Kartar Singh, Mehli (1884-1977)

Kartar Singh was one passenger on the Komagata Maru who eventually got to Canada, but he had to wait until 1976 when he was ninety-two. He came then to join an extended family long established in Canada, with two generations of Canadian university graduates and at least one young man playing inter-varsity football. He landed at Vancouver international airport on September 14, 1976, and the author of this article interviewed him eleven days later in the family home where he was staying on East 42nd Street in Vancouver and again nine months later. The whole of that household—all ages—were gathered around in the living room, hearing the details of his story for the first time. He answered questions and his nephew by marriage translated. He sat deep in a sofa, holding his nephew’s hand and stroking his nephew’s forearm as he spoke.

Kartar Singh was from the village of Mehli in the Jallandhar District and an ex-army man. He was thirty when he was decided to emigrate after reading reports in Urdu papers of American wheat production as high as eighty bushels an acre. He left his village in late November 1913, spent a month in Calcutta (Kolkata) looking for a travelling companion; and reached Hong Kong in January before the celebration of Guru Gobind Singh’s birthday. He did not recall seeing Gurdit Singh then or hearing of his efforts to charter a ship; after a month he obtained a regular passage via Japan to the U.S., only to fail the medical examination at the port of Tacoma. “Hook worm,” the officials said. “You’ll have to go back to Japan for treatment.” He asked for treatment right there in Tacoma and when he asked the cost the doctor said 90 rupees (or the equivalent in dollars). He was carrying British money so he paid 6 pounds only to be told he couldn’t have treatment in the U.S. So he got his six pounds back and returned to Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong he decided—with fourteen others—to try to catch up with the Komagata Maru in Yokohama. They sent telegrams to the Komagata Maru to to wait for them. But it was delayed at Moji anyway, Kartar said, because it had run out of coal and other supplies. Gurdit Singh (or Baba Ji as Karter Singh referred to him) had appealed to the passengers for help and they had given him money. All this happened before Kartar Singh and his group joined the ship in Yokohama, but they learned about it talking to the other passengers.

What was the accommodation like on board? Kartar Singh said that the only furnishings on the sub-deck, where most of the passengers were housed, were benches which he compared to benches in a third-class Indian railway carriage. There were no tables or chairs or other furnishings. These benches, he said, were spaced every 3 ½ hath (which in Punjabi could mean hand or forearm, but he specified the measurement from the elbow.) The passengers left their bedding on these benches all the time. For cooking they had a herth, a barrel shaped, coal-burning, portable stove, fed from the top and lit from below. This was for everyone below deck. There was a common kitchen and one meal cooked for everyone by a volunteer with seven or eight helping. The washing arrangements were on the same level, and the latrines were partitioned off on one side. As Kartar Singh explained, there were three levels; the bottom one for coal, the second for sleeping, cooking etc. for most of the passengers, and on the main deck cabins for Gurdit Singh and a few others who also had a separate kitchen.

When asked about food during the Komagata Maru’s time in Vancouver, Kartar Singh said that supplies in the common kitchen were low for a couple of periods, although Gurdit Singh in his cabin always had food. When asked at a second interview months Kartar Singh gave the same answer so there was no mistaking what he remembered. They missed eating for twenty-four hours at one time, he said, but otherwise had no shortages. When they did run out, he said, they asked Hopkinson and he said why don’t you ask your Shore Committee, which they did, and the Shore Committee sent some out.

Kartar Singh believed that Hopkinson had taken one pound in British money from each of the twenty passengers that the immigration department allowed to land—the twenty returning residents. And he said he heard Hopkinson tell Gurdit Singh that he would try to get all the passengers off for 6000 rupees ($2,298 Canadian) and that Gurdit Singh had refused to pay. Kartar Singh was clear in his memory and it supports Gurdit Singh’s story, but one wonders how—with everyone from the prime minister down paying attention—Hopkinson could possibly have pulled it off.

As an ordinary passenger sleeping in steerage, he had virtually no personal contact with Gurdit Singh. Kartar Singh said that in the whole time he was on the ship he spoke to Gurdit Singh once. He had been talking to the ship’s doctor, Raghunath Singh, “discussing certain things” and someone reported it with the suggestion they were conspiring; Gurdit Singh summoned him over and spoke to him and he explained that there was nothing to it. That, he said, was the only time they spoke.

The last day in Vancouver, facing the gun of the cruiser Rainbow, was very tense for Kartar Singh and his fellow passengers. He remembered a meeting and speeches and the declaration that they should set the Komagata Maru on fire and go down with it. And he said that the mood was that they really would do it. And there was fear. Some men, he said, were going to the latrine every hour. But they had two musicians on board, one bowing on the strings of a sarangi and the other drumming on an hour-glass-shaped dhad. And their singing of a traditional heroic song brought everyone’s spirit up.

Kartar Singh remembered in remarkable detail what happened when the ship got back to India. He remembered the police coming on board, while the ship was in the river about 150 miles before it reached Budge Budge. He remembered these police searching assiduously for revolvers and revolutionary literature and finding nothing, although he said that he was aware that there were revolvers and ammunition on board and that the ammunition was in the keeping of the captain. Everybody knew it, he said, but only a select few knew where it was. He said that revolvers were distributed at Budge Budge, when they were all being asked to get off the ship and on the train. He also said that the officials promised them that all of their losses would be repaid if they got off as instructed.

When the main body of passengers set off down the road for Calcutta, contrary to police orders, Kartar Singh spoke to Robert Humphreys, the Deputy Commissioner of the Hoshiarpur District. Humphreys was there because he had come down from Punjab with twenty-seven Punjabi police constables to meet the Komagata Maru (these police, like the volunteer police from Calcutta also on the scene, wielded lathis (bamboo sticks) but carried no revolvers). Humphreys had been on board when the police had searched the ship for two days previously. In any case, Kartar Singh knew him from the past and as an ex-military man he approached him. Humphreys told him there would be trouble and that he should speak to the people he knew from Jallandhar and get them to come back. Kartar Singh tried, but they said “You should come with us.” So Kartar Singh reported to Humphreys that he hadn’t been able to talk to them and, in his words, “shrugged off the responsibility.” Then he went over to the train and got on. There were people already on the train ahead of him including one policeman who was their only escort up to Punjab. None of the children were on the train.

It was between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. and still daylight, he said, when the train left (he remembered accurately, as the sunrise/sunset tables for Calcutta show us:  the sun would have set that evening between 5:25 and 5:30 and it would have gone down fast with little lingering twilight). They were told that the train would stop 60 km up the line at Barrackpore for supper, but instead it steamed on through. They were hungry and from the train they wired the Governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, saying that the train wasn’t stopping and they were hungry. At the next station they were given some snacks and the next day at 10:00 in the morning the train stopped at Allahabad and they were fed. It was their first food since getting off the ship, except for the snacks.

They stopped briefly at Delhi and then, with no further stops and travelling at high speed, arrived in the Punjab at Ludhiana. The platform was full of parwallas or police guards who had been told that this was a trainload of German spies. For their first night in Ludhiana, they were kept on the train with no visitors. Then they were taken to the Ludhiana Zailghar or Municipal Hall where they were kept for seven days while each of them was interrogated separately. What they all told the police, said Kartar Singh, was that they had suffered a lot of losses with this voyage. Two men, he said, did give long statements. They were Bhan Singh and Pohlo Ram, and Bhan Singh was the only one to give a statement against Gurdit Singh.

After seven days the government paid their fares and sent them back to their villages. For the first year, Kartar Singh says, he was not restricted and came and went as he chose. But the passengers who had been arrested after the Budge Budge riot came filtering back and the police put everyone connected with the Komagata Maru under village arrest—meaning that they could not go beyond the limits of their village. Kartar Singh continued about his business as before, until someone reported him. But he had a friend from his school days, a Muslim named Mien Hakandan who was now a senior local official. He said that Mien Hakandan told the rest of the officials that Kartar Singh “is my man” and that he should not be bothered again. And, said Kartar Singh, he wasn’t, except that restriction to his village meant he couldn’t go to town for seeds and to take care of things generally so he leased his land to someone else. Some of his friends were searched and found with ammunition and sent to jail. Others were found outside their village boundaries and also sent to jail. But the people who had tried to March into Calcutta and who got involved in the Budge Budge riot were the ones who got the worst of it.

Sources: Interviews with author in Vancouver, 25 Sept., 1976 and 22 June, 1977, with G.S. Sangra translating; Report of the Komagata Maru Committee of Inquiry, (Calcutta, 1914).