Voices of Komagata Maru: Imperial Surveillance and Workers from Punjab in Bengal
Author: Suchetana Chattopadhyay
9788193401583 | HB | pp. 190 | 2018 | Tulika Books
This monograph traces this early wartime clash of positions and the organized postwar transmission of the memory of the Komagata Maru as a symbol of resistance among the Sikh workers in the industrial centers of southwest Bengal.
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In the summer of 1914, 376 men — all from British-ruled India, most of them Sikhs, and led by Gurdit Singh — chartered a ship and sailed from Hong Kong to Canada, with the express purpose of challenging that country’s open discrimination against non-white immigrants from India. When the Komagata Maru arrived in the port of Vancouver, a Canadian gunboat refused to let it dock. For two months the passengers endured privation on board and vituperation from the city’s press as their legal case dragged through Canadian courts, which ruled against the would-be migrants. The ship sailed back to Calcutta, where it was met by British authorities, themselves uncertain about the loyalty of the colony of India in the tense early months of the First World War. Halting the ship outside of Calcutta, on 29 September 1914 British police and military attempted to arrest Gurdit Singh, whom they claimed was the instigator of the subversive Komagata Maru challenge. What Chattopadhyay rather mildly describes as “coercive tactics” (p. 24) by the British resulted in a riot that some have insisted was nothing less than a massacre — twenty-one passengers shot and killed, two British officials and two Indian soldiers dead, plus two local residents killed by gunfire. The next few weeks saw a full-scale counter-insurgency-style hunt for passengers who had escaped during the melée, including Gurdit Singh. Those who were captured were interned under wartime emergency legislation.
– From the review available here.
Early twentieth-century Calcutta was not just a point of passage within the British Empire, but a key center of colonial power; a crucial laboratory of imperial repressive practices cultivated and applied elsewhere. Histories of the Komagata Maru or the Ghadar Movement offer rewarding perspectives on Punjabi Sikh migrants, but fail to adequately investigate why the ship was brought to Bengal; why overwhelming locally organized imperial vigilance was imposed on ships that arrived soon afterward; and the extent to which the operation of the repressive colonial state apparatus influenced the intersections of anticolonial strands in Calcutta and its surroundings during 1914-15.
This monograph traces this early wartime clash of positions and the organized postwar transmission of the memory of the Komagata Maru as a symbol of resistance among the Sikh workers in the industrial centers of southwest Bengal. It acts as a link in a chain of scholarship that has hitherto traced the spread of radical anticolonial currents among the Punjabi Sikh diaspora that connected Punjab with Southeast Asia, East Asia, and the Americas.
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About the Editor
Suchetana Chattopadhyay teaches history at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, West Bengal. She studied at Jadavpur University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and has published articles in South Asia Research and History Workshop Journal. She is the author of An Early Communist: Muzaffar Ahmad in Calcutta, 1913-1929.
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