Historical Address for the Komagata Maru – A Speech by Sabha Ghani

Below is a transcript of a speech given by Sabha Ghani on the 102nd Anniversary of the Departure of the Komagata Maru.


Sabha Ghani is the 2015 recipient of the National Government of Canada History Award for Teachers and has been working as a History Teacher for the Burnaby School District for 19 years.  She is passionate about teaching students about Canadian history and the evolution of human rights in Canada during the 20th century with a focus on immigrant communities.   Sabha is the nominator for the Komagata Maru Incident to be designated as an event of national historic significance to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada as she feels that this is a defining event in Canadian history and should be given national recognition.

Historical Address given by Sabha Ghani on the 102nd Anniversary of the Departure of the Komagata Maru, July 23rd 2016 at the Komagata Maru Memorial in Green Harbour Park at the Commemorative Event: Tragedy to Triumph sponsored by the Khalsa Diwan Society of Vancouver

I would like to begin by acknowledging that I am on the traditional unceded territory of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish nations, and I am honoured to be here to commemorate this event on the 102nd anniversary of the dark day that the Komagata Maru and its passengers were forced to leave the harbour facing the guns of the naval vessel HMCS Rainbow. I have wondered what it must have been like to come so close to your goal, to have tried so hard, to have faced so many challenges to get here only to be turned back in that fashion. What must have crossed the minds of Gurdit Singh Sandhu and his little 6 year old son Bant Singh, pictured here on this memorial on that day as they headed back to an uncertain future in India still under the yoke of the British Empire? It is not as if the passengers did not know that this was a possible outcome. In fact, Gurdit Singh chartered the ship to challenge the unjust laws that were preventing them from migrating to Canada. At that time, people in nations and dominions under the British Empire had a right to travel and reside anywhere within that empire. So, nations like Australia and Canada passed racist laws to prevent further non-white immigration.

At the start of the 20th century, most people in British Columbia were opposed to Asian immigration, and there were several discriminatory laws passed to control and prevent it. Some laws that targeted the South Asian community included: taking away their right to vote in 1907, preventing them from holding public office, and banning them from certain professions [like lawyers, pharmacists or accountants]. Other groups that were specifically targeted included the Japanese and Chinese who faced explicit exclusion laws; but, it was more complicated for the Canadian government to enact the same racist measures against immigrants from the Indian sub-continent. The British government had advised the Canadian government to be cautious in how it restricted South Asians as they were worried that it would add fuel to the Indian independence movement.

As a result, in 1908, the Canadian government passed the Continuous Passage Act which stated that any immigrants wishing to arrive to Canada would have to travel via a direct continuous journey and have at least $200 dollars, a significant amount at that time. Since these measures didn’t specifically refer to South Asians, the government felt that they found an indirect way to stop immigration from the Indian sub-continent. Ironically, the Canadian Pacific Railway did have ships that sailed directly from Calcutta to Vancouver at the time, but the government forced them to stop the service and pressured other steamship companies not to provide direct service or sell tickets at Indian ports. These discriminatory measures did halt immigration of South Asians to Canada at a time when a record number of immigrants were coming from Europe without any restrictions whatsoever. Many South Asians did move back, so that by 1914, only around 2000 South Asian immigrants remained.

The legality of the Continuous Passage Act was successfully challenged in court on a technicality, a year earlier, by Narain Singh and 55 passengers on board the Panama Maru which landed in Victoria in 1913; so even though the government had since tightened the law, those on board the Komagata Maru were probably hopeful that they could do the same…that somehow justice would prevail again.

The 376 passengers included 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims and 12 Hindus; there were also 2 women and 5 children aboard, united together in their goal to settle in a new land. News of their departure reached BC shores and one day before their arrival, the Premier of the province, Sir Richard McBride stated “the necessity of keeping this a white man’s country”. Thus, when the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver on May 23, 1914, they were met with hostility and not allowed to dock. The government used not only a naval vessel but also armed troops [from the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the 72nd Highlanders and the 6th Duke of Connaughts own regiment] to prevent passengers from leaving the ship.

The South Asian immigrants who were already in Canada united to help the passengers. They formed the Shore Committee led by Husain Rahim and Bhag Singh; and although most white British Columbians were opposed to them, they did receive some support from members of the Socialist Party of BC and other sympathizers. The small local community was able to raise over $17, 000 in their first meeting, which was extraordinary amount when considering the average salary was no more than $2 dollars a day. The South Asian immigrants and other supporters mobilized to challenge the legality of the act in court with lawyers, money and supplies to support the passengers while they awaited the court ruling. In court, they were represented by their lawyer Joseph Edward Bird who successfully fought and won the Panama Maru case a year earlier. The heated legal battle amidst hunger strikes and the mistreatment of the passengers lasted for 2 months and this time, justice did not prevail. In the end, only 24 passengers were given permission to land, the rest were told to go back. Thus, on this day, July 23rd, 1914 , with the guns of the naval vessel pointed in their direction, the Komagata Maru was forced to leave the harbour at gunpoint. But, the tragedy did not end there.

When the ship arrived in Calcutta, on September 27th, it was forced to dock at Budge Budge by a British gunboat so that the passengers could be forced on a train headed directly to the Punjab instead of disembarking in Calcutta first. The British officials saw the passengers as dangerous political agitators and if they were allowed to tell what happened, it could add to the struggle for Indian Independence from oppressive British rule. When the ship docked at Budge Budge, there was an altercation where the police tried to arrest the leaders and in the process, they opened fire and killed 19 passengers while another 9 were wounded (known in India as the Budge Budge massacre). Some escaped, but the remainder were arrested and imprisoned or sent to their villages and kept there for the duration of World War One as the British were scared that if the news of the Komagata Maru incident spread, then it could lead to a mutiny of Indian soldiers who were going to be needed in the First World War.

So many of us here today are familiar with this history and this has been part of the Social Studies curriculum in BC for over 10 years, but what are the lessons and the legacy of the Komagata Maru? Why does it deserve national recognition and why did this event lead to an official apology in the house of commons over a 100 years later? Afterall, it was not the first boat to challenge racist laws. This was not the only group prevented from coming into Canada based on racism or even the only group to receive an apology for racist federal policy.

Yes, the event of the Komagata Maru and its’ aftermath is a black mark on the history of Canada and its’ people. But, it is an event of national historical significance because of the broader international implications at that time. Passengers understood that their mistreatment in Canada was related to their unequal status as subjects of the British Empire. Over 1.5 million South Asian soldiers fought for the British in WW I, more than double Canada’s contribution. So, South Asians could fight for the same cause as Canadians, bleed and die next to them in the trenches of Europe, but, they could not live next to them as neighbours in Canada. The discrimination and oppression that South Asians faced throughout the British empire and this event added to the independence movement in India.

Furthermore, it is also an event of historical significance because it represents a defining episode in the history of Canada’s South Asian immigrants who challenged the racist laws of Canada. The actions of these people make them worthy of being honoured as fighters for human rights and instrumental in the evolution of our society. South Asian immigrants challenged every barrier they faced whether it was the right to immigrate, the right to vote, the right to wear religious clothing, the right to enter professions and the right to hold public office. The success of those pioneers is evident when you look at the achievements of this community today.

You will find South Asians in every profession, in our police and armed forces, and even in the highest government positions in this land and serving with distinction. Because of these efforts, we are a society that considers diversity and equality as fundamental values that define us and binds us as a nation today. It is important for Canadians to see that evolution of our society at the turn of the century from a racist nation to a country that celebrated its’ multicultural heritage by the end of that same century. The incident serves as an example of how hard people struggled for the rights and freedoms we enjoy today and not take them for granted. This event reminds Canadians not to be silent in the face of injustice and to challenge it as the passengers of the Komagata Maru did — that is its’ legacy. When we look at this monument here, the passengers that we see on this memorial are not looking at us with accusations of past wrongs, but in their eyes I see a challenge still—– a challenge for us today to not repeat the wrongs of the past. Gurdit Singh wanted the Komagata Maru to be a test case against injustice and it still stands as a test for us today. It is so easy to judge people for their differences, easy to divide us in so many ways, by race, colour, ethnicity, gender, religion, orientation. Are we going to close the door to neighbours who are different, to put up walls and fear others; or, will we pass the test this time? and instead, welcome people who are different from us with open arms and value the common humanity in all of us so that we continue to be a nation that stands together in equality, dignity and respect for all— that is the lesson of the Komagata Maru.


© Sabha Ghani July 23, 2016 cannot be reproduced, published or shared without permission of the author, Sabha Ghani.

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