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The fugitive sojourns of Gurdit Singh, 1914-1922

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This paper centers on the fugitive sojourns of Baba Gurdit Singh, a railway contractor and anticolonial figure best known for chartering the Komagata Maru. In April 1914, under Singh’s authority, the Japanese steamship journeyed from Hong Kong to Vancouver carrying 376 Punjabi migrants in defiance of Canada’s continuous journey law. Although much has been written about the event, particularly its arrival and departure, we still know little of those who planned and executed the ship’s voyage. Gurdit Singh remains an enigmatic figure.

Singh left Punjab for Malaya in 1885 at the age of twenty-six. By 1913, after working in various industries, he began a flourishing railway contracting business where he witnessed the brutalities of British law firsthand. Though not formally educated or legally trained, Singh had a formidable knowledge of British and colonial legalities. Critical of law’s enforcement, Singh remained committed to its promises for an ineffable justice. Yet, British Canadian, and Indian authorities characterized Singh to be an outlaw and thus outside the law.

This paper focuses on the Komagata Maru’s arrival at Budge Budge and Singh’s seven years of fugitivity that followed. Specifically, I consider the criminal accusations that rendered Singh to be a suitable target of law’s force and how he countered these allegations through his self-representations as a law-abiding British subject. His seaborne mobility and imperial itinerancy, combined with his fugitivity in India, I argue, were central to these opposing characterizations and to his refutation of British legality and British rule.

This talk is part of the Centre of South Asian Studies Seminars series.

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