The legacy of the Komagata Maru
Contributed to The Globe and Mail
The apology for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is to make on May 18 carries important symbolic value for South Asian communities in Canada and India. However, the history it conveys is narrow and partial.
When he signalled his intention last month, Mr. Trudeau described one objective of the apology this way: “As a nation, we should never forget the prejudice suffered by the Sikh community at the hands of the Canadian government of the day. We should not and we will not.”
But the apology for the turning away of the Komagata Maru, and denying entry to hundreds of immigrants, cannot be made to Sikhs alone.
Although a large number of its 376 passengers were Sikh, the ship also carried 19 Muslims, a small number of Hindus and a 40-member Japanese crew. The Sikh, Muslim and Hindu men cooked their food, slept and prayed separately; however, they shared a deep camaraderie that intensified in the hostile climate of white supremacy in early 20th-century Vancouver.
The multifaith and multiracial passengers and crew epitomizes why the Komagata Maru must be remembered as a global event that held far-reaching consequences in Canada and beyond.
Thanks to the tireless work of community members, activists, artists and scholars, the story of the Komagata Maru is well-known in British Columbia, if not across the country. On May 23, 1914, the ship anchored in Vancouver Harbour carrying 376 migrants from Punjab, India. Because of changes in Canada’s immigration laws, which were explicitly aimed at prohibiting Indian migration, only 22 passengers were allowed to land.
The remainder – mostly adult men – were detained aboard the vessel for two months and eventually deported. When authorities refused to allow the ship to land in Hong Kong, it was sent to Calcutta. Many of its passengers had been working in Shanghai, Manila and Singapore; few wanted to return to India.
In today’s long-awaited apology, Mr. Trudeau will recast the Komagata Maru as a significant event in Canadian history. The Liberal government’s apology seeks to recognize the historical wrongs committed by Canada against migrants from British India, while also commemorating their contributions to the country. Despite pervasive racism, these early arrivals built vibrant and resilient communities.
But this is only part of the story. Canada’s refusal to admit the Komagata Maru passengers also dramatically altered India’s border control and security practices. As the Indian colonial government awaited the ship’s arrival, they passed the Ingress into India Ordinance and the Foreigners Ordinance. Together, these laws granted Indian authorities unprecedented power to arrest, detain and repatriate anyone suspected of seditious or anti-colonial activities.
As the Komagata Maru anchored outside Calcutta, British authorities boarded the ship, read the Ingress Ordinance aloud and demanded that passengers return immediately to Punjab. Only 59 agreed to go. Of those who refused, 19 were killed and another 200 imprisoned, indefinitely and without charge.
These “emergency laws” were justified by the onset of the First World War and by growing threats of Indian radicalism across the British Empire. Although the ordinances were to expire six months after the end of the war, they remained in effect for seven years. Between 1915 and 1916, and in Punjab alone, 3,000 men were interned in their villages.
As the Komagata Maru apology is celebrated, we should remember that the ship’s story carried serious implications that extended well beyond Canada and its Sikh community. Its deportation hardened Canadian immigration laws barring the entry of Indian nationals until 1947, when India gained independence from Britain. And Canada’s decision to deport the passengers also inaugurated a new regime of border control that facilitated the indefinite detention of thousands of Muslim, Sikh and Hindu men across India.
Today, the voyage of the Komagata Maru is echoed in the sea-bound journeys of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, struggling against and fleeing state violence in search of a better life. The 1914 voyage is also reflected in today’s anti-terrorism laws, in which men of colour – Muslims, Sikhs and others – continue to be arrested and imprisoned, often without charge.
Canada’s decision to turn away the Komagata Maru passengers initiated a racial regime of border control, which continues to be justified through fears of terrorism and insurgency.