Komagata Maru incident
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Sikhs aboard the Komagata Maru in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, 1914
The Komagata Maru incident involved a Japanese steamship, the Komagata Maru, that sailed from Hong Kong to Shanghai, China; Yokohama, Japan; and then to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, in 1914, carrying 376 passengers from Punjab, India. The passengers were not allowed to land in Canada and the ship was forced to return to India. The passengers consisted of 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims, and 12 Hindus, all British subjects. This was one of several incidents in the history of early 20th century involving exclusion laws in Canada and the United States designed to keep out immigrants of Asian origin.
 Immigration controls in Canada
The Canadian government’s first attempt to restrict immigration from India was to pass an order-in-council on Jan. 8, 1908, that prohibited immigration of persons who “in the opinion of the Minister of the Interior” did not “come from the country of their birth or citizenship by a continuous journey and or through tickets purchased before leaving their country of their birth or nationality.” In practice this applied only to ships that began their voyage in India, as the great distance usually necessitated a stopover in Japan or Hawaii. These regulations came at a time when Canada was accepting massive numbers of immigrants (over 400,000 in 1913 alone – a figure that remains unsurpassed to this day), almost all of whom came from Europe.
 Baba Gurdit Singh Sandhu’s initial idea
Gurdit Singh Sandhu, from Sarhali (not to be confused with Gurdit Singh Jawanda, from Haripur Khalsa, a 1906 Indo-Canadian immigration pioneer), was a well-to-do fisherman in Singapore who was aware of the problems that Punjabis were facing immigrating to Canada due to certain exclusion laws. He wanted to circumvent these laws by hiring a boat to sail from Calcutta to Vancouver. His aim was to help his compatriots whose previous journeys to Canada had been blocked.
Though Gurdit Singh was apparently aware of regulations when he chartered the Komagata Maru in January, 1914, he continued with his purported goal of challenging the continuous journey regulation and opening the door for immigration from India to Canada.
At the same time, in January, 1914, he publicly espoused the Ghadarite cause while in Hong Kong. The Ghadar Party was an organization founded by Indians of the United States and Canada in June, 1913 with the aim to liberate India from British rule. It was also known as the Hindi Association of the Pacific Coast.
The passengers consisted of 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims, and 12 Hindus, all British subjects. One of the Sikh passengers, Jagat Singh Thind, was the youngest brother of Dr. Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian American Sikh writer and lecturer on “spiritual science” who was involved in an important legal battle over the rights of Indians to obtain U.S. citizenship (United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind).
 The Voyage
 Departure from Hong Kong
Hong Kong became the point of departure. The ship was scheduled to leave in March, but Singh was arrested for selling tickets for an illegal voyage. He was later released on bail and given permission by the Governor of Hong Kong to set sail, and the ship departed on April 4 with 165 passengers. More passengers joined at Shanghai on April 8, and the ship arrived at Yokohama on April 14. It left Yokohama on May 3 with its complement of 376 passengers, and sailed into Burrard Inlet, near Vancouver, on May 23. “This ship belongs to the whole of India, this is a symbol of the honour of India and if this was detained, there would be mutiny in the armies” a passenger told a British officer. The Indian Nationalist revolutionaries Barkatullah and Balwant Singh met with the ship en route. Balwant Singh was head priest of the Gurdwara in Vancouver and had been one of three delegates sent to London and India to represent the case of Indians in Canada. Ghadarite literature was disseminated on board and political meetings took place on board.
 Arrival in Vancouver
Komagata Maru (furthest ship on the left) being escorted by the HMCS Rainbow and a swarm of small boats
When the Komagata Maru arrived in Canadian waters, it was not allowed to dock. The first immigration officer to meet the ship in Vancouver was Fred “Cyclone” Taylor. The Conservative Premier of British Columbia, Richard McBride, gave a categorical statement that the passengers would not be allowed to disembark, as the then-Prime Minister of Canada Sir Robert Borden decided what to do with the ship. Conservative MP H.H. Stevens organized a public meeting against allowing the ship’s passengers to disembark and urged the government to refuse to allow the ship to remain. Stevens worked with immigration official Malcolm R. J. Reid to keep the passengers off shore. It was Reid’s intransigence, supported by Stevens, that led to mistreatment of the passengers on the ship and to prolonging its departure date, which wasn’t resolved until the intervention of the federal Minister of Agriculture, Martin Burrell, MP for Yale—Cariboo.
Meanwhile a “shore committee” had been formed with Hassan Rahim and Sohan Lal Pathak. Protest meetings were held in Canada and the USA. At one, held in Dominion Hall, Vancouver, it was resolved that if the passengers were not allowed off, Indo-Canadians should follow them back to India to start a rebellion (or Ghadar). A British government agent who infiltrated the meeting wired London and Ottawa to tell them that supporters of the Ghadar Party were on the ship.
The shore committee raised $22,000 as an installment on chartering the ship. They also launched a test case legal battle in the name of Munshi Singh, one of the passengers. On July 6, the full bench of the B.C. Court of Appeal gave a unanimous judgement that under new Orders-In-Council, it had no authority to interfere with the decisions of the Department of Immigration and Colonization. The Japanese captain was relieved of duty by the angry passengers, but the Canadian government ordered the harbour tug Sea Lion to push the ship out to sea. On July 19, the angry passengers mounted an attack. The next day the Vancouver newspaper The Sun reported: “Howling masses of Hindus showered policemen with lumps of coal and bricks… it was like standing underneath a coal chute”.
 Departure from Vancouver
The government also mobilised the HMCS Rainbow, a former Royal Navy ship under the command of Commander Hose, with troops from the Royal Irish Fusiliers, 72nd Highlanders, and the 6th DCOR [Duke of Connaught's Own] regiments. In the end, only 24 passengers were admitted to Canada, since the ship had violated the exclusion laws, the passengers did not have the required funds, and they had not sailed directly from India. The ship was turned around and forced to depart on July 23 for Asia.
 Return to India
The Komagata Maru arrived in Calcutta on September 27. Upon entry into the harbor, the ship was forced to stop by a British gunboat, and the passengers were placed under guard. Unfortunately, the British government of India saw the men on the Komagata Maru as dangerous political agitators. When the ship docked at Budge Budge, the police tried to arrest Baba Gurdit Singh and the twenty or so other men that they saw as leaders. In the process, shots were fired and nineteen of the passengers were killed. Some escaped, but the remainder were arrested and imprisoned or sent to their villages and kept under village arrest for the duration of the First World War. Six months of confinement on board the Komagata Maru ended for most of these passengers in another form of confinement. This incident became known as the Budge Budge Riot.
Gurdit Singh Sandhu managed to escape and lived in hiding until 1922. He was urged by Mahatma Gandhi to give himself up as a true patriot; he duly did so, and was imprisoned for five years.
The Komagata Maru incident was widely cited at the time by Indian groups to highlight discrepancies in Canadian immigration laws. Further, the inflamed passions in the wake of the incident were widely cultivated by the Indian revolutionary organisation, the Ghadar Party, to rally support for its aims. In a number of meetings ranging from California in 1914 to the Indian diaspora, prominent Ghadarites including Barkatullah, Tarak Nath Das, and Sohan Singh used the incident as a rallying point to recruit members for the Ghadar movement, most notably in support of promulgating plans to coordinate a massive uprising in India.
In 1951, the government of the new Republic of India erected its first monument at Budge Budge to commemorate the massacre there.
A plaque commemorating the 75th anniversary of the departure of the Komagata Maru was placed in the Sikh gurdwara (temple) in Vancouver on July 23, 1989.
A plaque commemorating the 80th anniversary of the arrival of the Komagata Maru was placed in the Vancouver harbour in 1994.
 Governmental apologies
In response to calls for the government of Canada to address historic wrongs involving immigration and wartime measures, the Conservative government in 2006 created the community historical recognition program to provide grant and contribution funding for community projects linked to wartime measures and immigration restrictions and a national historical recognition program to fund federal initiatives, developed in partnership with various groups. The announcement was made on June 23, 2006, at the time Prime Minister Harper apologized in the House of Commons for the head tax against Chinese immigrants.
On Aug. 6, 2006, Prime Minister Harper made a speech at the Ghadri Babiyan da Mela (festival) in Surrey, B.C., where he stated that the government of Canada acknowledged the Komagata Maru incident and announced the government’s commitment to “undertake consultations with the Indo-Canadian community on how best to recognize this sad moment in Canada’s history.”
In April 3, 2008, Ms. Ruby Dhalla, MP for Brampton-Springdale, tabled motion 469 (M-469) in the House of Commons which read, “That, in the opinion of the House, the government should officially apologize to the Indo-Canadian community and to the individuals impacted in the 1914 Komagata Maru incident, in which passengers were prevented from landing in Canada.”
On May 10, 2008, Jason Kenney, Secretary of State (Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity), announced the Indo-Canadian community would be able to apply for up to $2.5-million in grants and contributions funding to commemorate the Komagata Maru incident.
Following further debate on May 15, 2008, Ms. Dhalla’s motion was passed by the House of Commons.
On May 23, 2008, the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia unanimously passed a resolution “that this Legislature apologizes for the events of May 23, 1914, when 376 passengers of the Komagata Maru, stationed off Vancouver harbour, were denied entry by Canada. The House deeply regrets that the passengers, who sought refuge in our country and our province, were turned away without benefit of the fair and impartial treatment befitting a society where people of all cultures are welcomed and accepted.”
On Aug. 3, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appeared at the 13th annual Ghadri Babiyan Da Mela (festival) in Surrey, B.C. to issue an apology for the Komagata Maru incident. He said, in response to the House of Commons motion calling for an apology by the government, “On behalf of the government of Canada, I am officially conveying as prime minister that apology.”
Some members of the Sikh community were unsatisfied with the apology as they expected it to be made in Parliament. Secretary of State Jason Kenney said, “The apology has been given and it won’t be repeated,” thus settling the matter for the federal government.
The first play in Canada based on the incident was The Komagata Maru Incident, written by Sharon Pollack and presented in January, 1976.
Ajmer Rode wrote the play Komagata Maru based on the incident in 1984.
In 2004, Ali Kazimi‘s feature documentary Continuous Journey was released, This is the first in-depth film to examine the events surrounding the turning away of the Komagata Maru. The primary source research done for the film led to the remarkable discovery of rare film footage of the ship in Vancouver harbour. Eight years in the making Continuous Journey has won over ten awards, including the Most Innovative Canadian Documentary at DOXA, Vancouver 2005, and most recently, Golden Conch at the Mumbai International Film Festival, 2006
The CBC radio play Entry Denied, by the Indo-Canadian scriptwriter Sugith Varughese focuses on the incident.
In early 2006, film director, Deepa Mehta, said she would produce a film about the incident titled Komagata Maru. On Oct. 9, 2008, it was announced that she had recast the lead role in favor of Akshay Kumar and Shriya Saran with a budget of $35-million.