DOOM RERUNS: Komagata Maru

Have you heard the story of how a racist country tried to keep out non-whites through hasty legislation, got rebuffed by the courts, but then passed a similar immigration ban that was successfully upheld? 

i came across this the other day, right around the time when news came out of SCROTUS’s 2nd try at an immigration ban. The Komagata Maru incident, 1914, Canada.

baba gurdit singh

After Canada and the United States stopped South Asian immigration, Punjabi and other South Asian activists concentrated on trying to reopen the door to Canada. They believed they had a more powerful argument in dealing with Canada than with the United States because, like India, Canada was a part of the British Empire. From the beginning, they were very persistent in supporting would-be-immigrants from India (including women and children), in fighting individual immigration cases in court, in lobbying officials in Ottawa, London and Delhi, and in publishing propaganda aimed both at white Canadian and South Asian audiences.

A moment of great encouragement came in November 1913 when a Canadian judge overruled an immigration department order for the deportation of 38 Punjabi Sikhs. These immigrants had come to Canada via Japan on a regularly scheduled Japanese passenger liner, the Panama Maru. Immigration officials had ordered them deported because they had not come by continuous journey from India and because they were not carrying the requisite amount of money. The judge found fault with the continuous journey regulation and also the regulation specifying a $200 requirement. He looked closely at the wording of these regulations and ruled them inconsistent with the wording of the Immigration Act and therefore invalid. He then allowed the passengers to land. It was this victory for the passengers in the Panama Maru case that encouraged the sailing of the Komagata Maru in the following April 1914.

Unfortunately, by April the legal situation had changed. The Canadian government had quickly rewritten its regulations to meet the objections it encountered in court. Although briefly invalidated, the continuous journey and $200 requirement regulations were back in force by January 1914, three months before the Komagata Maru left Hong Kong for Vancouver. The leadership of the Komagata Maru passengers might have been deterred from sailing after the reissue of these regulations. Instead, they convinced themselves that a Canadian court would rule in their favour.

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/komagata-maru/

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gurdit singh with passengers

Section from Erika Lee’s The Making Of Asian America.

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