The first maritime revolt
By Satish Chandra
On My Style
My strength is unconventional in analyzing old data with new findings. When the focus is on a tree I can see its muscular grandeur and when it is on the forest then I see its panoramic beauty. A historical event becomes a valuable study only if it can be connected with the present life. Therefore, sociology, politics and psychology are richly blended with folklores and anecdotes to bring liveliness for the discriminating readers. Scholarly jargon is avoided
The story of Komagata Maru is braided and meshed with various other themes and sub-themes. This article is replete with astute observations and daring conclusions, but supported by facts and figures. In many a places, there may be a need for elaboration, but I maintain a condensed style. The memories and thoughts were stirred up after watching a 90 minute documentary, Continuous Journey on Komagata Maru during the 11th Punjabi American Festival held in Yuba City, California on Sunday, May 29, 2005. I especially went there to see this movie.
Komagata Maru virtually symbolizes the hopes and aspiration of poverty stricken, politically persecuted, and yet adventurous ordinary people. It is the story of 376 Punjabis who left the shores of India at the turn of the 20th century by perhaps selling their lands or borrowing money. In fact, this practice continues even during the present times! Let it be emphasized that it was not an organized departure. It happened in ones and twos from India to the British controlled seaports particularly, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Freedom and Dignity
A basic question rises how come the Punjabis were the pioneers in the pursuit of better life? The answer is simple; the Sikhs were the last to lose their very first Sikh empire! Though Shivaji'ssuccessors in the 18th century extended the Maratha Empire over the declining Mughals, they were stopped short of taking control of Delhi. The Sikh empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh hardly lasted 10 years after his death. When Dalip Singh succeeded, the British broke the treaty signed with Ranjit Singh, and fully annexed Punjab in 1849. From being the empire builders, the Sikhs were suddenly like the birds with clipped wings.
It is during foreign travels that Indians realise the indignity suffered. Actually, even today Indian passports do not command due respect. One finds it out in unpleasant situations encountered either when stranded during a flight, or in need of a transit visa at a foriegn airpot. In 1914, overseas Punjabis were neither citizens of a free India, nor did they enjoy an equal treatment that was at par with that available to other British subjects. This story is not a part of any history though India has been free for many years. Ironically, it is not told even in the schools and colleges of Punjab, though the Sikhs have ruled it for over 40 years.
Komagata Maru virtually symbolizes the hopes and aspiration of poverty stricken, politically persecuted, and yet adventurous ordinary people. It is the story of 376 Punjabis who left the shores of India at the turn of the 20th century by perhaps selling their lands or borrowing money.
A Bold Venture
Continuous Journey is the first documentary cum movie on Komagata Maru. Just before the movie I was introduced to Ali Kazimi, the director and producer of the movie. He seemed in his 40'sand made a few background remarks before the movie rolled on. It took him eight years and 50 per cent of the finances went from his own pocket. The main financial support came from
the South Asian Heritage Foundation of Canada.
For a moment, I really wondered at a Muslim making a movie like this. Then Sir Richard Attenborough, the director and producer of the classic movie, Gandhi came up. Also, in the same breath crossed the name of Rahi Masoom Raza who wrote the stirring dialogues of the popular epic TV serial Mahabharata. In the world of men, you can not sweep the entire race on any belief.
After the movie, I told Kazimi, ?The movie is powerful, the background music great, and your baritone voice narrating most of the events perfect?. The famous Bollywood actor Naseeruddin Shah also lent his voice. ?My voice has the least commercial value! Above all, the archival research undertaken was also a labour of love. You can not cut corners,? said Kazim.
Freedom after Indentured labour
Punjabis were brought in as indentured labour into Canada since 1880?s. The cold climate required the robust labour force of Punjab. The news of the 1890 gold rush in northern Nevada and northern California attracted some Sikhs to cross the border into the United States, to Washington, Oregon and California. The hard working Punjabis were pushed out of the mining areas of which they had little knowledge, but the farming regions of Fresno and Imperial Valley attracted them. Soon the word of a better quality of life in Canada and the USA spread across parts of Punjab. It was a combination of economic opportunities and a desire to live in freedom that triggered an early trickle of Punjabis into North America.
Maru means ship and Komagata is a popular name like Elizabeth in English. From the archive documents, it is evident that Gurdit Singh was fully conversant with the British immigration laws in the colonies and the political ramification of his enterprise.
Gurdit Singh, a business entrepreneur in Hong Kong chartered the Japanese ship Komagata Maru for taking the Punjabis into Canada. This ship was built in Germany in 1898, sold to Sicily and then to Japan, and thus got its Japanese name. In Japanese, Maru means ship and Komagata is a popular name like Elizabeth in English. From the archive documents, it is evident that Gurdit Singh was fully conversant with the British immigration laws in the colonies and the political ramification of his enterprise. Before sailing, he also took legal advice from British attorneys in Hong Kong.
As soon as the ship neared Vancouver harbour in British Columbia, the Canadian media went up in arms against the Indians. The daily newspaper headlines read, ?The Hindu invasion of Canada Imminent!?. A subsequent search of the passengers produced not even a single weapon. It was a time when the unwritten policy of the Canadian Government was Canada for the White Anglo Sextons. In 1907, the Canadian immigration policy was essentially amended to exclude Indians who flourished once the five year period of indentured labour was over. It was finally corrected in 1948.
After decimating most native Indians in Canada and corralling the rest in open prisons called Indian reservations, the Whites naturally wanted to reap all the advantages. It is a universal strategy of a victor. Whenever, the Greeks, Afghanis, Arabs, Iranians, Turks and Mughals carved out parts of India as their hegemony they had their brethren from homelands follow them into key positions particularly in the military, civil administration, and law and order. After all, the white Canadians were not supposed to welcome Indians. But the crux was of legality.
The then British Prime Minister went on record in support of a ban on the entry of Indians into Canada by saying that the ?Hindus have not contributed anything to the human race in the last 2000 years. In recent times, the US TV evangelist Billy Graham and presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan have made similar statements against the Hindus.
It is no wonder that the Canadian federal and provincial governments, immigration authorities, and courts were all stacked up against the Indians stranded in a ship 1 km away from the shores of Vancouver. The Shore Committee formed out of a small community of 2000 Indians in Vancouver was able to hire a white attorney, Edward. He did a good job at the risk of his own life and that of his family. Whatever legal grounds he presented, were eventually rejected by the court system.
Then British Prime Minister went on record in support of a ban on the entry of Indians into Canada by saying that the Hindus have not contributed anything to the human race in the last 2000 years.
Komagata Maru and the Gadar Party
About the same time the Gadar Party was formed in 1914 in San Francisco. It was not too far from Canadian waters. It requires further research as to what role the Gadar party played during the Komagata standoff. After nearly two months when food and water ran out in Komagata Maru, the white Canadian militia under the ruse of supplying provisions clashed with the demoralized passengers. This is the first maritime revolt of Indians. A couple of Indians were killed and a few injured. The passengers being at a high point had an advantage in hurling the objects down on the boat. The militia retreated back to the coast. Some compromises, were made.
My thought went on to Gandhiji who assiduously used the media to his advantage in every agitation he undertook in South Africa and India. He became the darling of a section of the western media. It was the media reporting of the British police beating up the unarmed and peaceful Satyagrahis (means steadfast on truth) that shook the conscience of the west. As compared with some Indian scenarios, Komagata was a very big stage. But there was no media reporting on behalf of the Indians. Thus the Komataga saga lies buried and nearly forgotten in history.
(To be continued)