A special tribunal was set up to hear what eventually came to be known as the First Lahore Conspiracy Trial. Under it, multiples cases were heard, the first batch of which began on April 26, 1915. The judgement was read on September 13 – 24 of the accused were sentenced to death and 27 to transportation for life, while the others received varying sentences.

One of those sentenced to death was 19-year-old Kartar Singh Sarabha, who had returned to Punjab from San Francisco to take up arms against the colonial state. During his trial, he spoke eloquently and passionately about the injustices committed by the colonial state. Sarabha had been associated with the revolutionary Ghadar magazine in San Francisco since it was founded in October 1913. The magazine was published in several languages and distributed to Indian expatriates all over the world. Sarabha had taken up responsibility for the Gurmukhi edition, even contributing poetry and articles to it.

With the onset of the First World War in 1914 and the decision of the committee responsible for the magazine’s publication to wage war against the British state in India, Sarabha headed home along with thousands of others, convinced that their heroism would inspire the local population to rise against their colonial rulers. They could not have been more wrong. The majority of the revolutionaries were originally from Punjab, having been inspired by the Ghadar magazine. But on their return, they found Punjab firmly within the embrace of the colonial empire. Most of the villagers had benefited from the agricultural policies of the state while the recruits to the army were pro-empire. Thus, upon landing in the various cities of British India, many of the revolutionaries were betrayed by their fellow villagers and arrested. Those who escaped were forced to go underground.

What also did not help was the lack of discretion the revolutionaries showed. Infused with an inspiring patriotism, many preached on their ships in an attempt to recruit more to their cause. To keep the passion alive, many sang patriotic songs on the way. Thus, even before the first boat had landed on the shores of British India, the colonial state, through its network of spies and the vocal proselytising of the Ghadari revolutionaries, was prepared.

Bhagat Singh (left) is believed to have carried a photograph of Ghadari revolutionary Kartar Singh Sarabha in his pocket.
Bhagat Singh (left) is believed to have carried a photograph of Ghadari revolutionary Kartar Singh Sarabha in his pocket.

No plan, no leader

There was also never a particular plan of action or a central revolutionary party organising the movement. It was entirely centred on a magazine published in San Francisco. While the articles that appeared in the magazine were high on rhetoric and passion, it never offered any concrete plan of action for the imminent revolution. Perhaps Hardayal, Sohan Singh Bakhna and Pandit Kanshi Ram, the founders of the committee that published the magazine, had anticipated that revolution was a distant reality. Hardayal, particularly, the intellectual inspiration behind the magazine, was more inspired by Russian anarchist political thinkers than Marxist literature. For him, revolution was spontaneous individualistic acts of bravery against an oppressive regime.

The anarchists, unlike the Marxists, did not believe in one party guiding the revolution for they believed that eventually, even this party would form the ruling class. People needed to be prepared for this eventual uprising. Hence, the need to set up a magazine to create an environment conducive to a revolution. While the magazine romanticised arms, bombs and violence and promoted their use, it never set out to plan the course of action to be taken.

The situation, however, changed drastically after the First World War broke. With multiple powerful forces joining hands against the British, it was felt the opportunity was ripe for an armed revolt against the colonial state. Indian migrants all over the world were exhorted to return to the motherland to free her from the shackles of slavery. Thousands responded to the call, embarking on boats from various ports of the world. But there was no clear plan as to what was to be done when they reached home. It was imagined that individual acts of bravery would inspire the entire country to rise against the colonial state.

The conspiracy trials

Those who managed to avoid arrest returned to their home towns and villages, forming little groups, each one working on its own, independently. Many of these groups began reaching out to Indians within the army. The plan was to instigate a rebellion similar to the war of 1857 – when Indian sepoys at the Meerut cantonment had rebelled against their British officers, starting a year-long struggle for freedom. Other groups continued with their own efforts to collect arms, raise funds through armed dacoities, and manufacture bombs.

A semblance of a central leadership was given to the movement in January 1915 when Rash Behari Bose was convinced to take up the mantle. Bose was a revolutionary nationalist from Bengal who had gained popularity in radical circles because of his involvement in a plan to assassinate Lord Hardinge, the viceroy, in 1912. Connections were established within several army units, including Lahore, Ferozepur, Meerut, Agra, Benares and Lucknow, who gave assurances that they would defect when called upon by the leadership. February 21, 1915, was fixed as the day the general revolt would start.

The British, however, had already learned of this plan and before the date, many of these army units were either moved or disarmed, while several leaders of the movement were arrested. Bose managed to escape to Japan. He later set up the Indian Independence League in exile, a precursor to Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. Others who were caught were tried in the First Lahore Conspiracy Trial.

The Ghadar movement received a semblance of a central leadership when Rash Behari Bose took on the mantle in 1915. After the revolution failed, he escaped to Japan, where he got married and went on to set up the Indian Independence League in exile. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Ghadar movement received a semblance of a central leadership when Rash Behari Bose took on the mantle in 1915. After the revolution failed, he escaped to Japan, where he got married and went on to set up the Indian Independence League in exile. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

An inspiration to others

For all practical purposes, the Ghadar Movement failed to achieve its political goals. The colonial state remained deeply entrenched in Punjab. However, something had changed. The spontaneous acts of bravery of these revolutionaries became part of folkore. While in their lifetimes they failed to see the fruits of the seeds they had sown, for generations to come after them, tales of their bravery were recalled to instil nationalist fervor in people.

Bhagat Singh was one such young man who was moved by the passion of these revolutionaries. It is believed he always carried a picture of Kartar Singh Sarabha in his pocket. And that all the meetings of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, the party he founded, had a picture of the young revolutionary as well. Sixteen years after the First Lahore Conspiracy Trial, a second Lahore Conspiracy Case was heard against Bhagat Singh, which he – taking a leaf out of Sarabha’s book – used to promote his ideas of revolution. Like Sarabha, he became another young intellectual-revolutionary, whose sacrifice was meant to prick the conscience of the people.

Many other revolutionaries of the Ghadar Movement who escaped the wrath of the empire eventually formed other political organisations, the most prominent of which was the Kirti Kissan Sabha, a Marxist party particularly popular in the rural areas of Punjab. In 1928, they formed a crucial alliance with the Naujawan Bharat Sabha.

Thus, while the Ghadar Movement failed to achieve its revolutionary purpose, it managed to set into motion a series of important events – Jallianwala Bagh, the Non-Cooperation Movement of the 1920s, the demand for Purna Swaraj or complete self-rule – and inspired key figures in history such as Bhagat Singh, Subhas Chandra Bose and the Kirti Kissan Sabha. Through their heroism, it may be said the Ghadaris managed to spark a revolution.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trial.