On May 23, 1914, a Japanese steamship sailed into Vancouver Harbour carrying 376 passengers from Punjab * 352 were forced to return to India * 19 were shot at Budge Budge
“Jee aayiyan noo” and other welcome signs in Punjabi greet you in Vancouver and Toronto. A park in Calgary is named after Harnam Singh Hari, the first Sikh settler who was a successful farmer in Alberta. Turbaned Sikh officers are part of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Going through the list of names in Canada’s political hall of fame, you could mistake it for any place in North India. The Punjabis have truly arrived in Canada.
The first Sikh settler was a soldier, Kesar Singh. It is believed that he had landed in Vancouver in 1897. Kesar Singh was followed by many more who found work in railways, lumber mills and mines. The 1900 Census in Canada showed that there were nearly 2,000 Indians, mostly Sikhs, in Canada. It took a bloody struggle to force the gates of Asian immigration into Canada.
On May 23, 1914, Komagata Maru, the chartered ship carrying Indian passengers from Hong Kong, was denied anchorage and turned back. This marked a watershed in immigration of Sikhs and others from India into Canada. Today, exactly 100 years since that fateful day, Indians number more than 10 lakh, including nearly 5 lakh Sikhs, in Canada.
Indian immigrants today constitute about three per cent of Canada’s population. Punjabis, including Sikhs, are in the majority in certain towns, including Surrey in British Columbia and Brampton in Ontario.
An epic struggle against unequal immigration laws
The Komagata Maru incident was the beginning of an epic struggle against unequal immigration laws enacted by the Canadian Government to prevent a “brown invasion” of the country. In 1907, Indians were first denied the right to vote in Canada. They were also required to pay $200 per person to enter Canada, which was a huge amount then. In 1908, the Continuous Passage Act was passed, which required people entering Canada to have direct passage from their place of origin – something that was not possible then due to the distance involved.
Baba Gurdit Singh Sandhu of Sirhali in Amritsar district, who was then a well-to-do businessman in Hong Kong, resented the discrimination against Indians. His argument was that a British subject was a British subject, whether he lived in India or Canada, and should be treated equally and permitted to live and go where he chose in the British Empire.
In order to challenge the “continuous journey regulation”, he decided to charter a steamer to Canada. Since Canada was a self-governing British colony, the British were alarmed by the scheme of Baba Gurdit Singh, whom a Shanghai paper had described as “the grey whiskered kindly-eyed patriarch who is leading his people to what he hopes to be the open door of opportunity in Canada.”
Besides, since Gurdit Singh had espoused the Ghadarite cause while in Hong Kong, the British were doubly worried that Indians might spread rebellion on the eve of the First World War. Interestingly, the total passengers comprised of 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims and 12 Hindus – all British subjects. However, contemporary media referred to them all as Hindus (or Hindoos). In July 1914, on being refused entry, the angry passengers mounted an attack and the Canadian Government had to mobilise troops. On July 23, only 20 passengers were admitted and the rest along with the ship were forced to depart. When the ship arrived in Calcutta in September 1914, the passengers were placed under guard and a riot erupted at Budge Budge in which 19 of them were killed. The rest is history (See timeline).
Last year, the Budge Budge railway station was renamed as Komagata Maru Budge Budge Railway Station by the West Bengal Government.
The immigration in the wake of the Komagata Maru episode became a trend in the subsequent decades and people from all over the developing world made a beeline for Canada. Most Indians, including Punjabis who are now settled in Canada, went in large groups in 1960s and 1970s, when immigration laws were relaxed, especially for skilled people. Except for a brief period in 1985 when an Air India flight (Montreal-London-Delhi-Bombay) was blown up in mid-air, the immigrants from Punjab have been accepted as an important part of the Canadian social milieu.
Punjabis make their presence felt
Many Punjabis have made a distinct mark in different fields, including the political arena. When Ujjal Dosanjh became the Premier of a Canadian state in 2000 – the first Indian to do so — he publicly attributed his success to the freedom fighters of Komagata Maru, who provided a model for anyone struggling for freedom and democracy. Over the years, there has been an impressive array of political leaders of Punjabi origin at the national and state level in Canada.
Of course, the presence of so many Indians from Punjab has thrown up new challenges, especially the need for them to assimilate into Canadian multiculturalism while retaining their traditional roots and heritage.
Scripting for the record
The Komagata Maru incident has of late drawn the interest of a number of historians, writers and movie-makers. The first play in Canada based on the incident was “The Komagata Maru Incident”, written 38 years ago by Sharon Pollock. Ajmer Rode, Sadhu Binning and Sukhwant Hundal followed suit when they wrote separate plays on the subject.
In 2004, Ali Kazimi examined the events surrounding the ship through some rare footage for his award-winning feature documentary “Continuous Journey”. CBS also made a radio play, “Entry Denied”, by the Indo-Canadian scriptwriter, Sugith Varughese.
Deepa Mehta’s promise in 2006 to produce a film on the incident is yet to be fulfilled. In 2012, filmmaker Ali Kazimi published his book “Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru”.
The crowning glory of the saga was the decision of the Simon Fraser University Library to launch a website, “Komagata Maru: Continuing the Journey” in 2012. Funded by the Department of Citizenship and Immigration of Canada, the website not only contains information of the incident but also supports teaching and research for the school-aged, post-secondary and general audiences. This marks the recognition of the community’s struggle to find a place under the sun in Canada, which ironically, is now known the world-over as a “nation of immigrants”.