August 03, 2014

Komagatamaru, an Integral & Inseparable Event in India’s Struggle for Freedom

Sitaram Yechury

2014 MARKS the centenary of the epic voyage of Komagatamaru. It was on July 23, 1914 that Komagatamaru which was anchored at the Vancouver Harbour since May 23, 1914 was forced to return when the Canadian authorities refused to allow the passengers to land and subjected them to inhuman harassment and repression for eight weeks. This is an event enshrined in golden letters in the long struggle of the Indian people for freedom from the British colonial yoke. On behalf of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), I congratulate the Indo-Canadian Workers Association for taking this initiative to commemorate this centenary. I must also place on record our deep sense of appreciation of the yeoman service rendered by the Association along with all the people of Indian origin now living in Canada who have relentlessly fought for the recognition and justice to the Komagatamaru passengers and importantly to the mission that they embarked upon in undertaking this arduous journey. Some gains have been achieved including an apology by the prime minister of Canada and the construction of special Komagatamaru memorial projects, including publications, a museum, a website and a monument. Last year, when I was here for the observations of the centenary of the formation of the Ghadar Party and the service rendered by the Ghadar movement for India’s independence, I was deeply moved upon visiting this monument – a joint project of the Vancouver Parks Board and the Vancouver Sikh Gurudwara – that stands besides the harbour where the Komagatamaru was anchored in 1914. This monument was built in 2012 – the 98th anniversary. Despite these achievements, there still remains a deliberate hesitation to link the Komagatamaru experience to the larger Ghadar movement of which this journey was an integral and inseparable part. This was evident when in 2008, then prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, apologised for the treatment of the passengers but made no reference to the Ghadar movement despite the fact that the Canadian government has officially accorded the `heritage status’ to the first Gurudwara built by the `Ghadari Babas’. Even in India, such vacillation in treating the Ghadar movement and the journey of the Komagatamaru, as important milestones in our freedom struggle, continues. In response to a Public Interest Litigation in 2003 which prayed for the status of the freedom fighters for the survivors of the Komagatamaru and on the larger question of recognising the Ghadar Party and the movement as an integral part of our freedom struggle, the then BJP-led NDA government with Atal Behari Vajpayee as prime minister rejected this contention saying, “Merely because occupants of the Komagatamaru left the country in the year 1914-15 and spent some amount and suffered some sort of assault does not establish that they participated in the freedom movement or there is any connection with the freedom struggle.” Many efforts were made to disabuse this distorted interpretation of India’s freedom struggle. Finally at the urging of the CPI(M), the then UPA government (2004-2014) headed by Dr Manmohan Singh in response to a letter that I had written, released a postage stamp commemorating the Ghadar heroes. Further, the then finance minister in an unprecedented gesture referred to the Ghadar movement in the budget speech of 2013-14 and announced, “To mark the centenary of the Ghadar movement, the government will fund the conversion of the Ghadar Memorial in San Francisco into a museum and library”. Though through combined efforts of many patriots, such recognition was finally achieved, the danger of not giving the Ghadar movement its legitimate place in the history of the Indian freedom movement continues to remain, especially when the new NDA government in India headed by the BJP, which, by itself, has a majority in Indian parliament is in office today. In this context, these observations initiated by the Indo-Canadian Workers Association in Vancouver are of utmost significance. RECAPITULATING THE HISTORY To place the Komagatamaru journey in its correct perspective, it is necessary to briefly recapitulate the history of early 20th century. Given the conditions of miserable existence in British India, many people migrated to various parts of the world. Many turned towards Canada and to the United States, which were then experiencing an economic boom. These emigrants however, had to experience abject racial discrimination and were treated with contempt which was distinct from the treatment of other emigrants like Chinese and Japanese. Indian emigrants, mainly from Punjab, came to the logical conclusion that it was India's colonial slavery which singled out Indians for such treatment and was the root cause for such discrimination and racial exploitation. The struggle against racial injustices meted out to them in North America thus naturally found its logical expression in launching the struggle for India's freedom from foreign lands. Thus was born the Ghadar movement in 1913 in North America. Though bulk of those who joined the movement were from Punjab, there were others like, Pandurang Khankhoje, and Vishnu Ganesh Pingle from Maharashtra and Darsi Chenchaiah from Andhra Pradesh, Rashbehari Bose, Sachin Sanyal and Tarak Nath Das from Bengal, Barakatulla etc. Before 1908, between five to six thousand Indians had entered Canada. Many crossed over to the USA mainly to Oregon and California. By 1914, over 2,000 remained in Canada and more were coming. The Canadian and the US authorities further tightened the immigration laws in view of these developments. In order to block further entry of Indians, the authorities imposed various harsh restrictions, like showing two hundred dollars before entry (a huge amount then. The UK government recently tried and failed due to the movement launched by the people of Indian origin to impose a condition of showing £ 3,000 before being granting an entry visa), denied the facility to bring their spouses and children; prohibiting ships carrying Indians; not to provide food or water to them, etc. Such obnoxious racist treatment was meant mainly for the Indians. Far from deterring the Ghadarites, these steps only deepened their resolve to struggle for India's independence further. Canada, further stipulated that Indians could be allowed only in ships that are bound to Canada directly, an impossible stipulation to meet at that time when there was no direct ship service from Canada to India. As late Comrade Harkishan Singh Surjeet notes, “The Indian community in Vancouver came forward to meet this challenge. One Gurudit Singh, who hailed from Amritsar, chartered a Japanese vessel named Komagatamaru, issued tickets and took in passengers to be taken to Canada. On April 4, 1914, the ship sailed from Hong Kong and reached Vancouver on May 23, with 351 Sikhs and 21 Punjabi Muslims aboard. But they were not allowed to land. Having stayed in the waters near the port for eight weeks, the ship finally started its return journey on July 23. But when the hapless passengers arrived at Budge Budge port near Calcutta on September 27, they were greeted with bullets, which claimed 18 lives, according to the government, and injured many. A number of passengers were arrested while 29, including Gurudit Singh were reported missing”. Finally, in the beginning of 1915, heroes of the Ghadar Party started to leave Canada and the USA and came to Indian in batches, via Shanghai and Singapore. Their aim was to spread discontent in various cantonments and motivate the Indian soldiers for revolt against the British. Leaders and cadres from other revolutionary organisations like the Anushilan Samiti also extended their cooperation in this endeavour. The earlier fixed date for the uprising was February 21, 1915, but was pre-poned to February 19 when a traitor gave out the news to the CID. However, the plan did not succeed and the leaders were hauled up before they could do something. Then followed a series of conspiracy cases which can be clubbed as a host of Lahore Conspiracy Cases. There was a main Lahore Conspiracy Case, four supplementary conspiracy cases, two Mandi conspiracy cases, two Burma conspiracy cases and those conducted in Singapore and some other places outside India. As a result of this mockery of justice, which is what the colonial British judicial process represented, 46 Ghadar patriots were hanged to death and 64 sentenced to life transportation to the notorious Kala Paani in the Andamans. Hundreds more were sentenced to various degrees of punishment. Simultaneously during this period, soon after the 1915 Ghadar uprising failed, a world history changing event occurred in the triumph of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Comrade Lenin's and socialist Russia's wholehearted support to independence of colonial countries attracted the Ghadar heroes and two of them – Bhai Santokh Singh and Ratan Singh – went as a delegate and an observer to attend the Fourth Congress of the Communist International. Having seen the success of the worker-peasant alliance in the Russian Revolution, the need to organise the Indian peasantry became an absolutely necessary objective. Bhai Santokh Singh returned to India with two objectives, i.e., strengthen the revolutionary consciousness of the people and hence he started the journal Kirti (Labour) in February 1926, both in Punjabi and Urdu, and actively plunged into the Kisan movement. Bhagat Singh also edited the Kirti for a few months as he clearly held the Ghadar movement as the first genuinely revolutionary struggle for the freedom of India. Bhagat Singh edited the journal as a continuation of the revolutionary struggle in a new way i.e., revolutionary change through political education and the mobilisation of the peasants and workers. With the active support of Lenin and socialist Russia, many young revolutionaries were sent to study at the University of the Toilers of the East, established by the Russian Revolution in Moscow. The last batch of such students returned in 1936 and plunged directly into the revolutionary struggles. Many of the Ghadarites like Bhai Santokh Singh, Jawala Singh, Ratan Singh, Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, Karam Singh Cheema and others – today affectionately called Ghadari babas – played a significant role in the formation of the All India Kisan Sabha in 1936 affiliated to the Communist Party of India. Such was the contribution of the Ghadar movement to India’s freedom. The Ghadarites gave the call for India’s independence eight years before Maulana Hasrat Mohani and Swami Kumaranand, two Communist leaders moved the resolution for complete independence at the Ahmedabad AICC session in 1921, which was rejected by Gandhiji. The slogan of poorna swaraj was finally given by the AICC on December 31, 1929 at its Lahore session. A full sixteen years after the Ghadarites first raised the slogan of independence. The Ghadar call for independence came four years before the triumph of the Russian Revolution. Apart from predating all other important milestones in India’s struggle for freedom, it also in a sense anticipates many of the hallmarks associated with the freedom struggle. The Gandhian non-cooperation satyagraha was one of the strategies of struggle for independence that the Ghadarites adopted. Much before the Mahatma entered to lead the freedom struggle and gave the call for non-cooperation satyagrahas, the Ghadarites had come to the simple conclusion that if the then 300 million Indians refuse to cooperate with the British, the British would never have been able to stay in India. Their slogan was, 'pindaan walon maamla bandh kar deo' (village folks stop paying land revenue to the government) – Non Cooperation. A SOURCE OF INSPIRATION This movement was a source of inspiration for Bhagat Singh who reportedly always carried the photograph of Kartar Singh Sarabha in his pocket. As he wrote about Sarabha later: 'one is amazed to think of what he at the age of 19 was able to do... Such courage! Such self-confidence! So much of self-denial and passionate commitment has been rarely seen earlier...Ohnan di rag rag vich inquilabi jazba smaya hoya si (revolutionary passion was embedded in every vein of his)’. In a sense this explains Bhagat Singh's own personal attributes in the next decade or so, when he, at the age of 23, refused mercy from the authorities and with a smile faced the gallows on March 23, 1931, to inspire all future generations of patriotic youth. The methods that Subhash Chandra Bose’s INA adopted were also influenced by the Ghadar movement. They were a reiteration of the Ghadar methodology of the liberation of India through an armed attack. Rash Behari Bose, one of the leaders of the planned Ghadar uprising in 1915, who was living in exile in Japan since then, was one of the chief sources of support in raising the INA in Japan. The legacy of the Ghadar movement, hence, became an important element of inspiration for all streams of India's struggle for independence including the RIN mutiny of 1946. Hence, Komagatamaru was central to the advance of the Ghadar movement and, therefore, played an important role in the epic struggle of Indian people for freedom. It, therefore, remains a source of inspiration to all those who today are continuing the struggle to achieve the unfinished the tasks of the people’s aspirations associated with our country’s freedom. These are the tasks of liberating India from the stranglehold of imperialism, of liberating our peasantry from the continued oppressive exploitation and liberating the working class and the Indian people from the economic exploitation heaped on them by the ruling classes headed by Indian monopoly capital. This is the objective of the struggles that the CPI(M) is engaged in currently in India. I, once again, congratulate the Indo-Canadian Workers Association for taking this initiative and, thus, making their contribution to advance the struggle of the Indian people under modern conditions for the creation of a better India for all its people.