Gurdit Singh, Sirhali (c. 1859–1954)

Baba Gurdit Singh, son of Hookum Singh from Sirhali village in the Amritsar district, was a contractor who had lived for years in the Malay States and in Singapore. During a visit to Hong Kong in December 1913, he had been impressed by the number of Sikhs looking for entry into Canada or the United States and he decided to help. The Komagata Maru was chartered in his name and he was the leader on a voyage that began in Hong Kong on 4 April 1914 and ended nearly six months later on 29 September at Budge Budge, twenty-seven kilometres downstream from Calcutta. During the Budge Budge riot, when eighteen passengers from the Komagata Maru were killed in an exchange of fire with police and troops, Gurdit Singh escaped and he remained a fugitive in India for seven years before surrendering and serving a five-year term in Mianwali prison in East Punjab.

He had acquired much varied experience in a life that began in a small rural village in the Punjab and that brought him to Malaya in his late teens, following an older brother who had gone to Malaya, and imitating a father who had spent time there. As a village boy, Gurdit Singh was an accomplished horseman; during his life he acquired knowledge of ayurvedic medicines; he knew business; and he was strongly attached to his Sikh faith. In Malaya he got involved in a number of commercial enterprises, working with a pork dealer, importing cattle to Malaya from India, operating a dairy, supplying milk to a Sikh regiment, contracting for labour for railway work, planting rubber, and buying properties. He made a lot of money and was well known in the vicinity of Kuala Lumpur and subsequently in Singapore as a singularly influential member of the local Sikh community. He was self-taught but literate. His first language was Punjabi, but during his teenage years in Malaya he had acquired Malay and Chinese and English as working languages: he had initially worked for a Malay-speaking Chinese businessman, and he was in fact more comfortable with Malay than English. His connection with Punjab and Punjabis was always strong; and he regularly went home to his village in Punjab, sometimes for extended visits; his religious inclination led him to follow one particular Sikh mystic teacher in Punjab named Ram Singh whom he would visit and with whom he would travel when in India. He encouraged this man to visit Malaya and he and the Sikhs of Malaya built a dehra or shrine for him.

His commercial interests had given him a lot of experience in the courts in civil cases, and his prominence as merchant and community leader put him on easy speaking terms with British officials in Singapore and Malaya. As a leader of the small Sikh community in Singapore and Malaya he naturally and inevitably met all Sikhs passing through and heard from them the problems they faced in trying to emigrate to North America or Australia.     

He was fifty-five in December 1913 when he was drawn into the Komagata Maru adventure by a committee of would-be-emigrants whom he met while staying in the Hong Kong gurdwara (he was staying at the gurdwara while pursuing a legal case against a former partner). What he brought to the venture was the experience and prestige to put it together. He never presented himself as a potential emigrant, but rather as a businessman developing a passenger trade between Asia and North America. In Canada, he argued for special treatment for himself because he was a merchant, not an immigrant.

He was trusted by the great mass of passengers on the Komagata Maru. One can imagine a respectful mystique around him, enhanced by the fact that he did not mix freely with the other passengers but mostly kept apart, sequestered in his cabin, eating from a separate kitchen, and talking with an inner circle of five or six, through whom he had access to a larger circle of about thirty—the core leadership on board.

He did not put much or any of his own money into the Komagata Maru, but managed the hire and refit of the boat with the passage money he raised from the passengers. Still he expected to make a profit and later he claimed to have suffered a considerable personal loss, although he had resources in credit and accounts that he prudently kept to himself. On the ship’s way back to India, during its sojourn in Japan, he proposed to buy it from the Japanese owners—perhaps a maneuver, perhaps a bit of chutzpah, or perhaps the entrepreneur in him trying to make the most of what he had.

In conversation with the Colonial Secretary in Hong Kong, before his departure, he disclaimed any political motives. The Criminal Intelligence Department in India, in developing a file on him, arrived at an extremely negative assessment of his motives—that he knew from the beginning that the passengers would not be allowed to land in Canada, yet still sought to make money out of them, all the while posing openly as a revolutionary leader. This was the police picture of him—a self-serving double-dealer of criminal proportions.

Gurdit Singh’s declarations, when interviewed by a reporter in Shanghai (the ship’s first stop after Hong Kong), and when he spoke to Canadian officials on arrival at Vancouver, suggest two ways to view the linkage he made between his enterprise and revolutionary politics. On these occasions he promised trouble in India if the passengers on his ship were not landed in Canada. Did that mean that his primary objective (and that of the people around him) was to provoke an incident in Canada that would have political repercussions in India? In other words, was he just using the passengers for political ends? Or was he speaking belligerently in the expectation that this kind of talk would give the officials he faced second thoughts about turning his passengers away? In this second and more plausible reading, his primary agenda was to get the passengers ashore and then proceed to establish regular traffic between Asia and Canada. It was a business venture, and one that would happily win him the vast appreciation of his Punjabi countrymen.

One thing that is evident is that he did not understand his audience when he spoke to officials in Vancouver, and he really did not appreciate which of them was most important. What he knew, and that was quite a bit, he had learned within Punjabi circles in the Far East and India, and in correspondence with the Sikh leadership in Canada. That led him to the mistaken conclusion that Hopkinson was his main obstacle and perhaps his main opportunity. Hopkinson was the Canadian official he had heard most about before he left Hong Kong, and Hopkinson was the senior immigration official who regularly came on board the Komagata Maru when it was in Burrard Inlet. He was the face of the Canadian government for Gurdit Singh, and the face of the whole imperial system (in his own account of the Komagata Maru, Gurdit Singh says that a bribe of 2000 pounds would have been enough to settle everything if only Hopkinson had been willing to accept it without the promise of secrecy). 

Hopkinson could not have delivered even if he had been foolish enough to take a bribe. Gurdit Singh had no sense of how small a cog Hopkinson was in the exercise of Canada’s immigration policy. In Gurdit Singh’s experience with the British authoritarian regimes in Malaya and India, officials had a lot of discretion. But the immigration barrier that he encountered in Canada had been erected in response to public pressure within a democratic system, and popularly elected politicians were critically important in keeping it in place. This policy was what a majority of Canadians in British Columbia wanted. Moreover, Gurdit Singh and the people around him assumed that Canada’s immigration policy was directed from the imperial centre in London: that there was a chain of command and that one could appeal to with good effect either through a local officer or at the top (Gurdit Singh tried both). This made Hopkinson loom large as an instrument of policy.

If Gurdit Singh was not an impatient activist before the Komagata Maru, he was understandably so after the venture failed. He seems to have harboured anti-British feelings for some time, but like most of his countrymen, he had no well-developed agenda for throwing the British out. The business of life came first. If the Komagata Maru had been a success and if he had been able to build the shipping business he imagined, he might have continued as a closet subversive for some time. But the turning back of the Komagata Maru, the shootings at Budge Budge, and his years in hiding with a reward offered for his capture—these brought him into the open as a committed Indian nationalist. And his conversion to action coincided with a much more general conversion of middle-class India. A shift in the public mood in India occurred during the First World War, and by 1919 Gandhi had emerged as a national leader with the goal of Indian independence.

Like so many of his countrymen in the post-war era, Gurdit Singh identified with Gandhi, and his espousal of non-violent protest. On the Komagata Maru, Gurdit Singh had associated with militants who advocated violence—the use of the bomb, political assassination and armed up-rising. But, from the moment that Gandhi took centre stage, Gurdit Singh was in the Gandhian camp. In 1914, nationalist leaders disowned the Komagata Maru because they associated it with the militant and violent wing of the independence movement. When Gurdit Singh was still in hiding he met surreptitiously with nationalist leaders; and he had to contend with their negative views of the Komagata Maru. In his telling of the story, he sought to counter the suggestion that he and the passengers had been the authors of their own misfortune. By 1921, he had begun promoting his version of events through serial publication and through political work for the independence movement. It was then that he voluntarily surrendered to the police with maximum publicity at the annual Sikh festival held at the birthplace of the first Sikh guru. 

He lived a long and politically active life after that, dying only in 1954 at the age of ninety-five and known widely as the hero of Komagata Maru—living long enough to see a monument to the Komagata Maru raised in the post independence era at Budge Budge by the governments of Bengal and India.

Gurdit Singh left behind a son, Balwant, who as a small boy had accompanied him on the voyage of the Komagata Maru. For about a year of his life, Gurdit Singh had two wives—not an outrageous thing for a Punjabi man of his standing and his generation. He had an older wife whom he married and brought out from Punjab to Malaya when he was twenty-four, and a younger wife whom he married twenty years later. His first wife, we are told, was an active and enthusiastic participant in the wedding celebrations for his second. He had no surviving children by his first wife, which was the reason for the second marriage. By 1914 he was a widower, having lost both wives some time earlier. But his second wife had left him with an infant son, Balwant Singh, who was nine in 1914 and in Gurdit Singh’s care. Balwant was also to have a long life, and through him the family line continues to the present.

Sources: Jaswant Singh. Baba Gurdit Singh: Komagata Maru  (Jallundhur: New Book Company, 1965); Harban Singh ed., The Encyclopedia of Sikhism (Patiala: Panjabi University, 4th edition 2002); Ramsharan Vidyarthi, Komagata Maru ki Sumudri Yatra (Mirajpur: Kramtikara Pubications, 1970); Gurdit Singh, Voyage of Komagta Maru or India’s Slavery Abroad (Calcutta, n.d.);  Darshan S. Tatla with Mandeep K. Tatla Gurdit Singh ‘Komagata Maru’: A Short Biography (Chnigarh:  Unistar & Punjab Centre for Migration Studies, 2007); Struggle for Free Hindustan: Ghadr Directory, Punjab Section, 1915 (published New Delhi:  Gobind Sadan Institute for Advanced Studies in Comparative Religion, 1996); Report of the Komagata Maru Committee of Inquiry, (Calcutta, 1914).