An inspiration to revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, remembering Kartar Singh Sarabha's supreme sacrifice

In 1915, before the mass struggles that characterised much of the 1920s were launched, another young man was executed by the British administration. All of 19, his sacrifice served as a trigger of sorts to many others. His name was Kartar Singh Sarabha.

Karthik Venkatesh March 23, 2021 11:36:53 IST
An inspiration to revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, remembering Kartar Singh Sarabha's supreme sacrifice

(L) Kartar Singh Sarabha; (R) Ghadar Party Members at the Stockton Gurdwara in California in 1916. Images via Wikimedia Commons

Among the more heartbreaking tales of the Indian freedom movement are the stories of the young men and women who flirted with danger by taking on the might of the British Empire and sacrificed themselves in the process. Come 23 March and Bhagat Singh and his comrades, Sukhdev and Rajguru, are always remembered for the sacrifice that they made. For an enslaved people who were in the throes of their struggle, the execution of these three young men in 1931 served to further their commitment. Their executions in that sense were not an end, but yet another beginning and perhaps more importantly, a reaffirmation.

In 1915, before the mass struggles that characterised much of the 1920s were launched, another young man was executed by the British administration. All of 19, his sacrifice served as a trigger of sorts to many others. His name was Kartar Singh Sarabha.

Beginnings

Kartar Singh Sarabha was born on 24 May 1896 in Sarabha village near Ludhiana in undivided Punjab. Punjab then was a society in deep ferment. Since the middle of the 19th century, Punjab had undergone considerable change. In 1849, the British had usurped the empire of the mighty Maharaja Ranjit Singh after pensioning off his heir, Dalip Singh. Punjab soon became the sword-arm of the Empire and Punjabis in large numbers joined the British-Indian Army. By 1900, close to half the Indian Army comprised troops drawn from Punjab.

The Canal Colonies developed in Punjab by the British to feed their commercial agricultural activities had also resulted in internal migration between East and West Punjab. The colonies had enabled many peasants obtain land, but the cycle of bad harvests, indebtedness and pressure to pay tax remained their bugbear. The famines of 1896-97 and 1899-1900 were particularly severe.

In November 1906, a drastic increase in the rate of canal water was announced by the colonial government. Then the Punjab Colonisation of Land Bill of 1907 abrogated the terms and conditions of the Punjab Colonisation of Land Act of 1893 by disallowing transfer of property by will and only permitting primogeniture. Farmers in the colonies were incensed by these moves and a movement began against these moves that came to be known as the ‘Pagri Sambhal Jatta’ campaign.

In such a desperate situation, the urge to leave Punjab for greener climes was but natural. Initial emigration was to the Far East. But by 1905, 45 Punjabis had found their way to Canada and by 1908, there were 3500 Indians in Canada when the authorities clamped down on Indian immigration. Shifting their gaze southwards, many Punjabis now entered the US. Several thousands managed to enter the US, three-quarters of them Sikh and at least half of them ex-soldiers.

An inspiration to revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh remembering Kartar Singh Sarabhas supreme sacrifice

Ghadar newspaper in Urdu, detailing the arrest of Lala Hardayal. Vol. 1, No. 22, March 28, 1914. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Sojourn in the US

Sarabha’s initial years were spent in the village where he was brought up by his grandfather following his father’s early death. It appears that his matriculation was done from Ravenshaw College in Cuttack, Odisha where an uncle lived. In July 1912, Sarabha set sail for San Francisco, intending to enroll at the University of Berkeley. But it appears that at least initially, he began working in the California countryside as a labourer like many fellow Punjabis. His enrollment details at Berkeley are unclear and it is difficult to state with certainty that he did study there.

North America at that time was hostile to Asian immigrants and their presence caused much resentment. Soon enough, the immigrants began to band together in an attempt to share their troubles and discuss what they were experiencing. In this process, Sarabha became politicised. Among other things, Sarabha like many Indians in the US keenly felt his enslavement as an individual belonging to a subject race. Freeing India from the British yoke was felt to be a way out to restoring the honour and dignity of Indians as a people.

In March 1913, Indian workers in the states of Oregon and Washington founded an organisation to fight for their rights. Around the same time, in May-June 1913, Lala Hardayal addressed a series of meetings in California which resulted in the foundation being laid for a movement. The name the movement gave to itself—Ghadar—signalled its intent—to call for armed revolution. Sarabha was quick to throw in his lot with the movement. The movement set up headquarters in San Francisco and besides Sarabha, others like Harnam Singh, Raghubar Dyal Gupta and many others volunteered not only to work for the movement, but to stay in the premises and be available for it at all times.

The Ghadar newspaper soon took off, at first in Urdu in November 1913 and from December onwards in Punjabi, owing to Sarabha’s efforts. Besides writing the Punjabi text, Sarabha also operated the handheld machine to churn out copies of the publication for distribution. At this point, it was still not clear how the Ghadarites intended to foment an armed rebellion. Being politically well-informed, there was a sense that Europe would soon be plunged in war and that would be perhaps be a good moment to strike. The feeling though was that this war would likely begin around 1920 and so they had some years to prepare themselves. Meanwhile, regular issues of the publication kept coming out, some even finding their way to India where they were seized by British authorities.

An inspiration to revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh remembering Kartar Singh Sarabhas supreme sacrifice

(L) A booklet published in 1920; (R) A book cover featuring Sarabha’s portrait. Source: Panjab Digital Library.

In May-June 1914, the Komagata Maru incident took place in neighbouring Canada. This radicalised the Ghadarites further. On 28 July 1914, much earlier than the Ghadarites expected, the armed confrontation that would snowball into the First World War began in Europe. The Ghadar issue of 4 August 1914 then published a call to arms: ‘O Warriors! The opportunity you have been looking for has arrived,’ it proclaimed. Intent on making the best of this opportunity to further their plans, Ghadar leaders fanned out to different parts of the USA asking Indians to leave their jobs, wind up their businesses and return to India to prepare for an armed struggle to overthrow the colonial regime. By the end of October, eight ships left the USA and Canada towards India. Among the returnees was Kartar Singh Sarabha who landed in Colombo and made his way to Punjab.

The plan was to get Indian soldiers in Punjab to mutiny in the hope that the spark ignited in Punjab would spread all over the country.

Almost from the very beginning, things did not go according to plan. Many who landed in Calcutta, like Sohan Singh Bhakna, were arrested on arrival. Sarabha, handicapped by the arrest of his compatriots, nevertheless continued undaunted and entered many cantonments in Punjab and attempted to radicalise the soldiers. Vishnu Ganesh Pingley, his associate from the US and Rash Behari Bose from Bengal who had joined the Ghadarites in India were his companions in this endeavour.

The date for armed revolt was set for 21 February 1915. This was leaked to the British authorities after which the date was changed to 19 February. News of this change did not reach all concerned. Meanwhile, the British reacted swiftly and arrested a number of revolutionaries. The promised revolution did not come to fruition. Both Pingley and Sarabha were arrested. Bose fled to Japan and did not return to India till his death there in 1945.

Pingle, Sarabha, Harnam Singh, Bhai Paramanand and many others were tried in the Lahore Conspiracy trial in April 1915 for their roles in the February plot.  When questioned about his role in the plot, Sarabha was defiant, stating that it was his duty to get Indians to rebel against the British pre-empting what Gandhi would state some years later. Pingle and Sarabha were executed at the Lahore Central Jail on 16 November 1915.

Sarabha’s supreme sacrifice did not go unnoticed. Bhagat Singh idolised him and carried his photo around in his pocket at all times. When the Naujawan Bharat Sabha was established in March 1926 by Bhagat Singh, Bhagwati Charan Vohra and others, one of the first functions that the Sabha organised was to pay homage to Sarabha. In that function, Durga Devi and Sushila Devi sprinkled blood from their fingers on a milky white cover of Sarabha’s portrait to underline their commitment to the cause.

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