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Government of India
Special Service and Features
13-August-2016 09:02 IST

Heroes of Freedom


Shaheed Kartar Singh Sarabha




*Navneet Mendiratta

There goes a story from the pre-independence India, when a very young revolutionary from Punjab was awaiting his turn to be sent to the gallows. This was Kartar Singh Sarabha, all of 19 years old and one of the 27 other revolutionaries to be punished for their alleged roles in Lahore Controversy. His grandfather came to meet him in Lahore jail. "Kartar Singh," he said, "We are not even sure that the country will benefit from your death. Why are you wasting your life?" In reply, Kartar Singh reminded his grandfather of certain relatives who died of Cholera, plague or other diseases. "So, would you want your grandson to die of an ailment instead? Is this death not a thousand times better than that?” He quizzed, rendering the old man speechless.

Inspiration to several revolutionary and other freedom fighters, including Bhagat Singh, who referred to him as his "Guru", Kartar Singh had refused any counsel for himself during the trial of the case. The judge pronounced him "the most dangerous of all rebels" and observed that since he is very proud of the crimes committed by him, he does not deserve any mercy and should be sentenced to death. On 16 November 1915, Kartar Singh Sarabha walked to the gallows with a smile on his lips and twinkle in the eyes and singing patriotic songs he had composed.

Love for his motherland was stoked much early in Kartar Singh's life. Born in a Jat Sikh family of Sarabha district of Ludhiana to Sahib Kaur and Mangal Singh on May 24, 1896, Kartar Singh was the only son of his loving parents. He lost his father early in childhood and his grandfather had brought him up. He finished primary education in his village school and completed matriculation from Mission High School. When he turned 16, his grandfather sent him to the University of California at Berkeley to study Chemistry.

An incident at the immigrations upon reaching San Francisco changed his life forever. He noticed that the Indians were subjected to humiliating questioning, while immigrants from other regions and countries were allowed in after bare minimum formalities. This, he was told, was because "Indians are slaves" and therefore, second-rate citizens.

This rankled young, proud Jat Sikh and he started questioning the existence of British rule in India. His association with Nalanda club of Indian students at Berkeley aroused his patriotic sentiments and he often got agitated about the treatment meted out to the Indian immigrants, especially manual workers, in the United States. Kartar Singh, himself worked as a fruit picker to support his education and observed that the Indian farm labour were often treated shabbily and discriminated against in terms of wages.

So, when the Gadar movement was born in 1913, Kartar Singh became a key member. Gadar Party was formed by the Indians in Oregon on April 21, 1913 with the aim to oust the British from India, putting all they had at stake. Kartar Singh was made in charge of bringing out the Pubjabi language edition of Gadar, the party mouthpiece. Other than Punjabi, Gadar was published in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati and Pushto and went to Indians all over the world. The newspaper highlighted the atrocities of the British and fuelled revolutionary ideas among the overseas Indians.

Soon, World War I broke out and the Gadarites decided that it was time to shift base to homeland and mobilise the countrymen. As the British got busy defending themselves in the world war, a declaration of another war was issued against the British in the August 5, 1914 issue of Gadar and copies circulated among Indians around the world, especially Indian soldiers in British cantonments.

On September 15, Kartar Singh left for India with Satyen Sen and Vishnu Ganesh Pingle and met Jatin Mukherjee, of Yugantar, in Kolkata. Mukherjee connected him to Rash Behari Bose. Kartar Singh met Bose in Benaras and informed him of the arrival of as many as 20,000 more Gadarites and plans of the revolution.

Unfortunately, the British got wind of the plans of revolutionaries and they launched massive operation to apprehend the rebels. Several Gadarites were arrested at the Ports itself. This did not stop Kartar Singh from planning ahead and he went about preparing the base for the revolution in Punjab. He focussed on mobilising Indian soldiers in the British Army to join the movement, especially cantonments of Meerut, Agra, Benares, Allahabad, Ambala, Lahore and Rawalpindi and simultaneously set up a small scale arms manufacturing unit in Ludhiana.

The date for revolt was set at February 21, 1915, along with senior leaders, including Bose and plan was made to attack cantonments of Mian Mir and Ferozepur  while Ambala was prepared for a mutiny. Here too, a traitor let them in a day before the mutiny and several revolutionaries were arrested. Kartar Singh however managed to evade the British. Refusing to give up, he made a last-ditch, desperate attempt on March 2, 1915, to rouse the Indian soldiers of the 22 Cavalry at Chak No. 5 in Sargodha and incite the soldiers to mutiny. This time, Rissaldar Ganda Singh of the 22 Cavalry got him arrested.

He was sent to trial with the other Gadarites at Lahore in what came to be called the Lahore Conspiracy case. The judgment was pronounced in September 1915. Due to large public outcry, of the 27, the sentence of 17 of the Gadarites was changed from death to imprisonment and deportation for life in the Andaman Cellular jail, at the last minute following the intervention of Lord Hardinge, the Governor General of India.

He soon became the symbol of martyrdom and many were influenced from his bravery and sacrifice. A Punjabi novelist Nanak Singh wrote a novel titled “Ikk Miyan Do Talwaran” based on his life. India will always cherish the memory of its hero, Shaheed Kartar Singh Sarabha.


*Navneet Mendiratta has been a journalist for the last 20 years. She has worked with several national dailies in various capacities.

The views expressed are his personal.