Munshi Singh and The Komagata Maru Incident
Munshi Singh was a Komagata Maru passenger interviewed by J. Edward Bird – the lawyer for the test case in the British Columbia Court of Appeal. Bird had no chance to talk to the charterer of the ship – a Hong Kong-based businessman, Gurdit Singh. Neither did Bird have a chance to interview any of the passengers about it. In fact, there was no opportunity to interview Munshi Singh until he was brought ashore, just a few hours before he (Munshi) appeared before Canada’s immigration board of inquiry. Bird decided to go with Munshi Singh as he had to make a hasty decision (he had already agreed to come with a candidate to the board of inquiry examination in an immigration office later that morning). It is not clear why Bird chose Munshi; but many assumed that he (Bird) wanted a “reasonably typical” case that served the arguments he wanted to make against the Canadian government’s strict immigration policies and regulations.
The choice of Munshi Singh for Bird’s interview is an interesting one because he was one of the passengers who boarded Komagata Maru steamship in Japan and not directly from India. He was 26 years old at the time of the Journey in April 1914, having left his wife and his little daughter in the village of Gulpur of the Hoshiarpur District, in the Punjab Region in late March. Munshi’s intention was to immigrate to Canada and own a farm.
In Punjab, he had visited several coal steamship companies including the offices of British discharge cargo service provider – Blue Funnel Line, which was among the very few passenger steamships travelling directly from Calcutta to Vancouver. But Munshi couldn’t get a ticket there, so he left for Hong Kong, China. There in Hong Kong, he also tried to get a ticket to Vancouver but there was no passage company that was willing to sell him one. He stated that the agents of the steamship companies gave him no explanation whatsoever. Stranded in Hong Kong, he heard about the Komagata Maru steamship that’s making a trip to Vancouver, but which had already left for Yokohama, Japan via Shanghai. Minshu took a passage to Yokohama and after arriving, he found no Komagata Maru ship there. He wired telegram (telegraph) to the Port of Moji (Moji-ku), where the ship temporarily haboured and the reply he got was to wait for it in Yokohama.
Before embarking on the journey to Vancouver, Munshi Singh could not speak any English, neither could he read nor write any language. He had solely travelled from Punjab to Calcutta, and then on to China (Hong Kong) and Japan (Yokohama) – a voyage that seems to be both courageous and remarkable. But it’s likely he had coped by finding Punjabis (Sikhs) or other Indians along the way to guide and assist him, as a few Indian expatriates lived in Japan at that time. Again, he could have sought help from the hostesses at the gurdwaras situated in Calcutta and Hong Kong, where he could have befriended traveling companions at every stopover of the trip. Moreover, thirteen other people on the Komagata Maru ship had traveling stories similar to Munshi’s – all from India and like him, had reached Hong Kong after the Komagata Maru steamship had departed and then caught up with it in Yokohama.
Munshi Singh, like most of the Komagata Maru passengers, came from a farming family. He and his brother are owners of seven parcels of land distributed throughout his Punjabi ancestral village domain. He explained that rather than rent the agricultural land out to a sharecropper, he and his brother cultivated the land by themselves; and he estimated its worth to be at around 25,000 rupees (CAN $8,333). Munshi Singh might not have been a rich man but he was not a poor man either.
Arrival at Vancouver
About six weeks after setting off from Hong Kong in April 1914, the Komagata Maru reached Vancouver’s harbour on May 23, with 376 passengers on board, most of them Sikhs. The passengers were all subjected to preliminary examination. These examinations were carried out by four immigration officers: Director Hopkinson, Assistant Immigration Agent P.E. Howard, Inspector A.L. Joliffe, and Assistant Interpreter Harry Gwyther.
The immigration officers had the ship’s manifest as prepared by Gardner Johnson, the shipping agent, in consultation with Gurdit Singh’s secretary – Daljit Singh. The manifest listed fundamental details about each passenger such as name, ticket no, age, race, country of birth, religion, marital state, destination, whether had previously lived in Canada, past occupations, intended occupation, and the amount of money currently in possession. The task of the immigration officers was to confirm the information on the manifest and recommend to the immigration board of inquiry the passengers to land and those to be referred for deportation.
In conducting this examination, Hopkinson questioned the passengers in English while Gwyther translated into Punjabi (Bhan Singh later took charge of the interpretation). Following these oral examinations, most of the passengers were denied entry to Canada. Only the ship’s doctor and his family plus about 20 passengers who were returning Canadian residents, were allowed to disembark from the Komagata Maru ship.
After the immigration process had stalled for 25 days, Ottawa finally instructed the immigration officers to grant the passengers a day in court without any further delay. Bird, who acted as the legal representative for the passengers, was told by the B.C Court of Appeal to expedite the process and early the next morning, Munshi Singh and Narain Singh were brought to him. A third person, Bhan Singh – a school teacher, was later selected and acted as Munshi’s interpreter.
These two passengers had no clue why they were selected, or what kind of procedure they would face. After series of questions that same day, Bird decided to go with Munshi Singh and the three men headed to the immigration office where Munshi faced a board of 6 immigration officers.
At the adjoining room, questions thrown at Munshi Singh focused mainly on three issues, namely, the route he took to get to Canada, the work he intended doing in Canada, and the total sum of money he had with him. With just $30 pounds on him as against the $200 requirement for immigration application, Munshi and Bhan Singh were sent back to the ship that day and never got off it again until it harboured in Asia.
Munshi’s special selection for the interview case worsened his situation on the Komagata Maru ship to say the least, as Gurdit Singh and the ship’s Passengers Committee were not consulted beforehand. In fact, they were not aware that Munshi Singh had been Bird’s choice. They only assumed that he had been pointed out by Canadian officials because his story would suit their policies.
THE KOMAGATA MARU INCIDENT
The Komagata Maru Incident is a period of Canadian history reflecting racism, xenophobia and exclusionary ethnocentric immigration policies. Simply put, 376 people from India (340 Sikhs, 12 Hindus and 24 Muslims) were denied entry to Canada and sent back to their place of origin – some to their deaths – because they weren’t of the right ethnicity or religion for the country.
The Komagata Maru steamship, formerly used for coal transport and owned by Hong Kong based entrepreneur – Gurdit Singh, arrived at the Vancouver Burrard Inlet located at Canada’s West Coast on May 23, 1914. The ship was a test of Canada’s strict immigration policies. Among the cumbersome requirements for immigration application to Canada was the Continuous Passage regulation, which states that:
“Immigrants muѕt соmе frоm thе соuntrу оf thеіr bіrth оr сіtіzеnѕhір, bу a соntіnuоuѕ jоurnеу” аnd uѕіng tісkеtѕ “рurсhаѕеd bеfоrе lеаvіng thе соuntrу оf thеіr bіrth оr сіtіzеnѕhір.”
The regulation was instituted in 1908 to curb the rate at which Indian citizens seeking work immigrate to Canada, since there were very few steamships sailing directly to Canada from India. What that means is that if you were born in India, but went somewhere else, say China, and then headed on to Canada, you would be considered an illegal immigrant. Also among the immigration requirements is if an Indian citizen eventually managed to make such continuous journey, he must have $200 in his pockets for him to be welcomed into Canada.
The fact is that the Komagata Maru did not leave from India. She departed from Hong Kong with 150 passengers on April 4th, 1914, and picked up another set of 111 passengers in Shanghai four days later. On the 14th, it arrived at Port Moji in Japan and 86 more people got on it. A final 14 passengers (including Minshi Singh) were picked at Yokohama. Thereafter she finally sailed to Canada.
On July 23 after a two-month stalemate, the Komagata Maru was escorted out of the Vancouver harbour by the Canadian military and forced to sail back across the Pacific Ocean to Baj-Baj in India, where nineteen of the passengers were fired at close range upon disembarking. Minshi Singh was interrogated by the Indian police before being sent back to his village.
One of the striking aspects of the grueling six-month experience of the Komagata Maru incident was that the incident became a direct challenge to Canada’s exclusionist laws.
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