A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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PASSAGE FROM INDIA
The Komagata Maru

In the summer of 1914, new Indian immigrants Bagga Singh and the Indian community in Canada met their darkest challenge. Kuldeep Singh, a wealthy Indian businessman, had chartered the Komagata Maruand sailed the freighter from Hong Kong to Vancouver. On board were 376 Punjabis, mostly Sikhs who had begun their journey in India. They were on their way to Canada where they hoped to immigrate and start a new life .When the Komagata Maru arrived at Vancouver, however, most of the passengers were detained on board. They waited for 2 months while immigration officials and the Indian community fought over their admission to the country(1).

The Canadian authorities had been alerted and were waiting. According to an immigration law called The Bill of Direct Passage, these Indians could not land in Canada. The law stated that Indian immigrants had to come to Canada by continuous passage from India. In those days that was impossible. No steamship lines provided direct service from India to Canada(2).

This injustice wounded Bagga Singh and many members of the Indian Canadian community deeply. With eleven other men Singh formed the 'Shore Committee', and mounted a court challenge. The Committee's first meeting drew 500 people from the Indian community . About twenty white supporters and a few reporters were also in attendance. The meeting was called to order and the most urgent order of business quickly addressed. They needed hard cash - enough to keep the ship in Vancouver while its status was negotiated. The hall was full of men who had never banked but carried savings in their pockets or turbans. Money spilled out; a pile of five, ten, and even one hundred dollar-bills rose on a table in front of the speakers. The largest contribution was $2,000. When the contributions slackened, other speakers would rise to stoke the fire of religious and patriotic fervour. As the meeting ended $5,000 in cash lay on the table(3). Altogether the Committee eventually raised an astronomical $70,000.

Despite these efforts, the battle was lost at the Supreme Court of Appeal and the Komagata Maru was forced to return. This meant defeat for the passengers and for the Indian community in Canada as well(4).

The arrival of an armed Royal Canadian Navy cruiser, Rainbo, bolstered the Canadian position and on July 23 the Komagata Maru was forced to sail for Calcutta. Upon arrival, it was met by police suspicious of the organizers' intentions. Upon disembarking, shooting broke out and 20 passengers were killed. This tragedy strengthened Indian nationalist feeling, but it did not significantly soften Canadian immigration law(5).

From then on, immigration to Canada from India was reduced to a trickle. For Bagga Singh, this meant a long and painful wait to reunite with his family. When he had come to Canada, Bagga Singh had left behind a young wife with two baby girls. Bagga Singh's wife Harkaur didn't join her husband until seventeen years later, when the wives and children of legal Sikh residents were finally allowed to enter the country. Shortly after, the Singhs had a third daughter, Nsibe.

Generations later, Bagga Singh's legacy and that of the Komagata Maru are still with the Indian Canadian community. Bagga Singh's granddaughter - Nsibe's daughter, Belle Puri -is a broadcast journalist for CBC Television in Vancouver. She was born and grew up in New Westminster, where her grandfather had settled decades before. And on the 75th anniversary of the Komagata Maru incident, while filming a commemorative educational documentary, Belle made a startling discovery.

Belle went on location to the same building where the Shore Committee had gathered to decide what they were going to do about the Komagata Maru. While filming Belle tried to imagine what had gone on, who had been there. It wasn't until later Belle discovered that her grandfather had been on that Committee and had been in that building, in that very room where she had filmed the documentary. 'Would Bagga Singh ever have thought,'Belle wondered, 'that his granddaughter would one day be telling this story and remembering the history of the Indian community in Canada.' History that was made by ordinary men like Bagga Singh.

Endnotes:

1,2,5 - The 1998 Canadian & World Encyclopedia
(McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 1998).

3,4 - The Voyage of the Komagata Maru, The Sikh Challenge to Canada's Colour Bar
by Hugh Johnson (Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1979).


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