Komagata Maru - The Sikh gentleman is Baba Gurdit Singh.

Komagata Maru – The Sikh gentleman is Baba Gurdit Singh.

During early years of the twentieth century, Indian economic migrants who were largely Sikhs made their way to Canada and Pacific west coast of USA. This was before the Asiatic Exclusion Act came to be enforced with the intention to control the East Indian immigration.  Ghadr had been established by Har Dayal and followers in San Francisco, urging mutiny and to overthrow the British rule in India. The Indians in Canada too, because of discrimination faced especially in British Columbia supported the call of mutiny. In Canada, the 1908 Continuous journey act stipulated that East Asian immigrants seeking entry should have proof of ‘continuous journey’  from their place of citizenship or birth. In 1913 a small group of Indians  apparently won on a legal technicality and gained entry.

Komagata Maru , a Japanese steamer was chartered by a  Sikh businessman, Baba Gurdit Singh, in 1914 to challenge the act.  376 passengers were on board and on reaching Vancouver , from Hong Kong via Shanghai and Yokohama were denied entry and even food and water and the steamer was disallowed to disembark as the journey was not undertaken from India. The exclusionary clause of  ‘Continuous journey’ was invoked.   After 2 months impasse  wherein only 20 odd passengers gained admittance,  the steamer was escorted out by the Canadian military and was forced to sail back to India. On arriving, 19 passengers were shot dead by the British. The incident brought into sharp focus for Indians the question of political identity.

111 passengers from Shanghai  are supposed to have boarded the Komagata Maru. In April 1914, a newspaper reported that 600 passengers on board Komagata Maru reached Shanghai and that the affluent charterer was visiting all China ports, collecting passengers keen to head to North America and possessing a minimum of 20 pounds in addition to passage money.  Were ALL the Sikhs heeding Baba Gurdit’s call to challenge Canada’s immigration act? Who were the Shanghai Sikhs? Were any of them policemen or the security watchmen? Was there German involvement?

At least one Shanghai Sikh, Mastan Singh, an S.M.P. boarded without any political activism intentions. On arrival to India, he escaped and remained in hiding, till his death. This is based on a written account sent to me by Mastan Singh’s descendant accompanied by few documents(photos were taken from a mobile phone but  seems a very genuine account). The descendant’s family inherited his savings and prospered thereafter.

Many such untold stories remain scattered.