They were not entirely invisible, showcased as part of the enviable diversity of the region, their lives comprehensively documented in the archives of the region and nation, a welcome counterpoint to the more conspicuous presence of more recently arrived and materially successful migrants to Silicon Valley. Yet, despite that visibility, these older generations of Indians, many of whom were Sikh, were condemned to be seen as perpetual outsiders. Despite the powerful rhetoric about California as a crucible of assimilation, the Americanness of their lives remained unrecognized in popular and public consciousness. Still treated primarily as the property of departments of ethnic studies and Asian-American studies, hived off in discussions about the diaspora, a curiosity to the more recent immigrants as much as to other Californians and Americans, their lives, pasts, and memories continued to be ignored in plain sight.

Paradoxically, having found a space for myself in what was now my adopted country, the claims of cultural difference struck me as more compelling and urgent than any claims of universality; I had the luxury now of not needing to believe in the notion of inherent human sameness, which, for an outsider in an initially foreign society, is a necessary fiction, a strategy of psychic survival. My interest in these questions had led me to a series of inquiries about the Gadar Party, a South Asian political organization, headquartered in San Francisco, that had championed the cause of Indian independence in the first half of the twentieth century. Some members of the Gadar Party, the rank and file, had emigrated to the US and Canada to work as peasants, laborers, and mill workers. Others, leading these workers, had come here as students and teachers. Many of the poorer among them had migrated as a result of British colonial policy regarding land rights.

Unashamedly advocating violence in the cause of the liberation of India from British colonial rule, the party, founded in 1913 and formally disbanded in 1947 with Indian independence, had embarked on a doomed project to launch a revolutionary armed struggle in India. In 1915, Gadar sympathizers in North America had returned to India with the aim of fomenting a popular—and armed—uprising to topple the colonial government. The plan, intercepted and quashed by the British, had resulted in the imprisonment and execution of significant numbers of the revolutionaries. An insurrection in Singapore in the same year had met with similar results. In 1917, Ram Chandra, the leader of the Gadar Party, other party members, and German diplomatic officials were arrested for planning a military conspiracy against the British, in violation of US neutrality laws. The trial of Indians, Germans, and Americans accused of the conspiracy lasted from November 1917 to April 1918. Twenty nine conspirators, Indian and German, were found guilty at what came to be known as the Hindu-German Conspiracy Trial. On April 23, 1918, a day before the trial concluded, Ram Chandra was shot by Ram Singh, a co-defendant in the trial.

Very little of the history of the movement and the people associated with it had survived in San Francisco. Radical revisionist histories of the city, like Rebecca Solnit's Infinite City, were as guilty as simplistic assimilationist histories of turning a deaf ear to Gadar's claims as part of the city's past. On Valencia Street, where Har Dayal, the party leader before Ram Chandra, had run his ashram and printing press as part of an international anarchist network, there was no trace of the building that had housed both. No building of that number seemed to exist any more. The closest number was a two-storied yellow house, part residential, part commercial, next to a lot with a mural of a bleeding heart, gangsters and Jesus looking down on grass and weeds. Waves of construction had washed over many of the street's rich pasts. Buildings and businesses that had managed to survive were now being obliterated by a rash of concept stores that catered to hipsters, selling specialized varieties of mac and cheese, vintage typewriters, or children's clothes imported from Europe and marked up to absurd prices.

Curious to learn how the history of the movement and the Hindu-German conspiracy had figured in popular and public opinion at the time, I had spent time over the last few years at the University of California Berkeley's Bancroft Library and the National Archives at San Francisco (located in San Bruno) researching materials related to the movement. In the summer of 2012, I began making my way box by box through the National Archive's collection of papers related to Hindu-German Conspiracy trial of 1917-1918. [2]

Each day, I would read through the papers related to the trial at the archives, housed in a grey government building near the cemetery of the American war dead, located near a canopied stretch of I-280 just beyond San Francisco. Every evening, after a day of reading, I would drive on the Pacific Coast, and on roads parallel to it, highways that, among others, Sikh and other Indian laborers might have built, US 101 and I-280 and the iconic Route 1, highways from which lanes with beautiful names would spiral off, Miraloma and Spindrift and Farralone, names bringing to mind the dark waters below the cliffs, the terror of shipwrecks, and the romance of explorers landing on the wild, windswept beaches of the Pacific. Not one of the names was remotely Indian or Sikh sounding. A small Indian restaurant, with the Air India Maharaja and Taj Mahal, promising home delivery, sandwiched somewhere between Pacifica and Moss Beach offered the only trace of an Indian presence.

I got through a few boxes in the record collection, before travel and the claims of the academic year took me away from it (temporarily, I told myself). But not before I came across the story of Jodh Singh, a forgotten fragment in a forgotten history, a life captured in a medical report. Jodh Singh, almost thirty-one years old, born in Fatehjangh in Rawalpindi District and trained as an electrical engineer in Berlin, had been brought to India to testify on behalf of the US government in the Hindu-German conspiracy trial. During the cross-examination he had turned hostile, refusing to incriminate his fellow revolutionaries. He was now imprisoned in the Alameda County Jail for the crime of high treason against the government of the United States. Prone to hallucinations, railing against the King of England, shouting his love for his Indian motherland, compulsively washing the chain of the toilet in his cell, Jodh Singh was diagnosed as insane by a committee of medical experts.

We do not know if Jodh Singh was truly mad or not, though after reading our Foucault, we know we need to be suspicious of categories such as "true" madness. The medical report, which also found him a malingerer, dishonest, syphilitic, neurotic, a passive homosexual, a weak man, and a follower lacking leadership qualities, says as much about the doctors and medical science of the time as it does about Singh. Maia Ramnath, in her recent work, Haj to Utopia: How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism and Attempted to Overthrow the British Empire, suggests that Singh, like other revolutionaries turned informers, may have been tortured or subjected to death threats. [3] Placed in a hospital for the insane in California, he was eventually released to his father's custody, who took him back to India. Ramnath notes, "I do not know how long [Jodh Singh] lived or if he ever regained his mind." [4]

What we do know is that the archives indict the state that tries, assesses, and judges Jodh Singh mad. It also indicts that part of society that is one with the state in its fear of Jodh Singh. For the paranoia and patriotism of this insane, incarcerated man eerily echoes the paranoia and patriotism of Americans writing letters to J. W. Preston, the US attorney-general in charge of prosecuting the case. The Hindu-German conspiracy trial collection contains many such letters. Citizen after citizen writes to Preston, signing their letters “a patriotic American” or a “loyal American,” mentioning suspicious Germans and Hindus seen in San Francisco and its environs, men who go in but never come out of buildings in Valencia street in the Mission District, Germans meeting in bars downtown, German officers getting into the German diplomatic officers cars in the Presidio, Hindu men gathering in parks and halls. A telegraph operator writes of overhearing a chance conversation between Asian men about a ship carrying strange cargo; seeing the name of the ship in the papers, he dashes off an alarmed letter to the attorney general clarifying his own innocence. Women in San Francisco's suburbs write in about men glimpsed walking. The landladies of Indian students write in to Preston, worried about the contents of the trunks of their tenants. And Preston, who by the end of it all will develop heart trouble from the stress and who is busy tracking down a German professor to send him an out-of-print German-English dictionary which he needs to decipher the codes used by the conspirators to transport shipments of arms from Europe and America to India, writes back to each and every one of them, thanking them.

In its tone and suspicions, the paranoia that is called patriotism, that is thus given the imprimatur of legitimacy, is not very different from the paranoid nationalism of Jodh Singh that is identified as madness in the archive. And like Jodh Singh, the citizens suspicious of the Hindus and Germans in their midst too see ghosts, phantoms that the state encourages them to see, traitors, conspirators, foreigners--phantoms that states need us to see as real and need us to not recognize as phantoms. Men whose nationality like their intent is uncertain, who might be Indian or Filipino or Chinese, Swiss, or Austrian, or German, who move through the San Francisco fog in a glow of spectrality. Intrigued by Jodh Singh's hallucinations and their alter-egos, I decided to look for other ghosts and their twins in the archive.

The present is also an archive. Having to temporarily stop my research at the National Archives, I began noticing the proliferation of such spectral presences everywhere in post 9/11 America, or, viewed through the eyes of America, everywhere across the globe. Here too, the bottomless paranoia about Muslims, brown-skinned people, Arabs, Middle Easterners--that smorgasbord of bewildering and threatening identities that had so gripped the imagination of the American state and society--sought the name of patriotism. Men and women who might or might not belong to global terrorist organizations, people killed by drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan who, the American state suggested, were best thought of as militants, even if they were children or infants, men and women incarcerated indefinitely, dumped without due process in Guantanamo Bay. Instead of letters written to an attorney general, the paranoia of the present found expression on the Internet, on television shows, and on talk radio.

In his statement to the judge at the trial in 1918, Jodh Singh might well have been speaking for the captives in Guantanamo in 2013. [5]

"Gentlemen, this is the United States of America. This is a country where democratic government was established by one of the Mahatmas of the world who is known as George Washington. This is the country where men of high and low class have almost equal rights.
Until now I have not understood what right has the Government of the United States to bring me to this country as a prisoner without issuing any legal warrant against me, either in India or the United States, and then expect testimony in this world-wide intrigue."

Jodh Singh goes on to express his faith in the American system, which he contrasts with the secretive and unfair British system. "I am glad to know," he says, "that my countrymen are going to be tried in America, in which there is more justice than we have in India...." Let us leave this to-be madman here, in his moment of lucid hope, and turn (or return) to another madness, the madness of the paranoid state and the patriotic society in our times. We leave him with the knowledge that a century later a prisoner in similar circumstances, even if given a choice to voice his thoughts, would be very unlikely to express the same faith in the American system.

[To be followed by Part II, "South Side Chicago and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border: The Logics of Collective Responsibility and Collective Punishment in the Post-9/11 Security State"]


[1] Report of commission appointed 2/20/1918…to inquire into the mental condition of Jodh Sing, United States prisoner, n.d. Record Group 118, RECORDS OF THE OFFICE OF THE U.S. ATTORNEY, Northern District of California, Neutrality Case Files, 1913-1920, National Archives and Records Administration—Pacific Region (San Francisco).

[2] The papers will soon be digitized. See

[3] 2011, p. 89, p. 94.

[4] p. 94.

[5] "Bomb Plots," Evening Post, 30 January 1918, Page 7