The most striking aspect of the 376 Indians who were part of the Komagata Maru adventure was the bravery they exhibited, their unwavering commitment in keeping afloat the pride of their country and vastly influencing inter-continental movement of mankind. The story of the Komagata Maru resonates beyond 1914, linking to freedom movement in India and the right to vote for South Asians in Canada. Their stand echoes all men and women everywhere who oppose exclusion and domination on grounds of race, colour and origin. It addresses how we build communities, understand multiculturalism, how we remember our past and develop multiple connections.
Komagata Maru incident was a very significant event in the history of Indian revolutionary movement. This was the voyage of Komagata Maru, which though inspired by the doctrine of the Ghadar party indirectly gave a fillip to the Indian struggle for freedom. Indians had been migrating to Canada and U.S.A from the early years of 20th century, but their growing numbers in Canada was resented by the Canadian Government. As a result they, with the approval of the British Government, passed a series of immigration laws restricting the entry of Indians into Canada. An Ordinance made it mandatory for the passengers to come only direct from India and that they should have a minimum of 200 Canadian dollars in their possession at the time of landing. These restrictions, though quite unjustified, were enacted within the legal framework.
In the second decade of the twentieth century the world was witness to events unfolding in the wake of the First World War. An enslaved India was no exception. The sense of patriotism and pride of the country of birth was growing in the hearts and minds of Indian masses irrespective of their socio-economic status. A section of Indians especially from the Punjab aspired to work and settle in western countries mainly to Canada in search of a better living. The overseas Indian community of today is the result of different waves of migration over hundreds of years driven by a variety of reasons. They were early harbingers of globalization. But we should not forget the hard work, sweat and toil of these early pioneers. Its early experiences make up a saga of trials, tribulations and the eventual triumph of determination and hard work. The participants in the Komagata Maru adventure one hundred years ago were the pioneers in this upward movement.
An Indian patriot, Baba Gurdit Singh, a Sikh businessman operating from Singapore, decided to travel to Canada in order to create a larger network of Indians that could support the nationalists in India and abroad. So he charted a Japanese ship named Komagata Maru to sail from Hong Kong to Japan and finish the journey at Vancouver, Canada. It carried 376 passengers and reached Vancouver on 23rd May, 1914. When Komagata Maru was not allowed to dock at Vancouver and the immigrants were refused permission to land “as they had failed to comply with the requirements of the Canadian Law”. The ship was turned around and forced to depart on 23 July 1914 for India. On 29th September, 1914 Komagata Maru returned to India and on reaching Calcutta when the ship was docked at Budge Budge harbour, the police ordered the arrest of Baba Gurdit Singh and the 20 other men that they saw as leaders. A passenger on Komagata Maru told a British officer: “This ship belongs to the whole of India. This is the symbol of honour of India and if it will be detained, there will be a mutiny in the army”. A renowned Ghadarite once said, “We were not Sikhs or Punjabis, our religion was patriotism”. While Baba Gurdit Singh was resisting arrest, one of his associates had an alteraction with policeman leading to a riot. The police opened fire, killing 19 unarmed and defenceless passengers. Some escaped, but the remainder were arrested and imprisoned or sent to their villages. Gurdit Singh managed to escape and lived in hiding until 1922. He was urged by Mahatma Gandhi to give himself up as a ‘true patriot’; he duly did so, and was imprisoned for five years. In word and deed, those aboard the Komagata Maru upheld the finest traditions of the freedom struggle.
The Komagata Maru episode attracted worldwide attention and condemnation. For instance Japan Chronicle wrote: “It is a lamentable story and it is to be earnestly hoped that the British Government will do something for these unhappy men”. This event inflamed the passions of youth in India to such an extent that Kartar Singh Sarabha, an eighteen year old student at the University of California, Berkley returned to India and urged Indian soldiers to revolt. He was arrested and hung until death in 1915 by the British Government in India. The Komagata Maru incident left a deep impression in the minds of Indian diaspora in Canada and the people of India.
The importance of this incident can be understood how the present generation views this unfortunate event. Most notable was the apology given in 2008 by the Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada after 94 years. In a goodwill gesture, thepeople of Canada marked the centenary of Komagata Maru episode on 23rd May, 2014 in a solemn ceremony. The Honourable Michel de Jong moved a resolution: I quote: “Be it resolved that this legislature apologizes for the events of May 23, 1914, when 376 passengers of the Komagata Maru, stationed off Vancouver harbour, were denied entry by Canada. The house deeply regrets that the passengers, who sought refuge in our country and our province, were turned away without benefit of the fair and impartial treatment benefitting a society where people of all cultures are welcomed and accepted” unquote.
The Nation takes pride in commemorating the Centenary of Komagata Maru incident and salutes the bravery and patriotism exhibited by the 376 Indians on board. The Ministry of Culture has planned to organise a series of events to mark this event in this centenary year. I assure you that the Ministry of Culture will do all it can to keep alive the sacrifices of these daughters and sons of India and their contributions to our people. In particular, we will strive to inform and motivate the younger generation to be inspired by their great example.”
* Excerpts from the speech delivered by Minister of Culture and Tourism Shri Shripad Naik on the occasion of inauguration of the centenary commemoration of Komagata Maru Incident.