Sikhs aboard the Komagata Maru in 1914. Gurdit Singh is to the left in the light-coloured suit

The imminent arrival of the ship first hit the news on April 16, 1914. It immediately produced a storm of protest in British Columbia. The Indian community, too, prepared itself for another legal battle. The ship arrived at Victoria on 21st May 1914 and on 22nd May at Vancouver where it anchored at the Burrard Inlet. Immigration officials at once surrounded the ship by armed launches to keep the passengers isolated from the mainland community. Normally, after a full report had been delivered at the office of the Harbour Master of the Commissioner and certification from health officers had been obtained the passengers ought to have been allowed to land, but neither Gurdit Singh nor any person acting on his behalf was permitted to deliver the report of the ship. They could not even commence unloading. The process for the deportation of the passengers was initiated.  

Kavita Sharma

No one was allowed to leave the ship nor was anyone permitted to come on board. Soon the passengers ran short of provisions and drinking water. Finally, inspector Hopkinsons came to speak to Gurdit Singh confidentially. Gurdit Singh alleges: 

He told me that the Canadian Government would regard no expenditure as too heavy to prevent our landing, that he was well acquainted with Indians and he had been deputed there by the Indian Government to advise the Immigration department as to the customs and manners of the Indians and finally that he had been sent to me by Mr. Reid, Agent to the said Department, to have a frank talk with me as one gentleman with another so that I might come to terms with them, otherwise the law would not stand in any good stead. After prolonged discussion Mr. Hopkinson consented to accept a sum of $2000 as bribe to lead us out of the tangle.

Gurdit Singh claims that he was willing to pay, but the only hurdle was that Hopkinson asked him to swear by the Guru Granth Sahib that he would not mention this to anybody. The money, however, had to come from the chest of the Sri Guru Nanak Steam Navigation Company and so the transaction could not be concealed from the rest of the community. This, according to Gurdit Singh infuriated Hopkinson and he left with the threat, “I will see you.”

According to Canadian regulations, any passenger traveling direct from his home to Canada and having $200 in his possession was entitled to land. Preachers, traders, students, tourists and government officials were exempt from this notification. The regulations, themselves, had been set aside by Justice Hunter on 24th November, 1913. But even if they were effective, at least a hundred and fifty persons on board could be classified as preachers, students and traders. Gurdit Singh, himself, was a ship merchant who had to load and unload the cargo according to the charter contract, pay customs and other duties and purchase provisions and food. He, therefore, should have been allowed to land. He felt that the government of Canada also could not have prosecuted him for any breach of law because he had violated none. 

—The author is Director at the India International Centre, and a former principal of the Hindu College, Delhi. The piece is excerpted from her book, Ongoing Journey—Indian Migration to Canada.
 (To be continued) 

September 2010

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