The Komagata Maru Remembered / by Avnish Nanda

When my great-grandfather left India in the 1880s, he was an industrious Gujarati Indian availing himself of mobility opportunities within the then-British Empire. He went to pursue a better life in the distant, thriving colony of South Africa. What he found there was a racialized legal order that turned non-Europeans into second-class British subjects.

Because South Africa was already a racially diverse society, with a sizable white population, the racism of colonialism — muted somehow in India — was everywhere in South Africa. It was formalized in law and administrative power. It operated both quietly to disenfranchise non-whites, and obnoxiously through segregation and inferior treatment.

It was this reality that sparked a political interest in a young Mohandas Gandhi, who arrived in South Africa in 1893, not long after my great-grandparents. Aged 24, recently called to the bar, idealistic and jobless, he accepted an offer with a firm of Indian lawyers, Dada Abdulla & Co, in the South African coastal city of Durban. Members of the Indian community were contending with rising tide of anti-Indian sentiment and political persecution. Gandhi took up the cause enthusiastically.

In 1896, after having travelled back to India to raise awareness about the plight of South Africa’s Indians, Gandhi and 800 fellow passengers found themselves stranded in Durban port for nearly a month, prevented from disembarking the ship due to white hostility and government discrimination. The growing Indian population in the colony was causing the white South African population to fret about changing demographics. 

This same anti-Indian xenophobia would wash up on Vancouver’s shores two decades later, giving rise to the infamous Komagata Maru incident.

In South Africa, Gandhi’s eyes were opened to the malice of British imperialism, with its roots in racial prejudice. South Africa under British rule, like Canada in the late 19th and early 20th Century, was in the process of building a white settler state on the ruins of indigenous society by curtailing immigration from Asia, while trying to populate the country with Europeans. 

It was during this time that Gandhi conceived of his revolutionary idea of satyagraha, translated as “adherence to the truth”, and practiced as non-violent resistance to injustice. It came to him during protests against discriminatory pass laws, which required Indians and Chinese to carry registration cards at all times.

Such measures were designed to restrict and control the Asian population in South Africa. Failure to produce a card on demand could lead to immediate deportation without a right of appeal. More than 2,000 South African Asians were jailed by the British during this time for openly defying the law. Many were beaten and some were killed.

Gandhi came to realize that the rule of law meant little if the law itself was unjust. Fidelity to law could only mean fidelity to power; when those in power were wicked, there could be no fidelity to law. 

He turned away from the legal profession and embraced the path of spirituality and social activism to fight injustice. He wrote about his experience resisting unjust laws in his book, Satyagraha in South Africa, which served as a blueprint for his later struggle to end British rule in India.

In his final years in South Africa, Gandhi continued to agitate and organize in defiance of discriminatory laws and restrictive immigration policies. His transition from barrister to social activist complete, he made his final return to India in 1914—the same year that the Komagata Maru made its ill-fated voyage to western Canada. 

In my family, Gandhi was remembered not as the liberator of India but rather as the dapper lawyer and fellow Gujurati, who gave Indians in South Africa a voice and affirmed their place in their adopted homeland.

The passengers aboard the Komagata Maru were, like my great-grandparents, seeking a fresh start in an adopted homeland. The Sikh, Muslim and Hindu Indian British subjects probably believed the hype: that Canada in the early 20th Century was an open, diverse and burgeoning nation. 

Indeed, in 1900, Canada had a population of around five million. From then until the outbreak of First World War, the country welcomed nearly three million newcomers, with immigration levels hitting a record peak in 1913. Yet, in fact, Canada remained—quite intentionally—overwhelmingly white. The country’s immigration law explicitly favoured Europeans and Americans, while it explicitly restricted non-white immigration.

At the same time, in South Africa, the legal infrastructure of Apartheid ensured that it too would grow and develop only for the benefit of whites. Many Indians joined the anti-Apartheid struggle for racial equality. Some determined they could not live under such conditions and decided to leave the country. As institutionalized racism in Canada slowly receded through the mid-1900s, in South Africa it worsened. By 1965, seeing many of his peers jailed or forced into hiding, my father made the choice to emigrate in search of a better life.

Canada had changed in the 50 years since the Komagata Maru incident. Parliament adopted the federal Canadian Bill of Rights and most provinces enacted human rights statutes ensuring non-discrimination. An avid political observer, my father admired Prime Minister Diefenbaker, who had been instrumental in booting South Africa out of the Commonwealth in 1961 by insisting that all members commit to the principle of racial equality.

Yet, domestically, the Prime Minister never acknowledged that the architects of Apartheid had studied Canada’s Indian Act for guidance on how to legalize and implement segregation. Canada’s racist legacy linked policies of Aboriginal disenfranchisement with white settlement. The Ministries of Immigration and Indian Affairs were even under a single ministerial portfolio from 1950 to 1965. Meanwhile, the immigration law on the books was still tethered to overtly racist policies not so different from those in place at the time of the Komagata Maru. 

In 1967, the Immigration Act was overhauled, removing discriminatory language and introducing the neutral points system that survives to this day.

That same year, my non-white, not-yet-citizen father began a 30-year career working for the federal department of Immigration. This was the golden age of Canadian immigration, when the country threw its doors open. From the 1970s onwards, Canadian immigration was markedly colourful. The country matured not only as a multicultural society, but as the thoroughly multiracial society that it is today.

After the events of September 11, 2001 and the introduction of new immigration and anti-terrorism laws, Canada’s open and liberal approach to immigration receded and the security state took hold. Fortunately, my father, who had always been a great believer in Canadian immigration policy, retired from service a few years before the downward spiral began. 

Canadian immigration policy today is racialized in new ways but with strangely familiar tones. On the one hand, there is no colour bar—each year, the countries of South Asia are the largest producers of Canada’s immigrant population. On the other hand, immigrant selection is increasingly narrow and security obsessed. The values of fairness and openness are disappearing with drastic changes in the law that make the country more difficult to enter, and less welcoming upon arrival.

In my time practising and teaching law, I’ve tried to hold firm to the belief that the law is capable of delivering justice, even if this capacity is not always realized or self-evident. The turn to security in immigration law and policy since 9/11 (what some now call “crimmigration”) has challenged the notion that Canada is an immigrant’s paradise and it certainly has been a reminder that we must be vigilant in holding government to account for ensuring fairness and justice to the most vulnerable. These are the lessons that I take from more than a century of my family’s history, from India to South Africa to Canada.  

As a Canadian lawyer of Indian heritage, I find myself part of a fast-growing community of people of colour within the profession who find themselves on the better side of privilege. What we do about it matters. I believe that privilege comes with responsibility: that is, to follow the lessons of our history of exclusion and ensure the law is always held up to the standard of justice, and to accept nothing less.  

Faisal Bhabha teaches at Osgoode Hall Law School, has researched and published in the areas of constitutional law, human rights, multiculturalism, national security and access to justice, and occasionally acts as pro bono counsel to public interest organizations in matters of constitutional law and human rights. Previously, he sat as Vice-chair of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. He has also served as a member of the Equity Advisory Group of the Law Society of Upper Canada.