Kartar Singh Sarabha was a hero of the movement set off in 1913 by the Ghadar Party, which launched an armed revolt against the British in India. His home is now a shrine that houses his garlanded statue amid paintings of Sikh religious gurus, his belongings, and photographs and texts offering vignettes of his personal history and that of the Ghadar movement. Though he was barely 19 when he was executed in Lahore on November 16, 1915, for the people of his village, the teenage martyr is “Baba ji”, a venerated father figure.
For decades, the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, a leftist organisation founded by Bhagat Singh, has diligently preserved his memory. Recently, when it felt that an attempt was being made to usurp his legacy, it swung into action to thwart the move.
This was soon after an alleged attempt on the life of former Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student Umar Khalid in New Delhi in August. Two Haryana youths, Naveen Dalal from Jhajjar and Darvesh Shahpur from Jind, who said they were members of cow protection groups, posted a video on Facebook claiming responsibility for the attack. In the video, they said the attack was meant to be an “Independence Day gift” to the nation and pledged to surrender in Sarabha, the martyr’s village, two days later.
Schoolchildren at the local sports club
The brazen video caught the attention of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, which immediately mobilised youths from across Punjab. They stood guard at Sarabha from dawn to dusk on August 17, the said date, determined not to let the two men enter the village. The men were later arrested by Delhi Police.
The road to Sarabha village from Delhi cuts to the left, off the highway to the industrial city of Ludhiana, and runs past crisscrossing canals, and lush green paddy and sugarcane fields. Most roadside signage here is in the Gurmukhi script.
Kartar Singh’s home is open to all in the day. There are not many visitors on a humid afternoon with an overcast monsoon sky. But in this well-kept village, which is over three centuries old and has a population of over 5,000 largely Grewal Jat Sikhs, stories of the martyr are on everyone’s lips. The hero worship is evident from the commemorative entrance and exit gates, a memorial park, a school, an Ayurveda college and hospital, a sports club or shops of all hues named after him.
In a large ground near the entry point, schoolchildren wind up practice sessions in preparation for an annual event organised by the local club in November to commemorate the revolutionary’s death anniversary.
Harmandeep Kaur, who plays football with her friends, says, “Two people who were supposed to come here were arrested before they could but I don’t know why.”
Varinder Pal Singh points to the belongings of the martyr
Shehzad Singh, a higher secondary school student, recalls police presence in the village for two days when members of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha came to protest. He, too, isn’t aware of what
transpired in Delhi earlier, but says, “This village won’t allow criminals to pay tribute to Shaheed Kartar Singh.”
Not far from the sports facility are the memorial park, the hero’s statue on a chowk and the hospital. The red, saffron and green flag of the Ghadar Party — representing Sikhism, Hinduism and Islam — with crossed swords at the centre, flutters in the park which also has a memorial.
The busts of three other Ghadarite martyrs from the village — Rulia Singh, Prem Singh and Teja Singh Safri — are placed on a raised platform. Kartar Singh finds place separately inside a building that includes an open library and a meeting hall.
The facade of the martyr’s home
A tidy village with tarmacked roads and concrete houses, Sarabha has a considerable expat population. Many of them come to the village every November when sports and cultural events pay tribute to the martyrs. Kuljeet Singh, a village elder who runs a welding shop, rues that the songs sung on the occasion are becoming vulgar and say nothing about the heroes.
Dev Sarabha, a native of the village, sat on hunger strike in Delhi’s Shaheed Park this March, demanding national hero status for Kartar Singh. He has raised the demand several times. While he was in Delhi, he says one of the men accused of attacking Khalid met him and posed with him for pictures. Later, he found that the men intended to surrender in the village. “Firing at anyone is wrong. We should wage an ideological fight instead. But, it’s also not fair to stop someone from paying a visit to Kartar Singh’s home, which is sacred to all,” he adds.
Kartar Singh Sarabha was born on May 24, 1896. After his father died when he was still a child, one of his paternal uncles who held a government job took him under his wing in Orissa, which was then a part of Bengal Presidency. In Cuttack, he went to Ravenshaw Collegiate School, where freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose was among his peers.
In 1912, Kartar Singh’s family sent him to the University of Berkeley. During that period, most Indians in America were Punjabis who went to the West Coast in search of employment, and worked in timber factories and railway workshops in cities such as Portland, St John, Astoria and Everett, writes former JNU professor Chaman Lal in a monograph on Kartar Singh. Indian labour facing racism in the US and Canada united, and formed the Ghadar Party in San Francisco in 1913.
Over a hundred people were martyred and more than 315 were sentenced to life in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands during the movement, which also drew revolutionaries from Bengal, Maharashtra, southern India and Bhopal. The Ghadar Party dissolved in 1947. Kartar Singh played a key role in bringing out a newspaper, Ghadar, which was published in multiple languages. He also trained in aeronautics and faced the Lahore Conspiracy Case trial over the Ghadar plan to overthrow the British with a pan-India mutiny in 1915. Bhagat Singh, whose father and uncles were members of the Ghadar Party, always carried a picture of Kartar Singh in his pocket. It was found on him the day he was arrested.
Lal say that after Independence, the Congress underplayed the role of revolutionary movements such as Ghadar. “They felt these revolutionaries should be given a space but their ideas should not spread. The state just uses their heroism or patriotism as emotional tools to consolidate its hold on the people.”
The attempts of right-wing elements to appropriate the legacy of figures like Bhagat Singh and Kartar Singh, he says, are only meant to propagate illiteracy and ignorance. Khalistani groups, too, have attempted to reduce them to Sikh symbols, he adds. “There is only one photograph of Kartar Singh, found in the Ghadar archives of Berkeley University. He wore no turban. His turbaned image is an imagined painting.”
The only photograph of Sarabha, from the archives of the University of Berkeley
Kartar Singh, meanwhile, continues to inspire. A film on him, Sarabha: Cry for Freedom
, is in the making and is due for release in May 2019. Its director, Indian-born British film-maker Kavi Raz, says, “I am interested in showing his transformation from a child of 16 to one of the most inspirational revolutionaries of the early 20th century.”
For the men who are fiercely opposed to allowing bigoted criminals in Sarabha village, Ghadar meant a call for “sampoorna azaadi” (total freedom). Raminder Patiala, Punjab unit president of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, says, “The Ghadar Party had its own scientific secularism, where religion was a private matter of an individual.” He adds, “The nationalism propagated by the Bharatiya Janata Party is Brahminical. Anti-imperialist nationalism is real nationalism.” By imperialism he means economic exploitation of people and resources.
The visitors’ book at Kartar Singh’s home shows that Shahpur, one of the accused in the Khalid case, had come here on August 3, ostensibly to seek the hero’s blessings.
Arun Kumar, member of a rights group who was among those guarding the village on August 17, says the duo wanted to become heroes by exploiting Kartar Singh’s name. “But this,” he adds, “is Punjab, where even Alexander had to retreat.”