Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Empire Strikes Back: The Tragic Journey of Komagata Maru

Subhas Ranjan Chakraborty (srchakraborty@gmail.com) is an eminent historian and a retired professor of History of Presidency College, Kolkata. 

The Journey
    Baba Gurdit Singh, a successful Sikh businessman, decided to help the poor Sikh and other Indian migrants in East and South East Asia to migrate to Canada hopefully for a better life. He chartered the ship Komagata Maru at Hong Kong and the ship reached Vancouver in British Columbia on 23 May, 1914 with 376 passengers on board. The Canadian immigration authorities allowed only 22 passengers to disembark on the ground that other passengers did not fulfill the requirements of continuous journey for landing under Canadian law. The ship with all its passengers was detained in the Vancouver Harbour for two months till 23 July without adequate food and water and was ultimately obliged to return literally at gun point when a Canadian navy cruiser was brought with its guns exposed to the Burrard Inlet. Gurdit had to negotiate his return and was allowed to store provisions for the return journey. The ship left Vancouver on 23 July and while it stopped at Yokohama and Kobe in Japan and in Singapore, the passengers were not allowed to land. The British authorities eventually decided that the ship should go to Calcutta. On 26 September the ship was stopped by the authorities at Kulpi where Donald, the Disrict Magistrate of 24 Paraganas, Slocock of the Criminal Intelligence Office, Government of India and Humphreys, the Deputy Commissioner of a Punjab district boarded the ship. They were accompanied by police constables and officers from the Punjab. They searched the ship and the passengers for arms and seditious literature. The search did not yield anything and on 29 September the ship came to the industrial town of Budge Budge about 27 km from Calcutta.
 Sir Frederick Halliday, the commissioner of Police, Calcutta personally led a group of British and Indian officers and asked the passengers to disembark at once and proceed to the special train waiting at the nearby Budge Budge railway station to take them to Punjab. Gurdit, with whom they were negotiating, felt suspicious of the move and refused. Gurdit tried to reason with the officials saying that they had the sacred Guru Granth Sahib with them which they would install at the Gurdwara in Howrah and then would seek an interview with the Governor. The passengers refused to leave the ship without Gurdit.
 Eventually they came down with Gurdit carrying the Granth Sahib on his head. The passengers formed a procession, marched towards the station and sat down near the level crossing. A formal warning citing a new ordinance was read out by Donald and everyone was asked to board the special train.  Gurdit reiterated that he and the passengers needed to go to Calcutta for urgent work. It would be sacrilegious, he asserted, to take the sacred book in the train. The situation became increasingly confrontational and the British authorities appealed to Calcutta for troops. Between 3 and 4 p.m. the passengers stood up, crossed the level crossing and started marching towards Calcutta with the Granth Sahib being carried in front of them. The police followed them, while Halliday and Donald made phone calls to Calcutta for reinforcements. Eastwood, a superintendent of the Reserve police started from Calcutta around 4 pm with 30 European sergeants and constables. About 150 Royal Fusiliers were also dispatched to Budge Budge in cars. The procession was stopped about 6 or 7 km from Budge Budge by Eastwood and his forces till the Royal Fusiliers arrived. With them came the Chief Secretary of Bengal Cummins and Duke, claiming to represent the Governor. They asked Gurdit to go back to Budge Budge and continue their conversation. On their return the passengers, on being asked to go back to the ship for the night, refused and sat down near the railway station. The Punjab police stayed on the right side of the passengers and the Europeans were positioned on the other side.  The passengers gathered round the Sacred Book which was placed on a portable platform. Halliday walked towards the level crossing and suddenly a few shots were heard. Donald asked Gurdit to come up and talk to him, but Gurdit remained where he was. Eastwood plunged into the crowd and was allegedly knocked down to the ground by some Sikhs. At that moment the firing had begun. Halliday later said that he had seen 30 or 40 Sikhs firing but, as Johnston notes, the impression was not shared by some of his own officers. ‘Some of the shots came from the four police sergeants ,now engulfed by the crowd, and discharging their revolvers at such close quarters that one man, Badal Singh, was hit six times’. As the passengers now surged forward, the Calcutta and Punjab forces retaliated. The Royal Fusiliers entered the scene late, but the Commanding Officer, Capt. Moore secured Halliday’s permission to order fire. Most of the passengers now found shelter in a nearby ditch, or in the fields and some even jumped into the river. By 8 pm it was quiet again.[1]

The number of passengers dead was officially put at 20 of whom 18 died as a result of wounds suffered from service rifles. (This was recorded by the inquest report submitted to the Commission of Enquiry later).[2] The varying estimates of the total number of dead put them between 26 and 40. Some people probably died later in the hospital. Only about 62 passengers were sent back to Punjab under police escort. A total of 211 passengers were arrested and 28 others including Gurdit escaped. After wandering for seven years, Gurdit, reportedly on the advice of Gandhi, voluntarily surrendered in November, 1921.[3]
Migration, Racist response and Radicalization
  In a way the journey of Komagata Maru represents a moment in history, but a significant moment in Indian history. It exposed the plight the Indian migrants, usually poor peasants/labourers/artisans/small traders, experienced in their quest for better wages and a better living in a new environment. Migration from the Punjab, writes Raza, dates back to 1867 when about a hundred Sikhs went to Hong Kong to join the police force there. The migration was generally the consequence of the subsistence crisis which is usually attributed to the broad economic impact of the colonial rule. The vast majority of these migrants were driven by hopes of improving their economic conditions.[4]. These migrants to the New World created an anxiety, which became more and more acute as the nineteenth century was drawing to a close, in the minds of the imperial authorities about foreigners/aliens/immigrants. The harassment and endless misery to which the Indian immigrants into Canada were subjected was the result of this new feeling of anxiety within the Empire about the immigrants/ aliens/ foreigners. There was a blatant display of racism as well. On the other hand, it has been suggested that the records indicate a close relationship between these factors and the migration, the settlement and radicalization of Indians in North America.[5]
Militant Nationalism in India
 On the other hand, India at the turn of the century was experiencing the emergence of a revolutionary anti-colonial movement. Benedict Anderson, in analyzing the anti-colonial and revolutionary movements in a different context, has suggested that the last two decades of the nineteenth century witnessed the onset of what he calls ‘early globalization’. He discerns patterns of network among the nationalists in the ‘remnants of the Spanish global empire’, (the Cuban insurrection of 1895 and the Philippine Revolution of 1896). The Indian revolutionary movement was also accompanied by Indian expatriates seeking to coordinate their efforts in Europe, America, east and south-east Asia with the revolutionaries in India. Primarily it was this suspected link of the immigrants in Komagata Maru with the revolutionaries that goaded the Canadian government to deny permission to land. The recent birth of the Ghadr   fuelled the fire of suspicion.
 Control by the Empire
 The need to control the bodies of the subjects and their movements- in and out- was underlined to the powers that be at the metropolitan headquarters. Identity documents, permission to enter and exit (technically ‘Ingress’ and ‘Egress’) became a major concern on the part of the colonial government.  There is little doubt that a dimension of racism was associated with such policy, but there was more to it. Was it just coincidence that in 1914 the British Nationality and the Status of Aliens Act which stipulated that the aliens had no right in common law or by statute to be admitted into the United Kingdom was passed. It was in 1914, coincidentally again, that the Foreigners’ Ordinance ( Ordinance III of 1914) and the Ingress into India Ordinance( Ordinance V of 1914) were promulgated authorizing the Government of India to control and regulate the entry of foreigners into India by sea or land. Search of ships became a routine affair after the tragic incident of Komagata Maru.

The Global Context
The journey of Komagata Maru started as a simple tale of poor Sikhs seeking new abode and a better life in British Columbia. It was not supposed to be a unique journey. But the refusal of the Immigration authorities of Canada to allow these immigrants to land after a long wait at the harbour, the forced return journey and its accompanying miseries and the final landing at Budge Budge, particularly the massacre of many of the Sikh passengers there, transformed the journey into a historic one. The little narrative of the Komagata Maru and its passengers merged, as it were, into the larger narrative of Indian freedom struggle. The name of the ship became a symbol of racist and imperial injustice on the one hand and the resistance to them on the other. The tangled tales of diasporic discontents, political activism of exiled Indians in Europe, North America, East and South-East Asia seeking to create an international network, the revolutionary movement in India and the policy of control and  repression adopted by the colonial government constitute the memories of what became a significant, if also tragic, voyage. A legend of heroic resistance is also part of that collective memory. The whole episode may very well be seen as part of what Anderson calls ‘the infinitely complex inter-continental networks that characterize the age of Early Globalization’ of a different kind.[6]This note has simply tried to connect some of these different aspects to try and understand the conjuncture which the incident represented in its broader historical perspective. The incident in itself, it may be argued, is the tip of the iceberg.

[1]Hugh Johnston, The Voyage of Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada’s Colour Bar(UBC Press,Vancouver, 2nd Edn., Reprint,1995,96-103) accessed on the internet http://www.komagatamarujourney.ca on 12.08.2015
[2]Proceedings of the Komagata Maru Commission of Enquiry, Volume II, exhibit no.13,p15 ( Bengal Secretariat Press,Calcutta, 1914)
[3]This brief outline is based on Ganesh Ghosh, An Episode of India’s Struggle for Freedom: Komagata Maru 1914(Gurdwara Shaheedganj ,Budge Budge,1998, 1-30); Also see, Johnston, op.cit.
[4] Ali Raza, Straddling the International and the Regional, in Ali Raza, Franziska Roy and Benjamin Zachariah( Eds.), The Internationalist Moment: South Asia, Worlds and Worldviews ( New Delhi, Sage 2015,89)
Also see, Subhas Ranjan Chakraborty, Colonialism, Resource Crisis and Forced Migration, ( Kolkata, Calcutta Research Group Research Paper Series-Policies and Practices,2011)
[5] Ali Raza, Straddling the International and the Regional, in Ali Raza, Franziska Roy and Benjamin Zachariah( Eds.), The Internationalist Moment: South Asia, Worlds and Worldviews ( New Delhi, Sage 2015,90). The links had been very elegantly established by Seema Sohi in Echoes of Mutiny: Race, Surveillance and Indian Anticolonialism in North America ( New Delhi, Oxford University Press,1914)
[6]Benedict Anderson,Under Three Flags : Anarchism and The Anticolonial Imagination,  (Verso, London,2007Edn.,233)

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