We are living in an era bursting with a riot of apologies, and the most recent apologies issued by the governments of British Columbia and Canada may perhaps be inadequately noticed. On 12 May 2008, the House of Commons in Canada expressed regret at the treatment dished out to South Asians early in the twentieth century; some days later, on the 23rd, the government of British Columbia did the same, with Attorney General Wally Oppal stating in the state parliament that “elected officials, members of the media and the public collectively fanned the flames of hatred. The cry of the day was that Canada was a white man’s country.”
At the heart of this apology lies the incident of the ‘Komagata Maru’, one of the central stories in the early history of South Asian emigration to North America. The Japanese-owned steamship ‘Komagata Maru’ had been hired, at the instigation of one Gurdit Singh, by several hundred Indians to take them to Canada, where it was believed they would be allowed to land and take residence. Commencing its journey in early April 1914 with 165 passengers, the ship picked up over 200 people, mainly Sikh Punjabis, from Shanghai, Moji, and Yokohama. When the ‘Komagata Maru’ attempted to dock at Vancouver on 23 May 1914, the immigrants were, with a few exceptions, refused permission to land “as they had failed to comply with the requirements of the Canadian law.” Not all the immigrants were in possession of two hundred Canadian dollars apparently required as a minimum condition for admission; in the event, some men proceeded “to secure admission into Canada in apparent defiance of the law.” [note 1] A ship had been turned back: nothing noteworthy, one might say, considering that immigrants had been rejected before and would be rejected later, except for the unanticipated aftermath. Several months later, the Komagata Maru having landed at Budge-Budge, Calcutta with the passengers that had been refused entry in Vancouver, a police firing would take place upon its passengers with a considerable number of fatalities.
To understand the chain of events that led to the firing, we might wish to read, with a critical eye, the report of the committee of inquiry appointed, by no less an authority than the Government of India itself, to report on the circumstances under which the firing took place. The importance of the inquiry is best underscored with the observation that though the committee form of inquiry had become rather commonplace in British India, this was in all likelihood the first such committee appointed to inquire into a particular ‘law and order’ problem rather than, as was more common, inquiries or investigations into such subjects as agrarian distress, the condition of labor, and so on. [note 2]
The committee turned its attention first to the events that had transpired in Canada. The action of the Canadian government in refusing entry to men who had in some instances waged their entire life’s savings in this enterprise was, the committee notes, “keenly resented both by the passengers and by their fellow countrymen on shore”, and at several meetings held both abroad the ship and on shore the authorities were roundly denounced in stirring and “very violent language” (“Report”, p. 12). The immigration authorities remained firm, and to enforce their will a party of policemen was sent on board, its efforts to make the ship leave being resisted by force. The committee noted, with an acute awareness of the trajectory that ‘oppositional history’ takes, that papers of Gurdit Singh found on board described the affray “as a defeat inflicted on a man-of-war and army by unarmed Indians who only used coal to repel their assailants. On the other hand it is proved by the Japanese officers and by documentary evidence that the passengers used fire-arms in resisting the police” (“Report”, p. 13). We can marvel at least at the committee’s apparent belief in the utter reliability of the Japanese, a people whom the Europeans at their most charitable moments would otherwise be inclined to described as crafty and sinuous. But it is the very essence of the committee of inquiry that it must appear to be guided by the canons of objectivity, and to this end the report even acknowledges that though Gurdit Singh and his compatriots delivered lectures “in which disloyal and seditious language was used”, and “met with considerable sympathy in Japan for the cause which he advocated”, the committee was “not prepared to accept these statements as entirely trustworthy” (“Report”, pp. 11 and 13).
The futility of offering resistance having been impressed upon the passengers of the ‘Komagata Maru’, the ship at last set sail for India, two months after it had docked at Vancouver. A few passengers disembarked at Yokohama; at Kobe the British Consul-General, heckled and “almost” intimidated by the passengers, was induced to part with a considerable sum of money for the expatriation of the passengers to India. To the captain of the ship the Consul-General entrusted a letter, to be delivered to the authorities (naturally) after the arrival of the ship in Calcutta, stating that the ship be diverted to Madras, and communicating the captain’s request that the ship be met by an armed guard. The “practical utility” of communicating these suggestions by letter “which could not be delivered until the ship had actually arrived at Calcutta”, the committee almost laconically notes, “is not very apparent” (“Report”, p. 17).
The Government of India, informed in the meantime by cable of the ship’s probable date of arrival, had made elaborate arrangements “to assist indigent passengers to their homes in the Punjab and to prevent any undesirable agitation and disturbance in Calcutta upon their arrival.” It was decided to land the passengers at Budge-Budge, some 14 miles south of Calcutta, and then ferry them by a special train to their homes in the Punjab. From the information available to the Government of India, the committee notes, a number of men on board the ship were of such character that their detention was considered desirable from the standpoint of ensuring “public safety and tranquility” (“Report”, p. 18). To ensure that it was at liberty to restrict the freedom of others, the Government of India passed, less than one month before the Komagata Maru arrived back in India in late September 1914, the Ingress into India Ordinance. [note 3]
When the ship arrived at Budge-Budge, where it was met by the commissioner of police, “serious differences with the passengers began.” Some, alleging mistreatment at the hands of Gurdit Singh, were only too pleased to be placed on the special train bound for the Punjab, but many refused to disembark. Others decided to proceed on foot for Calcutta. Just before the “riot” began on September 26th, the Sikhs were seated near a railway crossing: one end of the crowd was “guarded by the European police”, the other end by the Punjab police. According to the testimony of an English policeman received by the committee, he had gone into the crowd to call for Gurdit Singh, whose presence was required by the senior civilian in charge. The crowd closed in on the policeman: a shot was fired at him, and suddenly there commenced “a general attack on the police”. The greater firepower available to the Europeans eliminated all resistance, but not before causing a heavy loss of life. Twenty-six men were killed, including twenty Indians, two Europeans, and two Punjab police officials.
The committee, after studying the evidence available to it, declared itself satisfied that “the conduct of the troops was satisfactory”, and that “they did not fire until it was absolutely necessary to do so”. The committee also convinced itself that the passengers, contrary to public opinion, were in possession of a considerable number of firearms. While admitting that it was “difficult to state definitely when and where these arms were procured”, the committee was inclined to the view that they were acquired “with the intention of using them against the authorities if occasion should arise, and that, in purchasing them, Gurdit Singh was influenced by the consideration prevalent amongst all those who take part in revolutionary movements that they should be possessed of firearms” (“Report”, pp. 18-20, 23, 26-27).
The equation of a revolutionary with his arms displays a poverty of imagination that is striking, and also partly explains why Gandhi, the supreme advocate of revolutionary non-violence, was at first not taken with the seriousness with which he be might otherwise. But, for the present moment, we may leave aside all such considerations. The government had conducted its “inquiry”, so signifying that the matter was, from its point of view, essentially closed. India, shortly after the attainment of independence, commemorated the incident at Budge-Budge with a memorial. Canada would persist with its policies of outright racism for several more decades, and the struggle for racial equality in Canada can by no means be described as having concluded. Both the Sikh Gurdwara in Vancouver and Vancouver Harbor have plaques commemorating the arrival of the Komagata Maru, and a much acclaimed documentary on the incident, “Continuous Journey” (director Ali Kazmi, 2004) has brought this history to the notice of a wider public. And, to return to the note on which this article began, an apology to the Indo-Canadian community has now been issued both by the Federal government and by the government of British Columbia. This apology is an expression of regret about the nakedly racist immigration policies pursued in British Columbia in the early part of the twentieth century, and one can only hope that the recent round of feverish activity surrounding the Komagata Maru incident is not a way of deflecting attention from the genuinely hard word that must be done to truly render racism into a thing of the past.
- NAI: Home Dept. (Political), A, March 1915, Nos. 1-13, Report of the ‘Komagata Maru’ Committee of Enquiry, pp. 4-11. Hereafter referred to as the “Report”.
- The committee was chaired by Sir William Vincent, then Home Member in the Viceroy’s Executive Council. I have not been able to ascertain whether this report was released to the public. Although its dissemination would have been in the government’s own interest, it is quite possible that it was not at that time believed that official accountability had to extend so far as to print for public consumption a report that might have inflamed public opinion, and that held out the possibility of alienating Indians from the war effort.
- T. R. Sareen, “The Ghadr Party”, in We Fought Together for Freedom: Chapters from the Indian National Movement, ed. Ravi Dayal (Delhi: Oxford University Press for Indian Council of Historical Research, 1995), p. 69. Sareen offers (pp. 61-77) a succinct account of the Ghadr movement and the Komagata Maru incident.
[This article is adapted from Chapter III of the author’s unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, “Committees of Inquiry and Discourses of ‘Law and Order’ in Twentieth-Century British India”, The University of Chicago, 1992.]