Commemorative events are being held across the country on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of what official history describes as the “Komagata Maru incident,” named after the ship on which some 376 passengers from Punjab attempted to enter Canada, in defiance of the racist laws that prevented citizens of the then “British Raj” to immigrate here.
Despite the fact that, in 1913 alone, Canada had welcomed more than 400,000 newcomers (mostly from Europe), “brown people” were systematically denied entry. Inspired by the anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist movement then growing in India, hundreds of Punjabis answered the call from Baba Gurdit Singh and decided to openly defy the racist laws by attempting to enter Canada.
Arriving on May 23, 1914 in the Burrard Inlet near Vancouver, the ship was immediately intercepted and prevented from landing by immigration authorities. After weeks of negotiations and confrontations, during which the government deployed the Royal Navy, only 20 passengers were allowed to enter Canada, the others ordered back to India.
Back in Calcutta on September 27, the Komagata Maru was boarded by the British Navy, who tried to arrest Baba Gurdit Singh and the 20 or so other men that they saw as leaders. In the uproar that followed, 19 passengers were killed, while most of the others were arrested and jailed.
The Komagata Maru “incident” occurred in a context of a strong and growing mass rebellion in India and abroad against the British colonial empire and the misery it imposed on its millions of “subjects.” A year earlier, Punjab nationals on the U.S. and Canada West Coast founded the Ghadar Party, whose aim was to fight for the independence of India. In fact, Baba Gurdit Singh was a supporter of that Party.
One hundred years later, Komagata Maru remains a powerful symbol—not only of the racism at the heart of the construction and development of the Canadian state, but also of the anti-imperialist resistance and the legitimate aspirations of peoples subjugated by the big colonial powers. The phenomena of oppression and resistance persist in the 21st century, primarily embodied in the continuous theft of indigenous territories by the Canadian bourgeoisie and in the tightening of Canada’s immigration policies.
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of this important event that is part of a people’s history of Canada, it is perfectly right and relevant to denounce the racism inherent to the Canadian state. But the legacy of Komagata Maru is even greater: it represents a challenge to the whole colonialist and imperialist project of what was then the British Empire.
The Komagata Maru legacy is also embodied in the people’s resistance currently underway in India, where the exploited workers, poor peasants and millions of Adivasis are struggling to free themselves of their old and new oppressors. And once again, the Canadian state totally stands on the side of the latter. Paying tribute to the Komagata Maru heroes also requires that we renew our commitment to fight against Canadian imperialism and ending the whole system of which it is a part.