The Punjab government is looking for heroes who were part of historic movements and incidents during India's freedom struggle, including one in Canada which forcibly sent back 376 passengers - mostly Sikhs - of the Komagata Maru ship in 1914.
Unsung heroes who were part these incidents will be identified by the Punjab government and their kin are likely to get financial assistance or other facilities.
Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal has constituted a nine-member committee headed by the state chief secretary to formulate a policy to finalize the identification of martyrs of Kuka movement (1872), Komagata Maru episode (1914) and Jallianwala Bagh massacre (April 13, 1919), a state government spokesman said in Chandigarh.
The Komagata Maru was a chartered Japanese ship that took hundreds of Indians, mostly from Punjab, to Vancouver in Canada in 1914. The passengers were not allowed to disembark at Vancouver and the ship was sent back to India. When it arrived near then Calcutta, there was rioting by the passengers. The British forces fired on them, killing many.
The Kuka movement was launched by the Namdhari sect of Sikhs in 1870s against British policies and social evils.
On April 13, 1919, British forces opened fire on unarmed, innocent people, including women and children, who had assembled at Amritsar's Jallianwala Bagh for a meeting. Hundreds of them were killed in the firing.
Badal said that the identification will be done after proper verification so that the next of their kin could be extended either a one-time financial assistance or other facilities already payable to the freedom fighters.
Badal has asked the committee to submit its report along with proposed policy to award pensions or other facilities to the descendents or legal heirs of these historic movements of Indian freedom struggle at the earliest.
"This will be a gratitude to these unsung heroes," he said.
Two years ago, The Punjab government wanted to seek $143 million from Canada for forcibly sending back the 376 passengers.
The Komagata Maru was a Japanese ship hired by a Malaysia-based wealthy Sikh, Gurdit Singh, to bring 376 Indians to Vancouver via Hong Kong in 1914 to challenge racist laws of that time. But they were not allowed to disembark for two months and then forcibly sent back to India where many were shot dead by police on arrival in Kolkata.
Punjab Tourism and Culture Minister Hira Singh Gabria said in Chandigarh then that the passengers of the ship had deposited $15,000 as 'entry tax' with the Canadian authorities. But that money was not given back when the ship was forcibly sent back.
The amount deposited in 1914 has a whopping value of $143 million today, according to the Punjab minister.
To get the money back from Canada, he has set up an an 11-member panel of Sikh scholars and legal experts to give its opinion on legal and diplomatic measures.
But that move did not sit well with many Indo-Canadians.
BC MLA Jagrup Bra responded then: "When the families (now settled in Canada) of the Komagata passengers have not made such demands, I wonder how the Punjab government has started this process. They should have consulted the Indo-Canadian community and the families who suffered because of the 1914 episode."
Sikh leader Nachhttar Singh Chohan, of Mississauga on the outskirts of Toronto, also expressed his dismay at the demand made by the Punjab government.
"Canada didn't invite the Komagata Maru passengers to come here. This country had the right to stop them. So this demand for return of the so-called 'entry tax' money is a drama by the Punjab minister. It is laughable and has no logic," said Chohan.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologised for the Komagata Maru episode at a Punjabi mela in Vancouver in 2008.
The Komagata Maru incident
In May 1914, a group of 376 passengers - 340 Sikhs, 12 Hindus, and 24 Muslims, organized specifically to test Canada's “colour bar” of exclusionary immigration policies, sailed from the Orient for Vancouver on the freighter Komagata Maru.
The ship, chartered for the voyage, had been specially fitted out to accommodate passengers instead of her usual coal cargoes. Arriving in English Bay on May 23, 1914, Komagata Maru and her passengers were caught in a tug-of-war between the vessel's organizers and the Canadian government, who refused to let them land.
“We are British citizens and we consider we have a right to visit any part of the Empire,” said organizer Gurdit Singh.
“We are determined to make this a test case and if we are refused entrance into your country, the matter will not end here.”
The news was picked up by British press. The Vancouver newspaper, The Province, published news report under the heading of "Boat Loads of Hindus on Way to Vancouver" and "Hindu Invasion of Canada".
The news of its departure reached the British Columbia authorities. Their instant reaction was that "Hindus would never be allowed to land in Canada." The Indians who had already settled in Canada had also started to prepare for the arrival of the Komagata Maru. Meetings were held in the Gurdwaras concerning what actions to take. Money and provisions were collected to help the passengers upon their arrival in Vancouver. The entire Indian community in Canada united to fight the opposition.
On May 23, 1914, the Komagata Maru reached Vancouver and anchored near Burrard Inlet. Both the Indians and the Canadian authorities had been waiting for it. The Canadians wanted to send the ship back to where it had originated. The Indians on the other side had lawyers, money and other provisions ready to help the passengers.
For two months the passengers of the Komagata Maru, the Indians in British Columbia, and the authorities of British Columbia were involved in a heated legal battle. In the end, only 24 passengers were given permission to legally stay in Canada. On July 23, 1914 the Komagata Maru was forced to leave Vancouver harbor and return to Hong Kong.
The Komagata Maru approached Calcutta on September 26, 1914. As it approached Calcutta, a European gunboat signaled the ship to stop. The ship was put under guard and the passengers were held as prisoners. Then the Komagata Maru was taken to a place called Budge Budge, about seventeen miles away from its original destination of Calcutta. These new developments took the passengers of the ship by surprise. After two months of litigation in Canada they were not interested in any new developments of this kind. Upon inquiry by Baba Gurdit Singh as to the change of their course, an official informed him that the passengers were being sent to Punjab via a special train. Many of the passengers did not want to go to Punjab. They had business to attend to in Calcutta, some wished to look for work there, and most importantly, the passengers wanted to place the Guru Granth Sahib, which they had taken with them on their journey, in a Calcutta Gurdwara.
The British officials did not care what the passengers wanted. They were going to be put on a train to Punjab and that would be the end of it. But the passengers were adamant on going to Calcutta. They were the rightful owners of the ship and the British officials had no reason to keep them on the ship or send them to Punjab. They felt that some action had to be taken, so they decided to march to Calcutta.
Their main purpose on reaching Calcutta was to hand over the holy Guru Granth Sahib and to see the governor. The journey was long and after numerous threats by the police, they were left with no choice but to head back to Budge Budge. At Budge Budge, they were ordered to board the ship once again. The passengers, led by Baba Gurdit Singh, refused. A policeman attacked Baba Gurdit Singh with his baton but was stopped by a fellow passenger. It was at this point that firing started. Baba Gurdit Singh was carried to safety. But not all passengers were to be so fortunate. Twenty-nine fell victim to the bullets of British officials and 20 died. Here was another senseless massacre of innocent Indians at the hands of the British.
This was the tragic end of the passengers of the Komagata Maru.