The struggle for India’s freedom from British colonial rule is marked by the sacrifice of countless Indians. Some even paid the ultimate sacrifice with their lives. (Images above of Shaheed Kartar Singh Sarabha on the left and Shaheed Bhagat Singh on the right courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
Shaheed Kartar Singh Sarabha, a revolutionary who Bhagat Singh considered his ‘hero’, did the same at age 19. As someone who truly believed in the principles of equality, justice, and freedom, he was willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice and, at a young age, forgo all the things life had to still offer.
Charged by authorities for his role in the ‘Lahore Conspiracy Case’, Kartar was hanged to death on 16 November 1915 after a judge pronounced him “the most dangerous of all rebels”.
Finding revolution in the United States
Born on 24 May 1896 in Sarabha village near Ludhiana in undivided Punjab, Kartar Singh lost his father very early on in his childhood.
Raised by his mother and grandfather, he first studied at the local village school before taking admission at the Malwa Khalsa High School in Ludhiana. Not known for his academic qualities, Kartar was a leading sportsman in school who early on showed leadership qualities. He would go on to complete his matriculation from Ravenshaw College in Cuttack (present-day Odisha), where an uncle lived. Barely 16, Kartar left for the United States in 1912 for further education and eventually better job opportunities.
At the time, undivided Punjab, where a majority of the population was engaged in agriculture, was suffering at the hand of the British. The colonial administration had introduced a series of measures like raising the rate of canal water and even changed laws that disallowed the transfer of property by will and only permitted primogeniture.
These measures resulted in organised revolts by farmers like the famous ‘Pagri Sambhal Jatta’ campaign in 1907, which forced the administration to roll back the laws. More importantly, many living in Punjab saw these moments of crisis as their cue to leave in search for better lives. By the first decade of the 20th century, they found their way to Canada.
By 1908, there were approximately 3,500 Indians living in Canada, following which authorities there heavily regulated the flow of immigrants from India. Looking elsewhere, many Indians, especially those from Punjab, chose the United States as their next port of destination.
Upon his arrival in San Francisco in 1912, he also took up a series of part-time jobs to support himself including that of a labourer in the California countryside. Some suggest that he enrolled at the University of California, Berkely, but details regarding this are sketchy, and it’s hard to say with any certainty that he studied there.
Nonetheless, it was certain that Indians, like other new immigrants in the US, suffered intense racism, violence and injustice, given that their presence was deeply resented by the white population. Kartar felt that the treatment meted out to Indians was, among other things, a consequence of being an individual belonging to a colonised population and race.
As Punjab-based historian Malwinderjit Singh Waraich wrote in his biography of Kartar, “The image of an enslaved, shackled, insulted, helpless, impotent India would often flash in front of his eyes. The determination to liberate his country from foreign rule also strengthened. How would the country gain independence? This was the main challenge before him. And, before giving much thought, he started organising Indian workers in the US, instilling a love for freedom in them. He would spend hours with each individual, impressing upon them the sentiment that death is many-a-time preferable to the humiliating life of a slave.”
The only way for Indians as a people to restore their dignity was either to free their homeland from British colonial rule, or fight for their rights in their new found homeland.
Revolutionary intellectuals and fellow immigrants to the US, like Lala Hardayal and Taraknath Das, chose the former and attempted to organise students and educate them in nationalist ideas and armed revolution. Along with like-minded individuals, they would go on to lay the foundation of the Ghadar Movement, which became a global political movement started by expatriate Indians to overthrow the British colonial regime. The Ghadar (meaning ‘revolt’ or ‘rebellion’ in Arabic) Party was founded on 15 July 1913, and its headquarters set in San Francisco.
Like other expatriate Indians, Kartar Singh volunteered to work for the movement.
“After the Ghadar Party was established, the workers of the party, especially Kartar Singh Sarabha began to work with great enthusiasm and took decisions of historical significance, in which an armed struggle to free India was included and the activities were inaugurated with the newsletter ‘Ghadar’ on the 1st of November . The newspaper ‘Ghadar’ was brought out from the Ghadar Party office, ‘Yugantar Ashram’ and Kartar Singh Sarabha and Raghuvar Dyal Gupta, along with Lala Hardayal played a key role in this. Lala Hardayal mainly looked after the written content which was then cyclostyled in Urdu by Raghuvar Dyal and in Punjabi by Kartar Singh Sarabha,” writes Professor Chaman Lal in a paper titled ‘From Kartar Singh Sarabha to Bhagat Singh: Ideological Development of Revolutionaries’.
Going further, according to veteran journalist Navneet Mendiratta, “Other than Punjabi, Ghadar was published in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati and Pashto, and went to Indians all over the world. The newspaper highlighted the atrocities of the British and fuelled revolutionary ideas among overseas Indians.”
What would trigger the Ghadrites further towards their goal of armed rebellion against the British was the Komagata Maru incident in April 1914.
Organising rebellion in India
According to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement published earlier this week, “In the spring of 1914, 376 Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus of South Asian origin arrived in Vancouver’s harbour aboard the Komagata Maru steamship. Like millions of others before and after them, they hoped to settle into Canada and build a better life for themselves and their families. Due to the racist and discriminatory laws of the time, most of the passengers were refused entry into Canada and detained on board… the passengers lost their appeal in Canadian court and were forced to return to India, where some were killed and many others imprisoned.”
Incensed by this incident and with World War I commencing a couple of months later, the Ghadarites saw this an opportunity to foment and launch an armed rebellion in India as the British were engaged in their battles. The Ghadar issue of 4 August 1914 even reads, “O Warriors! The opportunity you have been looking for has arrived.”
Ghadar leaders spread across different parts of the United States asking Indians residing there to give up their livelihoods and return to India in preparation for an armed struggle. Towards the end of 1914, ships filled with Indians from the US and Canada left for India, and among those in there, were Kartar Singh Sarabha.
Given that the British Indian Army employed many from undivided Punjab, the plan was to organise Indian soldiers there to mutiny in the hope that it would spread all over the country. But like many attempts at freedom, this one failed as well, with the colonial authorities receiving prior intelligence of this attempt.
While many of his compatriots were arrested upon arrival across different port cities, Kartar Singh made his way through to Punjab, entered various cantonments in the province and attempted to radicalise the Indian soldiers stationed there. Joining him were revolutionaries Vishny Ganesh Pingley, who also arrived in India from the US, and Rash Behari Bose joining the Ghadarites from Bengal. Internally, the Ghadarites had set the date for armed revolt on 21 February 1915, but once again this piece of information was leaked to the British authorities.
To counter this leak, the Ghadarites changed the date to 19 February, but not everyone involved got the memo. The British acted upon the intelligence they received swiftly and arrested many revolutionaries including Kartar and Pingley.
Kartar and his fellow compatriots were tried in April 1915 for their role in the plot to overthrow the British by fomenting armed rebellion. Kartar was barely 18 and a half years old when the trial began, and the youngest among the accused.
However, the judge in the case declared: “He is one of the most important of these 61 accused; and has the largest dossier of them all. There is practically no department of this conspiracy in America, on the voyage, and in India, in which this accused has not played his part.”
In fact, when questioned on the stand, Kartar remained defiant and said that it was his sworn duty to free India from British rule even if he has to die and get reborn. There is also another anecdote, where he reportedly tells his grandfather visiting him in jail and questioning his decision to lay down his life, “Do you wish that Kartar Singh should be bed-ridden and wailing in pain, dying due to some such disease? Isn’t this death better than that sort of death?”
He was convicted and hanged on 16 November 1915. But his death didn’t go in vain, as his sacrifice would inspire the likes of Bhagat Singh to fight for the cause of India’s freedom.
When Bhagat Singh founded the Naujawan Bharat Sabha in March 1926, one of the first functions they held was a homage to Kartar. In fact, his mother Mata Vidyawati, had this to say about Kartar Singh — “On Bhagat Singh’s arrest, a photograph of Shaheed Kartar Singh Sarabha was recovered from him. He always carried this photo in his pocket. Very often, Bhagat Singh would show me that photograph and say, ‘Dear mother, this is my hero, friend and companion’.”
‘Shaheed Kartar Singh Sarabha — Youngest Ghadar Party Hero who was Executed at Age 19’ by Saurav Kumar, Published on 16 November 2021 courtesy NewsClick
‘Shaheed Kartar Singh Sarabha’ by Navneet Mendiratta, Published on 13 August 2016 by the Press Information Bureau, Government of India
‘An inspiration to revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, remembering Kartar Singh Sarabha’s supreme sacrifice’ by Karthik Venkatesh, Published on 23 March 2021 courtesy Firstpost
‘Statement by the Prime Minister on the anniversary of the Komagata Maru incident’ published on 23 May 2022 courtesy Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau
‘From Kartar Singh Sarabha to Bhagat Singh: Ideological Development of Revolutionaries’ by Professor Chaman Lal courtesy Academia.edu
(Edited by Divya Sethu)