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.

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

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.’

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. 

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

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.
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


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

Official Records

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in India:Unpublished Documents 1925-1934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


Saroj, Bharater Communist Party o
(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
, 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.

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.

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