Revisiting History # The Komagata Maru: Flag Carrier of the Ghadr Movement

The last issue of Liberation carried a report on a Ghadr centenary celebration that contained a broad overview of the historic movement and its current relevance. In this issue we zoom in on the battle of Komagata Maru, which culminated in a massacre at Budge Budge near Calcutta on 29th September, 2014. On the same day this year, the Party in cooperation with the AILC will initiate a year-long celebration, with a convention in Budge Budge, to spread the message of the heroic struggle and supreme sacrifice of Indians abroad the ship. In our next issue we shall bring you a report of that convention. – Ed.

The immigration of Punjabi peasants, artisans and workers – with a sprinkling of students and intellectuals – into Canada began in the first decade of the 20th century. In less than a decade, the racist Canadian government grew wary of their economic advancement and political activism. In early 1914 it passed a government order to bar the entry of any individual who did not reach the country via direct journey from India and did not have a ticket bought in his/her country of origin and at least $200 (the average wage in Canada at the time was just $.10 a day!). These conditions made Indians’ entry into Canada virtually impossible because no shipping company plied direct ships from India to Canada.

The Ghadr Party in Canada decided to circumvent or challenge these unfair laws. After some effort by the leadership, the responsibility was taken up by Gurdit Singh Sandhu, a successful businessman from Sarhali of Punjab based in Singapore and Hong Kong, who had just espoused the Ghadr cause. He formed “Guru Nanak Shipping Company” and chartered the Komagata Maru (KM) vessel from a Japanese company. The ship set sail from Hong Kong on April 4 with 165 passengers and stopped at Shanghai and Yokohama to collect more passengers. Finally, altogether 376 passengers (with 24 Muslims, 12 Hindus, and the rest 340 Sikhs) were on board.

Gurdit Singh (GS) had a small gurdwara installed in the forecastle of the spar deck, with a finely carved platform with a canopy for the Sikh Holy Book and a granthi to lead worship. The chanting of kirtan was a continuing practice for the passengers. But the gurdwara space was also the place for political meetings and lectures for leaders including Prof. Moulana Barkatullah.

When the ship reached the Victoria seaport on May 23, passengers were not allowed to go ashore. Indians settled in Canada had already constituted a committee comprising Bhag Singh, Hassan Raheem, Sohan Lal Pathak (note the presence of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu members) and others to support the Canada-bound victims of state racism. They sent cables to Canadian, British and Indian authorities, but to no avail. Even lawyers were not allowed to go abroad to meet the passengers. The authorities attempted to tug the ship away with another ship, but the passengers foiled the plan by throwing bricks, coal and iron rods at the police. The government then brought a giant warship near KM and aimed the artillery barrels at the ship. The ship was forced to depart on July 23.

The Ghadr Party sent its President Sohan Singh Bhakna to create a nation-wide agitation in India on the issue of KM. He met GS and the ship committee in Yokohama and explained what was to be done. 250 pistols and thousands of cartridges were also delivered, along with copies of Ghadr. However, Gurdit Singh (GS), sensing trouble, consigned the literature and most of the arms as the ship approached India.

And what happened when the ship reached India? Let us hear from CID officer D. Petrie. Below we reproduce excerpts from his “Confidential note on the Budge-Budge Riot”, dated 8th October 1914, a nearly 23000 word document complete with minute details. The few words we had to add to maintain consistency have been placed in square brackets.

“…it was accepted that the ship had on board a number of persons, headed by Gurdit Singh, who would almost certainly resort to undesirable agitation on their return to India. It was accordingly decided to restrain Gurdit Singh and other potential mischief makers under the provisions of the Ordinance [a new draconian ordinance] while the majority of the passengers, harmless and almost destitute, would be conveyed direct to their homes by granting them a free passage at the expense of Government. The destination of the detenus was the fort at Ludhiana. After first considering Diamond Harbour, which lacked proper landing facilities and then Garden Reach (from where the passengers could be easily carried by a ferry steamer to Howrah station, but approaching Calcutta was considered too risky, so that option also was dropped) it was finally decided that the Komagata Maru should be berthed at Budge Budge and the special train be kept ready in the station which is only very little distant from the jetties.

[The ship reached Diamond Harbour on the evening of the 26th September. On 27-28th, a thorough search was conducted in the presence of Petrie and higher officials] There were no firearms, anything that was objectionable or, as so often happens, that was on the borderline. Only one copy of the “Ghadar” was found. [All the same, the officers decided to detain Gurdit Singh, his secretary Daljit Singh, Mir Mohammad Khan (with whom Gurdit Singh shared the office room in the ship) and five others.]

All the native Police officers were left on board for the night to mix freely with the passengers and pick up any scraps of information likely to help us [while British officers left and returned the next morning.] The ship [then] proceeded up the river. As far as the native officers had been able to learn over night, Gurdit Singh’s influence was paramount, and that he was regarded by many as their “guru” and the champion of their rights. Meanwhile, the special train [had been] drawn up and everything [was] in readiness. The party of 25 Ludhiana Police, who had come down to Calcutta, were also in readiness. Gurdit Singh was asked to speak to Mr. Humphreys, who took him apart into a deck cabin. He spoke, however, loudly enough to be overheard by the Sikhs who were by this time crowding around in large numbers. I heard his assertion that none of them would go ashore at Budge Budge: he also said if they had done anything wrong, a judge should be sent for to take their statements, after which Government could shoot them or do what it chose; if there was any question of dying they would all die together and so on. After Gurdit Singh’s pronouncement, which seemed to find almost universal acceptance, a complete dead lock resulted. The demeanour of most of the active participants in the conversations was very offensive and insolent. The Native Police officers on board were no more successful.

Eventually some of the Sikhs began putting of their effects on to the jetty. Gurdit Singh himself, too, agreed to go, if the papers in the locked room were sealed up in front of them and taken off on the special along with him. This was at once agreed to, it being by this time only too evident that any attempt to separate Gurdit Singh from his following must immediately precipitate trouble. The Granth Sahib with the elevated platform was carried off the ship with the usual waving of chauris and chanting of hymns and immediately all the Sikhs followed it in procession in the direction of the station. Numerous halts were called, but eventually the level crossing was reached. Here the table or platform supporting the Granth was finally deposited on the ground and neither persuasion nor remonstrance could induce the people in charge of it to move on to the station. Several persons told me that they had been so often deceived that they had no stomach for further assurances. Meanwhile hymns were being continually chanted round the Granth Sahib and excitement was kept at fever heat. Mr. Donald finally called up Gurdit Singh and some of the leaders and explained that what he had all along been quietly asking of them, he was empowered by law to demand, he produced the Ordinance, explaining the powers it conferred on him and the orders he has passed under it. For a little time it seemed as though patience and forbearance were to be rewarded and, when the Granth was soon after taken up I believed that the next move was to be to the station. Instead of that, however, the Sikhs broke across the level crossing, and streamed down the road to Calcutta, the Granth Sahib being carried in triumph at the head of the procession.

[Meanwhile, however,] a party of some sixty men including about 15 Shahpur Mussulmans, boarded the train [which left for Punjab]. Before long troops and armed police arrived from Calcutta] in motors, fire engines, etc. and sent the Sikhs back to Budge Budge. They occupied the road parallel to and on the west side of the railway, from which they were separated by an iron railing about four feet high. Mr. Donald asked for Gurdit Singh who showed no disposition to move and one or two European sergeants stepped forward, I presume to fetch him. Immediately all the Sikhs round Gurdit Singh sprang to their feet and closed round him. The excitement seemed to be spreading to other people. A shot was fired [from behind GS]. A large number of others followed. The European sergeants started firing, the crowd broke and swayed, some of them charging forward to attack the police. I had a Browning pistol in my pocket and I drew it and fired seven shots at people who were advancing on me. A good deal of hot hand-to-hand fighting took place between the Sikhs and some men of the Punjab Police. I received two bullet wounds. The Sikhs were tearing away the bamboos of which the huts were composed, presumably intending to use them as lathis. A good many shots were fired from about these huts. Then the troops came up and opened fire from behind the iron railing. After making one or two abortive rushes forward, the Sikhs broke and fled. In my opinion the rioters might have fired some 40 or 50 shots and they may have used about 10 or 12 pistols.1 I saw no Winchesters rifles and no swords, but as the rioters were grappling with men of the Punjab Police, it is quite possible they succeeded in capturing one or two swords from injured policemen.

In concluding, I wish to make a few remarks. We relied on tact and conciliation as better calculated to secure our objects than pure force. In my opinion, the real difficulty lay in the fact that we were dealing not with shipload of persons all of certain way of thinking, but with an organization which looked to Gurdit Singh as its head and which was prepared to follow any course of action on which he might decide. The smuggling ashore of pistols merely shows that they were prepared for a appeal to force if need be. There can be little doubt that the first attempt to separate Gurdit Singh from his followers would have been followed by a riot, either in Calcutta or in Ludhiana. Gurdit Singh had cleverly managed to turn aside from himself on to Government the odium of the failure of the enterprise. Most of the Sikhs, too, were men who had been abroad in the Colonies and elsewhere, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Manila and so on. It is a question of common experience that Indians too often return from abroad with tainted political views and diminished respect of their white rulers. Looking back on all the circumstances, I find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that Gurdit Singh’s deliberate resolve to pursue his own way in defiance of authority must have led, sooner or later, to the same result.”

[Source: Komagata Maru — A Challenge to Colonialism: Key Document by Prof. Malwinderjit Singh Waraich & Dr Gurdev Singh Sidhu, pp. 215-224, Unistar Books Pvt Ltd, Chandigarh.]

To complete Petrie’s account, the scattered men were chased and fired upon like wild beasts of game. 19 Indians were shot dead, one drowned in the river. The unequal battle also resulted in the death of Sgt. Major Eastwood, a Punjabi policeman Mal Singh, a constable named Tarun Singh and several sepoys of the Armed Police and a Railway officer. About 100 were arrested and 9 hospitalized. By October 30, another hundred were searched out and jailed. GS, however, could not be traced. Most of those arrested were transported back to Punjab and confined to their respective villages for the next several years because the government was afraid that they would instigate an agitation in Punjab. Two Urdu papers in Punjab were shut down after they made strong statements about the incident.

As noted by David Petrie, the British authorities hoped to isolate GS and a few other ‘ringleaders’ from the crowd and deal with them separately. But the plot was unitedly foiled by the brave and intelligent would-be emigrants. They saved their leaders at the cost of their lives. Barring a handful, they had no political intentions when they boarded the ship and only wanted to get jobs in Canada. But they were radically transformed thanks to the ordeal they had to undergo, as well as political work by Ghadr leaders who met them at various ports of call and distributed the Ghadr magazine, and by GS, a commanding personality and a fiery speaker in Punjabi.

Thus ended the battle of Komagata Maru – a saga of sacrifice, a glorious episode of the historic Ghadr movement. But the legacy lived on. Set in the backdrop of World War I that had just begun, in a way it anticipated a series of heroic actions by national revolutionaries in Bengal and elsewhere. Later on, many of the passengers became prominent members of the Ghadr party.

About a century later, Canadian Sikhs won partial recognition for the passengers of the KM in the shape of an apology and funds for KM memorial projects.

On 23rd May 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, … 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.” On 3rd August 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appeared at the 13th annual Ghadri Babiyan Da Mela (festive assembly of veteran Ghadr organisers) in Surrey, B.C., and issued a formal apology for the Komagata Maru incident, ostensibly to placate the considerable Sikh vote bank in that province.

Among the many works commemorating the battle, mention must be made of The Komagata Maru Incident, a play written by Sharon Pollock and staged in January 1976. In 2004, Ali Kazimi’s great docu-feature Continuous Journey was released.

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