Munshi Singh, Gulpur (1888- )

Munshi Singh was the Komagata Maru passenger chosen by the lawyer J. Edward Bird for a test case in the B.C. Court of Appeal. Bird had no chance to talk to the charterer, Gurdit Singh, or any of the passengers about it, and no opportunity to interview Munshi Singh until he was brought ashore, just a few hours before appearing before an official immigration board of inquiry. It is not obvious why Bird selected Munshi; but one can assume that he wanted a case that was reasonably typical and that served the arguments he wanted to make against the government’s regulations.

The choice of Munshi Singh is interesting because he was one of the passengers who boarded in Japan. That is what Munshi Singh said in his testimony, confirmed by the number 350 on his blue steamship ticket—one of the last sold. He was twenty-six years old in 1914 and he had left his wife, and little daughter, in the village of Gulpur in the Hoshiarpur District in Punjab in late March, intending to come to Vancouver. He said that when he got to Calcutta he tried to buy a through ticket to Vancouver. He visited various steamship companies including the offices of Blue Funnel Line—which had a direct Calcutta-Vancouver cargo service and took passengers—but couldn’t get a ticket there, so he came on to Hong Kong. There also he also tried to buy a ticket to Vancouver but no steamship company would sell him one. He said that the steamship agents gave him no explanation. But it was in Hong Kong that he heard about the Komagata Maru, which had already left for Japan via Shanghai. He took a passage for Yokohama and arrived there to find no Komagata Maru. He wired to Moji, where the ship still was and got a reply telling him to wait for it in Yokohama.

Munshi Singh spoke no English and could not read or write any language. He had travelled alone from Punjab to Calcutta, and then on to China (Hong Kong) and Japan. That seems a remarkable and courageous undertaking, but one he would have managed by finding Punjabis or other Indians along the way to assist and guide him. Two welcoming hostels awaited him in the gurdwaras in Calcutta and Hong Kong. And he could have sought help in the small expatriate Indian community in Japan. Very likely he picked up traveling companions at each stage of the trip. In any case, there were thirteen other passengers with stories like his—they had reached Hong Kong after the Komagata Maru left and then caught up to it in Yokohama. And there was a large contingent of Punjabis from Manila who got on at Moji. They had been recruited by Gurdit Singh’s secretary, Daljit Singh, who had sailed to Manila while the Komagata Maru proceeded to Shanghai, and collected eighty-six men to bring to Moji. This was reported in the Japanese newspapers. So Munshi Singh would have found a fair interest in the Komagata Maru among resident Indians in Japan when he got there.

Like nearly all of the passengers, Munshi Singh was from a farming family. With his brother he owned seven small parcels of land distributed in a typical Punjabi village pattern throughout the village domain. He said that they cultivated the land themselves—rather than rent it to a sharecropper; and he estimated its worth at 25,000 rupees (Can. $8,333). He wasn’t a rich man but not a poor one either. After his expenses in getting to Yokohama, he had paid $200 for his ticket on the Komagata Maru (with no discount for starting mid-voyage), and he professed to be able to have that much again sent to him in Canada. He said that he wanted to farm in Canada and that he would be looking for a farm property. That was a good objective to state because Canada advertised for farmers while it prohibited the landing of labourers at its Pacific ports. But immigration officials had heard this from Punjabi immigrants before and they automatically discounted it with the observation that ninety percent of them ended up in labouring jobs.

The ship that Munshi Singh joined in Yokohama had its own subtle social divisions. These would not have been obvious to an outsider; one of the striking aspects of the whole Komagata Maru story was the cooperative spirit that the passengers maintained—among themselves—during a grueling six-month experience with all of its stresses and disappointments. But the passengers fell into a number of socials units: Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, members of various castes, and natives of different regions of Punjab. Regional affiliations were significant. It mattered whether one was Doabi, from north of the Sutlej River, or Malwai from south of the Sutlej, or Majhail, from west of the Beas River. Families did not intermarry across these boundaries: the Malwais were too good for the Majhails and both were too good for the Doabis. Like most of the passengers, Munshi Singh was Sikh by religion and Jat by caste. But he belonged to a Doabi minority on the Komagata Maru. 

In that era, the Doabis tended to be the least political of the three main regional groups. There were exceptions, but the militants tended to be concentrated among the Majails, the people from Amritsar and Lahore, including Gurdit Singh and Daljit Singh. Munshi Singh’s own story was of a man who avoided trouble and kept a low profile. The strongest evidence is in his behavior at Budge Budge at the end of the voyage. Possibly, because he was among the last to board the ship as it left Asia, he never felt part of the political climate already generated. But he was also likely to seek out a-political Doabi companions.

Hopkinson examined Munshi Singh on board the Komagata Maru during the first week the ship was in Vancouver’s harbour. This was in the course of Hopkinson’s preliminary examination of all of the passengers. For these examinations, four immigration officers were present: Hopkinson, Assistant Immigration Agent P.E. Howard, Inspector A.L. Joliffe, and Assistant Interpreter Harry Gwyther. Hopkinson had in his hand the ship’s manifest as prepared—after the ship arrived—by the shipping agent, Gardner Johnson, in consultation with Daljit Singh. It listed basic information about each passenger: ticket, name, age, race, country of birth, religion, marital state, destination, whether in Canada before, intended occupation, past occupations, and in possession of how much money. Hopkinson’s task was to confirm the information on the manifest and to recommend either landing or referring the case to an immigration board of inquiry for deportation. In conducting this examination, Hopkinson asked questions in English and Gwyther translated into Punjabi. A month later, Edward Bird, in representing Munshi Singh, questioned Gwyther’s ability in Punjabi. He said that Gwyther spoke a dialect that Munshi Singh did not understand. This Gwyther resolutely denied. “Every one of these men understood what I said to them and the answers that they returned showed that they understood.” Hopkinson, who comprehended Punjabi well enough to follow the exchanges, backed him up.

When Hopkinson asked passengers how much money they had, he asked them to show it. If they produced paper money or notes, he marked it so that they could not pass it to someone else to be presented all over again. Coins he could not mark. At his interview Munshi Singh said he had money on the ship but not on his person. Bird later asked Hopkinson why he did not send Munshi Singh back to his berth to get it. Hopkinson answered that he had told Gurdit Singh several times to make sure the passengers knew that they would have to show their money and needed to bring it to their examination.

Following these examinations, the immigration department had stalled for twenty-five days, trying to avoid holding any boards of inquiry in the hope and expectation that the ship and its passengers would be obliged to leave before any court case. Ottawa finally intervened and instructed the Immigration Agent, Malcolm Reid, to let the passengers have their day in court without any more delay. Late on a Wednesday afternoon, the government lawyers and the passengers’ lawyer, Edward Bird agreed to expedite a speedy reference to the B.C. Court of Appeal. Early the next morning Munshi Singh found himself going ashore on an immigration launch along with a fellow passenger, Narain Singh, who, incidentally, was a Majhail from Lahore.

These two passengers had no idea why they had been selected, or what procedure they faced. No one on the Komagata Maru had been involved in the discussions leading up to this. The immigration department was so suspicious of Bird that they had not allowed him on the boat to talk to anyone on board. They thought he might pass documents or even money that would help the passengers to qualify. He had to make his choice of a passenger for a test case by looking at the ship’s manifest and Hopkinson’s preliminary report.

Before 9:00 a.m., immigration officers brought Munshi Singh, Narain Singh and a third passenger by launch to the CPR wharf and then walked them across the railway tracks to the immigration building. There they met Edward Bird. The third passenger was Bhan Singh, the school teacher, who acted as interpreter. After interviewing them, Bird decided to go with Munshi Singh. He had to make an immediate decision because he had already agreed to bring his candidate to a board of inquiry examination in an immigration office later that morning.

Munshi Singh waited in an adjoining room for three hours while lawyers argued about procedures and Hopkinson and Gwyther gave evidence. Then he was called in to confront six immigration officers (four making up the board and two to testify), two lawyers (his own and the government’s), and his fellow passenger, Bhan Singh, who was to be his interpreter. A stenographer, Miss Sybil Ironside, was taking notes. The questions he faced focused on three issues—the route he had taken to Canada, the work he proposed to do in Canada, and the amount of money he had. On his routing, the reality was that he had taken the most direct and fastest combination of steamers he could, given the obstacles. As far as occupation went, he was a farmer and he said he had come to farm. It was with the question of money that Bird challenged Gwyther’s Punjabi. Gwyther had heard Munshi Singh say four pounds ($20). At the board of inquiry Munshi Singh insisted he had said 6 pounds ($30) and held out six gold sovereigns. Did it make any difference—four or six pounds? Perhaps it might have if Bird had been successful later in arguing in the Court of Appeal against the application of the $200 requirement. With $30, Munshi Singh would not have been an instant charity case if he had been allowed to land.

Munshi Singh went back to the ship that day with Bhan Singh and did not get off again until it was in Asia. His selection for a test case made his situation on the Komagata Maru uncomfortable to say the least. Gurdit Singh and the Passengers’ Committee had not been consulted beforehand and did not accept what had happened. They didn’t know that Munshi Singh had been Bird’s choice, but assumed that he had been selected by Canadian officials because his story suited their purposes.

At Budge Budge, Munshi Singh was one of the fifty-nine men who obeyed police orders and boarded the train standing by in the station, before the rest of the passengers defiantly marched off towards Calcutta. The train had taken him to Punjab and away from the riot that followed after the main body of passengers had been turned around by police and troops four or five miles from Budge Budge.

The day had begun for Munshi Singh on board the ship as it slipped up the Hoogly River towards Calcutta. He would have been surprised, like the other passengers when the engines slowed, tugs came out, and the ship tied up at a jetty at Budge Budge. This was at 11:00 am. Like the most of the passengers, he did not move when the police first directed them to disembark. The exceptions were seventeen Muslims from the Shahpur District in western Punjab (now Pakistan) who managed to get off despite the efforts of other passengers to detain them. They proceeded to the train as instructed and waited on board. But Munshi Singh got off as the main body of passengers started carrying their boxes and packages down the gangway to the jetty or landing pontoon. When the whole procession reached the level crossing near the railway station, he was with them. When they halted, he halted in their midst and he was witness to the argument that then went on between the leadership and the officials. But he was listening to the police and prudently went over to the train and got on, as some other men were doing.

On the train he joined a number of other Doabis. When people made their choices in that railway yard, they had looked around to see what others they knew were doing. There was hardly a break in the ranks of the Majhails who stuck with Gurdit Singh and the passenger leadership in defiance of the authorities. Even Sundar Singh, who had his wife and son and one year old daughter with him, stayed with the majority. But the much smaller Doabi group—thirty-four altogether—split, with half getting on the train and half refusing. Sitting on the train with Munshi Singh were Bhan Singh and Pohlo Ram, both Doabis, who had been talking and complaining to Canadian immigration officials about the leadership on the ship while it was in Vancouver, and who were to do a lot of talking when later debriefed in Punjab by the Punjab police. Like the others from the train, Munshi Singh was questioned by police in Ludhiana, Punjab, before being sent home to his village.

Sources: Report of the Komagata Maru Committee of Inquiry, (Calcutta, 1914); transcript of the proceedings, In the Court of Appeal held at Victoria—29th and 30th June, 1914 in the matter of the Immigration Act and in the matter of Munshi Singh;  “Minutes of a Board of Inquiry held on Thursday June 25th, 1914, pursuant to the Immigration Act and the case of Munshi Singh”; and also “In re Munshi Singh,” British Columbia Reports,  vol. 20 (1914), p. 243.