Countless nationalists fought for the freedom of our motherland and went to the gallows with ‘Bharatmata’ in their lips. ‘Azadiki Amrita Mohostav’ is not only the commemoration of 75 years of India’s independence but also a commemoration of the known and unknown heroes who fought for the freedom of our country from the British.
Kartar Singh Sarabha, whom Saheed-i-Azam Bhagat Singh considered his political guru, is one of the most celebrated Ghardar revolutionaries who played a significant role in revolutionary Ghadar Movement from 1912 to 1916.
His 126th birthday falls on 24 May 2022. We all know that Subash Bose had studied in Ravenshaw Collegiate School and passed out his matriculation from this school in 1913. However, what is little known is that Kartar Singh was one or two years senior to Subash and studied his 10th and 11th class in Ravenshaw Collegiate School between 1909 and 1911. He passed out his matriculation from Ravenshaw Collegiate in 1911.
Kartar Singh was born on 24 May 1896 in Sarbha village of Ludhiana district of Punjab to Sahib Kaur and father Mangal Singh. His father died when Kartar was only eight. His paternal grandfather Badan Singh brought up both Kartar and his younger sister Dhan Kaur.
Kartar Sing finished his primary education in a local school. One of his three paternal uncles, Baksheesh Singh, was an inspector of police in Bengal Province and was posted in Cuttack. At that time, Odisha and Bihar were part of Bengal Province.
Baksheesh Singh brought Kartar to Cuttack and got him admitted in Class 10 at the Collegiate School. He studied in Ravenshaw Collegiate School for two years from 1909 to his passing out of matriculation in 1911.
Not much is known about Kartar Singh’s stay in Cuttack. His paternal uncle Baksheesh Singh went on to become the Superintendent of Police of Cuttack. Kartar Singh was good in Science and developed a fascination for chemical reaction.
Beni Madhab Das, the illustrious Brahmo teacher, was the headmaster of Ravenshaw Collegiate School. A nationalist to the core, he must have inspired Subash Bose and Kartar Singh. Incidentally, his daughter Bina Das fired four shots at Mr Jackson, the Governor of Bengal during the Convocation of Calcutta University on 6 February 1932.
It is said that Kartar Singh led students in a protest against a teacher in Ravenshaw Collegiate School wherein he came in contact with Subhas Chandra Bose. A copied long roll of students of the Ravenshaw Collegiate School, now in the office of the Headmaster, does not however contain his name. Other sources, including the account of Sohan Singh Bakhna suggest that he passed out his matriculation from Ravenshaw Collegiate School.
After his matriculation, his family decided to send him to the US for further study. Kartar stepped on American soil on January 1, 1912 at Sanfrancisco port and stayed in the house of an emigrant Rulia Singh, who was from Sarabha village.
Kartar Singh stayed in the house of an American lady on rent and saw for the first time the happiness and pride with which the American celebrated their Independence Day on July 4. There was a conference of the Punjabis in Portland against the racial discriminations and it was here a future Ghadarite, Jwala Singh impressed him to take admission in Chemistry in the University of Berkley.
Kartar Singh took admission in Chemistry in the University of Berkley and soon he stayed as a boarder in the hostel of the University of Berkely. It was around December 1912 that he came in contact with firebrand intellectual Lala Hardayal, who gave a rousing speech in Berkley against colonization of India.
This made Kartar to move in the direction of taking a pledge to do or die for the country. The Indian revolutionaries in Europe, America and Japan such as Tarakanath Das, Shyamaji Krishna Verma, Madamme Bhikaji Cama, forged a connection and Lala Hardayal, Sohan Singh Bakhna, Kartar Singh Sarabha founded in April 1912 a party called Ghadar (Revolution) and started a newspaper in the same name.
Kartar managed the newspaper alone translating articles into Punjabi, cyclostyled them and circulated them. The party workers of the Ghadar gathered in Jugantar Ashram upon the outbreak of World War I and decided to return to India to start a ghadar (revolution) in India. Kartar Singh Sarabha reached the coast off Colombo on 15th September 1914 via Japan from where he reached Punjab via Madras.
By that time Komagatamaru incident had generated considerable discontent among revolutionaries. Working tirelessly in producing and circulating in Punjabi Ghadar literature, Kartar tried to organise and radicalise Punjab youths for revolution. He also tried to forge alliance with Bengali revolutionaries such Ras Behari Bose, Satyendra Bosu, Barindra Ghosh and others.
Plans for pistol and bomb manufacturing, as earlier done at Maniktala in Calcutta by Aurobindo, looting of armouries were attempted by Kartar. But these plans for armed insurrection never materialised on account of betrayal of informants.
On March 2, 1915, Kartar Singh, Harman Singh, Tundilat, and Jagit Singh were arrested from Chakk, No 5, district Lyallpur, Punjab. All Ghadarites and their sympathizers were arrested and tried in First Lahore Conspiracy Case. Kartar Singh and others were put to trial under India Defence Act 1915. The trial was held by a Special Tribunal which ordered execution of Kartar and others. Kartar Singh along with six of his compatriots went to gallows on 16 November 1915.
Bhagat Singh used to keep a photograph of his guru in his pocket till his last breath and paid glowing tribute to his guru in an article published in Chand in 1928. “ He appeared from nowhere like a whirlwind, lighted a flame and tried to rouse the spirit of freedom from slumber. He went to gallows on 16 November 1915, smilingly with his song on lips
Serving one’s country is very difficult
It is so easy to talk
Anyone who walked on that path
Must endure millions of calamities.
Sobhan Singh Bakhna, fellow Ghadarite, who was in prison, writes, “One day when I got an opportunity, I peeped into Kartar’s cell as I was strolling about.
Inside on the facing wall, big letters proclaimed in black charcoal, ‘The bloods of martyr never flows in vain’.
The blood of martyrs never goes in vain and free India celebrates these countless martyrs celebrating freedom on the ‘AzadikI amrat Mahostav’. Incidentally, the Department of History of Ravenshaw University is organising a one day seminar on Kartar Singh Sarabha on his 126 birth anniversary on 23 May 2022.
By Dr Umakant Mishra
Department of History, Ravenshaw University