Paper commissioned by Sikh Study Forum, East London.
(Note: It is a co-incidence that about two weeks after I had sent this paper to S. Baldev Singh Sabbar, convener Sikh Study Forum, towards mid-September 2013, I read a report in the Panjab Times UK (10 October 2013) about a book, “Ghadri Baabay kaon sann” (Who were the Gadhri Babas) by Ajmer Singh. Apparently the book stresses that the Babas – founders of the Ghadar movement - got their inspiration from Sikh ideology. A conclusion also reached by this paper. Many writers have ignored this self-evident truth and not done justice to Sikh tradition nor to the Ghadar movement.)
"This ship belongs to the whole of India, this is a symbol of the honour of India and if this was detained, there would be mutiny in the armies." (a passenger on Komagata Maru told a British officer.)
“The visions of men, widened by travel and contacts with citizens of a free country, will infuse a spirit of independence and foster yearnings for freedom in the minds of the emasculated subjects of alien rule.” (Gurdit Singh Sandhu of Sarhali)
When invited to write a paper about the Komagata Maru episode during the Ghadar Movement, I started with some facts and figures. I also had in mind the words of a renowned patriot, Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, the first President of the Ghadar Party.
"We were not Sikhs or Punjabis. Our religion was patriotism.”
(Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna)
The ship, Komagata Maru carried 376 passengers consisting of 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims, and 12 Hindus, all British subjects. When looking at these figures, not only do we need to bear in mind the population mix of undivided Punjab before 1947, but also take into account the fact that the total Sikh population in 1914, when the ship set sail for Canada, was no more than about 3 million. It would seem that Baba Sohan Singh’s statement that “We were not Sikhs...” is made in the spirit of a true patriot.
But then, Prof Puran Singh also wrote rather cryptically, “Punjab is neither Hindu nor Musalmaan; Punjab lives in the name of the Guru’s”
(Panjab na Hindu na Musalmaan, Panjab jeenda Gura(n) dey naam te”)
Panjab is the land of the Gurus.
Panjab, Gurua(n) di dharti hai.
That is because, Guru Nanak’s wake-up call was for all, and above religious divisions. His clarion call to have belief in One Creator Being [and one humanity] was first heard in Panjab; and, according to Sir Mohamad Iqbal, “a perfect human being woke up India from a bad dream.”
Phir akhir sada utthee toheed ki Panjab se
Hind ko ek Mard-e-Kamal ne jagaya Khwaab se.....
(Sir Mohamad Iqbal)
Therefore, Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna’s statement can be looked at in a more positive way.
The egalitarian ideology of Guru Nanak is the heritage of the Sikhs. It is also the heritage of all Indians and of all humanity. That heritage is not exclusive to the Sikhs; but also inclusive of all those who understand and accept the universal ever green message of Guru Nanak.
Only Guru Nanak Sahib’s revolutionary ideology can explain the passenger figures on Komagata Maru being 340-24-12 being Sikh-Muslim-Hindu, respectively. Hugh Johnston wrote The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh challenge to Canada's Colour Bar”. (1979, Toronto: Oxford University Press.) He does not mince his words; he writes about the “Sikh” challenge to Canada’s colour bar.
I have digressed slightly; because, in the context of any phase of the struggle for people’s freedom in India, it is important to understand why the Sikhs feature so prominently. Here, at the outset, I am intentionally alluding to the possible reasons for the later split in the Ghadar Party in America into Communist and Anti-Communist factions after World War I. A movement which does not acknowledge the source of its insipration and continually draw from it, will run into the sands.
From childhood, a Sikh grows up listening to the fearless deeds of the Khalsa, and begins to understand that a Sikh is prepared to die as a warrior fighting for the righteous cause:
Said Guru Nanak: “It is the right of a brave person to die for a worthy cause.”
Maran munsa surya(n) hak hai.jo hoay maran parvano. SGGS 579 (2nd;.... ..jo hoay mareh parvano..).SGGS 580
Before the martyrdoms of Guru Arjan Dev and Guru Tegh Bahadur, the Semitic martyrdom tradition, to which Guru Nanak Sahib’s ideology gave a new meaning, was unheard of in India. [But this is a topic for another discussion.]
It is true that the inherited freedom-loving Sikh spirit was further influenced by socialist thought popular in western universities.
Sikhs living abroad resented the prejudicial treatment they were receiving (and continue to receive to this day) from the majority white communities in the countries they migrated to. Their anger began to be directed towards the British colonial rule in India.
In 1913, the Pacific Coast Hindustan Association, popularly known as the Ghadar Party was formed, mostly by Sikh emigrants to the United States. Ghadar means "revolt" or "rebellion." It is an Urdu word derived from Arabic. The President of the Ghadar Party was Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna. Others like Kartar Singh Sarabha, Rashbehari Bose, Dyal, Tarak Nath Das, Maulavi Barkatullah and V G Pingle were the leading figures.
Komagata Maru incident was one of several in the history of the struggle for Indian independence, in the early 20th century. This episode of connected events, started with a challenge to exclusion laws in both Canada and the United States. These racially biased laws, were designed to keep out people from the Indian sub-continent.
The Canadian government passed an order-in-council on January 8, 1908, that prohibited immigration of persons who "in the opinion of the Minister of the Interior" did not "come from the country of their birth or citizenship by a continuous journey and, or, through tickets purchased before leaving the country of their birth or nationality."
In effect that applied mainly to Indians; because a continuous journey by sea from India to Canada or America was not possible. Ships had to stop in Japan or Hawaii. Yet, in 1913 alone, Canada accepted a record number of over 400,000 immigrants from Europe.
On the American side, a legal battle over the rights of Indians to obtain U.S. citizenship was being fought by Bhagat Singh Thind, whose youngest brother Jagat Singh was a passenger on Kamagata Maru.
The background to the incident was that a Sikh businessman, Gurdit Singh (1861 – 1954), a supporter of the Ghadar Party, established the Guru Nanak Steamship Company and chartered a Japanese ship, Kamagata Maru, to transport Indians to Canada in defiance of Canadian exclusion laws. He was well aware of the laws and by challenging the continuous journey regulation, he wanted to open the door for immigration from India to Canada.
So we need to look at the incident and the Ghadar Movement in the historical context of the struggle for the freedom of the Indian sub-continent from colonial rule.
The ship was scheduled to start from Hong Kong in March 1914, but Gurdit Singh’s planned voyage was illegal under Canadian laws. He was arrested for selling tickets for this illegal voyage.
However, he was later released on bail and given permission by the Governor of Hong Kong to set sail. The reason for the Governor’s decision is not clear. It may be that there was doubt in the Governor’s mind about his own legal position for not allowing the ship to set sail. After all, he was not bound by Canadian laws.
The ship departed on April 4 with 165 passengers. After picking up more passengers at Shanghai on April 8, the ship arrived at Yokohama on April 14. It left Yokohama on May 3 with 376 passengers, mostly Sikh, as we have seen, and sailed into Burrard Inlet, near Vancouver, on May 23. However, it was not allowed to dock.
The name of the first immigration officer who boarded the ship is given as Fred "Cyclone" Taylor.
From this point on, as in every story, there are heroes and villains. The heroes are the defiant passengers of Kamagata Maru and the Ghadar Party organizers of the “Shore Committee”, and the villains are the racialist law makers and politicians, and the overzealous officials who made life difficult for the passengers.
At that time, Balwant Singh was the head priest of the Gurdwara in Vancouver. He had been one of the three delegates sent to London and India to represent the case of Indians in Canada. He and another revolutionary, Maulavi Barkatullah met with the ship en route. Revolutionary literature was distributed and political meetings took place on the ship.
A Conservative MP, H H Stevens, who was in league with an immigration official Malcolm R. J. Reid, organised a public meeting to send the ship back without allowing any passengers to disembark. There is little doubt that Stevens, the politician, in league with Reid, the official, were behind the mistreatment of the passengers. Under political pressure, the Conservative Premier of British Columbia, Richard McBride, gave public assurance that passengers would not be allowed to enter the country.
During this time a "Shore Committee" was formed and organised protest meetings in Canada and the United States. It is quite remarkable that in those days the Committee managed to raise Canadian dollars 22,000 to charter a ship, while resolving to go back to India to start a revolution.
A court case in the name of a passenger, Munshi Singh was started to test the exclusion laws. However, on 6 July “the full bench of the B.C. Court of Appeal gave an unanimous judgment that under new orders-in-council, it had no authority to interfere with the decisions of the Department of Immigration and Colonization.”
Passengers became restless in the crammed conditions on the ship. They sacked the Japanese captain, but the Canadian government ordered the harbour tug Sea Lion to push the ship out to sea. On July 19, the angry passengers attacked the police with lumps of coal and bricks. HMCS Rainbow, a former Royal Navy ship, under the command of Commander Hose stood by.
In the end, out of 376, only 20 passengers, who had not violated the exclusion laws , were admitted to Canada. The ship was forced to leave for Asia on July 23, exactly two months after its arrival in Vancouver.
During this time, the British colonial rulers were being kept informed of all these events including the declared revolutionary agenda of the Shore Committee and the role of the Ghadar Party ring leaders on board the Komagata Maru.
The ship arrived in Calcutta on September 27, 2014. It was stopped outside the harbour by a British gunboat, and the passengers were placed under guard. When the ship docked at Budge Budge Ghat, the police went to arrest Baba Gurdit Singh and about 20 other men who were identified as revolutionaries.
They resisted arrest and there was a general riot. Shots were fired and 19 of the passengers were killed. “Some escaped, but the remainder were arrested and imprisoned or sent to their villages and kept under village arrest for the duration of the First World War.
This incident became known as the “Budge Budge Riot”.
The Komagata Maru incident inflamed passions and gave a massive boost to the cause of the Ghadar Party. Meetings were organised by the Party not only in California in 1914 but also in other diaspora countries and members were recruited to the revolutionary movement. The incident was used as a rallying point by the leaders. The declared intention was to start a massive uprising in India. Some of them returned to India at the start of World War I, and started anti-British activities.
Kartar Singh Sarabha, was an eighteen years old student at the University of California, Berkely. He returned to India and, possibly with the Indian Mutiny of 1857 in mind, incited Indian soldiers to revolt. He was captured with others, tried at Lahore, and sentenced on 13th September 1915. He washanged three days later.
With Indian and world attention focussed on the War, any possibility of a popular uprising was crushed quickly by close of year 1915.
That plan did not work immediately but did take India one significant step closer to independence.
Before concluding, I would like to say something about the true story of Indian independence. Depending upon own leanings, some would like to start it from the Indian Mutiny in 1857. However, I would suggest that struggle for the liberation of the Indian sub-continent started with Guru Nanak Sahib’s challenge to Babar, the Mughal invader, with a tacit message of revolt to the people of India when he said “Hindostan draaya...”. He used the word Hindostan i.e. the whole people of the Indian sub-continent, who feared for their lives. The later colonial powers also were invaders, albeit, more sophisticated and less cruel. Nevertheless , their intention was to conquer and enslave Indians.
5th Nanak, Guru Arjun, spoke of “halemi raj”, in which no one would inflict pain or suffering on another; and, 9th Nanak, Guru Tegh Bahadur, told the same people to be brave, and “frighten none, and accept fear from no-one.”
We can start the story of Indian independence from Guru Gobind Singh’s challenge to the hill rajas at Rawalsar in 1701 to rise up against slavery and overthrow the foreign invaders. From Baba Banda Singh Bahadur onwards, thousands of Sikh shaheeds of the 18th Century Khalsa continued the struggle for people’s freedom.
Despite good Anglo-Sikh relations, a series of incidents kept reminding the freedom loving Sikhs that they were not free under the British colonial rule. The freedom movement in Panjab had in fact started as soon as Panjab was annexed in 1849. This picked up at national level towards the end of the 19th Century when the Indian National Congress party was formed in 1885.
The Sikh writers, preachers and poets had not forgotten, nor were they going to let the people of Panjab forget, the loss of their Panjabi Khalsa Raj. It was a soldier in the Khalsa army of Panjab who first resolved to fight against British colonial rule following the annexation of Panjab. This man was Baba Ram Singh (1816 – 1885). His stress was on simple living, regular meditation on Naam (God’s Name) and boycott of all foreign goods and services. His method of fighting foreign rule was effective and later adopted by the Indian national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi.
Following the Komagata Maru episode and the Ghadar Party activities, when the Sikh jawans returned home after the First World War, they realised that they were denied the freedom for which they had made such great sacrifices during the War. New Sikh movements started. Some of these aimed to reform own religious institutions and to free them from British control. Others arose to oppose British colonial rule. British administrators of India were concerned; because they had experience of Sikh determination when they were fighting for a just cause. Sikhs suffered the consequences for their lead role in the freedom struggle by making over 80% of all sacrifices (hangings and life imprisonments resulting from the freedom movement). These sacrifices in the struggle for freedom were made by a community numbering less than 2% of the population of the sub-continent!
The next phase of the Indian struggle for independence was triggered by the massacre at the Jallianwala Bagh at Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikhs. It was on the Vaisakhi day on 13th April, 1919.
However, in the context of the Komagata Maru episode, we can say that the final phase of Indian independence started with the Ghadar Party, further motivated by this historic incident.
Article may be published with acknowledgement.
© Gurmukh Singh
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