The younger generation of Indians may not have heard about Komagata Maru. And the older one may have a faded recollection of one of the historic events in India’s struggle for independence. Inder Singh who has been associated with the foundation in USA to preserve history of Komagata Maru, here recounts the hundred year old event and speaks about how important it is not to forget our shining history. –EDITOR
Komagata Maru was a ship that took 376 Indians to Canada in 1914 to challenge the racist Canadian law. The passengers had taken the voyage in search of economic opportunities. They were connected neither with the Gadar Party nor with any other freedom movement. On reaching Vancouver, they were not allowed to land and were forced to stay on the ship for two months, sometimes without food and water. They were unhappy, some even rebellious at the unjust verdict of the highest Canadian justice court. The British Indian Government considered the passengers not as opportunity seekers but anti-British freedom fighters. On their return journey, they were not allowed to land in Hong Kong, Singapore or Shanghai, from where they started their voyage.
Majority of the passengers wanted to find work and make some money before going to their villages. They paid heavy price for dreaming to improve their economic situation, some spent part of their lives in jail, many were confined to their villages and eighteen of them lost their lives. Indians started coming to Canada from 1904 for economic opportunities. They had an easier access to Canada as both India and Canada were British colonies. The new immigrants were willing to do any kind of manual job and found work on farms, in factories, mills and lumberyards.
They were paid lower wages and worked for long hours. Some Canadian employers considered India as a source of cheap labor and publicized the economic and job opportunities available in Canada to attract more workers. By the end of 1907, number of Indian immigrants had reached over 5000, comprising mostly of Punjabi military veterans, farmers and unskilled laborers. As the number of immigrants increased, the white workers felt threatened that the Indians would take over their jobs. Fear of labor competition led to jealousy, racial antagonism and demands for exclusionary laws for foreign workers.
The local press carried many scare stories against the Asians and “Hindu Invasion.” The Government of Canada came up with two new laws to curb Indian immigration to Canada. One law required Indians to carry $200 in cash upon landing in Canada and the other, the “Continuous Passage” Act 1908, required immigrants to come to Canada via direct passage from their point of origin. These restrictions were very unreasonable. There were no ‘through’ ships from India to Canada and $200 was a significant amount of money, considering an average daily wage of 10 Cents of an Indian worker at that time.
Thus, Indian immigration to Canada literally came to an end. The restrictive legislation led to discontent and anti-colonial sentiments within the Indian community. The Canadian immigration policy was exclusionist, based on race and nationality. Public and political sentiments were racist also. Over 2 million Europeans were welcomed from 1906 to 1915, while the number of Asian immigrants admitted during the same period was only about 50,000. Chinese immigrants had also to pay head tax on arrival, which was increased to $500 in 1904. Japanese government, by a gentleman’s agreement, was limited to issue only 400 passports for their nationals immigrating to Canada.
Indians, although British subject like Canadians, were prohibited in 1908 to land in Canada because of the “Continuous Journey” law. Many Indians in Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai and other places were keen to come to Canada. But Steamship companies were not allowed to sell tickets to Indians for Canada. An enterprising and resourceful Indian in Singapore, Gurdit Singh, chartered a Japanese vessel Komagata Maru to challenge the racist Canadian law.
He obtained clearance from the British Colonial secretary in Hong Kong to sail to Canada. He renamed the ship as Guru Nanak Jahaz in a prayer meeting and left Hong Kong with 165 passengers on April 4, 1914. He got 111 passengers at Shanghai and 85 more passengers joined at Moji, Japan. At Moji, Bhai Balwant Singh, head priest of Vancouver Sikh Temple, who was on a return journey to Vancouver, met with the passengers and explained them the attitude of the Canadian government. At Yokohama, Gyani Bhagwan Singh met with the passengers and told them the story of his deportation from Canada in November, 1913. Maulvi Mohammad Barkatullah, a renowned revolutionary who had lived in New York, also met with the passengers.
Both, Bhagwan Singh and Barkatullah, were involved with India Independence Movement, started in America and known as Gadar Movement. They brought latest issue of weekly Gadar magazine and other revolutionary literature for passengers to read. The ship arrived in Vancouver on May 23, 1914 with 376 passengers, all British subjects (340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims and 12 Hindus). British Columbia Premier Richard McBride, one day prior to the arrival of the ship, made statement that the Komagata Maru passengers would not be allowed to disembark. The passengers, however, thought that as British subjects, they had the right to enter Canada.
The Canadian public and political sentiments were against Indians getting permission to land. Canadian media in Vancouver was unsympathetic to the arriving passengers. Inflammatory articles in Vancouver newspapers helped to ignite and promote anti- Indian sentiments. The Sun newspaper called the passengers “Hindu Invaders.” Only an Indian newspaper, The Hindustanee welcomed the passengers.
The immigration officials did not allow the passengers to land in Vancouver. Indians in Canada and the USA were outraged. The local Indians rallied in support of the passengers and organized protest meetings against the racist policy of the government. They formed a shore committee to help the passengers with food, provisions and legal challenges. The last installment for chartering the ship was due. Neither Gurdit Singh nor the passengers had money to pay. The shore committee organized a meeting of local Indians to raise funds for making installment payment and for legal fee and other expenses.
In 1913, 38 Sikhs who had come by Panama Maru ship, were refused immigration. They challenged the continuous journey law in the court and were allowed to stay in Canada. The Government amended the Immigration law in January 1914 to plug loopholes and face any challenges. The shore committee hired an attorney to fight a test case against Canadian government’s refusal to allow Komagata Maru passengers to land in Canada. Unfortunately, the Court gave a unanimous judgment that it had no authority to interfere with the decisions of the Department of Immigration and Colonization. Only 20 returning passengers, and the ship’s doctor and his family were given permission to leave the ship.
All the other passengers were ordered to leave the Canadian waters. The passengers had endured incredible hardships on the ship for two months and refused to leave without provision for their journey back to India. The government brought a navy cruiser to intimidate the passengers into leaving. However, the last minute negotiations averted confrontation. On receipt of provisions for the return journey, Komagata Maru left the harbor on July 23, 1914. The action of the Canadian Government created bitterness, frustration and vengefulness among the passengers as also among Indians in Canada and the US.
Many passengers had boarded the Komagata Maru ship to Canada at Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai. On return journey, several of them wanted to land from where they had started their voyage but were refused permission to disembark. On September 5, 1914, before Komagata Maru reached India, the British authorities had enacted a new law, “Ingress into India Ordinance”, which empowered the Punjab Government to check the people entering India. The Government also had power to confine their movements to their villages or imprison them without trial. On reaching Budge Budge, near Calcutta, on September 29, 1914, the British Indian Government asked the passengers to board the train for Punjab.
Except 62 passengers, all others wanted to stay in Kolkata and find employment there. The passengers had the Holy Sikh Scriptures, Guru Granth Sahib which they wanted to deposit at the Sikh temple, Kolkata. They proceeded in a procession to go to the temple but the police did not want them to go. In the scuffle between the police and the passengers, the police opened fire resulting in the death of twenty-three people – eighteen passengers, two innocent Begalis, two European officials, and one Punjab police official. Several suffered injuries and were hospitalized. Gurdit Singh and forty five of the passengers escaped.
The police arrested two hundred and two passengers and put them in prison or confined them to their villages in Punjab for several years. (Harish Puri, The Ghadar Movement, 100) The brutal treatment of the returning passengers generated a wave of resentment against the British government. The Komagata Maru incident encouraged new converts to the Gadar cause, from not only North America but also Indians from all over the world and gave impetus to the movement for India’s independence. Jawala Singh had undertaken a simple business enterprise to transport his compatriots to Canada. But the venture ended with political implications. After evading arrest in Kolkata, he stayed in hiding for seven years.
Finally, he surrendered to the police at the birth anniversary celebration of Guru Nanak Dev, at Nankana Sahib on November 15, 1921. He spent five years in jail for violating no laws. He joined Congress and in 1937, contested Punjab Legislative Assembly election. Unfortunately, he lost to the Akali candidate, Partap Singh Kairon who later joined Congress and was Punjab Chief Minister from 1952 to 1964. In 1951, Jawala Singh requested Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru to build a memorial at Budge Budge in memory of the martyrs of Komagata Maru. On January 1, 1952, Mr. Nehru unveiled the completed monument which is popularly known as the “Punjabi Monument”. (www.rangandatta.wordpress.com/2013/01/30/ komagata-maru-memorial-budge-budge-24- parganas-south/) Indian community in Canada did not forget Komagata Maru tragedy. Baba Gurdit Singh, his colleagues and the ship have become an integral part of the history of Canada.
A giant-sized mural of Baba Gurdit Singh and others in the ship, adorns the front wall of the Senior Citizen Housing Unit in Surrey, near Vancouver. A plaque commemorating the 75th anniversary of the departure of the Komagata Maru was placed in the Sikh temple in Vancouver on July 23, 1989. A plaque commemorating the 80th anniversary of the arrival of the Komagata Maru was placed in the Vancouver harbor in 1994.
The first phase of the Komagata Maru Museum was opened in June 2012 at the Khalsa Diwan Society, Ross Street Temple, Vancouver. A monument in remembrance of the Komagata Maru incident was unveiled on July 23, 2012. It is located near the steps of the seawall near Convention Centre West in Vancouver. The Canadian government provided funding for both the monument and the museum. A stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the Komagata Maru was released by Canada Post on May 1, 2014. On August 3, 2008, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper appeared at the 13th annual Gadri Babiyan Da Mela (festival) in Surrey to apology for the Komagata Maru incident.
In response to the House of Commons motion calling for an apology by the government, he said, “On behalf of the government of Canada, I am officially conveying as prime minister that apology.” On May 23, 2008, the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia unanimously passed a resolution “that this Legislature apologizes for the events of May 23, 1914, when 376 passengers of the Komagata Maru, stationed off Vancouver harbor, were denied entry by Canada.
The House deeply regrets that the passengers, who sought refuge in our country and our province, were turned away without benefit of the fair and impartial treatment befitting a society where people of all cultures are welcomed and accepted.” The Government of India has decided to commemorate the centenary of Komagata Maru incident. The inaugural function of the yearlong centenary commemoration was organized on September 29, 2014 by Union Ministry of Culture. Three granddaughters of Baba Gurdit Singh – Ms. Harbhajan Kaur, Ms. Satwant Kaur and Ms. Balbir Kaur were honored by the Culture Minister Shri Shripad Naik on the occasion. A set of commemorative coins of denominations of ?100 and ?5 was released to mark the occasion. The government also decided to build a memorial at Budge Budge port.
The National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC) would make a film on the tragedy. A postal stamp would be issued in commemoration of the centenary. The Government of India has constituted a National Implementation Committee which has planned a number of programs such as national and international conferences, publications, development of digital archives and preparation of films and documentaries, etc. The Committee shall hold a week-long function at Vancouver from 23rd May to 30th May, 2015 which would include cultural events, seminars and exhibitions besides honoring the descendants of the Komagata Maru passengers as well as non-Indians including Canadians who rendered assistance both financially and legally to the cause of Komagata Maru passengers.
The Punjab government would commemorate the centenary of Komagata Maru tragedy by installing a replica of the steamship Komagata Maru at the Azadi Memorial at Kartarpur in Jalandhar. A statue of Gurdit Singh shall be installed in Amritsar. His small house at Sarhali village in Amritsar shall be renovated and preserved. The government would also organize a state level function in February 2015. A brochure on Komagata Maru tragedy would be published.
The book, Voyage of Komagata Maru, a translation of Gurdit Singh’s Zulmi Katha, edited by Darshan Singh Tatla and Prithipal Singh Kapur, shall be reprinted. A special library section is planned to house documents relating to Gadar and Komagata Maru in Punjabi University, Patiala. A play on Komagata Maru would be written, staged and video graphed for showing in colleges. This would be financed by Union ministry of Culture.
(The author regularly writes and speaks on Indian Diaspora. He is the author of The Gadar Heroics – life sketches of over 50 Gadar heroes. He is Chairman of Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) and was president of GOPIO from 2004-2009. He was Chairman of National Federation of Indian American Associations (NFIA) from 1992-96, and president from 1988-92. He was founding president of Federation of Indian Associations in Southern California. He is Chairman of Indian American Heritage Foundation which has been awarding scholarships for excellence to top Indian students in Southern California since 1987. He can be reached at indersingh email@example.com)