Kartar Singh Sarabha: Sikh Freedom Fighter Martyred at 19; Bhagat Singh Regarded him as Guru
“Today there begins ‘Ghadar’ in foreign lands, but in our country’s tongue, a war against the British Raj. What is our name? Ghadar. What is our work? Ghadar. Where will be the Revolution? In India. The time will soon come when rifles and blood will take the place of pens and ink.” – Kartar Singh Sarabha.
He was a Sikh freedom fighter. At the young age of 17, he joined the Indian freedom struggle overseas as a member of the Ghadar Party. He returned to India to give shape to the freedom movement the big way. He led several rebellions in Punjab until he was caught by the British. He attained martyrdom at the young age of 19. It is unfortunate that History books do not glorify the brave exploits of Kartar Singh Sarabha and many freedom fighters from the east to the west, north to the south.
Kartar Singh Sarabha was born on 24 May 1896 into a Sikh Jat family to Sahib Kaur and Mangal Singh in Ludhiana. He lost his father at a very young age and grew up under the care of his grandfather Badan Singh Grewal. Till Standard VIII, he studied in Ludhiana and then enrolled at a school in Orissa at his uncle’s place where he cleared his 10th. For his higher studies his grandfather sent him to get enrolled in University of California, Berkeley in 1912. Though he confirmed his family that he had enrolled in the university, few say that he didn’t study and instead worked in a mill.
On 12 April 1913, Indian workers in the Pacific Coast including Canada, USA that majorly comprised of Sikhs formed a group called the Ghadar Party. Sohan Singh Bhakna was the key founder. Bhakna was a Sikh peasant from Bhakna village in Amritsar district. Another founding member was Har Dyal. The objective behind its establishment was securing India’s independence from British rule. Its headquarters was at San Francisco.
Meanwhile, Kartar Singh Sarabha met Indian students at Nalanda club at Berkeley. Conversations with fellow Indians aroused his patriotic sentiments. During this time he also met Sohan Singh Bhakna who was double his age, who inspired him to join the Ghadar Party to fight for India’s independence. Kartar Singh Sarabha immediately agreed.
And then started his robust training as a Ghadar member. He was all the more determined to free India from British rule. He learnt the art of using weapons including the use of gun and pistol from local Americans. He also learned how to make a bomb. Do you know Kartar Singh Sarabha also learnt how to fly an airplane?
Ghadar Party started publishing a weekly paper called The Ghadar under the auspices of the Yugantar Ashram in San Francisco. This paper carried the caption: Angrezi Raj Ka Dushman. Kartar Singh Sarabha wrote in the first issue:
“Today there begins ‘Ghadar’ in foreign lands, but in our country’s tongue, a war against the British Raj. What is our name? Ghadar. What is our work? Ghadar. Where will be the Revolution? In India. The time will soon come when rifles and blood will take the place of pens and ink.”
The Ghadar also declared:
“Wanted brave soldiers to stir up rebellion in India
Pay – Death
Price – Martyrdom
Pension – Liberty
Field of battle – India“.
Kartar Singh Sarabha stopped his studies and joined Har Dyal to assist him in running the revolutionary newspaper The Ghadar, which was published in different languages. The Gurmukhi edition of the paper was printed under his aegis. Sarabha wrote articles for the paper and composed patriotic poetry.
Ghadar Party soon gained support from Indian expatriates from foreign lands worldwide. After World War I, Ghadar Party came to India to start the rebellion against the British in the Indian soil. Kartar Singh Sarabha and the other leaders of the Ghadar Party decided to wage war against the British in India. In issue of The Ghadar dated 5 August 1914, “Decision of Declaration of War” against the British was published. Sarabha and hundreds of Ghadar members from foreign lands landed up in India after this in 1914. Thousands of copies of the paper were distributed among army cantonments, villages and cities. Sarabha met Rash Behari Bose in Benares and informed him that 20,000 more Ghadar members from abroad would be arriving to join the war against the British. Bose also joined the Ghadar Party. Hundreds of Ghadar members were arrested at the ports by the British.
They started organizing uprisings in Punjab in 1915, challenging the supremacy of the British. More freedom fighters from across the country joined the Ghadar Party to give shape to the movement the big way. In this context, Sohan Singh Bhakna later said regarding the members of the Ghadar Party, “We were not Sikhs or Punjabis. Our religion was patriotism”.
Kartar Singh Sarabha started visiting the villages and motivated the people to join the fight against the British. On 25 January 1915, Ghadar members including Sarabha and Rash Behari Bose held a meeting in Amritsar. They chose 21 February as the date for the BIG uprising – the war against the British.
It is but a fact that during Muslim and British rule, many Indians themselves were traitors. Had these traitors not existed there would have been no Muslim or British rule. It is because of these traitors that Muslims and British ruled India for a long time. It was because of a traitor within the Ghadar Party that the British came to know beforehand about the rebellion plans of the Ghadar Party. Accordingly, the British arrested many freedom fighters including Kartar Singh Sarabha in 1915.
The failed Ghadar conspiracy was also termed the First Lahore Conspiracy Case as the trials were held in Lahore. While many members left India to evade arrest, many were arrested. 291 freedom fighters, all members of the Ghadar Party, were convicted as conspirators. 42 of them were executed and 114 were awarded life sentences. While 93 freedom fighters got varying terms of imprisonment, 42 defendants in the trial were acquitted. Kartar Singh Sarabha was sentenced to death by hanging on 13 September 1915 in the same trial. He was hanged in the Central Jail of Lahore on 16 November 1915. He was then aged only 19 years old.
It is said Kartar Singh Sarabha, who was also a patriotic poet, sang the following lines at the time of his hanging:
Sewa desh di jindariye badi aukhi
Gallan karniya dher sokhaliyan ne
jihne desh di sewa ‘ch per paeya
Ohna lakh musibtaan jhalliyan ne
Serving ones country is very difficult
It is so easy to talk
Anyone who walked on that path
Must endure millions of calamities.
Kartar Singh Sarabha could have fled abroad to evade arrest. But he did not. He embraced death bravely. He soon became the symbol of martyrdom across Punjab and other states of India. Do you know Bhagat Singh was inspired by Sarabha’s freedom struggle and regarded him as his Guru? Salute to Kartar Singh Sarabha and the other brave Ghadar warriors who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of the motherland. Jai Hind!
Featured image courtesy: Wikipedia and radhikaranjan.blogspot.in
1. Echoes of Freedom: South Asian pioneers in California 1899-1965, University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library
3. Shaheed-e-Azam Kartar Singh Sarabha, saada.org.