Budge-Budge is a port 17 miles away from Calcutta (now called Kolkata). It suddenly became an important centre of political activities, culminating in the killing of many. The shooting spree continued from the evening of the 29th September 1914 to the early hours (3a.m.) of the 30th. 40 Indians laid down their lives, not so much by their choice, as by the political interest of a foreign government and sadistic pleasure of its gunmen. More than 130 Punjabis mostly Sikhs, were arrested. The leader of the expedition (voyage), Sardar Gurdit Singh and a few others could escape in the melee and chaos that followed. The darkness of the night was a helpful factor. This brings us to a quaint name, Koma Gata Maru, the ill-starred ship under Gurdit Singh which brought a few Indians from Canada to India with some money and weapons to fight the freedom's battle on their own soil. The name Koma Gata Maru was unknown even to the articulate, till the venue of the Congress session at Chandigarh which was named Koma Gata Maru Nagar. Even Chandigarh has lost its popularity and prominence today. But it was the bone of contention between the governments of newly formed Haryana and Punjab.
A political background of the gruesome episode will help the readers understand the thing better. The Indian revolutionaries had extended the areas of activities for beyond the frontiers of the country, to Europe, America and Canada. In our case today, we can restrict ourselves to Canada and India in particular, with a little background of U.S, where the Ghadar activities were quite visible. The World War was just round the corner. The Canadian Government was passing one after another stringent and restrictive laws to dissuade Indians from coming to their country. The earliest and the most obnoxious of them was passed on 9th May 1910. It compelled every Indian, and they were mostly Sikhs, intending to enter Canada to carry 200 Dollars so they might not become a burden on the Canadian Government.
It was done with a view to discouraging Indians from entering Canada and settling in that country. There were protests which fell on deaf ear. Even some institutions, United India League and Khalsa Dewan, sprang up for the same purpose but not to much avail. It was at this stage that an affluent Sikh businessman, settled in Malaya and Singapore, entered the scene. He was in touch with many shipping companies and could easily hire a Japanese ship, Koma Gata Maru, for the purpose of circumventing Canadian Laws. There were some loopholes in them. Though basically a businessman, the Sardarji was initiated into the revolutionary movement when he had visited Punjab in 1909.
On 4th A,pril, 1914, the ship sailed from Hong Kong to Canada. The passengers were mostly students, businessmen and some preachers also. There were only 1665 when they started. It reached Vancouver with more figures added, 372 of whom 35% were Sikhs and 21 Punjabi Muslims. But they were not allowed to anchor on the way. Food and water were refused to them. To add fuel to the fire, the Canadian Government, sent a police launch from which boiling water was poured on the hungry and hapless Indian passengers. What a specimen of civilization did1 the white-coloured Canadians boast of. It was stark cruelty, sadistic to be candid. For about two months, Gurdit Singh's passengers fought against such a superior power. Friends and relatives of passengers were refused contact with them. The most exasperating action of the Canadian Government came on the 9th July 1914, when they ordered the ship to leave the port. The victims equally desperate were determined to face death rather than die of starvation and thirst in mid-stream.
The Canadian Government became understandably more retaliatory and sent a large steamboat, Sea- Lion, which came near the Japanese ship, Koma Gata Maru. To add final fuel to fire, England, a 'Common-Wealth Cousin' of Canada, ordered a war-ship, Rainbow, stand on the two sides of the unfortunate ship under Gurdit Singh to help the Canadians make it leave the port of Vancouver. Eyes of the various Indians, particularly in the East, opened. Those at Vancouver flocked at the shore to see the climax of the cruel drama.
At this moment, something unexpected happened which saved the situation. A person, from the hilltop in the city, signaled to the inmates of the ship who boldly replied that they would put the whole city of Vancouver ablaze at the appropriate time. Indians on the shore were happy beyond words that the long-suffering Indians in the ship had retained their courage and spirit.
This very vital information somehow leaked out to the enemy and they suddenly softened. Water and food were supplied to the starving and thirsty inmates. The ship was induced to leave for Yokohama in Japan on the 23rd July 1914, two months after it had arrived at Vancouver on the 23rd May. The way back was, however, not much better.
But an unexpected development ensued. Actually, things moved with a kaleidoscopic rapidity. Gurdit Singh was informed that the Indian Government was ready to bear all expenses if the ship was diverted to India. Though Calcutta was supposed to be the destination, it was directed towards Madras. When the inmates protested, the Consul at Kobe allowed it to go to Calcutta.
On the 16th September, the ship reached to Singapore but for no rhyme or reason it was kept waiting five miles away from the shore. When the inmates wanted to contact their homes in India, it was refused. The ship was moving in the high seas towards India at full speed. A launcher signaled it to stop. The next day, a large number of Punjabis under European officers came on board the ship and began to search the passengers for any arms and ammunition. The performances were repeated for two days. This irritated the passengers to the extreme but they were helpless victims of a vindictive and superior power.
At long last, the ill-starred ship reached Budge Budge on the 28th September 1914. The officer-in-charge of the whole affair announced that the passengers would be taken straight to Punjab and that a train was just waiting for the purpose. Some sinister motive was suspected and they insisted on moving to Calcutta instead. The order was repeated every 15 minutes. When the exasperated passengers demanded to see the order, none could be produced, for, none existed. Instead, the passengers were just kicked and pushed out over a weak wooden plank, which was the only 'bridge' to connect the ship with the shore. The passenger's just back to their homeland refused to get into the waiting train. Highly suspicious about the real motive, they started trekking towards Calcutta. This unnerved the District Magistrate of twenty-four Parganas present there. For, he did not have adequate force to challenge the defiant crowd.
When they were hardly four miles away, a car arrived from Calcutta. It claimed to carry the representatives of the Governor of Bengal who assured them a proper hearing. In the meantime, reinforcement arrived from Calcutta. The defiant crowd was ordered to go back to the cursed ship. They now preferred to get into the waiting train but never the cursed ship. This infuriated the arrogant officer who ordered the use of brute force to make the Indians obey orders. They were kicked with boots and hit with bayonets, and even fired upon.
Here ends a story, short but blood curdling. A few ambitious and intrepid Indians wanted to reach Canada for better prospects. The Government there was equally adamant to undo their ambition. In the bargain enters a Sikh businessman whose ship becomes the prey in the fray. The end came with a merciless massacre. Gurdit Singh's photograph is the only thing left with us and you can see it. Koma Gata Maru suddenly came to be known after the Chandigarh Congress Session. Many Indians laid down their lives. Salute to them from Indians of Independent India.