The 1915 Ghadar plan to free India from the British was a failure — but it sparked a revolution
A special tribunal was set up to hear what eventually came to be known as the First Lahore Conspiracy Trial. Under it, multiple 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.
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.
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.
The situation,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.
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.
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.