KOMAGATA MARU, a Japanese tramp-steamer, renamed Gurū Nānak Jahāz, launched from Hong Kong by Babā Gurdit Siṅgh (1860-1954), an adventurous Sikh businessman, to take a batch of Indian emigrants to Canada. This was done to circumvent the new Canadian Immigration Ordinances which, aiming to stop the influx of Indians, prohibited entry into Canada of all immigrants from Asia except by a "continuous journey on through tickets from the country of their birth or citizenship." In view of tightened immigration controls, shipping companies were loath to issue tickets to Indians seeking passage to Canada and in Hong Kong, particularly, there was a backlog of Indians, most of whom were Punjabi Sikhs, hoping to find some way to emigrate to what they considered the land of opportunity. Their plight captured the attention of Gurdit Siṅgh who, making Singapore his headquarters, decided to test the Canadian restrictions. He formed the Gurū Nānak Navigation Company and chartered a Japanese ship, the Komagata Maru, with a view to making a test voyage to Vancouver and return trip to Calcutta and, from then on running a regular service between the two ports. According to all accounts, when it was announced that the ship was going to Canada, its full 500 accommodations were booked, but when Gurdit Siṅgh was arrested by Hong Kong authorities, almost two-thirds of the prospective passengers decided to cancel out. Gurdit Siṅgh was released after having been held for three days and the ship sailed from Hong Kong on 4 April 1914, making intermediate stops to pick up more passengers at Shanghai, Moji and Yokohoma. When the Komagata Maru arrived at Vancouver on 23 May 1914, there were 376 Indians aboard the vessel, of whom all but 30 were Sikhs.
The progress of the Komagata Maru was reported in British Columbian papers as a "mounting Oriental invasion." When the ship arrived in Canadian waters, it was cordoned off and only 22 men who could prove their Canadian domicile were allowed to land. Pressure was brought to bear upon Gurdit Siṅgh to pay the charter dues immediately or suffer the ship to be impounded. Gurdit Siṅgh's protests that he could only pay the money after he had fulfilled his contract with the passengers by getting them into Canada and had sold the cargo which he had on board were ignored. Sikhs in Canada raised $ 22,000 to pay for the charter. They appealed to the Canadian people and government for justice, sent telegrams to the King, the Duke of Connaught, the Viceroy, and Indian leaders in India and England. There were public meetings in several towns of the Punjab to express sympathy with the passengers of the Komagata Maru. The Shore Committee of Vancouver Sikhs ultimately took the case of the Komagata Maru to court. A full bench of the Supreme Court decided that the new orders-in-council barred judicial tribunals from interfering with the decisions of the Immigration department. The passengers took over control of the ship from the Japanese crew and refused to disembark. A cruiser threatened to fire on them. After having been stalled in the sea for two months --- a period of grave hardship for the passengers, the Komagata Maru slipped out into the pacific.
The travails of the Komagata Maru were not yet ended. None of her passengers was allowed to land at Hong Kong or Singapore, where several had their homes. Sikhs became rebels in the eyes of the government and when the ship docked at Budge-Budge, near Calcutta, on 29 September 1914, it was searched by police, but no arms were found. The passengers were ordered to board a train which was to take, them to the Punjab. The Sikh passengers refused to obey government orders and forming themselves into a procession with the Gurū Granth Sāhib at the head of it, wended their way towards the city of Calcutta. British troops and police turned out and forced them back to the railway station where, owing to the high handedness of some European sergeants who interrupted the evening Sikh prayer the passengers were reciting on the platform, a clash took place. Nineteen of the Sikhs and two European officers and two men of the Punjab police were killed and a score of others wounded. Gurdit Siṅgh and 28 of his companions escaped. The rest were rounded up and sent to the Punjab, where over 200 of them were interned under the Ingress Ordinance. The heroic deeds of the Komagata Maru men and their trials aroused the admiration and sympathy of the entire Indian nation.
Emily C. Brown