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We are Anindya & Pratyay, Japanese Language teachers and translators. Presently we are teaching at a Japanese Language Learning Centre in our hometown, Kolkata-India.

The most interesting part of language learning is experiencing another culture. For, Language does not exist apart from culture, that is, the socially inherited assemblage of practices and beliefs that determines the texture of our life. The study of Japanese language offers unique insights into Japan’s fascinating national culture, which boasts a rich heritage in the fields of native craftsmanship, performance art, visual art, music, film and graphic design. Anyone who can see and feel the beauty of the Japanese Language and culture can improve her/his cultural understanding and international awareness. It also helps one to gain an enhanced perspective of one’s own language and culture.

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Monday, January 23, 2017

Retrieving the memories of the Komagata Maru incident

         

The CBC News: British Columbia of 3rd August, 2008 published a news item, entitled, ‘Harper Apologises in B.C. for 1914 Komagata Maru Incident’.  In this news coverage it has been mentioned that the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, formally apologised for the 1914, Komagata Maru incident in which hundreds of passengers of the S.S Komagata Maru were denied of boarding at Vancouver and were compelled to return to India. Stephen delivered this formal apology, while addressing to a crowd of 8000 people, in Surrey, B.C., which inhabits a large Indian community. From this news coverage we also learn that the apology on the part of the Canadian Prime Minister, failed to satisfy the Sikh community of Canada, which demanded that the apology should have been made on the floor of the House of Commons.
Before getting into this controversy regarding the apology made by the Canadian Prime Minister, it would be worth remembering the incidents that befell as a result of the voyage of S.S. Komagata Maru to Canada. The Komagata Maru was a Japanese vessel which had been chartered by Gurdit Singh, a wealthy businessman of Hong Kong; the boat carrying mostly Sikh immigrants intending to get jobs after reaching Vancouver was forced to leave on July, 23, 1914[i], exposing the racist policies of the Canadian immigration. For two months, the passengers aboard the Komagata Maru were denied fresh water and food in order to force them to return India.(“Generations, Geographies & Echoes”) It is a well known fact that, after the exhausted passengers got down at Budge Budge, an incident of riot broke out leading to police firing  which took the life of 18 Sikh passengers.(Sedition Committee Report) A century has passed since this tragic incident which occurred in 1914, recently a commemoration of the centenary of the S.S. Komagata Maru has led to the publication of new books and also launching of website, rekindling our interest in an incident that played an important role in the history of freedom movement. In keeping with the altered attitude towards the Komagata Maru incident, most of the commemorative events have been sponsored by the Canadian government. From the time, the ship S.S. Komagata Maru started her journey from Hong Kong; the British intelligence had been keeping a watch on the course of events.  It is interesting to note that, the Home Political File entitled, Riot by the passengers of the S.S. Komagata Maru, give us minute details of incidents in support of   a conspiracy theory, emphasizing on the activities of the Ghadar revolutionaries regarding this incident. The Home Political file entitled, Riot by the passengers of the S.S. Komagata Maru, also, the Sedition Committee Report, includes a prodigy of seditious activities as distributing political pamphlets, campaigning against the British Raj, being undertaken by the passengers on board. These archival documents, which should have been a factual depiction of the incident, create a representation, which can be taken as an integral part of the colonial discourse that justify and seem to legitimize every repressive measure taken by the colonial government to nib into the bud any voice of protested on the part of the colonized race. On the other hand, in contrast to these official archival sources, a completely different narrative of the Komagata Maru episode we come across in Gurdit Singh’s rendition of the incidents, in which he had a prime role to play. The book entitled, Voyage of Komagata Maru or India’s Slavery Abroad was at first written in Gurumukhi, and later on it was translated into English.
I have tried to tell my life-history in connection with the voyage of the ill-fated “KOMAGATAMARU’’ (9)
This is how Gurdit Singh introduces the subject in the Foreword of the book Voyage of Komagata Maru. As the vessel had been a Japanese one and both the crew and the ship’s captain were Japanese nationals, the Japanese government and the Japanese press also had been concerned about the fate of the ship.  Sho Kuwajima, a Japanese scholar in his book entitled, Indian Mutiny in Singapore has taken into account materials relating to this Japanese response to the Komagata Maru episode as, archival documents of the Foreign Record Office, Tokoyo and newspaper coverage of the incident published from Japan. Delving deep into this plethora of materials, what seemed fascinating to me is the different representation of the same historical event that we come across.
To begin with, the first issue which deserves addressing is the intention of Gurdit Singh to charter the ship Komagata Maru to for the purpose of carrying 376 passengers to Canada. It has been stated in the Sedition Committee Report that the ‘tribunal that subsequently tried the first batch of Lahore Conspirators held that Gurdit Singh’s object was to cause an inflammatory episode’. In support of this standpoint the Committee has cited the testimony of a witness that claimed that Gurdit Singh had told his followers that should they be refused admission, they would return to India to expel the British. (47) Similar opinion regarding Gurdit Singh and his companion on board has been stated in the Home Political file entitled, Riot by the passengers of the S.S. Komagata Maru-
Two most dangerous from the point of Government are the two who came on board at Kobe. Gurdit Singh was always talking of revolution. (4)
There is no denying the fact that, like many of his generation Gurdit Singh nurtured a strong anti-colonial feeling. Also, Komagata Maru Episode of racial discrimination fueled the Ghadar activists to stir people against the empire. Historian as Sho Kuwajima’s study of the events of the Komagata Maru incident reveals it to be a prelude to the mutiny of Indian soldiers in Singapore that took place only a few months after the ship had left Kobe. However, will it not be credulous to hold that Gurdit Singh, an established business man of Singapore, chartered a whole ship carrying 376 passengers with of the object of raising armed rebellion against the British government?
The inconsistency in the observation of the Sedition Committee Report lies in the fact that in the same report, it has also been stated that Gurdit Singh had been encouraged by Canadian Indians to undertake the voyage. (47) Some of the recent studies of the Komagata Maru incident, as Sunder Singh’s essay, entitled, The Hindu in Canada, can reveal why the Indians residing in Canada at that time, were eager to provide all support to the hapless passengers. According to Sunder Singh, by the end of 1908, there were about 4000 Indians residing in Canada. They were loyal subjects and many of the Sikhs residents of Canada had earlier served the British army. (364) However, racism was quite in vogue in Canada during that time and like other Asians they were victim of this prejudice. The case of Indians had been worse, as the Chinese and the Japanese received support from their Consulates in Canada. (Sunder Singh, 363) Further, we learn from these sources that in 1910, the Canadian government introduced the Continuous Passage Regulation, ‘a law that required immigrants to Canada to arrive by a single, direct journey from their country of origin’ (Generations, Geography&Echoes). During that time, it was not possible for any ship to ply so long a distance as that between India and Canada in a continuous journey. Sunder Singh’s article has taken into account a detailed study of how the new regulation turned out to be a stumbling block for Sikhs in Canada to bring their families from India. It has been pointed out in quite a few articles that, as the Indians had been British subjects, they should not have been barred from migrating to Canada. However, the Canadian immigration was determined to exclude Indians from entering Canada. Sunder Singh has cited the case of two Sikhs of Vancouver, who brought their families in June, 1912, but were refused to land by the Canadian immigration; it was after much delay and after undergoing heavy legal expenses, the two women and children were allowed to land at Vancouver, as an act of grace, however, the discriminatory law remained unchanged. (368) It was thus, responding to the Canadian Sikh community’s request to find out a way for ferrying Indian immigrants to Canada, that Gurdit Singh embarked upon the Komagata Maru episode; such a recounting has been made by Gurdit Singh himself in his book-
At Hong Kong a ‘sabha’ was held in December, 1913and I was asked whether I could do something for my brethren. (17)
Further, Gurdit Singh has emphatically stated that they never intended to ‘evade the immigration laws of Canada’, a charge that had been raised by the Enquiry Committee, but they tried to take the advantage of the law. There was inconsistency in the Canadian law firstly, Indians being British subjects, should not have been categorized as Asians, also, as Gurdit Singh has pointed out that, in Sec. vi of the Canadian Immigration Act, people belonging to certain professions as, artists, lecturers , commercial travellers intending to enter Canada for temporary purpose had been exempted from this law. Thus, Gurdit Singh in his book has observed that, the Canadian immigration in defiance of the Sec.vi of the Immigration Act, kept him a prisoner on board.(40) With reference to Gurdit Singh’s involvement in Komagata Maru case, another document that deserves citing is the statement of T. Yamamoto, the ship’s captain, included in the Appendix M of the Home Political file, mentioned earlier –
Gurdit Singh chartered my ship at Hong Kong through our agent A.Brune(German. The charter was for 6 months... In my opinion the reason for such a long charter was that, in the event of the 1st shipload of Indians obtaining right of entry into Canada, Gurdit Singh intended to return Hong Kong for more passengers.
From this statement of Yamamoto, we can come to a conclusion that Gurdit Singh chartered the ship and it had been a test voyage for him. Had the Canadian immigration yielded to the request of Gurdit Singh and his men, history would have unfolded a different story.
A shipload of Sikh passengers intending to land at Vancouver, created a xenophobic reaction on the part of the Canadian press, during that time. “Kum-We Gotum –Maru”: The Racism of Komagata Maru Political Cartoons, an interesting article, included in the website, entitled,Komagata Maru100.com, has rightly pointed out how in making cartoons on the Komagata Maru incident, the Canadian press actually attempted to popularize racism against South Asians. As none of the passengers were allowed to land at the port to fetch necessary items as food or drinking water, the conditions on board for the passengers became extremely difficult. Gurdit Singh in his book has recounted in details how unbearable the position of the passengers turned out to be; also, how owing to the exhaustion of food and water, looting of water from Japanese sailors took place and this led to a uneasy situation between the Japanese crew and the passengers.(47) As mentioned earlier, Komagata Maru was finally forced to leave Vancouver on 23rd July, 1914. During their return voyage, only at Kobe, the passengers were allowed to land. Sho Kuwajima in his book has referred to The Japan Chronicle of August, 1914, which brought a description of the pitiable condition of the passengers-
They are all destitute, and have not even the money to buy fruit and fresh vegetables in Kobe. (qtd. in Kuwajima,20)
It is no wonder that, in the Home Political file there remains no reference of the destitution of the passengers , they faced on board, nor about the racist policies of Canadian Government. As for the Budge Budge incident, in the file entitled, Riot by the Passengers of the S.S. Komagata Maru at Budge Budge, the entire blame has been put upon the passengers by stating that as the policemen were trying to persuade the passengers to entrain for Punjab, some among the Punjabis started firing which led to the casualties. (pg, 4)[ii]  The Sedition Committee Report on the Komagata Maru episode in harmony with the Home Political file; the Sedition Committee has made the following observation as a concluding remark
...the average Indian makes no distinction between the Government of U.K., that of Canada, that of British India, or that of any colony. To him these authorities are all one.
Was there really any reason for them to distinguish these authorities? Their bitter experience had taught them that be it in British India, or in Canada, racism never make any difference.
We have earlier mentioned that, 2014, being the centenary of the Komagata Maru incident, witnessed quite a few cultural events, sponsored by the Canadian government; also, we have mentioned Canadian Prime Minister Harper’s apology for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident.
However it would be another fallacy to state that all cross-section of the Canadian society endorse to this opinion. For me, the Komagata Maru voyage incorporated a quest to transcend barriers of racism and oppression. So long racism will persist, the Komagata Maru episode will inspire people to oppose and resist.
                                         Works Cited
Kuwajima, Sho. Indian Mutiny in Singapore, Calcutta:Ratna Prakashan,1991.Print
Singh,Baba Gurdit. Voyage of the Komagata Maru or India’s Slavery Abroad,Chandigarh: Unistar, 2014.Print
Sedition Committee Report: New Delhi: New Age Publishers Private Ltd., 1973.Print
Riot of the passengers of the S.S. Komagata Maru at Budge Budge.1914. File No-322.SerialNo-1-31. Home Political. Kolkata.
Singh, Sunder, “The Hindu in Canada”. JSTOR. Web. 22Januray 2016.
“Generations, Geographies & Echoes”. komagatamaru 100.com. Web. 2February. 2016
“Kum-We Gotum –Maru: The Racism of Komagata Maru Political Cartoons”. komagatamaru 100.com. Web. 3February. 2016
“Harper Apologises in B.C. for 1914 Komagata Maru Incident”. The CBC News: British Columbia, 3 Aug. 2008, Web. 30Jan. 2016



[i] For details, see, Voyage of Komagata Maru or India’s Slavery Abroad, by Baba Gurdit Singh, pg.87
[ii] As mentioned in the Home Political file, the death toll on the part of the passengers had been 16, on the other hand, casualty on the part of the European officers had been 1.