A Zeal for Martyrdom, Kartar Singh Sarabha by Dr Gurcharan Singh Muhay


This month’s book was A Zeal for Martyrdom, Kartar Singh Sarabha by Dr Gurcharan Singh Muhay. The book can be found here.

Below is a summary of the points discussed, followed by the full discussion.

  • Universal difficulties faced by immigrants
    • Use of legal manouvres
  • Resistance of native Indians for revolution compared with people who have emigrated abroad
  • Gadar movement
    • Admirable raising of funds relatively quickly
    • Dissemination via newspaper
    • Forward-thinking approach
    • Morality of using banditry to raise funds
  • Discussion regarding the character and motivation of Bhai Kartar Singh
  • Is the premise of foreign rule as a the sole cause of suffering accurate?
  • Impact of British Raj working with the elite classes
  • Impact of Kartar Singh Sarabha on future generations of freedom fighters

In depth analysis

The discussion started with a reflection of the universal difficulties faced by immigrants across the globe. The Sikh and Hindu immigrants described in the book were treated badly when abroad both in America and in Canada. It was commonplace to see signs regarding ‘No Indians and no dogs’ and the local population felt that immigrants were taking away their jobs due to their willingness to work for cheaper rates. There are many similarities to today’s age where immigrants are regarded negatively are prevented from entering certain countries and the book described similar injustices which the Indian immigrants faced. This injustice was partly what catalysed the Gadar Movement. Interestingly the immigrant community launched challenges through the legal system to resist the imposed immigration restrictions from the Canadian and American governments.

The Gadar party initially disseminated their literature freely through the making of a newspaper. This was initially debated as some people felt it was unnecessary, but Kartar Singh Sarabha felt strongly it would be worthwhile. Kartar Singh Sarabha organised the newspaper, facilitated translations, as well as printing and distributing the newspaper himself. The members reflected that the process of cyclostyling was no small fear and required intensive labour. The newspaper was originally published in Urdu as this was the national language, but was later translated into several other languages including Punjabi and Gujrati. It was discussed that Sikhs nowadays would not routinely want to be associated with an Urdu publication but we have forgotten that Urdu was commonly learned and understood by our ancestors.


The movement were successful in raising funds very quickly which highlighted the enthusiasm with which the immigrant popoulations responded to the idea of overthrowing the ruling English government. Branches sprung up across the globe including in the Far East, Africa and across America. The party manifesto demanded $1 from each member (when an average salary was $10 a month). Interestingly there was resistance to funding the Gadar movement from Indian villages when the revolutionaries later returned to India. It was discussed that those who have left their native country often have a wider perspective than those within a country. This, and the fact that many of the revolutionaries were very young and unattached to families, may have resulted in higher momentum within the movement.

The book made reference to previous famine in India killing many more people than the word war. This is not commonly known. The famine would have disproportionately affected the North of India, but there were enough resources from other areas for the Indian/British government to have dealt with this issue. However it was not to the government’s advantage politically to do so.

One of the interesting points raised by the book was the fact the revolutionaries felt that foreign rule was the singular cause of the Indian’s troubles. We discussed whether this was strictly true as currently Indians have independent rule and many of their troubles persist. Perhaps the revolutionaries were over-emphasising this point in order to drive up support. The reality of the situation is much less distinct but this grey area would not be talked about in case it resulted in less support.

Kartar Singh’s character and motivation was remarkable at the age of 15 when he arrived in America. He was clearly driven and ambitious and was regarded as the ‘Flying Serpent’ due to his need to keep continuously busy. He was hard-working and instrumental in spreading the literature of the Gadar movement around the world. The movement was also very forward-thinking as there was immediate recognition by its members that religious arguments would cause disunity and that the struggle was unlikely to be peaceful given the reality of the situation. In all liklihood it would involve an armed struggle, and so from the very early days of the movement plans were made for members to become trained in order to facilitate this. Despite the forward-thinking of the Gadar movement, the reality of the situation was that the British were already preparing for leaving India but were simultaneously plotting how to keep their power within the country once it was handed over. The innocent and enthusiastic nature of the revolutionaries perhaps didn’t see this but this was to their advantage as their were not disheartened.

The members reflected that war can often be a powerful way of uniting people and much innovation occurs during war-time. War and violence often results in cohesion, although it it a shame that’s what it takes at times. However war is too often used for political means. The start of WW1 prompted the return of 8000 people back to India. The Gadar movement recognised the timing of WW1 as being opportune to provoke a revolution and destabilise the existing government. However their activities had caught the attention of the Canadian, American, British and Indian governments and as a result many revolutionaries were captured, jailed and killed on their return to India. The revolutionaries were at times seen as traitors within India, and the Sikhs amongst them were even regarded as non-Sikhs. “The patriots of a subjugated country are always considered as enemies of the government of the time, and traitors of the country. They want freedom. So the government gives them a status of traitors and they are given the most deterrent punishments so that other people do not dare step into their footsteps.”

The members reflected the irony of the situation within India in the build up to WW1 as the country’s youth were being recruited to fight on behalf of the British (and were going willingly) but were much less wiling to free India from their overlords. The elite of India were also responsible for recruiting the youth to the armies, including Mahatma Gandhi. The Gadar party on the other hand were trying to prompt a revolution from the ground up which was a much tougher task. The author did not mention the other revolutionary groups of the time such as the Babbar Akaalis who were also important during this time. Perhaps this was because the author was focusing solely on Kartar Singh Sarabha. However there was mention of Bhai Randhir Singh and his group supporting the Gadar Party in their activities in India. It was good to see that during that time different groups were working together despite their differences. These days certain jathas do not associate closely with other groups who may not outwardly appear Sikh. There was no mention of the South Indians and what role they played in gaining independence. The members reflected that the more educated and integrated into society one becomes, the harder it is to remain aware of the perils of national slavery. This is even a problem today.

The Gadar movement resorted to banditry in order to raise funds from within India. This was resisted by Nidhan Singh who was Bhai Kartar Singh’s associate and second in command. The members discussed that the banditry was a weakness but also a compulsion due to the desperation of the cause. Simply conversing with many villagers was not effective in drumming up support. Occasionally after being looted a villager would listen to the revolutionaries’ cause and even donate more money. Simultaneously all humans have fallacies and it is easy to look back and reflect on whether this was the correct approach.

Ultimately, despite the Gadar movement being unsuccessful in the short-term, Kartar Singh Sarabha’s life story inspired many generations of freedom fighters to come, including Bhagat Singh who drew inspiration directly from him. Kartar Singh embraced death willingly, knowing that although he was physically defeated, his efforts would result in a much larger change. A few decades later India achieved independence successfully.

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