Kartar Singh, a Punjabi Sikh, was born in Sarabha village, Ludhiana district, in 1896. His father died when he was six and his mother when he was thirteen. He was raised by his grandfather, a farmer. Kartar attended the village school for five years and graduated from a missionary high school in 1911. He was attending Revenshaw College in Orissa when he got caught up in the nationalist movement to free India from British rule. He decided to go to America to aid the cause. He was then seventeen years old.
Kartar Singh Sarabha
His ship, S.S. Siberia, arrived in San Francisco on July 28, 1912, and Kartar was immediately taken to Angel Island for immigration inspection. Although there was no immigration law excluding Indians at the time, anti-Indian sentiment was intense and large numbers of his countrymen were being rejected and sent back to India on grounds that they were “likely to become public charges.” Kartar came well prepared. He had $100 with him and he told the immigration inspectors that he was planning to study electrical engineering at the Berkeley University. When asked how he would support himself while in the U.S., he answered that his grandfather, who owned 300 acres of land in India, would send him $40 a month or whatever amount of money he needed to complete his education in the next five years. Impressed with his ability to speak English and his overall appearance, the Board of Special Inquiry admitted him into the country without further questions. He had been detained on Angel Island for only three days.
Having arrived in the “free nation,” Kartar Singh was shocked and humiliated whenever he heard himself being called a “damn Hindu” by whites. He blamed not only American racism but also the enslaved status of his homeland. The discrimination he suffered in the United States made him even more determined to fight for Indian independence.
While a student at Berkeley, Kartar became involved in the founding of the Gadar (Rebellion) Party and the printing operation of its newspaper, the Hindustan Gadar. Printed in both Urdu, a major language in North India, and in Gurumukhi, the Punjabi script, the newspaper circulated in the Americas, Europe, and East and Southeast Asia, rallying the Indian diaspora to the cause of Indian independence. Known for his passionate speeches, his poetry, and his ability to fire up an audience, Kartar Singh traveled among Indian laborers and farmers to drum up support for the Gadar operations. According to a biography by Bhagat Singh, “He would sit with a worker for hours and explain to him how death is a thousand times preferable to a life of slavery filled with humiliation…. All of them took vows to dedicate their mind, body and wealth for the freedom of their country.” Kartar also spent time in New York learning to fly an airplane.
Kartar Singh entered the U.S. through Angel Island as a student and became a Gadar Party activist. He was captured and executed by the British government in India on November 16, 1915. (“India’s Heroes,” Hindustan Gadar newspaper, 1916)
When World War I broke out in Europe, the Gadar Party seized the opportunity with Great Britain at war to return to India to launch their revolution. Kartar Singh was among the largest group of sixty men to leave San Francisco on the steamship Korea on August 29, 1914. Always on a bike, he traveled hundreds of miles to various British garrisons to organize discontented Indian soldiers in support of the revolution. He was deeply involved in planning an armed uprising for February 21, 1915. But before the nationalists could carry out their plans, they were betrayed by one of their members. Kartar and close to three hundred persons in the Punjab were arrested by government authorities and tried for their role in the planned revolt. He was sentenced to death, the youngest to be executed at eighteen years of age. In the hours before his hanging on November 16, 1915, he wrote one last poem, which he sang as he was led to his execution.
ON THE WAY TO THE GALLOWS By Kartar Singh Sarabha
On the judgment day Before the gods These will be my words, my statement: I am a servant of Indians India belongs to me Yes, Indian I am One hundred percent Indian Indian is my blood and my caste This is my only religion My only tribe, my only clan I am a particle of the ravaged India's ruins This is the only name I have The only hallmark, the only address Oh, Mother India this was not to be my fate My good fortune That with every movement of mine I could have worshipped your feet O Mother India If my head is offered My life is sacrificed In your service Then, I would understand Even in my death I will attain A life of eternity.
File 11120/4-1 (Kartar Singh Sarabha), RG 85, National Archives, San Bruno.
“Chapter 7: Gadar,” in “Echoes of Freedom: South Asian Pioneers in California, 1899-1965,” University of California, Berkeley Library, www.lib.berkeley.edu/SSEAL/echoes/ chapter7/chapter7.html (accessed December 15, 2012).
Erika Lee and Judy Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Kartar Singh Sarabha, “On the Way to the Gallows,” in “Pioneer Asian Indian Immigration to the Pacific Coast,” www.sikhpioneers.org//gadarpoems.html (accessed December 15, 2012).
Bhagat Singh, “Kartar Singh Sarabha,” at “Pioneer Asian Indian Immigration to the Pacific Coast,” www.sikhpioneers.org//famous.html#kartar (accessed December 15, 2012).
Jane Singh, “The Gadar Party: Political Expression in an Immigrant Community,” in Asian American Studies: A Reader, edited by Jean Yu-wen Shen Wu and Min Song. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000.