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Voices of Komagata Maru

Imperial Surveillance and Workers from Punjab in Bengal

Suchetana Chattopadhyay

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How did trans-territorial tendencies of repression from above and resistance from below connect Bengal with Punjab, East Asia and the Americas? Focused on Bengal, this monograph acts as a link in the existing works of scholarship that have traced the spread of radical anticolonial currents which connected Punjab with Southeast and East Asia, and the Americas. Calcutta during the early twentieth century was not just a point of passage within the British empire, but a key centre of colonial power and a crucial laboratory of imperial repressive practices cultivated and applied elsewhere. The urban space and the hinterland served as zones of employment for migrant labour related to the powerful institutional edifices of colonial capital in eastern India with international reach across global markets. The histories of the Ghadar Movement or the Komagata Maru’s trail, while describing the circumstances in detail and offering rewarding perspectives on Punjabi Sikh migrants, have overlooked this aspect of concentrated colonial power in the city and the region, and failed to adequately investigate why the ship was brought to Bengal and why overwhelming imperial vigilance, locally organized, was imposed on the ships that arrived soon afterwards.

Drawing on colonial archival records as well as the fragmentary references found in autobiographical accounts, the monograph steers the history of Komagata Maru’s journey in new directions. Radical responses to ‘racialized subjecthood’, imposed by the colonial state on Punjabi, especially Sikh, migrant workers in Calcutta and its suburbs during the First World War and the following decades are examined. Racist regulations of class, labour and social relationships underlined the politicization, self-awareness and formation of radical collectives among the migrants. Tracing the routes of self-assertion by workers from Punjab in Bengal at a micro-historical level, unknown and neglected aspects of the last stretch of Komagata Maru’s journey and its immediate and long-term local effects are unravelled.

The monograph touches on the links between inter-imperial geographies of surveillance and monopolistic working of colonial capital, the responses of the local Hindu and Muslim intelligentsia to the ship’s controversial voyage, the voices of the detained passengers of Komagata Maru, and the entry of the Sikh working class diaspora into local revolutionary, left and labour movements. The monograph engages with war-time Ghadar and post-war Punjab Kirti Dal and Naujawan Bharat Sabha’s influence on the actions of Sikh workers in south Bengal. Also recorded is the interplay between acts of recollection and regional constitution of radical circles and associations in the wake of the ship’s voyage.

The monograph will be of interest to those engaging with the histories of Komagata Maru's voyage, the Ghadar Movement, Punjabi Sikh workers, cab/taxi-drivers, labour, migration, Bengal, Calcutta, trans-territoriality, regional and inter-continental histories, radical anti-colonial and left politics, cities, diaspora, the British empire, imperialism, state surveillance, policing and race.

Suchetana Chattopadhyay

Suchetana Chattopadhyay teaches history at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India.

L’historienne indienne Suchetana Chattopadhyay, après un premier livre consacré au début de la carrière politique d’un communiste indien bengali, Muzaffar Ahmad, étudie, dans Voices of Komagata Maru, ce qu’on pourrait appeler, en songeant à Michel de Certeau, le devenir d’un événement. Cet événement est l’affaire du Komagata Maru… dimensions de la remarquable étude de S. Chattopadhyay méritent d’être soulignées… le jaillissement d’une image marginale des sikhs par rapport à la masse de l’historiographie contemporaine.

Denis Matringe, Annales: Histoire, sciences sociales, vol. 76, no. 2, 2021

Compared with conventional studies on Komagata Maru and the imperial intelligence network, this book is distinctive in that Chattopadhyay examines such transregional themes within the extremely local context of Bengal. By delving deeply into local situations, this book surprisingly clarifies global connections. [. . .] Chattopadhyay’s close reading of these sources greatly increases the work’s value. [. . .] I am convinced that the book will stimulate those readers who are interested in migrant workers, British imperial policy, revolutionary movements, labor movements, and the local history of urban societies. Chattopadhyay’s Voices, along with the voices it sets free, resonates in different fields of study and should certainly provoke new research in the future.
Read the full review here

Kaori Mizukami, Asian Review of World Histories, vol. 10, issue 1, 2022

Chattopadhyay centers a concern with the shifting identities of working-class people: the contests between 'nationhood' and 'livelihood', between ethnolinguistic and religious identities and those “self-aware position[s] based on organized class action' […]. Navigating this messy interface of work, politics, and memory, Chattopadhyay offers an illuminating entry point into a history very much unfinished.

C. Mufat, The American Historical Review, vol. 126, no. 4, December 2021

This fascinating account of a failed migration attempt by working-class Sikhs in 1914 lucidly illumines an important segment of India’s colonial history that has for long been overlooked […] One aspect of the study deals with how the British authorities reacted with even more paranoid surveillance following the resistance and the massacre. 'The return of the repressed as a rebel underlined the official imagination, strategy and action,' the author writes. This threat, both real and imaginary, prompted a policy of even more blatant coercion.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay, Frontline, 22 November 2019

A meticulous account of neglected historiographic threads brings to life the Komagata Maru incident, which launched a thousand protests in India.

Navtej Sarna, The Indian Express, 25 May 2019