It was one of the darkest moments in the history of immigration in the world. In 1914, a wealthy Punjabi contractor named Gurdit Singh chartered a Japanese steamship, the Komagata Maru, to transport 376 passengers, mostly of Punjabi origin, who wanted to emigrate to Canada.
The others on board were Muslim and Hindu passengers – all looking for a new start in a new country.
The group travelled to Hong Kong where they embarked on a long and arduous seafaring journey, only to discover that there were risks on land, too.
The Komagata Maru’s passage, in many ways, was a direct challenge to Canada’s immigration rules, which had become increasingly strict – and anti-Asian in sentiment – at the turn of the last century.
The ship arrived in Vancouver on May 23, 1914 – and the then conservative Canadian Government refused to let its passengers disembark.
After over two months of being stuck in Vancouver’s Coal Harbour, the ship was forced to sail to Budge Budge in West Bengal, India.
As history remembers, upon arrival in India, the passengers refused to board a train back to Punjab. This stand-off led to a series of protests. The British Indian police and troops then opened fire, and 19 passengers were killed.
This massacre was a major catalyst for the Ghadar Movement, where many diasporic Indians, enraged by the incident, returned home to help expel the British from their homeland.
The Komagata Maru incident certainly changed the course of history. However, not everyone remembers it today, which is something that local author and historian Dr Ranjit Singh Malhi wants to change. His latest book, The Komagata Maru Affair, lays out the story behind this gruesome tragedy.
“The Komagata Maru incident proved beyond doubt that Indians were treated as stepchildren of the British Empire in the white dominions. They did not have equal status with white citizens,” says Ranjit, 64, during an interview in Kuala Lumpur.
“The important lesson we can learn from the incident is that we should always uphold racial equality, fair play and justice. None of us should be discriminated against because of the colour of our skin, race or religious belief,” he says.
Ranjit’s book, divided into nine chapters, examines the experiences of the Komagata Maru passengers in the wider context of British imperialism, the global white supremacy agenda, diasporic revolutionary movements, and India’s independence struggles.
The Komagata Maru Affair, published by Ranjit’s company, TQM Consultants Sdn Bhd, also contains the author’s own interpretation and analysis of the incident, as well as comparisons with present day immigration issues. He examines, for example, how Canada’s immigration policy has discarded its past discriminatory practices towards Indian immigrants and adopted progressive policies over time.
Ranjit, a prolific author, has written more than 20 books on history, business management and personal development. He has a degree in History from Universiti Malaya and a PhD in the subject from KL’s AEU (Asia e University).
He first heard about the Komagata Maru incident and the plight of South Asian immigrants in 1976 while doing research in Universiti Malaya under historian Tan Sri Khoo Kay Kim. The mid-1970s was also when he interviewed some elderly Sikhs – some of whom had personally known Gurdit – who informed him about the incident. Ranjit then wrote a short paper on it. In 2015, he devoted an entire chapter in his PhD thesis to it.
Ranjit points to how the Komagata Maru incident came back into the spotlight in 2016 when current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a formal apology for the massacre. Ranjit also learnt that the Indian Government is planning to build a memorial for the victims in Budge Budge, and there are plans for a Bollywood movie based on the story. These were signs, the author says, that a book needed to be released.
Ranjit spent nine months on the book, working daily on it. He travelled to the national archives in India and Singapore for research, and managed to gain access to Canadian newspapers (of the period) through archivist Melanie Hardbattle from Simon Fraser University in Canada.
He managed to pick out about 20 factual errors commonly found in current narratives on the Komagata Maru incident and the Ghadar movement.
“For instance, Gurdit Singh, who chartered the ship, was a long-time resident of Serendah (Selangor) during the British Malaya days and not of Singapore or Hong Kong, as incorrectly stated or implied by several leading historians,” says Ranjit.
“Gurdit is an admirable figure whose deeds should be commemorated.”
The Komagata Maru Affair was launched at the Royal Selangor Club in KL in 2018 by High Commissioner of India to Malaysia Shri Mridul Kumar, with Sikh organisation Khalsa Diwan Malaysia president Santokh Singh Randhawa and Khoo in attendance.