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Racism and resistance: the history of the Komagata Maru

Gurkirat Batth and Gurnishan Singh

May 23, 2014

Today is the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru’s arrival in Vancouver, which sparked a challenge to anti-migrant racism in Canada—a struggle that continues today.

During the earlier part of the 20th century, most immigrants to Canada were from Europe, predominantly from Great Britain. Canada had very racist laws that selected against Asians when it came to immigration. On January 8, 1908, the Canadian government passed a law called the “Continuous Journey Regulation,” which was the government’s attempt to restrict people from Asia from entering into Canada. This regulation prevented any ship from coming to Canada if it made a stop between the initial country and Canada; to enter Canada, people had to leave from their host country and sail straight to Canada without any stops, which was a gruelling task given the technology and transportation methods at the time. Combined with the $200 head tax on every Asian individual aspiring to enter Canada, this was a major deterrent for potential immigrants from Asia.  

Anti-colonial movements
India had been a British colony for almost 200 years entering the 20th century. India was at crossroads as people were tired of British tyranny, which treated them like second-class citizens in their own country. Many revolutionary movements had started all across India as people started to unite and fight for independence from the British Empire. This led to rise of the Ghadar Party, an organization founded by Punjabi Indian rebellions in India, Canada and United states, whose aim was to free India from British rule.

One of the prominent members of the Ghadar Party was Gurdit Singh Sandhu, also known as Baba Gurdit Singh. Sandhu, born in Punjab, India, was a successful businessman in Singapore before he joined the Ghadar Party. He became heavily involved in this party and built numerous connections with Indians in other countries, especially Canada and the United States. Most of the Indians in North America opposed the British rule of India at the time and did all they could to support the Ghadar Party and other nationalist movements at the times. They provided funds and even weapons in some cases to Ghadar Party members in order to fight the mighty British rule in India. Sandhu, after witnessing the support that he was receiving from Indians overseas, decided that he would travel to North America in order to further harness those links and create a bigger network of Indians that could support the nationalist movement in India. Also, he had heard about the racist immigration laws of Canada, also a British Colony, which tried to deter Indians from migrating to Canada even while India was part of the British Empire. Sandhu took it upon himself to challenge these laws and embarked on an historic journey to Canada.  

The Komagata Maru and the racist response
Gurdit Singh Sandhu chartered a Japanese streamliner ship called Komagata Maru, that would sail from Hong Kong to Japan and finish the journey at the shores of Vancouver, Canada. It carried 376 passengers, mostly of Indian descent; some were members of the Ghadar party, and others were seeking to immigrate to Canada. The ship set sail from Shanghai, Hong Kong on April 8, 1914 and arrived on May 23 in Inlet, Vancouver.

The first immigration officer at the scene was Fred “Cyclone” Taylor, and he did not allow the ship to disembark due to the fact that the ship was carrying Indian passengers and did not start the voyage from India. Richard McBride, the Conservative Premier of British Columbia, gave strict orders to not allow the ship to disembark under any circumstances. H. H. Stevens, a Conservative Member of Parliament from British Columbia, urged the government to force the ship to leave Canada as soon as possible.

Stevens with the help of Vancouver Mayor Truman Baxter relentlessly organized “Anti-Asian” town hall meetings and rallies against the ship’s passengers disembarking. They argued that very important rules set recently by the Canadian government were not followed as the ship did not come through the correct route and the passengers did not have the required $200 to pay for the head tax in order to enter Canada. Stevens worked closely with immigrant official Malcolm RJ Reid to ensure that no passengers entered Canada. They were not allowed to disembark and were not supplied with food or water, leaving them to starve.

Stevens famously said, “I have no ill feelings against people coming from Asia personally…but I reaffirm that the national life of Canada will not permit any large degree of immigrants from Asia…I intend to stand up absolutely on all occasions on this one great principal of a white country and a white British Columbia.” All this state-sponsored hatred stirred many local mobs to attack the ship in hopes of expelling them.

Resistance and solidarity
But the mob was unsuccessful as the passengers of the ship defended themselves by throwing bricks and coal at the mob, forcing them to retreat.

Despite the attempts to isolate and starve the passengers, there were “shore committees” that were formed in order to help support the passengers of the ship. The shore committee held its first meeting on May 30, including South Asian immigrants and white allies. Hassan Rahim, a member of the Socialist Party of Canada, and Sohan Lal Pathak were the main organizers of the committees. They held protests all over Canada and the United States against Canada’s treatment of the passengers. On June 22, 1914 The Vancouver Sun described a mass meeting of 1000 people, with speeches condemning “immigration officials, the newspapers of Vancouver, and the government.”

The committees provided food, water and the other necessary supplies that the passengers needed. They protested to let the Komagata Maru disembark and allow its passengers to enter Canada. They even went as far as to say that if people were not allowed to disembark, they too would leave Canada and join the Ghadar Party nationalist movement to start a rebellion against the British rule in India. Khalsa Diwan Society of Vancouver also called a meeting in support of Komagata Maru and they worked with the shore committee to raise $22,000 to help pay for an instalment for the chartered ship.

The committees, in solidarity with the other societies and groups launched a legal battle in a court in British Columbia in the name of Munshi Singh, one of the passengers on the ship. Edward Bird, a socialist, was the only Canadian lawyer willing to fight for the people on the boat working with Indians already in Canada. But the BC court of appeal came to a unanimous judgment that “under new orders-in-council, it had no authority to interfere with the decisions of the Department of Immigration and Colonization.”

On July 19 the passengers resisted an attack by police and immigration officers. As The Vancouver Maritime Museum described: “In the early morning hours of July 19, 1914, Sea Lion, with 35 specially deputized immigration officers, armed with rifles borrowed from the Seaforth Highlanders, and 125 Vancouver Police officers, approached Komagata Maru to force the vessel from Vancouver harbor.” The tug got close to the ship, grappled it and tied it to the Kamagata Maru. A battle ensued between the tug and the ship as the officers from the tug tried to enter the ship but failed to do so. After some conflict, a passenger on the ship cut the line that tied the tug to the ship. After that, the tug was forced to retreat back to the shore.

But on July 21, 1914 the newly formed Royal Canadian Navy was called into action as HMCS Rainbow entered the Burrard Inlet and attached the Komagata Maru with its six-inch pistols. The Komagata and its passengers were not equipped to deal with such firepower, and  were forced to retreat. Therefore, exactly two months after it arrived in Vancouver, The Komagata Maru left Canada on June 23, 1914 and set sail to travel back to India—where the passengers were attacked further.

On September 26, 1914, the ship arrived close to Calcutta, India where a British gunboat stopped it. All the passengers on board were held prisoner and they were taken to Baj Baj, a suburb of Calcutta. From there, they were ordered to board a train and go straight back to Punjab. Many passengers refused, as they wanted to live in Calcutta or had families here. The British officers negated their pleas. Also, the passengers had taken the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib with them on their voyage and wanted to place the scripture in a Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) in Calcutta. The British also denied this request of the passengers. Outraged by all this the passengers rebelled and started marching towards Calcutta. The British officers confronted them; they opened fire and riots broke out. As a result 20 passengers died and nine others were injured.

Harper’s “apology”
To this day no official apology has been made in Parliament for the events that took place in 1914, during which many people lost their lives and many lost the chance to be united with their families. In 2008 after much political pressure on the federal government, Harper made an appearance at a festival in Surrey BC, where he gave an apology on behalf of the Canadian government. This apology was more of a stunt to gain votes rather than an actual wholehearted apology on the behalf of the government, and there was an immediate protest and rejection of the apology. As Jaswinder Singh Toor, president of The Descendants of Komagata Maru Society said, “The apology was unacceptable.” Jason Kenney, then secretary of state, responded by saying that “the apology has been given and it won’t be repeated.” This has left people greatly dissatisfied to this day, and there is ongoing demands for an apology.

Like Harper’s apology to First Nations for residential schools, it is rhetoric used to distract from continued racist policies. The Canadian government is renewing attacks on migrants—including denying equal pay and labour rights, cutting healthcare, and a repeat of the Komagata Maru when 492 Tamil refugees aboard the MC Sun Sea were denied entry. The Komagata Maru shows the threat of racism but also the potential for resistance and solidarity. The struggle against racism continues.
If you like this article, register for Marxism 2014: Resisting a System in Crisis, a weekend-long political conference June 14-15 in Toronto. Sessions include "Global resistance to imperialism", "Racism, sexism and the war on women", and "Secularism and religious accommodation."

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