Komagata Maru Incident, 1914


What was the Komagata Maru?

  • The Komagata Maru was a coal-transport steamship that had been converted into a passenger ship by Hong Kong-based businessman Gurdit Singh
  • It set off from Hong Kong in April 1914, reaching Vancouver’s harbour a month later with 376 people on board, most of them Sikhs


Why was the ship turned away from Canada?

  • Canada’s increasingly strict immigration policies stated that immigrants must “come from the country of their birth, or citizenship, by a continuous journey” and using tickets “purchased before leaving the country of their birth or citizenship.”
  • That means if you were born in India, went to China, and then continued on to Canada, you were illegal.
  • The policies were specifically designed to curb the flow of Indian immigrants in the early 20th century, who were coming to Canada seeking work
  • As a result of which the Canadian officials disagreed, and the ship was denied docking by the authorities
  • To fight for the rights of the passengers, a ‘Shore Committee’ was formed in Vancouver led by Hussain Rahim, Sohan Lal Pathak, and Balwant Singh
  • A powerful campaign was carried out in the USA led by Barkatullah, Bhagwan Singh, Ram Chandra, and Sohan Singh Bhakna. Yet, Komagata Maru was forced out of Canadian waters


What happened to everyone else?

  • Eventually, after a two-month standoff in the waters just off Vancouver, the ship was escorted back out to sea
  • The steamship eventually ended up back in India on 27th Sep 1914 at Budge Budge, Calcutta
    • Upon entry into the harbour, the ship was stopped by a British gunboat, and the passengers were placed under guard.
    • The government of the British Raj saw the men on Komagata Maru not only as self-confessed lawbreakers, but also as dangerous political agitators
    • On arrival, the harassed passengers resisted the hostile attitude of the police
    • However, it escalated into a clash resulting in the death of 18 passengers due to gunfire upon disembarking. While others were imprisoned.
  • This created widespread discontentment in Punjab and political dacoities erupted in the districts of Jalandhar, Amritsar, and Ludhiana


Significance of the Incident

  • The Komagata Maru incident was widely cited at the time by Indian groups to highlight discrepancies in Canadian immigration laws
  • Further, the inflamed passions in the wake of the incident were widely cultivated by the Indian revolutionary organization, the Ghadar Party, to rally support for its aims
    • Prominent Ghadarites including Barkatullah, Tarak Nath Das, and Sohan Singh used the incident as a rallying point to recruit members for the Ghadar movement, most notably in support of promulgating plans to coordinate a massive uprising in India
    • They encouraged fighters to travel to India. Raghubar Dayal Gupta and Kartar Singh Saraba left for India.
    • Rashbehari Bose and Sachin Sanyal, both Bengal revolutionaries, were contacted and asked to lead the movement.
    • Political dacoits were determined to raise funds. The Punjab political squabbles of January–February 1915 featured some novel social content
  • Further, Human rights violations such as arbitrary detention aided Indian independence fighters in exposing the true face of the British administration


The legacy of the Komagata Maru

  • The Canadian Prime Minister delivered a formal statement of apology in the House of Commons for the Komagata Maru incident, in 2016
  • 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, even today


Thus, the Komagata Maru incident is an important landmark in the history of India, as it catalysed the up surging stage of Nationalist struggle, by igniting the masses and providing them a plank to carry out attacks against Britishers.