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The Komagata Maru is also a Hindu issue

By Ajit Jain
April 22, 2010 22:19 IST
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New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton has presented a petition, calling on the government to officially apologize in Canada's House of Commons for the 1914 Komagata Maru tragedy.

The presentation of the petition on April 13 coincided with Baisakhi celebrations. In his address, Layton spoke of the need to use 'the auspicious Baisakhi day to recognize an historical wrong… The Komagata Maru has been an unhealed scar in the Sikh community,' he said.

But, Dr Iqbal Wagle, former head of microtext section and coordinator, library services, University of Toronto, says the Komagata Maru is a Hindu and Indian issue, not a exclusively Sikh issue as Layton and lots of others in Canada have been projecting. Wagle has researched the issue extensively, going back to original archival material in India, the United Kingdom and Canada. "Sikhs had no distinct and established identity in Canada in the beginning of the 20th century," she says.

She noted her findings in a 20-page essay, South Asians in Canada — 1905-1920, in the University of Toronto publication Ethnicity, Identity, Migration: the South Asian Context.  Wagle said that not many people realized that the Komagata Maru tragedy was "the offshoot of the 1908 Immigration Act that had a 'continuous journey clause' and that became the main reason for restricted immigration of Indians."

Wagle wrote that chapter 33 of the 1908 immigration Act 'virtually prohibited the entry of Hindus (means all Indians)' to Canada, and quoted immigration figures. Forty-five Hindus landed in Vancouver in 1905; 387 in 1906; 2,124 in 1907 and 2,623 in 1908.

After the continuous journey clause of 1908, 'only six (persons from India) landed (in Vancouver) in 1909, 10 in 1910, 5 in 1911, 3 in 1912, and 5 in 1913'. So, the 376 passengers aboard Komagata Maru in 1914 was a big influx. Also, many of the Indians who arrived in Canada between 1905 and 1913, returned to India to fight for the British Army in World War I, Wagle said. By 1941, there were a mere 1,500 Indians in Canada.

Image: Canadian MP Jack Layton

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Ajit Jain in Toronto