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Ship of defiance

In 1914, a wealthy Indian fisherman settled in Singapore, Gurdit Singh Sandhu, did quite the unthinkable. He chartered a Japanese steamship of 3,000-odd gross register tonnage to transport a large number of his Punjabi brethren from India to Canada in a bid to outsmart the tough immigration laws the northern American country had imposed to keep Asians out.

The steam liner, SS Komagata Maru, set sail from Hong Kong in April 1914 and after touching Shanghai and Yokohama, reached Canada’s Burrard Inlet, near Vancouver, on May 23. It had 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims and 12 Hindus on board, all British subjects. But the ship was not allowed to dock in Canada, leading to impassioned protests among Indians living in that country and in the US.

Various “shore committees” were formed and funds were raised for a legal tussle with the Canadian government. At one such meeting, the protesters resolved that if the passengers were not allowed in, Indo-Canadians would follow them back to India and start a rebellion, Ghadar.

In July, the Canadian government ordered a tugboat to push Komagata Maru out to the sea and mobilised naval forces to make its stand clear. On July 23, after only 24 passengers were allowed to get off, Komagata Maru was forced to turn around and start its voyage back to Asia.

The vessel reached India on September 27 but a fate far worse awaited the passengers here. Komagata Maru was stopped by a British gunboat and those on board were placed under guard. The British government saw the passengers as “dangerous political agitators”. When the ship docked, the British tried to arrest Baba Gurdit Singh and 20 other “leaders” of the “political agitators”. On September 29, shots rang the air as passengers tried to flee the ship. Nineteen were killed. Those who escaped were later imprisoned or traced to their villages and kept under house confinement till World War I ended.

The passions ignited by the Komagata Maru incident became a rallying point for leaders of the Ghadar Party, formed by Punjabi Indians based in North America with the aim of liberating India from British rule.

Baba Gurdit Singh went into hiding till 1922 but gave himself up after Mahatma Gandhi urged him to and served a five-year jail term. His name went down in the annals of India’s history as the man who dared to challenge the might of a western power for the sake of his countrymen.

But why this history lesson? The answer lies an hour away from the city — at the Budge Budge dock. It was here that Komagata Maru docked after returning from Canada. It was here that the blood of 19 innocent people was spilled by the British on mere suspicion. It was here that the passions of Ghadar movement gathered momentum.

In 1952, the Indian government erected a monument to the martyrs of Komagata Maru near the Budge Budge dock. Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurated it. On September 29 every year, Sikhs from all over Bengal and afar visit Budge Budge to pay homage to their brave forefathers. The other 364 days, the monument is forgotten.

The monument is known to another band of people — sailors who pass through Budge Budge dock. Some spare a moment there, saluting the pluck of the passengers of Komagata Maru who set sail for an uncertain future in a faraway land and the iron will of Baba Gurdit Singh. But shouldn’t this slice of history belong to all of Bengal — and India?

The monument is easy enough to find, standing right next to the dock. The local people refer to it as the “Punjabi monument”. The sheer size of the monument took me by surprise. Modelled on the Sikh kirpan (dagger), the white and green cement structure rises in a magnificent arch to touch the sky. On the base, scenes from the ship’s journey and the September 29 massacre are depicted in gold. At one end of the base is a portrait of Baba Gurdit Singh.

It’s easy to understand why the place is like a shrine for the few who come here. The guard asks you to remove your footwear before you enter. It seems right.

A small courtyard surrounds the monument along with a tablet naming the martyrs. Though forgotten for most of the year, the monument and its precincts are refreshingly clean. A giant banyan stands guard behind the monument, its gnarled trunk and million branches possibly the only link between those tumultuous times and the present.

Sadly, the monument is left wanting on one count —there’s no information on Komagata Maru or the massacre. One has to dig it out from the world wide web.

The Komagata Maru monument has become a lost page in the giant tome called Indian history. But it needn’t remain so. Junk the Sunday siesta one weekend, take the kids and head for Budge Budge.

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