The Argentinian Komagata Maru ought to be revealed, writes Khushwant Singh

  • Khushwant Singh, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: May 02, 2016 16:46 IST
Sikhs who travelled in the Japanese steamship Komagata Maru in 1914. (HT File)

It was a couple of years ago that I visited the British Library on Euston Road, London, for some research on the book I was writing back then. As I take immense interest in diaspora stories, a document titled ‘Sikhs - Argentina’ caught my attention. If I remember correctly, it was under the India files at the reading room dedicated to Asian and African studies.

Thinking it would throw light on the story of Sikhs in Argentina, especially given their recent successes, I was taken aback after I finished reading the document. That the dossier with the Buenos Aires dateline left me queasy, angry and flabbergasted, is a story for another day.

The document is in the form of a letter addressed to Sir Edward Grey Bart, KGMP (perhaps then foreign secretary) by a British diplomat Reginald Tower. Written in 1912, Tower has stated to his superior the then Argentine Republic’s director general of immigration’s reasons why Asians, especially Sikhs and Hindus, shouldn’t be allowed on Argentine shores.

Dated two years prior to the Komagata Maru occurrence, the letter is a clear giveaway that South America was equally given to race and religious bias towards Indians. Just as much as Canadians, Europeans and Americans, who in the early 20th century had very strong discriminatory laws to keep out Asians.

Tower writes: ‘On the subject of the immigration of Sikhs into the Argentine Republic, I have the honour to report that the Director General of Immigration, Senor Manuel Cigarraga, addressed a letter on the 21st instant to each of the foreign shipping companies represented in this Capital, urging them to refuse passages to any Asiatics to the Argentine Republic.’

The British officer further writes: ‘In the lengthy letter Senor Cigarraga speaks in unmeasured terms of reproach of the British Indians. He points out that they belong to a conquered race, indolent and weak. Their pretend religious beliefs, real idolatry are in par with their moral corruption. No absurdity can be imagined in matters of religion which is not incorporated by the Indians and other Asiatics, Malays and Negroes. Many millions of them, among these, those who arrived in the Argentine Republic in January last, worship the cow and the monkey. The British government have been compelled to prohibit human sacrifices by the Indians and obligatory suicide by widows.’

Senor Cigarraga, in his endless racial tirade against the Indians is quoted as saying that ‘the experience of the Indians, some five hundred in number, now in the Republic is that they are useless for work. That the Eurasian cross is highly objectionable for this Republic, and that their presence is in every way undesirable.’ Cigarraga, quotes the Argentine constitution of that time, ‘which enjoins an encouragement of European immigration’, this justifying his placing an impediment in the way of Asian immigration.

Tower, explaining further the contents of Cigarraga’s letter writes: ‘He attacks His Majesty’s Legation and the action taken by me on behalf of the Sikhs in the following terms:- ‘I was engaged in studying the question of the aptitude of European immigrants for national work in our fields when the arrival for the first time of numerous and successive detachments, within a short period of time, of third class passengers born in India, surprised me in the most disagreeable manner, I say it without circumlocution. And my surprise was increased by the inconceivable pretension of wishing to admit into the immigrants’ Hotel under my jurisdiction, in which European immigrants alone, who show special aptitude for work, can be lodged.’

Reginald Tower, interpreting the Argentinian constitution in the light that its borders are open for all men of the world who may desire to inhabit Argentina in his concluding paragraph writes: ‘There are rumours that a Bill will be introduced into the Congress during the present session, excluding Hindoos and Gipsies, but has not yet been presented.’

That the letter, which runs into four pages, is highly offensive, is beyond doubt. What one wonders is whether this document has yet come into the public domain or not. Unfortunately, Google shows no sign of the letter.

The world has come a long way. Sikhs are one of the best agriculturists in Argentina. However, this Argentinian Komagata Maru ought to be revealed, even though such imperialistic remarks may not be ‘few and far between’ in those days.

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