Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Sikh Challenge Against Apartheid

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PIC James Luke Quiney fondsCity of Vancouver ArchivesAM 15984 CVA

SS The ‘Komagata Maru’ was a Japanese chartered ship that brought Indian immigrants to the west coast of Canada. They were not allowed to disembark because of apartheid, so the Indians demonstrated in a dramatic challenge to Canada’s former practice. This challenge took place in the spring and summer of 1914 on the eve of the First World War. It proved to be a bitter and sad experience for the passengers.

The Komagata massacre illustrated a widespread perception among white Canadians that Canada was “a white man’s country”. The whole story also exposed the fundamental injustice of British rule in India and Canada. This was further evidence to many South Asians that the natives were of second-class status within the British Empire. From this point of view, the history of India’s freedom struggle against the British from ‘Komagata Maru’ and their downfall is a significant chapter.

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Several thousand South Asians, mostly Punjabi men from northern India, migrated to British Columbia and the Pacific coast of the United States in the early 20th century. They found work that paid very well by Indian standards, and they sent letters home encouraging their countrymen to follow them to Canada.

Anti-Asian lobbies in Canada and the United States were already strongly opposed to Chinese and Japanese immigration. They also waged a vigorous campaign against Punjabis and other South Asians. As a result, Canada stopped immigration from India in 1908 and the United States followed suit in 1910. To keep South Asians out, American immigration officials ruthlessly enforced their existing regulations. Canadian officials, by contrast, relied on two regulations introduced in 1908.

Passengers on the SS Komagata Maru 1914 Library and Archives Canada

By either of these regulations, immigration officials could detain immigration applicants; Incoming passengers may not be granted entry if they arrive in Canada without a continuous journey from their home country. This was effective because passenger agents had introduced a rule not to sell tickets to Indian locals to come to Canada as directed by the governments of India and Canada. By another regulation, Canadian immigration officials were empowered to turn back any Asians who arrived with less than $200 (a huge sum in 1914). These two regulations were deliberately deceptive because, while they were designed only to exclude immigrants from India, they did not state this as their direct objective. This evasion was so that British Empire officials in India could deny the existence of any laws preventing Indian immigration to Canada.

After Canada and the United States stopped South Asian immigration, Punjabi and other South Asian activists focused on trying to reopen Canada’s doors. They believed that they had a stronger argument in dealing with Canada than the United States because Canada, like India, was a part of the British Empire. From the beginning, they forced any immigrants from India (including women and children), to fight separate immigration cases in court. The Indians were persistent in campaigning against the whites.

A moment of great enthusiasm came in November 1913 when a Canadian judge quashed the Immigration Department’s order to deport 38 Punjabi Sikhs. These immigrants came to Canada via Japan on a regular Japanese passenger ship called the Panama Maru. Immigration officials ordered their deportation because they had not made a continuous journey from India and were not carrying the required amount of money. The judge found fault with the regulations specifying continuous travel controls and the $200 requirement. He looked closely at the wording of these regulations and ruled them inconsistent with the wording of the Immigration Act and therefore invalid. The judge then allowed the passengers to disembark. It was this victory of the passengers in the ‘Panama Maru’ case that encouraged the next Komagata Maru voyage in April 1914.

Unfortunately by April the legal situation had changed. The Canadian government quickly rewrote its regulations after facing objections in court. The continuous journey and $200 requirement rules came into effect again in January 1914; Three months before the Komagata Maru left Hong Kong for Vancouver. Passenger leadership could have refrained from sailing after these rules were re-enacted. Instead, they assured themselves that a Canadian court would rule in their favor. If not, they believed that it could provoke a major protest among the Sikh army in India and threaten the stability of the British Empire. Hoped that the Canadian government would give way. In both cases, it turned out that it didn’t.

The man who chartered the Komagata Maru and who acted as the chief spokesman for the passengers was a wealthy Sikh named Gurdit Singh Sirhali. Soon after the ‘Panama Maru’ case, his search for a ship to take Punjabi migrants to Canada began. Gurdit Singh was visiting Hong Kong on his own personal business, and there he met a large number of Punjabi men who wished to emigrate to Canada or the United States. Some of these men stayed for months or even years in Hong Kong and other British-controlled ports in East Asia.

It took Gurdit Singh several months to find a ship for these men as he searched Calcutta, Singapore and Hong Kong. The ship he found, the voyageur Komagata Maru, was temporarily in Hong Kong. It was a steel-hulled steamship designed for the North Atlantic emigrant trade and operated under German ownership for over 20 years. Later it was bought by a small Japanese company.

All the passengers found by Gurdit Singh were Punjabis, except for two women and four children, all stout men. Sikhs numbered at least 337, Muslims 27 and Hindus 12.

At the time, few Canadians sympathized with the people of Komagata Maru, who believed that as subjects of the Empire they had a right to enter a self-governing country like Canada. which passengers heard daily from Gurdit Singh’s young political lieutenants. On board these passengers received an intense political education through lectures, revolutionary literature readings and discussions.

The passengers reached Canadian waters on 21 May 1914 and anchored in the harbor of Vancouver on 23 May. Gurdit Singh and his lieutenants knew Canada had been turning away South Asian immigrants for the past six years, and they faced a potential fight to get everyone in. Nevertheless, Gurdit Singh, his lieutenant and the common passengers were not prepared for the uncompromising action taken by the Canadian authorities. With 20 returning residents and a very few special exemptions, none of the passengers were allowed ashore even for preliminary examination. The great majority were confined to ships throughout their time.

The passengers staged a protracted standoff to resist the immigration department’s efforts to order them to leave voluntarily. These efforts included limiting their contact with the outside world, blocking their attempts to take their case to Canadian courts, refusing to supply the ship with food and water if the situation became desperate; And after a series of standoffs, at one point, the police tried to take control of the ship by force.
The passengers on shore had Punjabi and other South Asian friends who hired lawyers on their behalf, even tried to negotiate with officials and sent food and water several times when conditions on board became desperate. A month later, both sides finally agreed to take a case to the British Columbia Court of Appeal. The case proceeded very quickly, but ended with a verdict in favor of the Canadian government and against the passengers. The court found no principle in Canadian or British law that gives passengers a right of entry.

Gurdit Singh and Yatri accepted the British Columbia Court of Appeal’s decision without attempting to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada or beyond to the Judicial Committee of the British Privy Council in London. They didn’t have the resources or the will to continue a long legal battle. Nevertheless, their departure was delayed for several more weeks. In an atmosphere of deep distrust, the passengers and their friends on shore argued with government officials that the ship should be provided with the necessary assistance to return. Ultimately, the Canadian government took over Hong Kong. Finally, on July 23, 355 disappointed and agitated passengers left for Asia. After a long delay in Japan, where some passengers disembarked, on 29 September 1914 the 321 passengers arrived at an Indian port near Calcutta. By then the First World War had started.

Understandably, Komagata Maru’s revolutionary mood intensified even though these were perilous times in India for suspected opponents of the British. In this environment as the First World War progressed, a deep-seated mistrust of British officials’ handling of Komagata Maru’s arrival in India had an effect. Within hours of the departure, 20 passengers were killed in clashes with British Indian police and soldiers who refused to allow the passengers to disperse to Calcutta and who tried to forcibly force them onto a specially launched train bound for Punjab.

After widespread violence and the initial escape of most of the passengers, 27 escaped arrest following a massive police search in the Kolkata region. However, those who were detained were kept in a jail in Kolkata until the Government of India completed a self-service inquiry into the matter. By then, the passengers of the Komagata Maru had gained a reputation as dangerous revolutionaries, even in the minds of moderate Indian politicians whose perceptions were shaped by what they learned from a censored colonial Indian press. It was only after the war, when India’s independence campaign intensified, that Yatri’s side of the story began to emerge. Today, this is the generally accepted story.

Nobel Laureate Rabindranath came to know about the inhumane treatment of Indian immigration candidates in Canada, a country that accepts immigration. In response, he became furious and refused the Canadian government’s invitation to travel to Canada. Despite repeated invitations, he did not agree to come to Canada until 1929. The Governor General of Canada at the time was Willingdon, who had previously been the Governor of Bombay in India and knew Rabindranath. So very politely invited to come to Canada with a promise that something like Komagatha will not happen again in Canada. Tagore accepted the invitation and came to Vancouver in April 1929 to address an educational conference.

The Komagata Maru incident was largely forgotten for several generations except by Punjabi Canadians. The change came as Canadians became aware of the growing Punjabi and South Asian communities among them, especially after the 1970s. By late 1961, and as a direct result of Canada’s anti-Asian immigration policy, the national census counted only 6,774 South Asians in the country. Ten years later, after immigration was opened to Asians, there were 67,925, and the number doubled or more than doubled every decade. By the 1990s, South Asians, particularly Punjabi Sikhs, were numerous enough to assume an unequivocal political presence.

As the Komagata Maru centenary approaches, Canadian Sikhs begin pushing for a formal apology. In May 2008, the British Columbia government formally apologized for the way passengers on the Komagata Maru were treated. In August 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized at a fair organized by Sikhs in a park in Surrey, British Columbia. Many of the Sikhs present were unhappy with the venue chosen for this apology. They wanted it to be said standing in the House of Commons in Ottawa. Whereas comparable Canadian governments have apologized for past injustices against other minorities, such as the official apology to former students of Indian residential schools. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized for this on 18 May 2016.

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