Canadian Sikh Heritage | Bagga Singh
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Bagga Singh

Bagga Singh-Member of the Shore Committee and Supporter of the Passengers of the Komagata Maru

****This article has been taken from: Lindalee Tracey, “Passage from India: Bagga Singh,” in A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada, ed. Lindalee Tracey. (Toronto: McArthur & Company, 1999), 219-234.

In the spring of 1914, Vancouver braced itself for the arrival of a boatload of Punjabis. For weeks, newspaper headlines shrieked with dire warnings, as if the Mogul hordes themselves were descending. Antagonism had been sharpening against South Asians for a decade. Bagga Singh had felt its point end as he’d made his way into British Columbia the year before. He’d been lured away from his wife and children in their village of Saraba in northern India by stories of opportunity. But a ban on Asian immigration had forced him to sneak into the country from California. A year later, twenty-four-year-old Bagga and the entire Sikh community twitched in anticipation, bending toward the Pacific for the approach of hope. A ship called the Komagata Maru was steaming across the world to challenge Canadian immigration law. Only a decade before, one of the local newspapers had trumpeted another ship of South Asians as the first Sikhs came ashore at Vancouver. “Turbaned Men Excite Interest: Awe-inspiring Men from India Held the Crowds” was how they announced the event. In 1902, thousands of delegates from across the Empire had been invited to the coronation of Edward VII, and Sikhs came trooping through Canada on their way to England. Vancouverites crowded the streets for a peek at the Punjabis, flushed with imperial pride as they watched the troops that had defended the Empire two years before in the siege of Peking. The Sikhs performed drills, were inspected by Governor General Minto in Ottawa, and were then presented with the Cross of India by the King in England. The Sikhs returned home with stories of Canadian wealth and welcome that inched across the impoverished Punjab. Over the next ten years, 5,000 Sikhs headed for Canada. One was Bagga Singh, who left his wife and two daughters for the riches of the Dominion. Bagga didn’t find welcome among the once-adoring Anglo-Saxons. Vancouver was hostile and market forces were his single ally. Cheap labour was in short supply as Chinese immigrants headed east, out of the way of B.C.’s stinging racism. Sikhs replaced them on the fruit farms and in the forest industry. Bagga found a job in a sawmill and a home in a bunkhouse, cramming into a spartan slapped-up shack. It was grim; 100 Sikh workers lived together, with a single cook to make the meals. Every evening worker left the mill carrying a block of wood for the huge kitchen stove. Every evening Bagga’s clothes were covered in sawdust and the resiny scent of fresh lumber. It was a smell that would hover over the Sikh community for two generations. Bagga worked with the biggest trees in Canada, feeding cedar, balsam and Douglas firs into the mills, sawing wood for local settlements and the growing prairie towns. British Columbia was producing sixty percent of Canada’s sawn lumber, and Bagga Singh was helping to house a nation, though his own homes were little more than ghettos as he moved from job to job. Sikhs crowded into lodging houses all over B.C. As many as ten men shared a single room for cooking, eating and sleeping, saving money to send back home. Canadians hated it. Edwardian sensibilities curdled at the raw living conditions of the foreigners, perhaps a little envious of the economic advantages of Sikh frugality. European Canadians called them degraded, uncivilized and worse, refusing to serve them in stores and restaurants or allow them into certain neighbourhoods. Bagga had to learn to manoeuvre through the hard-heartedness, to move carefully, to plan his route. He had to learn to keep his face blank, his eyes unseeing. Without a wife and family to steer him into the larger world of schools and neighbours, he burrowed into his own.

The Sikh community was a bachelor society—only nine Sikh women were allowed into Canada between 1904 and 1920. Bagga pooled his money for rent, fuel, food, helping out in the common kitchen and sharing a basic meal of chapatis — unleavened bread—lentils and curry. Every morning after bathing, Bagga would recite passages from the Guru Granth Sahib —the holy book. Often he attended gurdwara — temple—bowing his head to the ground and making an offering. There everyone would then recite the ardas, the Sikh prayers and the final proclamation, “Raj Karega Khalsa”—the Khalsa shall rule. It was a bare-bones communal life, monklike, with its own small epiphanies and friendships and an unflagging sense of duty to provide for others. Bagga made about $9 a week and paid about $2 for room and board, while sending the rest back home. Low living costs were a cushion against hard times and allowed Sikhs to support their own sick or jobless in Canada. Cooking duties were often delegated to unemployed friends. When 1,000 Indians were out of work in the Depression of 1907, even the gov-ernment had to admit that they were well provided for privately. But two years later, British Columbia took away their right to vote. Without the franchise, men like Bagga Singh couldn’t enter professions, get government con-tracts or vote federally. They were forbidden jobs in pub-lic works or with forestry companies cutting on Crown land. Federal politicians like Labour Minister Mackenzie King claimed that “the Hindu is not suited to the climate of this country”. It was galling to be called a Hindu. Technically, Bagga was an Indian, but he was a member of a 400-year-old religion that had rejected Hindu authority. Sikhism was a profound reform movement similar to the Protestant reformation. It had rebelled against the Hindu caste sys-tem and the corruption of political tyranny. Sikhs refused the Indian aesthetic tradition of withdrawal from the world and what they saw as the hollow pretensions of ritual. Founder Guru Nanak and his nine successors had each carved out a deeper Sikh spiritual and social distinc-tiveness. Women were considered equals. Purdah, the seclusion of women, and the horrific Hindu practice of suttee, the forced burning of widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres, were abolished. The practice of langar, com-munity kitchen, brought rich and poor to eat and worship together. It was a religion of hope and justice, especially for the excluded. Sikh history was strewn with heroic men and women, and martyrs who had been sawn in half, beheaded, boiled in oil by their Hindu and Muslim rivals. The tenth and last guru had created the Khalsa (pure), a devout society where initiated men took the last name Singh (lion) and women, the name Kaur (princess). Men of the Khalsa observed five tenets: to keep their beards and hair uncut and to wear a comb, a steel bracelet, soldier’s breeches and a dagger. Bagga Singh was emphatically not a Hindu. It didn’t matter. “Canada is best left in the hands of the Anglo-Saxon race…. it shall remain white and our doors shall be closed to the Asians,” said MP Herbert Stevens, the leader of the Asiatic Exclusion League. Stevens had lit the match that had set off a powder keg of hate. White Canadian mobs had rampaged against “Asiatic” immigrants in 1907, and then again in 1913. A cabinet minister was sent to negotiate limiting immigration with the Japanese gov-ernment, and Mackenzie King went to London to appeal to the colonial undersecretary, Winston Churchill, for a ban on Sikhs. Immigration policies toughened.

The government demanded Punjabis have $200 in their possession upon arrival, while European immigrants needed only $25. Then it demanded that South Asians come by continuous journey from India, impossibility because steamship companies were instructed by the government not to provide the service. While not banning Indian immigration outright, the Law of Direct Passage had the same effect. The Komagata Maru was about to challenge the law by adhering to it exactly. A feisty Sikh businessman in Hong Kong had hired a ship to carry Sikhs on a direct passage from India. With a hefty down payment and a promise to pay the balance when the freighter reached Vancouver, Gurdit Singh went about selling tickets to hopeful Sikhs. Most left without the required $200 entry money, but Gurdit was certain he could raise the funds in the Vancouver Sikh community and convince Canadian immigration authorities to let the ship in. If it worked, a fleet of his freighters could carry passengers and cargo monthly, maybe weekly, after that. On May 21, after seven dreary weeks at sea, the Komagata Maru arrived at the Victoria quarantine station with 376 passengers on board, including two women and three children. Two days later it pulled into Vancouver and anchored in Burrard Inlet. The Canadian government immediately placed an armed guard in a launch that circled the ship day and night. The passengers were virtual prisoners and not allowed to make contacts with the Vancouver Sikh community. Gurdit Singh’s position was simple: by virtue of being British subjects, the passengers had the right to visit any part of the British Empire. The Canadian government firmly disagreed. Bagga and his Sikh countrymen were British citizens, if a little unwillingly. For over 400 years they had defended their independence, standing up to the brutal incursions of the Mogul empire and the Hindus. They were finally trampled by the British in 1846. A year later, the Sikhs saved their conquerors. England had not endeared itself to its Indian sepoys, or soldiers. Resentments festered over poor pay and imperial disregard. The sepoys finally mutinied over what they considered a religious blasphemy—the cartridges for their new Enfield rifles had been greased with cow and pig fat, offending both Hindus and Muslims. When sepoys murdered their British officers at Meerut and each group began marching toward their dream of taking over India, England looked for allies. Sikhs had never forgotten how the Hindu troops had betrayed them to the British conquerors. Nor, after years of fighting Moguls, did they want to live under Muslim rule. They joined the British forces marching toward Delhi and fought ferociously. After that, the British enlisted them into the British Army and Sikhs served faithfully at posts all through the empire. Now they were arguing to get into Canada. The Sikhs on board the Komagata Maru had persuaded a crewman to take a note to the gurdwara secretary, asking for help.

News spread throughout the Sikh community, infuriating Bagga Singh; with fourteen men, he helped organize the Shore Committee and mounted a court challenge. They found a lawyer to defend the passengers and the committee offered to make bail while the case dragged on, and to pay the $22,000 charter debt. The ship’s owners conspired with the immigration officials, promising that they’d make sure the debt wasn’t paid. Prime Minister Robert Borden wanted to avert an inter-national incident and hurried to get rid of the Komagata Maru. Ninety passengers were falsely declared to have trachoma, an infectious eye disease, and were barred from entering Canada. To further expedite deportation, Borden and his cabinet decided that the fate of all the passengers would rest on a single test case. Under Canadian law, all 356 passengers had the right to submit individual applications to the Immigration Board of Inquiry, and if they were rejected, each applicant could file a writ of habeas corpus, charging he was being illegally detained. This was the kind of stalling tactic that would build up the negative publicity the government wanted to avoid. The Sikhs refused. On June 1, Bagga Singh and the Shore Committee organized a protest meeting in Vancouver’s Dominion Hall. Six hundred Indians attended, along with twenty white supporters and a few reporters. The committee repeated its plea like a prayer from the Guru Granth Sahib—they needed hard cash, enough to keep the ship in Vancouver while its status was negotiated. The crowd swelled up with purpose; people who had been made small and invisible hurried to help. The hall was full of men who had never banked, who carried savings in their pockets or turbans. Money spilled out: a pile of $5, $10 and even $100 bills rose on a table in front of the speak-ers. The largest contribution was $2,000. At the end of the meeting, $5,000 in cash lay on the table.

By June 10, Bagga Singh and the others on the Shore Committee had collected over $20,000, which went to the unpaid balance for the charter of the ship. Altogether the committee eventually raised an astronomical $70,000. Weeks dragged by and conditions on the Komagata Maru deteriorated. Passengers became sick and one died. Garbage was piling up and immigration officials refused to remove it. Gurdit Singh sent messages to the king and the governor general and announced a hunger strike. On shore, Sikhs staged a large rally and were joined by the radical Socialist Party of Canada. An anti-Sikh rally quickly organized, addressed by MP Herbert Stevens: “The immigrant from northern Europe is highly desirable, the immigrant from southern Europe is much less so, and the Asiatic, and I wish to emphasize this, is entirely undesirable.” By June 20, the Komagata Maru had been sitting in Vancouver harbour for a month. Drinking water and food supplies were very low. Petitions came from the ship alleging starvation. Bagga Singh and the shore committee were furious at the deliberate starvation of passengers by the government. Members attempted to board the ship but were turned away. The government played with the idea of kidnapping the Komagata Maru passengers and returning them to the Orient aboard a Canadian Pacific liner. Prime Minister Borden rejected the plan, afraid it might lead to bloodshed. Requests for fresh water were ignored by the immigration officials. Gurdit Singh sent another telegram to the governor general: “Many requests to the immigration department useless. Better to be shot than this miserable death.” Dissent put cracks in the common front of the Komagata Maru. Frightened, hungry Sikhs caved into the government’s demand to select a single individual for a court test who would stand for all on board. Munshi Singh, a twenty-six-year-old married farmer, was chosen. Passengers gave up their single advantage: delay. The hundreds of cases would have taken many months to sort out and given defence lawyers a chance to pick apart the immigration regulations. On June 28, the Board of Inquiry ruled Munshi Singh inadmissible. The case was appealed to five judges in Victoria and, on July 5, was lost. The legal battle was over. Gurdit Singh warned the governor general that the forcible return of the passengers would lead to agitation in India. He proposed that Sikhs be allowed to settle somewhere in the prairies. There was no reply. A mutinous mood spread on board the Komagata Maru. The lack of water and food, the sickening stench of garbage, the cramped captivity gnawed at order. When the head of the immigration department went on board to inspect conditions, the Sikhs pounced and kept him hostage, only releasing him when Gurdit Singh intervened. The immigration agent agreed the ship had to be cleaned up, mostly out of fear that an epidemic would start. The government also agreed to provide food and water for the return journey, but only after the ship had sailed to the three-mile limit. Suspecting a trick, the Sikhs declined. A week later the passengers were served with deportation orders and the captain was ordered out of the harbour. But the Sikhs had control of the ship. The immigration officials hatched a plan: they would storm the Komagata Maru, subdue the passengers and sail the ship out to international waters. What followed became known as the Battle of Burrard Inlet. Around one a.m. a force of 125 armed police officers and 35 special immigration agents, all armed with rifles, boarded the tug Sea Lion, accompanied by several news-papermen. When the Sea Lion arrived alongside the Komagata Maru, its deck was ten feet lower. The strike force was at a terrible disadvantage. Sikhs, four deep, manned the railing. Police flung grappling hooks on deck and used a high-pressure hose to scatter the opposition. The Punjabis hit back with lumps of coal, garbage, scrap metal and wood. Thirty people on the Sea Lion were injured, and the boat itself almost capsized. After ten min-utes, the Sea Lion retreated. The Sun newspaper praised the police department’s “admirable coolness and courage” and called the Punjabis “barbarians.”

The Battle of Burrard Inlet was an embarrassing flop and the losers demanded retaliation. Prime Minister Borden played it both ways—sending his agricultural minister to negotiate while authorizing the use of the warship the HMCS Rainbow to intimidate the Sikhs. The next day the warship, half of Canada’s navy, came along-side the Komagata Maru. Soldiers pointed their fixed bayonets at the unarmed passengers to frighten them into leaving. The Sikhs started reciting from the Guru Granth Sahib and fortified their courage with patriotic songs played on their sarangis—fiddles—and dhads, wooden drums. But the battle had been lost. Food and medicine were brought on board, and on July 23, under the Rainbow’s escort, the Komagata Maru set sail out of Vancouver harbour. Not everyone noticed the irony that the Canadian navy was being used to stop British subjects from landing on British soil. As the Komagata Maru steamed out of Burrard Inlet, hope left with it. Canada had not bowed to humanitarianism or to the plea of fellow subjects of the British Empire. Nor had it observed its own laws. Sovereignty had been enforced and perhaps even a notion of nation-hood, independent of Britain. Indians were not welcome in Canada, and would not be for thirty-five more years. For Bagga Singh, it meant a long and painful wait to be reunited with his family. The day of the Komagata Maru’s departure, the Governor of Hong Kong requested that the ship’s passengers be refused landing for fear that they might incite Sikh regiments stationed in the British colony. They weren’t allowed to land in Singapore, either. On September 29, the Komagata Maru docked at Budge Budge, near Calcutta, and the ship was surrounded by armed police. When the passengers disembarked, they were shoved toward the train station. The Sikhs resisted, sitting down at the rail crossing. They were immediately surrounded by police.

As the police superintendent tried to arrest Gurdit Singh, the passengers moved in to protect him. In the massacre that followed, twenty Sikhs, two British officers, two Indian policemen and two local resi-dents died. News of the event hardened anti-British sentiment in Punjab and in Canada. When war with Germany broke out later in the summer, militants urged Indians to come home and wage an armed uprising against the British. Hundreds of Sikhs left Canada, never to return. Bagga Singh stayed, following the sawmill jobs in British Columbia. His community was dwindling with-out women or children, but by 1920 Sikhs had built temples in Vancouver, New Westminster, Victoria, Nanaimo, Golden, Abbotsford, Fraser Mills and Paldi, and owned six sawmills and two shingle mills. Still, the sting of exclusion followed Bagga for years. As he spit out saw-dust from the mills, his wife raised their two children alone in Punjab. His daughters grew into young women and then married without ever knowing their father’s love, unable to get into the country where he lived. After seventeen long years, Bagga Singh’s wife, Harkaur, joined him in Canada; the government had loosened the regulations for children and spouses. Harkaur made the journey by boat through Hong Kong, following the path of the  Komagata Maru into Vancouver. Shortly after, they had another baby girl. Nsibe, their Canadian-born daughter. Like so many Sikh workers, Bagga Singh hopscotched across the province for work, from the mainland to Paldi on Vancouver Island. Named after the mill owner’s village in the Punjab, Paldi was the only town established by South Asians in Canada. Bagga finally settled down in New Westminster. The scent of lumber followed him and infused his daughter’s life, the Canadian scent of cedar, Douglas fir, cypress, carried in her father’s clothes. A smell his other children had never gotten to know. For years Bagga Singh was paid less than white men for the same work, though it was still better than the wages in India. When the labour movement promised equality and better working conditions in the mills, South Asians joined up. The unions demanded justice not only in the workplace, but outside as well. At the same time, Bagga Singh’s community quietly lobbied Ottawa. Fifty years after their arrival in Canada, they were finally given the right to vote, in April 1947. Three generations of Sikhs have grown into citizen-ship since that first lonely generation of men made their lives here. Three generations of Canadians have prized their education and moved steadily into affluence. Bagga Singh’s own granddaughter, Belle, studied journalism and became a local television reporter in a city that had once promised to keep its doors closed to Asians like her grandfather. The Komagata Maru has long since faded into amnesia and Dominion Hall is now an art studio. But within those walls is the ghost of a dark-skinned man, bearded and turbaned, who made a plea for social conscience and jus-tice. While he worked and lived invisibly, forever “other” and apart, Bagga Singh, the sawmill worker, challenged the very foundations of Canadian law, and worked for its equal application for all. It is an idea now enshrined in the Canadian constitution, an idea that Bagga brought to Canada before its time. Bagga Singh died in 1954, at the age of sixty-three. But his searing sense of inclusion, hard won by a faith that had itself risen from the wounds of injustice half a world away, helped make a new nation more just.