Monday, September 22, 2014

The last stretch of the journey: Komagata Maru, the First World War and migrants from Punjab in Bengal

Suchetana Chattopadhyay 


What were the local radical anti-colonial actions of Sikh migrants during and after the First World War? In Bengal, the operation of the colonial repressive state apparatus to deal with the passengers of the Komagata Maru and Punjabi migrants influenced the intersections of anti-colonial strands in Calcutta during 1914-15 and shaped the organised transmission of the ship’s memory as a symbol of resistance among the Sikh workers in the industrial centres of South-West Bengal from the 1920s onwards. In the process, certain neglected aspects of the last stretch of the ship’s journey and its immediate and long-term local effect are unraveled.

Calcutta in 1914 was the past capital of the British Empire in India.  During the First World War, repression and scarcity stalked the city. Racist violence, war-induced price rise and the drain of the famished agrarian hinterland bred an atmosphere of increased hostility towards the colonial state.  Militant nationalism had contributed to the shift of colonial headquarters to New Delhi in 1912. While the social base of the Bengal revolutionaries was narrowly Hindu and middle-class, during the early years of the First World War, they tried to establish links with Pan-Islamist and Ghadar activists. This facilitated the entry of a tiny segment of Sikh migrant workers into the urban revolutionary underground. Though quickly suppressed, the transregional and transcontinental militancy which the migrant rebels embodied would expand leftwards in the post-war years and leave its imprint on local labour movements directed against the rule of colonial capital.

They shall not reach Calcutta

From the second half of the nineteenth century, migration from the Punjab was fuelled by depeasantisation in the countryside due to colonial agrarian policies. Many travelled as manual workers, petty traders and artisans to South East and East Asia in search of work within the circuits of global capital. By the early twentieth century, they were seeking low-paid jobs in the Pacific Coast of the Americas. To prevent an in-flow of non-white labour, anti-immigrant policies directed against Asian workers from Japan, China, Korea and India came to be instituted by the US and Canadian authorities. In Canada a racist clause, known as ‘continuous journey’ was imposed to prevent Indians from coming. The legislation stipulated that the immigrants who wished to land and work in Canada had to travel continuously from the country of their birth. Since many labourers of Sikh origin came to Canada after having lived and worked in Eastern Asia, the measure was seen as an effective way of checking South Asian migration. In 1913, a revolutionary group comprising workers and students from India emerged in San Francisco. Hindusthan Ghadar was however rooted among the South Asian diaspora, drawing mainly upon Punjabi Sikh migrant workers, living in the region stretching from South East Asia to America. They included Muslims and Hindus as well as a handful of Bengali bhadralok revolutionaries and received local socialist and anarchist support in North America.  In March 1914, Gurdit Singh, a labour contractor with Ghadar connections, chartered Komagata Maru, a Japanese ship, from Hong Kong in April. More than 300 passengers were on board when she sailed into the Vancouver Harbour. The ship remained stranded there while a court case was fought on behalf of the immigrants by a Shore Committee formed by Indians already living there. In July, the Supreme Court of British Columbia upheld the racial rules of exclusion. Komagata Maru was expelled from the Canadian shores under armed escort. The British imperial authorities did not allow the passengers to disembark at British-controlled port cities of Asia. The aim was to make the passengers return to India and arrest Gurdit Singh and his followers as Ghadrite trouble-makers. On their way back, the passengers, who were destitute, exhausted and stranded aboard for almost five months, decided to launch a court case in India against racist laws within the British Empire. Meanwhile, the First World War started in July. By the time the ship entered the Bay of Bengal, the British authorities were worried that their campaign against imperial racism would disrupt the war-effort. They used coercive tactics upon the passengers when the ship reached Budge Budge on 28 September. A gun-fight broke out and turned into a full-scale massacre the next day when 21 passengers were shot dead in the evening by colonial troops and the police at Budge Budge Railway Station.

This history is recorded. What were the unknown zones of the ship’s journey? Even before Komagata Maru reached the shores of Bengal, the colonial state apparatus was making arrangements in advance to deal with ‘the disappointed emigrants from the Punjab to Canada by Komagata Maru’. The police authorities of Punjab and Bengal, in consultation with the central authorities in Simla and Delhi, secretly planned to imprison Gurdit Singh and his followers the moment they touched shore and send the rest by a special train to Punjab. They also decided that the ship must not reach Calcutta; Komagata Maru had already attracted public attention. If it was allowed to sail into the port-city, a large and volatile crowd may gather to welcome the ship and its passengers; this was to be prevented.

The government’s priority was to ‘neutralise’ those arriving; having been forcibly turned away from Vancouver and refused entry at Singapore, they were perceived as capable of turning against the colonial authorities in India. More importantly, they could inconvenience and embarrass the government at a time of war, when it was banking on the loyalty of Indians and resources of the subcontinent, by launching a potentially popular public campaign against imperial racism. A note between the concerned provincial governments observed: ‘The Lieutenant Governor (of Punjab) thinks it advisable, in the present crisis, to prevent the arrival of these men from being used as the occasion for a recrudescence of the agitation with regard to Indian emigration in the British colonies, and he therefore proposes to take action under Ordinance No V of 1914, dated the 5th Sept 1914, to procure their return to their homes immediately on landing.’ Paradoxically, the majority of the ship’s passengers were described in confidential correspondence as ‘harmless’, ‘destitute’ and disinclined to follow ‘the leader of the expedition’, the implicit assumption being they would be easier to control.

The colonial administration in India, in close touch with the authorities in British Columbia, British diplomatic missions in Japan and the police-forces in British-controlled Port-cities of China and South East Asia such as Hong Kong and Singapore were monitoring the passage of the ship to and from Canada. On 27 September a deceptively calm telegram reached Simla from Calcutta: ‘KM met today by Bengal and Punjab officers as arranged. All satisfactory so far.’ The next communication was a long one for a telegram and sent on 30 September. The version given, followed by an official communiqué to the press which formed the master narrative of all official accounts, was later held up by the Report of the Komagata Maru Committee of Inquiry; it exonerated the government of any responsibility in the firing. The police officials on the ground repeatedly declared they had remained calm in the face of insolence and insubordination. They also freely admitted they were prepared to use force and mobilise troops from Fort William and elsewhere while the passengers, despite their suspicions, were peaceful; they had put up with colonial authority, including searches and orders to turn back from the road to Calcutta and remain herded in the railway station at Budge Budge. The officers acknowledged having underestimated the ability of the emigrants to close ranks and defend Gurdit Singh when they realised that the British authorities had special plans for him.  David Petrie, a high-ranking police official summed up the mood of resistance soon after the incident: ‘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 matter of common experience that Indians too often return from abroad with the tainted political views and diminished respect for their white rulers.’ According to him, the battle lines were already drawn and ‘defiance of authority must have led, sooner or later, to the same result.’

Closely observed ships

Following the resistance of Komagata Maru, all ships sailing from America and the Far East, especially those carrying Sikh labourers, came to be closely watched. Imperial control over the ‘lesser races’ blended with a planned offensive from above and was imposed on the migrants. Racial profiling merged with a fear of class war from below. Being poor, Sikh deck passengers were regarded as potential carriers of the Ghadar tendency and became special targets of surveillance. Their numbers were recorded before they arrived, with cooperation from shipping companies owned by colonial capital-driven monopolistic business houses. Their behavior on board was investigated with the help of the better-off cabin passengers and the officers among the ship’s crew. The vessels were stopped in the docks on the river Hooghly, several Kilo Meters south of Calcutta. The passengers had their belongings searched thoroughly, those with prior political records were imprisoned under Ingress into India Ordinance and the rest speedily deported to Ludhiana by train under armed escort where they were subjected to further screening. In mid-October, Nam Sang reached the docks at Diamond Harbour near Calcutta. The commander and First Officer complained of the insolent, abusive and violent conduct of the Punjabi migrants; they reported that the migrants had terrorised white passengers and prevented the rescue of a European woman who had fallen overboard. A month after Komagata Maru’s arrival, Tosa Maru arrived with Sikh passengers from North America and East Asia. They ‘openly’ talked of rebellion. On Sang came in early January 1915, carrying Punjabi migrants, mostly from Canada and United States. Two passengers, described as ‘dangerous characters’ were detained. The rest were promptly dispatched to Punjab. Once the train was in motion, the polite and compliant demeanour of some of the passengers changed abruptly. Occupants of one of the carriages shouted ‘Bande Mataram’, ‘called it to one another, to the Bengali railway men, and to a small knot of European police officers who were on duty at the time of departure.’ A man made a gesture of ‘hatred and contempt,’ throwing something with open hands at the officers, interpreted as ‘I throw dust on your head’. In the closely observed ships and upon embarkation, the migrants responded to imperial authority through these everyday acts of fleeting and transient subversion, expressed by gestures and words. The police authorities congratulated themselves upon their control over shiploads of rebels. Yet the spectre of ‘defiance’ continued to haunt them. 

Into the Underground

In the streets of the metropolis, rumours with a distinct anti-state edge were circulating through public conversations. Immediately after the confrontation at Budge Budge, the British authorities were accused of having shot and killed unarmed women and children travelling on Komagata Maru, of British soldiers having opened fire on a Sikh regiment that had mutinied upon return to India. Those arrested after the massacre, recorded their ill-treatment and exhaustion. They were brought to Calcutta not under circumstances of their choosing and incarcerated at Alipur Central Jail. Tara Singh described having received help from an unknown Bengali gentleman while escaping on foot; his anonymous benefactor had warned him that the British could hang him if he was captured, gave him money, provided clothes and disguise. Surain Singh, later convicted under the Arms Act of 1878 also spoke of local assistance and of being beaten by the constable who arrested him. Amir Mohammad Khan, interned as one of the chief ‘trouble-makers’ for an unspecified period of time and a close aide of Gurdit Singh, complained of rapid loss of weight in jail and of being condemned without trial ‘in violation of all laws divine and human’. Outside, certain open and secret connections between local critics of colonial policies and Punjabi dissenters were being forged. This was already evident from early 1914 when Komagata Maru was making its way to Canada and being turned back. In the pages of several Calcutta-based Bengali and English language newspapers and periodicals, run by local Hindu and Muslim intellectuals, Canada’s anti-immigrant laws, the racism of the imperial authorities, the loss of livelihood in India under British rule which contributed to migration were discussed. After the Budge Budge incident, some of them ‘deplored’ state action. They argued the passengers should have been allowed to reach Calcutta, those being held without trial were harmless and deserved freedom, and Sikhs returning from abroad and the community living in Calcutta and its suburbs were being persecuted.

While middle-class expressions of civil rights were registered in the colonial public sphere, a cross-class underground network was also developing in the city. The secret society networks of middle-class Bengali Hindus were strategically stepping beyond their elite confines to establish links with Ghadar and Pan-Islamist revolutionaries. While this was a part of the wider programme to arm them with German help and trigger rebellion in the ranks of colonial troops from Lahore to Calcutta to Singapore, certain local considerations were also at work. The strategy to procure guns and money by underground cells, discernible from 1913, rose sharply in a climate of war. The revolutionaries took advantage of the Sikh presence among service sector workers and the increase in the volume of motor vehicles in the streets of the city. Several taxi-cab robberies, including two in February and December 1915, were executed with the help of Sikh chauffeurs. The revolutionary underground subordinated the identity of the Sikh activists as workers to that of nationhood while depending on the labour they performed in the urban milieu. The Sikh activists in turn found an organised channel of subverting British authority through the revolutionary underground. So far, their relationship with the city had been confined by the entwined conditions of migration and livelihood. Their entry into the revolutionary underground connected them, for the first time, with planned political action. Chait Singh, a resident of the city for 9 years, came to the notice of the police during the investigation into the robbery of a pawn-broker’s shop in December 1915 in the busy and centrally located Corporation Street. He was described in police reports as a man of Ghadar sympathies, stereotyped as ‘fanatical’ and ‘full of grievances’ against the empire, having served in the Colonial Army. His revolutionary colleagues belonging to Jugantar bailed him out. To celebrate his release, they participated in elaborate ‘feasts’ where sheep were slaughtered to cook curry and liquor was partaken. These convivial gatherings where Sikh drivers and Bengali Baboos rubbed shoulders, showed an anti-colonial alliance among young men that temporarily dissolved class, caste, linguistic and regional barriers. The celebrations were short-lived. Chait Singh was arrested for a second time, alongside his Bengali friends and jailed indefinitely under repressive war-time regulations. He had developed a following among fellow cab drivers who initially tried to cover his tracks. Dewan Singh, a door-keeper of the Howrah Gurudwara, was imprisoned for asking soldiers of the 16th Rajputs, an infantry unit which had been used against the Komagata Maru passengers and stationed at Fort William, to rebel. A man of 50, he was criminalised in police reports as a ‘pukka budmas’ (seasoned evil-doer), who had begun his career in Punjab as a ‘bazaar dancing boy’, a derisive euphemism for male child prostitution. He was also suspected of having connections among the passengers of Komagata Maru. The Sikh members of the revolutionary underground were rounded up, alongside the local host network by 1916. The colonial authorities were satisfied that the arrests and searches would suitably intimidate the Sikh migrant workers of Calcutta, Howrah and the suburbs and permanently prevent them from engaging in anti-state movements. Yet this was not to be. In the upsurge against capitalism and colonialism in the years following the First World War, a section of Sikh workers, while turning leftward, consciously focused on the memory of the ship which had symbolically propelled the migrants towards participation in local politics.

Conclusion: The Long Memory

The horizon of post-war political landscape in Calcutta and its surroundings was expanded by anti-colonial mass movements, labour activism and the emergence of the left. This was also the period when migrations from Punjab and the size of the Sikh labour-force increased.   To the Sikh migrants who joined post-war strike-waves and formed unions in the 1920s and early 1930s, an unofficial commemoration of the Komagata Maru’s voyage became inseparable from contemporary resistance to the domination of colonial capital. They engaged with, worked upon and simultaneously moved beyond the boundaries of nationalism by focusing on a self-aware identity based on organised class action. This understanding was linked with the lived experiences of migration and imperial exploitation, the components of identity that had come to the forefront during the voyage of Komagata Maru and underlined the actions of Sikh revolutionaries in the war-time city. The earlier tendency, evident during 1914-15, to subordinate the identity of migrant workers to that of nationhood, was transformed in the post-war context as livelihood issues took on the form of organised protest in the city and beyond. The diasporic identity of the Sikh migrant workers converged with wider labour protests and movements. Genda Singh, an active organiser of a CPI-led Transport Workers Union was arrested and sentenced to one year’s rigorous imprisonment in 1934 for delivering a speech against the state at a communist rally in the maidan. He was speaking at the space in front of the Ochtorlony Monument (later renamed Shahid Minar), a time-honoured protest spot in Calcutta. He had appealed to the crowd to uproot the British Raj and throw the regime into the sea. In his speech, the motif of the ocean, associated with Komagata Maru and other ships of ‘sedition’, carrying migrant workers across long stretches of water, had surged forth to haunt and offend the colonisers. Genda Singh had inverted the water-bound experience of Sikh migrant workers and consigned the Empire to the sea. Through public speech, Genda Singh and other activists also signalled the times of transient gestures and words of subversion, silent actions and secret propaganda were over.

Gurdit Singh, who shifted to Calcutta in 1927, and briefly joined the left before turning to the Congress, repeatedly recalled the ship’s journey in public and labour meetings at Calcutta and Budge Budge. Not merely as an individual, unique ‘episodic’ memory, he shared his experience on the ship with others as a memory-knowledge, rooted in a rejection of colonised subjecthood from below. Labour activists and workers from different ethno-linguistic-religious and political backgrounds, as listeners, absorbed and claimed this as transmitted memory. For them, the past was unfolding in the present, urging action and individual memory was taking on the form of class memory. In these gatherings, Komagata Maru returned to lead other voyages of opposition, mobilisation and resistance.

This article is based on my ongoing research on the unknown micro-histories of resistance linked with Komagata Maru. A select list of the consulted sources is provided below.

Primary sources

A.             Official Records

Annual Reports of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation

Annual Reports on the Police Administration of the Town of Calcutta and its Suburbs

Census of India

Home (Political) Records of the Bengal Government

Intelligence Branch Records of the Bengal Police

Reports on Native Newspapers of Bengal

B.             Printed Official Records

Roy, Subodh (ed.), Communism in India:Unpublished Documents 1925-1934, National Book Agency, Calcutta  (Third Edition) 1998.

C.              Memoirs

Mukhopadhyay,  Saroj, Bharater Communist Party o Amra (Communist Party of India and Ourselves), Vol. I (1930-41), National Book Agency, Calcutta 1993.

Tatla, Darshan S. (ed.), Baba Gurdit Singh, Voyage of Komagata Maru or India’s Slavery Abroad, Chandigarh 2007.

Select Bibliography

Bagchi, Amiya Kumar, Private Investment in India 1900-1939, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1972. Banerjee, Himadri, ‘The Other Sikhs: Punjabi-Sikhs of Kolkata’, Studies in History, London and New Delhi: Sage Publications, Volume 28 (2): 2012.

Chakravorty, Upendra Narayan, Indian Nationalism and the First World War (1914-18), Progressive Publishers, Calcutta 1997.

 Chattopadhyay, Suchetana, An Early Communist: Muzaffar Ahmad in Calcutta, Tulika, Delhi 2011.

Johnstone, Hugh, The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada’s Colour Bar, Oxford University Press, Delhi 1979.

Puri, Harish K., Ghadar Movement: Ideology, Organisation and Strategy, Guru Nanak Dev University Press, Amritsar 1983.

Sarkar, Sumit, Modern India 1885-1947, Macmillan, Delhi 1983.

Suchetana Chattopadhyay teaches history at Jadavpur University.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are subject to moderation. It may take some time to appear in the blog.