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Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Did You Know Series: (28): The Centenary of the “Komagata Maru” Incident: Coins brought out by the India Government Mints commemorating the occasion: i)Rupees One Hundred and Five Rupee (Proof & Uncirculated) sets for Collectors and ii) Five Rupee Coin issued into general circulation:

Did You Know Series: (28): The Centenary of the “Komagata Maru” Incident: Coins brought out by the India Government Mints commemorating the occasion:  

i)Rupees One Hundred and Five Rupee (Proof & Uncirculated) sets for Collectors and ii)  Five Rupee Coin issued into general circulation:

The “Komagata Maru” Incident:

The “Kamagata Maru” was one of the several incidents in the history of early twentieth century involving laws in both Canada and the United States designed to keep immigrants of Asian origin out.

The discriminatory Canadian Immigration Laws:

In the early twentieth century, Canada was accepting a large number of immigrants to settle their territory.

The Canadian Government was very keen to restrict immigration from Asia, particularly, from India, as most of the applicants were British subjects and Indians, by and large, were clamouring for Independence from British Rule leading to some stray incidents involving violence against the British in India.

Apparently, the Government of Britain which held the Canadian immigration portfolio at that time was concerned about Indian nationals migrating to Canada and spreading their ideas of Self-Governance/Independence to India, there.

As such, on 08.01.1908, the Canadian Government passed an order-in-council that prohibited immigration of persons who “in the opinion of the Minister of the Interior did not come from the country of their birth or citizenship by a continuous journey and or through tickets purchased before leaving the country of their birth or nationality”. This Order was referred to as the “Asian Exclusion Act”. (In other words, what it meant was that “Can you do a Trapeze Act without a safety net, can you go through a ring of fire without singeing yourself, can you come out alive from the lion’s den like Androcles, or can you perform the twelve labours of Hercules? Only after we are convinced that you can do all this, we will permit you to immigrate into Canada”).

What this immigration clause actually meant was that it would practically exclude immigration from India, and would apply to ships that began their voyage in India as the huge distance from ports in India to Vancouver would usually be covered with a necessary halt in Japan or Hawaii.

In 1913 alone, Canada (which had opened its citizenship much earlier) took in over 400,000 immigrants almost all of whom had come from Europe, which number is a record of sorts even to the present day. 

The inspiration behind undertaking the Voyage of the “Komagata Maru:

Baba Gurdit Singh Sandhu who hailed from Sarhali was a well-to do fisherman in Singapore who was aware of the problems being faced by his countrymen while immigrating to Canada due to the exclusion laws. To circumvent this problem, he wanted to hire a ship to sail from Calcutta (present day Kolkata, in India) to Vancouver, so that the obstacles faced by Indians due to the discriminatory immigration laws in Canada would be circumvented, which had hitherto come in the way.

Baba Gurdit Singh Sandhu, who openly supported the “Ghadar” Party (a “Revolutionary Party”  founded by Indians in Canada and the USA, which stood for complete Independence from the British Raj), though aware of the discriminatory order-in-council of 1908 which required a continuous voyage from the country of birth/origin, nevertheless, was on a confrontation course with the Canadian immigration authorities, against this discriminatory regulation and on pushing the cause of migrating Indians to Canada, notwithstanding this “absurd” clause.

The voyage of the “Komagata Maru” from Hong Kong to Vancouver:

The “Komagata Maru” was a Japanese Steamship which sailed from Hong Kong, Shanghai, China to Yokohama, Japan on its onward journey to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in 1914. It carried on board 376 passengers consisting of 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims and 12 Hindus (all of them British subjects), who were economic migrants from Punjab in the then British India, who did not like the living conditions in India, where they were treated shabbily by the British Raj Authorities.

After obtaining permission to sail from the Hong Kong authorities, The “Komagata Maru” set sail from Hong Kong on 04.04.1914 with 165 passengers on board.

On 14.04.1914, the vessel reached Yokohama.

On 03.05.1914, the ship left Yokohama and sailed into Burrard Inlet, near Vancouver on 23.05.1914 with 376 passengers on board.

On arrival at Vancouver:

Upon reaching Vancouver, the “Komagata Maru” was not allowed to dock and the passengers were not granted permission to disembark by the immigration officials as the Asian Exclusion Law had already come into effect requiring the ship to make a continuous journey from where it had started all the way to Canada.

Pending a view to be taken by the then Prime Minister of Canada – Robert Borden on the further course of action as regards the fate of the passengers. In fact, a Conservative MP of British Columbia – H.H. Stevens - organised a public meeting   against allowing the passengers to disembark and urged the Government not to do so and return the ship to the High Seas out of Canadian waters. He worked in cahoots with the immigration officials to keep the passengers from disembarking onto Canadian shores. 

Meanwhile a “Shore Committee” was formed by Indians resident in Canada and several protests meetings were held in Canada and the USA. In fact,  at meeting held in Dominion Hall, Vancouver, it was resolved that if the passengers were not allowed to disembark, then, in protest, all Indo-Canadians should follow them back to India and no one should henceforth migrate to Canada from India. Strangely, the Canadian judiciary, including a full Bench of the Court of Appeal unanimously refused to intervene in the matter on grounds that it had no authority to interfere with the decisions of the Department of Immigration and Colonisation. (A blatant case of the Judiciary being in cahoots with the Immigration Authorities to keep the Indian passengers out of Canada??).

The Prime Minister’s decision also went against the Indian passengers and the Canadian Government decided that a harbour tug the “Sea Lion” escorted by the HMCS Rainbow with armed troops on board, should push the ship out to Sea. Accordingly, the “Komagata Maru” after staying on the docks of Vancouver for two months was returned to the High seas on 19.07.1914 on its return journey to India.

Not only that, during the two months, that the Komagata Maru stayed on the docks, the Immigration authorities denied food and water to them, but other Asian immigrants, who had settled in Canada before the “Asian Exclusion Act” came into effect, managed to give the passengers on board the vessel some food and water.

Nevertheless, to save face against the public outrage, the Immigration authorities allowed only 20 passengers (who had previously lived in Canada) to be admitted to Canadian soil – on grounds that although the ship had violated the “exclusion clauses”, these passengers did not have the required funds and they had not sailed directly from India. (Wonder, if these passengers had exhausted their monetary resources, by bribing the Canadian Immigration authorities, who, conveniently, “bent the rules” to allow them into Canada??).

The Aftermath – at Canada:

The “Komagata Maru” incident was widely cited by Indian groups and other sympathisers to highlight discrepancies in Canadian immigration laws & several court cases sprung up in Canada.

A British Immigration official who had a few Punjabi Indian locals supply him with information designed to keep out the unfortunate passengers of the “Komagata Maru” off Canadian soil was gunned down along with two of these locals at the Vancouver Courthouse while attending the ensuing trials against the injustice meted out to the passengers of the ship. 

The Return voyage of the “Komagata Maru”:

The Aftermath – at India:

As the disappointed passengers, came back to India, they were in for another shocking surprise, which violated at least another three Human Rights in the end.

The “Komagata Maru” returned to India on 27.09.1914, where the British Raj authorities, smarting from the considerable embarrassment faced by Britain and Canada, caused by the public outrage world-wide, stopped the Komagata Maru with a British gunboat and placed the passengers under guard on the pretext that they were lawbreakers as well as dangerous political agitators (I guess, if anyone would have had to undergo the ordeal faced by the passengers of the Komagata Maru, they would be perfectly justified to get agitated about the shabby treatment meted out to them).

The vessel docked at Budge Budge where the British Raj police went to arrest Baba Gurdit Singh and a score of the men they perceived as the leaders of the group. The Baba resisted arrest, a companion of his assaulted a policeman and a general melee ensued. The police immediately resorted to indiscriminate firing upon the helpless unarmed passengers killing nineteen and injuring several others. While some passengers, including the Baba, eluded the Police dragnet/atrocities, while the others were arrested and sent to prison on trumped up charges or returned to their villages.

Mahatma Gandhi, the incorrigible pacifist, prevailed upon Baba Gurdit Singh Sandhu to surrender to the British authorities and he was imprisoned to serve out a prison term of five years.

Thus, the Komagata Maru incident was not only the fault of Canada’s but also that of Britain. Both countries violated the passenger’s rights, even though those rights had not become officially recognised yet by international statutes like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In Retrospect:

The Komagata Maru incident violated at least three Human Rights Articles, as they stand defined today:

Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. (This was violated when 19 persons were killed in the indiscriminate police firing).

Article 9 (e): No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile” (This was violated when the British gunboat tried to arrest the 20 men they saw as the group leaders and opened fire indiscriminately on them).

Article 13: Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his country” (This was violated when the British gun boat did not let them go back to their home country – India).

Memorials to the “Komagata Maru” Incident:

In 1952, the Government of India set up a memorial to the Komagata Maru martyrs near Budge Budge. Popularly called the “Punjabi Monument” it is modelled as a “Kirpan” (meaning “dagger”) rising up towards the sky.

On 23.07.1989, a plaque commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the departure of the Komagata Maru was placed at the Sikh Gurudwara in Vancouver, Canada.

In 1994, a plaque commemorating the 80th Anniversary of the arrival of the Komagata Maru was placed in the Vancouver harbour.

On 23.07.2012, a monument in remembrance of the Komagata Maru incident was inaugurated near the steps of the seawall that lead up to the Vancouver Convention Centre West building in Coal Harbour.

The Wheel turns a full Circle – Atonement:

On 23.06.2006, the Conservative Government created the Community historical recognition programme, in response to demands that the Canadian government should address historic wrongs involving immigration. The programme provides grants and funding for community projects linked to immigration restrictions as well as wartime measures.

On 06.08.2006, Prime Minister Harper in his address at the “Ghadri Babiyan da Mela” (meaning “Festival of the Ghadar Party”), in Surrey, British Columbia stated that the Government of Canada acknowledged the “Komagata Maru” incident and the Government’s resolve to “undertake consultations with the Indo-Canadian community on how best to recognise this sad moment in Canada’s history”.

On 03.04.2008, a motion was tabled by an MP of Indian origin in the House of Commons which, inter alia stated “that, in the opinion of the House, the government should officially apologise to the Indo-Canadian community and to the individuals impacted in the 1914 “Komagata Maru” incident, in which the passengers were prevented from landing in Canada”. (The Motion was passed on 15.05.2008 by the House after extensive debate as to the wordings thereof).

On 10.05.2008, the Secretary of State (Multiculturalism and Canadian identity) announced that the Indo-Canadian community could apply for up to $2.5 million in grants and contributions funding to commemorate the “Komagata Maru” incident.

In addition, on 23.05.2008, the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia unanimously passed a Resolution that “this Legislature apologises for the events of May 23, 1914, when 376 passengers of the Komagata Maru, stationed off Vancouver harbour, were denied entry by Canada. The House deeply regrets that the passengers, who sought refuge in our country and our province, were turned away without benefit of the fair and impartial treatment befitting a society where people of all cultures are welcomed and accepted”.

Later when attending the “13th Annual Babiyan da Mela” on 03.08.2008, Prime Minister Harper said, that “On behalf of the Government of Canada, I am officially conveying as Prime Minister of Canada that apology”. (the motions passed by the House & Legislative Assembly).

Interestingly, the British Columbia regiment which was involved in the expulsion of the "Komagata Maru" was commanded by a Sikh Officer from 2011 onwards.

Also, in the recent Parliamentary elections of the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party lobbied hard to get the vote of the now powerful Indian community in Britain, by reaching out to them through statements/slogans written in Hindi, the official language of India, a far cry when another Conservative Party MP in Canada, conspired to have the Komagata Maru towed back to the High Seas.

Other Human Rights measures implemented in Canada:

Since signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the Canadian government has attempted to make human rights a part of Canadian Law. Four key mechanisms in Canada have been put in place for protecting human rights:

-      the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,

-      the Canadian Human Rights Act

-      the Canadian Human rights Commission

-      the Provincial Human Rights Laws and Commissions.

Nevertheless, issues like some Provinces still allowing the use of religiously segregated schools and the treatment of Canada’s First Nations people or “Aboriginal Canadians” and the “disabled” still have to be addressed.

Popular literature & some other works on the Komagata Maru incident:

In January 1976, a play, in Canada written by Sharon Pollock, titled “The Komagata Maru Incident” was presented.

In 1984, another play “Komagata Maru” written by Ajmer Rode was performed.

In 1989, a play commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Komagata Maru Incident, by Sadhu Binning and Sukhwant Hundal, titled “Samudari Sher Nal Takkar” (meaning “The Encounter with the Sea-Lion”) was presented in the first issue of Punjabi Literary Magazine – “Watan” (meaning “Motherland”).

In 2004, a feature documentary “Continuous Journey” made by Ali Kazimi which took 8 years to make and was inspired by meticulous research and rare footage of the ship at Vancouver harbour. This Documentary won several Awards, including the Most Innovative Canadian documentary at DOXA, Vancouver in 2005. Later, in 2012, his book titled “Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru” was published.

Commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the “Komagata Maru” Incident:

On 01.05.2014, the Canada Post has released a stamp commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the arrival of the “Komagata Maru”. The stamps are titled “Komagata Maru: 100th Anniversary Collection”: (Booklet of six International Stamps).

The Government of India has announced that as a tribute to the heroic struggle of Indian immigrants against the discriminatory immigration laws of Canada in the early years of the twentieth century, the centenary of the Komagata Maru incident would be commemorated with a set of coins in the denominations of Rs.100/- and Rs. 5/- which will be offered to Collectors as Proof and Uncirculated sets. Also, a Rs.5/- coin has been released into general circulation in March 2015 by the Reserve Bank of India.

From 29.09.2014 to 29.09.2015 several programmes commemorating the Incident have also been planned. An International seminar titled “Komagata Maru: Context, Significance and Legacy” and a play titled “Komagata Maru – 1914”, inter alia, are some of the programmes being organised. In addition, a week-long function was held at Vancouver from 23.05.2015 to 30.05.2015, which included cultural events, seminars and exhibitions besides honouring the descendants of the Komagata Maru passengers as well as non-Indians, including Canadians who rendered assistance both financially and legally to the cause of the “Komagata Maru” passengers.

Commemorative Coin:

The Reserve Bank of India on behalf of the Government of India has issued a five rupee coin in March 2015 to commemorate the Centenary of the “Komagata Maru” Incident  for general circulation.

 Reverse of the Five Rupee coin issued on the occasion.  The coin shows a depiction of the Japanese ship “Komagata Maru”. Along the periphery of this face of the coin is the inscription “SHATABDI SMARANOTSAV” (in Hindi/ Devnagri) on the upper right periphery and “CENTENARY CELEBRATION” (in English) on the upper left periphery. On the right periphery are the Commemoration years with the double dates “1914-2014”.

At the bottom are mentioned “KOMAGATA MARU INCIDENT” (in English) and “KOMAGATA MARU PRASANG” in (Hindi/Devnagri).

Notice that on this face of the coin the “Diamond” mint mark of the Mumbai Mint has been engraved on the bottom periphery just above the inscription.

 Obverse of the five Rupee coin. This face shows the Lion Capital in the centre with the legend “Satyameva Jayate” (Truth will Prevail/triumph). On the left periphery/flank is the word “Bharat”, in Hindi/Devnagri script and on the right hand periphery/flank is mentioned “India”, in English. On the bottom half of the coin is mentioned the denominational value of the coin with the numeral “5”, preceded by the rupee symbol.

The specifications of the coin are:

Shape: Circular; Diameter: 23 mm; Number of Serrations: 100; Metal Composition: Nickel Brass (Copper – 75%; Zinc – 20%; Nickel – 5%). 

A quote of Baba Gurdit Singh Sandhu which inspired the passengers of the Komagata Maru to undertake the perilous journey:

The visions of men are widened by travel and contacts with citizens of a free country will infuse a spirit of independence and foster yearnings for freedom in the minds of emasculated subjects of alien rule”.

(Apparently, the “citizens” of the so called free countries – governed by discriminatory regulations - as well as the “aliens” who were ruling his country thought otherwise and ganged up against the noble ideals that the Baba stood for).

Posted on 21.05.2016:

Almost 102 years after Canada turned away the passengers of the "Komagata Maru", Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has formally apologised in Parliament for the "great injustice" that happened due to discriminatory laws of the time

He apologised in the House of Commons on 18.04.2016 for the 1914 decision by the then Canadian government to turn away the migrants on board the ship after their arrival in Vancouver. He added "Canada's government was, without question, responsible for the laws that prevented these passengers from immigrating peacefully and securely. For that and every regrettable consequence that followed, we are sorry". He further added that Canada's current defence minister Harjit Sajjan once commanded the Reserve Regiment that turned back the Komagata Maru and thanked him for helping the ship incident get national attention.

Posted on 19.07.2016:

I have yesterday received a Commemorative Uncirculated Rs.5/- Coin from the Hyderabad Mint on the Centenary of the Komagata Maru Incident:

The Cover of the Album containing the Commemorative Rs.5/- coin. 
The Cover shows the passenger ship the “Komagata Maru”, with the initial “K” on its single funnel sailing on the Pacific Ocean. The inscriptions on the album are “Smarak Sikka” (in Hindi) and “COMMEMORATIVE COIN” (in English) and “Komagatu Maru Prasang – Shatabdi Smaranotsav – 1914-2014” (in Hindi) and “CENTENARY COMMEMORATION OF KOMAGATA MARU INCIDENT 1914-2014”.

                     The inner pages 2 and 3 of the Coin Album

                                   Page 2 of the Coin Album

The text on this page reads, inter alia:

“On May 23, 1914, Komagata Maru, a Japanese steamer, carrying 376 passengers from Hong Kong, mostly immigrants from Punjab, British India, arrived in Vancouver City in Canada. It was denied docking by the Canadian authorities. Following a two month stalemate, the ship was escorted out of the harbour by the Canadian Military and forced to sail back to India. The Komagata Maru arrived in Calcutta in September 1914. The British Imperial Government saw the men on Komagata Maru as dangerous political agitators. The police went aboard the ship on 29th September, 1914 to arrest Baba Gurdit Singh and other leaders. The arrest was resisted by the passengers which led to police firing in which 19 passengers were killed. Baba Gurdit Singh escaped along with many others. The rest of the passengers were sent to Punjab.

As a tribute to the heroic struggle of the Indian immigrants against the discriminatory immigration laws of Canada in the early years of the twentieth century, the Government of India has commemorated the centenary of Komagata Maru Incident.”

Page 3 of the Coin Album shows the ship Komagata Maru, with its passengers on board along with the Obverse image of the Rs.5/- coin

The specifications of this coin:

Denomination: Rs.5/-; Metallic Composition: Nickel-Brass: Copper-75%, Zinc – 20%, Nickel – 5%.

                       The Obverse of the coin
The Obverse of the coin shows the Emblem of the Government of India – the Lion Capitol, together with the inscription “Satyameva Jayate (meaning “Truth Always Prevails”). The country name is given on the left and right peripheries – “Bharat” in Hindi) and “India” (in English). The denomination of the coin “Rs.5” is given at the bottom of this face.

                              Pages 4 and 5 of the Coin Album

Page 4 of the Coin Album contains the Reverse of the coin, an image of the memorial stone for the victims of the Komagata Maru at Budge Budge.
It also gives more specifications of this coin:


Diameter: 23.00 mm; Weight: 6.00 gms; No. of Serrations: 100

                        The Reverse of the coin
The Reverse of the coin shows the Komagata Maru in the centre, with the upper peripheral inscriptions “CENTENARY COMMEMORATION. Shatabdi Smaranotsav – 1914-2014. The lower peripheral inscription reads “KOMAGATA MARU INCIDENT. Komagata Maru Prasang”. The star mint mark of the Hyderabad Mint is below the image of the ship.


Page 5 of the Coin Album shows an image of the Coin’s Reverse and a photograph of the ship Komagata Maru on the shores and being prevented by Canadian authorities to dock and off-load passengers for immigration to Canada.

The Back Cover of the Coin Album gives a brief description about the Hyderabad Mint.

(The above circulation coin has been given for my collection by Krishna Tonpe. Article researched and written and coin images scanned by Rajeev Prasad)


  1. Ramchandra Lalingkar has commented:
    "Very nice information. I am sending this information to my 'son-in-law' Mr.Phillip Ernest who is from Canada and married to my youngest daughter in 2006 . He has done Ph.D. in Sanskrit from Cambridge University and his subject of study is 'Mahabharat'. Let me get his reaction to the information in the post".

    1. Thank you, Lalingkar sahab. Great to know about Phillip's interest in ancient Indian languages and mythology. Will wait for his reaction. I hope I have not gone "overboard" in my assessment of the Canadian response to Indian/Asian immigration around early twentieth century on this incident. (:-)

    2. Ramchandra Lalingkar has commented:
      "Not at all. In fact Mr.Phillip is very practical and pragmatic".

    3. Sumita did not like a few of my personal "observations" and wanted them out. I have since edited some of these "observations". But I have "managed" to keep a few of them in the post. (:-)

  2. Gds Banga has commented:
    "He (Justin Trudeau) is a decent man. But apologies are uncalled for. You cannot travel back in time and say for people who were governing your country at that time. Can you recreate the scene and sentiments why the act took place? Were the rulers then anti national? So let us live to create a better today and better tomorrow. AS PER OUR WISDOM. Tomorrow that may also be questioned. And we should not expect apologies for any past acts nor demand them."

    1. In the Canadian Parliament and in the Sikh community in Canada, such an apology has been a long outstanding demand. I guess that as you have rightly said, after this apology, it is time to put this behind and move on. This is also what Trudeau has in mind when he tendered this unqualified apology.